How I Write: Robert Pinsky
Published: February 23, 2007
|As U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000 for an unprecedented three terms, Robert Pinsky was an important influence in the mainstreaming of poetry. During that time, he founded the Favorite Poem Project, for which people of various backgrounds, ages and states shared their favorite poems, increasing the popular acceptance of poetry. In 1995, his translation of Dante's Inferno was published to widespread acclaim and prestigious prizes. Pinsky writes the weekly "Poet's Choice" column for The Washington Post, is poetry editor for the online magazine Slate, and teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. |
Credits: His most recent poetry collections include First Things to Hand, Jersey Rain and The Figured Wheel, for which he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and received several awards. His next collection of poetry, Gulf Music, is due out in the fall.
Why poetry: As a teenager, I was enough of a failure to live by daydreams rather than plans, imagination rather than will. In the years of predictions that I would be a bum, could never hold a job, etc., I daydreamed about being a famous jazz musician. I would be a professional saxophone player today, if it were not for ... lack of talent. In my freshman year at Rutgers, I went on an audition with the guys I used to play with. I stunk up the place. Meanwhile, in Paul Fussell's class, I was discovering that there was an art based on the sounds of words, which had obsessed me from as far back as I could remember.
Routine: Whatever I do as a poet, if I am a poet, is what flows through my mind-ear-mouth all the time. A babble of like and unlike sounds, and of the nature of words. As when I was a child, I read the dictionary, opening it at random. Sometimes, something in that ceaseless river opens up an emotion, a thought, so I start muttering it, pursuing it. It's more like joking with friends or singing to yourself than it is like writing a term paper. Then to the paper, to the computer, to the pen, to all of the above, to endless drafts submitted for the inspection of certain friends, draft 11, draft 24, draft 80.
Where: I write best in an airport, while driving or in the shower, during a boring lecture or meeting ... whenever it is inconvenient. I find it difficult to work at a quiet cabin in the country, at a writer's colony, any place where writing is the plan. I don't feel comfortable with The Plan; I need to trick myself into believing I am playing hooky.
Getting ideas: Inspiration comes from art: the work of Emily Dickinson or Akira Kurosawa or Dexter Gordon. Ideas are there all the time; they are not the problem. It's the words, the cadences, the form that needs seeking, invocations, prayers and curses and calisthenics and prospecting.
On creating word combinations: It's like rhyme or any other imaginary rule [or] fabricated system. A food you like or hate that rhymes with each primary color. Towns in New Jersey, states with Native American names. And so forth. Here's a two-liner:
The cross, the fork, the zigzag-a
few straight lines
For pain, quandary and evasion,
the last of signs.
Anyone who plays this kind of game with alphabet writing knows that the last three letters are the most difficult. And art loves difficulty. So I have puzzled at them, and at some point thought about the shapes of the characters rather than the sounds of the letters. X the tilted cross, y the fork in the road, z the ... well, the zigzag. And the shapes each have their associations. The poem seemed to need a rhyme, somehow.
Advice: The way to learn is to find work you think is monumentally great, magnificent, exciting-find things you love. Then, study them. Get writing you love by heart, type it out or write it longhand and compile a book of what you admire. Read the way a cook eats, or an ambitious filmmaker watches movies. Read the way a musician listens to music. That will give you the means to do something original.
Reprinted from the April 2007 issue of The Writer.