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.