Meet The Poet

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…our appreciation for such a stirring reading, and for taking time from his busy schedule to meet with our creative writing students today. We have a few minutes left — does anyone have a question for our illustrious guest? Yes, there in the front row…

I wonder if you could tell us about the genesis of one of your earliest successes, “Woodchuck”?

Certainly — I had been reading Kerelman’s “Mammals of North America” and trying my hand at copying some of the engravings in watercolor, and there was this one plate that caught my eye of a woodchuck perched on a fallen log. There was something about the pose, the colors, the almost…world-weary look in the gentle creature’s eye. Then the ideas started coming…The “wood”-“would” ambiguity, the nouns turning into verbs and back again…And the paradox of this tiny mammal that spends its entire life surrounded by the very substance for which it is called but that cannot ever fulfill the promise of its own name. The woodchuck’s hypothetical exertions symbolize the inescapable, unrelenting labors of mankind — just how far can they go? I don’t think any other poet has ever addressed that theme head on.

Does anyone have another question about “Woodchuck”? In the back there, on the right…

So…How much?! (laughter)

Ha-ha! I get asked that all the time! Of course, there is a specific answer, but I prefer to leave it up to my readers to discover for themselves.

Next question…

I wonder if you could explain the humanist symbolism of “Ice Cream”?

That one was written during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. I was aghast at the desperate situation in the world and I started thinking: there’s so much distrust and misunderstanding among peoples, but what is it that unites us? What one thing does everyone want? You, me, everyone all around the world…What do we want so badly that we would abandon all decorum in a bid to get it? I wanted an image that would appeal to all ages and all cultures. From there, of course, a lot of research had to be done. I hesitated to use a milk derivative because most Asian cultures didn’t have them at the time, but I decided to take a chance and indeed since then yogurts and frozen dairy desserts have even been introduced in Myanmar, so it turns out my esthetic instincts were right.

Could you give us a demonstration?

Oh, all right…(murmurs of anticipation)

(Ahem!) AAAARRRRRRGGGGGGHHHH!!!!!! (thunderous applause)

Thank you! (applause) Thank you!! Another question?

You mention the research you do for your poems — for “Rejection” did you research the flavors of the different kinds of worms? (sporadic laughter, groans)

In that case I didn’t have to. I knew how the worms taste. You know how the worms taste. Everyone does — I was just trying to reveal a universal constant about the human condition. Let me explain it this way: the evocation of the inedible being consumed takes the poem farther away from reality in order to get closer to the truth — like the “blue violets” from my Surrealist period. (Scattered applause.) Thank you. Yes, you over there…

Why did you fracture the rhyme scheme in “Thunderstorm”?

Good question. The answer is really quite simple: I just thought that after “pouring” and “snoring” it would be too…”boring” (laughter) to stick strictly to the predicated rhyme scheme. In fact, the last line in my first draft was “And he woke up lying flat on the flooring.” You see? It loses something that way. I’ll tell you another story about that poem: The “old man” was modeled on Carl Sandburg, one of my biggest early influences. I had the pleasure of meeting him at Yaddo in 1963. He had just flown in from Chicago and was assigned the cabin next to mine. I showed him a few of my poems, including “Woodchuck”. He got really excited about it and read it over and over. He thought I should change the title and make it a groundhog, or maybe a guinea pig, and then he got the idea that the animal should be “slaughtered”, possibly by a hunter or trapper. He also suggested that I tone down the imagery in “Thunderstorm” and make the weather just sort of misty or hazy. I was about to explain that I had already explored that nuance of the theme in “Rain, Rain”, but just then the cook’s pet kitten came sauntering through the open door of my cabin. As soon as Sandburg saw it he got this thoughtful, distracted look on his face, jumped up and ran out yelling, “On second thought, forget everything I just told you!” So I guess you could say the influence was “somewhat mutual”…(laughter, applause) There’s time for just one more question. Yes, you in the pink sweater…

What can you tell us about your lawsuit against the Sandburg estate over “Star Light”?

Oh gosh, my lawyer told me not to talk about that too much. Also, my doctor told me not to even think about it because it makes my blood pressure rise. (laughter) Let me just say that I showed Carl Sandburg my early sketches of “Star Light” at Yaddo in ’63 and he liked the poem so much he made his own copy of the working draft. Then when he died in 1967, one of his nephews happened to find it among his papers. Of course he recognized it right away, and figured he could palm it off as an undiscovered Sandburg by accusing me of copying it from him. But Carl’s copy was incomplete and the nephew made the mistake of tacking on that ridiculous “satellite” ending, which anyone would recognize as bogus. But he wouldn’t back down, so I had to file suit. It goes to court next month. Wish me luck! (scattered applause)

I’m sorry, but it’s time to go. It’s been a pleasure to be here today! (applause) It’s always nice to see young people who are interested in…poetry, of all things! (applause, cheering) My new “slim volume” will be available in November — I’ll send a free copy to anyone who can “spell that without any V’s!” (uproarious laughter, whistling, stomping, rhythmic applause)

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