We’re pleased to kick off 2013 with an interview with one of America’s greatest living poets, essayists, and critical thinkers. I have enjoyed the poetry, translation, and prose of Robert Pinsky for many years, and I am thrilled to be able to provide some insight into his writing life.
– Martin Ott
Who has been a major influence on your writing?
The list would be very long, so I’ll free-associate a few names: Lewis Carroll, Ben Jonson, Nikolai Gogol, Homer, Thomas Hardy, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Isaac Babel, George Herbert, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Anthon Chekhov, William Butler Yeats, Mark Twain, George Gascoigne, Edward Lear, Willa Cather . . . Buster Keaton, Dizzy Gillespie, Francisco Goya . . . major influences, so many. Looking at my own quick, unreflecting list I notice there are no living writers and only a couple I met when they were alive. The past dominates . . . maybe that’s because I have never taken a creative writing course, didn’t come through an MFA program. Of course there are many I could add to Bishop and Ginsberg . . . Alan Dugan, Thom Gunn . . . And I did have great teachers: Francis Fergusson, the greatest of literary critics in my opinion, and Yvor Winters, who showed me the like of Gascoigne and Jonson. My freshman English teacher, Paul Fussell.
Can you give us insight into your creative process?
I am unsystematic, intuitive, impulsive. I tend to start with a sentence-shape or a cadence. Sometimes I have a tune in my head, a language-tune, for quite a long time before I have any actual words, let alone ideas or experiences. I like to look up simple words in the dictionary: words like “thing” or “medium.” Sometime I need to waste most of a day so that around 5:00 I write something out of shame! But that’s not a regular pattern. Re-reading something I love, a poem by John Donne or a passage in Song of the Lark, can help me focus, reminds me why I want to write.
How has teaching impacted your work as a writer?
The regular, consistent schedule of talking about our art with serious young writers: that reliable need to focus: I think it may help control my sloppy, daydreaming, feckless side. It’s odd, but the traits that made me a failure as a student, kept me from getting good grades, seem to be compensated for or eased by being a teacher!
Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
In a recent poem, “Creole” (it’s also a track on the PoemJazz CD), I talk about my father getting fired from his job when I was seven. The poem implicitly– not explicitly!– salutes the energies in him, in our family, in our town, that kept creating things: little shops, children with their names, sports teams, professions– right through money woes and other woes. We were living an a two bedroom apartment with three children when my mother had a head injury. The arguing, laughing, complaining, dancing, threatening, joking, reading, flirting, competing, generosity — the whole menu — kept right on. I was worried, but I was reading Twain and Dickens and de la Mare and Ray Bradbury. My parents fought about money and food and everything but they were terrific dancers.
What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?
In high school, I was in the lower half of my class but in the yearbook poll I was voted “Most Musical Boy.”
About the Author:
Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poets, essayists, literary critics, and translators. He served for three terms as Poet Laureate and is the poetry editor for the online magazine Slate. He currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.