CD: Jack, your poems have so much human presence and pressure
in them. Do you achieve this by working on the poems or by living
your life? Or both?
JG: I don't write poems as a way of writing a poem. I think I'm more
prone to writing a poem on something I think I see or know or un-
derstand that is new. It's like what I've said about having an illicit
relationship. [Gilbert goes on to explain that it's not about cheating
or getting laid or physical pleasure, but about the "emotional quality"
in that apartment, and that it can't last. He continues...]
...I want to confront death in my poetry. Like in
the lines I read last night from my poem "A Brief for the Defense."
"Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies / aren't starv-
ing someplace, they are starving / someplace else. With flies in their
nostrils. / But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants." We
must not let misery take away our happiness. It's a crazy thing to
say because life can be horrifying. We live in a world that has death
in it, and injustice and all these things. But it's important to go on
being capable of happiness or delight in the world, not to ignore
these other things, but to recognize that we have to build our poems
with a bad terrain. It's just how life is.
CD: Yes, but what I'm amazed by is how you bring that reality, that
life, into a poem, and also how you wed your lyrical craft to what
Matthew Arnold called "high seriousness." [This first question was
suggested to me by Li-Young Lee.]
JG: To get the technicalities straight, so the form is done right, sim-
ple, all the technicalities, I think that's a waste of time. It's nice.
But that's not what great poetry is. I think one of the main things
is simply concrete detail [My bold]. After all, speaking is one of
the newer arts of human beings. Seeing is infinitely older. We react
from seeing something much more than we react from hearing it said.
We are designed to respond to physicality. Like in a basketball game,
the man is going [to] shoot the ball to win the game, is standing there
doing nothing at the line. Now, what he is doing often is visualizing him-
self taking the ball, making it bounce in his hand, lifting the muscle,
shooting, watching it go up and up, and down and down and in
the basket. When he does that, then his body can sense, Oh, I can
do that! And I can imitate that! If you tell me an abstraction then,
it's no good. [My bold.] It may or not get through. Draw me a picture,
make a movie, and let me see. Then I think that's what the large thing
with poetry is. It's not all of it. It's one of the big parts. The concreteness.
Gilbert then discusses how the abstraction of the modern experimentalists and post-modern theorists doesn't work for him because...
It's not human and therefore it can't have an emotional impact on the human
reading the book, and therefore the person reading does not experience
the things we talked about. At least that's how I see it. And if it's not going
to have an emotional impact on the reader, that's ok, but I'm not interested.
[Once again, my bold.]
This interview is an excerpt of one of seven interviews deNiord does with significant 20th century poets. Others are Maxine Kumin, Ruth Stone, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and Lucille Clifton. The remainder of the book is a series of essays about James Wright, Philip Levine, and Robert Lowell.
Chard deNiord is an American author, Poet Laureate of Vermont (2015–2019), poet, and teacher. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz. He is the author of five poetry collections: Asleep in the Fire (1990), Sharp Golden Thorn (2003), Night Mowing(2005), The Double Truth(2011), and Interstate (2015). His new second book of interviews from The University of Pittsburgh Press titled I Would Lie To You If I Could: Interviews with Ten American Poets, was published in the spring of 2018.