Interview with Ted Kooser

By Jared Smith, translated by William Marr
作者: 杰雷-史密斯     译者: 非马

NYQ: You discuss many stylistic schools of poetry in The Poetry Home Repair Manual. If you were to describe what it is that defines poetry as such, no matter what its form, how would you do so?

TK: A poem is the record of a discovery, either the discovery or something in the world or within one’s self, or perhaps the discovery of something through the justaposition of sounds and sense within the language. I’ve had that sentence written on a slip of paper and taped above my desk for several years, and I think I wrote it myself, but perhaps I found it somewhere.

NYQ: Is that definition in evidence as much as you would like in today’s poetry journals?

TK: Yes, I think that nearly all of the poems we might consider could be fit into it.

NYQ: Your own poetry frequently moves from the smallest details out into a bigger and more generalized feeling about things. How do you select the details you’re going to keep in a poem?
你自己的诗常从最微小的细节移入一个对事物有较大及较广泛的意义。你如何 选择你要保存在一首诗中的细节?

TK: All of the details should in some way contribute to the overall effect of the poem. I don’t like to keep any details that aren’t essential parts of the poem’s clockworks. Part of my process of revision is to eliminate the extra parts.

NYQ: How do you know when you’ve finished revising a poem?

TK: I think it was Auden who said we never finish a poem, we just abandon it, and that’s a wise observation. I usually work on a poem until I can’t see anything else to do that might improve it. Then I let it sit for as long as I can stand to and look at it again.

NYQ: Do you have poems that get lost during the revision process?

TK: I’ve revised a lot of poems into a comatose state. Some of them I can revive by going back to early drafts and starting from there. Some die on the table. The danger of too much revision is that the resulting work can be perfectly written but altogether bloodless.

NYQ: Often your poems move across time, carrying the reader with them so that the detailed object of one time or space reverberates in another time with tangible consequences. For example, in your poem “The Ice Cave,” a chip of ice that was meant to be used for keeping food fresh becomes a cool evening wind which blows shadows from the past through a family going about its daily rituals. Or in “Pearl,” where the drawn blinds within a house allow just enough light and shadow to create ghosts that count the tea cups and the silverware. We’ve all had that sort of feeling or awareness. We’ve all felt detailed objects from one time reverberate into another, but it takes a very accomplished poet to remind us of its legitimacy. How do you transport an image from one time or place into another?

TK: You know, I really don’t know how all that happens. Once I’m writing, those associations and effects just come to me. I’d guess this is the result of having had 45 years of experience making decisions about poems and, now, all those decisions are a part of my experience that is brought into play.

NYQ: Why are these objects so important to us?

TK: Lots of more articulate poets than I have talked about the inherent qualities of things, Neruda, for example. I can’t just now put my hands on any of those quotes. But don’t we all attach feelings to inanimate objects? All across the arid Great Plains there are farmhouses in which there are sea shells sitting on end tables or in china cabinets. Each of those has, or had, a significant meaning to the person who brought it all the way home from a seaside vacation. They are imbued with life because of the associations.

NYQ: What marks a poet as a “beginning poet” rather than an accomplished one? Is it a sense of balance as well as word choice?

TK: Of course, we poets are never done with our learning. I don’t know Stanley Kunitz but I’d guess even at his grand old age he is still making important discoveries while writing. Beginning and accomplished are generalizations. Perhaps the beginning poets are the ones making the most discoveries, are having the biggest number of revelations coming at them as they read and write, and the accomplished poets are making fewer discoveries, having so many discoveries already behind them.
当然咯,我们诗人永远学不完。我不知道斯丹利?康尼兹 Stanley Kunitz 但我猜想即使在他那样的大年纪他依然在写作时会有重要的发现。起步及熟练是概括的词语。也许那些刚起步的诗人在他们写与读时有最多最大的发现,而那些熟练的诗人在他们已经有许多发现之后,则越来越少有新的发现。

NYQ: Your poems are frequently conversational in tone as if you were talking with someone who is close to you, and yet there is a sense of your being isolated. Is it important to your creative process to spend time outside, walking the fields by yourself?

TK: I have always enjoyed being alone, amusing myself, completely in control of my time. My poems are not spoken to a reader walking beside me, but one at some distance, as if he or she were being approached by a letter I’d written.

NYQ: Do you carry a pen and notebook with you to jot down stray thoughts and observations, or do you work from what you bring back in your memory at the end of the day?

TK: I always have a scrap of paper in a pocket, and from time to time write down a reminder, but I can usually remember my observations long enough to put them to use.

NYQ: You were successful in business for many years even while you wrote. One might think that the kind of keen observation a poet needs to write as you do would be valuable to business, yet I don’t know of many businesses that place much value in poets in general. Why do you think that is?

TK: Companies hire people who can help them succeed, and most companies wouldn’t see how poets could do that. Industry looks for personnel trained to advance industry, and poets aren’t trained for that. It was in many ways a fluke that I was ever hired into business. I’d never had a business course or been interested in business. I just needed an income so I could write poems before and after work. The man who first hired me took a big risk. I succeeded, though, because I was good at writing, could write articulate memoranda, letters, manuals, ad copy, and so on. Business schools are good at teaching management techniques, but they aren’t very good at preparing potential employees to be skilled communicators.

NYQ: What about the creative process itself? Some years back, Arthur Koestler suggested in The Act of Creation that acts of artistic creation come from the same kind of thought processes that scientists use in theoretical work. Do you find yourself using the same kinds of thought process in creating a poem as you used in approaching a business opportunity?
关于创造性过程本身呢?几年前,阿舍?寇斯特乐 Arthur Koestler在他的《创 造的行为》里提议说艺术的创作同科学家在理论工作上所使用的是同样的思考过程。你是否发现你在创作一首诗时同你在处理一个商业机会时使用相同的思考过程?

TK: I don’t really understand the scientific mind, but I have a new friend who is a noted scientist and I hope to learn some things about how they think. Somehow, though, it seems that creative people in all fields have earned the license to be dreamers. Einstein is a good example of somebody who was often lost in dreams, as I recall. When I worked in business, I came up with some pretty creative ideas, or so they seemed to me, and they arose out of the same dreaminess that I indulge in as a poet.

NYQ: You quote William Butler Yeats as saying “The aim of the poet and the poetry is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole.” “That’s good enough to cut out and pin up over your typewriter,” you say. I heartily agree. Why do poets have so much trouble doing that in today’s society?

TK: A number of our poets aren’t interested in giving something to “the community as a whole.” They are mainly interested in creating works for their own smaller communities, audiences of sophisticated literary readers. That’s their choice.

NYQ: What about the gathering of material for poetry? That goes on best outside the classroom, doesn’t it, without any preconception of where you will find it?

TK: Paying attention to what’s under your nose is essential, isn’t it? Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. I spoke a minute ago about creative people being dreamers, but between sessions of dream they need to pay attention to what’s under their noses. We spend too much of our time preoccupied with what has happened, or what might happen next.

NYQ: One of my favorite poems of yours finds very telling material in the office place. It’s a poem about secretaries singing to each other all day through the use of the office equipment as well as through their calls to each other on behalf of the business at hand…but also in support of each other whenever one is hurt or in pain. It is poetry from a day-to-day world of hard-fought survival that a majority of Americans face but that hasn’t been addressed to a great extent in past poetry. It seems to address a haunting balance of sacrifice and support that permeates relationships where people give of themselves for a corporation. Can you comment on that?

TK: Most people are trying to do as best they can, to do the right thing, sometimes against great odds, including their own limitations. That goes for workers at all levels in businesses, for faculty and staff of universities, for government workers, for military people. There are few of us who are truly evil, who mean to do harm. I once asked a jailer who worked at the county facility that processes killers for death row at Huntsville, Texas, how many of the murderers he’d met—and he’d met hundreds— were genuinely evil and he said, maybe five percent. The rest, he said, had just made stupid choices.

NYQ: I suppose the same kind of question should be asked about other ways of earning a living, whether farming or washing windows or being a housewife. The editor of Vagabond magazine, a good literary mag. from some years back, earns his living as a window washer on the west coast. These voices are important to the American voice, aren’t they?

TK: An articulate voice from any quarter should be welcomed.

NYQ: This expanded inclusiveness seems to be something you are quite committed to building during your tenure as Poet Laureate, and it is a very worthy one. Do you have other key objectives as well that you hope the position can help you achieve?

TK: I’d like to show people that they needn’t be afraid that when they enjoy reading a poem some teacher is going to pop up and ask them why they enjoy it, and give them a bad grade because they can’t quite say. If we taught poems as experience, rather than as puzzles that must be solved by one right answer, I think a lot more people would be reading poetry.

NYQ: Do you feel under any increased pressure to guide your work even more closely now that you have been designated Poet Laureate? Are there hidden responsibilities most poets might not be aware of?

TK: I’m not going to submit any poems to magazines for a good long while because right now it’s likely that somebody is going to publish them just because I’m Poet Laureate and not because they’re good poems. I suppose I’ll be facing this the rest of my life, and I’ve played with the idea of taking on a pseudonym. In a few years, maybe I can cautiously submit some things again, with my name on them. I also have sworn off writing blurbs and letters of recommendation and so on because I don’t want to be throwing the title around.

NYQ: There are some positive things our government has done to encourage poetic development in recent years. Yet many have said that government support is inimical to artistic development. What do you think of government support for the arts generally?

TK: I believe in government support for the arts, and hope it will continue. I think it may be more helpful in the long run to have support for programs than grants to individual writers, but I could be wrong about that. It takes but a tiny part of tax revenue to do a lot of good for the arts. But private support is also very important. The Poet Laureateship and the Poetry and Literature Program at the Library of Congress, for example, are funded wholly by private endowments, and to support its other programs the Library works hard to secure private support.

NYQ: You say in The Poetry Home Repair Manual that poetry is always about communication, and that it is important to keep in mind a particular person or audience you are speaking to while writing. Do you think that the audience most of us write to today is a smaller and more elite group than it might be?

TK: Most of the poems we see in the noted quarterlies is directed to a sophisticated literary audience, and most of those journals have small circulations, 500-1000 subscribers, perhaps. A miniscule proportion of the population knows about the existence of literary magazines, but those magazines and those writers are a vital part of our social order. That small literary community, of course, is just one of the several communities of poetry. The others are cowboy poetry, slam poetry, rap poetry, and so on. Rap poetry may have the biggest community because we all hear it being played on car radios everywhere we go. None of these communities has much interest in or tolerance for the others, but writers make choices as to which community they want to write for, and their choices should be respected.

NYQ: When you talk about craft in writing, and when you talk about home repair of poetry, you seem to be stressing much more than poetic forms—such as pantoums or sestinas. At one point you call such forms merely exercises, and at another you stress that a poem that is forced into a set form may easily end up looking like chunks of ham thrown into a Styrofoam container. Yet you also stress the importance of forms and prosody in polishing and revising poetry. Would you comment on that?

TK: Somewhere in that book, perhaps in the section to which you’re referring, I quote John Berger as saying that form ought to be inevitable. I might go on to say that form should be so deeply integrated into writing that it can’t be separated from it. Yet lots of less successful formal poems are of two parts, the poetry and the form, clearly evident. One or the other part usually has the upper hand. Form in the most moving poems is neatly integrated, but is there. It’s not the first thing we notice. Frost’s Stopping by Woods… is a good example of a poem written in form that seems perfectly integrated with the poetry. Richard Wilbur is our living model for that kind of a poem. Most readers would not notice the form at all, I suspect. They’re absorbed by the whole experience, by the poetry.
也许就在你提到的那个章节里,我引用了约翰?博格 John Berger 的话,说形 式应该是不可避免的。我可以接着说形式该被深深地融入作品里去而无法分割。但许多不太成功的格律诗都有两部分,诗与形式,泾渭分明。两者之间总有一个占上风。形式在最动人的诗里被很巧妙地融为一体,但它的确在那里。它不是我们一眼便看到的东西。佛洛斯特的<在林边停驻>是个好例子,一首用格律的形式写出,却完美地与诗相结合的作品。理查?威尔伯 Richard Wilbur 是那类诗的活样板。大多数的读者根本不会觉察到形式,我猜。他们全神贯注于整个经验,于诗。

NYQ: In your Poetry Home Repair Manual, you say “We teach ourselves to write the kinds of poems we like to read.” What do we learn from poetry classes?

TK: Good teachers can direct us toward works that we might not otherwise encounter. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to read.

NYQ: You also say “We serve each poem we write. We make ourselves subservient to our poetry. Any well-made poem is worth a whole lot more to the world than the person who wrote it.” This might suggest that you don’t think much of the current idea that seems popular in media that poetry is “just entertainment?”

TK: I meant to say that we put too much emphasis on celebrity. Some of the poems we see today, by living American poets, will disappear when the poet dies because the poems are so attached to the poet’s public persona. Some of this is due to the popularity of poetry readings, at which the poets are what is on display, rather than their poems. Readings are useful, of course, in showing an audience how the poet thinks his or her poem should be read.

NYQ: And yet, as you point out, poetry does have to be entertaining, or at least polite enough to be invited into peoples’ living rooms?

TK: If a poem doesn’t engage a reader’s interest, it’s going nowhere.

NYQ: What sort of different creative dynamics have you observed between longtime poets who have worked largely outside of academic circles such as yourself, and those who have served mainly as academics?

TK: I wish I were better equipped to answer that. There are very few living poets, that is, poets who are publishing quality work, who have worked outside universities, and I know of only a handful. I’ve never had any sustained, substantive correspondence with another businessman poet, for example. One of my best friends, Jim Harrison, has lived and written outside the universities and has been very successful, but he hasn’t made enough money as a poet to be comfortable. His income has come from his novels, novellas, and Hollywood work.
我希望我能有更多的资格来回答这问题。很少现存的诗人,我是说,出版过高品质作品的诗人,在大学之外工作,我只认识有数的几位。例如,我从未同另一位经商的诗人有过长期的、实质的交往。我最好的朋友之一,吉姆?哈里森 Jim Harrison,在大学外面生活并写作,而且很成功,但他并没以诗人的身份 赚够过舒适生活的钱。他的收入来自他的长篇小说,中短篇小说,以及好莱坞的工作。

NYQ: What role does the study of poetry and literature from past times or other cultures play in writing poetry today?

TK: I say in my book that poets ought to be reading all kinds of poems, old and new, and that we learn from everything we read. There is value to a creative writer in reading anything and everything.

NYQ: A lot of poetry being written today seems to deal more with the poet writing it than with what is outside of the poet that might seem likely to have relevance to readers who don’t know the poet. Is that a passing phase we are going through?

TK: It does seem that a great deal of our poetry is self-referential, and the rule of fashion is that once a few influential people turn in one direction more are likely to follow. But I wouldn’t say that these poems aren’t relevant to their audience, which may be self-referential, too. Time will sort all this out. As to whether the poems you’re asking about will endure, they well may, as mirrors of our self-referential times.

NYQ: All poets project a degree of presence in their poetry. As a poet matures, you have suggested, that presence will usually reflect less of the poet and more of the background of his or her material. You compare this changing effect to looking through a window and perceiving different amounts of reflection on the glass depending on the degree of backlighting. Are there any steps you took as a young poet to encourage this ability to decrease your presence in looking out at what was important to you?

TK: If I suggested that the maturation of all poets follows the track you’ve described in your second sentence, I didn’t do a very good job of writing, because each of us grows differently. There are, of course, examples of poets whose work, as they matured, showed more and more of their presence. But others have gone in the other direction. In that section of the book I was trying to develop a metaphor that could describe the degree to which the poet’s presence is evident in single poems.

NYQ: It can be hard for younger poets to find markets for their work simply because there aren’t many markets available to them at their local bookstores. While Len Fulton’s Directory of Small Presses covers a huge number of potential markets, it’s hard to know from the listings what the poems in a particular journal are like. In the 50s and 60s, we used to be able to walk into independent bookstores and browse through poetry mags. until we found ones we were comfortable with. What can a young poet do today to help himself or herself along in that regard?

TK: We ought to be supporting our literary magazines, and one way to do it is to purchase copies. Before a poet submits to a journal he or she is unfamiliar with, I suggest writing to the journal and purchasing a copy.

NYQ: Do computers and the Internet aid in communication, or do they hurt it?

TK: Most of my writer friends are now using computers for our manuscripts, and e-mail for some of their correspondence. Some of my best friends, like Jim Harrison and Danny Marion and Leonard Nathan still write handwritten letters and it’s an honor to receive them. My iMac has certainly helped me write prose. I might never have finished my book, Local Wonders; Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, if I’d had to do it on a typewriter. I was always so devoted to having perfect manuscripts that when I made an error halfway down a page I’d rip the sheet out of the carriage and start all over. I’d still be doing that if I hadn’t had the computer to make corrections easier.
我大部分的作家朋友现在都用电脑写作,用电邮传递他们的一些信件。我一些最好的朋友,如 Jim Harrison , Danny Marion 以及 Leonard Nathan 还用手写信,收到这些信是一种荣幸。我的 iMac 确实在我写散文时帮了 我不少忙。如果要我用打字机,我也许永远不会完成我的《当地奇观》及《波西米亚阿尔卑斯山的季节》这两本书。我通常对稿件很挑剔,当我在半途中间出了错,我会把整页从打字机托架上扯下,重新来过。要是没有电脑让改错变得那么容易,我大概现在还在写它们。

NYQ: Thank you, Ted. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

TK: I hope that nowhere in this interview have I made it sound as if my way of looking at writing is the one right way. Each writer is different, and each beginning writer, one hopes, will in time find his or her own way.
Thank you very much for your close attention to what I’ve said in my published writing and for letting me expand upon that here.

Note: Ted Kooser is the 13th Poet Laureate of the United States. English version of this interview was first published in The New York Quarterly, Issue No. 62, Spring, 2006. Reproduced by permission of The New York Quarterly. The Chinese version of this interview is translated by William Marr.
译者注:这篇访问录译自芝加哥诗人杰雷-史密斯(JARED SMITH)于2005年1月28日对美国国会图书馆桂冠诗人泰德-库舍(TED KOOSER)的访问。原文发表于《纽约季刊》第62期,2006年春季。经《纽约季刊》允许转载。

Photo by Glenna Holloway, March 2006.
From left to right: William Marr, Ted Kooser, Jared Smith.

Posted June 22, 2006

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