Linda Pastan likes brevity. So much, in fact, that she says that’s why she chose poetry over prose. We, the readers, writers, and lovers of poetry, are the lucky beneficiaries of that choice.
Linda Pastan graduated from Radcliffe College (and later received a Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumnae Award) and received her M.A. from Brandeis University. She is the author of twelve volumes of poetry, the most recent being Queen of a Rainy Country. Of those twelve volumes, two, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998 and PM/AM: New and Selected Poems, were nominated for the National Book Award, and An Imperfect Paradise was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
She has been widely honored, receiving the Dylan Thomas Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Maurice English Award, Beth Hokin Prize, Virginia Faulkner Award and the Di Castagnola Award. She has also received fellowships from the Maryland Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. She served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995.
Ted Kooser has said, in his online American Life in Poetry column, that Linda Pastan “…..is a master of the kind of water-clear writing that enables us to see into the depths” The Broadkill Review wishes to thank Linda Pastan for granting us this interview.
(This interview was conducted in May, 2007)
*Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Fifth Edition)
Interview with Linda Pastan
TBR You taught at Bread Loaf for many years so you obviously feel that workshops such as this are important. In what ways do you think they benefit writers?
LP I think it's difficult for writers of any age or experience to be objective about their own work – particularly new work. A workshop can give them some perspective as well as some new ways of looking at poems – their own and other’s.
TBR Should beginning writers consider workshops like Bread Loaf?
LP It depends on what you mean by “beginning writers.” I think Bread Loaf is probably better for people who have been writing for some time. But the lectures and readings would be a help, and an education, for anyone.
TBR What has the teaching experience in general been like for you? And are you still teaching?
LP Though I have gotten many satisfactions from teaching, I find that when I teach I don’t write poems. So the 12 days at Bread Loaf were perfect for me. I don’t teach now, though I do talk with students at places I go to give readings.
TBR Would you give us examples of some exercises you have given your students?
LP I might give students a poem with three stanzas, having cut the stanzas apart with a scissors. They must then decide which order they prefer and why.
TBR Do you have a daily writing schedule? Ritual?
LP From 1965 when I decided to seriously dedicate myself to my poetry to 1992 when I turned 60, I worked in my study every morning. Since then I am more relaxed about when and how I do my writing.
TBR How long before that committed dedication did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
LP I knew I wanted to be a writer since age 12, but I didn’t take the possibility seriously until I was 30.
TBR And was there something pivotal in your life that turned you towards poetry? (For me it was hearing the mother of one of my classmates read “The Highwayman” by Noyes to my seventh grade class).
LP There was nothing pivotal in my life that turned me towards poetry, but do look at my poem “Bess” in The Last Uncle. It’s about “The Highwayman”.
TBR What is the hardest part of writing for you?
LP Getting started.
TBR What do you feel was the best accomplishment to come out of your years as Maryland’s poet laureate?
LP Bringing poetry to those who would otherwise not be able to hear it. (People in a prison, or old age home, or even in a psychiatric hospital, for example.)
TBR You have been awarded the Maurice English Award, the Pushcart Prize and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, to name a few. How important are these prizes in the career of a writer?
LP All writers, I think, tend to doubt themselves at times. The prizes give them a momentary sense that they are indeed doing good work. And I stress “momentary.”
TBR Can the push for a prize sometimes lead writers down the wrong path, effecting the quality of their work?
LP I don’t really think so. In any case, who knows what some judge will or won’t like.
TBR Every poet struggles to find their own voice, so is it possibly a negative thing to have their work compared to another's?
LP I think I found my “voice,” whatever it is, early, so I don’t find it a problem.
TBR In your poem “A Rainy Country” you say “I am like the queen of a rainy county,/powerless and grown old.” and yet this is a very powerful poem. Don’t you think that is some of the beauty of poetry – its sheer power to evoke emotion, to influence?
LP We could go on forever discussing whether poetry can “make things happen.”
I’m back and forth on the matter.
TBR The cover of your latest collection, Queen of a Rainy Country, is very impressive. At first glance, the photograph (by Richard Kalvar) seems pretty stark but then you see flowers blooming and a crop ripening; the woman is protected fro the rain by her boots and umbrella; and the muddy path she is on leads to a hopeful horizon with trees and a clearing sky. It suits this collection of poems perfectly. Did you have that in mind when you chose this photo – the combination of struggle and hope? That one must look deeper than just the surface?
LP I looked at many, many possible cover pictures. My daughter-in-law, Amy Pastan, found this one for me, and without much analysis I just knew it was perfect.
TBR You have read at poetry festivals such as the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Do you think festivals such as this play an important role in keeping poetry alive and in the mainstream? (Editor’s note: The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, held in New Jersey every two years, draws approximately 20,000 people).
TBR And what about smaller festivals around the country? Do they play an important role?
LP Of course any festival, big or small, that brings people to poems helps.