Like most poets these days, you juggle poetry with teaching–you’ve taught at St. Mark’s Poetry Project and will at Poets House.
Actually, I have worked mostly outside of the teaching juggernaut. But I love learning, and if I may say so myself, I’m a pretty incredible teacher of poetry. But is this what a poet does? I don’t know how I feel about the credentialization of poetry I’ve seen going on in this country. Everything in this country has been institutionalized, and that even includes who people think is a real poet. So people assume that all poets teach, and that is not the case.
At St. Marks Poetry Project, when I was program coordinator in the 1980s and co-programmed the Wednesday Night Series, we didn’t ask “Do you have an MFA?” And brought in many people of color who’d never read there before. I remain a friend of the Project but I am not active there. I am just happy that it is still around and is still independent.
Mabou Mines has stayed part of your life, most recently in 2007’s Song for New York: What Women Do When Men Sit Knitting, where you were among five poets speaking their truth after 9/11. What do you learn from the stage?
Both Song for New York and my 1994 play, Mother, were musical theater works, and for both I had the honor of collaborating with the great actress Ruth Malaczech. Working on plays always makes me realize that Shakespeare wrote his stuff within a community event, that actors and musicians helped shape those sentences and that he wrote for them.
A reader’s brain could also dissolve trying to guess your prosody. Did you invent some forms, like John Berryman’s double quatrains or Emily Dickinson’s fearless blank verse, that I haven’t figured out yet?
[laugh] I’m not a formal poet as such. No sonnets or villanelles. But I love mid-rhyme, I love couplets. My poems are conversational, but they’re definitely not prose.
A lot of this is about the weaving of things through text. For the ears, conversation. For the eyes, I show space.
I wanted to talk about the position of women in movies, and in America–starting in 1944 with Laura. I wanted to show how [their position] diminished from the 1940s to the ’60s, the era of sexual liberation and second wave feminism.
Laura is a story about desire and idealization, and it is so creepy. She’s supposed to be dead and then she comes back alive and well, and of course in danger. The women in the ’40s fought for control. In Red River (1944), you have all these men, you have John Wayne and Montgomery Clift fighting over–what? But you have Joanne Dru at the end telling them off and demanding her piece of the big American pie.
The other poems, How to Marry a Millionaire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, acknowledge the issue of marriage, and finally in Hud (1963) , things fall apart. Hud is a movie where the anti-hero is perfected and where his victims are the most complicated. Patricia Neal, who is beat up and raped (though that’s not shown, almost everything else is), leaves town. She escapes. But most women don’t. I enjoyed writing those poems.
Femme du Mond ends with two wakes. Why?
Both Lynda Hull and Ron Vawter were great friends and influences in my life, and they both died literally within days of each other. The gay actor who was drop dead gorgeous and the brilliant poet who fought so many personal demons even as she gained prestige, both just gone. We are our friends and families. We don’t become women or men of this world by living in isolation. Part of who I am was in those caskets. That’s why Femme du Monde ends the way it does.
Tell me about the new book.
Painkiller has three sections. It’s about love, lust, sex and aging, and memory and living in/for the city. The poems were written or completed between 2000 and 2006.
When I turned 50, in 2001, my life felt a complete failure. Elizabeth Murray and Bob Holman and some other friends hosted a birthday party for me. I was single, and no one prepares you for what happens then, or how sexual you will feel. People think: youth is over, you’re settled down. But no no no, au contraire.
The poems are about making some interesting choices, including a relationship with someone who was married. I was in a lot of pain and I am sure I caused others to be in pain. Each of us may find ourselves saying, Why not jump in feet first, when the loneliness and suffering is great. September 11 was a tipping point for many people. Stuff happened. I am a poet of empathy and I had to show some empathy for my own flawed self. In a blurb for the collection, Erica Hunt pointed out a phrase from my elegy for Peter Dee, in which I said he knew we would find “a path to mercy.” We are always on some path, going along, and asking ourselves constantly: where is this going? Where am I?
Between 1999 and 2006, I lost two of my best male friends–Peter Dee and David Earl Jackson, Jr., people who I had been close to since the middle 1970s. They were funny, smart, they reminded me that I was a girl…. and they loved my work. So there is work [in the book] for them. And the last poem in Painkiller is an elegy for a man who was very dear to me and whose love I had celebrated in The Weather That Kills. You live long enough, you say goodbye as often as you say hello.
So much of my life, of our lives, is made of encounters and farewells. That’s come clearer to me the last few years.
Another history of American women is suggested if we draw a line between your Billie Holiday cantos in The Weather That Kills. Is that too glib?
To me Billie Holiday is a diva, a goddess figure, not merely a celebrity but truly someone divine. In the poems I wanted her to represent elemental human knowledge-all this pain and suffering. Her Blackness is part of that, had she been a White woman with that kind of talent, she would had a career like Dinah Shore, et al. But she was Black and gorgeous and willing to take her voice to the center of the earth. When I was interviewed at Sarah Lawrence, I read the “Remember Iwo Jima” poem, and one of the interviewers told me that he was at Iwo Jima and how much he loved the poem.
Aretha’s another story. Hers is a great talent, but she grew up in that era after Billie. So she always represented the rise of Civil Rights to me. RESPECT. But Aretha’s fashion sense has often been challenged. So when she went to the podium on Inauguration Day, that hat was a Dorothy Height hat– it was a church lady hat. She was singing for all of Black America. The book [Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin's Inauguration Day Hat] came out of all my respect for her, and anger for the way some folk in the media was responding to it.
And you pulled it together with a call on Facebook. I don’t think that’s been done before, not with major poets such as yourself and Cornelius Eady.
I did it in two weeks basically. Thank god for BOMB magazine for creating an online version so that we could get it out fairly quickly. It was up by early summer. And people love it. Of all I’ve done as an editor, I’m most proud of that one. There wasn’t any official reaction, though — not from the White House, not even from Aretha — even though when Ebony interviewed Aretha later, someone pointed out to her “a Facebook page in honor of your hat.” So maybe one of her peeps will tell her about the book that is sitting somewhere in someone’s file.
I love your lively use of Facebook, especially how you use the “Notes” section for brief blog posts. The day before we talked, you’d put up an alert on the Quran-burning pastor and the Park51 controversy.
I’m so tired of this. That pastor, his bizarre version of Christianity — why is anyone taking it seriously? I’m old enough to remember when there were “honorable” Republicans. These days, the venom is just toxic. And people get physically hurt as a result.
I grew up in the South, I know what this shit’s about. Like that “Restoring Honor” rally in D.C. What are they restoring?
What’s needed now to go forward. One thing I am sure of: We do not need the policies of the past 30 years that have brought us to this point — the destruction that started at the tail end of Reagan era. I am poorer now then when Jimmy Carter was in office. THAT IS RIDICULOUS.
That moment 30 years ago is so clear to many of us. And it lives in much of your work.
All of us who do this work — there’s a certain kind of deafness in writing, a way in which we don’t hear the messages everyone else does. And for me, the issue of justice is always there. How kind are you? How real are you?
And in this society I am almost not employable: I’m a woman. I’m black. And I’m a poet. How can you live from poetry? The poets I know who do that are in hiphop – and that’s not easy either, performing all the time.
Poetry is what I must do, but I wake up some days in pure panic and wonder how will I live.