Interview

Twelve Questions for David Baker

On outward symbols of inner coupling and the imagination's powerless power.

David Baker.

Few poets writing today are so closely identified with a place as is David Baker, who makes his particular locale—the Midwest—into a mirror for the human experience on a universal level. This Friday, the non-profit Open Books will welcome Baker to one of the Midwest’s most prominent cities: Chicago. Baker will be reading from his most recent book Never-Ending Birds as part of the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Off the Shelf series. Baker took time out from his current book tour answer 12 questions about his work, his locale, and his affinity for lava lamps.

What’s the first poem you remember reading?

Something by James Whitcomb Riley, I’m afraid, when I was maybe seven or eight. Then everything Seuss. I don’t remember much poetry after that until high school, but then I read The Canterbury Tales as a junior or senior and it all seemed fabulous to me. That poem still seems fabulous, in fact. And quickly after, I found John Donne and Emily Dickinson and loved the rich densities, and equally rich clarities, of those two poets.

What did you eat for dinner last night?

I made—for my 18-year-old daughter, Katie, and me—crab cakes on a bed of spinach leaves. Brown rice. Spring vegetables sautéed in olive oil.

Is there truth in poetry?

Uh-oh. This sounds like one of those it’s-two-in-the-morning-get-the-lava-lamp-out kind of questions. I don’t want to give a glib answer to the question, but the question is so massive and impossible that I am tempted to start with exploring what truth is, what poetry is, what is is, and so on. I will not.

So, instead, of course there is truth in poetry. There is also fiction in poetry. Those are not antitheses.

Likewise, there is beauty and wisdom and horror and erasure and radical interiority and powerful connectivity, all at once. That’s the special gift of the art.

Which poet do you most admire?

We all have our lists. Mine changes constantly. I admire poets for the work they do and the readers of poetry for theirs. To write poetry is to place one’s faith in music and mystery and magic and difficulty—a commitment to the imagination’s powerless power and to freedom of all kinds—and also in the long-range hope that the work of poets matters to a culture as well as to an individual. I admire poets especially who do not so much write for a wide audience as a long one.

What’s your favorite word these days?

Spring.

What’s the most interesting place poetry has ever taken you?

It’s a tie. Bucharest, Romania, and Granville, Ohio.

Who’s your favorite Chicago poet?

Gwendolyn Brooks.

How do you feel about rhyme?

Uh-oh. Lava lamp time. Rhyme is one of the fundamental defining characteristics of poetry and one of the most enchanting devices of poetry’s musicality and mnemonic power. It moves throughout the line, across the lines, inside the lines, down the lines; it helps to shape the lines, and argues with and complicates the very syntax and meaning of a poem’s rhetoric.

And of course, the absence of rhyme denotes a poem’s (and a poet’s) relationship to rhyme and tradition—or at least some traditions, for of course, some cultures’ poetry has never rhymed. Rhyme’s absence can be politically powerful, and of late, it can seem devolved, merely an age’s habitual style. Some poets hold that forsaking rhyme is a form of resistance, and I understand that. I also think that’s a fairly flimsy remnant of a once-powerful aesthetic stance. A few of my favorite contemporary poets rhyme. Most of my favorites do not. I do very rarely. I am interested in distributing the musical powers of poetry throughout the line, in both sonorous and discordant ways, fluid and fractured ways, by turns.

I do think it’s useful to remember Robert Frost’s ideas about the relation of rhyme to metaphor and troping, that fundamental magic of association and connection (and sometimes disconnection) that poetry is so much about. To paraphrase Frost: Rhyme is an outward symbol of an inner coupling, putting this and that together.

If you could take one book with you on a desert island, what would it be?

Something with a lot of pages to start fires with.

What do you plan to do while you’re in Chicago?

I’m going to see some friends and try to visit the Field Museum of Natural History, one of my favorite museums in the country.

What’s on your iPod?

I don’t have an iPod. Nor do I text, tweet, Skype, IM, or know how to take photos with my cell phone—much to my daughter’s alternating amusement and ridicule. But on my stereo at home, a six-disc changer, I currently have Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass’s “Again”; Steve Reich’s “Octet”; Henri Salvador’s “Room with a View”; Bireli Lagrene’s “Django Generation” (first disc); a blank spot; and right now, as I type these responses, the sixth disc is playing Bruch’s violin concertos.

What’s the last poem you read?

“Power Point III” by Khaled Mattawa.

Originally Published: March 24, 2010

COMMENTS (4)

On March 26, 2010 at 2:52pm Lindsay Ahl wrote:

For anyone who has heard David Baker speak, or read his essays, they would know that he is an extremely educated and intelligent man who can answer deep and provocative questions with passion and style. Why waste space on questions someone would ask a semi- movie star in Teen-beat? I don't mean to be critical, but these questions are absurd, they don't contribute to discussions on poetry, and you're dealing with someone who could take you somewhere radical, who could lead you to a portal, through the veil, into a whole different way of thinking about the world and about poetry. Why waste his time and ours with drivel questions? Come on, I'm not reading Teen-beat for a reason. Art can change your life. Ask David Baker something important, and he could too.

On March 26, 2010 at 6:52pm Doug Mills wrote:
About 'truth' and rhyme in poetry -

I would submit, first of all, that 'truth' in terms of poetry is orgainc, proceeds from the various linguistic ionizations of content which then lead to the realization of a form that somehow abets the entire wherewithal of the poem. While this movable truth is poem specific, that does not mean it cannot reach into those sorts of 'truth' found in paradigms that lie beyond those of the aesthetic, or even that sort of truth which may benefit from the application of rhetorical 'standards', or that sort of truth which the average (low or no interest in poetry) person may bring regarding such thing as a poem anyway - this person is hardly like to agree with either the gross standing or the nuances of "April is the cruelest month". The truth(s) a poem makes may infact lie wholly elsewhere, cause or refigure an item that, for the reader, is a complex of past, present, and future. Or the ''truth' a poem may well be a mere puzzle piece, a 'truth' the drift of which is some merit in reserve, one that might well find its way out of that "Jar in Tennessee".

To me, rhyme is perhaps the least farmable element available to the furrowing of poetic loam. Pure rhyme being the worst of it, internal chiming the most fertile. In my own poems, I never start with any notion of rhyme. If some should get generated into worthy use, then, after trying other solutions to them, I will sometimes leave them in place. Levertov like rhymes that 'clinched' the end of a poem. I tend to agree with this, if such an ending doesn't violate the journey made by all the other components in the poem.

My first time posting here. Thanks to all for your time.

On April 1, 2010 at 1:43am Physis de Azzis wrote:
There is a line from John Keats' poem called "On Seeing the Elegin Marbles" that begins with, "My spirit is too weak" which it challenges all the belief what is a poem versus poet could be. Those were the symbol I have with David Baker, and now I have read a lot of his poems recently and it seemed to sparkle me to read more from him. Nevertheless poems are not a ground of celebration nor what Mr. Keats believed as weakness but the spontaneity of a unborn child with such powerful in its own. It's what the Cuban poet Jose Marti has said, "Each poem has to have a rush and brutal as the holder of a hammer." And I think it goes part of what Mr. Baker has achieved so far.

On April 2, 2010 at 1:17am Ray Gibbs wrote:
David Baker (Poetry Editor, Kenyon
Review) is one of the finest interviewers of
poets in the English-speaking world. I read
his "interviews" whenever, wherever I can
find them and several times over. Were his
"interviews" placed together in book form
or online, they/it would be "Canonical".
Fortunately, he has many years yet. What
we have here, this interview of David, is a
"missed opportunity", a mere glimpse.

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