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Why I'm Not a Hollywood Director

A conversation with C.K. Williams.
“I’d been leaving out a great part of my mental life—my psychic, spiritual life, you might say—in my poems up until then. And so my idea was, if not entirely consciously, that I could let go of that code, and find a way to put back into my poems a lot of the materials of ordinary speech and of ordinary thought.” Pulitzer prize-winning poet C.K. Williams talks to David Gewanter about the art of poetry.
This conversation took place in C.K. Williams’s office at Princeton University, January 26, 2006.

DAVID GEWANTER: You’ve said that you wrote your first poem at 19 and a girl liked it, and things moved on from there. How does that early experience look from this stage in your life?

C.K. WILLIAMS: Incredibly unlikely. That’s always been my feeling about having become a poet when I did. I suppose I was smart enough, and I read a lot, but I was a very unintellectual person, or I thought I was. So it was an absurd thing for me to try to do—I even knew it was absurd, and I still don’t know how it really came about. Except for the writing of that first poem, and then futzing around with another. . . . Well, writing poems seemed to be the first adult activity I’d tried that I actually liked—except sex.

DG: Which also takes a lot of practice . . .

C.K.W: There’s something else I never quite put together with those starting-out days until just now, which is that when I arrived as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, the architect Louis Kahn, who taught there, was just becoming famous. My roommate was one of his students, and I became part of Kahn’s circle and began to understand a little the life of an artist, which is what Kahn was—more than most, or any, other architect I’ve ever known. So when I began to write, I must have realized that one actually could be an artist, that there were such things in the real world, and that I might even possibly be one, too. At the same time I assumed that I had no talent whatsoever, and English had been my least favorite subject, so . . .

DG: In the early ’70s, with your first two books, you established your early poetics. And then, it’s said, you sort of withdrew from that form, or you broke from it, and started to get involved in prose.

C.K.W: I don’t know if I’d say that I was “involved in prose.” After my second book, I became quite disenchanted with the life of the poet. It was a very unhappy time for me—my marriage had broken up, and I was really down. I was living alone, and had had a girlfriend who’d left me. I began to think that I couldn’t live like that, that being a poet just didn’t take up enough of my life—what a misapprehension that was—and that I had to find some other way to be in the world.

So I decided to become a film director. I thought directors had so much to do that if I could be one, I wouldn’t have all the excess energy that seemed to be causing so much trouble. I had a friend in Hollywood who was a director, and he told me if I wanted to be one, I should start by writing a script. So I started one, and found it bored me, so for months I just sat at my desk without doing anything. Or it seems like months; I’m not really sure how long it was. And then, pretty much by accident, I started writing those long-lined poems. And somehow that allowed me to come back to my life as a poet.

DG: You’ve talked about poems of shorter lines that work by codes, inferences, and exclusions that a smart reader would decode, whereas your cadences and speech patterns can be more capacious, inclusive of your experiences. Did writing longer lines change your reading of earlier poets—say, Emily Dickinson—or your sense of contemporary poets? Did you feel frustration with the prior language of poetry?

C.K.W: I don’t think I was so much frustrated by other people’s poetic language so much as my own, although it’s true that the poetry I’d been introduced to at school was the poetry of the ’50s, which was very constrained. Ginsberg, for instance, still was considered, even by my professors who loved poetry, a “wild outsider.” But this change in my writing was much later, when I’d become familiar with a lot of the splendid poetry and translations that had appeared in the ’60s.

I did, though, as I’ve said before, feel that much poetry, I suppose especially my own, was written in various conventions—I called them codes at the time—and that you had to know the systems of decoding in order to read the poems. But I actually think it was more important that I’d come to feel that I’d been leaving out a great part of my mental life—my psychic, spiritual life, you might say—in my poems up until then. And so my idea was, if not entirely consciously, that I could let go of that code, and find a way to put back into my poems a lot of the materials of ordinary speech and of ordinary thought.

DG: Did you have a sense of an audience for this new poetic at that time? Did that evolve when you read poems in public?

C.K.W: I didn’t do many poetry readings then, because I wasn’t at all well known, but my moving to the longer-lined poems did come about during a reading. I was going to do a reading at an art school in Philadelphia, and I just happened to have a poem—the poem, I guess—I’d written in long lines, and I thought I’d give it a try. And as soon as I began to read, I realized, “Wow, this is what I’ve been looking for.” I didn’t know I’d been looking for anything, but I did then.

The poem was published in The American Poetry Review, by the way, but I never put it in a book and more or less forgot it. Then when APR did an anthology a few years ago, that’s the poem of mine they chose. I considered putting it into my Collected Poems, but decided not to.

DG: Is there an obligation in American poetry to step out from a more private audience to a more public audience? Are your longer cadences a way out of the smaller rooms of poetry?

C.K.W: Not for me. Framing it that way puts a moral edge on it that I don’t feel. “Private poetry,” after all, is a very precious tradition. Some of my poems have public themes, but I always mean them to be at the same time private poems, because that’s what I believe the lyric tradition demands. So the question of public-private I don’t think has that much meaning for me. Sometimes the issue is formulated the way you just did as a factor in thinking about the small audiences for poetry. People say, “Let’s have poetry that’s more public, so the audiences will be larger,” but I don’t believe that’s the problem.

There is a problem when you’re writing poems that have political themes, which is that they risk becoming polemical, agitprop, propaganda; and propaganda is a different, rather scary and depressing tradition.

DG: I’ll veer a bit and ask you about a new growth area of poetry, the computer screen and audio, where you can now hear the voice of the poet and see a poem or poet. This is creating a new, distanced privacy, giving a listener an original experience—“the poet is reading to me.”

C.K.W: I go online to read things, and I use Google, and I write on the computer. But I don’t feel as though the computer world has as much reality for me as it does for younger people. I guess I’m just too late for it.

When I do go online for poems—most often to Slate, because Robert Pinsky, who’s the poetry editor there, is my friend—I find I almost never listen to the poet reading. It just seems too artificial to me; it seems to be coming through all sorts of filters. I love to hear poets read their poems at readings, or on recordings, but hearing poems online is still strange for me.

DG: If you read a poem by someone you know, do you hear his or her voice? Or is it your voice and their voice together?

C.K.W: Interesting question. I guess, at least with friends’ poems, it would be their voice and the voice of my mind at once, the voice of my mind that reads poetry, but probably I finally read even friends’ poems more with my own mind-voice than theirs.

DG: Let me ask you about forms. You have established a cadence that is now associated with you. William Morris tried to write lines across two pages of books, and Robert Duncan has a book with long lines across the page. You’ve said that you wanted the page to be as long as your line is, but it didn’t fit on the shelf. Do you write in full lines, or do you write in phrases and then put them into lines?

C.K.W: No, I always write directly in lines, whether I’m writing long ones or shorter. Of course they’re often a mess in their first versions. I end up revising a lot.

DG: You’ve recently written a villanelle. How did you come to the villanelle?

C.K.W: The background of that poem, “Villanelle of the Suicide’s Mother,” is this: I had met a woman whose daughter had killed herself just three weeks before. She was a very interesting woman from Brazil who’d come from a super-wealthy family but was a serious leftist, which seems to be a tradition in Latin America. She was obviously very torn up about her daughter’s death; I was very moved and wanted to write about it. I tried all sorts of approaches—writing about her background, for instance, trying to make it a political poem because of her passion for that—but nothing worked out.

I was also very struck by how freaky the whole thing had been, because someone who was supposed to be taking care of the daughter somehow missed a rendezvous, and then someone else didn’t do something else, and if all that hadn’t happened, the daughter wouldn’t have died. I tried including that in various drafts of the poem, but I just couldn’t get the material organized properly.

But the sentence “Sometimes I almost go hours without crying,” which the woman had said several times, was always there. And finally I realized that the sentence was almost like a refrain, that it contained the starkest feeling, and when you think “refrain,” the villanelle naturally would come to mind, because that’s basically what it is, a series of refrains, and once I thought that, the poem could happen.

DG: In the suicide villanelle, and in the poem “Singing,” there’s another speaker—a heard speaker—with a different cadence, foreign to you and particular to that person. Can another voice take over a poem or direct its form? Do you feel that you may impose your form on that other voice?

C.K.W: Mmm. Maybe that was part of the reason I did use that form, the villanelle. Deciding to have her speak rather than using my own poetry voice may have had something to do with writing the poem as a villanelle: I’ve never thought about it that way.

DG: In the poem “The Singing,” there is a man singing out there, and there is you wanting to join in, but becoming the silent half of the duet instead—is that a way of giving his voice the space?

C.K.W: What he’s actually quoted as saying is only a small part of the poem—“I’m not a nice person”—the rest of what he says is just described. Writing that poem was strange. It was sitting on my desk for a few years before I could figure out how to do it. And it finally arrived through the crazy rhythm of the first lines, especially of “the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with their burgeoning forth.” Those lines came more or less out of nowhere, and I thought, “Wow, let’s just keep that going.” I realized also that I didn’t want to use punctuation because the rhythm was flowing along so quickly, and I didn’t want punctuation to slow it down. The young man was finally slotted into the rhythmic identity of the poem more than anything else.

I’ve always wondered about that kid, because the event in the poem happened in the neighborhood I used to live in and still often go through, and whenever I see a kid around that age, I think, “Is that him?” I can’t tell, though, because I really only caught a glimpse of him, and by now it was some years ago anyway.

DG: And he might come to you, saying, “That was my stuff.” Do you often find yourself taking on different forms and casting off forms in your drafts? Have you found a new frame for your lines?

C.K.W: Right now I’m mostly writing in shorter lines; that’s just the way the music I hear seems to arrive. It’s what I apparently need, right now. Of course you can’t write a poem until you hear its music; until then, it’s just notes, scribbles. And often you have to wait a long time to find that music, and the cadence and form that come out of it. I just finished a poem that’s five beat lines. Once I got into it, there was a moment when I wondered, “Should this be four or five?” and it kept coming out five, so I decided to go that way, though as usual I had to work hard to get it right.

One poem in my last book, for the death of a dear friend, “Elegy to an Artist,” I found myself writing in five- and six-syllable lines. I seemed to have to have it be tight. That was a terribly hard poem to write, both emotionally and formally. At one point in the struggle, I remember I thought I should just cast it into long lines, that maybe it would loosen me up. So I tried typing it that way and showed it to someone—Carolyn Kizer, actually—who said she liked it that way. But finally I had to abandon the long lines; the poem somehow needed the formal constraint of the shorter.

DG: A reader who comes upon your prose memoir Misgivings might say this is terrifically poetic prose. What if that book were put into lines, or what if your poems were put into prose paragraph blocks? Do you have a special edge between a prose-poem and a poem?

C.K.W: I’ve been struggling with the idea of the prose poems for years; some poets I know are deeply committed to them. But I’ve never been really tempted by them, and have serious doubts about the form—though certainly there have been some, especially in the French tradition, that I admire, especially Rimbaud. But the truth is, I don’t even like Baudelaire’s prose poems all that much, and he’s one of my favorite poets. Compared to his poems in verse, the prose poems seem slack and uninspired: almost anyone could have written them, or most of them. His poetry, on the other hand, no one else could have even come close to doing.

There were times with Misgivings—especially, ironically, after it was published, because it wasn’t received well; it was hardly received at all—when I wondered whether I should have composed it as a book of poems; that perhaps if I had, it would have been better received by my usual, poetry audience. I think I was expecting to have a prose audience for the book, which I never did. Though the book does seem to get a strong response from people who actually sit down to read it, there are only about six of them. [laughs]

DG: It allows for stenography and memory and despair and recovery and a reimagined past; it’s very ambitious. I don’t know of—maybe Calvino will do things like this—it has its own form, very welcoming to diverse and opposite experiences, contradictions, and to moments of flatness and inspiration coming together. How did the subjects come to the form?

C.K.W: The form actually came first. I wrote a few short prose pieces, a page or two long, I can’t even quite remember why, but I found I was becoming very excited about them. It was then that they began to take on the shape of a meditation, if that’s what it is, about my family. Once that was established, once I had a clear direction to go in, I wrote very quickly and intensely. I’d write all morning every morning and then fall down almost in exhaustion—something that doesn’t happen when I write poems.

DG: Your list of works includes several translations. It’s said that if someone is not inspired by a poet, then he can’t really be the translator of that poet. Your translations have many different shapes and forms. Do you find a sense of release in these forms? Can you talk about some of the circumstances of translations, including the Euripides?

C.K.W: The first Greek translation I did was Sophocles, Women of Trachis. I was commissioned to do it for the Oxford series, and I had a collaborator with whom I worked who gave me the literal version of the whole play, and I worked with as many other versions as I could find. The great challenge in doing the tragedies is, of course, the choruses, and I somehow came up with a system for doing the choruses by organizing the music in space rather than time, by moving the voice of the poetry across the actors on the stage. It was very exciting when the system actually produced a verse-music that wasn’t like any other translations’. It had a different kind of surge.

DG: The choruses wiggle down the page.

C.K.W: As a matter of fact, the wiggling down the page is really meant as a kind of notation, to show how the verse should move from one chorus member to another.

DG: You said earlier that you wrote a screenplay and have worked on plays. How do you give the sense of presence and persuasiveness to an ancient voice—a god, a demi-god? Do you associate it with a composite person from your own life, or a contemporary person? This is an old question about translation: do you take an aspect of contemporary language, and of the panoply of people in your experience, and then put them in, say, ancient Greece in order to make the poetry vivid? Or do you keep the strangeness?

C.K.W: Obviously I took the language of our day, which is my own language; but the mind of the language, if you can call it that, was the characters’. One of the characters in The Bacchae is a god, a nutty god. There was never any question of using anybody I knew as a model for him . . . except perhaps my own nuttiness.

There is one small thing I was proud about in my translating work. In Women of Trachis, there’s an odd phrase none of the classicists had ever figured out the meaning of: it’s a complicated image which has in it something about stone and metal. Herakles is telling his son to cremate him, because he’s in agony and also realizes that his death this way was prophesied: basically, he’s committing suicide because he was promised he’d become a divinity. Herakles then says something to himself with the stone and metal words, which no one had ever figured out; Ezra Pound translated it as “Slap some reinforced concrete on your face,” which has got to be one of the worst translations ever made. But I realized what the image had to do with: Greek statues, which were made of stone but also used metal accoutrements. A statue of a horse, for instance, would have a metal bit and reins. So what I have Herakles saying is “Put the steel bit in your teeth, weld it there, // clamp your lips on it, stone against stone.” And I had solved the problem.

DG: Have you been acknowledged for that?

C.K.W: [laughs] No, no one ever cared that much except my collaborator.

DG: Nowadays, the sought-after translator might be a poet who doesn’t know much, or any, of the language, and who works with a person who knows the original language.

C.K.W: Many of the best translations of poetry have been done by people who don’t know the language of the original.

DG: This is turning everything on its head.

C.K.W: It sounds that way, but it’s true. Translating poetry isn’t just moving from one language to another; you’re translating poetry into poetry, and that’s not the same thing. A scholar who has a foreign language will be able to translate any text into English, but translating into poetry requires a poet. You can see this in other languages besides English. The best translation of Faust in French is by G


  • Poet, editor, and essayist David Gewanter was born in New York City to a pathologist and art gallery entrepreneur. He briefly studied medicine at the University of Michigan before majoring in intellectual history. Instead of graduating, he traveled to London for two years, where he read Keats’s manuscripts and was...


Why I'm Not a Hollywood Director

A conversation with C.K. Williams.


  • Poet, editor, and essayist David Gewanter was born in New York City to a pathologist and art gallery entrepreneur. He briefly studied medicine at the University of Michigan before majoring in intellectual history. Instead of graduating, he traveled to London for two years, where he read Keats’s manuscripts and was...

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