In what ways might you consider yourself an American poet?
In all ways, which is to say, I think that as a poet I have many stereotypically American traits, for better and for worse. At the risk of using too broad a stroke (but isn't that tendency also so typically American?!) in how I paint the American sensibility, I consider myself an American poet because of the way I fill my work with my untempered enthusiasms, my confessionalism, my wide-ranging referencing of culture high and low (but mostly low), my interest in consumerism and race and class and gender and sex, my love of vernacular and folk diction, my sometimes naive and idealistic views, my sense of humor, my self-centeredness, my love of the outdoors and food and movies and rock music. (My repeated use of the word "my" is pretty typically American, too, I think. Unfortunately for me and America both.)
I would also propose that the way my poetry feels comfortable moving fluidly between while pointing to the juxtapositions of dictions, historical eras, languages and identities may be in keeping with the American sense of (shifting, continually reinvented) selfhood.
Finally, there is the fact that I use the word "American" a lot in my poetry. I'm serious. The word "American" stirs me.
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?
Oh, I think so, yes. The American poets I love most—and I mostly love American poets; this clumsy patriotism, isolationism and near-sightedness is also American of me, I think!—make much use of American landscapes, dialects, idioms, and folk cultures. I'm thinking of a poet like C.D. Wright or C.S. Giscombe here. There's also a way that I think American poets can balance mystery and earthiness that feels particular to our culture, our way of looking at the world—openly, brashly, and with wonder—so that an American surrealism or ellipiticism or whatever you'd like to call it feels quite distinct to me from the Eastern European or Mexican or Scandinavian versions of this poetics. And here I am thinking of poets like Michael Burkard, Jean Valentine, Kate Greenstreet, Brenda Coultas—some of my favorites—whose work walks that line between the fantastic and the real, the felt and the found, the crafted and the messy.
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?
This question makes me wonder if I am actually a poet because of my deep yearning to connect to history and to region. I think I might be.
I do think the imagery in my work changed pretty dramatically when I moved from the Northeast, and its architecture and rolling landscape and city streets to those of Chicago and the Midwest. I also feel like the differences in how black and white racial history played out in Chicago versus New York or Boston has impacted some of my poetry pretty strongly.
And yes, I am an American Jewish middle-class woman poet, married with kids, in my life and in my poetry and in my life as a poet. More specifically, I am a third-generation Ashkenazi-Jewish American by way of Ellis Island, Brooklyn and Queens, and I am the kind of mother who has a hybrid car pasted with organic food- and homebirth-related bumper stickers, etc...All of my identity politics and values come to bear on my poetry. I am mindful of those factors, and the privilege and vantage points and biases they entail. In fact, I think that even when I am not so mindful of those factors in my actual life, my poetry often waves them in my face.
My poetry can be some rather red, white and blue bunting sometimes. And sometimes it is armchair liberalism. And sometimes it takes responsibility for its subject position, but not as often as it should.
What significance does popular culture possess in your sense of American poetry?
Well, I would never assume or ask that all American poets refer to popular culture, but it is true that when I have poetry students whose work bears no evidence of existing in a certain place or time, no roots in a history or a particular culture, I tend to call them out on it. Even if it is through dipping deep into our American well, as Dan Beachy-Quick or Maurice Manning do, I like to see some evidence of knowing what it means to have washed up on these shores.
And personally, I certainly can't write very long without some movie or folk song or bit of fairground cotton candy floating through my lines. And I think I tend to seek out poetry by others who feel the same.
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?
As I said above, I think of my own tradition as being almost entirely American, to my pride and shame.
As for historic, distinctly American poetics, lots of people will say Whitman and Dickinson here, right? I will say Dickinson and Whitman. I will say Gertrude Stein and Lorine Niedecker and Frank O'Hara and Gwendolyn Brooks and Sharon Olds and Berndatte Mayer and Alice Notley and Cathy Wagner and Cathy Park Hong. (I am thinking of playfulness, boldness, chattiness, openness, epicness and brevity. I am also just thinking of some of the American poets I've read a bunch.) And I will say that any such list I start to make will be a failure, because the whole point of a distinctly American poetics is its polyglot, multicultural wideness: its containment of multitudes. (So back to Whitman again. Ah, well. He does have it going on.)
What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?
I have no idea. All I know is I aim to be a good reader of poetry as the years pass, which would mean that throughout my life I would be continually thrilled, surprised and delighted by American poetry's ever-burgeoning possibilities.