–– Thank you for agreeing to speak with Volume; it’s always a treat to learn more about the voice behind a poem. I find myself craving a sense of voice and place even more, these days, as our interactions are becoming increasingly disembodied, ministered through Zoom and the Internet. In that spirit of place: where have you been quarantining?

Since the pandemic started I’ve been living with my wife at home here in Williamstown, MA. It’s weirdly quiet with the college shut down, and just about everything else closed except for the supermarkets and the liquor stores. But it’s tranquil and pretty, and since I retired two years ago, I didn’t have to throw myself into learning how to teach remotely. At first things for me didn’t seem all that different from last year, or the year before. But that was just at first.

–– What have the past few months been like for you generally?

Toward the beginning of the lockdown, our beloved dog Lucy died. She’d had kidney disease for almost a year. Losing her would have been a great sorrow at any moment, but happening when it did took away pretty much all of how my days had been structured. (I wasn’t teaching anymore, and now couldn’t see friends, couldn’t play squash, travel, etc. etc.) But I’d get up early with Lucy, go downstairs, make coffee, let her outside, then back in, then sit in the living room and write while she slept under the coffee table. Later I’d walk with her again, no matter what the weather was like, and buy her yet another kind of food I hoped she’d consent to eat. My days had been organized around keeping Lucy alive. Then, suddenly, she wasn’t there to need me any more, and I felt unmoored and adrift. I still do.

Generally, I’ve come to think of myself as stuck in time, but surrounded by chaos. I know it’s a common feeling. What day is it? Tuesday? Wednesday? April? Beyond that there are all the larger worries and terrors and despairs, the sense that we can’t count on the future to be where it’s always been. Add Donald Trump and you go beyond mere despair. (Which makes a pretty good title––Donald Trump: Beyond Mere Despair.)

A long time ago, back in the early Seventies, I heard a talk by Kurt Vonnegut at the Library of Congress. He seemed a little unhinged that evening. And at one point, apropos of nothing as I recall, he said, “Everything is going to get a whole lot worse, and never get any better.” I was disturbed by that, and never forgot it. I knew things got worse now and then, but I was too much of an American not to assume that eventually they got better. No, think again, Vonnegut was telling us. Now what he said seems merely true. Clearly nothing is ever going to be the way it was. And when you add climate change to the pandemic and its many effects, the New Normal becomes the New Apocalypse. I need to persuade myself to believe in the Second Coming. I need to join a cult that is sure all of this is a sign of some great wonder.

–– How has this time been for you as a writer?

I’ve been writing every day, but I was before the pandemic. Mostly I’ve been putting a new book together, April at the Ruins, which Tupelo Press will publish maybe in 2022. That would be the earliest. The manuscript is done but I keep fiddling with it, as if I need it to be unfinished, so I can have it to return to each day.

So I go on revising, trying to get a better word here, a more interesting phrase there. Why write at all, you might well ask, since the whole world seems to be flying apart? I’ve asked myself exactly that. Well, writing’s what I do, what’s important to me, what defines my character more than anything else. It’s my job. But these days I don’t look very far past the achievement of the small thing itself. Just the poem. Not what is likely to happen to it out in the world. A month or so ago in the Times Sunday Magazine, Teju Cole wrote that during the lockdown he was listening to the early piano sonatas of Beethoven. “In these bruising days,” he wrote, “any delicately made thing quickens the heart.”

–– You contributed two poems to our inaugural issue: “Why We Are Here” and “Pastoral.” I was moved by them both, and particularly by the way their motifs of disappointment and world-weariness are laced with a deep tenderness for the phenomena of the world. (I’m thinking in particular of “Pastoral,” which ends with the speaker pausing to “listen [] to the bells calling out / to whoever might have been / naïve enough to take them to heart.”) It strikes me that these movements are crucially connected, in both poems; that when tested against “betrayal and [...] disillusionment,” tenderness is perhaps more muscular than we might have imagined. Is poetry, like tenderness, a “muscular” practice? Or is it a simple orientation to the world?

I like the idea that a tenderness for the world underlies––or perhaps supports––these poems. To me “tenderness” is a word I often link to sadness. Fragility elicits tenderness. And thoughts of mortality. Without tenderness, sadness can turn into despair, which can become self-indulgent, then all-consuming. But sadness and tenderness together, as cause and response, quicken the heart. Then we might find a true kind of consolation––not easy reassurance, but hard awareness––the beauty, as poets keep insisting, of what vanishes.

I’m not really comfortable with the word “muscular” in this question. Maybe something like “strength”? “Tenacity”? “Resilience”? Whatever the best opposite of weakness is for the occasion. Teju Cole’s “delicately made thing” is very strong. This is Beethoven after all. Delicacy here seems like precision. But not just precision.

I do like the idea that poetry is a way of orienting us to the world––positioning the poet, and the poem, and then the reader, in a particular relationship to what’s out there and around us. Of course that’s complicated and difficult, as well it should be. And yet it’s rewarding. Pleasure is often inseparable from difficulty.

–– In “Why We Are Here,” the personality of Wittgenstein––a philosopher “who considered the difficulties of knowing what we know”––resurfaces in the speaker’s difficulty understanding and communicating with a lover. In “Pastoral,” however, the speaker’s dream of becoming a philosopher was interrupted when his “life with S–– began.” I’m curious about this idea of philosophy as sometimes complementary to, sometimes incompatible with, our goings-on in the sensual world. Why is it, do you think, that poetry is able to contain these kinds of inconsistencies, without needing to resolve them?

I’m not a philosopher, never took a philosophy course in college (not that I’m proud of that). And I’ve never read Wittgenstein. I just happened upon that great sentence I use as the epigraph to “Why We Are Here.” I don’t know anything about the particular Wittgensteinian difficulties of “knowing what we know.” I believe that last phrase was suggested to me by my friend Stephen Dunn, when I showed him an early draft of the poem. It sounded better than what I had. It felt right. And it is hard to know what we know, or what we think we know.

I should say I’m co-opting “philosophy” for comic purposes in both poems, which doesn’t mean I’m not being serious. I find the comic an extremely useful way to be serious. Sometimes the comic seems like the only way to approach certain kinds of darknesses. Look at Samuel Beckett.

I should say that in “Why We Are Here” the speaker isn’t finding it difficult to communicate with his lover. He’s finding it difficult to figure out how he feels––or how to feel what he wants to feel, or thinks he should. What is the line between affection and love? I’m imagining philosophy as a way of considering how we think more than what. In that sense “philosophy” is always complimentary to as well as incompatible with “our goings-on in the sensual world,” though both attitudes are present at the same time all the time. If that means inconsistency, it should. And might as well be celebrated. Why not contain multitudes? as Walt would say.

Turning to your good word “contain,” yes––poetry contains complication, contains inconsistencies; it contains and presents, but doesn’t insist. Best not to think of poetry as resolving a problem. Better to think of it as giving us a way of seeing that problem more clearly––a vantage point, or as Robert Frost says, a “plane of regard.”

–– I understand that you are also a screenwriter, which adds a new dimension to the wonderfully cinematic descriptions of “Why We Are Here,” as well as its explicit references to film. In fact, the conversation of the poem even refers to itself as a “film within a film.” How has your understanding of poetry informed your understanding of film, and vice versa? And when you hit upon an idea or an image, do you usually conceptualize it as belonging to one media or another?

As to my being a screenwriter: actually, no. In 1967-68 a friend of mine at Middlebury College and I wrote and directed together two short 16 mm films. One got shown at Lincoln Center in the National Student Film Festival, and won a couple of prizes (or honorable mentions, rather). But no, fun as that was, it doesn’t qualify me to be called a screenwriter, though I love the movies, and grew up on them. They’re part of my artistic DNA. Along with television: “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “The Twilight Zone,” “One Step Beyond.” Those shaped my “aesthetic,” if I can claim to have one. I love the beauty (and, yes, profundity) of some of the dialogue in bad movies, the way truth emerges from silliness. “All illusions look real, or they wouldn’t be illusions, would they?” That’s from Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). Can you find anything as true in T.S. Eliot? “Explain it I cannot,” John Newland, the host of “One Step Beyond,” said at the end of every episode, adding, “But wouldn’t it be terrifying if everything was known?”

–– Both “Why We Are Here” and “Pastoral” entertain similar questions––about companionship, optimism, and our relationship to art and the aesthetics of the world. While poetry is generally not in the business of providing hard-and-fast answers, I’m wondering whether these poems evolved in response to one another, or whether their synergy was unforeseen and incidental.

These two poems never related to each other in the process of composition. I sent them to you because I like them both, not because I felt they were a pair. But I’m happy if you find connections between them––similar questions, or strategies, or attitudes, or tones–– especially if that’s not something I planned. Certainly all my poems must share more than I’m aware of.  

–– What are you reading at the moment? What was the last thing that inspired you to write a poem?

The book I have beside my bed at the moment, along with a stack of recent New Yorkers, is called The Difficulty of Being a Dog by Roger Grenier. But no matter what I have there, usually the New Yorkers win out. And even then it takes me several nights to get through a single article. I fall asleep quickly.

I’ve always liked to read a few poems before I turn to my own writing in the morning. It’s a way to clear my mind, even when nothing much has gotten in there so far that day. I just want to hear some interesting sentences before I try to write my own. Lately I have several stacks of books of poems I’m turning to: Mark Halliday, Albert Goldbarth, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Denise Duhamel, Kathleen Graber, James Tate, Mary Ruefle, Charles Simic. Those are just a few.

The last thing that inspired me to write a poem was Lucy’s death on March 25. I didn’t give myself that moment as an assignment. The poem just came along. I didn’t try for it. Maybe I didn’t even want it. But when I started putting it together, then, of course, I tried to manage it as well as I could.

I was keenly aware of the many dangers of the subject. Sentimentality especially. The poem would need to be “cold” in the sense that Yeats means in “The Fisherman.” There he wishes to address a “wise and simple man” who does not in fact exist, but has been summoned up as a necessary audience. Yeats vows to write for him “one / Poem maybe as cold / And passionate as the dawn.” What a wonderful phrase that is! And inside it: essential aesthetic advice.

But for me almost always there is nothing specific that inspires a poem, although I believe in inspiration. But I believe that inspiration is what you earn as you write your way toward it. You surprise yourself into inspiration. The materials you’re working with––phrases that may suggest a tone of voice, a tone that may suggest an attitude, an attitude that may lead to a person, then a subject––all of that stuff, playing around with all of it, not knowing where you’re going, or if you’re going anywhere, leads you toward what I think of as inspiration. What prompts me to sit down is the desire to write a poem, not an idea or a subject that needs to be translated into a poem. I just feel like writing. Sometimes, at some point, the pieces start fitting together. Or they seem to. A sense of shape appears: architecture before meaning. Yes, I think, this might go somewhere. That’s inspiration.
Lawrence Raab was interviewed by Lauren Peat, via email, in July 2020.

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