Today I’m concluding my interview with Jeanne Murray Walker, a professor of English at University of Delaware and award-winning author of six volumes of poetry and many theater scripts.
LeAnne: Why do you write poetry?
Jeanne: The truth is, much of the time I don’t know. I wonder why anyone in her right mind would write poetry.
Then in the middle of the night when I wake up and I’m alone, I turn on the light and read the poetry of Milosz. Or whoever. These days, of Anna Kamienska. The light seems less glaring. I feel at rest. I might jot down a metaphor, if I can catch one as it zigzags through my mind. Then I turn to sleep again.
When someone I don’t know asks me what I do (the question about work seems first on the list of Americans) I don’t tell him I’m a poet. Come clean about that and the questioner replies that his nephew, for example, is a poet, too. He has 57 body piercings, a tattoo on his forehead, and a ways to go before he discovers that he actually wants to work on Wall Street.
To be a poet is not a profession. It used to be, when Emily Dickinson was a poet, though at her death, she still did not know she made it into that blessed club. (I wonder whether she looks down with irony on her adoring readers.) Even the Modernist poets could still claim writing was their job. But since the Beats, writing poetry has appeared synonymous with rebellion. Since the Confessional Poets, it has gained overtones of self-indulgence. It seems like hardly anything but a lifestyle. To write poetry, most of us believe during our rational moments, is more like surfing than it is like putting on hubcaps. I disagree. It’s like both. But I confess that I have yet to convince the culture of that.
Looking at a bowl of strawberries ripening in the window as I make dinner, I wonder why poetry sometimes seems so trivial. It is a force a thousand times more powerful than cost-efficiency. I’m fixing meatloaf because I can make two meatloaves and freeze one for later. Yes. Okay. Cost effectiveness, the rational mind at work. But why am I cooking at all? I could open a can. I could order out. But I love the pressure in my thumb and fingers as I cut garlic. I love the smell of bread in the oven. I love the astonishing green of fresh asparagus. I am driven to cook for my family by whatever once drove me to change twenty diapers a day without thinking about the clock. Cooking and poetry make sense, not by the mathematically calculated standards of capitalism, but by something we glibly call the heart. As Anna Kamienska wrote, When the intellect really tries, it can, for a time, replace the sun, but it will never ripen strawberries.
I have to try to remember this so I can mention it casually next time someone asks me at a dinner party what I do.
LBM: What are you working on right now?
JMW: Most days this month I’m writing. That’s a luxury I don’t often have because I teach. I love teaching, but it takes up a lot of time when I could otherwise be writing.
As usual, several threads weave the fabric of my writing life. This month, in addition to the thread of writing poetry, I have been editing translations of poetry, putting together a book manuscript of my own poems that have already been published in journals, and finishing a book of essays about reading and writing. I’m answering to three different editors this month, each with a deadline and a different style manual. And I’m answering to a self-imposed deadline—to write 20 sonnets before I go back to school—even if they’re bad. I want to get fluent enough to write one in an hour. Even more, I want the magic of that old form to prune back some of the prosiness that’s crept into my lines.
The phone rings and I stop juggling end rhymes for the second quatrain of a sonnet to talk with an editor about the worrisome eighth and ninth lines of a translation of one of Anna Kamienska’s poems. As I talk, I glance around my office at wicker baskets of notes waiting to finish the book of essays. (I don’t jot my ideas in a journal. I scribble them on pieces of paper and toss them into a relevant wicker basket until I find time to pick up the basket, take the notes out, and start working.) There’s a nervousness about the wicker baskets askew on my office floor. They feel like fillies before a race. All that raw energy! Later today I’ll drive into the city to attend a taping of a documentary about dance at Philadelphia’s public TV station, WHYY. It’s one of six documentaries about arts in Pennsylvania the station will be airing soon. I’m writing and hosting the documentary about poetry in the Commonwealth, which will be filmed next month. It’s something I need to turn to soon.