The Interview with Aaron Poochigian Page Two
by A. M. Juster
AMJ: Talk to me about poetry as therapy.
AP: Funny you should ask: that poem “The Hearkener” also contains the line:
Where do you lurk, World-shrink? The big Above?
The Hearkener is there compared to a therapist who listens while earthbound speakers talk. He, in a way, lets the speakers get where they need to go through “talk-therapy.” Yes, what do I really think about poetry as therapy? Your question broa-ches the whole issue of what poetry is and does.
Auden was wrong to write “poetry makes nothing happen.” Some of the greatest poetry—e.g. Milton’s “Lycidas” and Ten-nyson’s “In Memoriam”—is therapeutic in the sense that it guides the reader through the grieving process. It is a fact that verses about tyranny by Byron and Shelley have inspired me to take political action. After spending lots of time with Ara-tus’ didactic astronomical poem “The Phaenomena,” I really did have a better knowledge of the constellations of the nor-thern hemisphere. Poetry consoles, incites, teaches.
So, yes, poetry can do lots of things; it can also do nothing beautifully. Useful poetry is not better than useless poetry. I only feel the need to say this because there is an assumption, in some academic circles, that poetry that does something—helps with the grieving process, serves as a political act, teaches some social virtue, etc.—is somehow better than poetry that does nothing other than be poetry. People who think that poetry should have some “real-world” practical effect are, curiously, coming down on the side of the “trade-school” view of universities, the one that dismisses the liberal arts as useless. Many of my favorite poems are simply beauti-ful. Take a look at Frost’s “The Silken Tent,” for example.
AMJ: Tell me about poetry as a distraction from social media, video games, and the joys of Internet.
AP: Social media has become a way for me to interact with an audience on a daily basis. There is the new genre of Micropoetry—poems that fit inside the character-limit of an SMS Message (160 characters) or Twitter post (240 characters). I had always assumed I was the last person ever to do anything faddish, but here I am, posting poems daily on Twitter.
Let me explain why: I want poetry to be as much a part of our daily lives as it was for the Ancient Greeks—something one encountered and passed around in the course of regular con-versation. Social media is one of the main ways we interact nowadays, so my retrogressive desire to be like an Ancient Greek has boomeranged around and found expression in contemporary media.
OMG, I do have a pretty serious Twitter-addiction, but most of what I do there is poetry-related. Still, my work time, my time for writing poetry, is sacred. I promised myself a few years back that I would be a full-time poet, and I have kept that promise.
AMJ: Do you have any thoughts about why the use of meter in translation is so suddenly popular while at the same time it is getting much more difficult to publish original verse in meter?
AP: Yes, I do. The actors for SITI Company told me they pre-ferred my translation of Bacchae partly because it is metrical. They liked, they said, that they were able to use their Classical training in performing it. I have also been told that my met-rical Sappho translations come “the closest of any trans-lation[s]” to “capturing what must have been the experience of hearing Sappho perform”
I think that, with Classical translation at least, one needs a layer of artifice to set the translation off as “other.” In the past that artifice was primarily lexical and syntactical (that is, old words arranged in weird ways), as one finds in all those nearly unreadable old Loeb translations. Artificiality of diction and syntax is now very much out of style, and readers have come, I think, to appreciate the “classicizing” effect of meter as a mar-ker of a Classical translation. I am excited to be a part of the verse-revival of Classical translation, along with the fine poets Chris Childers, A.E. Stallings, Emily Wilson and, well, you. Our translations, I am confident, are most true to the Classical originals, because those originals were metrical.
As for why it is more difficult than ever to publish original metrical poems, well, I think the main stream of our contem-porary poetry has rejected all artifice (diction, syntax, meter) except metaphor and line-breaking.
AMJ: What are the most interesting things about your poetry that I probably don’t know?
AP: Every poem I write is an attempt to recapture an ecstatic experience I had during my Freshman year in college. No drugs were involved, I promise. I was sitting out front of an ivy-covered brick building, reading the opening of Vergil’s Aeneid in Latin (Arma virumque cano. . .) and, though I didn’t know Latin then, I had what I can only call a religious ex-perience while fumbling with those potent words. The sunny day became even sharper, and I knew that I would spend the rest of my life writing poetry. I write poems to try to recapture the feeling I had that day and later that year while reading the couplets of Alexander Pope for the first time.
AMJ: If Pete Buttigieg asked you to be his Inaugural Day poet, what kind of poem would you want to give to America?
AP: Wow, what sort of poem would I recite for President-Elect Buttigieg? (That dude’s last name is even crazier than mine!) I would try to combine Frost’s take on America and the poly-phonic-democratic inaugural poems we had under Obama into a new definition of American Exceptionalism. I would try to paint a picture of an America everyone could be proud of.
Hey, it’s not too late for you to throw your hat in the ring, Commissioner Astrue—and you could compose your own inaugural poem. Imagine that! I’d vote for you.
AMJ: Thanks—that was fun! Let’s do it again someday.
AMJ: How did the move to California affect your work?
AP: After I finished my MFA at Columbia, I felt like heading somewhere off the beaten path and writing, writing, writing away. Fortunately, a family farmhouse was unoccupied in Fresno, California, and I have been able to live there rent-free for several years. I describe this house and my long-sought recusatio there in the poem titled with its address, “872 South Fowler”:
All round the shambles grass
luxuriates unmowed—a state of grace
like freedom, like a hardcore hobo’s hair.
How nice that nothing ever happens here.
I mean, just past the posts and razor wire,
those ducklings dabbling in the reservoir
would sooner pass unknown. That’s how this lawn,
this shed are happy to be left alone.
I would like to think that during my time in California I have grown from a regional poet (first Midwestern, then New-Yorky) to a poet who, at least at times, aspires to speak with a national voice. I’ve lived so many places in America that there’s really no other way for me to grow. Sometimes now I go all-out, I go vatic, I go Whitmanian.
AMJ: OK, you just signed a two-book contract with Pete Simon at W.W. Norton, who edited Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. Do you know yet what those two books will be, and will you be able to get me her autograph?
AP: One of the books will be my translation of Euripides’ Bacchae with introduction and notes. I revised and re-vised this translation with the help of actors in the SITI Company, the director Anne Bogart, and the scholar Helene Foley. It is very much a script for the stage. I did everything I could with it to obviate the need for notes. I wanted every line to have an immediate impact on the audience. I’m proud that the original production was a hit, and that the show will be revived for a tour and a run at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
The second book will contain translations of four plays by the Ancient Greek writer of comedy, Aristophanes: “Lysistrata,” “Clouds,” “Ecclesiazusae,” and “Birds.” The plays are fun and dirty, very dirty, often down-right scatological. I despair, in fact, of finding a theater troupe to produce any of them. I mean, is there a company out there brave enough to put on a play containing an extended (five-minute) threat of on-stage defecation? Is there? Hello?
I admire Emily Wilson’s work very much, but I have not had the opportunity to meet her in person. We’ve interacted on Twitter. I would be happy to Twitter-ask her for an autograph for you.
AMJ: Now that you have a big-time publisher, how are you dealing with the adulation from the public—and will you be making cameo appearances in movies and TV shows?
AP: I have, in fact, started receiving emails from people I call “fans,” that is, people I have never met who like my work. Let me tell you, nothing feels better than receiving those notes. To learn that people out there, unknown to me, are reading my books and savoring words I have written—that is, well, everything to me, better than riches. Readers like them make this cockamamie scheme I have had of writing poetry worthwhile.
What’s in my future? As has no doubt become apparent, I’m not at all shy, and I look forward to whatever interaction with the public my career may bring.
AMJ: Well, I’ll have to check back in a year and see if that’s true.
AP: Yes, who knows? I may have withdrawn into another recusatio.
AMJ: Talk to me about poetry as prayer.
AP: Prayer is an integral part of my forthcoming volume, American Divine, which draws on the polytheistic perspectives of Greek and Roman poetry and finds sacred space and the numinous in public places such as Union Square in New York City. (See the excerpt from the programmatic poem, American Divine, above.)
The project began with my hankering to come up with a polytheistic version of George Herbert’s great list-poem, “Prayer,” which ends:
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
Herbert, an Anglican priest, was an expert on prayer. Well, I am not George Herbert, nor was meant to be. Nope, I’m just a human American man, but I still feel a need to pray, that is, to speak, sometimes out loud and sometimes in my head and usually at night, to a disembodied listener. I have dubbed this addressee “The Hearkener” and written a poem about him. It is in my forthcoming book American Divine. In that poem, the speaker establishes a one-sided rapport with the Hearkener and then simply talks to him about his worries and prospects. The speaker doesn’t ask for anything from the Hearkener:
Why beg for blessings? This is all I want:
intimacy with what might be a god.
In sum, the speaker speaks; the Hearkener hearkens, and there is “something understood.”
photo credit: Johnson Photography
A.M. Juster, the Poetry Editor for First Things, and @amjuster on Twitter, has had work published in Poetry, Paris Review, Hudson Review, Rattle, and many other journals. Paideia Institute Press has just published his ninth book, John Milton's The Book of Elegies, which is available at: