Interview conducted by Lazaro Aleman and Steven Robinson
At the time of this interview, Marie Ponsot was taking time off from her post as professor of English at Queens College, New York, to teach two poetry workshops at the University of Houston. She is the author of two volumes of poetry: True Minds (City Lights Books, 1957) and Admit Impediment (Alfred A. Knopf, 1981).
Dialog: What is the difference between reading your poems and hearing them outloud?
Ponsot: What is amazing is that some people find my work a surprise when they hear it, when they read it aloud. It really is written with a big sense of ear. I’m very interested in the type of contrast you get when you have a bass-line, or expectable rhythm, going on, but that isn’t the only thing you work with. You try to have that as an expectation, and then you have the language going across it like a rhythm guitar. There are two rhythms going on.
Dialog: In trying to read your poems as straight prose, one gets lost. I had to come back and get into the rhythm and then I understood what was being said.
Ponsot: I try to do that because I like the sound of language a lot. When I write a first draft, it has something in it that I call a hum. It goes Mmmmm, Mmmmm, like those things of Swinburn’s when you can’t even remember what he’s talking about. There’s a big hum. It’s great! But what was he talking about? So, when I rewrite, I try to cut across the hum, both with the idea and with the cadence of ordinary talk.
Dialog: How does an idea for a poem form in your mind? How long does it take?
Ponsot: Some of them come quickly. Some of them take for-bloody-ever. I don’t very often have an idea for a poem. I usually have a few words in my head. Words that seem to be saying something but I don’t know quite what it is. What I do is write to find out what’s in it.
Dialog: At what time of day do you seem to be most productive?
Ponsot: I like late nights and early mornings. That’s partly because I have a large family, and I was supporting them for a long time, so the routine would be to get the babies into bed, do twenty pages of work [that of doing translations], and then whatever energy I had left was mine.
Dialog: Do you do much revision?
Ponsot: Yes. [smiling] That’s the pleasure. That’s the hard work, the good part.
Dialog: Is there a point where you can revise too much?
Ponsot: Yeats has a remark about that. He presents prose and poetry as alternatives. I’m not sure that these are only names for the alternatives. But there are two attitudes toward what you’ve written. He says prose can be revised and revised and revised infinitely. With a poem, it “claps shut, like a box.” Now, these are the two attitudes, I think. The feeling that you revise and revise and revise, that happens with some pieces. Other pieces just come together, and can’t be changed. Boom!
Dialog: Do you have occasion to read a poem that you’ve written in the past and discover something in it that you didn’t notice before?
Ponsot: Yes. I think that a lot of times when you’re writing, especially if you’re working with one of the conventions that asks you to put ten syllables in each line and no more, it makes you bring things out of your preconscious language center that sound pretty so you put them down. But you don’t really know how true they are ’til later, because they’re not conscious yet. The sonnets that I read at the Museum of Fine Arts, “Late,” I wrote to try to get at this feeling I had about my mother and the really deep relationship we all have with both our parents. My mother was mysterious to me in very many ways. We were very different kinds of people, but we really were connected. It’s a complex piece of writing. Very heavily revised. I kept revising to discover more and to take out what wasn’t quite right. And then try to find out what I could put in that was a little more true.
After I finished, a couple of months after, I read them over and realized that all the incidents I was recalling—that are reflected in the poem—happened before the time I was six. And they are before the time that my brother was born. Now, my brother is one of my life heroes. He’s my buddy. I trust him. We’ve always gotten along well. I didn’t experience sibling rivalry as a conscious experience at all. Ever. I wrote that poem, and it proved that I lost something when he was born. In trying to talk about my mother’s death, I found I had talked about that first loss, when I lost her as my universe.
Dialog: How long after you wrote the poem did you discover this?
Ponsot: Usually, when I think something is finished, I leave it for a while before I show it to anybody. I was with some really good friends in New York. We exchange poems. I was reading it aloud, and I was beginning to realize what it implied. At that point I changed something in the first sonnet. I have “loss on loss.” I wanted to put the two losses in. That was the line I changed, because there was really a double loss. And one of them I hadn’t even know about!
Dialog: Do you have poems of your own that are your favorites?
Ponsot: That changes. There’s a little bit of a poem in Admit Impediment called “Unabashed,” for example, that I’d never noticed. I put it in because it made some kind of little statement that I didn’t know how to make any other way. We invent a lot of things trying to invent the idea of love. It’s about angels. We imagine angels because they can do things perfectly that we can’t do, like really love. And love loving and all that stuff.
Dialog: Most of your poetry seems to be very personal. Do you have to distance yourself from an experience before you can write about it?
Ponsot: Sometimes you can write about it right away. There’s a poem called “Ghost Writer” that I wrote for a friend of mine who was an extremely talented woman. She was a senior editor writing speeches, reediting scientific material from all over the world, turning it into statements of real prose that would sell their ideas. She poured herself into that and was not doing what I wanted her to do, such as write great stuff for me to read. She had an option on a novel that she never finished. I finally forced myself to talk to her about it one day, and I could see it was too painful for her. She couldn’t talk about what she was giving up in order to do what she was doing. So I kind of stopped right there, and after she left my house, I wrote “Ghost Writer.” That was in November. On the twenty-third of January, she died. She was fifty. I wrote “Sois Sage O Ma Douleur” after she died. Before she was buried. The only poem that I ever thought of publishing that is not revised. I wrote that poem one night, then I couldn’t touch it. It was too painful. I just couldn’t touch it. And I still can’t read it. When I read it, I want to cry. Because of the closeness I felt with her. We knew each other well for fifteen years, and she died still full of promise and possibility.
Dialog: One of the themes you seem to explore is laying claim. Do you feel that you’ve laid claim?
Ponsot: I try. Certainly. It’s a daily thing, really. And I guess the reason it’s hard to do is that there aren’t good models for it. Because I don’t think, as you can tell from that poem “From the Fountain at Vaucluse,” that the world would be a better place if everybody laid fierce and tigerish territorial claims. What you do is try to assert the small space you occupy as yours and no more. And to do both of these, to make the right claim and not a claim larger than is proper, it’s . . . it’s . . . you make mistakes all the time.
Dialog: Do you think, then, that we have a responsibility that belongs to us?
Ponsot: We do, I think. What we try to discover in our lives is exactly what that responsibility is or involves. How we can declare it and act it. Yes, I think that’s right. It is a question of responsibility.
Dialog: And I suppose if that is the case, then the great tragedy is that people don’t seek to fulfill that responsibility?
Ponsot: Yes, they don’t think of their lives in that way first. But the great wonder is that many, many ordinary people do take responsibility for their acts.
Dialog: What is it that diminishes people’s desire to be responsible, or is anyone to blame?
Ponsot: Well, I don’t know. But I noticed one thing when I was sending my children to school. School is a great invention, and I believe in universal education. And I’m a passionate teacher. But public schools are really determined by industry. By big business, for conformity. Not for individual, responsible choice.
Dialog: They’ve been compared to holding pens.
Ponsot: Right! They’re holding pens. Obey. Obey. Meaningless or not. And that’s the child’s first and most permanent encounter with the big world. The schools get the five best hours of the day for the twelve most receptive years of a kid’s life. And it shapes their vision of the world outside their own skins.
Dialog: I think you bring that up in your poem “Basic Skills.”
Ponsot: That’s my own kid I’m writing about. I saw that! I saw that, and I still want to kill that woman twenty years later. [laughs]
Dialog: Is your poetry, or poetry and the arts in general, geared to make people aware of this condition?
Ponsot: I think they can be. I think they should be, not through propaganda but through paying attention.
Dialog: Are you conscious of that when you write?
Ponsot: I write to tell the truth. I’m interested in telling the truth.
Dialog: Regardless of whether anyone out there hears it or not?
Ponsot: I trust language to do the communicating.
Dialog: It’s up to you to say what you mean, and it’s up to me to understand what you’re saying?
Ponsot: Right! And I don’t want to persuade you. I don’t want to advertise you into something. I want to say what I think is true, and I want you to say what you think is true, and then, on that basis, we are closer than if I said, “Well, I want you to think this. . . .”
Dialog: You make that point in your poem “Of Certain Students,” where you talk about setting up language snares that your students are quick enough to set off.
Ponsot: Yes, it’s ideas we’re trying to catch. Oh, boy! I tell you, what a racket. It’s such fun. I discovered teaching late in my life, and I would do it for nothing if I didn’t have to give grades. But they pay me a whole year’s salary just for giving grades twice.
Dialog: Why the twenty-odd-year hiatus between your two books, True Minds in 1957 and Admit Impediments in 1981?
Ponsot: I think there’s a big problem for me, and for many people in the arts, in the way they work right now. And that is just as true in Houston as it is in New York—as it is in any place. The talent to make art and the talent to distribute it are not the same. These often coexist in one person, but not necessarily. They’re very different. I have no gift for the work of self-publicity or self-distribution. I don’t like the way some people have to orient themselves to do that. And I haven’t yet found an original way to do it without losing my head. So I kept producing although I didn’t distribute.
Dialog: A lot of people are submitting to us, and we are trying to learn what to look for in a poem. Obscurity is a problem.
Ponsot: I’d trust the language to inform you, to form your judgment. Maybe the question of obscurity is the wrong question. Maybe what James Joyce said is really true: that it doesn’t matter how obscure something may appear if uncovering what it is saying is sufficiently rewarding. You have to have the payoff. It has to be uncoverable. Discoverable. And if the payoff is good enough for the time spent, then it’s a good piece. And if it’s not, it’s just self-indulgent.
Dialog: Since you do teach writing, what are some of the most common errors poets make?
Ponsot: We have to learn to trust language, and the naming of objects and event, really trust. There’s one mistake everybody makes in adolescence—I’m trying to write a little poem about it right now—that is, we believe in the obscurity of the secret. Inexperienced writers dream that secrets are holy; that there is somewhere a secret that is sacred.
Dialog: In other words, the poet should strive for honesty, clarity, truth?
Ponsot: Yes. Sometimes what you’re thinking about is very plain and clear and the words just come to you. And it’s not a horribly complex thing. It just might be something you noticed that is not ordinarily noticed. And then other times when you write—as in those sonnets about the fountain—where I was wrestling with an idea. Those sonnets are very knotty, very lumpy. There are a lot of jagged places in them, and it would have been very easy to take these out, but I would have taken something out of the kind of struggle that it was for me to understand the subject.
Dialog: With age, does the writer have to guard against formula, or is that something the poet has to worry about?
Ponsot: I think that’s a question of the kind of life you’ve led. Sometimes, the formula seem to affect the life more than the poems. Someone like Robert Frost knew very early in life that he was going to be a poet. And everything was subordinated to that. If you will allow me to say this without sounding as though I think it’s easy: It is easier for men to have careers because they are trained to think of themselves as their career. That’s also, of course, a hardship and a mistake. Even now, a woman is expected, more or less, “to be.” A man is expected to be his career. The formula of success can be imprisoning. Everything in the life of someone like Robert Lowell contributed to giving him his sense of his career as a poet. And, of course, it killed him. If you’re someone who is just writing in order to write, if your prime objective is not distribution but production, you’re not going to have that problem because the world keeps on coming new. You change, change all the time. Your language changes. Even your perceptions change. For me, teaching is a wonderful way to get that kind of energy exchange.
Dialog: Are you ever satisfied with a poem?
Ponsot: Well, every once in a while, you read something, and you say to yourself, “I was smarter than I thought when I wrote this,” because it does tell you something that you didn’t know you knew. But you never really . . . it’s like teaching. You start out a semester, and you know what you hope will happen. Two weeks into it, I’m still feeling, yeah! And then you know you didn’t do your best. You did what you could. And I don’t really think of that as a failure.
This interview originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.