Four Questions for Poet Mark Strand

StrandPrint versionOn January 26, 2012,  UT’s Michener Center for Writers will host a visit by one of America’s premier poets, Mark Strand.  In a career spanning six decades, Strand has been recognized with the highest honors the poetry world has to bestow:  he was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990-91, served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and has won such distinguished awards as a MacArthur Fellowship, the Bollingen Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Bobbit Prize, and in 2009, the Gold Medal in Poetry of the American Academy of Arts & Letters,  to name just a few.  His dozen volumes of verse include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Blizzard of One,” “Man and Camel,” “The Continuous Life,” and the forthcoming “Almost Invisible,” in addition to books of prose fiction and essays, translations, children’s books, and art monographs.

Born on Prince Edward Island in Canada in 1934, Strand began college in the 1950s studying painting—and the visual arts continue to be an important part of his creative life—but he soon turned to poetry, completing a Fulbright year abroad translating Italian poetry, then earning an MFA at the Iowa Workshop in 1962.  Over his long career he has taught at Harvard, Princeton, Iowa, and the University of Chicago and now divides his time between Spain and New York, where he is a professor in Columbia University’s School of the Arts writing program. From his home in Madrid, he answered questions about his work.

A past U.S. laureate, recognized with the poetry world’s top honors and scores of books to your credit, you have a curious track record of publicly giving up poetry—first back in the 1980s, when you took a years-long hiatus from publishing poems, and again last year, when you said in an interview that you had “nothing left to say,” and were turning again to the visual arts, your first calling.  Is this a kind of break-up/make-up cycle in a lifelong love affair with poetry, or something else?

It is true that I have given up the writing of poems several times. Once a book is written, I feel that I have said what I had to say. And it also seems that what I had written never measures up to what I had hoped to write. So I decide that it might be best for me to do something else. Lately, this “something else” has been the making of collages, something I have dabbled in in the past, but which now seems to have become a fixed daily activity, and one that I have no desire to relinquish. So, I don’t know if I’ll write more poems. It seems more likely that I shall write more prose pieces, that I’ll finish a memoir on my parents, and that I’ll write more essays about painting.

If you’ve written about childhood and family experiences in your poetry, how is it different to approach it in prose, with this memoir?

I don’t really care for the few autobiographical poems that I have written. One becomes a secretary to oneself. And the facts take on a disproportionate importance. I am less interested in my outward biography than I am in the other biography—the inner one, the move from poem to poem, thought to thought, etc.  The book about my parents—and I have written only the first draft, a mere 85 pages—is being written because their story is interesting and unusual. I may be the only poet in America whose father served four years as an inmate in San Quentin Penitentiary.

Even your earliest work was often concerned with absence and endings, almost from the viewpoint of a much older person surveying life’s losses. How does your 70-something self reflect on those poems now?

Those early poems only show that I have always been conscious of mortality.  I have always felt lucky to be alive and, at the same time, wondered when my luck would run out.

Though humility requires that you argue the point, the rest of us can agree that you, W.S. Merwin and the Arab poet Adonis are three strikingly handsome poets of the same generation, something that’s often been commented upon. Do you think the public’s perception of a writer’s physical appearance alters in ways—good or bad—their perception of the work?

I cannot say with any certainty that my looks have impacted positively or negatively the public consideration of my work. But if one takes the whole of his life into account, rather than just the writing life, I would say that it is better to be good-looking than not.

Mark Strand will read at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 26, 2012 in the ACE Building, Avaya Auditorium 2.302, located on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway on campus.  The event is free and open to the campus and Austin community.  Parking is available in the nearby UT Garage at San Jacinto and 24th.

The Heart and Soul of Our Poetry Community

smDYcolorOn Friday, April 8, poets from across the country will read at Austin Museum of Art downtown in a benefit honoring The University of Texas at Austin’s  Livingston Endowed Chair in Poetry Dean Young, beloved poet and teacher who faces a heart transplant.

Nationally acclaimed poets Tony Hoagland, Thomas Lux, Dobby Gibson, Barbara Ras, Stuart Dischell, David Rivard and Joe Di Prisco are volunteering their time to fly in for the free event and will read along with a raft of local poets, including visiting professors Tomaz Salamun and Mary Ruefle, and members of the University community Kurt Heinzelman, Judith Kroll, Roger Reeves and Malachi Black. Each reader will read a favorite poem by Dean and a piece of their own.

Dean joined the university’s permanent faculty in 2008 as the first of two distinguished chairs created by the Michener Center for Writers and Office of Graduate Studies.  A professor in the Department of English, he teaches poetry workshops and seminars in both creative writing programs.  Among one of the most prolific poets of his generation, celebrated for his energetic and inventive style—a mercurial blend of  tragedy and joy, the surreal and the minutely observed—he has more than a dozen books of poetry and prose to his credit, including “Fall Higher,” forthcoming this year; “Primitive Mentor,” shortlisted for the 2009 Griffin International Poetry Prize; “Elegy on Toy Piano,” nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; and “Embryoyo,” as well as a critical work on poetry, “The Art of Recklessness.”

Dean’s imprint on the poetry program in English and the Michener Center has been immediate and distinctive.  English chair Elizabeth Cullingford calls him a “consummate teacher who’s brought dynamism and new ideas to our Creative Writing program.”   Leanna Petronella, a poet in her second year at the Michener Center, says that Dean uses “an odd and brilliant metaphorical language to get at what poetry does.”  MFA candidate Zebadiah Taylor, whose thesis Dean is supervising in absentia this spring, says “No other person I’ve encountered understands poetry as deeply.”

But the heart Dean Young puts into his teaching and mentoring is in trouble.  For the last dozen years or so, he has lived with congestive heart heartimageDYfailure due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare disease of the heart muscle.  Naturally spry and athletic, he was, until last year, able to spring back from periodic episodes of weakness.  Last fall, his condition worsened dramatically, until this spring he required surgery to place external mechanical pumps to take over the work of his heart.  He’s spent much of the last several months hospitalized, fighting infection and setbacks, and still he has kept up with his students, texting and answering emails, and meeting in person, when his health allows, to discuss their poetry.  He is at the highest priority on the transplant list at Seton Medical Center at Austin, and awaits only a suitable donor.  Despite his health insurance, out of pocket expenses are enormous.

Among Friday night’s readers is Joe DiPrisco, Dean’s longtime friend who chairs a fund-raising campaign through the National Foundation for Transplants, a nonprofit organization that has been assisting transplant patients with advocacy and fundraising support since 1983.  The organization will have information available at the reading about how supporters can help with Dean’s medical needs.

Donations are welcome, but the reading is free at AMOA Downtown, 9th and Congress and begins at 6 p.m.

Poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly Reads April 1

B.P. KellyHer poems are like no one else’s—hard and luminous, weird in the sense of making a thing strange that we at last might see it. —AMERICAN POET

Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who is a visiting professor at the Michener Center for Writers this spring, will give a reading of her work at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 1, in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302, on campus at 24th and Speedway.

The author of three acclaimed volumes, Kelly has won some of the most prestigious honors in American poetry.  Her first book, “To the Place of Trumpets was selected by James Merrill in 1987 for the esteemed Yale Series of Younger Poets.  “Song,” which followed in 1994, was winner of the Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American PoetsThe Orchard” was a finalist for not only the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, but the National Book Critics Circle Award and the LA Times Book Award in Poetry.  Other honors include a “Discovery”/The Nation Award, the Cecil Hemley Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest, and a Whiting Writers Award, as well as fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.  In 2008, she received the distinguished Academy of American Poets Fellowship.

Recognized as well for her excellence in teaching, Kelly has taught creative writing at Purdue, UC Irvine, Warren Wilson, and many conferences and colonies nationwide and in Ireland, and is on the permanent faculty of the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign.  In addition to her graduate workshop in poetry, Kelly is teaching a seminar on the New York School of poets.  Seminar student Caroline Ebeid says of her classroom approach:  “Brigit’s pedagogic style is like that of a curator: she brings a set of varied texts before us—poems, paintings, art movements, films, theories—and asks us to  discern how they are in conversation with one another. At the heart of each discussion is [the question]: how are my quiet lyric poems interacting with the spirit of this time? I leave class each week with an ardent ambition to reclaim a dramatic territory that poetry has conceded  to the other genres.”

The reading is free and open to the public.  Parking is available in the nearby garage at San Jacinto and 24th.

Poet C.D. Wright Visits UT Campus

copyright 2004C.D. Wright is a poet who defies labels. Over a distinguished career and  twelve published volumes of poetry, prose, and a slippery mix of the two, she has continually reinvented herself.

Variously described as narrative, experimental, Southern, deeply personal, and fiercely political, Wright credits her roots in the Arkansas Ozarks for her resistance to joining a single, identifying “ism” of the poetry world—she was born to a stubborn independence.  And the breadth of her range is as great as the remove between her home state and her adopted one, Rhode Island, where she has taught for more than 25 years at Brown University.

Wright is on The University of Texas at Austin campus for two weeks as the current Michener Residency Award Author, conducting a workshop with poetry MFA candidates of the Michener Center for Writers.  Her visit will conclude with a public reading of her own work on Thursday, September 24.

Recognized with fellowship support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute, and the Guggenheim Foundation, a MacArthur “genius” grant, a Whiting Award, and a Lannan Literary Award, Wright’s work includes the book-length poem “Deepstep Come Shining;” a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster on inmates in the Louisiana Prison system,” One Big Self;” and her own quirky ars poetica “Cooling Time:  An American Poetry Vigil.”

RFH

This year, her newest book, “Rising, Falling, Hovering,” won the 2009 Griffin Poetry International Prize. The judges citation calls it a “red-hot political epic . . . poetry as white phosphorus, written with merciless love and depthless anger.  ‘Rising, Falling, Hovering’ is about conflict, local and global, and how failures of the heart bring disaster on every scale.”

She will read at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 24 at the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302, on the southeast corner of 24th Street and Speedway on campus.