The Refining Instrument of Poetry: James Rother Interviews Sherod Santos

Interviewer’s Note: Poet and essayist Sherod Santos is the author of four books of poetry, Accidental Weather (Doubleday, 1982), The Southern Reaches (Wesleyan, 1989), The City of Women (W. W. Norton, 1993), and, most recently, The Pilot Star Elegies (W. W. Norton, 1999), which was both a National Book Award Finalist and one of five nominees for The New Yorker Book Award. Mr. Santos’ poems appear regularly in such journals as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry, and The Yale Review. His essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Kenyon Review and Parnassus, and a collection of those essays, A Poetry of Two Minds, has just been released (University of Georgia Press, 2000). His awards include the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the Discovery/The Nation Award, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize from Poetry, a Pushcart Prize in both poetry and the essay, and the 1984 appointment as Robert Frost Poet at the Frost house in Franconia, New Hampshire. He has received fellowships from the Ingram Merrill and Guggenheim foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 1990-1997, Mr. Santos served as external examiner and poet-in-residence at the Poets’ House in Portmuck, Northern Ireland, and in 1999 he received an Award for Literary Excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is currently professor of English at the University of Missouri – Columbia.

Q: The way books of poetry acquire their titles is often curious and fascinating. What led you to choose The Pilot Star Elegies as its title?

A: In the navigational world there are such things called pilot stars, those stars in the firmament which, at any given time of year, one might fix on to establish one’s location on the earth. This interested me both for literal and metaphorical reasons, and of course I felt those reasons served, however obliquely, the tonal structure of the collection overall.

Q: Do you feel that The Pilot Star Elegies represents a departure from your three earlier books of poetry, Accidental Weather, The Southern Reaches, and The City of Women?

A: I think there is something of a departure in both The City of Women and The Pilot Star Elegies, though that has less to do with any purposeful design on my part, at least as I began writing those books, than it does with the varying demands of the books themselves. The first is concerned with erotic and romantic love, the second with death, so it seems natural that they’d acquire somewhat different ways of speaking.

Q: In this latest collection you seem less preoccupied with objects and situations shimmering in suspended time, as in (to cite the term you use in “Abandoned Railway Station”) a boule-de-neige, than with a more worldly engagement with people and places thrown together in a time-sharing of exile and loss?

A: What you describe by way of the boule de neige is, essentially, the lyric poem, and it’s fair to say that in these last two books I have worked within a much larger temporal framework. Still, my ambition was always to approach that framework through the moment of the lyric, by arranging those moments, somewhat in the manner of a stained glass window, into a composition that’s not contained in any of those moments individually. This provides, I hope, the illusion both of time past and of time in the process of passing, just as sunlight through a stained glass window provides the illusion of wholeness and coherence.

Q: We asked you earlier about the relationship of The Pilot Star Elegies to your earlier collections. How do you feel your work has grown over the four volumes? Have particular themes and concerns tended to emerge, without your immanent knowledge or consent, as dominant shapers of the way you write poetry?

A: As for the first part of your question, I couldn’t really say. As for the second part, I can say yes, absolutely. You see, I still harbor the rather quaint idea that poems have things to teach me, and one of the things they have to teach is how to write a poem. Because of that, I tend to try, as much as possible, to let the poem have the reins. Of course, there are unavoidable tics and mannerisms in any poet, but I’m less interested in refining those characteristics into some fixed idea of a style than I am in finding out what elements of style will best draw out the inner workings of my subject.

Q: Many of your poems have a deceptively prosaic character: they are built with lines 12-14 syllables long, they have slant rhymes, and prose responsibilities. How did you come to this style? (Is this, in other words, a response to the Whitmanic tradition of long lines, an Englishing of the French alexandrine, or an attempt to break the English pentameter by extending it a foot or two?)

A: You’re speaking of course about the last two books, and again the subject of those poems dictated the forms in which they were written. In “Elegy for My Sister”, for example, I was struggling with a very complicated set of issues, not the least of which was: To what extent is my writing about my sister’s suicide an appropriation of her suffering for my art? At the simplest level, who was this elegy really for? My sister or me? And what did I hope to gain by writing it? To eulogize her? To console myself and our family? To bring some sort of closure to her life, her death? To create a more socially acceptable portrait of her for posterity’s sake? As you might imagine, I was horrified by those possibilities. And so, to answer your question, circumstances demanded, or seemed to demand, the least possible artfulness or flourish in the writing, a subordination of all those things that draw one’s attention back to the writer. I wanted a certain transparency in the writing. I wanted a reader to look past, or through, the words themselves. At the same time I wanted them to be significant, to be mediated through the refining instrument of poetry, for words are, after all, our only real connection to the dead.

Q: A number of your poems, it seems to me, appear to lend themselves to musical settings of the sort the art song composer Ned Rorem does so well. The first numbered lyric in “Elegy for My Sister” stands out particularly in this regard. Are you aware of some of your poems veering off, despite their deceptively prosaic prosody, and resembling a species of meditative lieder, as it were, in which variations on themes are conceived as much musically as poetically?

A: I’m not knowledgeable enough about musical settings to answer this question very thoroughly, though I do feel a certain kinship with the notion of a meditative lieder, as both a form and a process of composition. One of the things that I admire in Ned Rorem’s compositions is the scale to which they adapt themselves, their refusal of what he calls–if I’m remembering correctly–“the masterpiece syndrome.” And here, too, it seems to me that we’re back in the terrain of the lyric, and, as such, I’m not sure I make the same distinction you do at the end of your question. To conceive a poem poetically” means, to my mind, to conceive of it “musically.”

Q: While no precise count was kept of the times the theme and/or motif of “backlighting” is alluded to in your latest volume, its recurrence would suggest that things perceived as “backlit” figure rather prominently in your lexicon of images. Does this have particular meaning for you, or is it something that has more coincidental than real significance in your work?

A: This hadn’t occurred to me, though of course that doesn’t mean it’s either coincidental or insignificant. I suppose memory is, by nature, “backlit”–at least insomuch as it poses what’s recollected in the soft- or hard-edged light of the past–and because it’s elegiac, the poetry of memory is going to have something of that backlit character.

Q: What are your views on creative writing programs, and their influence on contemporary poetry? Of late, as you are probably aware, critics have begun to blame these programs for (what they see as) a loss of individuality in American verse.

A: A loss of individuality in American verse? Who are they kidding? Has there ever been a more individuated poetry in the history of the world? To think that our poetry can somehow be characterized, for better or worse, by reference to “creative writing programs” is either culturally naïve or intellectually irresponsible. From the Black Aesthetics of Askia Muhammad Touré to the Steinian poetics of Charles Bernstein, from the engagé of Adrienne Rich to the dégagé of John Ashbery, from the canonical authority of the Harpers Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry to the defensive neo-classicism of the New Formalists, from Miguel Algarin’s Voices from the Nuyorican Poets’ Café to the Cowboy traditions of Howard “Jack” Thorp and Bruce Kiskaddon, from the hip-hop rhythms of rap to the haphazard rhythms of the poetry slam….It may be more accurate to call it, not “contemporary American poetry” at all, but “contemporary American poetries.” I’m of course familiar with the kinds of complaints you mention–I’ve responded to them at length in A Poetry of Two Minds, in an essay entitled “In a Glass Darkly, Darkly”–but perhaps you can tell me why it is such unsupported claims are granted such automatic credence. You say, “Of late…critics have begun,” but the truth is that these complaints have been around for years, and regardless of how scrupulously and thoughtfully and variously they’ve been addressed, you can rest assured that in a very short while they’ll surface again, exactly as before, delivered to a welcoming audience with the wide-eyed fervor of some journalist uncovering a senatorial tryst. Why is that, do you suppose?

Q: Can serious poetry regain the common readers it once had?

A: Yes, of course it can, and it has, and anyone who hasn’t noticed that is just not paying attention. Not only has the mainstream begun to open its doors to a widening range of marginalized poets, but the last two decades have seen an unprecedented burst of poetry activities, from White House celebrations hosted by the President and First Lady to the formation of a national poetry month; from billboards in Los Angeles filled with poems by contemporary poets to the inclusion of a poetry book as a standard feature with all new Volkswagens shipped in April; from cross-country book giveaways inspired by Joseph Brodsky’s claim that poetry should be as available as the Gideon Bible to the distribution by tollbooth operators in New Jersey of free copies of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. Added to that we’ve seen a huge proliferation of poetry awards, web sites, spoken arts recordings, open mike nights, and public radio and television specials. All this couldn’t have happened without the interest and enthusiasm of the common reader.

Q: What advice would you offer to the young poet? What would you have him do or read for his poetic education?

A: Oh, I don’t know. Read everything, avoid thinking you’re a genius, don’t settle too early on for what kind of poetry you want to write, and be willing and able to give up everything for the work without expecting anything whatsoever in return.

About James Rother

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.
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