Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Life Well Lived: An Interview with Maxine Kumin





And indeed, Maxine Kumin has lived well as evidenced by her work, her devotion to her family, friends and farm and her commitment to social causes (…old friend from Vietnam sit-in days,/the rain-soaked marches to stamp out Jim Crow,…from the poem “Elegy”, Still to Mow, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007). Ms. Kumin has published sixteen volumes of poetry including Up Country (Harper & Row, 1972) for which she received the Pulitzer Prize and Still to Mow, her latest volume released in September of this year.

She is quoted in a 1994 interview by Daina Savage in Rambles, a cultural arts magazine, as saying “I think it’s good for a poet to write prose, to confront the simple declarative sentence. So often poets deal in ellipses. It’s what we leave out that’s important. So it’s so easy to forget grammatical structure.” Following her own advice, she has published four novels, a collection of short stories, two essay collections, an essay and story collection and a memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (W.W.Norton, 2000), about her near fatal carriage driving accident in 1998 at the age of 73. Her doctor later informed her that ninety-five percent of people with her injuries don’t survive and that ninety-five percent of those survivors are permanently paralyzed.

Fully recovered, she lives on a 200 acre farm in New Hampshire with her husband, Victor, where she continues to care for her horses and dogs, muck out stalls, mend fences, tend to her organic vegetable gardens and to write. She has won the Aiken Taylor Prize, the Poet’s Prize and the Ruth E. Lilly Poetry Prize.

So how does a woman born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia become New Hampshire’s poet laureate (1989 – 1994) and the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1981 – 1982),a position later renamed Poet Laureate of the United States? Read her work. It is a journal of a life well lived.

(A special thank you for their assistance to Jenny Waltz and Vanessa Schneider of W. W. Norton & Company, NYC; Giles Anderson of The Anderson Literary Agency, NYC; Sherry Chappelle of Chappelle’s lending library, Rehoboth Beach, DE)

TBR:
In your essay “First Loves” (Always Beginning, Copper Canyon Press, 2000) you talk about memorizing and reciting poems. You say…”I am grateful for those old-fashioned teachers who revered the poems of a bygone era and by exacting from us our twenty-odd lines a week gave us an inner library to draw on for the rest of our lives.” I don’t think memorization or recitation is done much in schools anymore. Do you think this is a loss for present day students?

MK:
I think the dearth of memorization requirements today is a distinct loss. Rote learning provided an unconscious but strong sense of meter and paved the way for some lessons in prosody.

TBR:
And was it teachers like Mrs. Blomberg, in “First Loves,” that started you on the path to writing?

MK:
Yes, I suppose. I started to write seriously in high school, then stopped during four years in college where I was flat out taking in information in a number of fields – history, French language, 19th century literature in French and Russian, etc. Creative writing was rather dismissed as frivolous, something to do outside the university.

TBR:
In many current literary journals poetry does not appear in any particular form (villanelle, sonnet, pantoum) but is rather free form. Sometimes, even, without a strong sense of rhyme or meter. Is this an “easier” path taken by many poets today? Or is it, rather, a fashion of the times?

MK:
I think the absence of formal poetry is simply the fashion of the times. Postmodernism squelched metrical patterns for a couple of decades but I think interest in these forms is slowly reviving.

TBR:
How important is it for beginning writers to learn about forms and to practice writing in them?

MK:
I think it is vital information even if the young writer never seriously writes in form, just as the good abstractionist painter has behind him or her long sessions drawing from life, learning anatomy, doing still lifes. Then the painter has something to abstract from.

TBR:
Speaking of literary journals, very few pay poets, except in copies. Does this seem fair? Or even respectful of all the work that the writers have put into perfecting their work?

MK:
It is what it is. Many editors of literary journals work for free.

TBR:
Do you see any trends in current poetry?

MK:
More poems that concern current events.

TBR:
Some poems are about large themes – love, war, religion – while others are about, say, a cricket sitting on a woodpile. Are they all equally important?

MK:
All are equally important.

TBR:
Why is that?

MK:
I’ve said all are equally important because for the poet they are. The impulse that led to their creation doesn’t vary from poem to poem and who knows? The cricket (or cockroach) poem may outlast one of the grander poems about war or religion.

TBR:
You have written and published essays, mysteries, children’s books, novels, memoir, short stories and yet poetry appears to be your favorite genre. What is it about poetry that makes this so?

MK:
Poetry is the most succinct, most metaphorical, possesses a music prose cannot, indeed should not match.

TBR:
Is that what saves good poetry from sentimentality – its exactness?

MK:
Yes, their exactitude and inner music.

TBR:
In a recent article written for The News Journal, Fleda Brown, Delaware’s poet laureate, comments “Poetry (all art) isn’t frivolous. It’s the human mind working beyond itself, trying other ways of being.…Poetry teaches the mind to be flexible and adventurous….” Do you agree with this, and if so, why?

MK:
I do agree though I’m not sure poetry teaches the mind anything. Poetry comes up out of inchoate feeling, the mind structures it, talent and tact shape it, but it may be the mind teaches poetry, just to confound the statement. We are on the same page, nevertheless.

TBR:
Who was Amanda and what was it about her that inspired the series of Amanda poems?

MK:
Actually, her real name was Tasha and she was the first horse who lived here at the farm. Thus she got the high beam of my attention.

TBR:
A friend recently asked me what a martingale was. After I described it to him he said that he had read it a long time ago in one of your poems (he has forgotten the poem’s title). Don’t you find that powerful – that someone can read a poem and several years later recall not only the poem but a specific word in it?

MK:
Yes.

TBR:
Do you have specific writing habits?

MK:
I’m a morning person so I like to write in the morning. I used to be quite disciplined and worked every day. Now I am more casual (also older).

TBR:
And what do you do when nothing comes to you? Wait it out or force the issue?

MK:
When nothing comes I either turn to something waiting in the wings in another genre or simply kick back and read, a great pleasure.

TBR:
If you had one piece of advice to give to writers, prose or poetry, what would it be?

MK:
My one piece of advice to writers in whatever genre is to read widely in another genre. Most of us would benefit from reading in the sciences; I know I would.

***
— Linda Blaskey

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