On Poetry with James Longenbach

An Interview by Bryan Michielsen


Forever by James Longenbach comes out June 22, 2021.

BRYAN MICHIELSEN: Joseph Henry Gilmore, as you know, was a professor at the University of Rochester in the late 1800s until his retirement in 1908. Explain what it means exactly to be the Joseph Henry Gilmore Professor of English as opposed to just a professor of English.

JAMES LONGENBACH: George Ford was the Joseph Gilmore Professor of English just before me. He was responsible for building a little department into a great department. He started the Ph.D. program. He doubled the size of the department. And he was a gracious, lovely man. I saw him with a martini in each hand just a few days before he died. He was very tall, and he had distinguished white hair, and he was a great Victorian. He wrote a book on the readers of John Keats, on Dickens, and other books on lots of other things. He was always retired when I was around in the 80s and the early 90s, but he came into my class more than once, and he was always funny and a bit distinguished without being pretentious. I really admire that. I liked him a lot. So, the fact that he had this title for decades meant a lot to me.

BRYAN: Explain briefly what led you to this position.

JAMES: There are several ways to answer that question, I suppose. I earned a Ph.D. in English at Princeton University. Professionally, my work has always been as a literary critic. I’ve been lucky enough not to have to use my poetry in that way. So, I got a Ph.D. in English, and I wrote a dissertation on Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in the early 80s. 

When it was time to do so, there were, in the world, seventeen jobs I could apply for. These were the fabulous old days. Now, you’re lucky if there are three. I was offered two jobs; one of them was at the University of Rochester. So, I started teaching here in 1985. 

And a few years later, I published two books, one with Princeton University Press and one with Oxford University Press. This university not only tenured me after just two years—which usually takes seven years—but they also hired my wife, the novelist Joanna Scott, which was prescent. She’s been, if anything, even more prolific, and she’s won a MacArthur. I’ve won things too, but that’s a really big deal.

Of course the University of Rochester is a job, and so, there are things to improve, things to complain about, but we’ve also had a lot of freedom here. We’ve lived lots of places, and I’m grateful for that.

BRYAN: Your perspective on workshops was something new to me when I first met you. A lot of writers feel like they need to be in workshops, that it’s a crucial part of their process. Explain a little more your thoughts on workshops, what their function is, and why writers shouldn’t be in them forever.

JAMES: I’ve never taken a workshop, but I’ve taught scads of them. I try to organize those workshops—and certainly I do this better than I did thirty-five years ago—around the serious learning of skills. And I say serious learning because I don’t want to be sanctimonious about it. I don’t want to be humorless or joyless. I suppose every now and then I am, but workshops don’t ever need to be unpleasant; no class does, given that they are classes, and every now and then, they will feel like classes. 

So, I suppose the greatest influence on me in this regard is the poet who you know, Ellen Bryant Voigt, who also conducts workshops not as fix-it sites, where you drive your poem in, we fix it up, and you drive it out the other side. Nobody learns anything by doing that. Also, by doing that you become dependent on the workshop. I would rather—this is harder, and I appreciate that—that people learn the skills that are necessary to fix themselves as it were. Other people are really necessary for that. It’s far easier to see what’s wrong with someone else’s poem than to see what’s wrong with your own poem, and this is true whether you’re sixty or twenty. 

Ideally, you won’t be in workshops forever. You’ll have a few trusted readers. And teaching workshops is brilliantly interesting. It doesn’t matter how good the poems are. What matters is the kind of observations people make about the language of that poem. And that can be thrilling no matter what.

BRYAN: How does a writer know they’re done with workshops?

JAMES: Nobody does. I suppose that was a somewhat cagey answer. But I think in this business of art, if it is indeed a business, there’s very little that you can know. You can have strong hunches. The wonderful 20th century poet Paul Valery once said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. I think that’s true. You get to a point where you just can’t do anything, or you’re so fricking bored with it, you don’t want to do anything. So, you take what you learned, and you put it into something else you’re writing, the next poem. That’s great, I think. The only thing certain is that if one takes this process with the kind of seriousness it deserves, the future will be better than the present. I’ve never seen a student who did not improve. And some improve massively. That’s exciting.

You get to a point where you just can’t do anything, or you’re so fricking bored with it, you don’t want to do anything. So, you take what you learned, and you put it into something else you’re writing, the next poem.

BRYAN: In an interview with Loggernaut Reading Series, you say “writing poems would be a will-driven activity, and I need to wait until the poems demand to be written; otherwise, I’d end up repeating myself rather than discovering something new.” So, is writing more of a when-the-inspiration-strikes kind of thing? If it is, how do you hold yourself accountable to keep producing creative work?

JAMES: I think that’s kind of true. I wouldn’t use the word inspiration. I don’t know what that is. I think that’s sometimes another word for I’m really great. I think you have to write badly all the time, and you have to be okay with writing badly all the time. 

The poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every day, which I think is kind of silly. But an interviewer once asked him, “what do you do on days where you don’t feel like writing a poem or on days that you have nothing to say?” and he said, “I lower my standards.” That was eye-popping to me because it’s hard, as you know, to lower your standards. The inner voice that says this isn’t good enough, or this isn’t interesting, is strong and well honed. And it should be. You can’t ignore that. But you also have to work with it. 

What you’re quoting I probably said too quickly, or too epigrammatically. I may have been thinking that certainly there are writers who write a lot of poems and do seem to repeat themselves, and then there are other writers who maybe don’t write that many poems, but each book seems like a discovery of something new and something strange. You go “woah!” You put it down and you want to figure that out, you want to know, you haven’t thought of that yet, you haven’t felt that yet. I find that way more exciting than reading a version of what I’ve read before. So, I’m always on the lookout for things that seem a little different.

I think you have to write badly all the time, and you have to be okay with writing badly all the time. 

BRYAN: What do most poorly written poems have in common?

JAMES: A lack of concrete language.

BRYAN: Give an example.

JAMES: “I feel really sad today. It’s a bummer. I want to go back to bed.” I have no idea what any of that means. I don’t know what’s wrong. I have no idea what kind of day it is. I have no idea where the bed is. I have no idea which state this is taking place in. It’s a terrible story. We’ve all felt it. So what? You don’t learn anything from that. A poem has to be about a specific thing that makes you feel that way. The job—a really good and coveted job—of any reader is to feel because of those words. If the words tell you how to feel, then there’s nothing to do, and the poem is boring.

BRYAN: I know from our time together that you’re drawn to poems because of what the language does, rather than what it says. What is your favorite element of poetry, be it line, syntax, imagery… and why?

JAMES: You know, they may not say it, but I think everyone, every single person, is drawn to a poem because of what the language does, not necessarily because of what it says. You might say that the poem says “I’m really sad today. The world is a bummer,” and the poem might say that. That’s totally fine. The language of the poem will have concrete particularity and create a story and a situation with people in a particular setting in a particular place at a particular time and will not be about feelings generally. It will devastatingly provoke specific feelings. 

That said, I find over and over again that I come back to line. It’s always very exciting as a teacher when students understand what that is. I like it because great lines can be in a metered and rhymed poem, and great lines can be in a free verse poem. It kind of doesn’t matter. I never committed this to print, but when I hear a poet dismiss one or the other, I stop listening very hard because I think “oh, there’s a person without an ear.” How can you hear only half of poetry? That’s crazy. The fact of line and how that works with the ongoing—or not—syntax of a poem operates in every single poem written in the last 26,000 years.

If the words tell you how to feel, then there’s nothing to do, and the poem is boring.

BRYAN: What is, for you, the hardest part about poetry?

JAMES: Believing that the world you’re making in the poem is worthy of attention from yourself or from someone else. On a bad day everything seems really bad, and on a good day everything seems really good. And that’s what Mr. Stafford meant when he alluded to lowering one’s standards. One has initially to begin a poem by putting that inner censor somewhere else, or to quiet that inner censor. It might come back later. This is why in so many poems, the first fifteen lines or something are junk, and then you come up with the beginning and you go “wow!” It takes some time to see that. In my own case, especially when you’re young, and when you’re learning, this is one of the values of workshops. You see it in other people’s poems perhaps before you see it in your own. By attending meticulously to other people’s poems, you learn to attend meticulously to your own poems, and that realization about those opening lines that used to take a month may only take an hour.

BRYAN: For emerging poets who are trying to put together their first collection, what advice do you have?

JAMES: Make poems. I think in my own experience it’s impossible not to think about grouping poems. You have one poem, and then you have two poems. They both seem pretty good. Should this one come first, or should this one come first? You learn something from that, the same way you learn from rearranging lines or rearranging stanzas. The order in which you learn about the world through poems really matters. It takes a long time to make a book. That doesn’t happen quickly. I think many poets do it too soon. One of the greatest poets, Wallace Stevens, didn’t publish his first book of poetry until he was almost fifty. He was also an insurance lawyer, so he didn’t just sit around or anything, and he had a kid, so he did lots of other stuff. That all contributed to the poetry. Though people don’t see it, they often speak charismatically of his double life. And I think, double as opposed to what? 

The poet Richard Howard was born in 1929, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for a book called Untitled Subjects. He said, “no poet ever became famous for writing poetry.” In my experience, that’s pretty much true. The world might like that poet’s circumstance, or the world might fancy that the poet is translating all of Marcel Proust. But generally, the world doesn’t read those poems. Very few people do, and that hasn’t changed. How many people over the last ten years have read Tennyson, one of the greatest poets in the English language? Poof! 100 years later, gone. You have to be really committed to that act of making poems, and I think you have to be committed in the arts generally to the idea that you yourself will never live long enough to know who’s great and who will last. All that we can hope to do is be part of a climate to make the possibility of poetry alive. And that’s a big deal, I think.

All that we can hope to do is be part of a climate to make the possibility of poetry alive.

BRYAN: In five words or fewer, how would you describe your forthcoming poetry collection, Forever?

JAMES: Stalwart, honest, moving, important-to-me… Was that six?

BRYAN: Important-to-me could count as one.

JAMES: I don’t mind saying, since the poems in that collection certainly make clear, I have for the last five years been dealing with having cancer. The poems are looking back over a lifetime of experience, but always through that lens. When I was first diagnosed, I thought that I had done this mortality thing, but I hadn’t. I think this is why COVID has been so strenuous for people. But often, for people like me, and I think this sounds a little glib, I’m like “what pandemic?” The fact that we’re all going to die? Yeah, soon. I was forced by circumstance to do a lot of thinking and feeling, and this book, especially, is the outcome of that work.

BRYAN: It’s sounds very powerful. I’m excited to read it. What was the most challenging part of putting any of your collections together?

JAMES: As I’ve said, it starts right away. You’ve got two poems, and one of them comes first. This after years of asking what is the first poem? A good answer to that question is that you want a book to be a book, to be an experience, in the same way that you want a poem to be an experience. And if a book of poems is just a collection of poems in the best order you could muster, then what’s the point? A book has to be about something, and more importantly it has to do something. So, you want to make that arc that you’re always trying to make in an individual poem, even a short one, from the first line to the last line, to feel that there’s something you don’t know in the first line, and then you feel that there’s something you do know in the last line. Sometimes you don’t know exactly what it is. You have to read the poem again and figure it out. I’m not talking about a lack of clarity or about confusion, but I’m talking about the acts of thinking and feeling. You yourself know this. And you can recognize it in things you yourself have written where you know that the end of the poem gives you information that feels charged because you get to it, because it’s something that you come to. You’re not just told, but you’re allowed to uncover it in a particular way, not this way, not this way, but that way. And that process can be very moving. A good book of poems does the same thing. The struggle is indeed to find that beginning, and then to find that ending, and to get there.

If a book of poems is just a collection of poems in the best order you could muster, then what’s the point?

BRYAN: If I’m not mistaken, all your books, poetry collections and otherwise, have been published traditionally. In the last five years, thanks to Amazon and others, self-publishing has really blown up as a method for writers to get their work out there. How do you feel about going down that route, not for you specifically, but for writers in general choosing to do that? What do you think the pros and cons are as opposed to going the traditional route?

JAMES: The pros are that as in anything, really good things can happen because of that kind of availability. The really big con is that it’s too easy. What should take decades takes minutes. And that seems typical of our culture. We watch a movie and boom! Everybody knows what they think. How’s that possible? You read Chaucer. Boom! Everyone knows what they think. That’s really stupid. Think about it. If you’re really intrigued, you want to know what other people think. There are people that have thought very beautiful things about Chaucer. 

I have no automatic beef with self-publishing, but I have seen younger people misled by it and get disappointed when it goes nowhere. You can publish a book of poems with Alfred Knopf, one of the finest publishers in the world, and go nowhere. As I hear myself say that, maybe for self-publishing that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. If one is doing it at all to congratulate oneself, then the only thing to be sure of is failure.

BRYAN: In your book, The Resistance to Poetry, you say “poets tend to be suspicious of their own designs, forcing their best discoveries against the wall of their limitations.” How do you fight any self-doubt you might experience about your work, and what advice do you have for other writers who might be doubtful about their work?

JAMES: You often have to fight it, but you also have to embrace it. You have to recognize that there are writers far greater than you’ll ever be that have embraced it. I wrote that book, in part, because I was tired of people who didn’t necessarily do poetry saying that it was inconsequential, and I was like “Of course it’s inconsequential! Grow up!” You know, what led anyone to believe a poet would be elected to the presidency of the United States? It hasn’t happened. It’s never going to happen.

I think that in my experience, poets have been far more suspicious of poetry than anyone who doesn’t make poems. John Keats, one of the greatest poets in the English language, said in a letter speaking of poetry, “the marvel is to me that people read so much of it.” That’s a little funny because almost nobody reads it. And he was astonished that that many people read it. Callimachus, centuries before the birth of Jesus, said to keep your muse slender, and don’t try to write a long poem because nobody wants to read it. So, that effort to put pressure on the act of making poetry has been really instrumental. It not only isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t be easy. It takes a lot of what is, in my experience, most of the time, really enriching work. And every now and then, you want to pick up the whole of poetry, throw it on the floor, and walk out. And every now and then you do.

BRYAN: As writers, we know it’s very rare that we’re going to make our living off just writing, so for someone who loves to write and create, what are good paths to embark on or next steps to take after earning a bachelor’s degree.

JAMES: That’s rough. It used to be—I don’t think it is anymore—that the path, which was never easy, and that I took myself, was to exist in the academy. That is increasingly difficult to do. I think the poet I mentioned before is a good example. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer; he went to law school and worked for the Hartford insurance company. He also wrote poems, and very great poems it turns out. So, no matter what you do, if that kind of thinking and feeling is important, it will happen. I don’t mean to be pollyannaish about this. Sometimes work is exhausting, and sometimes poetry can’t happen, so one has to be a little careful about it I suppose. At the same time, I’m hesitant to imagine there are rules about this. 

I also think of the great poet George Oppen, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1960s for a book called Of Being Numerous. And he wrote his first book in the early thirties. He didn’t publish his second book until 1958, twenty-five years later. In between, he worked as a labor organizer, moved with his wife and daughter to Mexico to avoid being hounded by the US government for being a communist, made furniture… Did all that work contribute to the making of poems? Maybe. It’s a little mysterious, but what I find really moving about him is that he’s a person of really stalwart political convictions, also a really stalwart, unexaggerated, need to work for himself, and he didn’t complain about it. And he didn’t imagine that poetry could be an answer. He went on to write really great poems. I’m not recommending his path at all, but it’s out there as an inspiration, and he’s been an inspiration to me.

And every now and then, you want to pick up the whole of poetry, throw it on the floor, and walk out.

BRYAN: What’s the last thing you read?

JAMES: There’s a book that was just published called Plunder by Cynthia Saltzman. It’s about Napoleon’s invasion of Venice in 1797, and in particular about his confiscation of a number of fabulous paintings, specifically the painting Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese. It’s enormous. It’s like forty feet long and twenty-five feet high, and he moved it to Paris. He had it ripped off the monastery wall, cut into pieces, rolled up, put on shipboard for six months, and then he installed it in the Louvre, where it still is. That’s how the Mona Lisa got there, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace too. These are all war spoils. So, this book is half a military history about Napoleon’s extraordinary hubris—I wasn’t inclined to like Napoleon, but I rivetingly despised him by the end of this book—and the other half is an art history, the making of these paintings. It’s beautifully proportioned. I never was bored for a second. I just wanted to read the book. It’s not that long. It’s less than 400 pages, and there’re pretty pictures. I found it fantastic. I should also say that I love the city of Venice. I’ve been there nineteen times, and I’ve lived there, and I like it now. I think a lot of what gets said about it, especially in the New York Times, is so uninformed. It’s very easy to have opinions. In my experience, it’s a wonderful, endlessly interesting place, and I’ve barely scratched the surface despite having been there a lot.

BRYAN: Venice is the Italian city with all the waterways, right?

JAMES: That’s right. They aren’t just waterways though. It’s built on small islands in the middle of a vast lagoon.

BRYAN: How long did you live there?

JAMES: My wife and I lived there for about three and a half months. We also lived in the city of Florence, Italy with our two daughters for about two years. As those canals suggest about Venice, it’s magical, but it’s not a very practical place to live with small children. So, we lived in Florence, but we spent a lot of time in Venice. I love Florence too.

BRYAN: What was your favorite part about living in Italy?

JAMES: Food. The cool thing about it—we lived in Florence as I mentioned—you can’t get a bottle of wine or a cheese made in Rome if you live in Florence. It’s still that parochial. We’re used to going to the grocery store and getting avocados from Argentina. You can’t get stuff from ten miles down the road there. Everything is really indigenous. I didn’t understand the extent of that at first, but if you embrace that, it’s really interesting. Real born-and-bred Italians tend, sweetly, to be very proud of these things. [in Italian accent]: “Oh, no, no, no, no. You can’t go there.” And “you can’t eat that.”

BRYAN: Do you speak Italian?

JAMES: I can certainly go to the grocery store and do pleasantries on the street, but I couldn’t have this conversation. My two daughters, who went to fully Italian school there, know the language far better than I do. But they’ve also forgotten a lot of it. Both of them hear it beautifully. They have fantastic accents. I love to hear them speak. It wasn’t easy, especially for the younger one. I think Americans have a kind of romance about knowing another language and living in another language. All the alienation and difficulty, and the jeering of other children get left out of that.

BRYAN: Finish this sentence: I am…

JAMES: The first thing that came into my head, and I think it’s true is: I am a teacher. I think the most important thing that I do, both for me, and in the little way that I can, for other people in the world is to try to find ways to teach what I’ve learned. And I find that extremely invigorating. This is why I really like teaching beginning poetry writing. I really like to find ways to explain, and then explain again, how things that might be taken for granted work in these little packages of words. And that ramifies in lots of different directions, that effort.

I think the most important thing that I do, both for me, and in the little way that I can, for other people in the world is to try to find ways to teach what I’ve learned.

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