(This post originally ran in October of 2009)
Five Questions for...KATHA POLLITT
asked by NANCY K. MILLER, author of the forthcoming"What They Saved: Pieces of A Jewish Past."
Writing itself is a feminist act, isn't it?
Q: It would be impossible for a reader of your columns in The Nation not to look for politics, especially feminist politics, in your poetry. That reader would soon have to recognize a quite different voice at work here in your new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem. Can you share with us a sense of how you negotiate between your political impulses and your poetic ones, if in fact you feel them to come from different places?
A: Ezra Pound calls poetry “news that stays news.” In other words, poetry, if it’s going to be of interest for more than a moment, takes what’s of the moment to a deeper level. My column deals with what’s happening the week that I write it. That’s a kind of writing that dates very quickly, unfortunately. I think there is a feminist consciousness in my poems—"Lives of the Nineteenth Century Poetesses” and “Re-reading Jane Austen’s Novels” explore the constraints on women writers. “Playground” is about the loneliness of new mothers, unable to talk to each other about their isolation. “Lot’s Wife” is about an oppressive marriage. Beyond that, writing itself is a feminist act, isn’t it? But it’s true that for me poetry and politics come from somewhat different places. There’s more to life—and language-- than can be expressed in a Nation column!
Q: Several twentieth-century women poets—Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, Grace Paley, among them—have written poetry that expresses feminist and political dissent. Do you feel a kinship with these poets? Or are there other contemporary poets—women or men—whose work feels more congenial to your aesthetic?
A: All these poets have written poems I love. Adrienne Rich’s “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” changed the course of American poetry—it’s a profoundly revolutionary book. But dissent is not really what I go to poetry for. I can get that in The Nation. I go to poetry for startling language and a larger, stranger apprehension of life: show me something I don’t know! Make me see the stale and familiar with new eyes. So I love Philip Larkin despite his conservative views: I think he understands the dark side of modern life, perhaps all life, very deeply. And he manages to be both sad and funny, often at the same time. Among contemporary poets I worship, Wislawa Symborska, the Polish Nobel Prize winner, has the exact sense of the tragicomic, the bittersweet, the ironic that I want for my own work. Among Americans, I admire Kay Ryan, the new poet laureate, and Sharon Olds—two more different women poets it would be hard to imagine. Ryan’s poems are odd little jewels of wit and compression, and Olds’ are a rush of passion and confession.
Q:Your latest volume collects poems written since your first, prizewinning book, Antarctic Traveller (1982). The poems are not dated. But many of the poems deal with aging, loss, and other melancholic themes not typically associated with youth. Why did you decide not to date the poems, and not to highlight the question of
aging or retrospection in the title?
A: I don’t see aging and retrospection as themes in the book. My youthful poems had their melancholy side as well. And loss! Where would young poets be without it? To me, my poems are about something else—the gap between the world as bare fact and our ideas and conceptions and theories and longings about it: the mind-body problem. It can be expressed as a conflict between romanticism and hedonism, as in the title poem, in which the mind tyrannizes the simple, pleasure-seeking body “like a cruel medieval baron or an ambitious/ English-professor husband ashamed of his wife.” “Signs and Portents” is about the ways people try to make meaning out of the random—whether it’s children seeing faces in the wallpaper, or ancient shepherds inventing constellations in the stars, or religion. There are quite a few poems on religious subjects in the book; the middle section, “After the Bible,” is my version of nine well-known biblical episodes: Adam and Eve, Moses in the Bulrushes, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jesus’s encounter with the fig tree. The series ends with “Rapture,” the supposed wafting to heaven of the good Christians that some fundamentalists believe is going to happen any minute. Come to think of it, that is quite a political poem!
Q: Your daughter is a character in one of the more explicitly political poems, “Trying to Write a Poem Against the War.” There are also a few, not many, poems that refer to mothers and motherhood, usually refracted from a slightly ironic angle. Do you as a woman poet—a poet who is also a woman—have a sense of refraining from taking the mother/daughter bond as a primary subject?
A: My daughter is a really interesting person—she shows up more as a character in Learning to Drive, my collection of personal essays. But no, I don’t think that because I am a mother I need to write poems about motherhood. After all, how many men have written lots and lots of poems about the “father/child bond”? People these days are obsessed with parenthood, and with children—their own children, that is—but frankly, I’m tired of reading about it. There was a historical moment when it was new and fresh and daring for women to claim motherhood as a poetical subject, to say that female experience and the daily lives of women are as important and as profound as anything men write about; you can make art—great art—out of changing a diaper. Plath and Sexton did that. But that was nearly half a century ago. I think the point has been made. Today, motherhood is just one subject among a thousand.
Q: What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to be a poet today?
A: Read, read, read. Write, write, write!