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Interview with Louise Glück

Cambridge, MA on May 15, 2014 | Interviewer: Devin Becker

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1
: (Conversation about some of the art around Glück's apartment, and the print she used for the cover of Village Life)
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DB: If you would state your name and the location we're at for this interview.
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LG: Louise Glück. Glück is spelled with a ü and an umlaut, and the name is Hungarian. We're in Cambridge, Massachusetts in my apartment.
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DB: Of course, I know the answers to many of these questions but—what genres do you work in?
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LG: Poetry. I have written some essays and some forewords to books when I was judging first book prize contests. But in the main, poetry.
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DB: Are you going to collect those essays?
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LG: Yeah.
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DB: Good, those are so excellent. You worked really hard at them, I know.
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LG: I worked so hard, and they ruined ten summers because it made me frantic with anxiety—the idea of trying to serve a new talent and to describe its uniqueness. And, you know, it's a natural offshoot of teaching, which I've loved for years. I loved everything about judging those contests, and I loved working with the poets on their manuscripts. And in the early days before Yale Press was convinced that this was worthwhile, I used to buy a plane ticket for people so they could come here and spend three days working.
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DB: Okay.
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LG: Then I would make very detailed recommendations, which they were free to not take because the book had won. On the other hand, they weren't free to change the books any which way because I could say, "This is not the book I chose." They could stay exactly as they were, or they could respond to suggestions and work further. Many of them actually felt a great need for that kind of work and they just didn't have somebody who was willing to take that kind of detailed daily interest.
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DB: From what I've experienced, it doesn't seem to be a very common thing for the selector to take a real interest after they choose and then they're done—and they get their money and they're on their way.
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LG: I think that's sort of how most of them feel and most of them also don't want to read a lot of books. Or in some contests, they're not permitted to. They're sent ten finalists screened by—
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DB: Who knows?
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LG: It varies. But if these manuscripts are being screened by people whose aesthetic judgment you question, you don't know what you're getting. So I asked to see as many as possible with the understanding that nothing would be thrown out until a winner was chosen because if I didn't find a winner in a hundred manuscripts, I was going to see the next hundred.
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DB: Right.
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LG: And that was all fun because you didn't have to read each book through to completion, and you didn't have to write a little paragraph evaluating it the way you do for other kinds of things. If you didn't love it, it was unlikely you would choose it. You would put it in the "unlikely" pile—and my living room was filled with piles, identifiable by me—and then at the end, I would read through the piles to see whether something got promoted or demoted. Some years were thrilling, I mean, it was too much stuff. In those years, most of the runners up ended up winning.
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DB: Some other—?
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LG: Well, later Yale prizes.
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DB: Oh okay. You would encourage them to resubmit.
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LG: Yeah. Some people would submit like three and four times.
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DB: Yeah, that's interesting. I want to know who it is.
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LG: Well, we would do that when that's off.
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DB: Okay. So what time of year were you usually doing that evaluation?
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LG: It worked out very well because a lot of that time, I was just working half time at Yale, not in the spring semester, and I would get the manuscripts in December, right after the semester ended. I tried to give myself a couple of weeks of blank. And then the cartons would start to come from the people who were screening, and Yale allowed the appropriation of a mechanism that I had picked up from Michael Collier when I judged the Bakeless prize that he supervised. He had each poet who was judging choose younger poets to screen. So I chose ten poets and they got paid a pittance, and each of them read a hundred books and sent me ten, and kept ninety. That meant that I had someone to talk to about each of these manuscripts. And sometimes we would talk before they even sent things and they would say, "Well, do you want to see this? I'm on the fence." I had great people screening for me and they were people whose judgments I trusted and who sent me very broadly diverse manuscripts. One thing that I wanted was a series in which the books weren't all alike. And they're not. Anyway, that was great, but it meant that all the prose writing I did for ten years was writing forewords. So I have a stack and a few other essays. It doesn't make as pleasing a collection as the first one but I can't stand the idea that it's just going to go nowhere.
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DB: No, I would be very excited to have that book.
0:06:54
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LG: Oh well, good. Do you have an idea for a title? Not three words.
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DB: Not three words?
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LG: Not like "Proofs and Theories," "This and That." Not a clone.
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DB: No.
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LG: I don't either.
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DB: If I think of some options.
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LG: Please, I really need it.
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DB: Okay.
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LG: I'll acknowledge you.
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DB: Is it coming out of FSG?
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LG: Yeah, but not for awhile.
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DB: Not for awhile. You've got this next book.
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LG: Yeah.
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DB: Okay. Well, that was the first question.
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LG: That was the first? What was that about? It wasn't about digital anything!
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DB: No, it was just general. I went to AWP this year which was terrifying.
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LG: I've never been.
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DB: Yeah, you should never go.
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LG: That's sort of what I think.
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DB: But there was a panel with Richard Siken and—who were the other two?—
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LG: Arda Collins?
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DB: Arda Collins and—
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LG: Fady Joudah?
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DB: Exactly, and they were talking. I caught the second half, so I heard Siken talking about his working with you on Crush, which was really funny. He's funny. I didn't know how funny he was. The book is pretty intense but—
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LG: Right. And he's a great visual artist.
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DB: Oh yeah? Oh! I like that.
0:08:19
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LG: I think he's amazing.
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DB: Yeah.
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LG: He made these envelopes because he thought he was going to be living in Europe, and so he made—that one's wonderful—all of these things. And, you know, the message was the envelope. I don't know how you can frame them.
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DB: Yeah, who knows? They're very nice.
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LG: Aren't they wonderful?
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DB: Yeah. He has another book coming out too.
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LG: Yeah, he does, which I saw a long time ago. And Peter Streckfus has a new book, and it's wonderful.
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DB: I really love his first book.
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LG: I love that book. I love that book and I just think he's an amazement. And Jay Hopler has a new book that he's peddling. Those first three I worked with really closely on the first books, and with Peter and Jay, I worked a lot on the second, too. With Richard, much less. I mean, it's funny because he needed a lot of editing. His poems were way too long, and his stanzas were too long. The lines were too long. But you had to preserve that avalanche sense—that headlong sense—and so it was very hard to figure out. But once he saw a way of approaching the language to edit it and still preserve its character, he was an excellent editor. And he may feel that he just knows how to do it on his own. I mean, we talk on the phone and I saw early versions of a lot of the poems.
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DB: Yeah, and Crush has become sort of a phenomenon.
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LG: A cult book, I know.
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DB: It's interesting. I mean, I remember I first heard about it at Bread Loaf that year. I was there and somebody said like, "Have you read Crush?" I was like, "No, I'm sorry." And then I caught it. We know the MFA students at Idaho, and some of them are teaching it. And the guy who was actually working for me in Digital based the final poem in his thesis off those lines and that sort of stanza style.
0:11:09
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LG: Well, a lot of people sound like him. You can see, they read the book and then they can't get out of it.
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DB: Yeah, that's the danger.
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LG: That's hard.
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DB: So your primary genre is poetry, correct? What kinds of devices do you have access to or use for writing?
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LG: I have access to an iPad—but I have never written anything on it except a terse email. And I cannot bear reading poems in that form. In fact today, there was a conversation with my publisher because I finally figured out a way—to their satisfaction—to convert their poetry listings to ebooks. The question was, would I give my permission. But I cannot bear reading poems in that form—scrolling down a page. You have no idea how long the thing is. You don't know whether you're in the middle or at the end.
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: Miranda, who is my "daily editor," not my "big guy" editor, who was a student of mine at Yale—you know, it's very funny. I have all these students now in positions of—I hesitate to say "authority"—but I turn to them for solace and advice all the time. Miranda is quite great and her judgment is wonderful. And she was a wonderful beginning writer, too. Anyway, she said she thought it was a good idea. She said for people who are used to reading in this form, it's not such a violation. But it makes me uneasy. For example, when I was in Stanford and friends would send me drafts of poems as we do—as I do through the mail, or at Stanford, I would give something to a secretary—but I just have to go to someone who can print it out.
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DB: Print it out on paper.
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LG: Yeah. Well, I have to be able to move my pen around and make notes, first of all. I have to see what it looks like, what the duration is, and I have to be able to read the beginning and the end—I have to have it all in my head. Mainly it's that I don't know how to make notes otherwise. But I have this [iPad] that gives me fantastic pleasure in other ways. I love it and it's an endless amusement. I keep it very near my bed, or on my bed. If I wake in the middle of the night, I turn on the light and I see if anybody is writing to me. I always loved getting mail, and now I have that experience around the clock—except that I check it every four minutes, and I'm so heartbroken when there's no change. It's just that same old email from Amazon or some website that I patronized once. I have a regular old fashioned cell phone. I only got a cell phone about five years ago because I'm taxi-dependent and I needed to be on the street and calling the guy. So it doesn't receive emails or anything like that.
0:14:35
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DB: It's a regular iPad? Just, like, the first?
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LG: No—
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DB: The larger one or the smaller one?
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LG: The iPad that I have?
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DB: Yeah.
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LG: I'll show you, because how it looks is part of its story.
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DB: Okay.
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LG: Yeah, the little one—I don't know what size this is.
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DB: That's the regular size. They have the minis, now. That's the only kind of different size.
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LG: What happened was, I went to—some of this has to be off-the-record—this event. I was invited to this thing, the Golden Plate Award, sponsored-by/held-by something called "The Academy of Achievement." I mean, it sounds so spurious and ridiculous, but you showed up and you got $10,000. It was in Washington DC and the hotel was enormously swank—I mean, super swank. So I asked my agent to find out what was the fewest number of days I could go and still collect the fee, and it was one. So I scaled it way back, but then I found out when I arrived that the dinner the night before for the honorees had been in the Chambers of the Supreme Court with the Justices. Just the Justices and the honorees. I could've eaten dinner. This is the part that needs to be off the record.
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DB: Okay.
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LG: [{off the record}] but anyway, when I arrived, part of my welcome package was this thing [iPad], and it was all programmed with the winners and their bios. The entertainment, the last night when we all got our plates—
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DB: You actually got gold plates?
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LG: Yeah, I mean, the room was very, very good for a banquet meal. It was extraordinary. I mean, if you squared off this room, this is the whole thing. It certainly wasn't bigger. It might have been a little smaller. So picture an intimate space. I always want people to guess but it's ridiculous—what they are going to guess? It was like seeing Mozart: it was Aretha Franklin.
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DB: Really?
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LG: Aretha! She was there right where the tulips are. So the whole thing was eerie. Anyway, the guy gave me this [iPad] when I arrived. I said, "Don't give me this. I'm never going to use it. Give it to someone who can make use of it." He said, "I have to give it to you." And I said, "But I won't use it. I don't want it. I'll leave it in the hotel room. Please give it to someone else." He said, "I have to give it to you," and he thrust it at me and then I was holding it, and then I seemed to have it. So I took it to the hotel room and I'd seen how people push the screens so I pushed the screen. Nothing happened. I mean, it wasn't connected to anything, but I thought, "I apparently don't have the gift." So I then brought it home—well actually, I had somebody ship it to me—and then I kept looking at it and thinking, "I guess now that I own this, I should learn how to use it." But I lingered in that state for about six months and then at some point—I have former students from Yale I'm still in touch with, and the Yale students sometimes come up here to work on their stuff, and one did. And I said, "What do I have to do to learn how to use this?" He said, "Well, you need to get Wi-Fi." And I said, "How do I do that? Do I call AT&T? Do I call Comcast?" He said, "Call Comcast." So I called Comcast and they asked me questions I couldn't answer. "Do you have a blank? Do you blank-blank?" I said, "I know nothing. You have to just assume I have nothing."
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: I thought, "This is not going to work." It wasn't working, so I called the student back and said, "Write me a script. Here's the kinds of things I was asked—tell me what I say." So I went back and I recited my script. Someone came to the house and installed a device. No one had told me that it had this little strobe flickers. And I am epileptic, so I thought, "Oh, this is never going to do." So I called the student again and he said, "You can turn it around. Just turn it so the strobe is facing another direction." And I did, but then I still didn't have an email account, so then someone else came up to work on poems and I got an email. Then, I was so horrified at this transformation that I didn't do anything for another six months!
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: And then Robert Pinsky—I told him I had an email and he sent me a photo of one of his grandchildren. I opened this little thing and there was a photo. I thought, "Wow." So I learned certain skills. I still can't add an attachment. No, that's not what they are called. An app. I don't know how to add an app, so somebody has to do that when I—
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DB: Need an app.
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LG: Yeah. Like, I wanted HBO because I couldn't—
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DB: HBO To Go?
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LG: But then I have all of these names and passwords, and I can never remember what they are. Then they ask me, "You say you want to change your password?" Yes! And they ask me my special secret questions, which make absolutely no sense. "What is your favorite pet's name?" I didn't have pets. I mean, except when I was a child. And they say, "Well, we can't change the question because the person who this is came up with this question." And I think, "How could I? I never would have."
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DB: Right.
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LG: I still haven't figured that out, but now I try to write down the passwords in my phonebook, because they're such a long list in my head I don't know which one is for which.
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DB: Right.
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LG: So all that stuff I hate.
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DB: Yeah, it's such a daily part of life now. We all dislike it, and when it's new to someone, you also kind of realize how awful some of it is.
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LG: I like the adventure of the mail and I like watching a lot of television. And when I had bronchitis this winter it was wonderful, because there it was in bed with me. I didn't have to go anywhere. I didn't have to sit in a chair.
0:25:07
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DB: You had it all right there. And you had endless stuff too, right?
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LG: Yeah.
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DB: You have Netflix?
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LG: Everything.
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DB: Oh, okay. You're set.
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LG: Yeah! And I have another thing—I own Breaking Bad. Because I didn't want to wait for the last season.
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DB: Yeah, it's worth it. That was a pretty intense season.
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LG: Yeah. Once Gus died, the real spine went out of the show, in my view. But I loved it. I loved that show.
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DB: I did too. We just finished that one.
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LG: Oh yeah?
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DB: Not too long ago, yeah.
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LG: What else have you liked?
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DB: TV-wise? [To Kristin] What are we watching now?
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KRISTIN: The Americans.
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DB: The Americans is very good.
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LG: Is it good?
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DB: Yeah, that's a very good one.
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LG: Have you seen Friday Night Lights?
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DB: I've watched some of Friday Night Lights, but [to Kristin] you've never seen it, right?
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KRISTIN: No.
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DB: We need to do the whole thing.
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LG: You have to start from the beginning.
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DB: Yeah. I did it several years ago.
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LG: I loved that. I watched that at Stanford this year and I thought it was going to take me five weeks. I thought, "This is going to last me the whole of my Stanford experience. It's going to be great." And I finished in about two weeks, but then I didn't want to watch anything else. It's like when you read a really marvelous book. There was something about—I mean, I can watch things on demand—but there was something about the fact that I could do this anywhere. And if I went to a hotel, I could do it there. It was an amazing discovery for me. And I loved that show. I ended up watching the last season a second time. And then I still didn't want to watch anything else, so I watched the first season, and I was ready. But I have not found a new thing.
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DB: Since then?
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LG: Since then. Well, it's been a month.
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DB: Have you watched The Wire?
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LG: Oh, yes. I watched The Wire on TV at Frank's [Frank Bidart] house. Because he has equipment. He has lab-quality equipment.
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DB: Well, I'll think of some other ones, for sure.
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LG: Okay.
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DB: Yeah, we should talk about it.
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LG: Yeah, if you think about it, let me know.
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DB: I'll let you know—we watch a lot of TV.
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LG: Okay. I want a title for my book, and television recommendations.
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DB: Okay.
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LG: All right, moving along. So far this is a dud of an interview, isn't it? We haven't had any technical discussion.
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DB: No, it's good though! It's good. It's about being a person. I've got to kind of adjust on the fly, here, but I think I'll just skip these. Because you don't really write poems on the iPad. You never have them in digital format until they go to your publisher, essentially. And then they will—do you know how they do it?
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LG: I send them a typed script, which is kind of harrowing because then I have to proof the digital and be sure there haven't been mistakes. And there are always huge mistakes. I could pay somebody to do it, but it would still be the same problem of having to proof it. I imagine that I'm stuck with that for life, because I cannot imagine typing poems on that board.
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DB: So when you send it to FSG, and then someone types—or do they scan it? I mean, do you know how they do it?
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LG: No.
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DB: Okay. Because I mean, there are ways they should be able to do it—
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LG: I can tell you who would know if you want to ask.
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DB: Yeah?
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LG: Do you want?
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DB: Maybe. I don't know.
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LG: All right.
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DB: I'm just interested—once they do that, then they send it back to you and you make sure that everything is right? I mean, you go back and forth with them with the proofs for quite a bit, right?
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LG: Yeah, right.
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DB: I remember when I was a student. I think you had—would it have been Vita Nova or Seven Ages you were working on?
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LG: I don't know.
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DB: You were telling me how you were reading it backwards.
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LG: Oh yeah. I still do that. It's horrible, and you need someone to help you.
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DB: Right. And your poems are fairly memorized? Almost all of them?
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LG: Lots of them.
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DB: And especially when you're working in the book—like when you're going back through—you're hearing it?
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LG: Your eye makes substitutions, so unless you read it out of order—i.e. backwards—you're going to be doing that.
0:29:59
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DB: Okay. That was the first section, but there's not much to it because it's mostly digital. But then this is more practice. So I've kind of delineated the writing process into kind of a three-step sort of thing. So there's the composition, there's the revision, and then there's the sort of the organizational-archival point. And that's just my kind of construction for this interview. If that doesn't make sense to you, we could talk about it in different ways.
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LG: It's fine.
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DB: I have kind of like the beginning questions, which are kind of to give us an idea about the arc of your career. And this question I'm sure you'll love: How long have you been writing professionally, would you say?
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LG: Well, I was trying to write professionally—I've been writing since I was a child. And I had a very high opinion of my early work, so I was sending books out to publishers in my early teens.
0:30:46
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DB: Oh really?
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LG: Well, they were uniformly rejected. But I did have that intense dream, and I developed—as anybody has to—a very tough skin. I mean, I had enormous vanity, so every time one was rejected, it didn't matter that I was 15 years old. I thought, "I'm never going to write better than this. This is the climax of my vision and no one wants it." That was hard, but I continued to send things out, and when I started working on what became my first book, I was in my late teens. And from the time I was, I think, 23, until it was published, I think, when I was 25—something like that—I had, I think, 28 rejections. A lot, but I had some poems in magazines. But all of that was in place by the time I was, probably, 12.
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DB: That sort of the ambition and drive?
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LG: Yeah. And then there were long periods of not writing at all that were harrowing—and continue to be harrowing—and I had different mechanisms for trying to get through them. The greatest discovery was teaching. Because I finally learned after the first really lengthy—this is completely off the track of where you want to go, isn't it?
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DB: No—my next question is "Describe the arc of your career," so this is pretty much—
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LG: Oh all right. Well, the first time that that happened—when the first one had been published—I had pretty much done what was in me to do. I had also evolved a style in which there were no complete sentences. There were just little bullet-like fragments. And every time I thought to write, I could no longer make the sentence so it was going to be grammatical. I could no longer, it struck me, write a sentence. So I realized, there was something about that particular wall that I had hit that had to do with syntax. And I thought, "I have to write poems—like Milton's sonnet on this blindness—that are all one sentence, or as close to that as I can manage." And I couldn't do it. I couldn't do anything that approached it, and I couldn't, at the same time, write fragments anymore.
0:33:17
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: The more I couldn't write, the more I repudiated the world. I thought that the problem was that I was too worldly, too involved in the world, too diverse in my interests, so I became more and more hermetic and dedicated. I would sit at this—I was living in Provincetown for part of this time, and in New York City—and I would sit in Provincetown at a very beautiful desk that was made for me by my photographer boyfriend with all of these marvelous objects to gaze at, and it was just horrifying. And, you know, on a good day, I would write an article—"The." And on a really good day, there would be a noun—"Tree." But I couldn't get beyond that, and I thought, "I have not consecrated myself sufficiently. There needs to be more foreswearing."
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: And I had a bed-of-nails kind of life—just sitting in the sort of "soup" of my failure for a year. During that time, I had one or two teaching job offers. In those years, it was much easier because the economy was different then, you know. There weren't all of these MFA programs. And especially if you were female. I had a book out, but I don't know that I would have gotten a tenure-year track job given my spotty education. But I had these offers, and I kept saying, "No, no, no, no," because poets shouldn't teach! I mean, there was that long list of things poet shouldn't do. They should never have children. They shouldn't teach. They shouldn't go out in the world. They couldn't eat. But finally, I was invited to do a colloquium in Vermont. And I hated Provincetown, but I didn't know how—I didn't want to just begin moving in a sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-map kind of way. I was making my living as a secretary, and I could have done that anywhere in that period, but I thought, "I'll just stay here until the future presents itself."
0:35:44
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: So I went to do this colloquium, partly because John Berryman was there and he was a hero of mine, and I wanted to be able to pay tribute to him. I wanted to say, "You are a great artist and I salute you." Which I did get to say, but he thought I was just, you know, a chick on the make. I didn't know how to say to him, "You don't understand—I've never said these words." In any case, I realized about the minute I got to Vermont, I thought, "I'm supposed to live here." I just instantly loved the place. It was a four-day thing, and there were all these English teachers at Goddard College—a hippie institution with a naked dorm and things like that—and they said, "You should come here and teach." I thought, "Why not? I'm not a poet. I have to face this disastrous fact and make a life." So I said yes. And of course they weren't empowered to offer me a job. They were just drunken English teachers who liked me.
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: But by then, I had had a sort of epiphany, and I corresponded with two of those people who are my still oldest, dearest friends—Ellen Voigt and prose writer Kathryn Davis. Three days before the semester started, there was a job cobbled together for me for one semester, and I moved to Vermont and I got a room in a rooming house with a bathroom down the hall. The minute I started teaching, I started writing again. I still feel about teaching that it's the most miraculous thing I've ever discovered, because I can't always write, and long periods go by and I don't write. But I can always teach, and I will always meet people who fascinate me and who are doing things, who have minds that go places my mind has never gone. And I won't find that stuff in books by dead people I'm contemporaries—new sounding stuff. It changes me and electrifies me, and to work on material that is still malleable—it was like the experience of working on my own stuff, but I didn't feel competitive. A lot of that was so strange, because I am very competitive by nature, but not with my students, and I wanted those poems to be as great as they could be, in my view. So, still, that has served me very well, especially once I discovered undergraduates, because I could know them for four years, and Williams was nirvana, you know. I got there and I thought, "I'd never been around such smart people." I was terrified, but I also was thrilled. And a lot of those years were years when I couldn't do anything, but then some of them were years when I was writing a blue streak. And it was never, "I teach one semester, and then I write," or, "I teach, and I write in between classes." No—I mean, if I was writing, I would write when I taught. In fact, after the experience in Provincetown at the sacred desk, I have a horror of the special place—the secluded cabin, the writer's retreat. I just can't bear them. I want to be without tools. I often have no pencil and no paper, so I have to borrow them or buy them. But I don't want to presume anything. If there's going to be a line coming into my head, that'll be great.
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: So the shape has always been periods in the desert—you know, without language—and then work. After I was 50, most of my books were written very fast. Like in six to eight weeks.
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DB: Which book did that start with?
0:42:59
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LG: The Wild Iris. After that, I thought, "I can do anything. I can fly planes." And I can remember my husband saying, "You are going to really hit the wall very soon," and he was right. I developed neurological symptoms. I had not slept the whole of that summer, practically, and one side of my face started twitching. And I had to teach that fall, and I remember sitting in class like this so that nobody would see that my face was—
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DB: Oh, wow.
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LG: The neurologist said, "I don't think this is anything. It will probably go away in a couple of months." Which it did. But every so often I think something like that could come back again, you know? I mean, it's weird to write that fast, and you don't have a sense of agency. It's very hard to revise, because you don't remember writing it. You just were sitting there, and then it was. The last two books—Village Life and the new one—were slower, but they were steady, especially Village Life. With the newer one, there were lots of moments when I thought, "This is never going to be a book. I don't know how to put this material together."
176
DB: If you could think back to before you hit this sort of stride where you were producing books very quickly, what was it like, say, writing House on Marshlands?
0:44:57
177
LG: Long. It took many years. I revised poems heavily and constantly. One poem, I remember, took two years to write—"For my mother." The opening lines—"It was better when we were together in one body"—I had those lines in my head for a really long time. And at the beginning, I felt very grateful, because I thought, "Oh, two really beautiful lines—this is going to be a poem. This is exciting. I have at least these lines to cling to." And then time went by and nothing happened—no other language attached to that little shard. So those phrases, that language, became a torment. It was the first thing I would hear in the morning and murmured in my head, and the last thing I would hear at night. But it was a chastisement, a torment—"You don't know what I'm for!"
178
DB: Right.
179
LG: And I tried to convince myself it was a haiku, you know? I thought, "Well, maybe it's just a very austere, abbreviated poem," but I didn't think that and nobody I showed it to thought that, either. So that took really a very, very, very, very long time to write, and had lots of different approaches, and ended up being a kind of collage of pieces of language from different old poems.
180
DB: During that time, you just were working on the one poem?
181
LG: I was for a long time, yeah.
182
DB: So there weren't other poems coming in and out at this stage? Is that traditionally how you work? It's just one poem, and then the next poem, and then you finish?
183
LG: Yeah, and then sometimes there will be a massive revision. One edition to an accumulating manuscript makes it clear how the thing should be ordered, and then you see you can make a lot of short, little changes in the other stuff because of this new thing. So some of the books are slower. The earlier books were revised much more—the later books, less. Though there were revisions in all of them, and though most of them preceded, at some point, rapidly from, I would say, Averno on, there were hiatuses. Averno was written in two fast periods.
184
DB: And is one October? Because that was such a good chapbook, and then—
185
LG: Yeah. I had "October" and I had "Prism," and I thought, "These two poems can't be in the same book. I mean, they are just complete opposites." Then there were two years when I wrote nothing. I haven't attended to this in recent years, but for many decades, I kept this chart of what I wrote and when, and each year would be written at the top of—no, the years were like that and the months were like that. And if I wrote a poem then I would write its name, and if I wrote nothing, I would write an X.
186
: So when I got depressed, I would take this thing out and I would see all these lines of X's, and then at the end, there would be a little gust, and the little gust would be completely different from what had preceded the X's. So I began to be—I mean, "trust" is a little strong, but—I just figured this is how it goes with me. There's a period usually now after I finish something of being happy, because I don't have to write. I feel kind of on vacation, and I have a sense of secret pleasure because no one has seen it and no one has anything to say about it, but I love it and it's finished. Last year was such a happy year for that reason, because—[neighbor's dog barking in background]—that's on tape!
0:49:24
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DB: I'll send you little clips.
0:50:37
188
LG: Yeah! I'll give it to them. They made me take my plants—I had this beautiful antique trunk in the hall with a Celadon vase of pussy willow.
189
DB: Yeah, I remember that.
190
LG: It's still foregrounded in my brain. Anyway—so all the rest of those poems in Averno were written after this two-year gap, and very fast. Really fast. And none of it figured out. I mean, I didn't have "Persephone," I didn't have any of the rigging. I'd been reading a lot of Henning Mankell, and I was trying to put an image from each of his novels in one of my poems.
191
DB: Oh, okay. Is he a mystery writer?
192
LG: Yeah, Swedish. I hate travel but I was—
193
DB: Is this the Nero Wolfe book?
194
LG: Nero Wolfe? No, that's different. That's Rex Stout. That was from much longer ago. No, Mankell is living.
195
DB: Okay.
196
LG: Swedish. Married to one of Ingmar Bergman's daughters.
197
DB: Wow.
198
LG: Yeah, and I think he's a genius. I love those books. I think he's a great prose stylist. I would recommend them. Start with One Step Behind, though. Don't start at the beginning, because the first book is not good, and you wouldn't read the rest.
199
DB: Okay.
200
LG: But very dreary, compelling. His detective plods ahead and he notices small things that don't make sense and turns them over in his mind, but he's not a fire brand, and he's not handsome. And there's a kind of dreary sameness to his days, but the books are fantastic, in what their notion of "triumph" is. Triumph is persistence, and then it turns into comprehension, you know. A pattern is revealed. I love them. So I was reading those, and I think something of his prose style crept into my poems. I don't know that another person would think that but—
0:52:40
201
DB: In Averno or—?
202
LG: In Averno.
203
DB: Did it transfer through into A Village Life at all or no?
204
LG: No. That was it.
205
DB: That was it. That was the book.
206
LG: Yeah.
207
DB: Okay. So you had your sort of first period of silence after Firstborn, and until you started teaching at Goddard, was it like that sort of repetition every time? I mean, if you finished a book, you had the pleasure, but then you also had the silence or—?
208
LG: Sometimes, yeah. With Marshland, there were a lot of silences.
209
DB: During the composition?
210
LG: It took about six, seven years. I mean, Firstborn was published in 1968, but it was finished in '66, and House on Marshland was ‘75. I was put in touch with Dan Halpern—who was starting Ecco—by Stanley Kunitz. Stanley said, "This young sport loves your work." I thought I don't want to have to send this out twenty-eight times, and so I thought, "I'll just go with someone Stanley recommends who loves it." So it was published pretty soon after it was done. So that was a very, very long period, but I feel as though Firstborn is just an artifact from another life, and that really my writing life began with House on Marshland. I think, you know, I can see how each book came out of its predecessor after that.
211
DB: What do you mean by that? Could you point to poems in the previous book that were harbingers of the next, or sort of turns of language? I know you speak in your interviews about how you go through and try to eliminate the language of the one book before you move on to the next.
0:55:52
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LG: Yeah, but even in that sense, certain stylistic tics you try to recognize and prohibit—the way I tried to prohibit fragments—they seem like the work of the same person on some sort of journey. I try to make them as different as possible.
213
DB: I'm interested in what the work of doing that is. I mean, is it that you've just lived with these poems so often that you recognize immediately what the stylistic tics are and that they are easy to do? Or is it that when you read through the book and it's finished, you're like, "Oh I see that, and I see that, and these are the things that I need to really work on eliminating."
214
LG: I never see it when I'm working on the book.
215
DB: Yeah, which should be probably suffocating.
216
LG: Yeah. And so it's only afterward I think, "Well, I can't do that again." And then sometimes you see things like, "Isn't it odd? I've never used a contraction. Ever," and then you think, "Well, I guess I have to figure out how to use a contraction." And that becomes a whole—well, what you realize is that that's quotidian speech. That was what I hadn't used, and so then in order to use contractions and questions, the Delphic voice evaporates, and the human is introduced in its place. That was a hard moment, because a lot of people who admired my work admired it for exactly the thing that was now no longer present.
217
DB: What period was this?
218
LG: Triumph of Achilles.
219
DB: Okay. So coming in Triumph of Achilles, that was one of the tics? Or that was one of the changes that was being made?
220
LG: Yeah.
221
DB: Right. So Triumph of Achilles to—what's the next one?
222
LG: Ararat.
223
DB: Ararat and then Meadowlands, and then The Wild Iris.
224
LG: No, other way—Wild Iris, Meadowlands. It's okay. You're pretty current.
225
DB: I'm pretty close. I've been reading the collected and it's so interesting to kind of like move through time as you're moving through. How did you feel about that, I mean, by publishing the collected poems?
226
LG: Oh, it surprised me, because I always thought it was a terrible idea. Well, first of all, it's not the collected, and I didn't think of it as that. But it's fifty years of writing. I was initially appalled—and then amazed—at its size, because I thought it would be about three hundred pages long. But then when Miranda said, initially, six hundred and eighty-eight, I said, "No one will buy this! We have to squeeze it. It has to get littler." I thought it was a valedictory gesture. I thought it was suicidal to do. Most of my life, I was repelled by it in principle. The idea of doing it myself was horrifying. I mean, I never read my old books. I have no reason to. But at some point, I had to do something from a bunch of books, where I had to do reading, and I was asked to do more of that. So I was reading through the books, and I didn't hate them. I mean, often, once you finish and you're euphoric, then pretty soon you feel a sense of humiliation and shame. You just don't want to think about what you've just done. So then after that, you don't go back—you're trying to prove you can write by writing something else. Or, you know, the book gets horrible reviews and you have this feeling of "I'll show you. You wait. I'm going to knock your pants off," and of course the people's pants don't come off. But I was reading these old books, and I liked them. I was proud that I wrote them. I remember a couple of years ago—I sometimes do Tarot readings with Dana Levin. Dana's sister is a professional clairvoyant and Dana is very good with cards, and I trust her greatly. So we were doing one—I guess I had done the cards with Dana, but then Dana's sister, Karen the clairvoyant was visiting her, so we had a three-way conversation on my birthday for a birthday present about the reading. Karen asked me questions sort of the way a shrink does, you know, leading questions. She said, "What have you been thinking about?" I said, "Writing." Somehow, it came up that I was very frightened by this pleasure that I was taking in my old work because I feared it meant I would do no new work. Karen said, "I think you have to embrace that. I think that's"—she didn't use words like "path," but, you know—"that's what you have to do. You can't pretend that you're not feeling it. You just must follow that feeling and see where it leads."
227
: So where it led was to a readiness to see these books all put together, which had been proposed earlier. In fact, I was contractually obliged to do it, but I would never have been pressed. And there was always the problem of the fact that Ecco owned most of the books, and Dan Halpern resented—for a very long time, possibly still continuing to this moment—my switching publishers, which I did simply because it's interesting to be elsewhere. I missed the attention.
228
DB: With which book was it that you moved?
229
LG: Averno. It was a very inflamed parting, and for a long time, he wouldn't relinquish any of the books he owned. So none of that was possible, but it was fine, because I didn't want it. Then, somehow or another, that was all negotiated, and I did want it. I found it invigorating and generally a very pleasant thing. It made me feel I didn't have to do a big square thing anymore. Anything I did was gravy. And I really like this new book. It's not like anything else that I have done. It's sort of surreal. It has got prose poems in it.
1:03:41
230
DB: That's going to be a shocker.
231
LG: I don't think people are going to like it, or understand it. I think of it as very kind of lighthearted, or with a kind of—well, there's a lightness in it, a kind of casual, shrugging bravado that I like. It's not beautiful like certain of the lyric books. But a lot of people think it's terrifying, because a lot of it is about the end of time. But it's not written as a struggle, and it's not written as capitulation. It's written as, "What do you know?" I mean, there are poems in it that are not unlike what you do, you know? That kind of scratching-your-head thing, but a kind of merry bleakness.
232
DB: Yeah, that's always a pleasurable place to be. Did you find in actually writing those poems that there was a different way—like physically—that you were going after them or anything else?
1:06:05
233
LG: Well, the last couple of books, I've written a lot of it longhand, which was a great surprise, because everything up until Averno was written on a typewriter. All of the composition.
234
DB: Including Firstborn?
235
LG: No, Firstborn was by hand, and then everything from Marshland to Averno was composed on a typewriter. It's one of the reasons that my papers are not valuable, because there will be pages with little scribbles, but usually I just put in a new piece. So if somebody goes through all of these typewritten drafts, unless the person happens to know my work intimately—
236
DB: Wouldn't know that.
237
LG: It just looks like a lot of typed poems with no author's hand apparent. I started keeping a journal when I had whiplash, because someone said, "You should start writing about what it feels like, because you'll discover that you're not in as much pain as you think you are." Ha-ha. I mean, I certainly was. But I started this notebook detailing my whiplash symptoms and the agony that they entailed. I always did it in bed at night, reviewing my day, and it became the most crucial piece of my day. That, and listening to the telephone weather forecast, which became Village Life. I figured that out, but it took a long time. So I would listen to the weather forecast, and then I would redial and listen to it again. There was this wonderful voice that would say, "Good evening, Boston," and you would realize that the same thing was going to happen to everybody. You weren't just selected specially to be rained on, you know? Everyone was going to have rain. And it was the first time I actually understood that everyone was going to have something. I mean, all those times I stood in the drug isles of the supermarket, thinking, "Louise, they can't have made all these products just for you. There's a market. Someone else is buying these things." And then I would think, "Yeah, they're buying them, but they only use half, whereas I need ten."
238
: But the weather did make that knowledge present. And meanwhile, I was writing my whiplash symptoms and I would get in a very spacey place, so I started making notes for poems. So as not to interfere or confuse things, I did the poems in the back of the book moving toward the middle, and my pain journal from the front, and then I'd start a new notebook. After the whiplash went away—surprise—there were many other things to complain about in daily life. So this sort of diary of grief, complaint, misery, fear, chronic anxiety—occasional nice things reported—but mainly, the book was sacred to that, and it was a real source of sweetness in my life. Even when I didn't have a bad day, or I didn't have any real pain or I wasn't sick, I felt that I owed it to the book to say the worst. So there would always be that, and then there would be these notes. So I have a whole bunch of these eerie notebooks, and I realized that it was working kind of well. Once I started working on the poem, then I would work on it the way I always had. Only a lot of it was longhand, and the lines were getting differently shaped. The advantage of that was I could also do it when I was commuting. So I had a car service in those years, and Averno was the first thing I did when I was at Yale. I remember working on the poems in the car, and then I would transcribe them into the notebook in the back. At a certain point, each one would have to be, there would be enough material so I had to play that on the typewriter and see how it looked in type.
239
: One fact of working on the typewriter that's either—I don't know whether it's an advantage or not, and I imagine for prose it would be. My prose writer friends all love the computer, but when I get to an impasse or an awkward line, I have to start over. So it's a new sheet of paper, and you have to do the whole thing again, and problems emerge in those retypings, like your fingers will hesitate over something you thought was resolved, and you realize it's not resolved. You realize you have to do something different.
240
DB: So you were kind of making those revisions in the actual transcription work? They were coming to you almost like a practiced feel of the rhythms?
241
LG: Yeah, your hands wouldn't type it. You realize something was wrong. Either the line was wrong in how it was lineated—which would be simple to resolve—or the whole trajectory of the poem was awry.
242
DB: And then you would have to go back and do more.
243
LG: Yeah.
244
DB: At that point, would you do more work in the notebook before you went back to the typewriter?
245
LG: It varied. Then what would happen would be I'd have these typewriter sheets, and I would start working on them, but in the same timeframe.
246
DB: Okay, so back and forth.
247
LG: Yeah. They cancelled the weather report, by the way, because of the omnipresence of that.
248
DB: Absolutely.
249
KRISTIN: I have to go feed the meter.
250
DB: Okay, great. Do you have a visitor pass? We parked with a car.
251
LG: Yeah.
252
KRISTIN: Sure, I can move closer.
253
DB: That would be easier and then you could just park right here and then we can give it back to her.
254
LG: Make sure you're in a legal place.
255
KRISTIN: Yeah, as long as it is in the permit parking.
256
LG: Yeah.
257
KRISTIN: Thanks.
258
LG: That won't work.
259
DB: Were there any other things like the weather report for any other books? I mean, did that ever happen before? Were there any sort of other—?
260
LG: It was Village Life, really, that was—
261
DB: No other books had like something like a ritual to which you were responding in some sense?
262
LG: Well, Wild Iris was the garden. I had been reading garden catalogues for two years. I had two years of writing nothing, and all I had read was garden catalogues. Plus, I'd seen when I first moved to Vermont the clairvoyant, who told me I would write five books, and I had written five. Ararat was the fifth. I thought, "That's it," and I thought, "It's obvious, because there's no beauty in Ararat. It's just the whole lyric gift is dribbling away. I read garden catalogues and listened to Don Giovanni for two years, and I thought, "I'm brain dead. Of course I can't write."
1:15:12
263
DB: And that came in a burst, like in February or something?
264
LG: No, it was Summer. I started walking around the garden, which had been the only thing that I did. And things were coming out of the ground and I thought, "I'll try and write something about a flower."
265
DB: Now we have an idea of handwriting to the typewriter and what not. What was it like when you were just typewriting your poems? Would you sit down at your desk or wherever—I mean, the typewriter is kind of a wieldy thing. You have to be one place, wherever you were.
266
LG: No—it would always be episodic, and it didn't have to be MY typewriter. For example, I remember when I was working on Vita Nova, I remember writing some of those poems on an airplane. I wrote two on one transcontinental flight, and then I got to Irvine and I had to borrow a typewriter. But that was possible. And then I had to work it out on typewriter. But at that particular point, I was really on a roll. Everything was turning into a poem. So I felt I could be anywhere, and I could write with anything. I could write with food coloring.
267
DB: Charcoal.
268
LG: Yeah, and I could make actually very crude, like, power points, and I would know how to assemble them.
269
DB: Oh that's fantastic. So when you're in that sort of stage, are they just coming to you? Are they coming from overheard statements? Or it's all just there, and you're just kind of waiting to release it?
270
LG: It's nothing overheard. It's just some weird brain corner that suddenly you have access to, and it's like a temporary shelter—it exists for a very short time, and it's not like you think, "I could go back there." You just think.
1:18:15
271
DB: Do you see any patterns—now that you've had these experiences happen again and again—that sort of anticipate your getting to where that brain corner opens up, or is it mysterious?
272
LG: No, it's always mysterious. And the last two books have been a little slower in what I felt was a good way, because the stamina called for in that other kind of composition is so extreme. Plus, you don't get a very prolonged experience of immersion. You get a very intense, fast hit, but I really liked the feeling that I had. It was like writing a novel. In Village Life, I had this sound to go to that was like a place and it was accessible. I could get there. It wasn't like this special trick pony. It meant that the composition was a year, which still seems pretty fast, but it's not as fast as six weeks. That was Vita Nova. That was the fastest.
273
DB: Six weeks was the fastest. How long was Wild Iris?
274
LG: More like nine weeks, but there were three poems that were written the year before. They just were crap, but once I wrote The Wild Iris, once I wrote the bulk of that book, the crappy poems didn't seem so crappy. Did you know Elizabeth Langston, David and Meredith's daughter?
275
LG: Did you know David and Meredith at all?
1:20:46
276
DB: No.
277
LG: You didn't take a classics class? Well, she's my godchild, and she was, at that point, very little. This was in a period where I was writing nothing, and I said, "Elizabeth, give me a title, or a first line." And I thought, "If Elizabeth asked me to write a poem, I'd have to do it." And she did, and it got used.
278
DB: What was it?
279
LG: Red Rose on a Lowly Vine. It didn't get called that, finally, but it was a little song-like valentine of a poem. But then, I mean, if it looks to you like that's your output for two years, it's bad.
280
DB: Yeah.
281
LG: But it had a place in that book. Wild Iris was the first book I wrote fast, but it had these three weak-ish poems that became absorbed into it. So I don't know what will happen now. I imagine I'll descend into some abyss and then it's just the question of how much more you get to do. I'm still feeling surprisingly happy with my last one, and I know that until I hate it, nothing is going to happen.
282
DB: How long have you been finished with it?
283
LG: It will be a year in September. So it's still a baby.
284
DB: So, you have a kind of final sense of finality for these things—do you have like a physical sensation when that happens, or is it that your brain stops moving in that direction, and it's off?
1:22:54
285
LG: Well, you can sometimes have that, but it isn't finished.
286
DB: Okay.
287
LG: I mean, that has happened to me a number of times. It always means that there's something that isn't written yet, even though you just can't imagine what it is. Meadowlands was like that. I thought, "I can't write another of these." But it was clear. I was good at putting books together, and I can figure out what each body of work seems to need, but there was no way to put that together. Something was missing, and I thought it was probably some more sonorous tone, but it wasn't that. It was Telemachus was missing.
288
DB: Oh okay.
289
LG: And I wrote those poems in, I think, 10 days, and then it was a breeze. I mean, the whole thing came into place.
290
DB: I like that book.
291
LG: I like that book, too.
292
DB: It's very funny.
293
LG: It's very funny, I know. I think it's a scream. And I like that. I mean, I like tonal variety a lot, and I like it in what I read. But I think with the last two books—I drove people crazy with Village Life, because I had maybe four hundred different orders, and they were all not right.
294
DB: I could see that being difficult to put together.
295
LG: I knew where I wanted to start. I knew where I wanted to end, but—
296
DB: In between?
297
LG: I think it was a matter, too, of something needing to be added.
298
DB: Did you learn how to put together books like this? What was your education of that sense?
299
LG: We learn from the material, and I think I learned from students, too. I think that I'm a very good editor. I always felt if I had stuff on the page, I would have some good instincts. I mean, if there was anything to be gotten out of that material, I would find it. So, a sort of sense of being able to put to use the most pathetic, limited samples of language. But if you just give me some words, it doesn't matter how bad they are—I can do something. And I felt the same about manuscripts. I thought, "If there's a way to put it together, I'll find it." My own books and other people's books, too. I mean, in a way, I'm sure I drive some people crazy because I just look at their manuscripts and I say, "No. Just leave it all to me. You're doing this terribly."
300
: I was that kind of a mother, you know. I would say, "Don't feed yourself, really. You just don't know how to do it. You sit—I'll feed you." People don't like that, and it's also possible that one could be wrong, or that there could be something I miss. But I think it was something that you learn when you write very slowly. You don't have a huge outpouring—you have a small amount that you have to make go as far as you can, so you learn how to move the parts of the poem around. You learn how to be an editor out of a sense of lack, and from that grows a capacity to organize disparate things into something that has a sense of dramatic shape.
301
DB: And that sense of dramatic shape—is that your intention for most of your collections?
1:27:55
302
LG: I want the books to seem like that, but it's not as though when I'm working on them I know what it is. I pretty much don't.
303
DB: When do you get that sense?
304
LG: When I'm starting to put it together. And then you start seeing these weird overlaps and resonances and echoes that you hadn't planned. Proofing my new book, I see the strangest parallels and language recurrences that—I mean, you could say yes, you have a limited vocabulary and so of course there's going to be a recurrence of these words that you use, because you still remember them—but it's like dreams, you know? Somehow, the mind is making an organization that is beyond what the comprehending or apprehending faculties take-in, initially.
305
DB: So when you're working just on an individual poem and you're revising it, what's the mode there, when you're going back? Are you deleting, are you substituting, or—whatever the poem needs—you're in service to it?
1:29:24
306
LG: Yeah. I mean, if I can tell myself that a poem can't be made with just deleting things, that's great. That's two for the price of one. You get the deleted lines—if they're any good—to use somewhere else, and you get a poem. But, oftentimes, you can't just delete. Often, you can take out everything that's weak and transitions that are obvious, but what you then wrecked is the feeling of duration—the poem has become too brisk, and needs to have a feeling of more languorous unfolding. So then that's a problem, because you don't know whether you're supposed to add in the places where you had material before, or were they the wrong places—was that part of the problem? But each poem is its own little task. You know, for a long time, it's a problem you haven't solved, and then it becomes something that you have solved.
307
DB: Is it the same feeling of finality that you have with a collection that you have with an individual poem? That there's nothing more to be done?
308
LG: Yeah. But also that it gives you pleasure, that you like the shape that it makes. And you like it better than you thought you ever could. So all these poems you just thought were so cumbersome and that there was no way they could be organized—you just didn't see it. Suddenly, you actually like them again.
309
DB: Has your mode of revision, has that changed at all over the course, or has it been fairly consistent?
310
LG: I'm sure it's quite different, but I wouldn't even know how to say. I mean, the poems are so different that it must be that the approach is different.
311
DB: Right.
312
LG: I mean, now, I much more like approximation. I like a sense in the poem of not the sort of honed, perfect bon mot, you know, the epigrammatic. I want more of a kind of speech—a sense of casting about for a phrase. I like that feeling. Human-sounding. Ruminative, rather than exalted. But, you know, I think of Averno as—the book has always seemed to me vertical, and some of them seem horizontal. Usually, they alternate, so there will be a kind of awe-to-despair book, followed by panoramic book. But the last two books seemed to me kind of spreading, though they're very different from each other. How many people are you going to do this with?
313
DB: Ten.
314
LG: Jesus, you'll be out of your mind.
315
DB: I know, it's okay. We'll see how it goes. You're number seven? Eight?
316
LG: Oh! You've done a lot.
317
DB: Yeah, I've done quite a few.
318
LG: Does everyone sound different?
319
DB: Yes. It's very interesting what people want to talk about. I've done people who know me and who don't know me, and so there's some wariness, and sometimes there's not. Sometimes the people who know me are more wary of the questions. Honestly, the questions haven't really been asked, but you've answered them without my asking them, so that's good. It's a good sign, I think.
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LG: I hope so. Well, we could do it again if you don't have anything to use.
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DB: No, I think there's plenty. So, when you're revising are you reading them out loud to yourself? Is it part of your craft as some of the other writers have said?
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LG: I keep trying to make this point in poetry readings. I hear with my eyes. I mean, the experience of reading a poem—for me, with my eyes—contains an oral experience. And when I hear it, I feel angry. I feel that there's an obstacle between me and the it of the poem. And the obstacle is the reader, who is determining and deploying emphasis. Also, the form, which is turning a kind of web-like experience into a narrative—everything goes by once. And the argument made is, "Yes, but then you can't hear it." But I don't hear it when it's read to me, and I don't moderate to myself. I hear it in my head, though, and I hum it in my head.
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DB: You can hear almost, like, musical notes, or tones?
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LG: I can hear rhythmic structures. I remember with Meadowlands, I had this sense of the book—it was the only time I had this—I felt I had a whole book in my head. I just didn't have a single word. But what I had was rhythmic alternations. I had shapes that were clustered, and then some more open shapes—it was almost as though it was a musical line, and I would hear the rising and the falling. I would hear choral parts. I even tried to annotate it in some way so that I could follow it, but it was like a hum. I heard somebody say—a thinker of some kind, not a poet—something about the way a child learns speech lying in its cradle and hearing the shapes made by the speech that surrounds it. It doesn't understand words yet, but it understands. And for me, poems have been like that. I mean, I remember reading—when I was really, really young—not baby poems, but great poems. Shakespeare's songs. And I'm sure I had no idea what was being talked of—none—but I felt I was getting something out of those poems. I could hear "Fear no more the heat of the sun." I could hear the grandeur of that. The rhythm. I mean, somebody could turn it into an act of scanning the line, but that makes it so kind of plodding. But I did hear things that way, but with my eyes. I mean, my eyes turn what I see not into argument or a reasoned thing. A lot of that stuff I miss. What is the poem saying? I often have no idea. But I know how it sounds.
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DB: Because sound's a sort of intelligent communication, too.
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LG: Yeah.
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DB: That's really fascinating.
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LG: Well, I'm sure there must be a lot of people who write who have this. Who feel that sound comes to them visually.
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DB: It's almost synesthesia, right? It's close to that sort of description, but it's not—not quite, really, but it's an interesting correlation.
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LG: Yeah.
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DB: I know you work with fellow poets on your poems, correct? I mean, you're sending stuff to certain readers, etc., but do you work on individual poems at individual times, or is it usually in a collection?
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LG: Everything I write goes out. I want someone to look at it, preferably right away—like, now.
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DB: And who are those people? Have they been the same people for a long time?
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LG: They change. I mean, it's certain periods, certain people. Sometimes, you'll feel these poems—if they're ever going to be understood by anyone—will be understood by X. And you're usually right—when X says, "This won't do," you trust it, because the person is basically on the side of the work. Whereas if you show it to somebody who, from the outset, says, "This is just a disaster"—you know, it's too late to unwrite it. It's going to get written, and you could suppress it if you wanted, but—so, it's shifted. I mean, there are certain people who have been constant for a very long time. Kathy Davis has been stratospherically helpful, and I like working on her novels. I learned a lot from working on prose.
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DB: What have you learned?
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LG: You learn moving around much bigger pieces. I mean, Kathy's books—it's not so much a question of that. But there have been books where I've felt, "There are too many characters—these two could be conflated." Other times, I felt things were in the wrong order, or that too much time was spent on a particular thing. But with my former husband—who was a quite terrific prose writer—it was often a question of really moving around blocks of prose, the way you would in a poem. You'd move a line in the poem, but in prose, you would move a paragraph, or two paragraphs. So I learned it's like weight training. I could move bigger masses, and it was very useful. I mean, I don't think I would have written Ararat without that. And I think if I hadn't written Ararat, I would have stalled out as a certain kind of lyric poet.
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DB: Right. I have some questions about why you chose not to use a computer.
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LG: Well, I'm epileptic and I learned, but I didn't like looking at the screen. The early computers, it was said, were not good for epileptics.
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DB: Okay.
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LG: I didn't like it. I liked paper. I liked pages. I love typewriters.
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DB: What do you love about typewriters?
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LG: Doesn't everyone love typewriters?
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DB: I don't know.
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LG: I don't know.
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DB: Is it a sound thing? Is it a feel thing?
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LG: No. Actually, since burning my hand, I don't type anywhere near as well, because I don't have perfect feeling in that finger. But it was a sense of how, sort of slovenly, handwriting became form. I don't get that on the screen. I don't see lines on the screen quite the same way, and I don't feel as though I'm making the letter. Well, often I'm not—I'm making the wrong letter. But I don't know why I like it.
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DB: But it has been such a consistent part of every book, I guess?
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LG: Yeah.
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DB: We get to skip all these computer questions—it's fun! So, you correspond with many people?
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LG: Yeah. Well, I used to be a much better letter writer.
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DB: Has that changed quite a bit, with receiving and sending out? Has that been computerized, or—?
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LG: Yeah, it has changed a little. But long before I had my little red friend, I had stopped writing letters the way I once did. I mean, there was a period in my life when—even like ten, twelve years ago—I just wrote lots of letters to lots of people, and I loved getting letters back, and I loved writing letters. And then that stopped. I don't know why it stopped. But it wasn't because of that. What I have noticed with this [iPad] is I have, now, a correspondence with my first husband, with whom I would exchange letters every two years or something—very formal letters. Then there was a period in which he needed somebody to confide in who was far away, and so we had a little period of much more intense exchange. Very short. I saw him and met his current wife. I saw him for the first time in thirty-eight years last summer, and we liked each other. I thought his wife was just great. It's helpful to kind of substitute for a phone call when you don't feel like making a phone call, and it gives people a chance that they would have with a letter but not a phone call to respond when they are ready to and not have a moment forced upon them in which they have to react. So I have very happy thoughts about this, it just has nothing to do with writing. And then, I think, it was a big moment when I switched from longhand to the typewriter. Maybe it would be equally transforming to switch to a computer. But not an iPad. I mean, I would need a real keyboard. But I can't use a mouse still. I can't. When I see that little thing, it makes me very skiddish and upset.
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