For a Dollar: Louise Glück in Conversation
Dana Levin: I wanted to start by asking about your book, A Village Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). Time feels spatial in the book, as if all the book's varied voices are speaking, events are happening, in a simultaneous temporal moment.
Louise Glück: There's something very strange in these poems that I've been unable to put my finger on. It's certainly not a willed or deliberate quality, but it has to do with that simultaneity. And it strikes me that the book has something in common with "Landscape," a poem in Averno, in which the stages of a life are represented by individual sections, but the narrative elements and even the point of view shift from section to section—and yet what's represented is the whole of a life. It occurred to me that A Village Life engages that horrible axiom that, at the end of your life, as you're dying, the whole of your life floods back. That's what the book feels like to me: the whole of a life, but not progressive, not narrative: simultaneous. And there's no drama attendant in the idea of dying. It's beyond the drama of the forfeit of the world; it's just a long exhalation.
DL: What did the book teach you aesthetically?
LG: I think I won't even know until I try to do something else. I remember talking to Richard Siken after Averno. I wasn't writing, and I was beginning to fret about it. I go through periods—long periods—of not writing. And sometimes that's not the focus of my anxiety. It's not that I am without anxiety, it's that my anxiety is in some other place; then all of a sudden I become preoccupied with my silence and quite panicky. I was entering that period and Richard said, 'Your next book has to be completely different, just sort of playing in the mud.' And that was exactly my feeling, that I had done everything I could do at the moment with poems operating on a vertical axis of transcendence and grief. And this new manuscript had to be more panoramic, somehow, and casual, with a kind of unbeautiful surface. So it taught me how to write an unbeautiful surface. What a triumph. [sardonic laugh]
Just to be able to write a longer poem, I think, was interesting… I had tremendous pleasure writing these poems. I loved being in that world. And I could get there almost without effort. Well, for a short period. You know, now I can't go…
DL: You can never go back to Brigadoon.
LG: No, never! I can't go back to any of these places. None of them. I never re-read my old work, so I don't even know what I think of it.
DL: Each of your books presents a voice recognizably yours, and yet one can also track distinct formal shifts from one collection to the next. Have such shifts in approach been a conscious aim?
LG: I think the only conscious aim is the wanting to be surprised. The degree to which I sound like myself seems sort of a curse.
DL: [laughs] That reminds me of Wallace Shawn saying, 'I think there's something idiotic about the self, that every day you have to get up and be the same person.'
LG: Yeah! That's the limitation. I'm glad if it also can seem a virtue.
DL: I know you take teaching very seriously, and that for over a decade you have been a public champion of the work of emerging writers. How do mentorship and teaching affect your life?
LG: Ah, how to begin. This is assumed to be an act of generosity on my part: teaching and editing. I cannot too strenuously make another case. I don't think anybody does anything that takes this much time, outside the Catholic church, without a motive of intense self-interest. What I do with young writers I do because it's fuel for me. And sometimes I tell the winners of these contests that I'm Dracula, I'm drinking their blood.
I feel quite passionately that the degree to which I have, if I have, stayed alive as a writer and changed as a writer, owes much to the intensity with which I've immersed myself in the work, sometimes very alien work, of people younger than I, people making sounds I haven't heard. That's what I need to know about.
Virtually every young writer about whose work I've been passionate has taught me something. From you, I've learned one way of keeping a poem going. Long lines. It's not that I ever wrote anything that sounds like you, but I was certainly trying to. When I read Peter Streckfus's work and fell completely under the spell of that work, I found myself writing a poem I thought I stole from him. And was alarmed and carefully read through the book that won the Yale that year, as well as the manuscript, and I could not find what I had written in his work, but I felt I had to call him and apologize.
DL: How did he take that?
LG: Peter's attitude toward what I consider to be theft is very different. He said, 'Oh, I think this is just wonderful. That's what writers do. We're in dialogue.' And I said, 'Peter, you don't understand—I stole!' But, you know, in every literal way I hadn't. The words were mine. But I knew where the impulse, the stimulus, had come from. And then I tried to do things with it that in fact I hadn't seen in Peter's work, so that I would feel it was mine.
DL: Did you ever hope for or imagine the large readership and current acclaim that your work enjoys? When you look back on the trajectory of your public career, what do you think or feel?
LG: I have no perception of large readership and acclaim.
DL: I can testify: it's out there.
LG: When I go to a reading, when I give a reading—first of all, you're standing in the front of the room, you see the empty seats. And you see only the empty seats. It's because you were raised by a mother who said, 'Why did you get 98? Why didn't you get 100?'
DL: I had that mother too!
LG: Yes, I know you did. So you see the empty seats, and people leave during the course of the reading and you see them leave, and you think: they are simply the more blunt representations of the feeling of the whole room. That everybody wants to leave, but only a few daring ones do. So that's how that feels. And acclaim? I've had as many terrible, condescending reviews or those that damn with faint praise: 'Well, if you like this sort of thing, then here's more of it.'
So I have no feeling of acclaim. When I'm told I have a large readership, I think, 'Oh great, I'm going to turn out to be Longfellow': somebody easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many. And I don't want to be Longfellow. Sorry, Henry, but I don't. To the degree that I apprehend acclaim, I think, Ah, it's a flaw in the work.
DL: As if: if they knew better, they wouldn't read you at all?
LG: When they know better, they won't read me at all.
DL: Well, I have a student right now who likes to talk about entry fees; you know, how much does it cost to enter this poem? And he recently said to me, 'The entry fee for a Louise Glück poem is, like, a dollar, but once you get in, the territory is complex.' And it's true: your poems are not difficult to enter, but they quickly prove very complicated psychologically and complicated formally, not least in how the poems work together to create a greater whole. My student set out to track your entire body of work but can't seem to quit reading Ararat. He's lost in there, even though he only paid a dollar to get in. I'm going to have to retrieve him so we can move on.
LG: Well, that would be nice if it were true. I hope it's true.
DL: Last question. We are living in some extraordinary times and I know, for myself, I'm often wrestling with this: what does it mean to be personally and psychoanalytically oriented on the page at a moment when so much is happening in the culture socio-politically, environmentally? Many of my students are thinking hard about how personal experience fits into public statement and vice versa, questions of audience and timeliness and cultural import. Do you have any thoughts on this?
LG: I don't think you necessarily answer these questions by consciously wrestling with them. I think they weigh on you, and solutions are to some degree worked out unconsciously. They manifest themselves, these partial solutions, in your work. I never think of audience. I hate that word. I think of a reader. I think my poems want a reader, and they're completed by a reader. But it's the single reader, and whether that person exists in multiple or not makes no spiritual difference, though it has practical impact. What matters to me is the reader's subtlety and depth of response and whether these prove durable. The idea of enlarging the audience for poetry seems to me ludicrous.
I think the poem is a communication between a mouth and an ear—not an actual mouth and an actual ear, but a mind that sends a message and a mind that receives it. For me, the aural experience of a poem is transmitted visually. I hear with my eyes and dislike reading aloud and (except on very rare occasions) being read to. The poem becomes, when read aloud, a much simpler, sequential shape: the web becomes a one-way street. In any case, the knowledge, or hope, that the reader exists is a great solace.
This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2009 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved.