BoneShop Review interviews Robert Thomas.
BONESHOP REVIEW: Your book Door to Door begins with epigraphs by Bessie Smith and John Keats. Why did you pick those quotations?
ROBERT THOMAS: It’s strange. The book has gone through so many incarnations. There’s almost nothing in the book now that was in the first draft. All the poems have changed. Those lines from Bessie Smith are the only thing in the book that has lasted from the first draft to the last. It’s important to me that poetry not climb too high in the mountains, not get stuck up in Wordsworth’s Alps or Snyder’s Sierras, but keep in touch with the swampy emotions like jealousy, anger, desire—all those passions we associate with the blues.
BS: Have you been influenced a lot by music?
RT: Well, I have to admit I grew up in a culture where everyone I knew wanted to be Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin. A lot of people have said you can’t have jazz without the blues, and it strikes me that precisely what’s wrong with a lot of modern and postmodern art is that it wants to be jazz without blues. It wants the freedom and openness and improvisational quality of jazz without the passion and “dirty secrets” of the blues.
I think this is an old struggle in American poetry. You can even see Walt Whitman as a jazz poet, and in a stranger way I think you can see Emily Dickinson as a blues poet. I think America has always struggled to keep these two impulses separate. It’s almost the definition of Puritanism: to segregate spirit from soul, jazz from blues. This is essentially what people like James Wright were saying fifty years ago: you can’t have surrealism without duende. Can’t you see John Ashbery’s poetry as jazz without blues?
One way to recognize spirit without soul is that it always tries to gloss over the pain of jealousy, to deny it. There’s not really any jealousy in Blake or Whitman. They’re proud of having transcended it. But there sure is in Dickinson—she’s even jealous of God! God has stolen her beloved away from her. In the blues you’ve always got the dramatic tension of a triangle—they don’t turn away from that even though, as I say, one corner of the triangle may be God. The literary establishment has always been proud, I think, of embracing what I’m calling jazz in the largest sense, but it’s had a lot harder time accepting blues, and so that energy may have survived more in the poetry of women, and I don’t mean just Bessie Smith but going all the way back to Sappho.
BS: Do you see yourself as a San Francisco poet?
RT: If I’m a San Francisco writer, I’m afraid I may be more in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett than Allen Ginsberg. As is obvious from some of my poems, I am fascinated by the shadowy atmosphere of film noir. A friend of mine told me that what she liked about the title Door to Door was its combination of mystery and sleaze, like that wonderful old film Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum, or an Edward Hopper painting.
The truth is: I don’t identify with being a San Francisco writer, or a California writer, or a Western writer, and I’ve spent a long time trying to come to terms with that, and realizing the extent to which I am a California writer despite myself. My mother came to California from northern Wisconsin, and my father came from Oregon. Even though neither of them had any interest in poetry, in a funny way I can see the influences of the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest coming together in my poetry. My poetry’s not flat, but I do think of it as very, very moist. Of course the redwood forests of Northern California are nourished by the fog, and I’m afraid my poems are often very foggy, perhaps to their detriment.
But I’ve come to see that the way in which my writing is most deeply Californian is through the Latino and Catholic influence. My father was a classic WASP, and my mother a German Catholic, and I was raised a Catholic. But Catholicism in California is not the Irish Catholicism of Joyce, not those hellfire sermons of the Jesuits. It’s the Catholicism of Latin America, and it’s radically anti-Puritanical. It leads to an art that is imaginative and imagistic, a poetry that to the Protestant (or Islamic or even Buddhist) mind is scandalously superstitious and idolatrous. Anyone can see the difference between Neruda and William Carlos Williams, between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, well, Melville.
BS: I notice you talk a lot about prose writers—Joyce, Marquez, Melville—instead of poets.
RT: Well, when I think of the great poets of the 20th Century who wrote in English, I think of Joyce, Nabokov, Faulkner and so on. I think Edmund Wilson said that Joyce’s Ulysses is a failure as a novel and a failure as an epic, but a masterpiece as a collection of lyric poems. That makes sense to me. I don’t understand why people think of verse as somehow being more “poetic” than prose. I just don’t see it. It’s not more musical—how can you be more musical than Ulysses? It’s not more imaginative. It’s not more anything. In fact in a lot of ways it seems that in the 20th Century prose has become radically poetic while poetry has become prosaic.
A couple of years ago I noticed a poetry book had made it on the best seller list. It may have been Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. It may even have been Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. But you could tell that the newspapers didn’t know where to put it: in the fiction list or the nonfiction? And they decided on nonfiction, so there was Beowulf on the nonfiction bestseller list next to a biography of John Adams and an exposé of Wall Street. I think this is a sign of what poetry has become. Poetry used to be the realm of imagination, but now fiction writers have more freedom to imagine than poets! Poetry is assumed to be nonfiction: memoir, history, “witness”: just the facts, ma’am.
BS: OK, you’ve talked a lot about your rather expansive definition of “the blues.” What about the other epigraph of Door to Door, from Keats’ “Ode to Psyche”: “And pardon that thy secrets should be sung / Even into thine own soft-conchéd ear.” What’s that about?
RT: That line has always struck me as an incredibly perceptive insight into how poetry works: the paradox of its public and private nature. I’m a very private person myself. In terms of my personality, I’m a lot closer to Emily Dickinson than to Walt Whitman, and forget about Allen Ginsberg. Holding on to that private, intimate feel of poetry is very important to me. Partly this involves the question of whether poetry is meant to be read in private or performed aloud. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with public readings, but I hate to lose the intimate, one-to-one quality of poetry: the solitary writer meets one-to-one with the solitary reader. Of course what means the most to us depends on what our own experiences have been. Some people came to love poetry through hearing Allen Ginsberg give one of his incredibly powerful readings of “Howl.” Other people came to love it because they lay in their bed at night as a teenager reading Sylvia Plath.
It’s possible you need to come at poetry from both angles, reading and listening, to really love it. I read a lot more than I listened when I was young, but I had a couple of key experiences hearing poetry, although they were not performances. In high school a teacher read aloud the famous haiku about the old man sweeping his bedroom and finding his wife’s comb. I think most people in the class reacted “So what?” but it hit me like a shot. I might never have become a poet if I hadn’t heard that haiku. Similarly, I have never forgotten a teacher who recited Emily Dickinson’s devastating little poem where she cries out to God, “Burglar! Banker—Father!” with as much rage as Plath does in “Daddy.”
But to go back to Keats—think of the psychological complexity of that image from “Ode to Psyche.” The poet apologizes to the muse, but for what? For singing softly into the muse’s ear the secrets that she herself has revealed to him. Poetry inevitably violates the very sense of intimacy that it evokes. It violates the muse’s privacy by broadcasting the muse’s secrets, but how does it broadcast them? By whispering them into her own ear. This seems to me a fantastically perceptive image—it’s almost the poet as the muse’s therapist. What does a good therapist do but shock you and transform your life simply by softly repeating back to you the secrets that you yourself have revealed to her or him?
BS: Do you believe in a muse? An awful lot of the poems in Door to Door are addressed to a woman who sometimes seems to be an imaginary figure, sometimes not. Sometimes she seems to be present, as in “Changing the Oil,” but in other poems, like “Film Noir,” she’s absent. And other poems, like “Helen Back Home From Sparta,” are in a woman’s voice.
RT: Yes, I have to plead guilty to being obsessed with that theme. For example, the poem “Quarter Past Blue” might be read as a sort of serenade, the poet calling to his beloved from outside her window. But in fact when I wrote it I had in mind just the opposite. The poem is meant to be in the voice of the muse calling to the poet, though I guess that only comes across in one line, “In your room I see a writing light,” that shows that the poem is addressed to the poet, and is actually the voice of the muse challenging the poet to stop writing and come outdoors, come out for a walk “on the edge of the green.”
BS: How do you feel about that challenge? Is your writing perhaps too inward? Too dreamlike? Too escapist? Maybe the muse would rather go out for a night on the town than stay in her room with you reading poetry. Maybe she wants to be out on the streets.
RT: Well, I think that’s always the big question when you write. I think the answer is not so easy, though depending on how you phrase the question, you can make the answer seem easy. Would Emily Dickinson have been a better poet if she’d attempted to learn from Walt Whitman, and vice-versa, or were they better off being 100% themselves? If you phrase the question that way, then it seems obvious that poets should be 100% themselves.
But what if you ask the question another way? If Yeats had simply been “himself,” he might have spent his life writing gentle lyrics about the Isle of Innisfree. Well, it’s beautiful—the “evening full of the linnet’s wings”—but he would never have gotten to the great poems he wrote when he tried to confront history and politics and violence. So what’s the answer? You have to be true to yourself and at the same time go against the grain of your nature. A dreamy person like me needs to face reality, and a realist needs to face the imagination, and at the same time both need to be true to themselves.
I think you can see this in someone like Sylvia Plath. People tend to think of persona poems as the opposite of confessional poems, yet if you think of Plath, the ultimate confessional poet, her poems almost explode with masks: Ariel, Lady Lazarus. And the same is true of Berryman. That may not be so true of Lowell, but maybe that’s why I don’t like Lowell’s work as much as Berryman’s or Plath’s.
Maybe in the end it comes down to a matter of personal taste, but I do think this is something you have to learn—and I’m not sure that I’ve even begun to learn it myself. But I think you have to learn how to be yourself and challenge yourself at the same time. A lot of people think Woody Allen lost himself when he started trying to be Ingmar Bergman instead of Woody Allen, but he couldn’t have spent his whole life remaking Bananas, either. For me, I suppose, love poems are the way I let the real world into my dreams. Often the poems that are the furthest from my own voice—the poem, for example, where I speak in the voice of Helen of Troy—are the poems that are the most “realistic,” the poems where this cynical, down-to-earth voice confronts the poetic dreamer and tells him to cut the shit.