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Interview with Robert Pinsky

Cambridge, MA on May 22, 2014 | Interviewer: Devin Becker

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Robert Pinsky: You want me to play to the camera at all or do you want me to play for you?
Devin Becker: Me, it's fine. This isn't like going to go on PBS or anything. It's more archival and then I might make some clips if I ever get a website together, which hopefully will happen. You were saying that you use the word "compose" rather than "write" because you are using a sort of oral and voice-based mechanism, which is your body.
RP: For the rest of, it I do all of the above. I write longhand on paper, I compose on a computer, more process of revising. Like most people, I print out very frequently, scroll over the print out, stare at with the scrolling on the print out is, create another fair draft either in my mind or on the computer. I number my drafts DR1, sometimes DR0 if I know it's not going to last long. I've gone up to DR87. I think in some things I've gone up to DR104 in the file menu.
DB: You are using Microsoft Word when you're using these file names?
RP: I tend to use... I always get mixed up. I think they call it RealOffice for Mac and NeoOffice for Windows. Maybe it's the opposite.
DB: Oh okay, but it is—?
RP: It's basically a word processor like Word.
DB: Okay.
RP: There is also a neat one that I use for difficult things—I don't know why I don't use it on everything, I can't remember—called something called Nisus Writer. I could look at it.
DB: Yeah. I've heard of one called Scrivener.
RP: No, this is, I think, the state of the art. I think this is the one and—yes, Nisus Writer Pro. It's terrific at all kinds of elaborate formatting and indexes. Nisus Pro.
DB: Nisus Pro?
RP: Yeah.
DB: When did you start using that?
RP: A couple of years ago, but I'll juggle them. I'll go through phases for certain purposes, duplex printing on it, non-duplex printing printer. I know how to do it on Word, so I'll open up Word. So in a way, I use all of the above but I'm not loyal to any particular word processor.
DB: Software essentially?
RP: Yeah.
DB: I guess what drove the getting the Nisus? Did somebody tell you about it and you just thought—?
RP: I probably did some web research but there were things that I didn't like about the NeoOffice page numbering and headers and footers. It seemed clumsy to me and none of these programs are super expensive anymore, it used to be a big investment. The best one I have ever used was like Betamax versus VHS. It was excellent, but didn't have enough followers—Word Perfect. Word Perfect was terrific, it was perfect, and that doesn't always win the marketplace.
DB: Not it does not. Word Perfect was in the '90s, I think?
RP: I'm an early computer user, so I probably started using it in the mid-80s. I wrote a computer entertainment in the early '80s.
DB: I know, Mindwheel, correct?
RP: Mindwheel, yeah. I just read a new very informative article about Mindwheel. Although I'm kind of paper tiger in technical things, I don't really know a lot about computers. I've had to do with them and I've used them for a long time.
DB: Since the early 80s?
RP: I think it was 1980 when they asked me to start Mindwheel and you can tell how prehistoric, how early that was, by the brand of the computer that they gave me to write it on. They gave me a computer that was an Atari.
DB: Do you miss the Atari?
RP: No. I still remember that monochrome, yellow, black-on-yellow monitor that weighed more than anybody's big flat screen TV. It was immense. For a long time, anything I wrote to be read on the screen, I wrote on the computer and things I meant to be read off paper, I wrote on paper. The pen or with the nicest machine I have ever owned, an IBM Selectric.
DB: When did you own that?
RP: I had a Selectric in the '70s and the '80s. I often regret that I don't still own one.
RP: It was like a BMW. It was such an excellent machine—that golf ball click-click-click. And then they had that lift-off tape, so you could erase perfectly. Because the ink was so precise that they had a lift-off ribbon and you went to that and back spaced—it lifted the ink off the page. And it was a solid machine. It just did what it was supposed to do so well. There were obvious reasons why electronic, why the computer took over, but this IBM Selectric was a beautiful machine.
DB: It's good. I have not thought of it as a beautiful machine before, but I think that's good to know.
RP: Have you ever used one?
DB: I've never really used it, so I can't say.
RP: It's amazing.
DB: Yeah. Now I kind of want to go and find one. My typewriter experiences have not been very good.
RP: A crappy typewriter is not any fun.
DB: And any ones that I end up looking at or using are out of tune, essentially. So, you are a Windows user primarily but with—?
RP: No. I used to be a Windows user. I'm primarily an iOS Mac user now.
DB: You're primarily an iOS Mac user. That is, then, just a screen that's coming from the MacBook Pro?
RP: Yes it is. Maybe this is the kind of thing you are interested in—I used to go through the whole rigmarole of syncing between my desktop and my laptop. I went through various generations of the best way to do that and now I'm not quite at the totally-cloud web system, but I realized that with a nice external monitor, external keyboard, external mouse, I can use the MacBook Pro as what we used to call the ICU. Then when I'm tired of using that way, I just have to remember to eject the backup and then unplug all that stuff and then I could get on an airplane with it. I'm not syncing it with anything. It's itself.
DB: When you save your files, do you have like a Dropbox account or anything like that?
RP: I do have a Dropbox account.
DB: So, you do have some sort of backup in the cloud?
RP: I have a Dropbox account and I have a 2 TB amazingly small little white brick—
DB: External hard drive?
RP: —that backs up automatically.
DB: How long have you been doing the backup procedures?
RP: For years. And I'd like to vilify the company—it's a sort of a French name—with a backup fail.
DB: Ugh. Really?
RP: My computer broke and the... They're called...
DB: It's not LaCie, is it? No?
RP: It may have been LaCie. Anyway, that can happen too.
DB: What happened there?
RP: Most stories about, "Oh, I lost my book on Yeats," or "Oh, I lost all this"—it's about 79% bullshit. Most of us have given the manuscript to somebody or have earlier drafts somewhere else. It's never pure loss. Like most things in life, it's a matter of degree.
DB: Yes. That's true. So, what was the loss there?
RP: I can't remember.
DB: You can't remember. It wasn't—
RP: I lost a bunch of data. I didn't lose anything that I couldn't recreate or find a different version of somewhere else.
DB: You sort of went through, in your first answer, many of these questions right here. It seems like you've been fairly adept at using a computer for most of the time. Have you sought out any instruction or has it just been something you've taught yourself?
RP: It's mostly something I've taught myself. "Adept" is a relative term compared to all the other writers and poets I know. I guess I'm adept compared to any 15-year-old. I try hard. And, you know, that first encounter—I've always liked gadgets. I never was good in school but I always liked learning a certain kind of thing and I guess I'm the type that tends not to like to read the instructions. I would rather figure it out. If there are two great personality types in the world, I tend to be the type that says, "If I can't figure it out, I don't want to do it." I don't want to have to read the instructions.
I did hang out with programmers when I wrote Mindwheel. As my introduction to computer technology, I did hear a certain amount of jargon. And sometimes, when technology is from a primitive state, you learn more about them than when they are more perfected. At one time, to drive a car, you had to know something about cars. People in the days of the term "hi-fi" had to know something about the process of recorded music. And as they improved the car and they improve recorded music, there's less and less anybody needs to know.
DB: I'm reminded of a story about the early MSN messenger wars. Did you read this? Where the AOL and the MSN people were going back and forth, trying to kind of copy each other's thing. And then the people at AOL started programming in, like, the basic, basic, basic level—called, I think, "operative processing," or something—and it's, like, huge, huge amounts of ones and zeros, essentially.
RP: The thing before assembly language.
DB: Yeah, exactly. So, you are way up there. Can you talk a little bit more about how that came about, how the Mindwheel came about? Were you at like a location that the programmers were near, or did they contact you specifically?
RP: I was sitting in my office at the University of California, Berkeley. I was very glad to be at Berkeley after the—for me, kind of tedious—Wellesley College, where I taught. I found Wellesley wasn't like going to jail, but it was a little New England Women's college. So I was very happy to be at Berkeley and that euphoria lasted for weeks and then Berkeley also came to seem very much like—how can I put this—an English department. And the phone rang and it was somebody named Ihor Wolosenko—the first person and the last person I have known named Ihor—Ihor Wolosenko from Synapse Software. And he said, "I'm looking for a writer to work on a new kind of computer product. Are you familiar with Text Adventures?" I said, "No." He said, "Are you familiar with computers?" I said, "No." He said, "Have you ever heard of a game called Zork?" I said, "No." He said, "It's a text that appears on the screen and you can go North or South or East or West, and you can pick up objects. It's a form of narrative. We have a very superior program. We can become more sophisticated than that. We are interested in serious literal writers who might write text for a game like that. Might you be interested?" I said, "Yes."
It was the first yes I had in the conversation. Synapse was in El Cerrito, which is quite close to Berkeley. I went out there and it was not an English department. There were these weird guys with their shirts half tucked-in. I later learned they lived on Big Macs and Van Houten bars. They slept in the day time and worked at night. They didn't pay for their phone service—they had different ways they could pirate phone service and had little machines that made long distance tones. The words that were most forbidden, it seemed, to them were not racial epithets or sexual terms or scatological terms. The forbidden words were words like nerd. liked them and I wrote up several scenarios for Ihor.
Cable Guy: Television's upstairs?
RP: Yeah, it is. Maybe I should help you find it. There are a couple of rooms up there.
DB: So, we were talking about Mindwheel. You went over to meet the programmers and you liked them quite well.
RP: I wrote up three or four different plots and the most far out one, modeled in a vague way on Dante, the comedian, was you are on a mission to travel through these minds. Four minds. It turns out that minds leave permanent elaborate footprints and records of themselves in what we call the "ether." I can't remember what I call it in the game itself. I always called it a game, and they always called it an "electronic novel." At the beginning Dr. Virgil puts the electrodes in your head and then you travel through the minds of a kind of Shakespeare/Dante figure; a kind of political rock figure, vaguely John Lennon like; a woman who is kind of an Einstein. And then a great dictator, a kind of a Stalin/Hitler/Mussolini mind.
DB: You could chose your own adventure kind of thing?
RP: No. It's more "interactive," they called it. You needed to solve problems. Some of them involved poetry.
DB: Did you come up with the poetry problems?
RP: Yes, or I would adopt ones from 16th century poetry. There was one riddle—you have to free a winged woman from a cage, and the cage is the riddle. It comes from Sir Walter Raleigh's poem "On the Cards and Dice," and it says, "An herald strange, the like was never born, whose very beard is flesh and mouth is horn." You had to solve that riddle. And the Raleigh poem which is there, it's about the Cards and Dice, and it says, "The trump will be heard and dead bones will jump up, will be rattled and men will groan and four kings will be gathered and four queens." So, it sounds like a mystic prophesy, but it's the cards and dice. Then it says they do this until a "herald" calls—"an herald strange, the like was never born, whose very beard is flesh and mouth is horn." I can see your flunking this.
DB: I'm totally flunking this.
RP: They play all night.
DB: Oh!...I'm still flunking this.
RP: Something wakes them up in the morning.
DB: The rooster?
RP: Yeah. The rooster's beard is flesh, his mouth is horned. And the rooster's not born, it's hatched. And that was an insult when I was a kid: you weren't born, you were hatched.
DB: So, you incorporated a lot of things into that. I'm interested in kind of like how that physically happened, too? Did you write that out on your Selectrics and then send them the text?
RP: Selectric didn't appear in it. I wrote it on the Atari.
DB: You wrote it on the Atari? Okay.
RP: As I said, for a good period, I was one of the few people in the country who was writing everything I was writing to read off a screen on a computer, and everything I was writing to read on paper on paper. The Times asked me to review a book of prose by Philip Larkin. I was having a little trouble getting started with it and I had been writing this very fluid Bubble World of computer. I couldn't get started on the Larkin so I decided I'll experiment. I'll see if I can write the lead on the computer, on the monochrome, because it's so much less real than a pen or the typewriter.
I wound up writing a draft of the whole fucking review on the Atari. I can't print it out. They weren't Dot Matrix printers over there at Synapse but I liked visiting Synapse anyway. And I did have—you may never have even seen one of these—I did have the 5.25" floppies.
DB: Oh yeah.
RP: That's why they're called "floppies." Those things were floppy. They were flexible. I'm not sure if email was much used at the time. I didn't email to Synapse. I drove over to El Cerrito, to that office park where Synapse had its offices, right next to an old company named Pixel. I used my 5.25" floppy to print out my book review. And it dawned on me, "You're going to have to get a printer. In fact, you are going to have to get a better computer." So, within, I can't remember, probably a few weeks, I had a jerky, junkie Dot Matrix printer and what we used to call a PC clone—IBM clone—called a Corona. I think it was made in Italy, oddly enough. That was probably 1981, 1980, or something. It was quite early.
DB: You were already on your second computer by early ‘80s?
RP: The first one I owned and the second one I was using.
DB: Second one you were using. Just going back to the impetus for getting that first computer—was it from Synapse?
RP: They gave me the Atari.
DB: They gave you the Atari. Okay.
RP: Yeah.
DB: When you were writing for them, would you—?
RP: It's all electronic. The programmers would take their assembly language and the program they invented—William Mataga and later Cathryn Mataga. William invented this program called BTZ—Better Than Zork. I remember William was the sort of over-programmer, and the personal one—my partner—was Steve Hales. It says on the package of Mindwheel, "Mindwheel: Electronic Novel by Robert Pinsky, writer; William Mataga and Steve Hales, programmers."
The package is a hard cover book. The product is just a floppy. I remember my first conference with Steve. He said, "I want you to describe your world to me," and then we had these interesting philosophical discussions of rooms and space, and scenes and time. Did we think of the scene happening in a room? Or of the room happening in a scene? There were some interesting conversations. Dialogue tables and things like that.
DB: Can we move back a little bit? Before all this, like when you were in your early writing career—would you say it was right around the time when you went to Stanford? When you sort of started writing? I've read some of the interviews and some of the—
RP: Yeah. I thought of myself as a writer when I was at Rutgers as an undergraduate. I was a beatnik wannabe. I was writing. I was writing poems. I was editor of the undergraduate literary magazine.
DB: Oh cool.
RP: So, no. I had a writing life.
DB: Okay, when you were starting off, what were your practices like? Did you keep notebooks?
RP: I have never kept notes. I'm not a note maker. I would get an idea for a poem and I would write it. I remember for awhile I shared an apartment with Alan Cheuse, novelist. He does book reviews for NPR. Alan is a year ahead of me and Alan is a fiction writer. I could remember hearing his typewriter going tick, tick, tick. I was sitting there, maybe with a paper and pen thinking, trying out different phrases in my mind and sort of ending that tick, tick, tick.
DB: Has it been since that time and throughout that you've always kind of felt it as a sort of voiced-oral thing in your head before anything?
RP: I got more and more confident then. But yes. I felt that was my métier. What I could do that I felt not everybody could do had to do with the sounds of sentences like that thing we just watched on TV. The sounds of sentences—the way vowels and consonants work together, the way a short sentence relates to a long sentence.
DB: How did you come to figure out that you could do that better than other people?
RP: Probably in the course of college. But I remember that as a kid I would try to tap out the rhythm of sentences with my fingers. I thought about things like voiced and unvoiced consonants before I knew the word for them. I had been thinking about the difference between the ‘th' in "the" and the ‘th' in thin. "The"—you use your voice box. "Thin"—you don't. I wasn't sure...it seems like a bad habit in a way. But I thought about the sense of words. So, it's not a surprise to me that I was good at it when I discovered there was an art based on such things.
DB: I guess the question is then how you kind of developed? You had that sort of innate talent. What were the steps you took to develop that talent?
RP: Reading. I had great teachers. My freshman English teacher was Paul Fussell, and he asked us to read ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound. I read Yeats and Eliot and Ginsberg and Bishop. And I recognized the way the sounds of words were doing things in those writers. William Carlos Williams and William Butler Yeats and Emily Dickinson. I was less interested in the differences among them than the thing I saw going on in all of them. I was interested by that thing.
DB: Yes. That's such a better way to get into it. When you started to kind of compose the poems and they became more important to you personally but also important to your career and moving forward, what were the ways you were working on them? Were they always kind of appearing in your head? You'd write them down by hand and then type them up for other people? What was the process there?
RP: I've had these ideas floating around in my head for a long time. A certain sense of ideas, like "humble things have histories." "What were the first things you ever saw made out of plastic in your own life?" Cheap shit from Japan after the war—toys mostly. Plastic soldiers, metal soldiers, saw dust soldiers. During a war, you couldn't get them. So I would think about those substances.
Those ideas, that set of ideas about different materials. That's all just thoughts. At the same time, I'd be mixing up my own personal history. The time I left some sawdust soldiers—pressed-wood soldiers—out overnight and they swelled-up. And then a completely other set of ideas that might involve war and the fascination of war. I had an uncle who was in the "Battle of The Bulge." He was a radio man, and I remember being very tiny and being fascinated by his massive boots. He's wearing the boots and I'm on the rug, touching those big boots. And none of that's the poem. That's memories, thoughts, ideas. And then the poem is when you start putting some sounds together. Something unnatural about the way a sawdust soldier will swell in the rain, unlike the boots of my uncle.
It's not an existing poem by the way. I can give a little demo. The poem starts when you start thinking about the vowels and consonants. With "uncle"—you rearrange the consonants. "Unclean" and "calendar." "The calendar of childhood." Then the time between the day that you find out wooden soldiers get ruined and the day that your mother and grandmother both dreamed that Julian was in trouble, and negligent memories of unclean...blah, blah, blah. That's the material.
DB: Yes. That's the material. I guess the purpose of these interviews is kind of to think about how that material becomes the book in all its iterations, and how that has changed over the course of time as to how many computers you think you've owned, how many different writing devices. Stuff like that. If you compose it in your head, does that mean you have whole poems in your head before you write them down?
RP: Sometimes, but more often I'll get enough lines to want to make a draft. So I'll write them down and I'll look at those and recite to myself the different things I've written down, and then I'll decide to type it into a document that I can print out. And then I'll read that over and maybe get a new idea.
DB: What was that like in the early '70s/late '60s?
RP: Pre-computer?
DB: Yeah.
RP: Something came out of the typewriter that has a lot of ballpoint all over it. Now it comes out of a laser printer and it has felt pen in all over it.
DB: When you're actually doing the writing-down, you say you don't really usually use notebooks or anything. What is it you are writing on? Is it just bare paper?
RP: Yeah. My favorite kind of paper is very hard to get. I'm forced to use this because it's very hard to get this. I don't like the lines.
DB: Yeah, that's interesting.
RP: I get that somehow society doesn't take this very seriously anymore. You can get it white, I don't want it white.
DB: You want it yellow?
RP: I want it yellow.
DB: I think that is the best, color-wise—yellow and black, or some sort of yellow as the background is the best.
RP: Yes. Yellow and black is somehow a little more fluid than black and white. Black and white feels sort of legal, or reductive.
DB: Have you been working with blank yellow paper if you can, since—?
RP: Yes. We haven't talked much about prose. I can remember working on prose and going through lots and lots of different processes, technologically. White-out of course. But I can remember before the IBM liftoff, I can remember using—and they even made it double-space, or sort of single-space, I believe—correction tape. So, you could take a passage that you wanted to change and you glue the tape down and you might use a Xerox machine. You would do white out so the tape didn't leave a tell tale grey outline. I can remember kind of thick, palimpsest pages where I had done that on some piece of prose.
DB: And that would build-up and build-up until you got it to...where?
RP: I think with the early drafts of The Situation of Poetry, I was still at that stage of the tape and the white out, and I'm probably forgetting a couple of other things I did to save having to retype something. Now, I've met an editor who said she thinks prose declined—people started writing much more poorly—when the computer made it so easy to insert passages. That it led people—rather than concentrating on editing and cutting and sculpting their prose—to insert. That every sentence got a little bloated.
DB: In terms of that same process, how do you think that affected poetry, and maybe yours specifically?
RP: I think poetry took an unproductive turn when people fell in love with the technology of the typewriter. Charles Olsen wrote very solemnly that with the new poet, you can count the spaces. Proportional spacing came along within a decade or two and made nonsense of that. To me, the graphic thing—people talk about lining endings quite a lot. I always feel, "No, I don't write line endings, I write lines" and it's the whole line. I guess you could say I'm kind of an extremist and very resistant to the visual idea of the poem. Different technologies give people the illusion that poetry is a form of graphics, and I guess for them it is.
For me, the unique quality of poetry is that it is vocal. It's on a human scale. It comes out of one person's body one syllable at a time. There doesn't have to be anybody else around—I'm not talking about poetry readings or performances. I'm talking about things very similar to the Favorite Poem Project videos. So, with technology, the most important thing yet to be done—and it's amazing to me it hasn't been done yet...
I was at Chancellor at the Academy of American Poets and they brought to us, very proudly—first chancellors to see—somebody who had made a program where the words of a poem can scroll and jump around. You see words do that on TV ads every day! It's banal. Why don't they correct the fact that still, I think, FSG won't publish poems in an electronic e-book edition because, somehow, nobody has come up with a way to preserve the integrity of the lines. It seems to me you could get a team of programmers to do that in a couple of days.
DB: I am also baffled by it.
RP: Probably going to happen tomorrow. But at the moment it's in this ridiculous stage where it hasn't happened. On the other hand, Horace didn't have visual lines. They didn't make spaces between the words. They wanted to save parchment or wax or papyrus or stone. Whatever they were using. So, you could figure out where the lines were because the rhythms were so strong.
DB: And you have a very strong sense—you and, like, James McMichaels, sort of, too—have that strong sort of oral sense of poetry and are very dedicated to it. Did that come out of working with Winters? Or did that come out of kind of an innate sense of what you were doing from the beginning?
RP: I think there were some moment when I was reading "Howl" and "Sailing to Byzantium" and Dickinson, and I felt this reality in those things that was different from the reality of Alan's typewriter going staccato. It was different from the reality of reading Ulysses or Dubliners. That was a very powerful reality produced by those rectangular blocks of print and the pages. This was more physical in some way. More bodily, let's say.
So it maybe made me ripe for Winters, and he certainly amplified it by inviting me to learn something about George Gascoigne, Fulke Greville, and Philip Sidney, ?Brohly?. But I think it happened when I was in my late teens still, and, you know, Gingsberg was obsessed by blank verse by Elliot, and he'd give himself these exercises in it. So, it was—as is Williams, in a completely different way—it was free verse that was intensely oral. William calls all those poems "metric figure," and obviously metric figure is about their attempts to write intense rhythms that are not iambic or blank verse.
DB: Yeah, and that move away from that is such an interesting part of the century.
I guess the kind of overarching question that I'm wondering is—and as a digital librarian and someone who is working in the digital new, who can't really remember ever not writing on a computer—when the computer came in, when the Atari came in, and when the screens started appearing in front of you and the ease of those deletions and insertions and re-arrangements became possible, did that change the way you worked? Did that change what you produced?
RP: I don't think it changed what I produced, but I think that it was the beginning of a different kind of archival anxiety. There is the archival anxiety about paperwork being preserved, given some manuscript or somebody else's manuscript being destroyed. I'm of a generation where I save magazines that I have work in—that's the old anxiety. And the new anxiety is the mortality of digital information. I can remember the Library of Congress saying to me that the only way to preserve digital material is to reproduce it. Unlike papyrus, it's mortal. It turns to mush. And that's aside from the fact that the medium keeps changing. The Favorite Poem Project videos—today I talked about somebody who is going to take the original digital tapes and make them into a current high definition format rather than the flash format they're in.
DB: They're in flash?
RP: Yeah, on the website. But the website will be enhanced. You'll to be able to make them full screen. For seven years I was in NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. When Frank Sinatra died, I read passages from Virgil about the death of a singer. When the stock market was in trouble, I read Frost's "Provide, Provide." At the time, the places I recorded those would give me dumps on VHS tape. Where are they? Where is that material? There's a lot of it. I anxious this has gone into the ether. I was a Poetry Editor for Slate for many years. They eventually found poetry was not bringing enough "hits," enough money and ads and things, so they stopped doing it. To preserve it for awhile, there were years when I would do a poem out-of-copyright, a classic poem. I'd do, say, an early poem by Marianne Moore.
DB: It's how I was introduced to Fulke Greville.
RP: So I did those. I was shocked to learn that, unlike almost everything, like all kinds of pornography and ads and stuff, they're gone. They're irretrievable. Those discussions—and so many are with well known poets and critics taking part in them—they're gone. Vanished.
DB: What form? Were they written?
RP: They were in the fray, in the discussion part. I was responding to people.
DB: Oh, the comments actually below.
RP: So, something quite valuable that I put effort into vanished. Well, we all vanish, we all die. And most objects are described, and we don't know how long Shakespeare's reputation will last. You know, there's the large view, but there's also personal, temporal anxiety. One has mixed emotions when, you know—my papers are at Stanford. They bought up to a certain year of paper-papers, but a librarian at Stanford said to me, "I hope you're saving your email. I hope you're saving your electronic emails." There's a new anxiety there. What in there that I wouldn't want quoted will come out in a journal? So, there is the anxiety of what could be lost and the anxiety of what could be preserved that you don't want preserved. There is the anxiety of—the family level is only metaphor for the whole thing. I share some photographs with my great grandparents' generation and these are photographs of your grandparents' generation that you treasure. We all have a camera in our pocket. It shoots video. This little tiny sliver has access to almost all the information there is, and you can create more forthright information with almost no effort at all. Selfies, etcetera.
If you want your grand children to pay any attention to your family photos, you better edit them, because the future generation doesn't want to spend all day listening to grandpa say, "Hiya!" You better think about what time capsule you create. And as I say, that's only a metaphor for the larger question you're dealing with. In one of my poems, "The Forgetting"—
DB: Which book is that in?
RP: In Gulf Music, I say, Ezra Pound praised the emperor who appointed a committee of scholars to choose the advocate who has the 1,000 best Noh dramas and destroy the others for the good of the Noh. Ezra Pound approved of that, the fascist. So I was trying to express ambivalence about the winnowing process and the selecting process. The Library of Congress has to decide which sitcoms it will preserve, which commercials. Some of those commercials and sitcoms may be superior works of art to poetry by people who win the Pulitzer Prize. Who decides?
DB: Librarians.
RP: I guess you do.
DB: I'm right here, talk to me. What do you need? In terms of that winnowing process then, what do you think about your own—I'm sure you have uncollected works and stuff like that? How do you feel towards those now? And where do you store those? Are they in paper? In certain boxes? Are they in the papers at Stanford?
RP: The papers—every so often, I'll accumulate enough and shoot them off to Palo Alto. Electronically, I mean... As it happens, in the last few months, somebody—it happened twice, that a poem of mine that I didn't choose to put in the selected—somebody said to me, "This poem of yours means a lot to me." I remember the poem very well. It's a poem called "The Reasons." This person said, "It's a poem that, when I think about my ethnicity, the way you deal with ethnicity is very important to me." But I felt maybe I shouldn't put in the selected, and I didn't.
Then online, someone I have never met personally pointed to another poem because I'd published it in poetry magazine when I was in my 20s. It was on the Poetry magazine website, and she said how much she liked it. I looked it up and thought, "Pretty good." I'd never put it in any book. I had forgotten it entirely. So, I don't know how that's germane to your question, but it is germane, somehow.
DB: No, I think so.
RP: That there is no ultimate authority for that selection process, the author included.
DB: Ok. So you have these digital files that contain the poem and you've backed them up and you try to make sure they're okay. Do you feel some sort of "dearness" towards them? Or do you feel that they're sort of just a means to something else, somewhere else?
RP: A lot of it is mechanical. A lot of it is in reflecting. I have many, many folders. I'm sort of a quasi-organized person. So, under "Documents" in my hard drive—which is then backed up in my backup drive—under "Documents," there are many, many folders, letters from different years; prose. Probably thirty—I haven't counted them. There is one called "Drafts." In "Drafts," under sub-folders, for most poems there's that "DR1," "DR12," "DR14." I look at it and I sometimes feel the way I told you I feel about the family photographs. Nobody wants all this. Bishop has a poem about the umbrella that was so hard to make and the leather trousers, how they gave them to the local museum. How can anybody want such things? I'm sure she's thinking about drafts and memorabilia and so forth. It's just another anxiety. I can't say I think about it a lot, but I'm ambivalent when I think about all those megabytes of drafts. And two separate questions are: do I want anyone to look at them, and who could possibly want to look at them? But I don't destroy them and I do, somewhat mechanically, shoot the drafts into drafts. I guess part of the theory is I might want to look. And I suppose every once in many, many months, I do look.
DB: So you're saving each poem as a new draft? It's not, like, one poem with many drafts in it? It's just, with each poem, a new file, a new draft?
RP: A new folder. Each poem. Let's say the poem is called "The Mechanical Pencil." Then it'll have a name like "Mech Pencil," with an upper case M and P. So you'll have "Mech Pencil DR1.docx" or "Mech Pencil DR6.docx," "Mech Pencil 47"—and maybe not every single one is saved, but those are, and they're all going into that folder. In the main file, which is the next book—in whatever that folder is, you have the separate poems.
DB: When did you start using this sort of folder system?
RP: I can't remember when I started doing it.
DB: But it's been pretty consistent?
RP: Probably since I started using a computer.
DB: Do you feel like you kind of envision the poems in that way? When you are thinking about them later, does that ever pop into your mind?
RP: When I think about the poem I think about it in my book or as part of my poetry reading. Or, if I'm in a particularly grandiose and hopeful state, I picture somebody reading it the way that people in the Favorite Poem Project—you know, the way Seph Rodney reads Plath's "Nick and the Candlestick."
DB: Yeah. I was watching the South Boston—
RP: Oh, the kid.
DB: John—
RP: John Ulrich.
DB: Yeah, John Ulrich.
RP: He reads Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool."
DB: I was struck by how much I wanted to know how he's doing. I was interested in him. I mean the poem is great and everything, but it just made me, like—
RP: Last I heard he was doing okay.
DB: I hope so. Good. So, I guess I'm a little unclear as to what your revision process is like. I think I have a sense of how the compositions happen. But then when you have, say, most of the poem ready—like when you're moving from drafts 020 to 021—what are you doing in between there?
RP: Print-out. Write on the printout.
DB: Are you reading it out loud?
RP: See if you have the poem by memory. Turn the light off while going to sleep and try to recite the poem. If you come to a part you don't have memorized, maybe that's the part you need to work on. Not reliably, but sometimes.
DB: Do you have an intention in doing that? Is each poem different, or—?
RP: Yeah. My intention is to make it worth somebody getting by heart, or wanting to read to their friend, or wanting to recite to themselves on a hike or when they are driving—do whatever it is that poems do.
DB: What happens when a poem doesn't realize that? How do you know that a poem is not going to get there?
RP: In my case, you keep working. Very rarely, you abandon it—usually some part of it that's working gets incorporated into the next poem, or into some future poem.
DB: So, you kind of take parts and move them around?
RP: Yes. You use it the way Cubans do parts of sugar lace.
DB: Do other people kind of work into this process?
RP: Yeah, I have friends. Louise sees what I write. Alan sees what I write. And maybe Gail Mazur. Different times of my life there have been different friends—always somebody around. Jim Olson. Sometimes I email things to Jim.
DB: At what stage do these people usually come in?
RP: Fairly late.
DB: To kind of get a reaction or something like that? Was the translation work and using the computer and these sort of processes fundamentally different?
RP: It was rather similar. Felt pen. I would print-out whatever canto I was working on, so: two or three pieces of paper, maybe one piece of paper. I had everything I needed. And then it was the metrical game.
DB: You described that in one of the interviews I've read as sort of intensely pleasurable sort of work. What kept you drawing you back to it?
RP: It's why kids play video games. It's why guys play golf. It's a difficulty that you become addicted to. You become entranced by the difficulty. Like people who need to do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day. It's that part of the mind that loves to solve difficulties—or, let's not say "solve"—engage a certain kind of difficulty. Because the video games offer infinite... You can't ever solve it. You can get better at it, making those consonantal rhyme tercets and pentameters. And always compressing—I use fewer words in that translation than any other translation, prose or verse. Never pad to get a rhyme. Compress to get a rhyme. That was the rule. And it became what a jigsaw puzzle is for somebody who loves jigsaw puzzles. What a video game is for somebody who loves video games. It became absorbing.
DB: How long did that project last?
RP: It was a year to get through the Inferno ones, and almost another year to revise.
DB: I read that you worked on a revision with Frank Bidart some, too?
RP: Yes. We put a lot of effort into that.
DB: So you have the individual poems that you work on, but then how do you get them into a book?
RP: There's a folder called "Book.pms" and it acquires a name, and the book acquires a title, but that's the next book of poems. In that folder right now, there's a file called—I think—"Book29." That is, it's the 29th draft when I bother to have a contents page, which Nisus Writer does very well. A contents page, page numbers, and the order that the poems are in. That order will change, but it's what I have with me if I go somewhere to give a poetry reading, and it's a file. It's a folder.
DB: How do you construct your orders?
RP: I guess it's different for each book. I'm not sure how to answer. It's intuitive.
DB: Does it have some sort of phrasing to it? I mean, is it musical in that sense?
RP: I hope ideas and feelings get introduced. I hope then they get developed and amplified and explained, and then I hope new elements come in, in the course of that process. At the same time, one recognizes that a good number of readers don't read the poems in order—some people like to start in the middle, some people start at the end. But for those who want to see something in the order, Gulf Music starts with a kind of peculiar title poem. It says, "This is not going to be easy. It's going to involve the newspaper, and it's not going to take certain conventional routes for political poetry."
DB: I found the ordering and construction of Gulf Music to be very unusual. I was just sort of thinking about it being just unlike most things that come out now.
RP: I thought about it a lot. I did want to make it something distinctive, and it starts with the most ghazal-like thing in the book.
DB: Yeah. Are you on draft 29 of the current book?
RP: Yes.
DB: Is that where you are at?
RP: Yes.
DB: This is just for me, but do you know when—?
RP: I'm on leave next year. I hope that before the year is over, I'll have the book.
DB: How has teaching influenced the way you write? Has it done much? Or has it sort of been the way that you support the time that you get to do the writing?
RP: It's not an easy question to answer. I'm proud—it's an honorable profession, and I think I've probably helped more people than I've hurt people. And my students seem to be getting something out of what I do as a teacher. I guess they help when I ask them to make anthologies. So, I guess among other things, they help me have a sense of what is currently esteemed. Change has a frightening morbidity—every two or three years the canon is very different.
DB: Has that rate increased in more recent years, now that the internet has kind of made things more available?
RP: I'm not sure. It could be, or it could be just that as I get older I'm more disturbed by it, or delighted by it, or something. But it certainly does suggest that the wheel of fashion spins along pretty well.
DB: I guess there are other questions about your correspondence, and I know you talked about the anxiety of saving emails and stuff like that. But before, were you a big physical letter writer?
RP: I used to write a lot of letters. They used to be a way I would warm up. But I remember when I was working on The Situation of Poetry, I would warm up with a routine where first I'd write a letter or two, maybe three, and that would somehow make me feel I was working. Then, to glide into working on a poem or in that prose project—it was somehow made easier. And, I used to get a lot of letters, and I used to send a lot of letters. I still do once in awhile, but electronic has taken over.
DB: Can you point to a time when that sort of wave overtook?
RP: I think in the late '80s or early '90s. People you think would never adapt to email adapted to email. It became more and more of a lingua franca. And it became the agora, it became where people met. And the generation that only did paper correspondence got old and died, to be blunt about it.
DB: Do you find that it is a different genre?
RP: Different conventions.
DB: Yeah.
RP: I must say that when I see letters I wrote long ago, I wince. I don't like it.
DB: Why not?
RP: It's either naiveté, or there is falseness, or there is clumsiness. To write a good letter, in a way, you have to not think about how you are sounding or looking. It should be ephemeral, it should be at the moment. But then to have it preserved for 20 years? It's a little disturbing.
DB: Do you think that there is more of an awareness of that with email?
RP: I think email is probably more unconscious. I was joking with you about my friend who says scandalous things in emails, and I repeatedly tell him, "Look out!" Things you read in the newspaper where in some business setting or political setting, people get nailed. The email trail. It may be generationally something is changing. I think people say things in email they wouldn't say "in writing" because they don't think of it as having as much permanence, and sometimes it surprises them.
DB: Yeah. My first job out of college as a paralegal, I just looked through email after email for "Hot Docs," as they were called.
RP: And hitting "delete"—
DB: It doesn't do it.
RP: No it doesn't. It doesn't shred it.
DB: So, kind of more overall, do you think the advent of the computer and the rise of the computer in your practice has changed things fundamentally? What if you were still working with your IBM Selectric?
RP: Publication is different. We've been talking about production, and production has changed somewhat for me. Probably not as much as many people. Probably because I've been doing it so long with a computer and because poetry for me is vocal. Publication is in a midst of some kind of tremendous transition. I don't think anybody knows where it's going, exactly. I recently spent a few days in New York. It's pleasing to see the people with a book in the subway, a magazine or a newspaper, but most people who are looking at something are looking at the screen. I'm surprised how many are looking at tablets. Lots are looking at phones—a certain number are playing games, a certain number are checking their email, a certain number are listening to music and looking at something that goes with the music. How many are reading? I don't know. But at the moment, if a magazine tells you they want to put something in their web page rather than print and you feel it as their second level of affection for this—that maybe shifting.
DB: Yeah. I wonder about that too. I feel like it's right on that cusp.
RP: I think it's all very fluent, and we don't know—and I don't think anybody really is quite sure—what's going to happen next. I guess one has to not think about it too much.
DB: Yeah. Unless you have to make those decisions, sure. Your point about the formatting and about them not figuring that out yet—
RP: That's going to happen soon.
DB: But I mean, even in HTML, even if you see your poems get put up there, there are so many easy problems that people just don't know how to fix, because there are so many different levels of expertise.
RP: It used to drive me crazy on Slate when an ad would disrupt a poem.
DB: Yeah. Like break the line in a weird way or something like that? Maybe a famous poem?
RP: Are we almost done?
DB: Yes.
RP: I'm getting a little worn out.
DB: I think we're done.
RP: Good.
DB: Okay. Thank you very much, Robert.
RP: It's great and it was fun. A smart thing to be going into.
DB: We'll see.
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