Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Interview with Poet Linda Pastan

This installment of Advice for Writers is an interview with one of my favorite poets, Linda Pastan. Linda Pastan's many awards include the Maurice English Award, the Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumni Award, and the 2003 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The former poet laureate of Maryland, she is the author of fourteen books of poetry—the latest of which, Insomnia, won the Towson University Prize for Literature.

Q.: Who were your teachers, mentors, or role models? What were the most useful or lasting lessons you learned from them?

Linda Pastan: My only teachers, mentors, and role models were the poets I read in books. As an only child growing up in New York City, I lived far from my school in a kind of isolation, books were my company, and luckily my parents had an extensive library. (I did work for one semester, in graduate school, with the poet J.V. Cunningham.  It was a one-on-one “class” during which he assigned me various forms, and so I learned the rules before learning to break them.) The lasting lesson I learned from reading Dickinson, Keats, Auden, et al., was to be unsatisfied with what I was writing; to try and try harder!!


Linda Pastan

Q. How has the situation of women poets changed since you began writing seriously in the 1960s?


LP: When I first started sending poems out to magazines, I considered using initials so that the editors wouldn’t know I was a woman. Women were not published nearly as much, and they were hardly reviewed at all. That has certainly changed. On the other hand it still seems to be the case that when male poets write about domestic things—marriage, children, etc.—they receive serious praise, but women poets writing on the same subject are more often condescended to.


Q. Do you enjoy reading your poems to an audience? What is the difference for you between publishing your poems and reading them out loud to people?


LP: To me, the poem on the page is what matters most. Some poets read their work out loud well. Others, T.S. Eliot, for example, read them terribly. It doesn’t really matter to me. But I do enjoy reading to an audience. It helps me to realize that there are real people out there, actually reading my work.


Q. You’ve written a lot about families, marriage, and parenthood. How do you approach writing about topics that are so familiar and close to home that it’s hard to get distance on them?   


LP: I don’t think a poet should aim for achieving distance from a subject. The point is to get up close.


Linda Pastan’s most recent book of poems is Insomnia


Q. Do you see yourself as a Jewish writer? How does Jewish tradition and/or Jewish literary tradition shape your work and your voice as a writer? 


LP: I am Jewish, and I am a writer. And I do use Jewish imagery in many of my poems, imagery I learned from Orthodox grandparents. And I love writing on Biblical subjects, particularly  the book of Genesis. But I don’t consider myself a “Jewish Writer,” just a writer who happens to be Jewish.


Q. When you compiled your book Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, did you rewrite any of the earlier poems? If so, what were you looking to change or improve? 


LP: I think it was Auden who said poems are never finished, merely abandoned. I keep making small revisions on poems, even after they have been published in magazines and then books. And I am still making changes to various poems in the margins of my copy of Carnival Evening.


More information on Linda Pastan's most recent book of poems, Insomnia.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe


Other posts on writing topics:


How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, January 1, 2021

Why Our Political Life Needs Inspiring and Memorable Language

There was a time when the political life of the United States of America featured stirring and memorable language. The ideas in that language inspired people not just for a particular news cycle, but for the lifetime of our republic. Sadly, the era of uplifting and memorable political discourse seems to have passed, at least for the present.


Martin Luther King Jr.’s “How Long?” speech in Montgomery, Alabama; March 25, 1965


The lack of moving and unforgettable language has left a void that has made our democracy weaker. We are now subject to barrages of the most banal social media messaging that stands uncontested by words that hold our hearts and democratic values. We need to rise again to the summit of discourse, to find language that displays the panorama of what we stand for and that energizes people not only in our country, but around the world.

The United States was born with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. That document included language that has resonated throughout history:

    We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The idea that people have freedom and happiness as birthrights was revolutionary in the 18th century, when divine-right monarchies still held sway almost everywhere. The Declaration of Independence inspired people to risk life and limb for self-determination, and to take on the world's greatest superpower at the time. Those ideals continue to vibrate today.

When the United States was split apart by the Civil War, the greatest test of our history, Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg on the battlefield where only a few months before soldiers had offered their lives for the Union. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address of only 271 words concludes:

    …we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 

Lincoln's emotional speech stands in bold contrast to the long, shopping-list discourses of today that try to touch on every political issue and appeal to every possible constituent. 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches during the civil rights movement also had the ability to motivate people to take action based on the highest ideals. When the marchers who were beaten in Selma, Alabama, finally arrived at the state capitol in Montgomery, Dr. King said in his “Our God Is Marching On” speech:

    I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody's asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?…How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

We need speeches like that again from our progressive leaders, speeches that sanctify our ideals in ways that are unforgettable and make us pull back the tears. Without speeches that can serve as lighthouse beams to guide us, our political discourse gets sucked into the whirlpools of social media.