"And people hanging from lampposts."
"Yes. All that eerie stuff and butchers' aprons, but when I heard him read, he was funny. I could tell by the way his mouth was crooked that he was grinning at all this stuff, and it made me have a whole new look at his work."
"Like 'The Revenant,' your dog poem. The heartbreak is at work too."
"I sit down to write. I don't consciously do it, but I'm trying to use humor to get at something serious, and I'm trying to balance those two moods so that the result might even be a gentle confusion, an emotional confusion, where sometimes in readings the audience is laughing at a few poems, and then another poem comes up that's not funny, and they're still laughing. Then they catch themselves. I like to ride that little line between the two -- the tragedy and comedy masks."
"What dead poets do you read?"
"Coleridge, a lot, and John Clare. He's come back tremendously in the past ten years or so. I have a whole shelf of John Clare. A friend of mine is a rare-book dealer, and anything that comes in with John Clare she saves for me. I've got an obsession with him. He's a wonderful counter of things, of eggs; he's a little tabulator. I like that about him."
"Do you read Dick Hugo?"
"Yes, I love Dick Hugo. I love those poems on Skye. I was on Skye and I had his book with me. I actually haven't read Hugo in a few years; you're going to inspire me to take him down tonight. I just yesterday went to a James Wright evening because his widow and Robert Bly put together a small selected poems that you can put in your pocket or your knapsack. And then Wright's letters just came out. I read Wright."
"What has it been like to come, as you have, from such obscurity as a poet to one of the most-read poets in the country?"
"It's an entirely positive experience. I don't think I ever suffered in obscurity, because I had low hopes as a poet. I think probably most poets do. One of my colleagues summed it up when she introduced me at a reading, some years ago, and we'd been teaching together forever in the City University, and she said that when she met me I was a professor who happened to be a professor, and I'd become a poet who happens to be a professor.
"Those two roles did shift. There's a shift of dominance from one role to the other. I don't know. It's very odd. I taught in obscurity but everyone teaches in obscurity. I taught for over 30 years at the four-year college in the Bronx.
"Just after I became poet laureate, this journalist, this sweet guy from the Washington Post, said he wanted to come up to the Bronx and go to my class and look around. I told him, 'Great, but the last half an hour of the class, you have to teach.' I wanted him to get up and talk about how you become a journalist. So that was our deal.
"He got to the college early and he was walking around the campus by himself, and as a journalist he would stop students and ask about me, and no one had ever heard of me. My students didn't know who I was, which was a relief in a way. I mean some of the graduate students would catch on. But I would enter a regular Introduction to Literature or English 101 classroom and no one would know who I was.
"I didn't think that was something that I was suffering. I'm 64 now, believe it or not. I don't, anyway. But everything that's happened to me in poetry happened in, maybe the last ten years.
"Garrison Keillor has been very good. He's read poems of mine on the Writer's Almanac, a dozen or so. He's had me on Prairie Home Companion."
"He reads beautifully," I said.
"I'm so glad you said that. Some people don't think he does. I've heard him read my poems and I think he reads better than I do. I've seen him do cold readings and he knows just where the accents are. He's got an amazing sense of rhythm and pitch and tone; his reading is an instrumental performance."
"His ear," I suggested, "has been trained by hymnody."
"That's true. I asked someone I met, a friend of his, and this friend said they'd go to Keillor's house for dinner. I said, 'What's it like?' The friend said 'People bring covered dishes, and after dinner we sing hymns.' It's the real thing. Just what you'd expect."
"What do you do all day?"
"I'm busy. There's a lot of time spent managing what has become a cottage industry, which is me. There is this strangulation of e-mail and letters, secretarial stuff. I have an assistant, but she only comes in every few weeks. If I get letters from people I don't know, I put them in a box, and she and I go through that. It's easier to do it myself. You know so much of it would be hard to explain."
"I like the poem ["The Trouble with Poetry"] where flame shows up at the end of your pencil."
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
"I like that too. A little flame. I'm reading a lot of Hindu stories lately. There's a lot of odd things. For instance, if you look into the mouth of some of these gods, you see all these worlds being born and destroyed, and it's amazing."
"Did your parents read to you?"
"My mother did."
"Is she still alive?"
"No, if she were alive, she'd be 105."
"Did she love you?"
"She loved me a great deal, yeah. My parents, I think they practiced preventive psychiatry. They had me very late. They were 39 years old. Almost 40. Both born in 1901. My father died in '94 and my mother died in '97. So they both lived well into their 90s, and I had 50 years of being an only child."