Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet, Distinguished UCSD Professor
Not everyone reads poetry. In fact, perhaps most people do not read poetry. Why do you read poetry? Why would anyone read poetry?
Poetry can be annoying, especially when it tells you what you already know in a solemn, pompous tone. There are poems like that, but there are other sorts as well. I look to poems for new observations, fresh perspectives, and unusual combinations of words, images, ideas. A good poem reshuffles things and shakes them up. It sticks in your mind and leaves you thinking. A poem can also put you in touch with the sensuous, playful aspects of language. I recommend poetry for all those reasons.
Congratulations on your new book, Itself, published within the Wesleyan Poetry Series! This is your 12th collection. How did you know when it was done?
For me a book records a certain period. It will probably have an overarching mood and some recurring concerns. The nature of the self (any self) is an ongoing concern in the new book. The mood or tone is kind of edgy, jumpy. The simplest way to decide when a book project is over is to observe when your mood and/or interests change – and they will.
You sometimes write about California. In what ways is California different from other places, do you think? In what ways is it the same as everywhere else?
Every region has a different feel to it. Let’s just hope globalization doesn’t manage to change that. There are so many different terrains and cultures in California. I grew up in San Diego, in the semi-arid coastal strip, near forested mountains and a desert, sandwiched between Mexico to the south and Camp Pendleton to the north. If this area were a wine, it would take a long list of seemingly unrelated adjectives to attempt to describe it. A lot of my poems begin with observation of what’s around me so, naturally, the local plants and freeways and signage (etc.) all enter in.
Your poems sometimes engage in scientific, mathematical, or technological concepts and language. Would you say that your poems involve a research process?
I’ve been interested in some scientific subjects for most of my life. I read popular books on physics, neurology, and biology. Some of the phrases and concepts in those books seep into my work. I’ve even made friends with a couple of physicists, particularly Brian Keating (of UCSD). He and I taught a class together and had some stimulating conversations. I guess you could call that research. I’m just following where my interests lead.
You’ve taught at UCSD for some time, and are retiring this year. No doubt you’ve worked with countless young writers. What questions do new poets ask about poems?
I wish they asked more questions! I guess because I meet them in an academic situation I mostly hear questions like “How long does this need to be?” or “What should I write about?” I wish they would ask me what they should read.
When was the last time someone read a poem to you?
When I was a child and my mother read to me. I hear a lot of poems at poetry readings, but that’s not the same as having someone read to you.