New Letters, Vol. 72, Nos. 3&4
According to fellow poet Carolyn Kizer, Mary Jo Salter writes "poems of breathtaking elegance: in formal control, in intellectual subtlety, in learning lightly displayed." Mary Jo Salter's five collections of poetry include Open Shutters (Knopf, 2003), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; A Kiss in Space (1999); Sunday Skaters (1994), nominated for the National Book Critics' Circle Award in Poetry; Unfinished Painting (1989), the 1989 Lamont Selection, for the year's most distinguished second volume of poetry; and Henry Purcell in Japan (1985). She also has written a children's book, The Moon Comes Home (1989), and Falling Bodies, a play, and is working on lyrics for a staged song cycle, Rooms of Light, for music composed by Fred Hersch. In this interview, she discusses her job as one of three editors of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (fourth edition, 1996, and fifth edition, 2005).
Mary Jo Salter was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, raised in Detroit and Baltimore, and is a graduate of Harvard and Cambridge universities. Her many awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim, the Amy Lowell, and the Ingram Merrill Foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. She is Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer at Mount Holyoke College and lives in Amherst, Mass. A version of this interview is available in audio form from New Letters on the Air.
Mary JO SALTER: I remember actually not liking her much in college even though I studied under Elizabeth Bishop, and I knew that Bishop had been a great friend of Moore's, and so I was inclined to think I ought to like Moore. But, really, Moore was an acquired taste for me.
NL: You often write in form, and Marianne Moore is known for her formal syllabics, if I am right.
SALTER: That's right. Syllabics being a form where you are only counting syllables and not counting beats. Her stanza forms were unusual in their shape because they would often vary from very short to very long lines. Interestingly, near the end of her life, she claimed she wasn't really writing in syllabics, or wasn't thinking that way. She was about 80 when she said that. There's no doubt in the world that she was writing in syllabics, but I think she objected to being pigeonholed as a person who was preoccupied with counting syllables. What it really was about for her was making shapes on the page that were suitable for the subject matter. Finally, despite the fact that she was making beautiful shapes on the page, she really wanted us to hear poetry.
NL: If one reads books on poetic form, when you get to the little section on syllabics, the authors always mention Marianne Moore, so her attempt to suppress that part of her style didn't work; she's pigeonholed, anyway, I suppose.
SALTER: Well, you know, poets often are. In a way, it's one of the more legitimate pigeonholes. Before her, there was no one who so systematically used syllabics in English. Many poets had used them occasionally, especially those who were influenced, for example, by Japanese poetry that has, as you know, haiku, tanka, all of that. It was a way, I think, for her of acquiring or holding onto a more deliberately prosaic voice, a voice that sounded like a person talking to another person. If you are concerned enough with shaping a stanza, but you're not preoccupied with the stresses, you're going to sound a little more like people talking.
NL: In the past decade or more, there have been movements in the country toward traditional forms in poetry. I wonder where your original influences were, because you write sonnets, villanelles, and also, it looks to me I want to ask you about this you make up formal devices as you go along.
SALTER: I do make up a lot of things. I think increasingly I do, though it's rare for me to write a poem that is entirely free verse. It's true that in the last 10 to 20 years, there has been a resurgence of interest in form; but what is often called the New Formalism is actually a tiny movement. Although I admire many of the people who are part of that movement, I'm not really interested in promoting it. I'm interested in trying to find as we were saying about Moore an appropriate way of saying something. So, for me, temperamentally, rhyme and meter are pleasing. They help me say what I want to say, and I suppose that's been true ever since I was in college. My advisor for the collection of poems I wrote for my thesis was Robert Fitzgerald, who taught a versification course at Harvard. Elizabeth Bishop at the later part of her career which is when I met her was not writing mostly in what we would say are established forms, but her training in form was always apparent, even when she was writing free verse.
NL: I like what Carolyn Kizer said about your writing. She said it was "learning lightly displayed." I like the statement partly because it's exactly what you want, I think, as a poet, and also because it sounds characteristically like Carolyn Kizer.
SALTER: She has a light touch, herself; she has a five-part poem called Pro Femina, and in the last part, which she wrote a few years ago, she's sitting around having a glass of wine and thinking about Kierkegaard and Augustine. That could sound, if I just say that to somebody who hasn't read the poem, pretentious. It wasn't at all; it was funny; it was lively; her mind ranged all over the place. Yes, it's a hard balance to write poetry that does sound like a human being wrote it, and, on the other hand, not to be in any sense anti-intellectual, or to eschew your intellectual interests.
NL: A few years ago, Carolyn Kizer was interviewed in this magazine by the poet Michelle Boisseau and Carolyn discussed the difficulty, especially nowadays, with rhyme. She said, basically, all good rhymes the normative rhymes have been used up. The job of a contemporary poet writing in English is to use rhymes that don't recycle everything that's already been done. You use a considerable amount of rhyme in your writing, and I'm wondering how you approach that problem.
SALTER: It's a fascinating question, because some of the poets whom I admire differ so much on this. I can only conclude that you have again, it's back to temperament you have to figure out what your temperament tells you to do. For example, Richard Wilbur, whom I admire about as much as any poet alive, feels strongly that he does not want to write off-rhymes. He wants them on, really nailed. It's interesting, because he, himself, is a great fan of Emily Dickinson, as I am, and she was one of the strangest off-rhymers you'll ever see. If Carolyn Kizer means that all of the exact rhymes have been used before, that's absolutely true. In terms of making up new ways for sounds to chime with each other, there are some excellent poets writing today who are pushing the boundaries of what a rhyme is: poets such as Paul Muldoon or Derek Walcott, who make us hear differently, the way Emily Dickinson did.
NL: I'm not sure I ever got to your sense of how you like to use rhyme. Your rhymes often move throughout the line, for one thing, not always at the end of the line.
SALTER: That's true. I am interested in all sorts of internal rhyme, off-rhyme, and, you're right, I never completely answered that question. I'm also interested increasingly in coming up with stanzas that allow for both unrhymed and rhymed lines. Quite often, after I've been working on the first draft of a poem, it may be apparent to me that I now want, let's say, a seven-line stanza. Maybe I'll decide that I will have two rhymes in that stanza, which leaves me several lines to go that are not rhymed, and they can go anywhere. So sometimes readers who are attuned to rhyme might recognize that the first line and the seventh line actually do chime with each other; and readers might even recognize, if I've done my work well, that there's some reason for these to be a distant echo.
Whereas, for a more forceful effect, you might want a couplet; you might want sounds close together. So, I'm trying to let rhyme lead me to what I want to say, and I'm also trying to manipulate rhyme so that it doesn't master me.
NL: The sound echoes in varying patterns in your well-known poem "Welcome to Hiroshima." Could you say how that poem took shape?
SALTER: That is an old poem; I probably wrote it in 1981 or '82. I was living in Japan, and my husband and I decided to go to Hiroshima because John Paul II, who had just become pope, was going to be the first pope to go to Japan; so we went to hear him and to see Hiroshima, as well. One thing I stole from Marianne Moore with that poem is how she often would have a title lead into the first line, just bleed into it, essentially. So, I have done that with this title, which is continuous with the first line.
Welcome to Hiroshima
is what you first see, stepping off the train:
a billboard brought to you in living English
by Toshiba Electric. While a channel
silent in the TV of the brain. . . .
NL: I love, especially, a moment later in that poem when you shift the tone slightly and focus on something small:
. . .
in questions of bad taste, how re-created
horror mocks the grim original,
and thinking at last They should have left it all
you stop. This is the wristwatch of a child.
The power seems to come from bringing together both grand and small details. I notice that your 2003 book, Open Shutters, works a great deal with small, often domestic events. Do you ever think there is a danger of becoming a topical or occasional poet?
SALTER: Yes. I think there is that danger, and I think especially women run the risk, when they write domestic poems, of appearing to be "only" (and I put that in quotation marks) mothers, or "only" homemakers, or sentimental, or whatever. It's something I feel on guard against. I don't want to go in the direction of, you know, here is my kitchen; let us draw a conclusion about the universe. Much more the other direction. In fact, in another poem set in my kitchen, I am looking out the window at a rabbit running around on the lawn, and I realize this is my new house the rabbit has owned this property longer than I have. Well, if you put it a certain way, that can just be unbearably cute. I hope it wasn't unbearably cute in my poem; but if we don't address the small and daily or the seemingly small, then we aren't really talking about what it's like to live in the world.
To return to your example that a child who died in Hiroshima was wearing a wristwatch, and that the time stopped. There's a certain amount of exploitation that poets and all writers are guilty of. On the one hand, in this poem, what we really care about is that a child died, and that we have this huge problem now, which is nuclear proliferation. On the other hand, my business is to use something that either really happened or might have happened and have it do a lot of work for me. The fact that time stops at that moment is useful for what I want to be saying and the fact that it's a child's watch and not an adult's watch, and the fact that the glass is shattered and now it's a museum piece, under glass. What poets are trying to do is find details like that, that are going to be received by a reader in about 50 different ways if you're lucky.
NL: Is it true that often poets just use what is given to them? Many details in that Hiroshima poem, I'm guessing, just happened to be what was given to you. Can you speak about the quality of the arbitrary in being a writer, which maybe some non-writers don't think about?
SALTER: Details can be arbitrary in the sense that countless stimuli are bombarding us at any one moment. What's not arbitrary, over time, as you have more and more practice as a writer, is that you are learning to edit what you have seen and heard and touched. You're trying to use all of your senses, not just the visual; but when I love a great poem by Richard Wilbur or Emily Dickinson or some others, I sense both that they allowed their imagination to travel somewhere, that they were not over-managing it, and at the same time, they have done some conscious editing and decided that this, this is the image I want the whole poem to turn on.
NL: You have a way of starting a poem with a kind of direct statement, with literal images, almost narrative and understated. I found myself, especially when reading Open Shutters, uncharacteristically drawn into the poems with incredible ease. Are you conscious of that device?
SALTER: I'm very happy at what you've just said. I'm delighted to have given you that impression, because I do feel that we have very little time to catch our readers, which is something I say in my teaching I not only teach poetry writing, but I teach composition to freshmen. We live in an age that is more hurried than any other age, but it's always been true that the reader has better things to do than read you, until he or she is convinced otherwise. So, if there's a way of being inviting, whether it's pleasant or it's a shock, so readers don't think about whether they're going to keep reading, that would be one of my own goals. Although I do think in terms of meter and rhyme and all of those aural devices, I would be pleased to hear a reader say that I, the reader, was not conscious of what you, the poet, were doing; it only occurred to me later that this was a sonnet, or it only occurred to me that you were rhyming every third and fifth line. As the poet, I want it to feel almost natural, and yet, of course, if I felt that entirely, I would just be talking. I want a sense of the shape of it to be apparent only later.
In my poem "Home Movies: A Sort of Ode," the title is "sort of" a joke in that, well, I don't know exactly what an ode is look it up, and you will find such a wobbly, formless definition that pretty much anything can be an ode. I refer at one point, to Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." My poem could hardly start more domestically. We're in the 1950s or '60s, in my childhood; I'm using the real names of my brothers; and my father, once again, is making, of course, in those days, a silent home movie.
NL: The second stanza of that poem I found especially moving. It's the second half of a long, Latinate, extended sentence, ending with an image of the father's desperation.
SALTER: You're referring to where the father is taking home movies at the zoo, and, "he's pacing... at the zoo, / by polar bears and leopards caged, / he seemed to say, like him." So we're two stanzas into the poem, and now we're getting a hint that my parents' marriage is, in fact, going to end. In a sense, that's the notion of a bowl that might, might be broken, as it appears later in the poem; and yet, actually, there is this literal mixing bowl that is handed down, that I still use to dye Easter eggs with my children. We were talking about sentimentality before. I felt maybe I could get away with that image, partly because I was calling upon Keats' notion of the "foster child of silence," and the urn he writes about. Also, certain things are handed down, and among those things that are handed down is brokenness. There are going to be unhappy things ahead that are going to influence how you see that childhood as broken.
The strange thing about movies is that we see them over and over, as if that time would last forever. Also, the fact that you can't hear a home movie from the era of my childhood is very moving to me. People would be hammier for home movies precisely because they knew they wouldn't be heard. You know, wave at the camera. There was a kind of false cheer, which seemed suitable to me for this poem, which is partly about a future in which my parents don't stay together.
NL: I read somewhere that you thought your mother had sacrificed an important part of her life for the homemaker role, which resonates, at the end, as a foreshadowing, perhaps, for the girl in the poem.
SALTER: The thing about a mother sacrificing herself I mean, she, like many women, loved what she did as a mother; but she was an artist. She was a painter and never knew to what extent her not making it as a painter had to do with talent, or luck, or being willful enough, or the fact that she was a mother. Of course, she also didn't live long, unfortunately. The older I get, the more I think about how my mother must have been feeling.
NL: The poem also illustrates some elements of craft that give the poem transcendence. One is the incredible restraint in the poem, especially toward the end, where the mother and daughter are in the kitchen, and one has a sense of the poignancy; but there is the unbelievable restraint in putting all the emotional weight into, or onto, the bowl. Secondly, the delicate touch of the allusion to Keats. I read that to my students because it's almost a textbook in how to use an allusion to elevate the story for a moment, and then bring it back. The allusion changes the nature of the whole story. It gives it greater weight.
SALTER: I'm glad you feel that. My own thought about allusions is that if they work, they're gravy. I mean for readers to understand the basic idea of the poem even if they've never read the work to which the poem alludes; but if there's another dimension that can be gotten from having read Keats, then great.
NL: I enjoy recognizing relationships between one poem and a poem by another poet. I could not help but think "wreckage," from A Kiss in Space, resonates for me with "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World," by Richard Wilbur.
SALTER: That's perceptive, because even though I was not thinking about Richard Wilbur's poem at all when I wrote "Wreckage," "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World" is the first poem of his I ever read. I read it on the A.P. test in high school. Usually, of course, taking a test is occasion for misery, and I still remember the feeling I had as I read that poem. I had goose bumps, and I just thought, "That's the most beautiful thing I've ever read in my life." Much later, when I met him, I was able to tell him that. There is something about the simplicity of that poem. It turns laundry into angels. There's a way in which Richard Wilbur recovers moments, and gives them some kind of divinity, or acknowledges their divinity. There's something completely unforced about the way he does that. His own optimism. He's been criticized for being too cheery, and I don't think he is at all. I think he's always acknowledging the darkness of human life. It only means something to have laundry turn into angels if you recognize that life also can be dark.
The poem "Wreckage" does speak about a feeling I have often, which is that the most profitable time in my mind is either when I'm falling asleep or just waking up, that period in between sleep and waking, when I often get my own best ideas, and I don't want to wake up. By the way, I wrote it in the same period that I wrote a poem about the Titanic. I don't know what was going on in my brain, but anyway, another wreckage at sea. So the poem begins,
Torn from the moorings of sleep
one morning, grasping not even a scrap
of whatever I was dreaming,
I realize, as I rise from the billowing
sail of the pillow, and sink again,
that I myself am wreckage. . . .
NL: I also want to ask you about being one of the co-editors of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. I think it was the 4th and 5th editions that you've worked on?
SALTER: That's right.
NL: This is poetry that starts at Beowulf and comes all the way to the current time.
NL: What can you say about certain difficult choices which there must have been that you had to make, or that other editors had to make. The Norton Anthology is one of the great measures of the literary canon, as we call it works that are generally accepted as being the great works in our language. So, there are some pretty heavy choices to make there.
SALTER: Nothing but heavy choices, and it's exhausting. How does it feel? Exhausting. I'm privileged to be able to do it, and especially because the two other editors I work with Margaret Ferguson and Jon Stallworthy are superb at what they do, and we trusted each other. We each had a different section to be working on, hundreds of years at a time, of course, but not all of us were making all decisions. Nonetheless, there was a certain amount of horse trading. When, for example, we realized that we needed more Milton, which was Margaret Ferguson's territory, both Jon Stallworthy and I said, "You can have some more Milton pages; we will deprive our poets of a few pages so you can have those." There is a physical limit to how many pages you can have in such a book, and we got up to 2,000 thin pages. After that, the book will literally fall apart. So, you have to stop.
The hardest part is that there are so many wonderful poets who never get into the book. My problem as the editor of many contemporary poets is that I live in dread that the ones who aren't in that book may think that I don't admire them. There are so many choices to make. Being representative is part of the problem. You have to represent different schools, different periods, different kinds of writing, and that means that some of the greatest poems written by the very poets we have in there, we don't have room for. I hope that anybody who would read such an anthology would realize that it represents the best effort at a particular moment in time by some people some fallible people.
NL: Are there people who have been, let's say, "rescued" from history, who had been excluded perhaps for political reasons or sex reasons, or things like that?
SALTER: Absolutely. I mean, if you look at the 3rd edition, which was what preceded the work Jon and Margie and I did, the percentage of women was drastically lower than it is today. Marianne Moore, whom we mentioned earlier, appeared as just a fraction of what we have now. I'll tell you one person I was delighted to have added to the 5th edition whom I should have put into the 4th, but I'm so glad he's in the 5th is Richard Wright, who's known primarily as a novelist but wrote beautiful haiku. He wrote thousands of them, and I had to get it down to six. That was fun, actually. Most people don't even know that he wrote poetry.
NL: New Letters published some of his haiku in the 1970s, and you're right. They're wonderful. I want to ask you about imagery. Do images tend to "sneak" into your own poems, subconsciously?
SALTER: I had not understood until after years of writing poems that eventually went into the book Open Shutters, how many kinds of shutters I was writing about. Literally, shutters on windows, shutters on cameras, shutters that seemed like books, shutters that are our eyelids, and I hope I wasn't too schematic about it, but I promise I didn't even notice for years. So the first poem in the book is called "Trompe l'Oeil," which as most people know means "fool the eye." It's a kind of art in which there's some trickery going on. This poem is set in Italy where, as you know, there are many facades of buildings that have things painted on them that really do fool you. So when I was near Genoa, I saw, sometimes, there would be real windows with fake shutters, and sometimes they'd even be fake windows with fake shutters. That got me thinking philosophically. Okay. So this is from "Trompe l'Oeil."
. . .
Who needs to be correct
more often than once a day?
Who needs real shadow more than play?
. . .
And the poem concludes:
And the foreign word is a lie:
that second l in l'oeil
which only looks like an l, and is silent.
from "Trompe l'Oeil"
NL: If you looked at my copies of your books, you'd notice that I have all these little rhyme schemes written out there beside the poems. "For Emily at Fifteen" uses near rhymes in quatrains, in a touching and funny poem about a sonnet written by your daughter.
SALTER: I have poems about her as a baby, and this one at 15, and she's now 22. When she was 15 years old, she sent me a poem, her first sonnet, and so the epigraph to my poem is a quotation from my daughter, Emily Leithauser, and it goes: Sirens living in silence, why would they leave the sea?
. . .
Half-human and half-fish
of adolescence, take
my compliments, meant half
as from a mother, half
one writer to another,
for rhymes in which you bury
sirens into silence;
from "For Emily at Fifteen"
NL: Let me ask you two questions written by my students. What pushes you to use one form or another when you write a poem? Why does a poet choose a villanelle, or a sonnet, or a quatrain, for a given poem?
SALTER: I think it's partly a matter of practice. After you have tried to shoehorn a long, narrative poem into a sonnet enough times, you realize, "I'd better give myself some space." Or, if you have just the tiniest idea that really ought to be a haiku, and you pad it out to be a sonnet so part of it is about practice. There are certain qualities that are fairly common to each of the forms that we know. For example, a villanelle is a 19-1ine form that has built into it two refrains that keep coming back and back, and sounds coming back and back. It encourages one to write about something obsessive. Whether it's desperately serious, like Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," or not. I seem to write funny villanelles. I never seem to get very profound when I write them. But there is something obsessive about that form, as if there's something bugging you, and you hope that each time the refrain comes up it changes meaning in some way. So, having your antennae out for what the form really is, what it's likely to encourage you to say, is fair warning before you proceed with writing in form.
NL: Another student wanted me to ask if, as a formal writer, you are organized and structured in your own life as well?
SALTER: Not in the least. I can tell you that I wake up at 4:00 in the morning and remember something I was supposed to do at 4:00 in the afternoon the day before. I am terribly disorganized. What I say in my poem "Office Hours" about having files on the floor that haven't gone into the filing cabinet is really alarming, because I wrote that poem at least five years ago, and those same papers are still on the floor. No. I think I put whatever orderliness I've got into my poems, and the rest is chaos.New Letters
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Editor: Robert Stewart
Administrative Director: Betsy Beasley
Editorial Assistant: Amy Lucas