Monday, July 27, 2009

Poetry Club: An Interview With Katha Pollitt

You probably know Katha Pollitt best for her often-humorous but always-wonderful political columns in the Nation magazine or the collections of those columns. But she is also a poet, and has recently published a new book of poetry: The Mind-Body Problem (Random House 2009). She has kindly agreed to talk about her book here. She will even answer further questions which you can put into the comments!

Here are Katha's answers (marked by KP) to my six questions about her latest book and her poems in general:

1. Which poets have most influenced you as a poet? Which new poets do you find most interesting and why?

KP: My favorite living poet has to be Wyslawa Symborska, the Polish Nobel Prize-winner. I love her irony, her wit, the way she brings the grand sweep of history down to the smallest moment. I long to be influenced by her! I should be so lucky.

Other living poets I admire --Sharon Olds, Charlie Simic, Robert Pinsky, Marilyn Hacker, who has done so much to revitalize formal poetry and give it some zing. Right now I'm reading Brenda Shaughnessy's Human Dark with Sugar, which is wild and funny and extravagant and sexy.

Do you write poetry 'from a different place' inside you than prose?

KP: As I was writing the poems, I didn't see them as all that political. I kept that voice for my columns. But of course there are plenty of poems in the book that are political in a broad sense, and there's even a topical one: 'Trying to Write a Poem against the War,' which I wrote for the Poets Against the War anthology edited by Sam Hamill. 'Rapture' is another -- it's about the Christian fundamentalists who believe their going to be taken up bodily into heaven any day now, while the rest of us suffer all kinds of awful things here below. In my poem, their heaven is a kind of old-fashioned sea side resort, rather boring. All the action is down on earth.

2. Kay Ryan says about the book: "It's awfully good to have such a great-hearted poet as Katha Pollitt take on mortality's darkest themes. Again and again she finds a human-sized crack of light and squeezes us through with her." Do you agree with this assessment of the darkest themes? I'm asking because I found the book ultimately an optimistic one, ending with 'Lunaria,' in which you write of your desire to be "A paper lantern/lit within/and shining in/the fallen leaves."

KP: I try to give both light and dark, the bittersweet. I love to make a kind of shimmering between major and minor keys, sorrow and joy, loss and acceptance. Humor can do that -- if you say a sad thing in a funny or ironic way, you're complicating it, changing the frame. So in 'Collectibles' I write about the illusion of childhood happiness, which is very sad, but I do it through a description of finding in a flea market kitschy, funny items that used to be in my parents' kitchen: I give the memory and destroy the memory at the same time. ' Lunaria' is about the three phases of the plant of that name, also called Honesty or Money Plant, which has purple flowers in spring, green discs in summer, and, in autumn, silvery seedpods, which are very beautiful and translucent. It's my Three Ages of Woman poem. Not that I have reached the silvery seedpod stage quite yet!

3. Would you call yourself an urban poet? A Brooklyn poet (as one reviewer states)?

KP: I would be honored to be thought of as a Brooklyn poet. I grew up in Brooklyn and, in fact, my mother was born there, which makes me a Brooklynite of considerable ancestry. I've lived in New York City for most of my life. My landscape and people-scape is definitely urban. I'm not that interested in "nature poetry" or nature writing. I mean I'm all for nature! I just don't want to read about it much. When I write about the natural world, I'm really using nature as a metaphor, as in 'Lilacs in September': the hurricane-struck lilac producing out of season flowers is a kind of challenge to the reader (and the writer): 'what will unleash/itself in you/when your storm comes?'

4. Section II of the book is called After the Bible, with poems drawn from both Old and New Testaments: Adam and Eve, Lot's wife, Martha and Mary ("Well did he think the food would cook itself?/Naturally he preferred the sexy one,/the one who leaned forward with velvet eyes and asked/ clever questions that showed she'd done the reading"). How do these themes fit into your view of the world? Who are you speaking to in these poems?

KP: I'm not a believer -- far from it. The Bible is interesting to me because the stories are so strange and ambiguous and have so many odd gaps and because they deal with deep questions . I try to retell the stories with a twist of my own. In 'the Expulsion,' everyone, even God, is glad that Adam and Eve are leaving Eden-- in other words, beginning their real human lives of struggle, and choice, and conflict and creation. In 'Cities of the Plain,' God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah but then he misses them, because what's a moralist without a sinner? In 'Martha,' the speaker (the patron saint of housewives, by the way) is angry and depressed and resentful: she does the cooking and cleaning, and somebody has to do that, but Jesus tells her she should by like her sister and just listen to his words of wisdom. Not helpful!

5. The Poet As A Feminist. Your ideas about how feminism affects your poetry or not? "As girls they were awkward and peculiar,/wept in church or refused to go at all." How does this link to the Biblical theme?

KP: There are a number of poems in the book about the unfreedom of women. The poem you quote, "Lives of the 19th Century Poetesses," uses that horrible word "poetess" to emphasize the restrictions under which women, including gifted women writers, have labored-- the entrapment within the family, the confined life leading to eccentricity and even madness, or what is seen by others as madness, the marginalization and fundamental lack of respect. Lot's wife is a version of this woman -- she's "trudging behind the broad backside of God," away from Sodom with her awful husband, feverishly remembering an intense affair that ended badly. There is no place for her in the new life God is arranging for her supposedly oh-so-virtuous family, so she has to turn into a pillar of salt.

Any woman writer has some kind of relation to feminism, even if it's conflicted, because feminism is what lets them write at all, and to be published and taken seriously as artists. Without some kind of feminist consciousness-- or maybe I should say feminist unconsciousness --it would not be possible for a woman to write her own truth. Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Muriel Rukeyser and a host of other women poets of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, changed the whole landscape of poetry for women. Suddenly, things that could not be said were speakable.

6. 'The Heron in the Marsh' is my favorite in the book, both because of its formal beauty and because it seems to condense that looking at the dark themes of life and yet coming to a resolution which is positive. Would you say that this poem is a microcosm of the message of the book? (The poem is reproduced here with Ms. Pollitt's permission.)

The Heron in the Marsh

At the end of summer
stands white and alone
a question mark

among the green reeds
that glow even as they fail.
Wanderer, lordless

with only yourself for armor,
tell me, why is loss real
even when love was not?
The tide seeps in,

the dark sand shines.
You lift your strong wings
and skim away
over the gray

and glittering
open water.

KP: It's interesting that you see the end of poem as hopeful. I see it as ambiguous: the poet asks "why is loss real/ even when love was not?" and instead of responding, the heron takes flight and skims away over " the gray/ and glittering/ open water." No answer there!

In a way, that poem does encapsulate the theme of the book, if it has a theme, which is the conflict or gap or lack of connection between our ideas, hopes, fears, and emotions about the world and, well, the world. That's what the mind-body problem is: the search for that connection. Religion is one way of trying to bridge that gap, trying to make coherent meaning out of what's within us and what's out there. Love is another, especially unrequited love. The attempt to make meaning out of essentially meaningless experience is what being human is all about.