In 2010, Ali Liebegott took a road trip by train. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. Along the way, she interviewed poets—Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, CAConrad, and many more. We’ll be reposting the series to celebrate the release of Liebegott’s fourth book, The Summer of Dead Birds.
I first met Joan Larkin in the mid-90s when I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College. While she was never my teacher there we were put into contact and became friends who would walk our dogs together in Prospect Park in the mornings. Her poetry collections include Housework, A Long Sound, Cold River, Sor Juana’s Love Poems/Poemas de Amor (in Spanish and English, translated with Jaime Manrique), My Body: New and Selected Poems, Legs Tipped with Small Claws, and Blue Hanuman. I interviewed Joan Larkin in her Brooklyn apartment in Fall 2010.
I. Keeping Alive
THE BELIEVER: When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
JOAN LARKIN: Oh, from the beginning. I was a poem-writing child. I wrote little novels in my composition book when I was eight, nine years old. My brother, Donald, who’s a science fiction novelist—Donald Moffitt—is eight years older than I am and he was the person who handed me books, art, music, and it was just an assumption—that was what I was going to do.
But when I got to college, Dan Hoffman—who’s still alive and writing in his late eighties [note: poet Daniel Hoffman died on March 30, 2013, a few days short of his 90th birthday]—was a teacher of mine, and he said to me, “Why don’t you concentrate on poetry?” I’d always read fiction and was still thinking I wanted to write novels. It wasn’t to be. I got some insight into why, when I asked Grace Paley during an interview, “Have you ever considered writing a novel?” and she said, “Oh, I’ve started many novels, and they all ended on page seven.” I’m much more capable of cutting back than of expanding. I’ve gotten very surgical about poems.
JL: I love stories, but writing fiction is another craft and I don’t feel as if I have it.
BLVR: Have you published stories?
JL: No. Only poems.
BLVR: And essays, right?
JL: So far, mainly book reviews. I’ve taught in low-residency programs, and almost every semester for more than a decade, I’ve given a talk; I keep telling myself that I should transcribe them. Last January I gave a talk about the tension between needing solitude to write and the importance of having poetic peers and community. And about how, whether the poet is living or dead, they’re part of our imaginative community. I want to write about that, and I want to write about Mae Swenson. She’s underexposed and one of my favorites—a great poet.
BLVR: Have you always made your living as a teacher?
JL: Yes. I started teaching—I didn’t know what I was doing—in grad school in Tucson and I left Tucson in 1964 and came to New York and did the usual things. I was a proofreader in a law firm, briefly. I was a failed waitress.
JL: You know all about that. I worked in an art gallery for a few years, doing administrative assistance stuff, and it exposed me to what the whole world of art dealers and the art market was about. It’s probably changed radically. I worked in a very interesting gallery—the André Emmerich Gallery—that dealt in pre-Columbian art and also the contemporary “colorist” painters that the critic Clement Greenberg was writing about, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, and others. I learned a lot there. Then I sent out fifty or sixty résumés and got an interview at Brooklyn College and started teaching as an adjunct there. I was lucky. I ended up as an instructor in the English Department after some years of teaching four composition classes at a time. That was a little bit like being a waitress.
BLVR: I’ve done composition and I’ve done four at a time. It’s horrible.
JL: It’s horrible. But I did get lucky. After I started publishing poetry I got to teach creative writing. Eventually I was promoted and even got tenure. But then I felt compelled to drop everything and move. But yes, I’ve been teaching for a long time. More than four decades.
JL: Over time I learned something about how to do it. I think.
BLVR: I’m always wondering what is the job that gives the writer the most amount of time to write. I still don’t know what the answer is as someone who has taught and is now working at a grocery store. But many, many of the people I’m visiting on this trip, teach.
JL: We’re fortunate that the mushrooming of MFA programs means there are jobs for poets now. Of course the downside is that there are so many MFA grads competing for a few pieces of pie. But I don’t think it’s just a matter of what gives you the most time; we write poems in the environment of other poems, other poets. Teaching has given me a community that cares about poetry, and I’m grateful for that. It’s popular these days to put down the MFA programs—a famous poet informed me that only failures and has-beens teach in those programs.
BLVR: The argument that it’s just a factory making fake writers?
JL: But what I see in it is, even though many people who come out of those programs with a degree won’t end up teaching, may not even continue writing poetry, some may go on to start a press or a magazine, or start some kind of poetry program where they live. And all these people are reading poems. I think they’re expressing a really deep need, and poetry—not to sound corny—I think it saves people’s souls. It isn’t likely to put bread on your table for the rest of your life—not in the U.S. But people want poetry and need it—we need what’s not honored by the corporate mentality that has taken over. It gives people a language for responding to the violence, the shallowness, the near-nothings, the toys we’re all supposed to want. It’s a way for people to be able to connect with themselves. I sense a very deep need that’s being met. And I love that people want to know about poetry. It’s one of the ways of keeping alive.
II. A Real Boon to the Kitchen
BLVR: Were you in Brooklyn during 9/11?
JL: Oh yes.
BLVR: I had just moved to Providence. I’d just left New York. One of the things that I read was right after 9/11 poetry sales surged in the United States, because of maybe that idea that people went looking for whatever that introspective place is where poetry exists. Isn’t that interesting?
JL: I hadn’t heard that but it makes sense to me. Though there’s a downside. I have friends around the country who’ll send me a poem they’ve found on the Internet and say something like, “You’re a poet, you would love this.” It’s always an awful poem. Like, “I’m on this journey…” And those quotations at the bottoms of emails––even if it’s from what might have been a fresh poem once, now it’s turned into something you’d put on a dishtowel or a tile. Some very lovely people have sent me objects with quotations on them: “Hope is the thing with feathers”—I’m sorry, but that’s not Emily Dickinson’s best line.
JL: But people need what they think of as a poem to be read at their bar mitzvah, their wedding, a funeral, whatever. And people are looking for hope and inspiration. I understand that. And a lot of people who aren’t primarily poets write stuff like that, too. There’s nothing wrong with it. I think it’s wonderful. The question of taste—
BLVR: I want my work on a dishtowel.
JL: Well that would be a real boon to the kitchen.
BLVR: I’m too verbose to make it on a towel probably. Let’s talk a tiny bit about translation because I love Rilke so much but I don’t think I got Rilke till much later. Kind of like Emily Dickinson. But I always wanted to know what the poem was in the original. I know you worked with a translator on the Sor Juana book. I’m interested in thoughts you might have on getting to the essence of the original and then bringing it through to, let’s call it, the other side.
JL: I feel a bit fraudulent calling myself a translator. To get the language accurate and also the music, that’s the difficult split.
I don’t know a lot of Spanish; when I worked with Jaime Manrique on the Sor Juana translations I was almost totally reliant on him for conveying to me the literal sense of the language. And with Sor Juana, it’s not just knowing Spanish—some of her Spanish words are antique. We had to look in 17th-century dictionaries. I think with some of her language we sacrificed the melodic element. Spanish and English have such different music, and in my own poetry I feel much less drawn to fluid sounds than I do toward the hard sounds and rhythms that come out of the Anglo-Saxon roots of English. So that was a conflict.
I think music, if we can call it music—we’re not musicians, but rhythms and sounds are often the first thing I hear and want in a poem, so I can’t imagine trying to translate something without at least being able to hear what it sounds like. I think translation is an impossible job, and I admire the people who do it in a way that brings poetry to us that we wouldn’t have access to.
BLVR: Call it xenophobia or whatever, but sometimes I forget when I read a book that it didn’t exist in English first. I never thought about it until I read a couple different versions of some of the Inferno Cantos and just seeing how different my response to the lines could be, which were the translations. It’s just really interesting to look at different things and I haven’t read enough Sappho to be able to be able to look at Anne Carson’s and know.
JL: Do you know Greek at all?
BLVR: No. I know very little. Switching gears, what was, to date, a very, very proud moment you’ve had with your writing in some way?
JL: I recently had a poem on Poem-A-Day called “The Combo.” Poem-A-Day goes to 55,000 subscribers, and a high school teacher in North Carolina wrote and asked me some questions, then wrote back and told me what her class had said about my poem. I’m always saying Bah Humbug about the Internet and wouldn’t know a tweet if I saw one, but that just tickled me—the power of the Internet to connect people with poetry.
BLVR: Do you have any books that you feel really came together in a way more like special children than the others to you or does time just change that?
JL: I think we’re always most interested in the things we’re doing right now. I love this little chapbook I’ve just put together.
But I would say of all my children Cold River is probably the book, even though I’ve gone beyond many of those poems, and written poems that I think are stronger.
Cold River is so closely associated for me with the people to whom the poems are dedicated. The cover of the book came from work by a painter friend who died of AIDS, Denis O’Sullivan. One of many dear friends who died of AIDS, but Denis was the closest of those people, and there are several poems for him in that book. That book is sort of a—you know the Victorians would keep a piece of, the hair of a loved one in a locket—I think it’s my little braid from the 80’s and 90’s.
BLVR: I can see the spine of that book right now. That’s when I first got to know you when that book came out.
JL: It was as late as that?
BLVR: That was when I met you.
JL: Oh, yes—’96 was when I was walking Olive in Prospect Park and you were walking Rorschach, and our dogs had sleepovers.
BLVR: I still have a picture of Olive and Rorschach sleeping in your co-op on 8th Avenue and Olive has that little barrel stomach. A little barrel with legs.
JL: She had some of the pit bull attributes, but she was a smaller pit. Somehow all things go back to the dogs.
BLVR: I know. Because they’re the most important.
III. Keep a Low Overhead
BLVR: The chapbook that you’re working on now will be part of your next book, I imagine.
JL: Definitely. It’s a big chunk. Twenty poems is a lot for me. I have many others, but I just wanted to make a small thing for the time being.
BLVR: How do you know when the manuscript is done?
JL: You know what I love about that question? It doesn’t presume that the motive for finishing the book is the pressure of having to have a book every two years. My decision to put a chapbook together is partly based on the fact that, even though I have almost enough poems on my computer for an entire book, some of them are weaker, and I don’t see a clear through-line yet.
It’s intuitive. You’re looking for a book of a certain length and you know when you’re ready to put a period on it. I don’t know how I know, but I know. And once it seems to have the right shape and sequence and you’re sufficiently satisfied with the quality of the poems, the book is done. My books have come many years apart and each one seems to reflect a period of experience. Ending the book is like putting a period on a certain movement. Interior and external—both.
BLVR: That makes a lot of sense.
JL: It may be different for poets who are more prolific. I don’t know. But there are some books in which every poem is a facet of the same thing. So the book is like a piece of music. And there are books of poems that I love so much that I carry them around with me—I don’t mean my own books—and I don’t mean collected poems. It’s the slim volumes that are a moment in time. When Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck came out in the mid 70s I read the whole book almost in a sitting, and I’ve gone back to it over and over again. It was the moment of that book—brilliant. And I also felt that way about a later book of hers, The Dream of a Common Language. Jerry Stern’s American Sonnets, Jean Valentine’s Little Boat. I feel that way about Michael Klein’s new book, called then, we were still living. I felt that way about his first book, too—it’s called 1990. Mae Swenson: New and Selected Poems Taking Place—it has so many poems in it that I keep going back and back to. That book’s been out of print for years. They keep doing these anthologies: Nature poems of Mae Swenson. Love Poems of Mae Swenson. [Note: Library of America published Mae Swenson: Collected Poems in 2013.]
BLVR: I’m not going to ask you about the dismal world of publishing. As I sit before you, both of my books out of print and my future publisher now out of business. So we won’t even go there.
JL: There are lots of small presses, but I think we can go back to self-publishing if we have to. Virginia Woolf did it. I asked Judy Grahn back in the 70s about all of this because she was part of the Women’s Press Collective, which published really stunning books. Someone asked her if she was afraid they’d be called a vanity press and she said, “Hell—that’s not vanity; that’s aggression!”
We can say woeful things about the state of publishing but there is a very lively world of independent presses and small presses that are keeping literature alive—and sometimes something gets published by the mainstream. I have a feeling we’re in growing pains stages right now, but I’m trying to stay open to the idea that the Internet is not the evil foe of publishing but the handmaiden that will turn out to be a blessing for poets and writers.
BLVR: I don’t blame the Internet for anything as far as publishing. I just think it makes me very sad with queer publishing especially that there’s virtually nothing left and that’s what left is just doing sad little gay beach books. I feel very discouraged with the state of gay and lesbian publishing because I don’t feel like we’re really welcome in the mainstream and then you get ghettoized and put on some lesbian book club reading list where you don’t want to be either. As a poet and writer in general I feel very grateful that I can just make a chapbook and that we don’t have the expenses of filmmakers. You know what I mean?
JL: If we had to raise money?
BLVR: Can you imagine?
BLVR: Can you talk about from impetus to completion—what does your writing look like today?
JL: It’s almost easier to talk about the mechanical stuff because the impetus is elusive. I know that when the bird flies in the window I’d better get my notebook out. I don’t let those moments pass the way I might once have. Say there’s a piece in the Times about an eighteen-year-old woman being stoned to death in Afghanistan, or I go to a jazz club and hear incredible music. Whatever it is. Or I see a huge female spider on the ladder leading into the lake in the Adirondacks. Suddenly there’s an image that won’t let go of me, and so I start the poem. I have to be willing to write a lot of messy bad stuff. I like to write with one of those black pens with a rolling ball.
BLVR: [Laughs.] When you talk about the bird coming in the window—for me writing is so perplexing, because if we were playing ping pong and we weren’t writing—twenty years later you’d be just so much better at ping pong and this confidence with ping pong. I’m always struck with writing—I constantly feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m starting over. Obviously, I’ve learned some things and internalized them and that’s part of the process now. I’m so struck by always returning to that same feeling of how do you do this. I just don’t know if that’s true for you.
JL: [Laughs.] Yes. Absolutely. I’ve had some relief from that feeling in recent years but it’s always there. The other work that we have to do can be consuming. For me, there are often long stretches between poems. I typically have a chunk of time—a teacher’s time off. I have the summer, the long weekend, the days when I’m not teaching. There’s always some reason not to be writing and I regret the times I give in to that, because then writing feels strange—I feel like I have to reinvent the wheel. There are poets who don’t have to do that.
BLVR: The last question is a little corny. But if you had to give some advice to writers out there today—what do you tell these beleaguered people for which there are no cash and prizes?
JL: Grace Paley always told young writers, “Keep a low overhead.” That’s great advice. I’d add, pay attention to what you care most deeply about and don’t be distracted by trends. Poetry is a tree with very deep roots and while there may be excitement about this or that new little branch, you’re not going to make anything original by just doing whatever’s being rewarded at the moment. It takes courage to get clear about what your vision of the work is and to be persistent about it and pursue it, whatever you’re saying. I’m still in a long learning process.
Keep growing. Stay awake. Beware of gurus. Keep a low overhead. That’s the main one.