This week, Mary Jo Salter, the author of The Surveyors (2017) and seven other collections of poems, spoke with us about her writing process, her friendship with the poet Mark Strand, and her experiences at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Her tribute to Wyatt Prunty is featured in the Fall issue of the Sewanee Review, and the Review will publish some of her new poems in Spring 2020.
SR: In your craft essay for SR’s Winter 2017 issue, “S is for Something,” you appreciate the humility of the poet Mark Strand’s work—his affinity for the simplest word, for forgetfulness, the way he writes his work in an orange spiral notebook. What kind of potential does humility afford poetry, a practice of the highly personal, prone to, as you say, “the danger of narcissism, preciousness”?
MJS: Poetry is an ideal practice for attaining humility. A fine poet will hardly ever be given the handle accorded by critics to plenty of merely-OK novelists or playwrights: “major writer.” Poetry is inextinguishable, and indeed in some ways it flourishes more than ever before, thanks partly to online forums like this one. And as long as people sing songs, we’ll have lyrics—which is to say, poetry. Still, we have to face the fact that an excellent poem which happens not to be a song lyric will be noted far less often in our culture than excellent prose, especially fictive prose. And that means that poets will almost always get lost in the shuffle.
The best poets write not because they find themselves fascinating, or hope to convince others of that fact, though that’s common enough. The best poets write out of a fascination with poetry. And sometimes, the poet’s relative unimportance to our culture can feel like a freedom, a creative boon. What committee of Hollywood producers will refuse funding for a poem? Precisely because they can’t, we poets write what we want—or as close as our talents can take us.
The “narcissism, preciousness” that we see too often in poetry derives I think, from two essential realities. One is that poets resent being sidelined or ignored; and some of us come off as self-dramatizing victims of humiliation rather than exemplars of humility. And the second reality is that the lyric “I”—that wonderful re-invention of the Renaissance, the era that gave birth to what endures as humanism—is not the only human voice that matters. What I mean is this: those very fiction writers we poets admire and envy find delight in creating characters quite distant from their creator. That’s why these writers have readers—because we feel included in their vision of universal human experience. The lyric “I” can of course speak for everyone, too. But the temptation of poets is to write too narrowly from that “I,” and for the precious few who “understand.”
Mark Strand, in particular, was fun partly because he made a joke of his own narcissism: he wanted you to share his experience of being charmed by Mark Strand. In his poems, though, he spoke in a compellingly disembodied first person, a clearly mythical first person, or in third person. Even his most autobiographical poems are veiled. There’s a good argument that “impersonality” was, in fact, his personal stamp—a thing that made you know you were reading a Strand poem. Strand’s work as a visual artist probably helped him think more abstractly, too. I’ll always relish the way the narcissistic Strand took a step back from himself—even forgot himself—as he wrote. He served the poem’s uniqueness, not his own; he dared to acknowledge mystery. That was humility.
SR: In that same essay, you write, “Even the most accomplished craftsman, we have to assume, even Rembrandt or Shakespeare, feels this difference between vision and realization.” If vision is an unsustainable ideal and realization is always a departure from that ideal, what about realization keeps the artist—or you, if we can make this a bit more personal—motivated to continue the process of creating?
MJS: I think it’s precisely because artists in various genres know we can’t realize, out there in the world, the ideal vision in our head that we keep trying to get close. In poetry, the goal is not just the ideal vision but the ideal combination of sounds, a presentation not only of some perfectly-chosen rhythm or rhyme scheme but of the tones of voice that keep shifting. For me, tone is just about everything: tone is almost the subject. I’m bored by volumes of poetry written all in one tone of voice; in fact, I’m bored even by a one-stanza poem that doesn’t introduce a tonal surprise or two.
As for my own work, I’ve never finished a poem and thought, “Exactly what I meant to say!” A compensation for what’s inadequate in my final draft is knowing that in the process of writing, I arrived (sometimes) at some gesture interestingly tangential to the “ideal” I envisioned; some little thing or other which might—might—actually be handled better than I dared to hope. I suppose that keeps me going.
And then there’s just the fact of the countless writers who are so superior to oneself that one can only feel a sort of glee at their success. I can’t be them, but I can wake up happy that I’m turning to their books again today. No writer can achieve her own potential without some aspirational reading.
SR: Your tribute to Wyatt Prunty in the Fall 2019 issue credits him with “dreaming up a conference in a small town eight hundred miles from New York, and getting the country’s most gifted literati to come,” calling it an “elevation-by-imagination.” In what ways have you seen the Conference elevate your own work, and/or the work of your students? Do you feel yourself similarly drawn to the possibility of dreaming nothing into something?
MJS: I don’t feel an ambition to found a conference or a college or an organization. The closest I’ve come to this sort of leadership is being a department chair in a university. But in that case, I was in the role of trying to sustain and improve something already established. What I admire so much in Wyatt, among other qualities, is exactly this wholesale dreaming-up. For a gifted artist like himself, it’s a sacrifice to spend so much time on logistics and budget and people-managing; all that stuff takes away from precious creative time.
Those of us who have attended or taught at Sewanee really have been given an “elevation-by-imagination." I first co-taught with Anthony Hecht in 1995, and though I’d known him for years, I hadn’t yet seen the rather austere way he conducted a class. The stakes were high and if you didn’t see that, too bad for you. I don’t mean he was unkind; I mean that in absorbing his seriousness I felt my standards being lifted, almost as a physical experience. The same thing happened in the presence of my co-teacher John Hollander, although he was frustrating because (unlike Hecht) he absolutely never let anybody else talk. On the other hand, he knew more than all the rest of us poets in the room put together. I’ve had other elevations—I can’t list them all. But I loved teaching with Robert Hass because, despite our being fairly far apart in sensibility and taste, we got along splendidly in the common and uplifting pursuit of something essential: poetry. It's so rare that you get to feel in your bones that someone else finds poetry essential; but you feel that with Bob.
I can’t finish this account of Sewanee’s elevations without saying that some of my former students—“participants,” in Sewanee lingo—ended up writing books that made me marvel. And I can’t overstress the brilliance of many craft talks over the years. Listening to a great fiction writer who is also a born critic—Margot Livesey—has time and again helped me to reconsider how to write my own poetry. Her Summer 2019 lecture about mere editing versus true re-“vision” was a needed punch in the arm: hey, don’t get lazy. If you have to throw the whole thing out, throw it out. And dare to write better!