This book, The Bar of the Flattened Heart, is like a perfectly spiced wine with its mix of sorrow, magic, heartache, bitterness, and a dash of humor thrown in to lighten the experience. I don’t think there’s a poem in it that I don’t like, but I particularly admire the opening poem and the poem, “Making Up a New Bed.”
In “Making Up a New Bed,” I love the lines: “At the end of the evening,/ we are, each of us, the heroes/ of our own adventures,/revising the stories to make a happy ending.” I wanted to start the interview with that poem.
Making Up a New Bed
I went back to pick up the last
of the books shoved in a closet.
Emptied of old clothes and arguments
the place seemed different.
I avoided passing the bedroom
with its thousands of stories,
an entire Arabian Nights
I could not bear someone else hearing.
By the telephone I found a note
she’d left herself on an envelope:
Only a rat would run out on you
when you need him.
It wasn’t how I’d tell the story.
Now, clumsily, I will begin to take back my
name, and she hers, not quite sure
whom they mean. No one will telephone,
and begin with “it’s me.”
At the end of the evening,
we are, each of us, the heroes
of our own adventures,
revising the stories to make a happy ending.
With material this thin, who
but a rat would take on such work?
I so admire your subtle wit—it’s almost like an observational wit at times. In the poem “Silences” for example, you write: “He wondered if she really wanted to kiss him; it could have/ been just habit, that perfunctory kiss grownups practiced,/ nothing more than hello.” Do you use humor consciously in your poems? Or is it just in your nature—a way of seeing the world?
I don’t use humor, or maybe I should say, I don’t try to use it. But if it shows up, I don’t cut it out, either. It’s probably just engrained in me. I like your term “observational wit.”
Certainly, it keeps off anger or hurt, the humor, even if it’s not always intended to. Sometimes I’m not even aware that lines in the poems are funny until someone points this out. Then, of course, I’m inclined to go with them.
I also love the poem, “Taking on the Past,” for its wit and honesty. In the poem, a telephone rings, and you keep writing, philosophizing, and not answering, only to end with: “Oh, go ahead, see what the phone wants.”
I remember overhearing someone saying that telephone calls are almost always about the past, though they pretend to be about the future. That seemed an interesting statement, so I just stretched it out a bit.
Could you tell me a little bit about your life as a poet? Your sources of inspiration? Other interests and occupations?
I used to say I’d grown up in the theaters and orchestra pits of Boston, which is only partly true. I did not teach in a college writing program. I worked in a nursery school and as an editor, in that way I had the space I needed to develop myself as a writer. It took a long time. For the last sixteen years I worked as a house carpenter, which was lovely– no committees, no papers to grade, etc.
Could you talk a little bit about the evolution of The Bar of the Flattened Heart?
I don’t know if it evolved. I tend to write poems over a long period of time without any sense of how they will fit together, trusting that whatever interests me is connected just by being in my mind. Then, I get someone like Baron Wormser to see what kind of organization it will take on. I seem unable to do that by myself.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a poet?
Not to get pretentious, but that’s what every writer has to face. How to keep Making It New, as Ezra Pound warned us. How not to get bland. I always have poets like the late Jack Wiler in the back of my mind, pushing me to make it more nasty, if you will.
Who are your primary literary influences?
I always hoped it would be James Merrill, when I was his student in Madison, but that would have killed me, he was so elegant and sophisticated. so I turned helplessly to John Berryman and people like that as models. Later on, Bill Matthews, certainly, and Alicia Ostriker, as well as non-poets–Krazy Kat, Damon Runyon, those sorts. I love the way they speak.
Are you working on a new manuscript yet? And if so, does it have a theme?
I’m kind of just fiddling around, as usual, hoping something will come my way.
People often ask me the question, “What inspired you to become a poet?” I have never had a good answer to the question, so I thought I’d ask you.
One year, I took a poetry course at Iowa State University, not Iowa City where I grew up, in order to write better term papers. I fell in love with poetry instead. Ted Kooser was in some of my classes. He grew up in my hometown, a couple of years ahead of me. I had to promise myself not to quit until age 30, when I started to be serious about it and the rest is history.
I’d love to close with a poem from The Bar of the Flattened Heart.
The Way of My Education
Hat in the air’s one way to say it,
or, thinking like dancing.
The man with the hat in the Magritte
has no head. It floats above him,
above what he knows of the world.
Here inside the window
flowers shift and shimmer like sounds.
How long is a year
or a 45-foot anaconda? One could measure
but not know. Or is it
to understand without measuring?
The second time you see the painting,
it’s still amusing, but like a concept. There. Now
who wants a story? Thank you.
Every time my parents asked me
to do something with my mind,
I responded with my hands.
I’m sorry the world shrinks.
I can walk upon the surface
of a piece of paper, leaving
sparks that look like stars and more stars.
It is not “monkey business” when you think
of the experiment where the two men
measured the speed of light
using a surface the size of a ping-pong table.
May pearls come before spring swine,
er, I mean the sunshine. Oh let’s all go down
to the Homer Spit
and spit in the cold, geometric water.