Riding the Dragon
An Interview with Joseph Stroud
by Barbara March
JOSEPH STROUD IS THE AUTHOR of five books of poetry: In the Sleep of Rivers(Capra Press), Signatures (BOA Editions), Below Cold Mountain (Copper Canyon Press), Country of Light (Copper Canyon Press), and the most recent, Of This World, New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press), which won the 2010 San Francisco Poetry Center Award for a single outstanding book of poetry published in the previous year by an American poet. It was also a finalist for the PEN Literary Award USA and the Commonwealth Club's California Book Awards, Book of the Year. His work has earned a Pushcart Prize and has been featured on American Public Media's "The Writer's Almanac." In 2006 he received the Witter Bynner Fellowship in Poetry from the Library of Congress, and in 2011, he was given an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The occasion for this interview was his receipt of the prestigious 2014 Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement. He divides his time between Santa Cruz, California, and a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Barbara March: The Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award has been given only sixteen times in the last twenty-five years, and of those only seven were awarded to poets (W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich among them). With a prize of $250,000, it's one of the highest endowed awards for poetry in the country. What did it feel like to receive it?
Joseph Stroud:It felt like being struck by lightning! I was stunned. When I got the phone call from the Lannan Foundation, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was completely unexpected. You know, I'm not what you would call a well-known poet. I don't go on reading tours; I give at most a few readings a year. I don't go to the AWP or the big gatherings; I'm not associated with any MFA program. I don't send my poems out to the magazines. For most of my writing life I have flown under the poetry radar. My hope has always been that the books will make their way into the world on their own, will find some kind of an audience. Generally I live a private and quiet life, much of it in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada. I travel some, usually alone. So I honestly don't know how the Lannan Foundation became aware of my work. The award quite simply made me happy, very happy. And what poet wouldn't be? Most of us work in the dark, with little enough recognition, in a culture that doesn't pay much attention to poetry. So I was thrilled. And honored. But at the same time I should emphasize that what I attend to, what sustains me, is writing the poems, each morning, almost every morning of the year. They are the keel of my days. The real reward of writing is in the writing. It's a way of life.
BM:Your life as a poet spans more than fifty years. What influences can you mark over the years through today? Can you trace the development of your work to a specific time when you made a noteworthy leap forward never to retreat, or was it a gradual back and forth progression?
JS: Well I suppose my earliest influences were nursery rhymes and fairy tales with their imaginary embodiment of a fanciful landscape. They conjured in my mind an interior world that seemed every bit as real as the one I was walking around in. I had an early fascination with the magic of language and the sheer sounds of words, which I believe are elemental to all poetry. I was also fortunate in having a mother who loved poetry and loved reading it aloud. Her favorites were Edna St. Vincent Millay and the FitzGerald translation of the "Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám." But she also loved some of Shakespeare's sonnets, and Keats. So I grew up hearing poetry; it got into my blood. She bought the early Caedmon recordings of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry. And that was it for me. I must have been thirteen or so, a prime age for influence. I listened to those recordings over and over. So it was never a conscious choice to become a poet; I just began writing.
In high school, I had a great English teacher, Mr. Rocconi, who took us line by line through "Dover Beach," meter, rhyme, syntax, diction. And then he took us into Eliot, not just Prufrock, but "The Waste Land," and suddenly I was into poetry in a whole new way, not just the magic of it, but the craft, the nuts and bolts, the making of it. In high school I also took Latin and Spanish classes, where I began to get a sense of the structure of language and the different ways something could be said.
My next stage of influence was leaving home, moving from southern California to San Francisco in 1961. I was eighteen years old. North Beach, Caffé Trieste, the Jazz Workshop, the Beat scene. I spent many a rainy afternoon at City Lights, downstairs in the poetry section reading whatever I could get my hands on. And then going to San Francisco State which at that time was seething with poets—Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, John Logan, Kay Boyle, Jack Gilbert, William Dickey, George Hitchcock, Nanos Valaoritis, James Liddy, and circling them in the larger literary scene were George Oppen, Jack Spicer, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and others…all those different voices, each a force in their own right. Rexroth and Snyder introduced me to the Chinese poets, who were a great influence. I was reading a lot of Roethke, Lorca, Rilke on my own, and in my classes the High Modernists, Yeats, Eliot and Pound, Stevens, Williams, Moore. And Professor Knapp had our Chaucer class going to the Language Lab to learn Middle English, which was wonderful. There were extraordinary readings at the Poetry Center, at that time one of the most important poetry venues in the country. And I was rubbing shoulders with classmates who went on to become significant poets: Stan Rice, Shirley Kaufman, Linda Gregg, Bill Siverly, Jim Chapson, Janice Mirikitani, Phil Dow, Anita Barrows to name a few. It was during this time that I gave my first poetry reading, with Paul Pera, at the Blue Unicorn, in 1965. There might have been ten people in the audience, and two of them even clapped! Those years were the most intense immersion in poetry I have ever had. My reading of poetry during that period was mainly horizontal, that is, reading many poets across a broad spectrum. My readings since college have been more vertical, more a deep reading, say, of Chaucer or Shakespeare, the Greeks or Chinese, and others. Taking my time, no hurry, living awhile with the work.
I should also say something about influences that were not literary. One was the years spent in my childhood and youth at a cabin in a remote wilderness area where the Sierra and Tehachapi mountains come together, a place where I could roam free. It was Paiute country. Black bear and coyote and cougar country. Off the grid and off the map. For me, a kind of wild Eden. My spirit was honed there. And my father's ashes were strewn there.
Another important formative element was building my house, from the foundation up, with my own hands, together with Dick Lundquist, my friend and colleague. He was my mentor and a master carpenter, il miglior fabbro. It took us five years to build that house, and that was where I learned patience, and where I really learned about craft, nail by nail, board by board. It was where I came to realize the function of form in a fundamental way, in a way that was physical, rather than the mental dimensions I had learned in poetry workshops. It was the absolute craft of how to hold up a two-story house, as fact and not as metaphor.
Lastly there has been travel, which can be a crucible for a writer. To do the equivalent of what Chekhov did in making his journey across Russia to Sakhalin. It changed his life; he became a serious writer. Travel, especially if you go alone, throws you back on yourself in disturbing and important ways. It opens you up; it enlarges you with unfamiliar landscapes, foreign cultures, new voices. It also gives you a place to stand and a perspective to look at yourself and where you come from, your country, your language, everything you take for granted, what you think you believe. For me, probably the most important experience of my life was the year I spent traveling around the world, literally, beginning in the South Pacific, then overland into Southeast Asia and India, across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and into Greece and Europe. An entire year, 1974-75, traveling alone. The peak moment, the turning point, happened while I was staying in a stone hut outside of Pokhara, in Nepal, below the Annapurna range. It was winter, Christmas; I was about six months into my journey. Everything and everyone I knew was on the other side of the planet. I was utterly alone. There was no immediate way to communicate with those back home. Cell phones and the Internet did not exist. All I had was my writing. The poems I began on that trip were difficult and hard won; they were no longer the sweet songs of youth, the kind of lyric poems that had gone into my first book. My only audience was myself. I had to believe in what I was doing, every word, every poem. I had crossed over into some new territory, demanding and unforgiving, and it was sink or swim. In that little stone hut I began to realize I was writing to save my life.
BM: "Accessibility" is debated in the world of poetry. In your work there are no puzzles to stop the reader, to stop the flow. Readers can relinquish themselves to your thoughts and feelings. Are you consciously hoping for such a reaction when you write?
JS: When I'm first composing a poem, trying to find and work my way through it, I'm not conscious at all about what reactions to it might be. I'm riding the dragon, as the Chinese would say. As for accessibility in poetry, I'm for it. I certainly don't want a poem to be inaccessible—what would be the point—though much of the current praxis seems to suggest that the more difficult a poem is the better it must be. Inaccessibility has almost become a virtue. I have little patience for obfuscation and obscurity, which should not be confused with ambiguity and mystery. I take my mantra from Sappho: clear keen song. I think clarity honors the reader. So my work tends to be direct and immediate; it isn't cloaked or coy. At the same time I hope my poems have a resonance to them, an aura or undertow that is elusive and enticing, that encourages the reader to spend some intellectual and emotional effort of their own in accessing the poem, something that will reward further readings of it. There is a mystery at the heart of a good poem, but not a mystification.
BM: There is much surrealism in today's poetry. Do contemporary poets lack the courage to speak plainly?
JS: There has probably been a strain of surrealism or surreal techniques of one sort or another in American poetry since the early twentieth century. Perhaps a more useful word is "experimental," as it covers a larger ground. And I don't think it's a matter of lacking courage to speak plainly. There are many poets writing now who aren't interested in the personal lyric or narrative poem that has dominated much of our poetry. They find it old-fashioned or worn-out and want to try something different. And who can blame them? We're saturated with a kind of easy, self-satisfied, indulgent, mediocre poetry, the "I did this, I felt that" school. I can hear Pound yelling "Make it new!" I would add, make it believable and meaningful as well.
There are many experimental poets now who are working out there on the frontiers of language, probing it, testing it, playing with it, rearranging it, all kinds of things, and some of the poems coming out of this are fascinating. Someone needs to be doing this work. But it's not without its dangers, and one of them is what you brought up in your previous question about accessibility. Wallace Stevens says, "The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully." In the case of some of the experimental poets, they have succeeded almost completely. A few years back a poet was asked to judge and select the best poetry book of the year, and he was given about 100 books to make his choice from. Now this person is not only a poet, he is a scholar of poetry as well, and has taught the subject for forty years in a university. He can, for instance, read Pound on the same level as Hugh Kenner, and God knows the Cantos are difficult. He's read his Jean-Luc Nancy, Derrida, Kristeva, Irigaray, and all, so he knows Theory. But in reading through the books, he found that in more than half of them the poems were written using language in a manner that he simply could not penetrate; he could not make sense of them, as if they were written in some kind of code, and he didn't have the key. So obviously, this is a problem, and a serious one. He was not some casual reader who dips into poems now and then. He is a fine poet himself, and a highly trained reader of poetry, and he found entire books with poems that were to him utterly impenetrable.
To put it another way. In his novel, Saturday, Ian McEwan gives us the voice of the protagonist's mother who is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. She speaks without context, without a presence of mind to make meaningful connections between the disparate sentences and phrases she is speaking. It makes no sense to us. I was struck how closely this resembles some of the experimental poetry I see today. A dissociation with meaning. Perhaps a few pages of reading this might evoke some surprise or curiosity. But soon enough, at least for me, I weary of trying to make something of it. What absorbs me most in literature is discovery and the knowledge derived from a life intensely lived, deeply felt, sharply seen, and carefully thought about. I don't much care for linguistic distortions or hermetic constructions. As Milan Kundera says, "My friend, the life ahead of me is growing short. The time I could spare your author is used up." I think a poem must be compelling and powerfully irresistible, not simply interesting. I believe that in the voicing of the poem there should be what Richard Poirier calls "an engendering human presence." There must be the sense of a person behind the language, not merely words as a conundrum or something that might be generated by a clever computer. And ideally the poem will be memorable. When you put the poem down, something of it should remain within you. It isn't vaporous; it doesn't just disappear; it isn't a linguistic black hole. The poems I care about are the ones that powerfully render the important events and emotions of our lives. What will survive are those works that come from our inner nature, that express human happiness, anger, grief, joy, love, and desire. As for surrealism, Auden once made a cautionary remark: "the great danger with any surrealistic style is confusing authentic nonlogical relations, which arouse wonder, with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise, and in the end fatigue." I admire those poems that try to break into reality, in hopes of discovering or revealing a luminous world, and I admire those poets who in Kafka's words use language "as an axe to break up the frozen sea within."
BM: Morton Marcus, in his review of your book, Of This World, says, "Stroud's poems are not written for art's sake, but as a way of living, a way of apprehending his day-to-day existence. He uses words to dig into the meanings of the smallest events, and they make his poems as much daily meditations as works of art." Meditations, works of art, would you say they are either or both?
JS: I'm not sure. They're poems, so in that sense they're works of art. And some of the poems, particularly the longer pieces, have a meditative or ruminative quality. I think what Mort was getting at is that the poems engage the world in a real and personal way that isn't simply artifice, that attention and content are important, not just intention and performance, which are more surface concerns.
I'm glad you mentioned Mort because he was incredibly important to me both as a friend and as someone who knew, loved, and could talk about poetry. We met in San Francisco in the mid-Sixties, and we became teaching colleagues when we both moved to Santa Cruz in 1968. We knew each other for more than forty years. Mort died in 2009, and I can't tell you how much I miss him and our conversations, and beyond that the larger human experience of our deep friendship.
BM: Moving on to Willis Barnstone's exegesis on Of This World. Barnstone, an astute and scholarly reader, says you are following a practice of reference common in Chinese, Japanese, and Indian poetry and goes on to refer to Virgil, Catullus, and Horace as "consciously carrying on the practice of Homer and Sappho." He then moves through history citing poets and artists who have absorbed others' work. This is his view about what he calls "your poetic borrowing": "Stroud is very close to these appropriation or resurrection poets, but he is distinctive. If anything he is both more blatant in his borrowing and more himself in the final result." Do you agree or disagree? Do you feel that as Willis says, your "esteem and open dependence on other voices has freed you to speak?"
JS: Yikes, that's a lot to respond to! Let me say a few words about what I think I'm doing in terms of Barnstone's views about "borrowing" and "appropriation or resurrection poets." There is a sense, I think, in which all poems are "contemporaneous" with each other, that they exist somehow outside of time. I can read a poem by Tu Fu, who's been dead for over a thousand years, and it's as if his presence is right here, is within me. Even if it's a translation. So when you encounter Cavafy, let's say, or Emily Dickinson, you aren't merely encountering dead words on the page, you are engaging with the "living" presence of a spirit and a sensibility. I don't mean this in a mystical way. Poems are derived from the psyche of an actual person. In a way they are voice-prints of consciousness, and they re-enter, or come back into existence within that unique mindfulness of reading the poem. To read poems by Dickinson is to commune with the nature of who she is. She becomes in her poems. And if you live a while alone, in a cabin say, or in some foreign land where you don't know the language and don't know anyone, where your only companionship is through the poems of poets who might be long dead, then they become a living presence. And thus I do engage them. I love their poems; I've lived inside their work, and in a sense, it has become a part of me. So I welcome the shades into my life. I do commune with them; I bring something of them into my own poems. It's a conversation of sorts, a communion with the living past. It is a natural thing to do, it seems to me. It's not academic or a literary exercise. And often it's a direct address to a particular poet, as in my poem "Letter to Robinson Jeffers," and not so much the kind of allusions you find in something like "The Wasteland." And, of course, all poets, unless you're Rimbaud or an autodidact, will reflect their influences and literary forebears. This is true of all the arts—music, painting, sculpture.
BM: "I Wanted to Paint Paradise," your prose poem sequence on the life of Giotto is a marked departure from the other work in Of This World. Please talk about how and why you chose to recreate Giotto's world.
JS: I became enraptured with the early, proto-Renaissance Italian painters when I first encountered them at the London National Gallery around 1970. I had never seen paintings of such luminosity. They emanated a vision of the sacred that was profoundly moving to me. Over the years I sought them wherever and whenever I could. And Giotto began to stand out. As I've said elsewhere, the spirit that infuses his work is a deep sympathy for the human condition, which he depicts with realism, candor, and depth of feeling. It's the beginning of a humanism in art that hadn't been seen since the Golden Age in Greece over a thousand years before. I visited his paintings and frescoes in Florence and Assisi. And then one day on my way to Venice, I stopped in Padua to see his fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel. I was overwhelmed. And I knew I wanted to write about him and his work. I became immersed in it, reading everything I could find about him and that period. My original impulse was to write a poem about each of the forty frescoes in the cycle. I got a few poems into it and realized this is crazy! Why write poems about paintings? Who would want to read them when you could just go to the source, to the paintings themselves? So those poems wound up on the cutting room floor, which isn't that unusual; a lot of what I write doesn't make it beyond a first draft, and this usually happens when the words just have no grip. But one morning I was fiddling around trying to compose something, when I struck a kind of tone, a voice, that was startling to me: "In the piazza today at noon everything in a swirl of light. No shadows. No hint of the spirit. All things in their shining forth." And I had a sudden insight that I might write of Giotto and his world from within his voice. This quickened me. And there was something liberating about it as well. So I followed the impulse. Since the tone of the voice was at the heart of it, the pieces began to settle naturally into a prose poem form, without a concern for lines which I felt would have impeded my catching that voice, that tone. Over a period of a year or so, I had a fairly sizable batch of first drafts. I set them aside to let them settle, and then returned to them about six months later, which is a common practice for me, seeing them with new eyes, so to speak. Then began the craft work of revisions, which continued over the next few years. It wasn't the first time I had written in a voice that wasn't "mine," and I have written some since then, but the Giotto poems are the most sustained use of another voice.
And this brings up the interesting question of how a poem finds its form if you're not working within a pre-established structure such as a sonnet or sestina, etc. When I first begin a poem, I don't know what form it's going to take; I'm listening to sound, feeling a cadence or rhythm, surfing a wave. Every poem has its own unique terrain, and part of the skill or craft of writing is learning to adjust to that. It can be a kind of dance, where sometimes the poem is leading, and sometimes I am, but through it all I'm listening to the music, that's what's determining the shape and where we're going. The subject might be given, but the poem has to be hunted. Maybe I should mix some more metaphors! It's hard to talk about this. Let me just say that I think every new poem you write should be a surprise, a discovery.
BM: Any final thoughts?
JS: Well, yes. Since we began this interview with a question about the Lannan Award, I want to say how fortunate I have been to be associated with Copper Canyon Press, with my excellent editor there, Michael Wiegers, and with Valerie Brewster, their superb book designer. My poems would have gone nowhere without Copper Canyon's belief in poetry and their devotion to producing beautifully crafted books, along with their insistence on keeping them in print. Not many publishing houses make that kind of a commitment.
One last thing. I think in this interview I might have dwelled too much on some of the kinds of poetry. In the poetry world, a large contentious family you might say, there's a lot of back and forth, some of it poisonous, involving categories: traditional versus experimental, formal versus informal, polite versus impolite, free verse versus verse, prose poem versus poem poem. Watch out whenever you hear poets begin to talk about what poetry is and isn't, as if they are presenting some kind of objective, aesthetic imperative. What they're usually doing is clearing space for the kinds of poems that they write. So I need to say that in the long run I don't care what category a poem might be in. What matters to me are those poems that make a difference in my life, whatever kind they may be. Those are the poems to hold close, to cherish, and they are the kind of poems I try my best to write.
Note: The Willis Barnstone essay referred to in this interview, "Of This World, Poetry and Paradise," was published in New Letters, volume 77, numbers 3 & 4, in 2011. For those who want to know more about the Bay Area poetry scene, its poets and characters and lively stories, see Striking Through the Masks: A Literary Memoir, by Morton Marcus, Capitola Book Company, 2008.
Barbara March's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Transnational, Berkeley Poetry Review, Yemasee, Agave Journal, Denver Quarterly, Mudlark Journal, Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, Words Fly Away, Poems for Fukushima Anthology, and other publications. A member of the Northern California Book Reviewers, she serves on the Poetry Committee for the Northern California Book Awards. Co-founder of the Surprise Valley Writers' Conference, she lives in Cedarville, California.
Portrait of Joseph Stroud by contemporary realist painter Jack Richard Smith, jackrichardsmith.com.
— posted March 2016