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Robert Pinsky

Here is part of an interview I did with Robert Pinsky when he was Poet Laureate of the United States. It was published in the November 1999 issue of The Writer.

Susan Kelly: When did you begin writing?

Robert Pinsky: That's a hard question for me to answer because I write so much poetry in my head. And in a way, most of my work I don't write: I'm thinking sounds in my head. I've been doing that all my life.

SK: So poetry is something that interested you as a child.

RP: It interested me, but I didn't know there was an art to it. I would always be thinking of the sounds of words, and making up little chants in my mind. I can't remember not doing this, although it's not that I sat down at a typewriter or had a pad and pencil in my hands all the time. I was always thinking things up that I would chant or say aloud.

SK: What were your early influences?

RP: One of the first writers I loved was Mark Twain. I must have read Huckleberry Finn first, but I loved a lot of the minor Twain: I read the Tom Sawyer books, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Life on the Mississippi. I thought Roughing It was one of the funniest things I'd ever read. I also read Dickens...and the Alice in Wonderland books were incredibly important to me. As a child, I read them over and over again.

SK: What was it about them that impressed you?

RP: It might have to do with the fact that they're writer's books, that there's so much language in them. There's definitely a sinister quality to them, and Carroll had a great, great imagination.


SK: Let me move on to some general literary questions. Are there any themes you find yourself returning to?

RP: Sometimes I think that everything I've ever written has to do with the human tendency to create things, on a very humble level as well as an exalted one. Every morning most of us make a little work of art that consists of how we dress and what we do with our hair. And there's the way that people landscape their houses and how they paint them and add shutters and storm windows. What people do to the interior of their cars or to make their offices look a certain way, all the way up to great works of art. "Culture-making," if you want to call it that...there's an awful lot of that in my work.

SK: How has your poetry changed over the years, since your first book? Have you changed form in any way?

RP: Well, you always try not to repeat yourself. I'm not sure that when I'm trying to make a poem I'm thinking about the form and subject as two things. I'm just saying things to myself and trying to shape them into art.

SK: A couple of poets I've spoken to have said that sometimes the more formal the prosody of the poem, the more free they feel to express ideas. The constraints of craft are somehow liberating.

RP: I think whatever you do, you're trying to have that quality. In some ways, the free verse poem has to be just as formal as the poem in iambic lines and rhymes. Your ideal is the same.

SK: Are there any current trends in literature that you particularly like or dislike?

RP: I never think about trends. I always feel it's the artist's job, almost by definition, to ignore trends.

SK: Is there any particular lesson you try to impart to your students?

RP: Perhaps that knowledge has to be acquired in a very individual, personal, and possibly even bodily way. If you want to be a writer, you have to study great works. There's more to learn by that than by pursuing rules or finding out what everyone else around you is doing, or imitating the currently fashionable modes.
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