Mark Strand Speaks: The former Poet Laureate comes to the UofC

Mark Strand (Claire Hungerford)

Mark Strand, former Poet Laureate of the United States and former professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, visited Hyde Park last week to give a reading of his work and a lecture on the poems of Wallace Stevens. Weekly editor Clare Fentress, along with Euphony’s Cat Greim, caught up with him before his talk.

When did poetry begin to mean something to you?

Well, it’s hard to say. The question implies that there’s a narrative–a beginning, a middle, a conclusion. But poetry, I guess, first meant something to me when my mother read to me as a child. But to what degree poetry then meant anything to me–it was really my mother’s voice reading to me more than the poems.

Do you think it’s important for poets to read other poets?

Of course. Otherwise, you’re an ignoramus in the very field that you’ve chosen for yourself. Every poet should have read the classics. They should know something about rhyme and meter; it’s part of your endowment, your craft. Think of a physicist who didn’t know anything about Newton, or didn’t know basic arithmetic or math.

People have this feeling that poetry just pours out of a little wizened part somewhere and it’s the most valuable thing in the world because it was written by me, wonderful me. It’s become a technique for self-validation. It strikes me as a sign of an impoverished psyche.

Do you think that poetry is conceived of differently now than it was when you began working?

Well, I think that it’s become so intellectualized that nobody is really reading poems that they enjoy reading; they’re just trying to figure them out. People are inventing tricks by which they can write poetry. I think poetry is more playful. I think the kick in writing is making stuff up, not playing off of other poems. Imagining, from square one. See what you can do with a blank page instead of taking somebody else’s page or doing this or that to them. I just think that’s bullshit.

You know, there’s a certain kind of poetry that English departments favor, this kind of intellectualized thing. But also, English departments are full of Marxists, which the rest of the world has found doesn’t work. Only in English departments this is valuable. In Eastern Europe, you can’t find any Marxists. I don’t get it.

Do you have a different editor for prose than you do for poetry?

No. I have my editor of the moment at Knopf. But my agent, who’s at a powerful agency, will say, if they’re not going to offer us the kind of money we want, we’re moving. I explained this to my editor. She said, yeah, I know, but I want to work with you.

How much do you work with your editor word by word on your writing?

Never. I mean, a book like this prose book I’m working on, I will go over conceptual matters with her–this needs more filling out, or do this, you should do more of what you did here–but as far as poetry goes, nothing ever is changed. A bit of punctuation, maybe. But when I wrote a book of stories, half of them had been in the New Yorker, so they were all thoroughly edited there, so the Knopf editor didn’t have much to do. I mean, it’ll be edited, because I do make mistakes. Rarely [laughs]. I mean, I believe in good spelling. I believe in punctuation.

I’m thinking of something that Elisabeth Sifton [an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux] wrote about editing Saul Bellow. She talked about going through Bellow’s work with him word by word, line by line, and this incredibly dependent relationship Bellow had with her.

I don’t think that would happen today. That’s a huge investment of money and time. I mean, editors have to be more productive. I would love it if they did that. It would be like having your back scratched.