Published: November 2nd, 2013
Robert Pinsky is a poet, essayist, translator, and literary critic from New Jersey. In 1996 he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. From 1997 to 2000 Pinsky was the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress where he founded the Favorite Poem Project in which people from around the country of all ages share their favorite poetry. In 2002, he was a guest star on The Simpsons and has made numerous appearances on The Colbert Report. Pinsky's poetry is known for its lyrical nature, as the poet is a loyal jazz aficionado. His second “PoemJazz” CD, from Circumstantial Productions, is House Hour.
Howl: I really liked your poem "The Night Game," and I was curious to know what your inspiration was behind it.
Pinsky: I've loved sports, watching and playing, all my life. My father was an athlete, played hardball, football, basketball for a team called The Jewish Aces. And my first night baseball game, at Fort Monmouth in my home town, made a tremendous impression. I was nine years old. Whitey Ford was coaching first base for the home team. The whole thing, bright uniforms and field, the contrasting black sky, was magical for me. It was like...poetry.
Howl: What is your typical inspiration when writing poetry in general?
Pinsky: Sometimes, as with "The Night Game," it's a memory.
Often it's something great in another art: music or TV or movie or standup comic or building or painting. Maybe a comic strip. (I love the rich, crowded language and images of Bill Griffith and Walt Kelly.) Maybe a piece I know pretty well, the Brahms clarinet quintet or Lee Andrews and the Hearts’ "Long Lonely Nights" or the movie "Sullivan's Travels" but sometimes it's something I see or hear for the first time. A story by Anton Chekhov or Isaac Babel, a passage in Willa Cather's Song of the Lark, an episode of "South Park" or "Breaking Bad."
Sometimes it's both, the work of art combined with the memory. I might like the little oboe break in Charlie Parker's version of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," and maybe find myself trying to imagine a set of syllable-sounds that resemble it. I'll remember the smell of the print shop I was taken to as a child, that heavy ink, the machines and chemicals behind reading, an enchanted skill and pastime I had recently acquired.
Howl: When writing a poem, do you do it in a specific way or write down what comes to you no matter where you are or what you're doing?
Pinsky: Strictly speaking "writing" and "write down" may not be the right terms. I get a kind of word-tune or sentence-tune in my head, and I try to follow where it goes. It's a matter of listening, and of trying what I hear transformed into my actual or imagined voice. It takes place in my ears and my voice and feelings, more than in my fingers holding a pen or typing at a keyboard. In my vocal imagination let’s say.
Howl: What advice would you give to young poets and people aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
Pinsky: The advice is in my new book, Singing School. The book is an attempt to answer that question usefully and candidly, in a small space. Basically, the advice is to find writing you think is magnificent and to study it faithfully. Get it by heart, type it up or write it out longhand. Save it in your personal, particular, unique anthology of inspiring models. Have a computer file called “Anthology” or “Day Book” or “Treasury.”
Howl: How would you describe your style of writing?
Pinsky: Reckless, musical, attentive and quick-moving.
Howl: Who inspired you to become a poet?
Pinsky: Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, William Butler Yeats, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, William Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ben Jonson and others.
Howl: What is the effect you hope your writing has on the reader?
Pinsky: Wanting to say to oneself the words I put together. Pleasure in those words in that order, a desire to hear them again. Something like the desire to enjoy a certain, familiar piece of music. The feeling depicted in the videos at: http://www.favoritepoem.org.
Howl: What inspired you to write "Stupid Meditation on Peace"?
Pinsky: That is one of the few poems I have written on request or commission, The Manhae Foundation, a Buddhist organization in Korea, had a world conference of poets, at a monastery in – this is quite unusual – North Korea. At a Buddhist temple in North Korea! Poets from Africa, South America, Asia, Australia, Europe gathered there and we were each asked to write a poem about peace. We sent handwritten manuscripts which they framed and put on a long wall. I tried to take the assignment seriously, but also to play with it, to resist my own shyness about writing on that topic and to use the shyness. I was inspired partly by the great comedian Sid Caesar, whose autobiography I quote in the poem. A man of profound insight, but as he conveys in the book, at heart and in his genius more restless than peaceful. And a profound master of stupidity. (Which is in keeping with some Buddhist traditions, I guess!)
Howl: If you could go back and change a direction you took for your writing, what would it be and why?
Pinsky: I think that at each point I took the direction I needed to take. I had no choice but to follow what was possible, to listen and watch and think. It’s less like choosing a direction than finding ways to keep afloat and progressing in choppy waters.