April 16, 2010 | Comments Off
It was the honor of a lifetime to have a long chat with Billy Collins about a year ago. We talked about many things, including the Praying Hands in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Billy Collins read a few poems from his latest book Ballistics. Check it out.
October 6, 2009 | Comments Off
Dr. Kent: Welcome back to Sound Authors. Today is a great day on this show. My next guest is a wonderful poet, one of the best in history, in my opinion. His newest book is called Ballistics, it came out on Random House. Wonderful book, and features one of the best poems in my little collection that I keep at my home, which shows a picture of a bullet going through a book, which I love. Welcome to the show, Billy Collins.
Billy Collins: Thank you for having me on.
Dr. Kent: And tell me a little about this collection Ballistics.
Billy Collins: Well, it just came out last year, so it’s in terms of poetry production it’s still very new. You don’t have to get out an article every day like sports writers do. I don’t know, it’s as you said, it doesn’t really have, well it has the two usual themes. The themes of all my poetry are me and death. Those are basically the two threads that run through it. I don’t really have a vision of a book and then write thematic books, except for those two rather important themes. So I just write one poem at a time, basically, and when it comes time to, when I think I have enough poems that may constitute a book, I start putting them together in a pile and seeing what it looks like. And then there’s some organization work. But I sort of figure that because I’m writing each poem there’ll be some kind of thematic connection between it all.
Dr. Kent: Well I’d love to start out by, one of the things I’ve wanted to ask you is, you were the poet laureate under one of the least loved Presidents. What, do you have anything to do with the administration when you are poet laureate? What does that role entail? Was it surprising to you?
Billy Collins: Well I want to first of all take issue with the preposition “under.” A poet laureate does not serve under the White House. The poet laureate, in fact, has an office on top of the Library of Congress. So there’s no connection between the office of the poet laureate and the current, or any administration.
Dr. Kent: Thank goodness.
Billy Collins: Yeah, the poet laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, that’s James Billington, and you’re basically an employee of the Library of Congress, and that’s where your office is, and that’s where you work out of. It’s as separate as the Bureau of Engraving, probably, from the White House. And did it come as a surprise? Yes it did. It was a complete and total wrecking ball from outer space because it’s one of those things I never even actually dreamed of. I never even fantasized about it. It seemed completely kind of much too dignified for the likes of me. And when I finally got to my office in Washington, which is gorgeous, it has a balcony and a view of the Capitol, and it’s quite, very well appointed, hanging on the walls are photographs of previous poets laureate. And when I sat down at my desk they all seemed to be looking down and saying, “What are you doing here? There must be some mistake. Please get security.” So I felt pretty undeserving of the role. At least in the beginning. I kind of grew into it.
Dr. Kent: And it was a difficult time to come into that role, of course, in 2001, where the country wasn’t really keen on comedy or arts, like poetry. What did it feel like in that role in 2001?
Billy Collins: Well I felt like I didn’t want to be in that role. One of the things that happened, I was appointed in June or July of that year, and so 911 happened a few months later. And at that point, for quite a while I was, I thought I was going to be interviewed to death. Because everyone wanted, for some reason, wanted the poet laureate to not just comment, but sort of provide some kind of consolation, or point people toward some poems that would be appropriate to read at this time, due to the fact that no other art form, I don’t think, was looked to for that kind of remedying, or that kind of solace. You know, ballet starts got called up and said what should we do about 911, or movie directors even. So it was interesting that poetry is something that people do indeed turn to in times of crisis, like that’s why they read them at wedding receptions.
Dr. Kent: Right, exactly. (laughter)
Billy Collins: Or funerals, I meant to say.
Dr. Kent: And funerals, yeah. The two most horrible times in a person’s life, right?
Billy Collins: Well, it’s an instability. No one’s ready to get married, and no one’s ready to die, usually. In periods of great dis-equilibrium, poetry particularly with its steady cadence and its use of rhyme has a way of stabilizing things. And because it can be recited over and over again it has a way of ritualizing and calming things down, I think, even regardless of its content.
Dr. Kent: And of all of the poet laureates staring down at you, I mean, the list is incredible, from William Stafford to Stanley Kunitz. What did you, did you go back and page through some of their poetry from their years in the service of the country?
Billy Collins: Well I’d already read their works, I didn’t really consciously go back and see what they produced as laureates. In fact, I had the feeling that if they, if the laureateship affected their production or output as it affected mine, there’d actually be very little to read because one is so distracted by publications and interviews and doing things for the media that one hardly has time to write. In fact I began to suspect that it was some kind of government plot that the government really would single out a poet who seemed to be doing very well and living a happy and productive artistic life, and then make that person poet laureate and thereby bring an end to their writing. So I thought it was probably a way of, it’s a very subtle form of censorship.
Dr. Kent: That’s really funny. And that kind of brings up another thing that comes to my mind, you know, people talk about you as one of the successful poets, which is sort of a contradiction in terms for most poets. What’s it like to be, I guess, leading a world of underappreciated artists?
Billy Collins: Well, I guess when I think about it, it makes me uncomfortable. I just try not to think about it very much. I don’t know, I mean, I think something did happen to my writing. I did, there’s no denying that I’ve acquired a kind of unusually broad readership, and I’m always grateful for that. How it happened, I’m not really sure. I think the poems are okay, but you have to have something else beside that, and I think National Public Radio was an enormous boost for me because if your poem is on National Public Radio, you’re reading to an audience of two to four million people, which is a lot of church basement readings thrown together.
Dr. Kent: Absolutely. Well, you’re also a big favorite of Garrison Keillor’s, and what, last year or the year before, I think it was the year before, we saw you at Town Hall reading some poetry.
Billy Collins: Well he’s been very good to me and very good for poetry itself, I think. His taste does not always overlap mine, but no one’s does. But the Writer’s Almanac presents a poem a day, and he has had poets on his Program Companion, and he’s an anthologizer of two volumes of poetry at least, collections, and he’s just put out a book of his own sonnets. So he is a self-described English major for life, and he’s been, of all those kind of wasteful hours that you can hear on the radio, just people playing records and talking right wing politics, Garrison Keillor uses radio at its highest level. You know, lives, entertainment, and particularly with his interesting poetry. I think he does a great service for the art.
Dr. Kent: Well I’d love to have you read a poem, if you’re willing. Do you have any form the newest collection Ballistics that you might want to read to us?
Billy Collins: Sure, I’d be happy to. Let me read a poem called Adage, which is a poem that plays around with sayings and axioms and that kind of thing, proverbs.
When it’s late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter
of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself into the fire of someone else, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
It’s more like trading the two birds who might be hiding in that bush for the one you are not holding in your hand.
A wise man once said that love was like forcing a horse to drink but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.
Let us be clear about something. Love is not as simple as getting up on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor’s clothes.
No, it’s more like the way the pen feels after it has defeated the sword. It’s a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped stitches.
You look at me through the halo of the last candle and tell me that love is an ill wind that has no turning, a road that blows no good,
but I am here to remind you, as our shadows tremble on the walls, that love is the early bird who is better late than never.
Dr. Kent: A beautiful poem from Ballistics, which came out on Random House. Of course, we’re talking to Billy Collins. What a great poem. Your poetry has such a, I don’t want to say it’s developed a new school in poets, but it kind of is a real inspiration for young poets because you use an element of comedy that is in my opinion really masterful. How do you blend, maybe you don’t do it consciously, but how does comedy find a place into your poetry?
Billy Collins: Well, if you go back to the perspective of 911, you would think when people were saying we live in these very uncertain times that it really would require humor, you know as a way of again, kind of stabilizing things, or relieving anxiety. I think of humor as a sort of device in poetry, as a way of engaging a reader and weaving a reader into something. Also I think if you provoke a laugh or a humorous reaction, you become somewhat more reliable than another speaker in a poem. At least you can be, at least you and the readers share that common ground for a line or two. And I think of humor sort of as a portal into the serious. It’s a way to access more serious business. I certainly don’t think of humor as being kind of the be all and end all of a poem. I think it’s, I like poems that start funny and then become serious, or they start serious and they crack themselves up at the end. I like something that turns either away or towards humor, so the poem is always looking for a new bearing.
Dr. Kent: When do you feel like you started to really develop your own voice as a poet? Has there been a point where all of a sudden you started to feel comfortable in your own skin with your poetry on the published page or in readings or just in general?
Billy Collins: It’s said that everyone is born with about 300 bad poems in them. And I think I had maybe 5 or 600 bad poems that I had to write, you know, and certainly in high school and graduate college, and graduate school and beyond, until I kind of got them out of my system. I think I wasn’t really in, it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I got a sense that I was writing in a voice that I could call my own. And I think the way I got there was a matter of choosing a different set of influences and then combining them in, I don’t think my voice is original, I think maybe if there’s anything original, it’s in the way that I’ve combined influences. You know, like taking humor from someone and taking darkness from another person, learning how to do the dash from Emily Dickinson, learning intimacy from Walt Whitman. I mean, you take so many little pieces from different poets and then if you can find a way to kind of put them into a new configuration, that’s about the most originality you can expect to achieve.
Dr. Kent: Well and there’s, some of the work that I love the best I don’t know how much you were involved in it, the animated poems that are online are just spectacular. To see, to listen to the word, to see visuals, what’s it been like to sort of be brought into, I guess Web 2.0 world?
Billy Collins: Well, I was completely complicitent in all that. That was really started at the request of the Sundance Channel, the television channel, and they wanted to, someone came up with the idea of animating some poems. And then they hired Jay Walter Thompson, the ad agency to approach me, and then they brought me into the studio and I recorded the poems, and then I was able to kind of approve of the animations. And I think all but one were completely acceptable, and they got a very hip group of animators. You know, this was not Hanna Barbera stuff, (inaudible) and it’s Eastern European influenced animators. So I’m very happy with them. I’m a great believer in poetry in surprising places. When I was poet laureate I established a poetry channel on Delta Airlines, which lasted for a year or so. So in flying around you could put on your headset and listen to the poems. But I’m all for poems on billboards or subways, poems that hop up on the radio, and poems that you see on You Tube. I think it’s, poetry needs to jump out of the book. I mean, I still write for the page, but I think it’s good that poetry is kind of getting out of the leather bound book in the study and getting into more of the mainstream of contemporary life. And you know, poetry on ipods is something that is kind of growing, a growing business.
Dr. Kent: And there was, in the poem you read there’s a line that I connected to. And the fun thing about poetry is everyone hears it or reads it in a different way. And you talked about the pen that feels, how the pen feels after it defeated the sword. There’s just a little bit of politics in that. How do you sneak in sort of your feelings about current political happenings and things like that into your poetry?
Billy Collins: Well I try not to, really. I don’t want to write poems that try to keep up with the headlines, you know, as (inaudible) called poetry, the “news that saved new.” And you can talk about yesterday, but who wants to read yesterday’s newspaper, but most of the poems I’m reading were written yesterday or 500 years ago, and the good ones still hold up. It’s a delicate balance I guess, I suppose some images that would suggest a look toward the political world find their way into the poems, but basically politics is about history, or politics is part of history. And poetry is not really about history. Poetry is about time and mortality and someone, I forget whom, defined history as “the violent misuse of time.” And I think that’s where I sort of have my sense of it, is that poetry subject is time and the passing of time, and finally human mortality.
Dr. Kent: And again, back to what you said, all of your poetry is about yourself and about death.
Billy Collins: Well, isn’t that true. It’s a little unavoidable. Well that’s a great subject that lyric poetry is mortality. You know, that’s the shadow of mortality, it falls across most pages, and the oldest theme in poetry is probably carpe diem, and that just means that you have to carpe your diems because you don’t have an infinite number of them. And that urgency that you find in lyric poetry comes out of the sense of not using your time particularly wisely, but being aware of, even if you’re squandering it, knowing that you’re doing it.
Dr. Kent: Well, I would love to hear another poem from you. Do you have another one laying around that you could read for us?
Billy Collins: Well, that’s pretty much what they do, here’s a poem, well this is a sonnet, and it’s kind of a reaction against something, which is the development of, condo developments, some gated communities, and it’s about the way they’re named. It’s a poem that’s called Golden Years.
All I do these drawn-out days is sit in my kitchen at Ridge where there are no pheasants to be seen and last time I looked, no ridge.
I could drive over to Falls and spend the day there playing bridge, but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge.
I know a widow at Fox Run and other with a Condo at Smokey Ledge. One of them smokes, and neither can run, so I’ll stick to the pledge I made to Midge.
Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge? I ask in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge.
Dr. Kent: (laughter) That so beautifully expresses the world we live in. How do you write? What’s your process? Do you wake up early in the morning, are you an owl? Do you write here and there on napkins?
Billy Collins: I don’t have any real what you would call work habits. I just write when it comes to me. There’s a lot of waiting around and there’s a certain amount of impatience that comes into play at some point. But yeah, I can write while driving, I can get up in the middle of the night and write. The best time is usually in the morning before I’ve heard a lot of language, before I’ve gotten into a conversation or been influenced by the language of journalism or the language of television or radio. You know, in the morning you’re closer to the dream state, not that I would bore anyone with my literal dreams, but you’re a little more open minded. You haven’t gone and set yourself up against the day in some way. So that’s usually the best time for me, but usually I’m ready to drop anything at any time if something comes along.
Dr. Kent: And you have a very active reading life. You do a lot of public readings. What’s the difference for you between the poetry creating and the poetry reading?
Billy Collins: Well, as I said, I write for the page. I write in a room in silence with a pencil, and in thinking about a reader, not anyone in particular, clearly, but going back over the lines as I write them and asking myself how would an average reader take that in. How would a person who doesn’t really, isn’t privy to my inner thoughts, what would they think about that? So I’m writing to that one person. But reading in front of a group of people is strange at first because it’s very different from the experience of composition. I mean here’s 50, or if you’re lucky hundreds of people listening to you, and that audience of one has strangely multiplied into an auditorium full of people. And I don’t know, there are a couple of, it’s enjoyable to read. You can sense the reaction. I mean, when you’re sitting at your desk, you don’t hear anyone applauding you, you don’t hear laughing. So it’s interesting to take the silent piece of paper, say it in front of a microphone, and then experience all of these noises of people laughing or sighing or clapping or leaving, or whatever they’re up to. But it’s a very different experience, I should say.
Dr. Kent: And in that experience you’ve spoken many places, one of which is Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I know that when my parents have any sort of guests of significance they parade them by the Praying Hands. So you read in very interesting locations, whether there or in the middle of New York City. What’s the difference for you? Do you think, who’s my audience? Who are these people staring up at me?
Billy Collins: I do remember the Praying Hands, I was taken there and took a photograph. I hate to say this, it sounds like such a cliché, but I think audiences are pretty much the same. You know, it’s like people say, people are the same wherever you go. I get the same basic reaction. Maybe it’s because people who would actually come to a poetry reading have a shared predisposition with other poetry loving people, whether it’s in Tulsa or the lower east side of New York. So I don’t find, I find if I go to England or Ireland, it’s very different, because I start realizing that my poetry is very American, there are a lot of references. Like this one poem where I mention a state flower. You know, every flower has a state, and when I read that poem in England I realized that they thought I was saying an estate flower, because they don’t have state flowers. So I didn’t realize how American my poetry was until I read it in England. I think going across the country I find that audiences are, just the fact that they would come out to hear someone read poetry makes them rather unusual people.
Dr. Kent: And what do you think about the way that a publisher or an editor or you yourself have to combine poems into a book. It’s sort of like an album or something, you have to find some sort of common thread between your poetry. How is that process?
Billy Collins: Well I just, to me, as I said, the themes are me and death, so they don’t have to worry about anything other than that. But I basically take all the poems and, if I have 60 or 70 poems that are potentially going to be squeezed into a book, I put them all out on the floor. I lay them all out on the floor in any order, just lay them down there. And then I walk around in my stocking feet and try to look down and try to figure out which ones want to be with the other ones. And that way I start forming little groups, and I don’t do it, the group is not based on a common subject, like every poem of a bird goes here. It’s much more mysterious than that. I’m not sure if I could explain why I think these poems should be with each other. But I do, in some way, and I keep shuffling them around until I get easily four different piles, and they become the sections of the book.
Dr. Kent: Well I would love to –
Billy Collins: The thing is no one, sorry –
Dr. Kent: Go ahead.
Billy Collins: I was going to say that nobody, hardly anybody reads a book of poems from front to back. You know, except maybe a reviewer or an editor. Most people pick up a book of poems and just kind of cruise around in it or, you know, treat it like a slip book almost. So all the effort an author expends in organizing his or her poems into this thematic book is entirely wasted on readers. And it’s a fact of vanity.
Dr. Kent: So I would love to hear one more poem, if you have another one handy. And the book of course is called Ballistics, and it’s available everywhere. It’s a wonderful book by Billy Collins.
Billy Collins: Well let me read a book that is certainly not political, and maybe really is potential nonsense, but I’ll read it for you anyway. It’s called Hippos on Holiday.
Hippos on Holiday
is really not the title of a movie
but if it was I would be sure to see it.
I love their short legs and their big heads,
the whole hippo look.
Hundreds of them would frolic
in the mud of a wide, slow-moving river,
and I would eat my popcorn
in the dark of a neighborhood theater.
When they opened their enormous mouths
lined with big stubby teeth
I would drink my enormous Coke.
I would be both in my seat
and in the water playing with the hippos,
which is the way it is
with a truly great movie.
Only a mean-spirited reviewer
would ask on holiday from what?
Dr. Kent: I love how you turn the tables and always keep us guessing as readers of your poetry. And it’s been such an honor chatting with you. And the book is again called Ballistics by Billy Collins.
Billy Collins: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I’m very happy to have been on your program, and talk to your listeners.
Dr. Kent: And there’s a whole bunch of great stuff that listeners can also find online, including those animated poems. Google that, or go to his Wikipedia page and there’s a whole bunch of audio readings and poems and all sorts of great things. And then support Billy Collins and his publisher by going you and getting a copy of Ballistics. Well thank you so much for being on the show, this has been a real honor, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
Billy Collins: Me too. Thank you very much. Take care.
Dr. Kent: All right, my next guest on the show is a musician. His name is Johnny Helm, and we’re going to listen to a couple songs from him and then talk to him about his latest album. Here’s a song called Shed from Johnny Helm.
January 2, 2009 | Leave a Comment
Dr. Kent: Welcome to Sound Authors! Its thanksgiving weekend and I’ve got three great guests on the show today. The first guest is Nikki Giovanni. She is the author of The Grasshopper Song and Aesop’s Tale Revisited. It’s a gorgeous book and she’s a well acclaimed poet. The other two guests on the show later on in half an hour we’ll be speaking with Nadia Fultz-Webber. She’ll be speaking about a book called 24-Hours of Christian Television. It’s a highly amusing book where she watched 24 straight hours of Christian television and wrote about it. My last guest on the show will be a musician, his name is Dan Goldman and he’s got some intriguing music. So my first guest on the show is Nikki Giovanni. She’s written a book called the Grasshopper Song. It’s just her latest in a long string of books. She’s an award winning poet, has more than a dozen honorary doctorate awards among many other acclaims. Welcome to the show Nikki Giovanni.
Nikki Giovanni: Hello, how are you?
Dr. Kent: I’m great, how are you doing today?
Nikki Giovanni: I’m doing really well. It’s the day after thanksgiving and it’s about thanksgiving and about it all.
Dr. Kent: Did you eat enough yesterday?
Nikki Giovanni: Oh we had a wonderful meal. I had my only other living relative came down so it was good for her to be here with me and we had a good time.
Dr. Kent: Tell me a little bit about your latest book The Grasshopper Song. It’s gorgeous, absolutely stunning visually and the storyline.
Nikki Giovanni: Well thank you. It’s a pleasure to once again be working with ###. We worked together on The Genie and I and I’ve always admired his work and he won honors for The Inside Outside Window, the third year that my book Rosa took the honor, he won the medal. We took honors for the book on Rosa Parks called Rosa, so this is the first time the Cal Decamp honors and medalist have worked together. But I thought it was wonderful because I’m an artist and I remember when my grandfather who loved Aesop’s Fables and he’d always read them to me, I think he would want you to get a different story when he told them but you know the Grasshopper would sleep and the ant would go on and get the rubber and then in the winter the grasshopper didn’t have anything and the ant said you should have worked harder.
It just always seemed so ungrateful for the ants to treat the grasshopper that way and as I got older it became more offensive because people kept dealing with this story as if it made sense and it didn’t. And it made me upset because I felt didn’t grasshopper do anything? And then thinking about the importance of music, what I ended up doing as you know; if you’ve got the book there. The first line of the book is Jimmy the Grasshopper was furious. So what he decided to do was he goes to the ants and they put him out and he decides to do the American thing; he decides to sue. So he goes to the law firm of Robin, Robin, Robin and Wren, which is the best law firm in the meadow and he said I want to sue the grasshopper and they say what for?
And of course I had to give a shout out to Aretha Franklin because I’m a big Aretha Franklin fan so he says R E S P E C T and Harry Robin says I don’t know how you can get your respect but if we take this case we can get you half the harvest. So we’re going to bring in the importance of its going to turn on what is a contract and of course we as Americans tend to think of contracts as things that we sign and that as, for example, The Constitution of the United States is a contract and yet our government is based not on the contract, but on the compact. It’s based on the Mayflower Compact that when the pilgrims came here, before they set foot ashore, they had a meeting to decide who would mutually take care of each other.
They would form a compact making of course Massachusetts, Kentucky and Virginia all the commonwealths and that too is the same thing. If laws for example, when people were upset about what happened with Katrina a couple of years ago, it was not a question of did you have a contract with Allstate or something, its that we have a compact with each other and we help each other. We know that music is soothing and one of the most important things and I laugh because I lived in New York. I’m not living there now but I lived in New York and the office that I went to was on the 102nd floor. And if you’re in a black box based on somebody’s idea of how you move from one state to the other, you can panic and a lot of people do. So what we do in order to solve it, in order to soothe them, in order to make them know that they are safe we play music. That’s why we have so called elevator music.
We don’t need escalator music and we don’t have stair music. We have elevator music because people panic. We know that the ants do not have a voice so the only voice that they’re going to get is going to come from the grasshopper who makes the music that lets them create the cadence that allows them to bring the harvest in. So I had a good time with it. I wanted kids to understand how we solve disputes. I could’ve had the grasshopper of course go out and get an AK-47 or a hand grenade and bomb the ants and he would’ve felt better because they would’ve been dead but nothing would have changed.
And we know that violence is not the answer. We did not have a civil rights situation here in that we’re not going to have the grasshopper was not going to go and picket the ants. What he’s going to do is the American thing, he’s going to sue. And an impartial judge, a jury of the peers of the ants is going to make a judgment and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the testimony; he’s the plaintiff so the kids get to know the plaintiff, the defendant; kids get to understand how we solve these things, how we work these things out. Of course when I read it I take it around to the schools and for the grasshopper they’re like yeah the ants were being mean and they were.
Dr. Kent: Wow. Tell me, how do you go about writing? You’ve written nine children’s books now. Of course you’ve gotten awards for Rosa and you’re an acclaimed poet. You teach, you’ve taught for a very long time at Virginia Tech, you’ve done CDs. What’s the difference for you between all of those things and then writing for children?
Nikki Giovanni: First of all I never thought the children would accept the genre. I think the children are just little people and we teach them and they teach us. So you have to be willing to enter into a world that essentially is a fair world and also kids are great. I believe that but I think that with kids its not inherently are prone to fairness. So all of my books deal with children and we also did Lincoln and Douglass with Brian Collier and I love working with Brian. All of my books try to say what’s going to be fair here?
And how does this work out and of course it’s a children’s book so we always have to have “and they lived happily ever after” and I think that’s good too because if the future isn’t hopeful then what’s the point? so I don’t talk down to anybody, its just not something I’m going to do and I talk to children like I would talk to you or my dog who I am so pleased is being very kind. Sometimes I get on the phone and she just begins to yap because she’s jealous and crazy. But again I’ll say Alice, please be quiet and you say please, please, please and then like Al Capone said, you get more with please and a whack on the behind than you do with please alone. But you try to be polite to everybody, try to treat everybody the same.
Dr. Kent: So let’s talk about politics for a second. I’m very hopeful right now with the transition team and with Barack Obama in power. I was a very big supporter of him; what’s your take on politics right now?
Nikki Giovanni: Well I was thrilled with the election. I live here in Virginia and I was absolutely marvelously thrilled that we in German County, which is where I live, actually did what we were supposed to do. We carried our part of the state. The rest of the southwest of course is pretty much republican; nothing wrong with that and the eastern coast and so Virginia went blue. I’m a Tennessean by birth and I grew up in Ohio so I really felt that everybody sees that we need a change, and president elect Obama is not just an intelligent man because actually most of our presidents; I can think of a couple who are not smart, but George Bush is a smart man. I never did buy into that he was stupid.
He did what he wanted to do, I just disagreed with it. But Barack is not just smart, he’s within himself. So he doesn’t mind surrounding himself with extremely smart people. I don’t think anybody can look at this proposed cabinet as it is enfolding and not recognized we have a very confident man that we are going to have people in there who are not “yes” people. People who will say Mr. President, what do you think about this or what do you think about that? And I think that’s good and his first appointment of course was Emmanuel so you knew and I think everybody respects it and in the Democratic Party certainly respects him. I think that’s good, that he’s going to have strong, smart, forward looking people.
Dr. Kent: I remember four years ago saying about Obama after I heard him in the 2004 speech saying man, wouldn’t it be amazing if that guy were president, but it will never happen.
Nikki Giovanni: Well obviously 51% of the people agreed with you! No, it’s nice to have a president who’s articulate though and I said I never, and I don’t think George Bush is dumb, but he is not an articulate man and it’s so nice to have a president who actually speaks in sentences and who pronounces words as they were intended.
Dr. Kent: Right and there’s a little bit of that factor, even with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, there’s kind of a buddy-buddy thing. You could sit down and have a beer with someone. Joe the Plumber in fact, and I think Obama does appeal to people but he’s in my lifetime the first real articulate president and I’m very excited about it. So what role do you think race played in it? I didn’t vote for him because he was black, I voted for him because he’s Barack Obama, but what role do you think race played?
Nikki Giovanni: I think maybe in the minority in terms of the black American community, he didn’t run a racial campaign. You can’t say it wasn’t a factor because you could look at him and he’s a black man you know but I don’t think that’s what happened here. Barack Obama ran a campaign on competency, on hope, on intelligence and I don’t know him of course, but I also don’t think that anybody thinks oh lets go have a beer, lets kick back with Barack; I don’t think that’s going to happen. But I don’t want a president that I would kick back with and I’m pretty smart and forward looking.
There’s something wrong but I don’t need a leader that’s my friend. I need a leader that can go and give a vision and protect not just me because anybody can protect me, I’m easy to protect. Put a fence up and put a couple of pit bulls out there to protect this earth and I think that’s so important, that we need somebody with a vision, not of America at this point but of the planet. And I think that’s what people voted for. When we start to talk about clean air, when we start to talk about renewable energy, we’re talking about the life of this planet.
And we need that; its not just will Americans have cheaper cars or better cars or whatever. It’s a question of how do we transport people. How do we utilize this great human energy that we have. How do we help each other? How do we reach out to Africa? How do we reach out to China? And of course the great sadness as we’re all aware that’s happening in Mumbai right now. How do we reach out to those people? Just say, this is the way I want to talk to you, I want to talk to you through an AK-47. That’s not a good conversation and I think that we can do better.
Dr. Kent: At the same time I don’t feel like, I’m not a big beer drinker myself but I don’t feel like I could sit down with Barack Obama and drink a beer but I do feel personally attached to him. I cried during that speech I mean I can’t imagine, I don’t know why I did. You know, he started speaking and I was happy and then all of a sudden I was weeping.
Nikki Giovanni: I got to say this as a black woman; we’ve waited through 43 first ladies and we now have a first lady that has a behind and I’m thinking all the black women on earth are excited!
Dr. Kent: And I’m excited about not only that but man this woman is incredibly intelligent. Barack Obama says she was the one that was supposed to take office, you know?
Nikki Giovanni: I’m not sure that I buy into that.
Dr. Kent: No but I’m excited to have a really intelligent; I mean of course Hillary Clinton is powerful but I mean Michelle Obama is in a different category. She’s a real brilliant person.
Nikki Giovanni: Again, I don’t know the Obama’s and it’s nice to have two little girls who look so cute in the white house. So I think its going to be fun. I think that it’s uplifting; I was watching as were you as they went around the world with this election and you could feel it all over. You could feel that somehow a cloud was lifting.
Dr. Kent: Yep, and it’s a hopeful thing when we see all these things happening in the world. Now let’s talk about for a second; you’ve written more than a dozen poetry books that are called serious poetry books and back in the beginning you talked about black feeling, black talk, black judgment. What is the evolution of your thinking, of your theory all of that, how has that changed over 40 years?
Nikki Giovanni: I think not a lot. The divining rod, if I can use that metaphor has been that I try to be an honest person. That honesty is important to me so as you learn things and as the world turns there’s no way to look at the world and not know that things have changed. So as things change you try to make the adjustment. I have a navigator, they finally gave me one on my phone and when I say I want to go to Third Street, if I make the wrong turn my navigator voice comes on and says adjusting direction. And I love that about that voice because as we are moving through this life you do make turns. Whether right or wrong, that’s not the point, but things happen and as things happen you must make the adjustment. I like to think that I’m intelligent enough to recognize when we must make another step and I can change with it.
Dr. Kent: Talk about your newest poetry. You’ve got a book called Acolytes coming out at some point?
Nikki Giovanni: Oh yeah, Acolytes I wrote which is really a beautiful book. My mother died during 2005 and I literally started that book with my feet propped on my mother’s hospital bed because I was very close to mommy and I was just being incredibly sad. You have to be a little braver than I was right at that point being because I’m crying and every time my mother opened her eyes she’s seeing her baby daughter crying and its like okay, this has to stop. You have to be stronger; you can’t let her feel like you can’t handle this. She was doing the hard work I was just losing her; she was the one that was dying.
So I thought okay I’m a writer so I went home and got my laptop and I came back because I sat with mommy and I came back and I just started writing. So this just kind of flowed and if you’re looking at the book the book is a book to me. It’s a great loss because I lost mommy but my sister died six weeks later, my friend Rosa Parks died, my friend Edna Lewis was 86 and Edna died, Coretta King died, Nina died and so all of a sudden I was losing people that I had known and loved and so I just kind of again in trying to define how do we go forward I literally went from being the baby in the family, which I was, to being an elder. Because all of a sudden we wiped out; my Aunt Ann died and it was just like my goodness this is incredibly sad. But I was saying also to myself which is still true.
In defining myself I never did want to be the leader. I still don’t, I think that’s a bad position. In other words biblically speaking I would never want to be Jesus; I would always prefer to be John the Baptist. I would always want to be the one who says it is coming. Both of them are going to get killed; ones going to lose his head and ones going to be on the cross – everybody’s going to die so its not like you’re escaping anything but its always nice to be the one to say its coming, something is coming. There’s good news on the way and that’s what Acolytes do; they clean up before the priest, they make sure that the people are ready to receive the gifts.
Dr. Kent: And poets really are prophets in a way and here’s another question about that. It seems like such a personal collection dealing with coping with death and loss in the family something that a lot of us deal with as we grow older. How do you balance a book about Rosa Parks, a book of somewhat political poetry, a book of personal feelings? Is it all grouped in the same category in your brain or do you sit down in your office and have different projects in different categories?
Nikki Giovanni: Well I don’t think so but everything isn’t a story and again Acolytes is one of and I was so pleased about that one. The imagery made it such a beautiful book and I love it so much but there were stories in Acolytes. As sad as I was, as sad as I actually remain in many respects, I’m not the only person whose mom has died. So there’s a story there that I can share; I reach maybe somebody who has lot their mother and then we can say oh I understand. Whether we’re friends or not; if I were a social worker I would talk about it to my friends but I’m a writer so I talk about it to people who are kind enough to read me.
That’s what art does. We reach out and so hopefully that’s what a book like that will do because its not psychotherapy. I say that to my students. Its not a question of you have a problem so let’s write about it. It’s a question of how do you share this and who else can enter that story? So these were stories that are universal; I mean it happened to me but I’m not the only person on earth who ever had a mother, a sister and an aunt who died, or a good friend that died. But it does open a door for other people to come in, to enter the story that we can share a feeling. Even without knowing each other.
I don’t know all of my readers of course and people will pick up the book and maybe say well this makes me feel better. We were talking about Barack; one of the things about the president is that when you hear him speak he makes you feel better. And we know that whatever else it is that human beings do, we function on feelings. Feeling is everything.
Dr. Kent: In your career, what has been your proudest achievement?
Nikki Giovanni: Well that’s a hard question; I don’t eulogize myself and I won’t summarize myself. It’s a bad habit so I won’t do it.
Dr. Kent: So let me ask you about my personal curiosity were peaked of course when you started talking about Nina Simone and Rosa Parks and Coretta King. Let’s say you’ve been friends with some important and really influential people. How has that experience been in your life?
Nikki Giovanni: Coretta King was not what you would call a friend. We knew each other of course but Rosa Parks was a friend and I loved her very much and I still do love her. Being a friend with an icon like that is to be quiet, to let them know that whatever they say is not going any place else. Not that there are any secrets; Ms. Parks didn’t have any secrets that I know of but to be a friend; to be there for them. You have to quit thinking of them as icons and Nina of course was my age and so Nina you could hang out with. Not literally because she didn’t drink and I don’t drink but you could have a beer with Nina Simone, but you didn’t have a beer with Mrs. Parks. No, that wasn’t going to happen. Being in her presence was always a privilege. It’s like I met Queen Elizabeth and we’re not friends I just met her but you know being in the presence of Elizabeth is a privilege. No matter how fleeting and how structured and being in the presence of Rosa Parks is the same thing. You have to as Rick James said, recognize the Majesty.
Dr. Kent: So let me ask you a question. You teach at Virginia Tech, right?
Nikki Giovanni: Yes. Go Hokies! We’re playing the biggest game of the year tomorrow!
Dr. Kent: I don’t know much about that but its where the shootings happened, correct?
Nikki Giovanni: Well yeah, we were one of the many campuses that experienced tragedies, yes.
Dr. Kent: And it was a horrible, horrible event where among others an elderly professor was killed who I’m sure you knew. What was the personal impact of you on that tragedy?
Nikki Giovanni: That tragedy impacted actually I was going to say America but not so much, it didn’t impact the world and I think that people like me, I did not realize the enormity of it, but the impact of it I’m sure its like the people over in Mumbai right now. It’s something that you can’t put your head around. So once they started to toll the bell for those who had gone and you realized who the 33 were, it was just incredibly sad and so one of the things that we all did here particularly was we leaned on each other and I think that was good.
Some of the students who were not injured or anything like that but everybody knew at least one person, probably more, but some of the students their parents came to get them because they were concerned and they took them home. The kids realized they couldn’t stay at home because nobody at home knew what they was going through so they ended up coming back. At least when you went into Kroger’s or you went into get your donuts; everybody knew what you were going through. So we were able to support and we continue.
Last year we closed school; we’re not going to close school anymore because events have moved on; our memorial is up in the field and the students can visit that and I was privileged to have been invited to anchor the convocation and I didn’t realize, it just didn’t hit me I suppose that it was an international feed. I’m glad it didn’t because it would’ve made me nervous. I knew that George Bush was there, the president was in and all the congressional, the caucus was in, all the senators, the governor and so you were standing there looking at those people but I was looking at the kids because I know them; I teach them.
Fortunately the words came as they should have, as they did and I was able to offer some comfort. I didn’t realize how big it was until I started getting responses from Korea and China and of course my friends in Australia and in France. So my phone was ringing from friends saying we heard you and it was like oh my gosh, but I was glad I didn’t know that because it probably would’ve made me nervous.
Dr. Kent: I was listening on national public radio that day and there’s such a big impact of poetry on peoples lives and one thing about your career is there is this pain of Virginia Tech but that pain was in the civil rights movement, that pain is in the war on terror or in all of these things. What’s your take on the state of the world right now?
Nikki Giovanni: I think it’s a good time to be alive. I don’t like the term, I’m not correcting your English believe me, but I don’t like the idea of the war on terror because what’s the difference? War is war and we have to find another way to approach life, to approach our possibilities and I think one of them is we have to quit being afraid, which is again why I’m so pleased right now and I think I’ll continue to be with Barack Obama because you know that he’s a Steady Eddie. You know that he’s not going to panic and then make everybody else panic. He’s not going to be mean, none of that bring it on, none of that we’re going to bomb the crap out of them; none of that.
And its time that we stopped thinking in those terms. I’ve had lung cancer 13 years ago so every day that I get is a very precious day to me but people say to me, oh you beat cancer. Well, you don’t beat cancer; you find a way to live with it. you find a way to live with your fears, you find a way to live with disease, you find a way to live with arthritis, you find a way to live with a number of things but you don’t have to live with poverty, you don’t have to live with bad water or bad air, or cows that cant walk to be slaughtered, that somebody’s just killing because they’re trying to make another few bucks off of you; you don’t have to live with unregulated milk, meat or airplanes.
We can do a good job for each other and I think that’s what we have to do. We have to decide that life is not this battle that we’re going to go out and just beat the hell out of everybody but we’re going to find a way to accommodate reasonable demands.
Dr. Kent: Amen!
Nikki Giovanni: That’s what we’re looking for, how do we get out of this pain? But if there were no pain, there would be no joy.
Dr. Kent: It’s been beautiful speaking with you about politics, about tragedy and about your new book. There’s a couple coming out; one is a poetry book called Acolytes and of course that’s very personal poetry; I can’t wait to read that. Then of course the Grasshoppers Song; it is a gorgeous book, man the artwork is so beautiful and the story is so touching and fun. That’s called The Grasshoppers Song; An Aesop’s Tale. It’s been such an honor speaking with Nikki Giovanni. Thank you so much for being here.
Nikki Giovanni: Thank you and happy New Year if I don’t talk to you.
Dr. Kent: Happy new year to you too. My next guest on the show is an author named Nadia Boltz-Webber. She’ll be speaking about a book called 24-hours of Christian Television. This is going to be a kick. I don’t know how she sat through 24 full hours of Christian television. I can take a couple hours of it and I even like some of it but 24 hours? I don’t know. We’ll talk to Nadia Boltz-Webber after this and we’ll have a fun time.
January 1, 2009 | Leave a Comment
Dr. Kent: Welcome back to Sound Authors. Now my next guest on the show is Micah Wolfe and that was one of the songs from his upcoming audio book called Anti-Bushism. He just released his book itself, also called Anti-Bushism. Tell us a little bit about that poem Micah Wolfe, called Capital.
Micah Wolfe: Well that one was a reflection I wrote after I had been in DC and I was actually there in October of 2001 and George Bush had just announced that we would attack Afghanistan so I was just thinking about that and with 9/11 being so fresh on my mind it just kind of spilled out thinking back on that trip to DC and what it all meant being there. just some of the images I saw remember like I said that circle of cops, I just saw like FBI and police, they were just in a circle and I said if walking by I could only imagine what they were thinking and discussing. It was a pretty tense time for the country.
Dr. Kent: So now you are a teacher in Seattle and this book is called Anti-Bushism. How did you get into that? What are you doing now in terms of the election and all of that? What are your thoughts?
Micah Wolfe: Well for me I definitely hope that Barack Obama wins. I think that he’s got a lot better ideas than john McCain and like your previous caller was saying, or your previous interview, it seems like McCain is willing to sling a lot of mud and just say a lot of stuff that’s not true. The most surprising one that I saw was I don’t know if you seen the ad about Barack Obama wanting to have sex education in kindergarten but I think that’s pretty ridiculous.
Dr. Kent: When I look at that ad, what I find disgusting, I always look at the picture they choose and they pick a picture of him looking especially scary to kids. You know?
Micah Wolfe: Yeah.
Dr. Kent: It is such, I like still what Barack came out and said, its silly season. That was one of the most incredible quotes he’s ever said and I really think this is going to be an election that can change everything. so this Anti-Bushism, the book, it’s a bold title and a bold statement, but honestly at this point, there’s not many people, including John McCain that would argue with you, that George Bush was a pretty terrible president. But how terrible was he? Why did you write this book and why is Bush in your title?
Micah Wolfe: Well just a lot of my poems came from things that he said that really upset me and policies that he passed from the patriot Act that really infringed upon our citizen rights to privacy and the first response to Hurricane Katrina and the disaster after that. I just remember watching, he flew over in a helicopter and I just wish that we had a president that would’ve been on the ground in a boat trying to help people get out of there.
Things like that and also just leading us into this war in Iraq, I think everybody remembers him saying there’s weapons of mass destruction and then having to take that back you know. Our soldiers are on the ground already fighting so I think there’s a litany of things that he did that were harmful to our country and our reputation worldwide and also our economy.
Dr. Kent: Now this book itself is a collection of poetry that you’ve written. Its all of it is very passionate. All of it is very political. Now what’s your plan for what’s coming up next?
Micah Wolfe: What’s coming up next? I think I’ve been looking through my poems and I think my next one is going to be about kind of the green movement and trying to get people to take care of the earth a little better and appreciate nature for what it is instead of what we can use it for and just trying to that’s something I’m also passionate about, just trying to create a more sustainable earth so that its around in the future for our children and grandchildren.
Dr. Kent: Now are you hopeful politically? Do you think Barack Obama will win and if he does do you think he really can change things?
Micah Wolfe: I think I am hopeful he will do a lot of good and hopefully more quickly than john McCain would. I feel that Barack Obama is more apt to do that. And I think that Obama, he has my hope with him so I think things will change. How much we have to wait and see.
Dr. Kent: I sure hope so. Well there’s one more poem we’d like to listen to from your upcoming audio book. I’m sure you’re excited, it’s a 40-poem book called Anti-Bushism and that’s going to hit the streets I guess in the next several weeks and it’s an audio book format so hopefully it’ll come out on I-Tunes and places like that. What are your thoughts about reading a poem out loud versus reading a poem on the page? Of course Galway Kinnell just before you, man what a voice when he reads poetry. What’s the difference between reading out loud and looking at the page in front of you?
Micah Wolfe: I think when you hear the author’s voice it just brings out the passion and emotion that the author is trying to convey. You don’t have to guess, you really just feel it so I think that’s the power of going to hear live poetry and listening to audio books of poets. You don’t have to guess.
Dr. Kent: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking with Micah Wolfe. His book is called Anti-Bushism. I’m going to play one more poem from that called Mirror and we can all check out Micah’s website online at micahwolfepoetry.com. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.
Micah Wolfe: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Kent: Of course I wish you all the best with your work and I hope Obama can take the White House, we’ll see.
Micah Wolfe: Me too, thanks.
Dr. Kent: This is a poem out of Micah’s book called Anti-Bushism and here it is. It’s called Mirror.
Micah Wolfe: Mirror. How can you proclaim an acceptable amount of violence and turn around and tell us your not tyrants? You won’t leave without your contract for oil, gallons of blood spilled for exhaust comes out to spoil? So how can you tell me this is fighting terrorism, when you’ve blended our terror with patriotism? And you claim to profense your day of fighting terror, of bad news Mr. Bush, I hate to be the cartoon who sponsors the terrorism of its own people. That what you say and what you do are far from equal. China is a country you could never reprimand. Then you’re in Sudan trading oil for cash in hand, but what flows toward the death of innocence. Be afraid to look in the mirror because it won’t make any sense. I’m tired of death for capital gain. Take up arms Mr. Bush, take up your fight, experience pain for oil will run out. Seek an alternative and so change can end a war, simply let life live.
Dr. Kent: That was the poem Mirror from the Anti-Bushism audio book coming out soon by Micah Wolfe. His book has already been released and that’s a sample of his audio book. Well it’s been a pleasure speaking with all three guests on the show today; my first guest was Tawan Perry, the author of College Sense, what high school and college advisors don’t tell you about college. My second guest was Galway Kinnell, it was an honor speaking with a Pulitzer Prize winner and his latest book is called Strong as your Hold and it has a CD of poems read by the author. Of course we had the honor of hearing a couple poems from him as well. And also new selected poems published by Mariner books. And then my last guest was Micah Wolfe and his book, Anti-Bushism. We’ll see you next week; be safe.
December 31, 2008 | Leave a Comment
Dr. Kent: Welcome back to Sound Authors. It’s my great pleasure to welcome my next guest. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet who won the national book award. His latest books of poetry are called Strong as Your Hold, which has a CD of poems read by the author attached. It’s a New York Times notable book and a new selected poem. I welcome to the show Galway Kinnell, the poet.
Galway Kinnell: Hello?
Dr. Kent: Now you’re calling me from Vermont. How’s the weather up there?
Galway Kinnell: Perfect.
Dr. Kent: Isn’t it always perfect in Vermont?
Galway Kinnell: No.
Dr. Kent: I went to college at Middleburg College and was there for the big ice storm, so I know the bad side of Vermont too, but this time of year it’s so beautiful up there.
Galway Kinnell: Yes, indeed it is.
Dr. Kent: Now I saw you read some poetry at Middleburg College, it must have been in 1998 or so and I was really moved by the experience. I love your poetry and that was a great experience for me. Do you still go to Middleburg College now and again?
Galway Kinnell: Yes in fact I’m going there in about three weeks.
Dr. Kent: Wonderful; and your latest project, Strong as Your Hold, its got a CD of poems read by you. How did you get strong armed into that one? Do you enjoy that experience?
Galway Kinnell: Well, the experience of recording was easy. It’s like giving a reading without an audience and I thought it was a very good idea that my publishers had that many people who go to a poetry reading come away wanting to see the poems and so this book provides an opportunity to see the poems and then hear the reading at the same time.
Dr. Kent: I would love to hear you read a poem if you’re willing. Do you have a book in front of you?
Galway Kinnell: Well, let’s see if I do. I probably do; I have books lying around but I don’t have one in front of me.
Dr. Kent: Are you working on a new book? Is there a new project going on? Are you supporting these? What’s your plan right now?
Galway Kinnell: I don’t really have plans you know, usually. Occasionally I do. For example, when I wrote the book of nightmares, its one long poem and it self forms a book. So from the beginning of that until the end I didn’t write anything else and I considered that I had a plan to finish this poem and publish it but that was uncharacteristic. I just write poems and then publish them in magazines maybe and revise them from time to time and put them in a little pile and if the pile gets a little thick, then I think well, maybe I should put out a book.
Dr. Kent: So you mentioned the book of nightmares. I’m curious about and that was concerned with the Vietnam War. I’m wondering what your take is right now. Are you writing poetry that’s political then; that was back in 1971, are you still in that place?
Galway Kinnell: Well not really but partly. I think in some of these poems I’ve been writing this Iraq War has slid in and I don’t know provides a kind of context for what I’m writing about, whereas in the Vietnam war I wrote a lot of poems specifically about the war. Trying to persuade the young people from supporting it.
Dr. Kent: And now at the same time you also served in the military and from what I gather you were also in Iran?
Galway Kinnell: Yeah I was in the Navy in the Second World War and I spent about maybe ten years later I spent two years in Iran. Not quite two years. Two chunks of two years, maybe it all added up to a year and a half. I lived in Tehran and I went there as a Fulbright Professor, as a teacher at the university of Tehran and I did and made a lot of acquaintances among the students. Then my time came to go but I didn’t want to go, I was so attracted by this country and so I stayed around for quite a while after that and made my living by writing for the English language edition of the Tehran Journal. I translated a newspaper, the first prominent newspaper.
Dr. Kent: So it sounds like a painful experience through the years to see Iran in the news for the last 25 years.
Galway Kinnell: Yes indeed. At the time I was there the money, the oil money had not started to pour in the way it did later and the Shah who was very progressive in many ways in road building and removing any fines for people, women without fedoras and so on. He was very good in that respect but you could tell that he didn’t really connect with the people. He stood apart and he could not have stayed in there very long and then the oil money came in. This was after I left, and then he was able to do whatever he wanted without any fear and his fear, the fear of the Americans who were there and of the Iranian Regime; their fear was of the left. Everyone was caught by surprise when the revolution came from the right.
Dr. Kent: How did all of this turn for you into a career in poetry? Were you a poet even back at the very beginning in the Navy? When did you sort of start to own your poetness?
Galway Kinnell: I never call myself a poet. Robert Frost said that the term poet is a word of praise and therefore one must never apply it to oneself or it sounds like boasting. But in any case, I was serious about writing my poetry even before I went in the navy and when I was in boot camp I was put in charge of 120 men who had also come into boot camp at that time and I was put in charge because I had taken a semester of college. Then I fell into the habit at night when everyone was in bed and it was very quiet of reading one poem before the lights went out. So, I’ve been interested in poetry, in writing poetry basically all my life but I hadn’t published anything then. When I was in Iran my first book was published in this country and mailed to me. That was very satisfying to see that book.
Dr. Kent: I’ll bet and you’ve been in the industry many, many years. How has the industry changed? You know, its fascinating to me how different I guess the industry was 40 years ago.
Galway Kinnell: The publishing industry?
Dr. Kent: The publishing industry, the poetry industry if you would.
Galway Kinnell: No I wouldn’t. I don’t think that it’s an industry though in fact now that you say it; it has sort of become an industry. When I started everybody was on their own, there were little poetries and people kind of wrote the same way and they gave themselves names and so on but we were all friends and we were all poor and we all lived by. Some people had money, some of them had money of course like James Merrill and he used his money to help out other poets but basically we took some job some small job somewhere.
We also gave readings in bars and we also gave readings in colleges around the country. That was the time when this habit of poetry readings in colleges began and it was begun by a woman called Betty Craig who was head of the Academy of American Poets. And she would send out some of us to go on a reading tour of maybe ten readings in a row and we would come back with what we felt were riches and the universities and colleges we went to didn’t have to pay very much because there were so many of them banded together to give a poet a good fee. So the idea spread very fast over the country.
Dr. Kent: Now there’s I have a PhD in music, so I know the academic world a little bit. How is it looking at the field of poetry, is there an academic world? Is there a pop poetry world? What’s your take on it? I know you served as the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. What’s your take on what form poetry takes now?
Galway Kinnell: Well there are divisions in poetry now that are more broad and maybe a little more serious than the divisions before. I’m not sure but there is something you know there is a poetry that could be read and understood by anyone really and there is another kind of poetry, which is much more refined and worked, generally called language poetry in which even some poets get lost trying to make their way.
So I say it’s a serious division but actually there’s a lot of overlapping of it and sometimes I read with a language poet and the language poet tries to modify some of the difficult characteristics of the poem and I try to pick poems with some more of elaborate poems. Some language poets are also just regular poets so maybe their coming together a little bit more now.
Dr. Kent: Speaking of conflict I guess or of coming together, what’s your take on this political situation right now? It’s so vitriolic and all of that, do you see any connections back to your time being an activist in the 60s and 70s?
Galway Kinnell: You mean the election or do you mean the situation in Iraq and so on?
Dr. Kent: Well of the above.
Galway Kinnell: As far as the relationship of the parties and of the two people running for election, I’ve never heard anything like the words that are coming out of John McCain in this situation. It seems that he’s doing anything to get elected and there’s actually nothing holding him back. I think in the past truth was twisted and so on but in general there was a much better spirit between the two parties than there is today. It’s just been a gradual split I guess and so I don’t know what will come of Obama’s apparent hope to be a moderator in some way in the government between the two parties and so we’ll see.
As far as the situation in the Middle East goes, I think it was a mistake to go in and I think it could be Iraq could be held as a kind of friendly ally if we’re willing to keep a large military force there. And then the effect would be just like the British and the French and so on in the 19th century as they took over their colonies. So I think it’s a bad situation to be in and this country is having so much trouble and so much money is being poured into that war that it might undermine this country and we’ll find ourselves a banana republic before long.
Dr. Kent: Now I say amen from the choir. Your poetry is something that is universal and has been around in the public eye for so many years. There’s I guess lets say your most famous poems are ones that resonate with people the most, don’t tend to be I guess political poems but what do you see as poems? Are they a message to someone? Is this something that’s just coming out of you? What is your take on poetry in your own life?
Galway Kinnell: Well I think I’ve written a number of poems for specific purposes that were outside of poetry. For example, the poems I wrote about the Vietnam War, they were messages trying to persuade and I’ve written other poems, even some of the more personal poems. I wrote a poem about a student who wanted to commit suicide and she came in to my office one morning and said her love affair had broken up and she wanted to commit suicide. So I talked to her a little while and then I made her promise to come back and see me in the afternoon and this was long before they had counselors on campuses, at least on the small ones.
So as soon as she left I set about writing a poem for her called Wait. Because I just looking in my own experience and I’ve had some pain so bad that it made me think I didn’t want to live. I waited and then it went away and then I looked back and saw that was what I had done I think it’s the only thing the only absolutely necessary thing that has to be said following the problem after a while becomes possible but not right then. So I wrote this poem Wait and I gave it to her and she didn’t commit suicide and she thanked me later and so when I read at colleges I read this poem in case there’s somebody in the audience for whom it might have a special meaning and comes up and talks to me about it.
So those are examples of poems I wrote for specific persons but actually I rarely write poems for a specific person. I don’t write them to unload my emotions. I write them because they come to me and they seem to embody something that I didn’t quite know before and I try to perfect them and if somebody asks me why are you doing all that work? I say, for beings, and that seems to satisfy most people but I cant and I cant think of anything other to account for that effort put into writing a poem.
Dr. Kent: So I would love to hear you read one of your poems if you have a book handy now.
Galway Kinnell: Well I don’t have a book handy now, but I could get one but your audience might not like that.
Dr. Kent: Oh, it’s okay; I’ll fill a little space.
Galway Kinnell: Okay, fill a little space and I’ll come back.
Dr. Kent: Okay, I’m speaking with Galway Kinnell from Vermont. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning poet; author of the latest book, Strong As Your Hold and it’s a pleasure chatting with him about his life and his poetry. Now he’s running to get a poetry book that he can read us something from. He was born in Rhode Island and drawn to the poets like Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe; he graduated from Princeton and he said in one interview that he felt a certain scorn that there could be course in writing poetry.
And of course as we’ve been talking about, he was an activist in the 60s and he joined CORE, The Congress of Racial Equality, and as a fieldworker and was involved in the civil rights movement as well as of course writing the book that he was speaking about, the Book of Nightmares. A book length poem about the Vietnam War as well as in 1968 he published a book called Body Rags and that was a civil rights book.
Galway Kinnell: I’m here.
Dr. Kent: Well I’ve been bragging about you for the last minute here.
Galway Kinnell: Okay. Now I’ve got a whole stack of my poems. I have a wonderful dog, he’s a mixture between a lab and what are those nice French dogs with white?
Dr. Kent: I’m not sure. He sounds very nice.
Galway Kinnell: Okay so I could read since I mentioned it, I could read the poem Wait.
Dr. Kent: That would be wonderful.
Galway Kinnell: Okay. I’ll find it here.
Dr. Kent: And you wrote this quite a while ago or was it fairly recent.
Galway Kinnell: Yeah, it was quite a while ago.
Dr. Kent: Are there poems that lets say have you had poems fall on their face? Do you have the one stack that are good poems and another stack that are ready to be burned?
Galway Kinnell: Oh you mean in these new ones I’m writing?
Dr. Kent: Any of them yeah.
Galway Kinnell: I mean in the past I couldn’t do anything about the poems they’re published and that’s that but in the case of the ones I’m working on and writing the new ones, I haven’t tried to judge them at all because sometimes the poem that you think is least promising suddenly comes around and its one that seems most interesting. So here’s this poem, Wait.
Wait for now. Distrust everything if you have to but trust the hour. Haven’t they carried you everywhere up to now? Personal events will become interesting again, hair will become interesting, pain will become interesting, buds that open up a season will become interesting. Second hand gloves will become lovely again. Their memories are what gives them the need for other hands. The desolation of lovers is the same. That enormous emptiness carved out of such tiny beings as we are, asks to be filled. The need for the new love is faitful and steady all. Wait. Don’t go too early. You’re tired, but every ones tired, but no one is tired enough. Only wait a little and listen. Music of hair, music of pain, music of loons, weaving our love again. Be there to hear it, it will be the only time. So that’s it.
Dr. Kent: What a beautiful poem and I imagine that did a lot to cheer her up.
Galway Kinnell: Yeah, I hope so.
Dr. Kent: You know your poetry, along with others is something that’s moved me over the years and it must be a good feeling indeed to have so many people that read your poetry and take away that spiritual feeling from it of I didn’t necessarily want to take my own life, but there were times when I was down, when I turned to poetry. So you must take great pride in that.
Galway Kinnell: Well I don’t take great pride but I’m glad of it, yeah.
Dr. Kent: Well it’s been a real honor speaking with you. If you have another short poem, I’d love to hear you read another.
Galway Kinnell: Okay, I can read lets see here’s a section from the book of Nightmares.
Dr. Kent: Is The Book of Nightmares still available?
Galway Kinnell: Yes, it’s always been in print and it’s sold about 120,000 copies.
Dr. Kent: My goodness and its especially timely now so The Book of Nightmares.
Galway Kinnell: Here’s a little passage about the birth of my son. A black bear sits alone in the twilight, nodding from side to side. Turning slowly around and around on his self, scuffing the four footed circle into the earth. He sniffs the sweat in the breeze. He understands a creature, a deaf creature watches from the fringe of the trees. Finally he understands I am no longer here. He himself from the fringe of the trees watches the black bear get up, eat a few flowers, trudge away. All his fur glistening in the rains. And what glistening? Sancho Fergus, my boy child, had such great shoulders when he was born his head came out. The rest of him stuck and he opened his eyes, his head out there all alone in the room. He squinted with pain, barely unglued eyes at the ninths months’ blood splashing beneath him on the floor and almost smiled I thought. Almost forgave it all in advance and when he came fully forth, I took him up in my hands and bent over and smelled the black glistening fur of his head. As empty space must have bent over the new born planet and smelled the grassland and the ferns.
Dr. Kent: Wow. What a beautiful poem
Galway Kinnell: Thank you.
Dr. Kent: The readings are so incredible. The newest book Strong as Your Hold has a CD of poems read by the author also. That’s put out by Mariner Books. Thank you so much for being on the show, it’s been my honor and especially to hear you read and tell about your life. Thank you so much.
Galway Kinnell: It’s been a pleasure for me; thank you.
Dr. Kent: Have a wonderful day.
Galway Kinnell: Thank you very much.
Dr. Kent: Now my next guest on the show is a musician and this latest album of his is a political diatribe. It’s called Anti-Bushism and I will have him on the show right after we listen to one track from his upcoming audio book, or if you’d like to call it, audio CD, called Capital. Listen to this.