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Interview

Floating

Louise Glück on the writing process, her 13th book of poems, and why she experiences a ‘kind of grief’ upon publication.
© Katherine Wolkoff

“My first book without struggle and without despair,” says Louise Glück, describing her new collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night. Indeed, the poems and bits of prose collected in Glück’s 13th book of poetry are dreamy, even ethereal, but as absorbing and intensely experienced as ever. Glück hardly needs an introduction—she has so many prizes and honors to her name that she seems to be the first and final word in contemporary American poetry—so suffice it to say that in this new volume, she has compiled a series of otherworldly poems that manage to represent all things Glück: they’re intimate, seductive, spellbinding. And yet this book is in many ways a rebirth for her, an attempt at imagining something new.

Glück spoke with the Poetry Foundation over the phone in the early summer. An edited version of the conversation appears below.

You weren’t completely sure you wanted to do this interview. At this stage in your career, do you still feel a sense of vulnerability when you publish a new book?

Lord, of course. Vulnerability, and horror, and a kind of grief at the book’s being kidnapped by the world. I have been very happy, very serene, for nearly a year in the knowledge that I had this new work only a few people had seen. I could enjoy by myself its existence, and the pleasure of not having to write for a while, and the sense of having achieved something.

A better word than vulnerability, though, would be dread. I feel dread and sorrow at the end of a period of private and, this time, prolonged euphoria.

You once told the Washington Post that you wrote some of your books “very, very rapidly.” How would you describe the creation of Faithful and Virtuous Night?

Slower. Almost every book I’ve written since the age of 50 was written very quickly. By quickly I mean in six to eight weeks, sometimes a bit longer. Between these periods there were often very long stretches of blankness. Say several years. Initially this emptiness feels like exhilarated fatigue; gradually it becomes extreme anxiety.

By that model, A Village Life [2009] was glacial. It took about a year, but it was a very contended year. Less exalted, but intense in its way. I felt something of what I suppose fiction writers feel, a very present and continuous sense of a world capable of being entered at any time.

This new book wasn’t like that, nor was it like its volcanic predecessors. It was, in the main, slow to evolve, like the books I wrote in my 30s and 40s. Then too there was the fact of an emerging long poem, 22 pages ultimately, typed, single-spaced, which refused for several years to coexist with anything. In certain ways, having some material is more agonizing than having none: you feel responsible to those existing poems, and your failure to provide a context for them makes a daily torture. But the end, the last stages of the book, were rapid and gleeful.

Tell me a little bit about how you choose to order your poems. When does a certain series feel right?

Every book is different. With this book, there was the problem, new to me, of a long monologue, which, no matter how the parts were sequenced, had begun to seem airless. After a while, I began to write rather surreal allegorical poems, thematically of a piece with the monologue but stylistically different, with different speakers. At some point, I realized I liked what happened when these were allowed to billow out at the seams of the longer piece. But that still didn’t make a whole. In the end, there were the prose poems—the parts that turned out to have been lacking. Or the manner that had been lacking. Once these were written, the whole came together in a day or two. But a day or two after years of frustration. In any case, shaping a book out of disparate parts—hearing, finally, the gears locking—is for me a great and reliable pleasure; if not fought off, I would do this for every poet I know. There is nothing deliberate or consciously deliberate in this process. Decisive, though. Like making a poem, more a feeling around in darkness than it is articulating a series of truths.

What are the seeds of your work? Do your poems grow from a feeling you want to convey, or a question you want to ask?

No. I never have the slightest thing in mind. In fact, I am suspicious of my existing ideas, my conscious thoughts and convictions. They are what I need to get beyond, into ignorance and after that, with luck, discovery. I begin to write when a phrase appears in my head—a word cluster, sometimes a single word. The task is to discover the world or voice from which this fragment can speak or elaborate itself into a story or a personality or a mood. This is rather crudely said.

In this collection, night and silence play a big role, not just in the title poem but also in “Cornwall” and “Midnight” and “The White Series.” How do you think your relationships with your themes and subject matter have changed over time?

Well, night and silence have been pretty steady, central elements of almost everything I’ve done. Fairly conventional, isolated like that. The effort has been to make all that silence and all that darkness come out differently time after time, so a new book doesn’t seem just another dark journey down a long river.

After the fact, you look at the thing you have made with a kind of objectivity; you form impressions. But these impressions and opinions result from your experience as a reader. They arise out of the lines; they do not precede or precipitate the lines. In any case, if my poems need my interventions, that’s their failure. I cannot solve it by my authorial pronouncements.

I think my tone has changed over time, more than have my themes. This book, I’m told, is frightening in its subjects. But its manner seems to me dreamlike or floating—ecstatic, to borrow a friend’s word. My first book without struggle and without despair. But there may be only 10 people in the world who will think these things.

This collection hosts several very short prose pieces, such as “Forbidden Music,” “The Open Window,” and “A Work of Fiction,” which are the first of that kind of work we’ve seen from you. How did writing prose feel different or challenge you differently?

I owe these poems to my friend Kathryn Davis, whose idea it was (when I was yet again stuck) that I read Kafka’s short short stories. As to the challenges of the form: most writers would say, I think, that when they do something utterly new there are no challenges, no difficulties. These are the moments of real elation. Nothing is wrong. Everything is right. Everything is, or seems, perfect—radiantly obvious and yet, until now, so difficult to see. I had a period like this writing Ararat and, later, the Telemachus poems in Meadowlands. And then these.

There are a few lines in the title poem, “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” that I want to ask you about: “You have no idea how shocking it is / to a small child when / something continuous stops.” Why just to a small child?

Well, the speaker is a small child; he’s trying to explain, also reinhabit, the child’s experience. Generalization would falsify the voice.

You write later in that poem: “It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided / into those who wish to move forward / and those who wish to go back.” Do you identify strongly with either of these categories?

I think the categories, though very broad, are true. There’s a temperament that favors the absolute; also a temperament that finds the absolute uninteresting, possibly shallow in its dismissal of time. I suppose a person who seeks meaning, conventionally the religious temperament, wishes to be transfixed. How else to recognize the presence of truth? But to others, the term Truth is dangerous, or false. It places one at risk of blindness, rigid obstinacy, the stubborn refusal of contradictory impressions or evidence. And obviously the nature that rushes forward, that prizes momentum and finds change enlivening, runs risks too: the refusal to discriminate, among other things. But I think the point at this moment in the poem is not to propose highly reductive types for identification but to suggest a kind of doubt—and sorrow, since in either case certain experiences, certain perceptions, will be missed. Obviously the maker of categories is the truth seeker, but a truth seeker who mistrusts his habitual tendencies.

You once said you never reread old work. Do you have a sense of distance from these poems, having nearly published them?

Not yet, but I’m about to. That’s why publication is hard. I’m still in these poems—not fully, but my toes are still touching the water. Soon that sensation will go away.

I rarely look at old work. But I had to a few years ago, to proof the pages of all my existing books. It was a surprising experience.

What was that like?

It was much happier than I expected. I was actually often proud. Though I did find myself noticing occasionally what seemed a rather rich and complicated vocabulary, now unfortunately vanished. As for this book, any time your work changes, the potential for public humiliation intensifies. Possibly there’s paranoia at work: you expect it, you anticipate it, you insist you see it. When I was first reading Meadowlands after The Wild Iris, audiences were not pleased; a certain dismay emanated from them. They wanted more flowers, more lyric extravagance. But I had done what I could, for the moment, with lyric extravagance; I wanted a more panoramic, worldly book. The first time I read “Faithful and Virtuous Night” at Yale, I had the sense the audience was completely aghast. Not spellbound. Horrified. No one said a word to me afterward. Well, one person did, a very ardent and generous student.

Is there anything you wish you could tell your younger poet self?

“It’ll go better than you think.” I didn’t even know I’d be alive at 71—in fact, I didn’t expect to be alive at 71. I didn’t expect to be alive at 10. So everything after a certain point was, for me, gravy.

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Interview

Floating

Louise Glück on the writing process, her 13th book of poems, and why she experiences a ‘kind of grief’ upon publication.

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