Interview with Frank Bidart, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Interview with Shara Lessley
Shara Lessley: In an effort to promote a literary event in Bakersfield, a woman once rented a billboard that read ‘FRANK BIDART IS COMING HOME.’ Although you’ve been gone from California for some time, there are poems in Metaphysical Dog that return there. Is there a part of you that still inhabits the Golden State?
Frank Bidart: The person who did that was a writer named Lee McCarthy, who taught high school near Bakersfield. She was terrifically gutsy, independent, courageous. She was angry that I had been left out of a semi-official anthology of California poets. She invited me to read in Bakersfield, and arranged for the billboard to startle anyone driving by.
Though I’ve now lived in New England much longer than my years growing up in Bakersfield, I’ve never thought of myself as a New Englander. I’m deeply someone made in California, in Bakersfield. Elizabeth Bishop has a wonderful line, ‘Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?’ But if you make yourself in California it’s different than if you make yourself in Massachusetts. Class issues and assumptions, racial issues, manners are different. The things you argue about in your head are different. I think the things that are ‘Californian’ about me have been modified as I’ve gotten older, but haven’t changed in essence. Though everything I’ve written has been an argument with the world I’m from, I’m no less a creature of it. This is an enormous, labyrinthine subject, as it probably is for any writer who felt wounded but made by the place he or she began. Think of Joyce and Ireland.
SL: Hunger in Metaphysical Dog is exhausting but persistent. ‘Words are flesh,’ you write. The collection’s speakers crave the soul, the absolute. Is desire for ‘the great addictions’—love, power, fame, god, and art—a flaw? Or, is it simply what drives what you call the ‘Ordinary divided unsimple heart’?
FB: I think they are what drive the ordinary divided unsimple heart. Though it’s terrible to give in unqualifiedly to the desire for them, the notion that one has eradicated them from oneself—or that you should be ashamed you feel them—is naive, an illusion, one more chimera. No matter who or what you are, possessing whatever social or economic stature you’ve been born into or achieved, hunger is universal—hunger for something you don’t possess, once thought important. Everyone feels grief for the unlived life. But not every addiction is equal. I tell my students that it’s better to be addicted to Astaire and Rogers movies than to heroin. The notion that, short of death, one is going to be totally free of addictions is one more way of torturing oneself.
SL: ‘Writing ‛Ellen West’’ revisits your well-known poem on anorexia. Like Ellen, you claim, ‘he was obsessed with eating and the arbitrariness of gender and having to have a body’ (emphasis mine). As a narrative strategy, why transform yourself into a character via the third person?
FB: It’s a way of making fact available to art. To write about oneself as a character—to think about oneself as a character—opens up space between the ‘I’ and the author. (In this sense, calling the I ‘he’ is only a way of making inescapable this space. You can write as an ‘I’ and still think of yourself as a character.) The space is necessary because the work isn’t going to be any good if it is merely a subtle form of self-justification, if one is supine before the romance of the self. Not that self-justification is ever wholly absent.
SL: Image is often exploited as a means of generating feeling or propelling the contemporary poem’s plot. Metaphysical Dog, in contrast, is stark—it draws its energy primarily from abstraction and pattern-making. Do ideas incite your work rather than concrete details?
FB: What’s crucial for any writer is to understand how your mind apprehends meaning. How, in your experience, you apprehend significance. Understand it and find a way to embody it, make it have the force for the reader in a work of art that it has for you. Images, what the eye sees, is of course part of this for everyone. But I think tone of voice, situation, the look in an eye or on a face, are as much part of what make up for me ‘meaning’ as what traditionally people think of as ‘images.’ When Williams said, ‘No ideas but in things,’ that’s not an image. Pound’s ‘Down, Derry-down / Oh let an old man rest,’ is not an image. Pound was of course right when he said, ‘Go in fear of abstractions.’ Abstractions can smother the quick of feeling in a poem. But reaching for abstractions and conceiving abstractions are not separable from feeling for a human being. When Williams said, “No ideas but in things,” he didn’t mean “no ideas.”
SL: I’m struck by how precisely the last ten lines of ‘Poem Ending with a Sentence By Heath Ledger’ characterize your life’s work:
Once I have the voice
of the line
is a hook
is the soul.
How are you able to imagine and sustain such varied voices—the sweeping dramatic monologues of your early collections, for instance, versus the more intimate lyric and philosophical poems that populate Metaphysical Dog?
FB: First of all, that sentence really is by Heath Ledger. When I saw it printed in an interview, it was printed simply as prose. But I thought there was a movement in it, an iron logic if you will, that would be apprehended if it was set up in lines. I struggled over and over to do so. I found that this movement was apprehensible if I used a form that I have more and more used the longer I’ve written: a single line followed by a two-line stanza, followed by another single line followed by a two-line stanza. 1 followed by 2 followed by 1 followed by 2. I’ve found this form tremendously flexible; it reveals the anatomy of many (but not all) sentences that, for me, are eloquent. One magazine that printed the poem—a magazine that did not send me proofs—eliminated all the stanza breaks, in an attempt to save space. The poem was reduced to drivel. It’s how the words exist in space that allows them, on the page, their eloquence.
Crucial to getting a character to speak in a poem is hearing in your head as you write the way the character talks. Because a poem is made up of words, speech is how the soul is embodied. (Ledger asserts, of course, that even in a movie this is true.) What’s crucial is that how the words are set down on the page not muffle the voice. When I first began writing, writing the voice down in the ways conventional in contemporary practice seemed to muffle or kill the voice I still heard in my head. If I lost that voice, I knew I had lost everything. I’m grateful to Ledger for saying more succinctly than I have ever been able to what I had felt since I began writing.
SL: ‘I don’t know the value of what I’ve written,’ said Robert Lowell, ‘but I know that I changed the game.’ Your poems—with their typographical innovations, mining of the paradoxical, psychological complexity—have been game-changers for so many of us. What about your own work or the process of making poems continues to surprise you?
FB: Nothing is better about writing than the passages about writing in Eliot’s Four Quartets. ‘A raid on the inarticulate / with shabby equipment always deteriorating. . . . The intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.’ The solutions that I felt I found aren’t going to be the solutions that work for someone else. But I’ll be happy if my poems seem to say to younger writers that you still can be as bold about setting a poem down on the page as Wordsworth was or Mallarmé was or Ben Jonson was or Pound was or Ginsberg and Lowell and Bishop were. Getting the dynamics and voice down are what’s crucial. Whatever it takes to get the whole soul into a poem. An emphasis on voice isn’t fashionable in contemporary practice. I hope my poems make people reconsider that.
Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Her awards include an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Colgate University’s O’Connor Fellowship, The Gilman School’s Tickner Fellowship, and a “Discovery” / The Nation prize. A recent resident of the Middle East, Shara is the 2014 Mary Wood Fellow at Washington College.