Published: April 16th, 2015
Ron Padgett is an acclaimed American poet and Pulitzer Prize finalist in Poetry. He is also an essayist, fiction writer, and translator. Padgett has earned the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry and the 2015 Robert Creeley Award.
To read the review of Padgett's newest collection of poetry put out by Coffee House Press, Alone and Not Alone, click here.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Padgett: Poems (and prose pieces) can start in a lot of different ways. With me it’s not always a matter of waiting for a sort of divine inspiration to strike my brain. Sometimes it can be something as ordinary and boring as a doorknob. As for process, these days I seem to wait until something—a single word, maybe—sends me to the keyboard, where I just start saying things, and then one thing leads to another, and I follow along trying to keep up.
Howl: How do you edit your poetry?
Padgett: Sometimes I edit as I write, though I try to keep that side of me from getting in the way of writing. After I finish a draft, I put it away and forget about it. When I go back to it, sometimes many months later, it’s as if it had been written by someone else. This makes it easier for me to find its bad spots and set about fixing them.
Howl: Why do you feel that poetry is your creative medium of choice?
Padgett: Because my abilities in other artistic forms are virtually non-existent. My friend, Joe Brainard, once said that he became an artist because he couldn’t be a movie star. Fortunately, he was a terrific artist (and writer). After the age of 14, when I got hooked on poetry writing, I lost all interest in having a profession. But to try to answer your question, instead of avoiding it (as I have above), would require a long essay. The short answer is: I don’t know.
Howl: Many of your poems have a form that fits the content, whether rhyming or free verse, lack of punctuation or prose poem. How do you go about finding the perfect “vessel” for the poem you wish to write?
Padgett: I don’t go about it in advance, because 99% of the time I don’t know what poem I might want to write. I just start writing. The poet, Yeats, said, “How can you tell the dancer from the dance?” I like poems in which you can’t separate the form from the content. They’re like two sides of the same coin.
Howl: Your collection of poetry in Alone and Not Alone tackles the past, memories, thoughts on death and dying. As you’ve aged, how have you seen your poetry evolve?
Padgett: I can now say and do things in poems that I couldn’t do or say when I was 18 or 30 or 45. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the poems are any better than the ones I wrote years ago. Honestly, I don’t like to think much about how my writing has changed. It’s too close to being vain.
Howl: People rarely think about it, but the order of the poems in a collection can drastically influence the readers’ overall experience with the book. When putting together a collection of poetry, such as your latest, how do you determine which poems go where and next to this one or that?
Padgett: I’m glad you asked, because I do put a lot of thought into the sequence of poems in my books. First I look for the opening poem, preferably one that is relatively brief and welcoming to the reader. I see it as a doorway, with the door open, inviting the reader in. “Come into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly. Then I sequence the poems in a way that would, I hope, make it interesting for a reader to jump from poem to poem. But very few people read poetry books from front to back. I don’t. Anyway, as I work on the arrangement, I keep on the lookout for a poem that seems to have a feeling of finality or conclusiveness, something that feels right coming as the last poem. I’m making this process sound analytical, when in fact it’s mainly gut reaction.
Howl: From Alone and Not Alone, there is a sense of sharing as a main theme. As you speak about death and dying, there is a sense of immortality in sharing your thoughts in poetry with others. As your last poem, which the book is named after, suggests, there is also a strange pleasure in reading the poetry of another - a sense of sharing time and space momentarily. What inspired you to share this particular collection of personal poems with your readership? Was there a particular goal in mind as you dedicated this book to your son, Wayne?
Padgett: I put this book together for the same reason I’ve put all my books together: I like to make books. I think, though, that this particular book had another motivation: I wanted to prove to myself that, after my previous book, an 800-page monster called Collected Poems, I was still alive and writing. Deciding on the dedication came last in the process. I think I wanted to publicly declare my love and admiration for my son who, poor guy, has had to put up with having a poet for a father. (“What does your father do for a living?” “He’s, uh, he’s a, uh, poet.”)
Howl: When I read your poem, “One Thing Leads to Another,” I got caught on the part that reads:
You can’t believe
how charged everything is
because it is meaningless
It made me wonder about the analysis all readers surmise after reading literature. What responsibility do you think the writer has for the reader and perhaps, vice versa?
Padgett: Once something is published, it’s out of my hands and beyond my control. Someone once said that there’s the text on the one hand and the reader on the other, and when the two come together it creates the poem. As the creator of the text, I’m only part of that equation. As for feeling a responsibility toward a reader, no, I don’t. I don’t want to be rude or cruel to the reader, but feeling a responsibility would be too much of a burden for me. And I don’t think the reader should feel any responsibility toward me. Life is already complicated enough! The good news is that no one has to read my poems, except maybe for students whose teachers make them read it. As a kid I hated being forced to read poetry for school, though I read a lot of poetry on my own, especially far-out contemporary poetry. I wanted to be far-out and contemporary.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Padgett: “Budding writers.” Outside my window a tree is budding right now. It’s fun to imagine young writers as trees. Well, anyway, back to your question about advice. Read, read, read a lot, of all kinds of writing, from all times and cultures, and keep doing it your whole life. And, when you feel discouraged about your own writing, remember that that’s part of the game—it happens to everyone—and just keep plowing ahead. The world, in its own subtle ways, will try to stop you, but don’t let it. Unless you find something you feel more passionate about.
Howl: Howl is a student-run high school literary magazine. You had a high school magazine as well and were able to get acclaimed poets like Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg to contribute to your publication. Please, if you will, tell us what that experience was like for you as a student and budding writer?
Padgett: The magazine that I and some buddies published wasn’t a school-sponsored project. We did it on our own. When we started it, in 1958, we simply wrote letters to writers we admired and asked them for work. They complied, and with wonderful generosity. At that time, Ginsberg was known, but not so well known as he became, and he wasn’t really “acclaimed,” and Creeley was known only to a limited number of fans of contemporary poetry. Being in touch with Allen and Bob, as well as Jack Kerouac and others, made me feel connected to the world—the real, vital literary world—outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I lived. It was exhilarating. By the way, I can look out of my window and see the windows in the apartment where Allen spent his last days. He would have been delighted to know that your magazine is named after his poem.