When Betty Holden first met future poet laureate Mark Strand some fifty years ago, he was tending bar for a party at a Yale professor’s home.
“He was very delightful to talk to,” says Holden, a poet herself and a longtime advocate and benefactor of WNC’s arts community. Holden and Strand were engrossed, she said with a laugh. “He’d stopped bartending for quite a while, until the professor told him he had a job to do, to get back to refilling people’s drinks.”
Strand gave Holden a manuscript (she still has it in her basement, along with a painting Strand did of Nova Scotia). “He had a tremendous verbal flair and wonderful imagination,” Holden said. “It seemed obvious he was going to be good.”
An art student at that time, Strand went on to become a prolific poet, publishing ten books of poetry, two books of prose and three books for children. He was poet laureate of the United States for 1990-‘91, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1999 for Blizzard of One and a MacArthur fellowship recipient. He currently teaches at Columbia University.
Strand will give a benefit reading for the local RiverSculpture festival that begins later this month. Robert and Arlene Winkler, coorganizers of RiverSculpture, are also friends of Strand.
The following interview was conducted via e-mail.
Mountain Xpress: How did you come to be involved in RiverSculpture and what prompted your visit here?
Mark Strand: I knew Bob and Arlene [Winkler] in NYC and liked the work each of them did, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. They met an old, old friend of mine down there in Asheville, Betty Holden, who I had known when I was an art student at Yale and who was very kind to me in those days. I babysat for her children. Arlene and Betty both wrote me about RiverSculpture and thought it might be a nice idea if I came down and read my poems.
There is a long critical history of comparing one art form to another. Are such comparisons valid? Is it useful, for example, to compare poetry to sculpture?
To tell you the truth I have never compared the two. They seem quite separate. The physicality of the one and the lack of physicality of the other. Also sculpture has to do with materials and three dimensionality. Poetry is really finally about language. But both share extraordinary demands on the intellect.
You have lived in a variety of places. Have the various landscapes you’ve inhabited influenced the way you approach writing poetry? Does the landscape of Utah, for example, alter one’s aesthetic in a distinctly different way than, say, the environs of New York City?
Where I have lived, the physical surroundings in which I have found myself from time to time have been merely backdrops to the life of the poems. I don’t describe nature or the city. I describe internalized versions of each that belong more to a surrogate or metaphorical reality, one that is made of words. In other words, my poems belong to a verbal reality that is largely metaphorical
In times of economic or political crisis, the arts are often marginalized. At such times, why do the arts, particularly poetry, seem incapable of achieving a more pervasive influence? Are the arts not as powerful as we would like to think they are?
Well some arts are more influential than others. Film is largely a public matter, easily witnessed, easily digested. Poetry is largely a private matter, at least lyric poetry is, and demands a degree of concentration that many people are hesitant to engage in. The heart or sense of a poem is often illusive and revealed only after multiple readings. And, finally, there is a degree of abstraction that attends poetry, since it is largely autotelic, and demands from the reader a different way of reading.
Is it fair to say, then, that poetry is an art that must be digested slowly? Is poetry marginalized more than it was, say, a hundred years ago in part because we feel we must process language and the world around us at a faster rate than poetry generally dictates?
First of all poetry does not dictate. It proposes, offers up the possibility of knowing what we feel, of giving it a language. Poetry is not a response to the world around us so much as a response to the world within us, a world with which many of us have lost touch.
In The Weather of Words, you write: “Poems must exist not only in language, but beyond it.” Were you referring to the transaction between the reader and the poem? Or something else?
I meant that words are more than their literal meanings, that they reach for more—an aura, a mystery, a seductive resonance.
One of your influences is Wallace Stevens. How did his work help you develop as a poet?
Wallace Stevens has influenced me because for years I wanted to write like him. I tried but failed and ended writing like myself.
[Gary Ettari is a poet and assistant professor of literature at UNCA. A&E Editor Rebecca Sulock contributed to this report.]