In what ways might you consider yourself an American poet?
I find a kind of endlessness to how open this question is that to a certain degree frightens me. The scope is at once minute and immense. At some basic level (though basic in a way that I don't know how to fully think about it) I am an American poet because I'm a citizen of the United States. Such a definition is happenstance, is without choice, and I am deeply in sympathy with Thoreau when he speaks of the need of living a deliberate life, a life of deliberation, and so to answer the question correctly, one must find a deliberate answer—for part of being American in this sense is in being deliberate. I suppose, one way in which I am an American poet is the ongoing question I have of what it is to think of myself as an American poet, what tradition it includes me in. That tradition I feel most connected to is 19th century American Literature—notably, Melville, Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and to a barely lesser extent, Whitman. I suppose I consider myself American in part because I feel so deeply invested in a kind of questioning those writers opened that I am continually discovering and rediscovering them in territories I did not know they had crossed into. I still feel inside their work.
Do you believe there is anything specifically American about American poetry past and present? Is there American poetry in the sense that there is said to be American painting or American film?
Part of what I find so intriguing about the notion of being American is the way in which a word designating citizenry and/or location becomes remarkable porous, a boundary always open to trespass. In some sense, it is that idea of trespass, and what trespass implies, that feels part of what is so deeply American in American poetry. A poetic trespass can be thought of as an entry into a territory—be that territory Tradition in the most exclusionary sense, or be it a writing of that which is not to be written about, that is excluded as an appropriate topic—that wants to keep itself sacrosanct. There is, at least to my mind, a remarkable iconoclasm in American poetry, or in the American poetic, that knows it must also harm that which it reveres. Thoreau speaks of such a contradictory motion often in his Journals: "Whatever of past or present wisdom has published itself to the world, is palpable falsehood till it come and utter itself by my side." This stance toward received wisdom, toward received greatness, feels to me a very American stance. It is not enough to read Plato, but one must think Plato's thoughts for oneself, hold them as a crucible of one's own experience. This need to experience that which one thinks, to try the richness of the world against one's own experience of the world, and the way in which the material of the poem is this risk of finding false what one would want to be true, or assumes is true, that feels to me American in audacity. I think of it as experience trespassing into wisdom.
What role do historical and geographical factors play in American poetry and in your work specifically? What other aspects of your life (for instance: gender, sexual preference, class, ethnicity, religious beliefs) relate to your sense of being a poet in America?
To be very specific, upstate New York, where I spent the summers of my childhood, a little town outside of Ithaca named Brooktondale, is the exact location where I first sensed history and geography joining together. For many generations my family has tended a cemetery there—with the somewhat disturbing or humorous name of Quick Cemetery. I would help out with chores, joining my grandfather as we picked up the pine cones that fell from the very trees he had planted with his father as a young boy, trees that were now dozens of feet tall. Lest the description seem too idyllic, he would, I should add, swear at each one he picked up—which was, for a child, an education in itself. The oldest stone in the graveyard was of the man to whom the land had been deeded just after the Revolutionary War. His name was John Cantine. He died, if I remember correctly, in 1793. I would also put small American flags behind each stone on holidays—a thing I loved to do, pushing the wooden stake into the ground behind the stone, and then walking around it to read the name and the dates and the few words etched into the marker. If it ended up not being a soldier, I'd pull the flag back out.
To the latter part of the question, I don't quite know what to answer. I am male, middle-class, white, Jewish through my mother's side of the family, heterosexual, married, a father. . . the list could endlessly go on. I don't know how these factors influence my sense of being a poet. They provide a kind of definition, I suppose—one which the poems, I hope, work against more than they reinforce. They aren't things I feel driven by (but unconsciously must be, as I am to a degree formed by them or in them). But the previous part of the question, this place of history and location merging into one was for me, and still is, a genuine awakening into the formation of a voice.
Is there something formally distinctive about American poetry?
If by "formally distinctive" is meant a sense of specific prosody or received form, I don't think I can say yes. But I do think there is an American use of form in which, per some of what is spoken of above, that the formal life of any given poem (thought of here in the loosest, most basic sense—what the poem is and does on the page) uses that form both to investigate itself and serve as a crucible for experience, for consciousness, in a deeply rigorous way.
What significance does popular culture possess in your sense of American poetry?
Well, my sense of popular culture in my own verse tends not to be all that rigorous. I don't feel driven as a poet by the cultural moment, though, inevitably, I interact with it in ways I can't quite trace. I am of the cultural moment, formed by it—it is my most daily experience even if it is an experience I do not choose. I also feel, oddly, I hope not preciously, that we are not far removed from the previous century. Because the technology of the culture changes does not mean that the condition of the culture has changed, and it is the American condition that interests me as a poet—that ongoing, unsolved, unresolvable, crisis.
When you consider your own "tradition," do you think of American poets, non-American poets? Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?
I suspect I think about these poets, this tradition, in very typical ways. The core writers for me are Dickinson, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau—the latter two whose prose seems to me as indicative of the "poetic logic more severe than the logician's logic" as any writers I can think of. But I also think of Anne Bradstreet, of Mary Rowlandson, of Edward Taylor. I also, more recently, find startling vision in Whitman, and feel changed by him. I suppose, more than generating a distinctly American poetics—which if a thing is one whose nature blurs its own distinctive boundaries—I feel as if these writers marked the selvage of the field, that place where what is cultivated ends, and it and the wilderness or the road or the neighbor's yard or the town inter-mingle . . . they mark the field and also mark the place where trespass begins.
What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?
There's no answer I can find for such a large question, so large it's almost mythological. I might say such a question is an Herculean Labor, perhaps the battle with Hydra, and as in that battle, where every head becomes two, so of our poetry—from every head two heads will spring, from every voice two voices, and so on, to indefinite degree.