I love the poem, “In Time to Miss America’s Long Hangover,” which brings to life the geography of your childhood and sets the tone for the book.
In Time to Miss America’s Long Hangover
Had a little drink about an
Show me the way to go home.
In apartment basements, town houses,
lofts’ back rooms, dance studios,
speakeasies hidden away
in offices, cellar dives, construction
sites, even across
from the police station, even right under
the cops’ noses, everyone drank.
The setup: a bucket
of ice, glasses, soda water. Order:
ginger ale, bootleg liquor
brought out later, under
a white cloth dinner napkin, alcohol added
in the kitchen bar.
But life began, in America
the beautiful, lapping up booze
after dark, the let’s-
The mirrors covered,
my father’s body beneath a sheet,
the party’s over when you least
I’m tired and I want to go to bed.
Could you talk a little more about your father?
One interesting part of this to me. I feel no shame about my father’s illegal activities. Instead I have a kind of romantic vision of him.
My father was high up in the New Jersey mob, a fact you would think I would be ashamed of. Instead in my imagination, I have reconstructed him as a dashing Gatsby figure. From what I have been told, perhaps he was. He made a lot of money, all illegal, and spent it. We had, as my poems tell, two maids, a chauffeur and my parents took trips to London and Cuba. No doubt on Mob business.
Growing up I was told by my aunt many times that my mother should never have married him. That he was violent. In my poems I create him as a man who overcame the poverty of immigrant Newark, New Jersey to live the American Dream.
And your mother? In two of the poems, in the last poem, “Edward Hopper: Outside the Frame” and in the poem, “Racketeer’s Wife,” she is waiting for your father to come home. And in the poem, “James and Mr. Harry,” she almost throws herself into your father’s grave. She sounds so tragic.
Again I don’t know very much about her. From her photo I could see she was beautiful and dressed beautifully. Like my father, I make her into a glamorous figure who must have become disillusioned with the underside of the riches she enjoyed. I was told she was madly in love with him when they married but toward the end of his life, became disillusioned with him. I have no evidence he was actually violent toward her but was told she had to stay home and be the “Pure wife” while he went out to his nightclub. Again much as this is speculation and imagining on my part.
After you parents died, you were raised by aunts and uncles? The poems about your uncles are such a sharp contrast to the poems about your parents. It feels like two worlds. I am wondering if you could say a few words about the relatives who raised you . . . and those different worlds?
My uncles were men without education who were subordinate to my father. After he died, and they no longer worked for him, but both had trades. They were butchers though the uncle who helped raise me was also a bookie. I don’t really know how cultivated my parents became. They had the veneer of the bourgeoisie or nouveau riche with a grand piano, expensive cars. If I had really known them, hard them speak, interacted with them, I might have found that they were simple people too.
Are there certain poems from the book that you are most apt to select for readings? Or that are your favorites? If so, which ones?
I try to read one villanelle and one sestina from the book because form works well orally. I also read a poem that illustrates the Prohibition period such as “Invocation/Intoxication.” And I might read one about the historical figures like Josephine Baker. But generally I vary what I read. You never really know which poems a particular audience will like.
I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about your writing habits. When do you write? How do you edit your poems? When do you know a poem or a book is finished?
My writing habits are easy to explain. If I am not doing those things that constitute a life: seeing friends, going to the theatre or concerts, out to dinner, chores, teaching a course, I am writing. I revise poems daily or work on the ordering of a manuscript. And I always have a manuscript in progress. The hard part is getting a fresh poem that I am emotionally invested in. These don’t come every day.
In the poem, “In Newark,” you wrote “I found my first poets, pastoral all, /the gift that saved me.” Who were these poets? What poets and writers have influenced you over the years?
The first poets that influenced me were the African-American poets Countee Cullen, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes. I wrote my first poem at 12, influenced by Dunbar’s dialect poems, about a tomcat pouncing on little mouse. And it rhymed. Becausefrom childhood on I identified with the underdog and because of their directness, these poets spoke to me. The next poet who influenced me was Muriel Rukeyser, particularly her “Effort at Speech Between Two People”which I read at age 14. It was as if I were the speakere of that poem, lonely isolated, trying to communicate those feeling. I also admired her political poems which spoke out against oppression. The next phase of my poetic development began at age 21 when I took my first poetry class at the New School with Stanley Kunitz. His poem “The Portrait” about his mother never forgiving his father for commiting suicide has never left me. Similarly Diane Wakoski’s “George Washington, Father of our Country,” about her father was a tremendous influence. As were and are the poems of Sylvia Plath (I wrote my dissertation on her) for her brilliant images and her wit and rhyme in portraying her dark inner and outer world. I would add to this list Gerald Stern — I relate to almost all his historical, literary references, Paul Celan, Pablo Neruda, particularly his Odes, Czeslaw Milosz, innumerable Irish poets, like Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney. Also Derek Walcott for his amazing beautiful language, Philip Schultz and Sharon Olds for their honesty, and so many more.
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