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2008 National Book Award Finalist,

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Richard Howard
Without Saying
Turtle Point Press

Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.

Craig Morgan Teicher: What does the National Book Award nomination mean to you?

Richard Howard: There are a lot of good books of poetry published every year, and this one was chosen by a group of serious judges as one of some value, and that pleases me. It pleases me especially to be on a list with those two that I’m very familiar with and have known for many years—Frank Bidart and Mark Doty. I’ve cared deeply about Frank’s work from the beginning. I published his first book when I was editing the poetry series for Braziller Books, and we’ve been friends ever since. I met Mark years and years ago. He managed to do something that in American poetry is very rare—he has a wonderful sense of decoration and surface—very grand. There’s a sense that we belong together.

CMT: You’ve been pretty prolific lately—what’s special to you about this book?

RH: In it I try to do all the things that I like to do in poetry. There are two kinds of poems of voice that are new to me. One of them is leading to the next book, which will be all the poems of that 5th grade class of the progressive school—in this book it’s called “School Days,” and there are four poems. In the next book those four will be joined by eight others. I’m very excited about that. I feel that this book is a kind of harbinger of things to come, as well as representing other kinds of poems that I have always written and that appeal to me very strongly.

CMT :Can you talk a bit about the genesis of the “School Days” poems, which are partly inspired by your own early education at a progressive school?

RH: Three books back I had written a poem about a visit to New York where the 5th grade class came to examine the dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History—it was called “Our Spring Trip.” Then a year ago I was in the hospital with a back operation—I came out of that very well, but I had never had a general anesthetic before, and I was quite knocked out by it and rather bewildered and I remember lying in bed and thinking about my school days and that 5th grade class, and that poem came back to me. Then I felt, there’s really more to be said—I can hear those voices, I know those kids, we had a life together that was really very intense. The minute I got out of the hospital, I began writing those poems. I don’t think I would have written them if I hadn’t had some kind of calling up short from my own life, which turned me back to voices of long ago.

CMT: Joy seems to be one of the guiding principals of your work. I feel like that’s pretty rare—has it always been easy for you to give yourself permission to follow those impulses?

RH: I guess so. I really like to entertain, and I have found that I get tremendous pleasure out of knowing that people enjoy the poems. I don’t know it very well except when I read the poems aloud, and I sometimes get a response from an audience that tells me that they do enjoy them. I’ve even tried to perform in such a way that I would have to know that they enjoyed it. I guess that that’s a rather peculiar principle, but it is one that guides me, and in fact it gets repeated in my work with my students at Columbia and the other places where I’ve taught. I say to my students as a carry-on from the things that I say to myself: “What do you expect a reader to do with this poem if he doesn’t get some kind of pleasure out of it?” That principle is very powerful in me.

Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet, critic, and freelance writer. His first book of poems, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems, was chosen by Paul Hoover as winner of the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and was published by the Center for Literary Publishing. His collection of short stories and fables, called Cradle Book, will be published in spring 2010 by BOA Editions Ltd.



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