The Interview with A. M. Juster
AMJ: More like a sullen teenager. I have never had a formula or a schedule and have always been a little jealous of people who do. I worked hard in public service and the biotech industry, and I tried to be a good husband and parent, so for most of my life I didn’t have either much time for writing or much flexibility with the small amount of time that I did have.
It helped my writing that I did not have other time-consuming activities—I don’t play golf, I don’t do online gaming, I don’t watch much TV, and I haven’t asked anyone out on a date since early in the Ford Administration. I squeezed poems out of long commutes, pointless mandatory meetings, delays in airline terminals, and little scraps of time on weekends.
One would think early retirement would let me follow a schedule, but the unpredictable pain and fatigue caused by my diseases has kept my work habits chaotic. More often than not, I feel best in the morning, which is when I tend to work on projects that require sustained analytical thought—prose and translation. The rest of the day I can often think about my own poems, even if I am lying on a sofa with my eyes shut.
AN: Given the state of your health, one might expect to see a turning inward, or even traces of embitterment in your recent work. Your new poems may reveal a little more of your contemplative side, but there’s no sign of bitterness. Your acceptance of things as they are does not feel like resignation. I suppose I’d call that another “adult” aspect of your work in poetry, which complements your active concern for the poetry community. With your critical writing, with the information center you’ve made of your Twitter account, and even with your wallet, you have been a tireless promoter of the poets and poetry that you value, even including material support for institutions like the West Chester Poetry Conference, the Powow River Poets, the now defunct but never to be forgotten journal, The Formalist, and the Frost Farm Conference. What do you consider the most promising recent development in American poetry?
AMJ: Our literary and academic establishments have increasingly pushed poetry into language that most people who love poetry don’t value—or even understand. It has been important to me to try to nurture the fragile institutions that have a perspective similar to mine.
I was skeptical about online literary journals when they first appeared but have come around to realizing that they are our best hope for the future. The old model of a paper journal run by an academic institution or someone with a trust fund is failing because the barriers to entry and ongoing costs are so much lower. If you look at what people consider to be the most prestigious journals of recent decades, today most of them are publishing unreadable poetry most of the time.
Upstarts are bringing competition and a respect for readers into this stale environment. Rattle—a journal that cracked the code for balancing paper and online publication—became our second largest poetry-only journal in record time. Waxwing allowed Maggie Smith’s magnificent “Good Bones” to become a viral sensation.
The reach of the Internet also allows online journals to create niche audiences in ways that were almost impossible in the twentieth century—whether it be light verse, beat poetry, long poems, or poetry addressed to people with a strong interest in anything from comic books to food to gender to the environment. In short, I see a slowly advancing democratization of the literary world that I welcome.
AN: I’d call that a cautiously optimistic perspective on the state of our art, considering that you once portrayed yourself as a horseshoe crab: “our kind assesses change in clear, cold light / before once more deciding to hold tight.”
On the other hand, you’re not afraid to speak your mind regarding trends in contemporary poetry that you consider harmful, or to puncture reputations you find overblown. While your book-length parody of Billy Collins’ poetry seemed to me at least partly a tribute, there can be no mistaking your antipathy toward the experimental work of Christian Bök, who encoded his poetry into the genome of the bacterium E. coli. That particular folly deserved your contempt, but at least it’s unlikely to serve as a model for other poets. What do you consider the least salutary development in American poetry over the past ten years or so?
AMJ: I often wish that Ezra Pound had made the slogan of modernism “Make it fresh” or “Make it interesting” instead of “Make it new.” The push for novelty over worthier qualities has taken us to a dead end; the tricksters of so-called “conceptual poetry” define poetry out of existence and turn it into mindless mind games—often mind games with a racist or sexist edge.
As you noted, I detest the antics of Christian Bök and the University of Calgary’s subsidies for those antics. It is also outrageous that the University of Pennsylvania has brought in Kenneth Goldsmith, a proponent of “uncreative writing” and plagiarism.
Moreover, many institutions of this stature refuse to teach prosody or train students to read poetry critically. They encourage automatic adoration for whatever they consider the hippest work, even when it is riddled with the clichés of our era.
Poetry is losing its status as a widely loved genre and academia is a big part of the problem.
AN: It’s sad —and ironic—to think of academia working against the “democratization of poetry” that you sense taking place elsewhere, largely due to the reach of the internet. That would include your own Twitter account, where somehow you manage to steer clear of politics.
You’ve written a number of political poems, however. I think of “Moscow Zoo,” your sonnet that speaks of a mass grave about whose origin the bureaucrats claim ignorance; “Kennings,” your stunning poem about the immigrant experience, and your masterful narrative poem, “The Secret Life of Women.” These are all entirely successful political poems; by that I mean they work both as political statements and as poems. What makes a good political poem, as opposed to a poem that preaches to the choir, or a poem that serves to showcase the moral superiority of its author?
AMJ: A rhetorical trick of today’s literary establishment is to use a sweeping definition of “politics” to define all poetry as “political” and then use a far more narrow and left-wing definition of “political” to regulate what is allowable as criticism. In the process, attention to form, metaphor and the music of language drops out of curricula.
It’s hard to write a good political poem—the temptation to turn the poem into an op ed piece is irresistible for many poets. The trick is not to start off trying to write a poem to make a political point. I’ve made that mistake a few times, and the results made me cringe. Instead, when you’re writing a poem about an event or image that moves you, you can let the poem start to tell a story that will resonate politically, perhaps in ways that surprise you. Generally, the less didactic a poem is, the more effective its political message will be.
On my Twitter account (@amjuster) I do try to stay away from the partisan politics of the moment and focus on the craft of poetry across time and languages, which is why we are closing in on 5,000 followers.
Mike Astrue dancing with Patty Duke.
Mike with springer spaniel puppy Sadie.
by Alfred Nicol
photo credit: Johnson Photography
AN: You’ve written a serious and moving tribute to a friend titled “After Scattering David Berman’s Ashes,” which you describe as “a mashup of forms.” It is at once a litany, an elegy, and a sonnet, and it is written in Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter. Yet nothing in all that layering of artifice softens the punch the poem delivers, and those of us who knew David realize how he would have delighted in its technique. He’d have recognized the poem’s complexity without being told; indeed, he’d have been its perfect reader—which is fitting, as the poem was written for him. I’m reminded of Ezra Pound’s dictum: “The measure of sincerity is technique.” Not all of us are as perceptive readers as David Berman, though. Are you willing to risk boasting a little, and pointing to other instances of prosodic sleight of hand in your newest collection, Wonder and Wrath?
AMJ: The poems of The Secret Language of Women (University of Evansville Press, 2003) mostly used received forms and blank verse. Wonder & Wrath (Paul Dry Books, anticipated fall 2020) contains almost entirely formal poems, but it experiments more. There are three poems in Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, three poems imitating the idiosyncratic prosody of Kay Ryan, a blank verse villanelle loaded with unexpected internal rhymes, and several poems written in one extended sentence, a trick I learned from Carl Phillips.
I also worked harder in Wonder & Wrath to include unusual and important translations. It includes what I believe to be the oldest extant poems by a woman objecting to domestic violence and the oldest extant humorous poem in Latin by a woman. It includes the first literary translation of a poem in Oromo, a language of about 50 million people. It includes translations of the only extant Latin poems of Christopher Marlowe and A.E. Housman.
AN: Is there one quality that your favorite poets and writers have in common?
AMJ: Attention to craft.
AN: Given your association with New Formalism, readers are apt to see “craft” as a code-word for meter and rhyme. Would that be a misperception, and if so, can you point to instances of exemplary craftsmanship in poets who are not considered “formalists?”
AMJ: The concept of “craft” is still vitally important for free verse. How precise and striking are the word choices? Is the syntax under control when it should be? Does the language have a palpable rhythm and voice? Are the tropes apt but sparingly chosen? Most importantly, does the poem say things that are important but difficult to express?
Mike Astrue with granddaughter Evelyn.
“Happiness is seeing the look of determination she gets from her mother & grandmother.”
AN: Your seriousness of purpose extends to your reading as well; you count Horace and Auden among your favorites. But I have heard you speak enthusiastically about contemporary song-lyricists as well. That makes sense; when modernist and post-modernist criticism had nearly scolded rhyme, meter and narrative out of American poetry, popular songwriters from Hank Williams to Bob Dylan continued to supply the need. I know that you and I share an appreciation of Gillian Welch. Who are some of your other favorite songwriters?
AMJ: I grew up with the great rock of the late sixties, and then eased into Roy Orbison, Bruce Springsteen, The Cars, Warren Zevon, and finally R.E.M. As I grew older, I became more interested in acoustic music, particularly by women. I loved the early Indigo Girls and Tracy Chapman music, and then discovered two great and underappreciated musicians, Gillian Welch and Richard Thompson. In recent years I have added Patty Griffin and The Wailin’ Jennys.
AN: Finally, I want to make sure I don’t push this serious adult poet label too far. Like X. J. Kennedy, you have always insisted that humor has its place in poetry. People still talk about your hilarious reading from The Billy Collins Experience at The Newburyport Poetry Festival a couple of years ago. Since then you’ve published a second book of humorous verse, Sleaze and Slander. I propose that we end this interview with your reading a political poem I failed to mention earlier: “A Stern Warning to Canada.”
AMJ: As long as you take responsibility for any diplomatic consequences, I am happy to end this interview with a little controversy.
A Stern Warning to Canada
If you want peace,
withdraw your geese.
AN: Thank you.
Alfred Nicol collaborated with Rhina Espaillat to create the chapbook Brief Accident of Light: Poems of Newburyport (Kelsay Books, 2019). Nicol’s full-length collection, Animal Psalms, was published in 2016 by Able Muse Press. He has published two other books of poetry, Elegy for Everyone and Winter Light. https://www.alfrednicol.com.
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