“Perfume Bottles Momentarily Unstopped”: A Perspective on Two Collections of Interviews

One hopes that in this new age, interviewers and editors continue to value the in-person, in-home interview, though they are out of vogue and more difficult to schedule and execute.

 

Book-Covers

 

Tony Leuzzi’s Passwords Primeval: American Poets in Their Own Words (BOA Editions, NY 2012) is a collection of interviews with a wide range of poets (Dorianne Laux, Gary Young, Jane Hirshfield, Martin Espada, and Mark Doty, to name just a few). It is rare enough to have the occasion to sit down and read interview after interview with some of the best living practitioners of their art, but Leuzzi’s book is also special for another reason: because the interviews were conducted for the purpose of this project, rather than over the span of decades as with most interview collections, all of the poets speak from the same moment in literary history. The result is that, unlike when reading many other collections of interviews, such as The Paris Review Interviews, which were conducted over the span of a century, we are not distracted by the curiosity of certain historical facts, figures of speech, mention of long-dead political figures, etc. We are able to focus solely on what the writers have to say about their art—the greatest commonality being the number of them who, without prompting, noted Walt Whitman as a major influence on their writing.

 

The individual mind is connected to the species through language, language as a sort of external nervous system.” -Dara Wier

In general, however, the writers in Passwords share a broad range of opinions on poetry and the writing of poetry, many of which are great food for thought for practicing writers. Gary Young says, “If you can’t recognize that your art is no more and no less important than what you make for dinner, then you should find something else to do,” and Dorianne Laux quotes Li-Young Lee: “we are all singing out of a wound. We’ve all been wounded, and it’s poets who sing out of that opening.” Not everything said over the course of the Passwords interviews is as interesting, but that should be expected—even great writers like James Baldwin and Robert Lowell failed to give the Paris Review great interviews, giving predictable answers that were not particularly inspirational or insightful. But every interview in Passwords holds moments of interest, and one of them in particular—with Jane Hirshfield—is so good it stands up to the best Paris Review interviews, such as those with William Faulkner and Philip Larkin.

 

Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Hirshfield took advantage of the format of the interview (Leuzzi writes in his introduction that each interview was conducted by email first with a one hour phone conversation following the completion of the email interview) to give thoughtful answers that are full of ideas that rival some of the best essay-writing about the practice of writing poetry. In her interview responses, she accomplishes just what she accomplishes in her best poems: she surprises the reader, she takes unexpected turns, she presents philosophies in the form of metaphor and simile that change the readers’ perspective on the subject at hand. She says, to give just two examples from the many in her interview with Leuzzi: “Poems . . . are perfume bottles momentarily unstopped—what they release is volatile and will vanish, and yet it can be released again,” and, “There are many keys on poetry’s piano, and the perception ranges up and down the scale: notes so low they are almost inaudible in their chord; high, clear ones; major, minor.”

 

In reading all of Leuzzi’s interviews back to back, especially if the Paris Review’s interviews are kept in mind, it becomes clear that the internet age has changed the art of interviews. No longer do we have elaborate and fascinating descriptions of the poet’s personal space, as when Elizabeth Spires interviewed Elizabeth Bishop in 1981:

 

Her living room, on the fourth floor of Lewis Wharf, had a spectacular view of Boston Harbor . . . . [It] was spacious and attractive, with wide-planked polished floors, a beamed ceiling, two old brick walls, and one wall of books. Besides some comfortable modern furniture, the room included a jacaranda rocker and other old pieces from Brazil, two paintings by Loren MacIver, a giant horse conch from Key West and a Franklin stove with firewood in a donkey pannier, also from Brazil. The most conspicuous piece was a large carved figurehead of an unknown beast, openmouthed [sic], with horns and blue eyes, which hung on the wall below the ceiling.

 

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

Her study, a small room down the hall, was in a state of disorder. Literary magazines, books, and papers were piled everywhere. Photographs of Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and other friends hung on the walls; one of Dom Pedro, the last emperor of Brazil, she especially liked to show to her Brazilian visitors. “Most have no idea who he is,” she said. “This is after he abdicated and shortly before he died—he looked very sad.” Her desk was tucked in a far corner by the only window, also with a north view of the harbor.

 

At sixty-seven, Miss Bishop was striking, her short, swept-back white hair setting off an unforgettably noble face. She was wearing a black tunic shirt, gold watch and earrings, gray slacks, and flat brown Japanese sandals that made her appear shorter than her actual height: five feet, four inches. Although she looked well and was in high spirits, she complained of having had a recent hay fever attack and declined to have her photograph taken with the wry comment, “Photographers, insurance salesmen, and funeral directors are the worst forms of life.”

 

The loss of this kind of personal connection with the habitat, and the poet within it, is felt deeply. At the same time, however, we gain much through the shift to an online context—frequently in Passwords, poets offer thought-provoking responses to questions that are of a complexity extremely rare in all sixty-four interviews contained in the Paris Review collection. Although most of the figures being interviewed by the Paris Review were so legendary that the simple fact of who they were made the interviews interesting, truly surprising and wonderful utterances are few and far between. They are there—as when William Faulkner says, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies,” or when Philip Larkin sighs, “I was afraid you’d ask about writing”—but they are not as frequent as one might expect, given the sheer number of brilliant minds up for interrogation.

 

It would be ideal if, before the great writers of living generations have passed on, they have left both kinds of interview behind.

In Passwords, on the other hand, in addition to Hirshfield’s wonderful metaphors, we have Dara Wier pointing out, “The individual mind is connected to the species through language, language as a sort of external nervous system.” Karen Volkman says, of her work with sound in sonnets, “Once the form calls attention to the word as a unit of sound, the word seems to push against its own semantic boundaries. It almost seems to perceive itself as sound and be having a crisis.” Gary Young says, “We write in competition with the dead for the attention of the unborn. We are all writing poems that are trying to take attention of people away from Sappho, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Baudelaire. Good luck to you! There’s a built-in failure to writing poetry that I find comforting.”

 

Larkin

Philip Larkin

It’s not that poets couldn’t say these kinds of things during in-person interviews—but rather that The Paris Review Interviews would seem to indicate that they rarely do. What the Paris Review interviews have that those in Passwords don’t, in addition to the intimate connection to writer and place, is a stronger identification of the writers’ personalities. The quote from Larkin above is one example. Another is when, upon being asked what he would suggest to people who say they can’t understand his writing even after they have read it two or three times, Robert Lowell responds, “Read it four times.” And then there’s Philip Larkin (again), saying, “Encouragement is very necessary to a young writer. But it’s hard to find anyone worth encouraging.”

 

One hopes that in this new age, interviewers and editors continue to value the in-person, in-home interview, though they are out of vogue and more difficult to schedule and execute. It would be ideal if, before the great writers of living generations have passed on, they have left both kinds of interview behind. We should experience their words as filtered through computers, which allow them to think and pause and write and then think some more—that is the way of working most natural to a writer. But we should also experience them, through their immediate words, as the living, breathing people they are, with large personalities and strange gaping beasts clinging to their walls.


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