In her book Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, your friend Wendy Lesser speaks about your abiding love of murder mysteries and of Mankell in particular.
Mankell makes me happy. Murder mysteries are a way of releasing the unconscious mind to speculative, shapeless, dreamy seeking by absorbing the conscious mind in a compelling quest. One of the advantages of aging is that you know you’ve read a book, or believe you’ve read a book, but you don’t really remember it. You remember only that you love it. And somewhere near the middle you realize that you actually do remember all of the details of the plot. It’s immensely pleasing to read something you have confidence in, something that won’t disappoint you. The only disappointment might be that you’re missing the thrill of uncovering the killer, but it’s a small disappointment if you love the world that’s being constructed.
In that regard Wilkie Collins is unmatched—one can read his best novels every few years with identical pleasure. He’s better than Dickens in the construction of a thrilling, alternate world that dictates its own stipulations. Do you remember The Woman in White?
And The Moonstone, yes. I read those books first in my adolescence and a few times since then. I bought The Moonstone again when I felt I had exhausted all available murder fiction, and I had trouble getting into it. Maybe I’ll try again. I certainly need something to give competition to the iPad. I seem to be in an iPad period. I don’t read on it. I just watch things that move.
Your legion of devotees might be startled to hear about your iPad.
I was startled myself. I never had the Internet until last year. This is all brand-new for me. The iPad was given to me at a reading. I told the person: “Don’t give this to me. I will never turn it on.” But the person shoved it at me, so then I had it, and I felt sort of responsible to it. So I sat with it for about six months. And then one day I began poking at it. I knew people poked at it. But nothing happened, and I thought: “Well, I just don’t have the gift.” Then I realized I needed some sort of hookup. That took another six months. By this time my niece was in a television show, Orange Is the New Black, which was available only through streaming. It turned out, on this little device, you just press something and there they all were. And it became my bed buddy. It’s really the freakiest thing because I became an addict very fast. At the moment it has usurped the place of reading in my life. Part of me thinks this is dangerous; my own vocation will dissolve. Another part of me thinks this is exploratory, that if my vocation is so fragile or precarious it isn’t a vocation. After all, there were two years when I read nothing but garden catalogues, and that turned out okay—it became a book.
You mean The Wild Iris. I’m certain you’re the only American poet who’s won the Pulitzer after two years of reading nothing but garden catalogues.
Well, there’s something my brain needs in such indulging, so I indulge it. This iPad addiction seems to me endlessly curious. Something may come of it. I’m an opportunist—I always hope I’ll get material out of any activity. I never know where writing is going to come from; it isn’t as though I have something in mind and this iPad is the source. This is just dream time, the way detective fiction is. It stills a certain kind of anxiety and at the same time engages the mind. As the mind is engaged and anxiety suppressed, some imaginative work in some recessed portion of the being is getting done. Not to say that every moment is contributing to a book or a poem, but you can’t know in advance what will. Don’t prejudge your stimuli. Just trust where your attention goes.
You once said to me on the phone, “Follow your enthusiasms.”
I believe that. I used to be approached in classes by women who felt they shouldn’t have children because children were too distracting, or would eat up the vital energies from which art comes. But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake. When I was young I led the life I thought writers were supposed to lead, in which you repudiate the world, ostentatiously consecrating all of your energies to the task of making art. I just sat in Provincetown at a desk and it was ghastly—the more I sat there not writing the more I thought that I just hadn’t given up the world enough. After two years of that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a writer. So I took a teaching job in Vermont, though I had spent my life till that point thinking that real poets don’t teach. But I took this job, and the minute I started teaching—the minute I had obligations in the world—I started to write again.
The catalyst for Faithful and Virtuous Night was your agon with not writing, with wordlessness.
Yes, I was moaning to my sister about losing words, about the deterioration of my vocabulary. I said to her, “How am I ever going to write when I’m losing words?” and she said, “You’ll write about losing words.” And I thought, “Wow, good, I’ll write about having no speech, about deterioration.” Then it was the most exciting thing, a wealth of material—everything I had been bemoaning was actually unexplored territory. That was the catalyst, as you say, for the whole endeavor—a liberating, a permission. The idea of writing about not writing seemed promising because I knew a lot about those not-writing states, but they were not something I’d ever written about. One of the experiences of putting together my large book of extant poems was an astonishment because my sense of my life, now fairly long, is that almost all the time I’m not writing. I was flabbergasted putting together that large book, nearly seven hundred pages. And I thought: “How can that have happened? When did I write all that?” My feeling concerning my life is that always I was not working. Well, apparently I was.
The gestures of silence lurk everywhere in Faithful and Virtuous Night, as they do in your work as a whole, but is your conception of your own silence a kind of illusion? A seven-hundred-page collection of poems is not silence.
No, it’s real, not an illusion at all. I go through two, three years writing nothing. Zero. Not a sentence. Not bad poems I discard, not notes toward poems. Nothing. And you don’t know in those periods that the silence will end, that you will ever recover speech. It’s pretty much hell, and the fact that it’s always ended before doesn’t mean that any current silence isn’t the terminal silence beyond which you will not move, though you will live many years in your incapacity. Each time it feels that way. When I’m not writing, all the old work becomes a reprimand: Look what you could do once, you pathetic slug.
I recall those lines from “Approach of the Horizon”: “It is the gift of expression / that has so often failed me. / Failed me, tormented me, virtually all my life.”
Do you know Iris Murdoch?
She’s superb. I love the humor in Under the Net.
I’d been rereading all of Murdoch before I began this new book. I often reread a writer—read one book and then want to enter that world more fully. In any case, I can hear Murdoch in those lines you just recited. I love The Black Prince, A Severed Head, The Green Knight, even strange things such as A Word Child. There’s something in her archness, not a tone I’d normally think to emulate, but there’s something delicious in it. Her people might be murdering and raping but really they’re thinking about what goodness is in the world, bizarre juxtapositions of that kind. Something of her got transferred to this new book. It’s a matter of tone. The interest of the poems is in the tone in which large pronouncements are made, not necessarily the pronouncements themselves. The pronouncements are constantly being scrutinized by the tone, which is taking objection to some of the things being said. It’s not a book in which large bannerlike truths are being unfolded.
There’s a disciplined seething detectable just beneath the surface of these new poems, a fervency of feeling we know is there just as we know distant planets are there—not because we can see them but because they cause a bending, a wobble in the light of their stars. In these new poems, the tone, the pitch is bent to reveal the seething beneath it. The book has such a patient turbulence.
That’s nice, a patient turbulence. It’s there as a background but the whole book seems to me to be about moving beyond that turbulence, or that seething, as you say, and into this uncommon zone where you’re on a horse flying through the air. How did that happen? What’s distinctive in this book is that sense of dreaminess. But there are two parallel issues regarding silence: one is the silence that is the faltering of a gift or a need for expression, and there’s also silence that is the result of deterioration, a faltering in the being that is a product of age. Although I’ve been writing about death my whole life, deterioration or the weakening of the powers is brand-new to me. The subject is gloomy, I suppose, but new material is exhilarating. The quality I feel most intensely in this book is a quality of euphoria, a floating, a whimsy. It’s an undertaking of a large adventure, which is the adventure of decline. It seems an oxymoron, I know, and will come to seem a gloomy fate, but now—as long as it produces something of which you’re proud, you’re grateful for it, delighted by it.
You said once that the life of a poet oscillates between ecstasy and agony, and what mitigates those extremes is the necessary daily business of living.
Yes. Friends, conversation, gardens. Daily life. It’s what we have. I believe in the world. I trust it to provide me.
William Giraldi is the author of the novels Hold the Dark, published in September 2014 by Norton, and Busy Monsters (Norton, 2011). He is the fiction editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.