This interview is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.A Conversation with Louise Glück
I interviewed Louise on Tuesday 24 November 2009 and we began by chatting about Hakan Nesser’s latest detective story. I knew he was a writer she enjoys. ‘Reading Woman with Birthmark1 will be two days of escape from life,’ she said.
YVONNE GREEN: The boundary you create between your poems and your reader seems to me to have the draw of the magnetic field suggested in the final stanza from ‘Lost Love’,2 in Ararat:
…when my sister died,
my mother’s heart became
very cold, very rigid,
like a tiny pendant of iron.
Then it seemed to me my sister’s body
was a magnet. I could feel it draw
my mother’s heart into the earth,
so it would grow.
LOUISE GLÜCK: I haven’t thought of those lines in decades. I have no sense of myself in relation to the reader and I don’t know that the reader is paradigmatic that way. There may be all sorts of modes of relation. It also seems to me that each book reinvents that relation. I may change my mind about this.
I think there’s a language of response in the reader who reads each new venture of yours, or rereads a collection she knows. Let’s look at the other side of my question. Your latest collection is A Village Life.3 Have you left the Village? Does it cease to exist for you? For me as a reader it’s in my consciousness together with its demands.
Oh, it’s in this terrible zone. No it isn’t gone but I can’t get back to it. I can’t re-enter it. I can’t. So that when every once in a while I think about those poems or when I do readings now from that book I feel completely exiled, banished, forbidden, precluded. And it feels miserable. I think that that’s the precondition to doing other work. But it’s awful. I’m not free of it. It still haunts me. I still think about those lines sometimes, as you would think about lines when you’re working on a poem. But I shouldn’t do so because those poems are made. And I can’t do anything for them anymore.
And the people in this ‘village’, the characters, the movements within the people and outside of them, the gaps in the living, the spaces around them, that must be very haunting, to have been living with them and then to leave them in stasis.
I don’t think of these people as exactly people. I think of them as –
Voices coming from a particular cusp. On the edge of something, in a single life. Each one makes its report. For me the feeling of the book is as though it were a single human life enacted by multiple actors. Like that terrible movie about Bob Dylan with all the movie stars in it, is it called I’m Not There?4 They don’t seem characters the way you would find characters in a novel.
They exist in the moment of their utterance and their response?
But you’ve been with them, you know.
I miss that world, I still do. The book was a lot of fun to write. In the sense of its being fabulously interesting and available. Most of my recent books have been written so rapidly that there’s no sense when they’re finished of any agency or role, they simply didn’t exist and then they did exist and I can’t figure out what I did. But A Village Life took about a year and a half which was ideal because I felt that I was always engaged. I could always go to the space where those poems seemed to come from and it was waiting for me. It was quite wonderful – as working, I suppose, on a novel might be –
Can you tell me about the moment that process changed?
It wasn’t a single moment, I realised at a certain point it seemed finished. It seemed time to put it into a shape and then I became obsessed with doing that and that actually took longer than usual. I knew where I wanted to begin and I knew where I wanted to end. I had a lot of trouble putting the poems together and worked on that obsessively for probably half a year and drove my friends crazy.
Do you read it or show it?
Oh I show it. But occasionally if I’m making some tiny change I’ll read it on the ’phone.
Oh that’s interesting, so it’s disembodied.
(I don’t like reading aloud. It turns a poem into an experience that’s exclusively sequential, chronological and dramatic, instead of a web of perceptions and ideas that weave in and out in complicated ways.) So I worked on the order and then the order was done. Then I felt euphoric as one does. Then I started revising which I hadn’t done much of in recent years and some of the poems were revised in significant if not substantial ways. Not all but –
Can you give me an example?
‘A Night in Spring’ from A Village Life had a lot of problems. It was overwritten, it was longer, it was unconvincing – it was stagey.
It’s very poised now.
I tried to clean it up. Some of the bats and the worms needed work.
The worms are very interesting I think.
Oh, a lot of people felt the worms and the bats should go. It’s not that they’re the best poems but something terrible happened to the book when you took them out.
You lose the perspective because you’re lying there looking up with those poems and you need to do that –
Well it turned into Spoon River Anthology5 without them and that didn’t please me at all. I think it was a quality of the fey or the coy about those voices. I think that’s probably what bothered people. But in any case it didn’t seem to me that I knew how to put together the book without them. So they stayed.
I have to think about the quality of those voices being fey or coy. They were just a change of perspective for me.
Nobody used those words but if I were making an objection to them that’s what it would be.
You mentioned that you don’t like reading aloud. Some people love to be read to by the poet.
I don’t like being read to and I don’t like reading aloud. I feel when I do that I’m limiting my poems in dreadful ways.
What about the person who wants that? What do you say about them?
They’re having an experience different from mine and I think lesser if they can be satisfied with readings. I think they want personality, they want an experience like the experience of going to the theatre.
Like going to see Anne Sexton? A mediated experience –
They want the human being who’s actually suffered those heartbreaks.
That brings me to my next question. Can we talk about people who get themselves mixed up with their protagonists? You’ve alluded to this in your essays6 but I’d be interested in hearing a bit more from you on that if you think there is more to say about poets who believe they are their protagonist.
I think it’s really that the audience insists on the fact or the critics insist that this is so. Insist in some way that you are the person in the poem. My own work is not rigidly autobiographical – yes I draw on my own psychological experiences. But those are not invariably experiences I’ve lived; they are experiences I’ve intuited or beheld.
Is the speculation maddening? I’m interested in the process by which the writer resists that pressure to see themselves as the protagonist in their own work.
One needn’t resist what one deplores or resents. The audience assumes that the first person is the poet which makes a great problem with doing readings. You’re plummeted into that assumption in a way that vulgarises what you’ve done. I remember reading, ‘At The River’ from A Village Life and someone coming up to me afterwards and saying, ‘I didn’t know your father had a problem with drink.’ And I said, ‘He didn’t. My father had no problem with drink.’ It’s so literal-minded. It’s just so damn literal-minded.
There is something I’d like to raise about the representation of truth you execute in a poem in Ararat, ‘The Untrustworthy Speaker’. It’s very interesting and funny this poem about two sisters. The protagonist’s account poignantly and graphically represents its double untruthfulness. I wonder if you’d comment on that poem and the levels it works on?
I like that poem a lot. It’s also a poem about psychoanalysis which deeply involved me at two separate stages of my life. It’s talking about the disclosure that occurs during that process. It contains many duplicities. And it uses truth, or accuracy, to distract attention from sources of change. The poem analyses, or follows, the way such disclosure lies.
There’s the protagonist’s inability to account for herself, to summon the language, to bring herself to locate or explain,
That’s why I can’t account
for the bruises on her arm, where the sleeve ends.
She doesn’t want to be responsible for injuring her sister and she wants credit for being a person who would not do that. Nevertheless this is evidenced. It’s also a sort of ars poetica: the speaker who seems so poignantly and so indelibly human is not delivering the undiluted heart’s confession of the poet who may stand before you at the reading.
And again we come back to the issue of the confusion between the poet and the work, which is fascinating.
Can we turn for a moment to the poem and the idea of space? To the poem and then the outside of the poem and the gaps within it. You’ve written in your essays about Oppen and contrasted him with Keats, on the mechanics of holding back and the current view of it. You’ve said, the solution to difficult silences isn’t more words. Do you think these solutions could be technical, craft solutions or are they always within the reader?
The same reader could read George Oppen (a hero of mine) and …
William Carlos Williams?
Another hero. But Williams is not silent in the same way Oppen is.
Yes, you describe William’s scampering vitality – you call Oppen his celestial counterpart – you say Oppen’s mind craves abstraction.
With Oppen there’s so much thinking that goes on in the white space between stanzas. You have to replicate the thinking in order to start to read the next stanza.
I think your poems work like that. One example that comes immediately to mind is ‘The Garment’ from Vita Nova.7
Oh well I try – I know he succeeds. I think that what he does in the best poems and even in the less good poems is control absolutely the whole orchestra of sound, which includes the silent spaces; he makes them dense with meaning and action. In that essay in Proofs & Theories I talk about ‘Street’:
Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor –
The sigh of the beginning – the conventional liberal sigh – is immediately complicated by juxtaposition. But to understand the argument with the self, Oppen’s characteristic dialectic, you have to understand the white space – the steps that are omitted or compressed make clear what’s being refuted.
Those marvellous last lines invite refutation for me:
The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good …
You say of the reading skills that are the corollary of the mechanics of the writer holding back that they’re not being deployed?
There’s a little bit more. I’m making generalisations that don’t hold up but I think there are a lot of readers who prefer to be, in some way, spoonfed. But then there’s also a contemporary poetry that’s built on disjunction and seemingly arbitrary connections and I think those poets feel that content is sentimental I guess –
I’ve heard it argued that way –
Most of the work I see like that I think is pretty boring. It’s very hard to tell one artist from another. If investment is in disjunction how many versions of disjunction are there? They’re infinite but they have no character.
Returning to Oppen, which requires you enter his thought process, do you think that’s done consciously by him? Do you do it consciously or instinctively?
I have no idea what Oppen does but I know what the effect is.
What’s he doing?
I like poems that swerve. They seem to be going in one direction and all of a sudden they’re going in another direction. They contain a multitude of tones. That’s what I try to do in my poems, get as many tones in the air as possible.
Can you give examples?
I think of John Berryman, but I’ve sort of wearied of John Berryman so he’s not the example I would choose to stand by, but he did this, there are a lot of wild swervings in those Dream Songs,8 abrupt transitions. But that’s not what Oppen is doing at all. He’s basically maintaining a ruminative trajectory not all of which is embodied in language, so that not every piece of the thinking is narrated. If you’re sewing something there are these moments when the thread disappears under the cloth and then miraculously reappears somewhere else.
Can you say something about the humanity and hope which emerges from your work? The way you vest it with comment on feelings and experience, the effect of the eye that internalises and analyses what it sees and then does the making?
I’ve said before that writing is the writer’s revenge against circumstance. There’s that which happens, which in many cases one would not have chosen. One feels obliterated by an event. But if a poem can be made out of a catastrophe, then in a way the event has been triumphed over or bested or some insight exacted from it. There are times when I experience this quite literally, when it’s clear to me that something awful in my life yields a poem of which I’m very proud. It becomes impossible to grieve over the awful thing because the awful thing has become the poem.
Would you say that was the case with Vita Nova?
I would say that was more the case with the poem ‘October’ from Averno.9 I was in a minor car mishap which caused very bad whiplash – I had never had physical pain that was that bad, that went on so long. It seemed pretty much interminable and it seemed to me that it was going to silence me; ruin my life. I have a friend, a great novelist named Kathryn Davis, and she had just written a book I particularly loved called Versailles.10 It’s a spectacular piece of work. Kathy had had a neck injury also; apparently her neck was hurting when that book was written and I said, ‘It was? You wrote that great book when you were having neck spasms?’ She said, ‘Why do you think I wrote about Marie Antoinette?’ Suddenly it seemed possible that there could be an imaginative life that co-existed with what was, at that point, considerable pain. And that’s what ‘October’ was.
- Woman with Birthmark, Pantheon (2009)
- Ararat, The Echo Press (1990)
- A Village Life, Farrar Straus and Giroux (2009)
- I’m Not There, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0368794
- Spoon River Anthology, Macmillan & Co (1915)
- Proofs & Theories, Essays on Poetry, The Echo Press (1994)
- Vita Nova, The Echo Press (1999)
- Dream Songs, John Berryman (1964)
- Averno, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2006)
- Versailles, Houghton Mifflin Company (2002)
- I’m Not There, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0368794
This interview is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.