Rae Armantrout interview

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Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rae Armantrout stopped by City University recently to read from her latest book Just Saying. Ysabelle Cheung speaks to the first lady of Language Poetry about the age of bohemian slackers and ghosts.

Rae, why did you choose poetry over fiction?
My mother read poetry to me when I was small. I think I am very sensitive to rhythm and I love to dance, believe it or not!

When you're composing, are you always conscious of the meaning behind each word or does it all flow quite organically?
I am very interested in the different connotations of words and double meanings, and I think that shows in my works. I often write when I'm puzzled by something – I write towards mystery.

Did you ever feel you had to sacrifice your art for the usual commonplace stresses like financial security?
I was fortunate. My generation was the last one where people could really be bohemian slackers and get by. When I was younger, I had a part-time job and would have a lot of free time to write, too. I never really seriously considered being anything else. I think I get depressed when I don't write.

When you lived in San Francisco in the 70s, you and your contemporaries formed what is now known as the Language Poets. Did you realise what you were on the brink of back then?
It was one of those spontaneous things that just came together. In every generation, people are trying something new. We came of age during the Vietnam War and so we saw language being mangled, misused in order to justify war, and I think that made us kind of suspicious of language. We explored that.

What was it like winning the Pulitzer? Was that the proudest moment of your career?
It was honestly a real shock. I just got lucky! I don't know. For me, the proudest moment is when I just finish something I like, and then I show a friend and he really likes it too.

Could you talk a little bit more about Just Saying?
When I was writing the book, I was actually diagnosed with cancer. For a while I felt I was going to die. I recovered, of course, but since then, several of my friends have died. It's just the age that I am, I guess. This book is a little bit haunted by those shadows. I don't believe in ghosts – but I do believe in being haunted.

Have you always taken inspiration from very personal experiences?
Well, all my books are based on where I am in my life at that moment. I think my style has almost been strangely consistent – at least for quite some time, but the context changes. I went through the grief of having cancer, and then, before that, there was the financial banking crisis in US and the world. I wrote about that in Money Shot. Looking back even further, when I had child at home, some of the mother-child interaction would get into my works. So I think it's really just life… life happens.

Just Saying is published by Wesleyan, priced $184. Available at Paddyfield.com.

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