Questions & Answers

Question: Where do you get the ideas for your poems?
Answer: Partly, of course, from my own experience -- like my father’s death when I was just sixteen or having lived both in New York City and in the countryside of Vermont whose landscape provided me with a multitude of images. And partly from my own imagination, the source of which I do not really comprehend, but for which I give thanks.

Question:What for you is the main relationship between the meaning of words and the sound of words?
Answer: For me a poem must always be a musical composition as well as a philosophical mediation or a portrait of a character or the description of a landscape or just the evocation of a mood. For me, if a poem is not musically expressive, it is not employing the full lyrical resources of language.

Question: What would you say are the overriding themes or concerns that have informed your writing poetry for over half a century?
Answer: I’d say the themes of family intimacy -- parents and children and marriage -- and the related theme of friendship. I would add to that the enjoyment of nature within the poignant and excruciating awareness of the ephemerality of everything we hold precious. I believe that music and laughter (from parody to puns) are the main powers that enhance our lives and help us to endure. I believe that laughter can express a groan-up attitude toward adversity.

Question: Many of your poems are in narrative form; they tell stories and have plots. What is it about the dramatic monologue in particular that interests you?
Answer: My early poetry through WAKING TO MY NAME, was based mainly on personal experience, even though I took delight in embellishing my literal autobiographical history for what I considered to be the needs of the poem itself -- the truth of how a poem feels to the reader. Later on, with FACES IN A SINGLE TREE, I started to write dramatic monologues that were spoken by people other than myself, people with different sensibilities than my own and different emotional issues to be confronted. It was exhilarating to enhance my own life by inhabiting the lives of invented characters.

Question: Other main sources of wonder and speculation in much of your later poetry are grounded in scientific issues such as Big Bang theory and Darwinian evolution. What has made these concepts so personal and urgent to you?
Answer: Human beings have always confronted existential questions in their myths about beginnings and endings and their wondering about whether life has a given purpose or whether purpose has to be invented. Both the concept of natural evolution and Big Bang theory are about origins. From Darwin we learn that as a species we are what we have been, and with that knowledge we can go on within limits to reinvent ourselves. Big Bang theory teaches us of our own insignificance in the context of time and space. It provides us with an essential humility and enlarges our sense of awe. These are the emotions central to my book, BEFORE IT VANISHES.(See the picture of me with my quantum cat.)

Question: Why did you think you needed to invent a new lyric form, which you called a “sonnetelle,” for your book, ROUNDING IT OUT?
Answer: This form combines the attributes of the sonnet with those of the villanelle. The form is tightly rhymed like the sonnet, with a required refrain like the villanelle. The first line of the poem returns as the last, and the second line is repeated somewhere in the middle of the poem. By counting the two repeat lines, the fourteen line sonnet becomes sixteen lines. The primary repeating image of the sequence is the circle –- an image which for me carries great symbolic weight, suggesting the basic cycles of life: from morning to night, from birth to death, from celebration to mourning and, one hopes, back to measured celebration.

Question: A twin brother appears in a number of your poems. Did you really have a twin brother?
Answer: No. I have killed him off and brought him back to life several times. I need him to represent an alternative aspect of myself, my double. Psychologically, he is perfectly real to me just as the many other characters I have created. Human identity, I believe, has many aspects.
Answer: I believe deeply in the empathic power of the imagination to cross the spaces that separate people and thus enable us to partake of the feelings of others with different backgrounds or beliefs. Frankly, when I immersed myself in the imagined lives of my female characters, I felt that I could fully identify with them; I could partake of their suffering or their exultation. I defend the proposition that the imagination is androgynous.Question: Many of your monologues are spoken by women -- mothers, wives, and daughters -- all in different circumstances or family predicaments. What drew you to attempt to cross the gender divide in your imagination?

Question: Besides writing poetry, what other activities or commitments have been essential to your life?
Answer: Next year will be my 56th as a teacher. I have been blessed to enjoy every minute in expressing and exchanging ideas about great works of art and watching young people discover the glories of what W.B. Yeats calls “monuments of unaging intellect.” In all this time, I have never taken a day of sick leave and missed a class. My friends call me the “Cal Ripkin of teaching.”

Question: What is your favorite poem?
Answer: My favorite poems are Homer’s The Iliad, which is about war, and The Book of Job, which is about the search for justice. My favorite poem about love is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written almost entirely in rhymed couplets), and Wordsworth’s, The Prelude, is especially rewarding in its celebration of nature and the imagination which augments what it perceives.

QUESTION: What advice do you have for young poets just setting forth with their hopes and uncertainties?

ANSWER: Though not too cautiously, live with gusto as if your choices really matter. Accept challenges and let your passions guide your reason. As Blake says, “Energy is eternal delight.” Treasure your friends and listen to their critiques of your poems. One cannot foresee how long it will take to master the art of learning how to write what might be a poem worth lasting beyond the next cultural decline, so hang in there. Endure.