Post Road Magazine #7

Interview: April Bernard by Reb Livingston

April Bernard is the author of three poetry collections: Swan Electric, Psalms, and Blackbird Bye Bye, and one novel, Pirate Jenny. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Boston Review, Agni, Ploughshares, Parnassus, and The New York Review of Books and is included in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English and By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry. She is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Award. Ms. Bernard lives in Bennington, VT, where she teaches at Bennington College. The following interview took place in the fall of 2001.

REB LIVINGSTON: In your new book, Swan Electric, your poetry seems to take a turn from your last book, Psalms, to being more narrative and accessible, perhaps even borderline confessional. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen?

APRIL BERNARD: I have always struggled with both of those issues, clarity and the use of personal material, in my work. Of course I find Psalms utterly lucid, and so I'm always confused when other people find any of it confusing. I think the poems in Psalms are infinitely more personal than anything else I've ever done–my design was for it to be a public voice, the voice of a psalmist, speaking on private matters. I was trying to write something in the spirit of David and the other psalmists of the Old Testament. Using the personal lament, the personal praise, and the personal experience to speak for the congregation, the group. It was meant to be both personal and public at the same time.

None of those self-conscious considerations animate the new poems in Swan Electric at all. They were much more viscerally generated, and at the same time I also deliberately worked to be understood. I had the experience for several years after Psalms came out, hearing again and again from people that had been puzzled. Not even my students or friends got the stuff that I thought of as excruciatingly self-revelatory. Maybe the new poems seem more personal simply because they're clearer.

I take everything personally, which I think most writers do. I take the troubles of the world personally. I tend to write them through a filter of the personal even when I'm trying to address something much bigger than myself, which I hope is most of the time.

Q: One theme that you continue with in Swan Electric is urban living. There's grit, but also a bit of sadness. Are these urban sadnesses or human sadnesses?

A: They're human sadness. I think you're referring mostly to the memoir sequence, which covers my life in the 1980s, when I was living in the East Village in New York. Those poems are very urban, but they're about the sadness and idiocy of being young. They're about the sadness of a first love and first hope and the excitement of feeling like you and your friends rule the world and then learning that you don't. I don't mean “ruling the world” in any sort of maniacal way, but as artists. There was a group of us making movies and writing books and playing music in clubs. We thought we were It.

Q: How long has it been since you've lived in New York City?

A: My husband and I left the city in 1997. We were going to have a baby, and we wanted to live where there would be room to keep him someplace besides the bathtub.

Q: Did the September 11 tragedy affect the way you look at your New York poems?

A: Yes, it does, actually, although of course I wrote them earlier. I'd be really curious to see if you read them in that light. I have missed New York just passionately since September 11. I want to move back there. I want to go home. I feel the ruefulness in my own poems keenly, and I kind of want to stop that ruefulness and be ambitious and idealistic again and help save the city.

Q: I was struck by the thought of Sept.11, when reading one poem in particular, “She Runs With Her Skirts Up.” It reads almost as an eerie prophecy.

A: Really?

Q: It kind of freaked me out, not that it was about it, but some of the imagery.

A: It's about having a kid, which I'm sure you guessed . . .

Q: Yes, but it starts off with the line “All those stories come tumbling” and goes on:

over the chopped sea waves and the broken stones of the road,
they come tumbling and running like puppies, or children,
something like that, since surely no crowd of men in fedoras
ever laughed and nickered as they ran and fell,
racing, out of breath, to tell us.
Hey to the red mitten, no, not stained with blood,
that's berry juice from a hawthorne tree in a holiday mood
and Hey to the hand that tucks the golden curls
back under the cap and wishes him a bonny speedy journey.
When the wind's from the north, the story goes,
the whisky sting reds the nose and warms the bones.
She runs with her skirts up, in woolen stockings,
and the bundle on the sleigh flickers like blinking
in the clatter of the film through sprockets,
because it's all happening, again, in broad day this time.

A: Well, that's interesting, and scary. But for me it's all about having a kid. The image of film flickering through sprockets is home movies of me as a child versus the reality of being a mom. So instead of seeing it as dim and the clattering with the odd colors of a home movie memory, I'm pulling my own son in a sled, in daylight, in the snow.

Q: Do you have an opinion about the quick proliferation of poems and essays that deal with the tragedy?

A: I think it's inevitable. But of course that incredible poem by Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” on the back page of The New Yorker, had been written before the tragedy–not as direct editorial comment. As for the ones that do get written about September 11–I suppose there may be the rare poet who, as W.H. Auden was, can be a chronicler and elegist for current events. But that's all New Yorkers do, is tell each other stories of where they were and what they saw. It appears to be an essential part of that kind of trauma.

Q: What influence, if any, does motherhood have on your work?

A: “She Runs with Her Skirts Up” is the only poem I've written about being a mother, except (tangentially) one called “Fort-Da,” which is a nasty poem. So motherhood hasn't affected my subject matter. Maybe it's because I had my son when I was older. I was already me, very much me. He's changed my life, but motherhood hasn't changed my work in ways that I've seen. It's made writing harder because of time. But I don't know. Someone else will have to tell me if it's changed my work because I don't see it. I certainly don't feel the impulse to write about him; I feel too protective of him to do that.

Q: Have you written any birth poems?

A: No, no, noooo (laughs). But I don't write that way about myself anyway.

Q: The first section of Swan Electric is almost all sonnets, and some of your poems have been anthologized in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, edited by Phillis Levin. What is it about the form that attracts you?

A: I'm obsessed with sonnets. When the first English sonneteers translated from the Italian, they developed a new structure for the sonnet, which was not the meditative, circular structure of the Italian, but something else: an argument. Going stanza by stanza, the English sonnet argues: This; and this; BUT this; and moreover. That argument structure of the sonnet seems to me so useful, so interesting; it dictates a motion for the poem.

I'm not particularly excited about iambic pentameter per se. I'm classically enough trained that I think it's very important to know what iambic pentameter is and to be able to write it (and other meters) and to be able to write plausible rhymed verse–although end-rhymes in English poetry are almost inevitably clunky. In the sonnet, it's the structure of the argument that I find so wonderful, how form can shape the way you think, and if you think in sonnets long enough, every subject becomes a containable four-part “This; and this; BUT this; and moreover.” Historically, sonnets are useful for talking someone into bed, for getting revenge, for explaining why things are the way they are even though you don't like it, for explaining why things are the way they are and how you will change them.

When people today write any old fourteen-line poem and call it a sonnet, they miss the essence of the sonnet. I think that looseness is also rather charming–they can call them anything they want–but for me the essential part of a sonnet in English is this argument structure. Especially because I find myself using the sonnet as a way of arguing myself out of a personal cul-de-sac. When I'm stuck at a bad place emotionally, I can use a sonnet to explore, as it were, the stanza-room I'm in.

I can use the sonnet as a way of covering the bases–the going to the corners of the room and finally in the fourth corner, opening the door to go out. It's self-argument as a meditation.

Q: You tend to blend traditional forms with free verse. When reading your poetry, sometimes I get a very classical sensibility and other times very contemporary. It's almost as if your poems time travel. Is that a technique you intentionally apply?

A: I think I'm just a magpie. My use of the sonnet form is very intentional but the other stuff, I don't know. I teach versification and I'm trained in it. I can write quatrains and ballads and all, but they just sound terrible. There's no other strict form besides the sonnet that I really use. I tend to allow my poems to generate their own form. Once it's on the page I start to see a shape to it and I say organically this wants to be a poem in triplets or this wants to be a poem with really long lines. As I'm revising it I allow it to be the thing it seems to want to be. But it pretty much has to be generated from within. I would say that it's not very conscious, it's really much more an intuitive thing. Although I do actually write formal poems as exercises when I'm stuck.

Q: Do those ever turn out?

A: Never (laughs). But they're still good to do. Sometimes they turn out as jokes that I give to friends. I write a fair number of Emily Dickinson imitations as letters or communications with friends. Once you master the gross aspects of her style and meter, it's a very funny way to talk to someone else. I find her hilarious.

Q: Do you believe that a reader has to labor and earn the fruits of a poem?

A: Recently I've been trying to explain to students why poems are sometimes so difficult and about the aesthetic of difficulty. My best explanation involves the premise that a poem is capturing a moment of absolute intense emotion. In the throes of an intense emotion, you can't possibly write; your back is flat on the floor. So by the time you get to writing the poem, you're trying to capture that emotion and put it in a usable form.

I think the difficult, elaborated aspects of a poem are like the wrapping on a present. It becomes a means of conveyance to hand the poem to somebody else because you can't just hurl the emotion at them. You have to give it to them in a form that is stable and that won't explode. It's like putting dynamite in a nice box and then you hand the box, which is the poem, to the other person and the other person has to unpack it. If you're lucky, they will enjoy the unwrapping. Part of the purposeful difficulty of the poem is meant to prolong the unwrapping process and to prolong the expectation.

But I wouldn't think of it as earning the enjoyment, because I don't like to think of a poem as labor. The difficulty must be part of the pleasure. And once the reader has unwrapped it and found that dynamite, that center thing, then, if you're lucky and your poem does the right job, then your reader falls over backwards. But if you'd just thrown it at him or handed it to him in a raw form, that wouldn't have worked.

Q: You've written about both Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. How influenced were you by their work?

A: I remember feeling very sorry for Anne Sexton when I first read her. I couldn't have been older than 14 or 15. “How interesting and horrifying, that is what it might mean to be a grown-up woman,” I remember thinking, “Oh dear, this is very bad news.” Bad news about sex, bad news about how you feel about yourself. I don't know if I thought those were great poems or not. I don't think I did.

Plath, from the minute I read her, I thought she was great. I didn't think it was bad news at all. In fact, I couldn't reconcile the knowledge that she killed herself with the poems because the poems seemed to be so alive. I thought she was the most vibrant, wonderful person in the world, why would she kill herself? They didn't go together. I've never seen them as symptomatic of illness. That's the thing about art; it's bigger and better than we are. The “we” who make it.

In terms of Plath's influence, I think it was more of a permission thing. Permission to be tough on the page. Permission to be elusive, to be difficult. Permission to be angry.

Q: Do you think that Plath and Sexton have the same influence on emerging 20-something female poets today as they did on female poets from your generation?

A: I don't think Sexton does at all. I think Sexton has faded, as I think the quality of work would make happen anyway.

Plath still seems to be a pretty big influence on people. Certainly undergraduates know who she is and know something about her work–usually the wrong things. But I don't think the young women that I encounter in college these days need the same kind of permission to write that I did when I was younger. What they do need permission for and encouragement about is to take themselves seriously, but that's another question.

Q: I think saying that you're a poet has many negative connotations. If you meet someone at a non-literary party and say that you're a poet, people look at you like you're a freak. Usually poets in public say that they're “writers” or “teachers.” Just about anything sounds better than poet.

A: Right. But the young men that I teach at a college level, those among them who write poetry, are very ambitious. They're ambitious for the work. They may know that it's a hopeless business to be a poet in our culture and in our civilization. But they're very ambitious for the poems.

The young women are more likely to be writing to please themselves or to make something pretty or to express themselves in a very soft way. The young men want to read the big names and get on the stage with them. They want to know famous poets, and they're ambitious in a worldly way. Not that the world of poets is that exciting (laughs).

Q: What poet of your generation do you most admire?

A: A couple. In the immediate older generation, I'm crazy about Frank Bidart. I love W.S. Merwin and John Ashbery. Those three poets are pretty important to me. There's a lot about Jorie Graham's work that I admire and love. I'm fascinated by the chilly heartbreak of her work. Of my peers, there are a few poets practically my exact age that I think are just great. They are Henri Cole, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Wayne Koestenbaum.

Q: Why them?

A: They're not similar exactly. What we all have in common has to do with a level of linguistic hysteria–a passionate attachment to language on a sensual level at the expense of everything else. It's making a choice that has to do with sound and beauty and the taste of the words.

The issues that each of us writes about are very different, but we all have that kind of foolish devotion to sounds and a kind of baroqueness, a real baroque quality as in a baroque pearl, as something natural that got twisted towards the extreme. I mean something decorated but very raw at the same time. In fact, I think one way of describing the English language itself would be to say it's very decorated and very raw at the same time.

Q: But you're not talking about what we would call language poetry, are you?

A: No, but language poets are an interesting phenomenon, though I think their moment has passed. I remain unconvinced that language is a good place to do abstract work. That kind of abstract work. I think the analogy that is most frequently drawn for language poetry is the analogy with abstract painting. I love abstract painting. But the visual field can hold your interest with pattern, balance, and color in a way that the visual field on a page for a poem just doesn't because we have to read linearly (it's how our brains organize language), so we're trapped in linearity. Consequently, the same things that can give us pleasure in an abstract painting do not give us pleasure on the page. That's where I think the analogy between abstract painting and abstract poetry breaks down.

I also fundamentally disagree with the very heartfelt and serious views from Charles Bernstein and others, that the English language has been so corrupted by commercialism that you can't hope to say anything uncorrupted in it. I don't think the English language has been ruined by commercialism. I think commercialism is a terrible problem, but I don't think it has altered the way we can hear and see language when it's used well. I think that the fight is worth fighting, and I don't feel like ceding English as a narrative and linear language to the world of commerce. I don't think that commerce owns it, and if it's trying to, I want to fight for it. I want to fight on the same turf, because I love the language I was lucky enough to be born into.

Q: What poet do you believe is most unfairly overlooked?

A: Oh, Charlotte Mew. She's not completely overlooked, though–there's probably a Charlotte Mew Revival as we speak (laughs). I'm having my own personal revival of Dryden. I love Dryden these days.

I just reread the “Song for St. Cecilia's Day” and thought it was the most beautiful poem I've read in my life. It isn't, but it felt like it when I was reading it. I don't think Dryden is overlooked, just not fashionable.

Q: To whom do you show your work for first readings and criticism?

A: Sometimes Wayne Koestenbaum and I exchange work. Most recently in the last few years, I have shown my work to my friend Alice Mattison, the writer. She's a really good first critic for me.

Q: Are you sending work out to readers for the criticism or affirmation or something else?

A: That's a very good question. I used to read my stuff to John Ash, who is a wonderful reader and poet. He now lives in Turkey, and we're not in touch as much as we used to be. John was great because he was really rude sometimes, and he would say, “That's terrible,” or “I don't get it at all,” or “Where's the second half of the poem?” But because I adored him and trusted him completely and loved his work (and could be just as rude to him), it was very useful.

Most people I'm too touchy to hear that from. But Alice is very good about telling me where she's confused. It is one of the best things another reader can do for you. Those kinds of notes along the side of the page: “I got lost here.”

But it's ridiculous that I'm a teacher because mostly I can't bear to be criticized. On the other hand, I'm very tough on my own work. Once I've decided that it's sort of ok, it takes a lot to shake me from that.

Q: You've taught at Barnard, Yale, Amherst College, and Columbia University, and now you are at Bennington College, both in undergraduate literature and the low-residency MFA program. Besides a paycheck, what, if anything, do you get out of being a teacher of literature and writing?

A: (laughs) I love teaching. First of all, the paycheck is very important. But I think that even if I lived in a fantastic world where I had all the money I wanted, I would still teach. I don't think I would teach as much. But I would teach literature. Not writing, probably, but definitely literature. I love teaching literature because every time you have to stand up and talk you learn something new. It's an absolutely selfish way of pursuing my own education. And at the same time, I also believe I am doing something useful in the world–specifically, for my students–in passing on my passionate belief in the power and the glory of literature. What I get out of teaching writing is that, once in a while, the miraculous happens, and I get excited by students' work so that I'm feeding off them as much as they're feeding off me.

Q: Do you have any preference between teaching undergraduate and graduate writing?

A: Undergraduates, in some ways, are a lot more fun. You can surprise and astonish them, like you just invented the wheel and they've watched you do it and they think you're a genius. Wooo, it goes around and around! My Bennington College students are also so independent and funny and generous. Graduate students are more like colleagues, so you can have real conversations. When graduate students are not overly defensive about the business of being a student, they're great.

Q: You have a BA in literature from Harvard. Did you study with Elizabeth Bishop while you were there?

A: I did. It's not a horrible exaggeration to say that one of the main reasons I went to Harvard was because she was listed in the catalog as one of their professors. I really loved Elizabeth Bishop's work before most people I knew had ever heard of her. “The Fish” was anthologized in a high school text, which was where I first read her when I was 13. I felt that the world had changed. I thought that poem was so great, but I also thought it was speaking specifically to me, giving me a piece of information. That piece of information, what I needed to hear was,“You can do anything.” That poem leaps right off the page into the ether at the end. I thought: “Oh, I guess you can do anything in a poem.” It was a whole new piece of permission.

Maybe it also was that Bishop's language wasn't “poetical.” It must have been one of the first times I connected with a poem that had been written by a 20th-century poet. For Bishop, it has to do with understatement. In one of her letters from Brazil, she once complained that the problem with Portuguese is that the language has no word for understatement. Which itself is the understatement of all time about her.

When I got to Harvard, I was too intimidated; I didn't even apply to be in her class. I didn't know you could. I was one of those dopey undergraduates who never really knew what was going on. Then in my junior year I took her literature seminar, sort of “My Favorite Poets by Elizabeth Bishop.” We read Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Robert Lowell. She was such a dreary teacher and such a snappy person. She was not very approachable, but another student and I were brazen and we invited ourselves over to her house for tea, and I had tea with her a few times after that. She never wanted to talk about poetry. She was friendly and chatty and wanted to know all about my family and wanted to talk about her travels. She was doing that “impression of an ordinary woman” that James Merrill has referred to.

She was incredibly important to me even though the class was almost useless. Except that she had us write an imitation of Marianne Moore. She said that in my poem, I caught her tone exactly, but that it wasn't nearly beautiful enough. It was wonderful to be praised and insulted in the same sentence. I think she got interested in me as a person because she noticed I had a good mimic's ear. I still have that poem somewhere in my files. It's about a gecko.

Q: I've read stories that she made impossibly high demands on her students. Was that your impression?

A: No. Maybe she was in her writing classes, but I didn't take her writing classes. My memory of her was someone who hated being in the classroom and couldn't wait to get out. She didn't really like people to be stupid, so she wasn't very pleasant to people who asked her stupid questions.

Q: What did you study while you were a graduate student at Yale?

A: I went to Yale to get my PhD in English Literature. The first and only year I was there I did the basic class work. I did have one wonderful class, which was Harold Bloom's seminar on Freud. It was like watching Jacob wrestle with the angel. I don't think that Bloom would deny the obvious, which is that his relationship to Freud embodies his own theory of the threatening immediate precursor. Bloom clearly feels this attachment and rivalry with Freud that makes his readings of Freud's works fascinating. It was an absolutely riveting experience. He also made me see how funny Freud was, which I hadn't really realized.

Q: Was the PhD program just not your cup of tea? Why did you leave?

A: Oh it definitely wasn't my cup of tea. At the time the Yale literature program was pretty tough; it was kind of a split between the old-guard, oldfashioned English literature types and the Paul de Man post structuralist people.

Q: That had to be in the thick of it then.

A: Yes, but it wasn't that I was opposed to any particular aspect of the training being offered there. I just found myself unable to write poems, and I don't know if that's because I was such a sensitive plant or because there was, as I imagined at the time, an attitude at Yale of loathing the writer. There may or may not have been; it could have been all my projection. Whether you were old school or new school, in terms of a critical approach to literature, there was this sense that the writer was a slob, a useless slob who had accidentally generated this thing, this poem or novel that we are bound to study. But “we,” the academics and critics, are so much smarter and more interesting than the slob who generated this work. I was depressed by this attitude.

Q: You found this to be the case with both the de Man followers and the traditionalists?

A: Yes. At a certain level of graduate training it's a little like boot camp, and there are attitudes and demeanors built into the situation. One of them in graduate programs in English involves this: “Oh there's nothing so darned special about Milton. We can wrassle that beast to the ground! There's nothing so darned special about Blake. We can figure him out and say he's not that interesting” (laughs). There's something of what one might call an undergraduate attitude of superiority over the texts being discussed. I believe that attitude dissipates at higher levels. And when the same professors go back to teaching undergraduates, they convey their love and enjoyment of the work. When they're teaching graduate students, however, it seems to be this hazing where we all have to agree that nothing is great. Everything needs to be defrauded; we need to prove to one another that we haven't been “fooled” by literature. It's very odd. I left one step ahead of a nervous breakdown.

Q: It only took a year?

A: Less than a year. I spent much of my second semester in bed reading Dickens. I still haven't read Barnaby Rudge, but I've read all the others. I read or reread all of his novels that semester, in bed, in my pj's. I didn't go to class.

Q: That sounds horribly depressing.

A: I had my own personal crisis under the covers (laughs). And on the day I decided to leave, I wrote a poem. Which is the first poem in my first book, “Landscape Poetry is a Dead Letter”–a reply to something a teacher had said dismissively about pastoral poetry.

Q: In the '80s you were an editor at Vanity Fair, Premiere, Bantam Books, and elsewhere. How has editing influenced your writing? Why did you stop?

A: Why did I stop? Better question is why did I start? When I left college, I was given very good advice by my beloved, wonderful, adored teacher, Robert Fitzgerald, the great translator and poet. He told me not to go to an MFA program; he said it would bore me to death. He told me to go to New York and work. I took his advice. I went and worked as a secretary at the New York Review of Books for two years and then went to graduate school, hated it, and went back to New York. First as a secretary at Vanity Fair. The magazine was being revived, so it was a start-up, and I was promoted from the editor-in-chief's secretary to an assistant editor to an editor, and then I kind of skipped around, editing at various glossy magazines. I was also starting to write book reviews, first for Kirkus Review and then for The Nation. Meanwhile, at the glossies, I wrote a lot of short pieces, captions, heads, and decks. It made me much more professional as a writer. It made me quick.

I really like editing. I had a great job at Manhattan, inc., where I worked for a brilliant woman named Jane Amsterdam. But most of the time the magazine jobs were pretty puerile. You tried to do good work, but there really wasn't room. I was present during the big transition in the magazine business. I witnessed a change from a time when magazines expected to be able to support journalists, give them the financial backing of a magazine to get their jobs done–to a time of not giving them any help at all. The transition from the kind of ideal world where a magazine is present at the generation of stories to a less ideal world where a magazine is just reacting like every other medium to the world that's out there. Monthly magazines are hopeless at this anyway, because they can't be as fast as CNN news,; they can't respond with the same speed so they always end up behind the curve. So why not do something worthwhile instead? A magazine like the old New Yorker would actually underwrite journalists to embark on important work for a long period of time. They were trusting the writer and trusting the story. They made news. John Hersey's Hiroshima pieces, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. They made the news; they weren't just reacting to it. That kind of ideal was still present when I first got into magazines. It had vanished by the time I left. The economics of the business had shifted so completely that nobody was thinking that way anymore at all. It was virtually all celebrity culture and publicity placements.

But I don't mean to imply that I took the high road myself. I've done my share of schlock. In 1992 I wrote an article called “My Life as a Blonde” for Allure magazine. I wrote about being a platinum blonde for a month. It was ridiculous. I was dragged uptown to this salon, dyed Jean Harlow-white-blonde, and had to write about it. I tried to be funny in the piece but felt like I had reached a kind of personal nadir. Then the Allure editors got mad at me because when I was asked to be a guest on “Geraldo”, I turned the TV show down–I thought I had been humiliated enough. It was grotesque. Right around then, thank God, the writer Caryl Phillips read my first book of poems and my novel and invited me to be the Visiting Writer at Amherst College. Before that, I had done a little spot teaching here and there, just trying to see if I liked it, but it was my first real teaching job, and it saved my life.

Q: Do you think you'll write another novel?

A: Oh yeah.

Q: Are you writing one now?

A: I wrote a second novel after Pirate Jenny. In fact, one of the great traumas of my adult life was not getting that novel published. I finished it in 1993 and tried to get it published for two years. Some people said that they liked it but it was too literary, and some people just hated it flat out (laughs). I decided that it was definitely too literary and perhaps hateful as well.

I'm working on another novel now.

Q: Do you not want to talk about it?

A: No. I'll finish it when I have time, which is never. My husband and I have a deal: We each get every other summer. So the summer before last I went to Yaddo for a month, and I started on this novel. I wrote a big part of it. But I haven't really gotten back to it and probably won't until I go to a colony this coming summer for a month. I hate being away from my son, but I have to be away from everybody to write prose.

Q: You mentioned once that John Ashbery's poem “The Skaters” changed your life. Can you elaborate?

A: It's one of the most extraordinary poems ever written. Like a great novel–it changes your life in the duration of reading it. Every time I read it, it changes my life again. I first read it in college, and I remember this magical sense not unlike the Elizabeth Bishop thing I described to you earlier. The sense that you could do so much in a poem. The poem is novelistic, it's cinematic, it's personal, it's lyrical, it expands and contracts and focuses, it's incredible. He does that in a lot of his long poems, but for some reason “The Skaters” remains my favorite. I'm attached to certain figures in the poems–the image of the skaters themselves, inscribing the ice with gestures, the way he plays with the night sky, the way, I believe, he's playing with images from Flemish painting, making a Brueghel-style winter landscape that he moves in and out of through the whole poem. The poem is both inhabiting the landscape and seeing it from a distance.

Q: Whom do you consider to be your poet ancestors?

A: It's a pretty crowded tree. I think if Hopkins were alive and could read my poems and tell me that they were good, I'd probably be happier than anything else that could happen in my whole life. But the weird thing about writing is that I feel that I'm writing for him anyway. I just hope they don't make him sick, up there in heaven (laughs). I don't expect him to be pleased by them, but I hope they don't make him throw up •

Reb Livingston is a poet and jewelry designer living in Reston, VA. Her work has appeared in 5AM, LIT, Slope, and Drunken Boat. Visit her website:

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