Who: Rae Armantrout, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Poet
Claim to fame: She’s the author of ten books of poetry, including Partly: New and Selected Poems, which was just released in paperback. She’s won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Why’d we pick her, in ten words: She is one of the greatest poets of her generation.
I write best in the morning. My mind is freshest then. But I may collect material for writing all through the day and evening by jotting things in a notebook.
I start with pen and paper. As I said above, I make notes in a blank book journal, some of which will end up in a poem, some not. This is where I try out ideas. So my blank books are filled with scribbling, some of it pretty bad. When something promising comes together, I move to a computer Word program and see how it looks on the page. That’s where I do much of my revising.
I prefer silence. I’m quite distractible. Once in awhile, when I am listening to classical music or jazz, I begin writing lines in response to the music. And, on a few occasions, I have used snippets of song lyrics ironically or critically in a poem. I always have a blank book in my bag so, if I hear something that strikes me or moves me somehow, I can jot a few words down. But I don’t make a habit of turning on music when I want to write. When I hear words, in conversation or on the radio or TV, it’s likely that some of them will end up in my poems. I’m a magpie that way. Sometimes that works for me; sometimes it interferes.
The only pre-writing technique I have is to clear my head and be as attentive or receptive as possible.
I think the daily word count is more relevant to fiction writers. Some days I don’t write at all. Some days I work on a poem for hours on end. But, even when I work all day, it doesn’t mean that I will have produced a lot of words! Most of the poems I work on eventually do get published. That said, there is a lot of pre-writing which no one ever sees.
I only start to write when there is already something in my mind. But a poet needs to leave herself or himself time for sitting around looking and listening. It looks like idleness!
First I mix bits I’ve collected, usually over several days, into what seems like the right order. Then I see what I can take out. I will show a poem to a trusted friend, generally, before trying to publish it. If he or she hates it or doesn’t get it at all, I will go back and reconsider.
No, I don’t try to emulate anyone when I write. I’ve been at it too long for that. But I have been influenced by William Carlos Williams and by my friend Ron Silliman, though my poems look nothing like his. My influences are so ingrained by now that I don’t really think about them when writing.
I do sometimes go for days without any ideas, without feeling “inspired.” If that’s because I’m otherwise busy, I can let it go for awhile, maybe up to two weeks. Eventually, though, I get depressed if I don’t write.
I don’t read books about the creative process. Sometimes, though, I get inspired by reading other sorts of nonfiction. I prefer reading about quantum physics or neuroscience or philosophy.
My mother read poetry to me, so I got interested in it when I was a young child. I wrote my first poem in first grade. I was attracted by the sound of poetry, but also by the way it allows you to turn your thoughts into a kind of object. As for aspiring to be a poet, that didn’t happen until I was in college.
“RETURN” (which first appeared in the December 2016 issue of The Nation)
Better to collect miniature trolls
beside toy bridges
and arrange them on doilies.
Best we commemorate old fears
until our heads are full
lest we trump up
some flesh and blood devil.
Someone’s been walking
on your grave.
You have seen yourself
in a mirrored door.
(though some have claimed
to leave your body
Now you return
“THE CORNER” (which first appears in the November issue of Poetry Magazine)
Like a child, mind
wants to play, but
even the butterflies
are on the clock.
Still, attention is happy
with the swallowtail
as it jerkily
rounds the corner.
Like a child, mind
First and last
we love sequence.