© Margaretta K. Mitchell, 2001.
Time and Materials
by Craig Morgan
you’ve been very busy with poetry-related work—translations,
a newspaper column, being Poet Laureate—It’s
been a long time since your last book: did these poems
Sometimes poems come slowly
in the sense that I live with them in a dissatisfied
condition until I finally get what I was after, or what
the poem was after. Sometimes they come very quickly
in a first rush, then it takes months for the work of
the poem to finish itself. I don’t know that it’s
so much that I’m slow but that I’m also
very distractible. There was quite a stretch in which
I needed some quiet time to look at the work I’d
been doing and see if I could make a book out of it,
and I was able to do that last fall in Iowa City. It’s
very exciting work—it’s kind of like writing
poems—trying to put a book together.
of the things that has always characterized your work
is a real fidelity to the details of the natural world.
But in this book, especially in the long poem “The
State of the Planet,” there are more general observations
about human nature, and specifically the parts of human
nature that got us—and our planet—into the
mess we’re in. Do those specifics help you see
the generalities, or vice versa?
“The State of the Planet”
was a particular kind of challenge because it was originally
written as a commission; it was the only time I ever
did that. A really good way to get stopped altogether
is to write “the state of the planet” at
the top of a poem that you know is going to be read
in front of the world’s foremost climate scientists.
I was struggling to find a form, and it seemed appropriate
to try to write with a certain kind of directness. In
some way the form was an essay form, and that led me
to think about Lucretius, and his poems, and then the
whole tradition—not exactly of the didactic poem,
but the kind of poem that Virgil wrote that gives agricultural
advice, his Georgics; it’s like a georgic poem.
So now that we’ve become willy-nilly the gardener-caretakers
of the whole planet, I was able to do it by thinking
of it as that kind of poem. It’s not where I’d
want to go all the time, but I gave it a shot.
years these poems are dated on the cover of the book—1997-2003—were
particularly fraught; a lot of bad things happened.
Did you feel responsible for taking those events on
in the book?
I felt like they were on my
mind, and in San Francisco, where I live, there’s
no shortage of poetry commenting on current affairs,
and there’s no shortage of moral certainty and
self-righteousness, so it’s not like there was
some vacuum I needed to fill. Watching my country stampeded
into this senseless war was tormenting. I found myself
thinking about war in general and violence in general.
Because of the invasion of Iraq, the subject of violence
and war—also because of Czeslaw’s death:
he always complained about the fact that he had to think
about violence in the 20th century—was on my mind.
It quite naturally became subject matter to wrestle
with. That said, I’ve always had the feeling that
political poetry is pretty much doomed. Emily Dickinson
wrote the greatest poems written during the Civil War,
and they’re mostly about having her feelings hurt
by her sister-in-law.
CMT: Was the feeling
further complicated by having just been Poet Laureate?
Not really. It didn’t feel like “having
just been Laureate”—it was some years later.
What I did feel was that in 2001 when everyone was writing
poems about that violence, I didn’t quite understand
why, when a few really sick fanatics managed to kill
a bunch of people acting out some bad disaster movie
scenario, it moved everybody to patriotic poems. I felt
just as patriotic before and just as patriotic after.
Something happened—some kind of wounded narcissism
about the country was a secondary explosion of that
thing, and it’s led us in a disastrous path. Also
knowing that poets have no particular authority with
which to have opinions about world affairs, I found
myself in some of the poems thinking about that, and
while putting the book together found myself thinking
about how to put public and private together. That was
for me an interesting part of the process.
on a lighter note, what would it mean to you to win
the National Book Award this year?
You know, I so much admire
the other poets that I’m going to feel great no
matter who wins—almost all of them are really
old comrades in this art, so I feel very easy about
that whole business.
Morgan Teicher's poems, essays, and reviews have appeared
in many publications, including, The Paris Review,
The Yale Review, Bookforum, and Poets &
Writers. His first book, Brenda Is In The Room
And Other Poems won the 2007 Colorado Prize for
Poetry and is due out this November. He works as an
editor at Publishers Weekly.