American Poets take Paris

by HRM on July 11, 2012

Reading at Shakespeare & Company


The following is a transcription from the Q-and-A session from the “Acclaimed American Poets” event, this past Monday at Shakespeare and Company. Catherine Barnett, Matthew Rohrer, and Deborah Landau read from their new or recent collections, respectively The Game of Boxes, Destroyer and Preserver, and The Last Usable Hour.

Discussed: Scientifically perfect titles; writing in collaboration; the children of poets; the cemeteries of Queens; the impersonality of the “I”

Q: Are there considerations you take when translating your poems from the written to the spoken form [this event, for instance]?

Matthew Rohrer: At the last minute I took several out because I thought they wouldn’t go over. Or they do things that are fun to look at, but maybe don’t sound so good. There’s no getting around the fact that there’s a difference between some poems that work on the page and just don’t work out loud. It’s best if they sound good to hear and do something interesting on the page, but I guess that doesn’t always happen.

Deborah Landau: I think the poem needs to work on the page.

Catherine Barnett: It’s very helpful for me to think about reading to an Other. I’m interested in the I-Thou anyhow, in speaking to an Other, so it’s useful for me to imagine. Otherwise it seems to be just a private meditation. That doesn’t mean it reaches you.

Having heard poets read, it really helps me read their work on my own.

Shakespeare and Company

Q: For all three poets who have children, how do you think that having children has affected your work?

DL: Actually Matt has been a model for me. He told me that when he was taking care of his daughter, he wasn’t writing at all because it was so overwhelming. And then he told himself if you can just write three lines a day, and then of course he wrote much more. So I think of him now when I’m barely surviving. My daughter’s over there, so I shouldn’t say anything mean.

But I don’t know—the place I write is not the place I live, actually.

CB: I try to pretend when I’m writing that no one will ever read anything. Even when I’m putting the book together, though that might sound the opposite of what I just said, about speaking to you. But I’m interested in speaking very intimately, and I try to get rid of the idea that people might think that the poem is me. I want to write as deeply as possible of the human condition, but I also want to escape the personal “I.” I can see how a child might get that confused, and that would be an interesting conversation.

Shakespeare and Company

Q: You have very recent collections, or forthcoming. I’m wondering about your titles—how did they come to you?

CB: The Game of Boxes is a poem from the book. It’s that game that you play when you’re really, really bored, and you’re trying to find something to do. And you have these dots, and you’re trying to close up the boxes. I came up with a lot of other titles, and the press kept saying “no.” I’m happy with “The Game of Boxes.” It’s very abstract, it seems like it leaves a lot of room. But I actually find titles impossible. I leave a lot of poems untitled until very late, and I don’t pay attention to other people’s titles. When I teach, I often just jump right down.

On the other hand, it’s extremely important, the title…so I should pay more attention.

DL: “The last usable hour” is a line from…it evokes the end-of-the-world, nightmarish feeling I get in the middle of the night. I was thinking a lot about how the luxury of being in the middle…we have all of this time right now, and eventually we’ll get the last hour that we have. That haunted me, “the last usable hour.”

MR: Can I ask you a question about that, actually? Where do you think you’ll get buried, because, when the hearse driver takes you across the bridge [in one of your poems], were you going to Queens or something?

That has haunted me…I’ve always thought that you don’t want to be buried in that direction.

My book, Destroyer and Preserver, was going to be called Army of Giants, which is, I think, a scientifically great title…there’s just no getting around how great that title is, Army of Giants. But it just stopped being perfect for the book, after a while, as I was putting it together. I mean, Mad King Ludwig had an army of giants, it’s an army of midgets, in his retinue, because you never know what you’re going to come up against. And that’s a line in one of the poems. But then…it just stopped seeming appropriate for the book. So as much as I loved The Army of Giants, I had to let it go.

Shakespeare and Company

Q: I know that Deborah and Katherine show each other work. Can you talk about the value of sharing your work with other writers?

DL: I really need readers. In fact I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal last spring about collaboration and the way in which I work with writers, and even in that piece I needed writer friends to read it. So for me it’s a very important part of my process.

MR: I think you need like-minded people. It doesn’t have to be a lot of them, but it does need to be some of them. And I think those are the people that make you better. You want to write for them, you want to impress them or do something that they haven’t seen you do before. Otherwise, it’s hard to know exactly who you’re talking to, it’s easy to get in a rut. But I think if you have people who you really admire, maybe if you even feel a little inferior to, then I think that makes you perform better. It makes you take a step up.

CB: I think it helps with the loneliness of writer, and the difficulty of actually shaping something. To make from the raw, the pleasure of just tracking the mind, I think it’s helpful to have a group of people, or a reader to accompany you all the way through.

Shakespeare and Company

Q: How often do you write a poem that you are really proud of?

MR: Not very often.

DL: Ditto.

CB: Definitely not very often. It’s interesting, being here in Paris, looking back at my notes. I try to tell students, and I do this myself, to take one’s poem to different places and see how it looks there.

Everything looks shabby here, in comparison to Paris.

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