First Takes with Matthew Guenette
Almost Bibilical: An Interview with Michael Waters
When Southern Indiana Review asked if I was interested in interviewing
Michael Waters, I hesitated. Mr. Waters is, after all, among the finest poets of his generation, a writer I have long considered a poet’s poet, an innovative technician with an illuminating, wry, and ever-empathetic voice. I was first introduced to his poetry over fifteen years ago, when I decided to pursue an MFA. In Mr. Waters I found a poet whose
work challenged me, not just to strive for that marriage between content and form, but to think hard about the effort a committed artist needs to make in order to grow. Though I was a little nervous—okay, more than a little nervous—to conduct the interview, there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to have a conversation with a poet who seems to have mastered his craft. I hope what follows will, for those already familiar with Michael Waters,
broaden the context of his poetry with added insight and nuance. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Waters, let this interview serve as an introduction to a poet whose work continues to astound.
Matthew Guenette: To give some context to your decision to write poetry,
would you talk some about what it was—a particular poem (or poems, or poet)
or perhaps a particular event—that led you not only to start reading poetry, but
to start writing it?
Michael Waters: My father read Robert Service’s poems to me when I was very
young. He loved “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and I took pleasure in the
sounds of words (“moil” and “marge”) before I understood their meaning. There
was a contractor named Leo Brandino who would recite Hugh Antoine D’Arcy’s
1887 ballad “The Face on the Barroom Floor” in the talent show at Pine Grove
House in the Catskills where we’d vacation each summer. His rendition was very
dramatic and he wept as he pretended to draw Madeline’s face on the floor before
he pretended to drop dead. Nevertheless, my mother would take first prize by
belting out her rendition of the murder ballad “Frankie and Johnnie.” Those
narratives informed my boyhood, as did those of the pop songs of 1958-1963:
“Up on the Roof” (The Drifters) and “One Fine Day” (The Chiffons) by Gerry
Goffin and Carole King; “Yakety Yak” (The Coasters) by Jerry Leiber and Mike
Stoller; the paeans to revenge, such as “What’s A Matter Baby”(Timi Yuro) by
Otis Byer and “Hats Off to Larry” written and sung by Del Shannon. I loved the
loopy similes of “Tiger” (Fabian) by Ollie Jones:
Wonderfully awful! Still, hearing “Tiger” (1959) at nine years old brought
diction to my attention, and those lyricists sometimes managed phrasings of
great beauty. Later, a song such as “Brown Eyed Girl” (1967) by Van Morrison
would catch me:
How Wordsworthian! Think of the Lucy poems: “But she is in her grave, and,
oh, / The difference to me!” AM radio was my first poetry anthology.
DOG IN SPACE ___________________
-from Gospel Night (BOA Editions, 2011)
Other early influences were the Latin of the Catholic Church and the street
slang of Brooklyn, words and phrases like “dibs” and “fuckin’ A!” I was also
reading, of course: the Hardy Boys series, non-fiction by Dr. Tom Dooley, The
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I was moving toward the Beats.
Guenette: When you consider the remarkable success you’ve had as a poet—
the success you continue to have—what has surprised you about the evolution of
your aesthetic and your own ideas about what it is that makes a poem?
Waters: I’m not sure what you mean by “success.” This isn’t false modesty.
I’m lucky to have books published and to be invited here and there. I hope I’ve
written some poems that readers might hold close, just as others have written
poems that have lodged themselves in me, that inform my life “as I walk out
bravely into the daily accident,” as Alan Dugan put it.
When I began writing seriously at eighteen, the poems progressed through
associative imagery. Their influences were both the Beats and, a little later, the
“deep Imagists.” There were also poems, though, written in imitation of Richard
Wilbur, rhymed quatrains that attempted meter. I was voracious in my reading,
and bought books in second-hand stores in the East Village, including almost
every book of poetry that had been published by Macmillan and Wesleyan and
City Lights and Grove Press in the early 60s, each for less than a buck apiece.
Over four decades my poems have moved from loose free verse to tighter free
verse making use of stanzaic structures to even tighter syllabic verse. The focus
has been more and more on the integrity of the line. Conrad stated: “A work of
art should carry its justification in every line.” One reason I’ve not attempted
much prose fiction is that the sentence as an integral unit interests me much less
than the line does. I’ve also focused on sound work, agreeing with John Logan
who insisted “a poem is not a poem unless it has an essential surface to it which
is musical in character.”
This is stating the obvious, but how the poem is written is at least as important
as what the poem has to say. The two elements shouldn’t be separate. When they
are, what remains is half a poem. You may remember what the poem is about,
but not the words themselves. The piece may as well have been written as prose.
Or if the piece is not “about”—“I cannot write about,” Samuel Beckett stated—
you may remember only its style. The painter Andrew Wyeth asked, “is it better
to say nothing brilliantly than to say a great deal inadequately?” You ask about my
aesthetic: I would prefer to say more than nothing more than adequately!
Guenette: Could you talk a little bit about your process as a poet?
Waters: I still work on only one poem at a time. I’ve never been able to work any
other way. My process of revision takes place line by line as the poem progresses.
I make lists of words in all margins and keep Randall Jarrell in mind: “If I can
think of it, it isn’t what I want.” I love to find words like “sozzled” and “reechy,”
and to put together strings of words that sound fresh as they clamor against each
other. Originality in poetry comes less from ideas than from the language itself,
the way certain words in a certain order isolate a moment, or rent the fabric
of time, or create a God-stipple, or… however one wants to describe it. “The
purpose of poetry,” Milan Kundera wrote about Goethe, “is not to try to dazzle us
with an astonishing thought, but to make one moment of existence unforgettable
and worthy of unbearable nostalgia.”
Guenette: As a poet, you have been fortunate to work in an academic context.
How has your writing informed your teaching?
Waters: Some folks may find that funny: “fortunate to work in an academic
context.” There are many fine poets outside the universities, of course. “Everybody
needs a job,” Mary Oliver writes in “Singapore,” and I have been fortunate, though
I’m not sure how many poets in an academic context feel comfortable among
their colleagues. My writing has informed my teaching less than my teaching has
informed my writing. Teaching forces me to articulate ideas about literature, and
so much of that literature, especially, for me, American literature, has situated
itself in my own work. Early on, my deep reading in Hawthorne and Poe and
Melville, for example, and in Stephen Crane and James and Wharton and
the Modernists, provided a sense of an American literary continuum in which
contemporary writers still must find their place. I know, I know, all those dead,
white, and (some would argue) phallocentric males…are there folks who really
think that these writers no longer have anything to offer us? Later, of course,
I would fill in the gaps by immersing myself in Hurston, McKay, H.D., Nella
Larsen, Mina Loy, and so many others. And many writers read in translation
influenced me in ways I can only partially recognize. I encourage my students to
read voraciously, not to follow trends, to toss everyone into the great mix.
My writing has informed my teaching in that it’s possible to approach these
works as less of an outsider and more as someone also engaged in the craft, as one
who acknowledges the roles that luck and intuition and the less conscious mind
play in any creative process.
Guenette: Which contemporary poets do you find particularly exciting, and why?
Waters: Free verse is a search for form, for what William Carlos Williams called
“an aberrant structure,” and poets such as Kimiko Hahn and Carol Frost extend
that search in their work. Some of our venerable elders, such as Gerald Stern,
Maxine Kumin, and Philip Levine, continue to write poems of great consequence.
Stern has a voice like no other American poet’s, and Kumin and Levine approach
thorny subjects with luminous clarity. I miss Lucille Clifton and Ruth Stone,
their works’ beautiful eccentricities.
THE BOOK OF CONSTELLATIONS___________________
-from Darling Vulgarity (BOA Editions, 2006)
If Willie Nelson’s heroes have always been cowboys, mine have been writers,
artists, and musicians.
Guenette: In much of your work there’s a reoccurring theme of a brush with the
sacred—“The Bells” for instance, with that sublime image of the priest and his “cassock-clad
boys” looking over the ledge at the narrator’s wife who is there sunbathing,
“sprawled, naked.” But as “The Bells” make clear, the sacred so often inhabits a limnal
space with the transgressive, even the comic. Could you comment on this?
Waters: “Even in religious fervor,” Walt Whitman wrote in his essay “Democratic
Vistas” (1871), “there is a touch of animal heat.” Erotic imagination and
receptivity have been neglected in recent poetry by heterosexual males, though
we find it celebrated, often explicitly, in contemporary gay and lesbian poetry,
so much of which I admire. “Our erotic knowledge empowers us,” writes Audre
Lorde in “The Uses of the Erotic,” “becomes a lens through which we scrutinize
all aspects of our existence.” Feminism may have muted straight male sexuality
in poetry, male poets perhaps afraid of the seeming braggadocio of such writing,
and afraid, too, especially in an academic environment, of any accusation of sexism.
Some folks may think this good. Lorde, though, continues: an “important way in
which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my
capacity for joy, in the way my body stretches to music and opens into response,
harkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the
erotically satisfying experience whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing
a poem, or examining an idea.” Think of William Carlos Williams’ “Danse Russe.”
But think also of The Song of Songs, as translated by Ariel and Chana Bloch, that
explicit celebration of erotic love between man and woman in which God is never
mentioned. I want all aspects of eroticism to inform our literature.
-Sanctuary Basilica, Malta
-from Gospel Night (BOA
In On the Nature of Things Erotic, F. Gonzalaz-Crussi reminds us, “The purpose of
the erotic is not the subjugation of the weak by the autocratic and powerful, but the
creation, out of the two commingled beings, of a new and more perfect entity.”
Guenette: It would be tempting—and easy—to describe your poetry as narrative.
Yet there are extreme bursts of lyrical intensity illuminating so many of your
poems. What guides you as you move between these gestures? How do you hope
that movement might affect a reader?
Waters: I’m not conscious of “a reader,” or at least I don’t think I am. I would prefer not
to be. John Logan noted that “The first audience is the listening part of yourself,” and
the classical pianist Glenn Gould stated that “the ideal artist-to-audience relationship
is one to zero.” I don’t mean to be dismissive, and certainly I listen to myself as that
imaginary reader might listen to me, so the poem is affected, if not influenced, by some
inchoate notion of audience. What this may mean, finally, is that I prize clarity.
What guides me between narrative and lyric modes is my ear. I want poems
that flow upon and beneath a musical surface, so try to allow syllables, words and
phrases their distinct currents, letting them course and chime down the page.
I also prize sound work, such as rhyme and slant rhyme, syllabic cadence, and
juicy diction, especially where it’s not fully anticipated. A poem should announce
itself unselfconsciously, as poems by Dickinson and Frost, for example, often do.
They enter us, then surprise us with their staying power. The lyric gestures in my
poems mean to make them memorable beyond their stories.
Guenette: You noted something that Conrad said, that “a work of art should
carry its justification in every line”—could you talk more about what guides your
choices toward such an end?
Waters: Conrad may have been thinking about prose, but I like to take his use
of “line” more literally, applying it to poetry, as I do when a visual artist, Matisse,
say, speaks of the use of the line in painting: “One must always search for the
desire of the line, where it wishes to enter, where to die away.” Poetry is written
in lines, even though a single line or several lines may constitute a sentence.
A line should have balance and heft. Each line should be essential to the poem,
interesting and evocative in itself, holding each of the preceding lines in the foreground
while anticipating the lines that follow. Is this really possible? I like to think so.
I try to avoid clutter in my lines, any unnecessary articles and pronouns that
often disrupt a poem’s music and become tedious in their repetitions. I try to
avoid obvious word choice, and to pay attention to the possibilities of syntax.
Let me add another virtue to those of clarity and sound work: cleanliness, which
still lies next to godliness (let’s close with a couplet):