University of Southern Indiana

Michael Waters

Almost Biblical: 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:

I’m feelin’ stronger than a grizzly bear
Soarin’ like an eagle flyin’ through the air
When I get you in my arms, you’d better beware
I go insane ‘cause I can’t be tamed

Like a tiger, ooh, ooh, ooh, like a tiger ooh, ooh, ooh
Just to see you smile nearly drives me wild
I wanna growl    wow!

You keep my heart jumpin’ like a kangaroo
Floatin’ like an onion in a bowl of stew
Baby, ev’ry time you come in view
I run like an antelope to get to you

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:

Cast my memory back there, Lord
Sometimes I’m overcome thinkin’ ’bout it

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 ___________________

Friday nights on WINS
Murray the K counted down the Top Ten.
A boy who loved the idea of order—
All objects having their place in the world—
I recorded each hit, its spot on the chart,
Then rummaged for meaning in weekly lists
As solemn scholars combed Dead Sea Scrolls.
The names of songs seemed almost Biblical—
My rapt concentration a kind of prayer,
Though only a Russian dog gazed down.
Tin Pan Alley was my chapel as cheap
Transistors spewed revival. Ecstatic
Cries suffused Brooklyn wilderness.
The lists warned how sinners would be ranked,
Culled from mausoleums come Judgment Day.
I Will Follow Him. It’s Now or Never.
Like a smash hit played each hour all summer,
The canine cosmonaut spun overhead.
If I searched hard when the countdown ended,
I could spot the spark of the satellite
Among mute stars, crossing the sky, then hear
The weak, unanswered bark.

-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.

       -Dominican Republic 

We’d forgotten, again, The Book of Constellations,
so stretched on sand, unable
to finger even one winter warrior, to sketch one
creature lumbering shaggily
past muted heroes assembled star by star by God.
Or by man who squints below,
imposing myth in fearful murk upon far heavens.
No brilliance here. One hand stalks
crabwise into yours as husked coconuts plunge earthward.
We attempt slight revisions:
naming constellations after less mythical beings
who ruined our half-century
by harming helpless creatures left briefly in their charge:
Idi Amin, Ceauşescu,
Marcos, Pinochet, the Papa Docs and Baby Docs,
that hypocritical fool
Strom Thurmond dragged to hell fifty-three years past his time,
Pope John Paul—but then we stop.
When did human love mutate into this reptilian
seething that makes us despise
ourselves? Whose hand in mine? So we revise: Noguchi,
Miles, Allen Ginsberg, Balthus,
Joe Strummer, Raymond Carver, Muriel Rukeyser,
Bob Marley and Audre Lorde!—
heroic trespassers thrumming heaven’s negative
spaces, prodding the icy
stars to wheel once more and assume fierce grandeur with each
invocation of their names,
who kindle such generative, indelible fires
across the universe, yes,
our only universe, dear God, beloved, amen.

-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.

THE BELLS______________________________
       -Sanctuary Basilica, Malta

Pale novitiates flocked the bell tower
To shadow my wife one rooftop below.
Oiled, asleep, she remained unaware
Of cassock-clad boys pivoting the ledge
Until the priest appeared to knell their shame
The precise moment—punctual sinner—
I bumped open the rooftop door, bearing
In each fist a flute, orange fizz daubing
The blistered tar, the riotous mimosas
Two more slender flames expanding the near
Suburbs of hell where she sprawled, naked, stunned
Speechless on gaudy towels, below breathless
Boys, riding the pitch, not so far from God.

-from Gospel Night (BOA Editions, 2011)

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):

and remains in close proximity
to erotic receptivity.

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