Writeliving Interview – Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout photo

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than with an interview with one of our best, brightest, and most influential poets Rae Armantrout. My copy of Versed is pretty dog-eared at this point, and I have a soft spot in my heart and a big place on my bookshelf for quintessential California writers.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Early on I was influenced in different ways by William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson – Dickinson because she was a fearless thinker and a woman. When I was growing up it was still assumed that women would restrict themselves to thinking about love and domesticity. She used poetry to confront and argue with God, death, etc. But I think I got my line from Williams. His work is quite sonically beautiful even when it’s minimalist. And then,  among my contemporaries, Ron Silliman has had a huge influence on my writing because he is willing to read my drafts and give me his honest opinion. And, because he’s been reading me so long, his takes on my poems are really astute so he knows when something isn’t quite done or when it is but I won’t stop fiddling with it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I make handwritten notes in a journal first. The note could be an observation. I might write down a snippet of overheard conversation, or a bit of something I read, or a response to something I read, or a description of something I see. Often there’s an unresolved feeling in these notes or an idea I can’t quite put my finger on. Then I feel like a detective because I’m going after that “thing” I sense. Maybe I try to  write more in the direction of the feeling/thought (I don’t separate the two) as if I were following it.  Other times I wait for more information to appear. Sometimes the poem happens when there are enough elements (bits) that feel somehow related. Then I start stitching the parts together. By this time I’m working on an iPad or computer. I usually go through a lot of drafts.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

I’m not sure. Indirectly. Once in awhile I actually do a take-off on something I catch myself saying to a class. I think, did I really say that? Do I mean it? And I go from there. And sometimes I’m “inspired” by something I read for class. Right now I’m team teaching a class called Poetry for Physicists with an actual physicist, Brian Keating, who played an important role in the recent discovery of gravity waves! So he got famous just as we started co-teaching! I’ve been trying to think of ways to discuss literary essays and poems with science students. That has been an interesting stretch. Two days ago I actually made a (simple) flow chart for the first time in my life! So we’ll see what comes of that!

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?

Well The Waste Land was originally called He Do the Police in Different Voices. I think that’s an excellent title. My advice is to realize there are lots of voices in your head. Let them all come out and play. I do.

Do you consider yourself part of any school of poetry?

We’re like fish that way I guess. We school. Seriously, I was educated by participating in the Language Poetry revolution. Those poets are my real colleagues. But we’re all very different writers. Always were really.

How has living in California shaped your poetic voice and sensibilities?

I’m a California native. I’ve always lived here so it’s a little like asking the proverbial fish what the sea is like. That said, I think my time in northern California gave me a particular poetic education. And the space, light, and flora of southern California enter my poems as images all the time. I came from literary nowhere. Neither of my parents went to college. I started reading on my own and I ended up at Berkeley which was the beginning of a shaping experience. But when I was starting out, I didn’t have a very strong sense of what was looming above me, if you see what I mean. I didn’t know enough to be intimidated or feel overshadowed. Oddly, that may have worked to my advantage. I was dancing by myself so I wasn’t inhibited.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Well, my answer above describes the first adversity I faced. I started out behind and I didn’t even know it. Only someone as insanely stubborn as I am would have decided, standing on the sidewalk in front of a suburban convenience store, that she could be a poet. I didn’t even realize that the world was losing interest in poetry!  Sometimes not knowing anything is an advantage. I did know about sexism though. When I tried showing my high school English teacher my poems, he said, “Women can’t write poetry.” That just made me angry. Anger too can be helpful!

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

If I haven’t already said it, I probably don’t want people to know! But here’s an easy answer. I like to dance. I listen to top 40 radio in my car. And I play “The Fame Monster” (Lady Gaga) and “My Head is an Animal” (Monsters and Men) often when I’m driving.  Bob Dylan and The Stones as well.

About the Author:

Just Saying, Rae Armantrout’s most recent book of poems, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2013. Versed (Wesleyan, 2009) received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007) was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. Other recent books include Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011,) Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Her poems have been included in anthologies such as The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-2012 (2013), The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry (2013), The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine, (Chicago, 2012), American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Language Meets the Lyric Tradition, (Wesleyan, 2002), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, 2006) and The Best American Poetry of 1988, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012. Armantrout received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego. Writing in Poetry magazine, Ange Mlinko has said, “I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s.”

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