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Interview: Poet laureate Robert Pinsky on his work and the world

Robert Pinsky, who served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, will give a public reading in St. Petersburg on Monday.

Photo by Eric Antoniou

Robert Pinsky, who served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, will give a public reading in St. Petersburg on Monday.

Poetry, Robert Pinsky says, "goes so deep in us. I've discovered with my grandchildren that if you sing to a baby or recite poetry to the baby, you get the exact same result. They curl up into you and relax."

Pinsky has put poetry to many other uses. He's the only person to have served three terms as the poet laureate of the United States, from 1997 to 2000. During that time, his signature achievement was the Favorite Poem Project, which reached thousands of communities.

Pinsky will be in St. Petersburg this week, thanks to St. Petersburg College and the Plume Poetry Series. He'll speak to students and, on Monday evening, give a public reading.

Pinsky has received the PEN/Voelcker Award, the William Carlos Williams Prize and many others. His latest collection of poetry, At the Foundling Hospital, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize. He is also a translator, notably of poets Dante and Czeslaw Milosz, and an essayist. Pinsky, 76, is the William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor in the graduate program in English and creative writing at Boston University.

Pinsky spoke with the Tampa Bay Times by phone last week. The interview has been edited for length.

In January, you were one of the poets who read at the Writers Resist event at the New York Public Library, sponsored by PEN/America. Hoe did you come to write Exile and Lightning, the poem you read that day?

I am among the many people who have been shocked by how many lies come from our president and his cohort. In the poem, I used a phrase I borrowed from my wife, who is a psychoanalyst: "charismatic indecency." The things that are being said that are so repulsive, like bragging about sexual assault, making racist statements, encouraging violence — those things also give people a guilty little thrill. That guilty little thrill has an awful modern political history in other regimes.

I liked that phrase, on the one hand, contrasted with the lines from the poems by (Czeslaw) Milosz and (Gwendolyn) Brooks on the other. And the quotation from (Nicaraguan poet) Ernesto Cardenal is from a poem called Somoza Dedicates Somoza's Statue at Somoza Stadium. That title says a lot.

During your terms as U.S. poet laureate, you founded the Favorite Poem Project, which videotaped thousands of Americans of all kinds reading their favorite poems and grew to include other programs as well. Where does that stand two decades later?

We're still doing it. This summer, in July, we'll have the Summer Poetry Institute for K-12 Educators. It's at Boston University, a rare example of cooperation between the School of Education and the creative writing department. They meet by grade level to talk about teaching ideas. We have scholarships — teachers should apply. (

We're also still shooting more videos. It's amazing to see a Russian reading a Sylvia Plath poem. Or a Cambodian reading Langston Hughes — and she's not even thinking about him as an African-American, she's thinking of her family's experiences under Pol Pot. It just makes me so proud.

You are known as a translator as well as a poet, notably for your prize-winning and bestselling The Inferno of Dante. How many languages are you fluent in?

At most one. I'm not bad in Spanish, I can get by in Italian. Translating poetry doesn't have to do with great fluency. I'm not trying for complete accuracy; I'm more interested in the music or sound. For the Dante I used fewer words in the translation than in any other translation I know of.

I think of myself in a very old tradition. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there wasn't a very strong line between old poems and new poems. I tell people it isn't much different from writing a poem myself except that I don't have to wonder where to go next.

Can you talk about Creole, one of the poems in your new collection, At the Foundling Hospital, which focuses on language and translation as well as on immigration?

Most of us can't name our eight great-grandparents. And we certainly can't name all the sources of our culture. We're all a kind of foundling.

We see the French Academy, for example, trying to declare this word is correct French, or not. That language came out of Roman soldiers invading and setting up households with the natives and having to learn to communicate. And that process happened with all languages.

The poem also celebrates the typical American ethnic mix I grew up with. I'm from Long Branch, N.J., which has a long and glorious history as a summer resort. I grew up among immigrant families, Italian, Irish, Polish and African-Americans, all working for the resorts. As farmers are to cows, we were to tourists.

So you see that immigrant mix as a great source of creativity?

Yes, and more importantly for me, it's the source of my patriotism. I'm proud of the American culture that comes out of that. Our jazz, our rock 'n' roll, our feature films — there are so many forces flowing into them.

You've taught an online course on poetry, performed with jazz musicians, written an opera libretto and appeared on The Simpsons and The Colbert Report. Is the line between poetry and other art forms fluid? And how well does poetry lend itself to digital media?

Poetry is fundamental. It's older than writing. When you think of novels and magazines on little rectangles of print, that's Industrial Revolution technology.

Poetry is our very beginning. We now divide poetry, song, dance and music, but originally they were one. Poetry gets right into your skin. It comes out of your heart as well as your head. Not that I'm anti-intellectual — I'm very much in favor of thinking. Like music, poetry lends itself very well to digital media.

The most recent U.S. poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, has finished his term. Will we have a new poet laureate?

It's not in the executive branch. It's an appointment made by the Librarian of Congress (Carla Hayden). I'm sure she'll make one, and whoever it is will spend a lot of time explaining that it's not out of the executive branch.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

If you go

Robert Pinsky

St. Petersburg College and the Plume Poetry Series present Robert Pinsky at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets $10, free for SPC students, faculty and staff;

Robert Pinsky read this poem, written for the event, at Writers Resist, presented by PEN/America at the New York Public Library on Jan. 15.

Exile and Lightning

You choose your ancestors our

Ancestor Ralph Ellison wrote.

Now, fellow-descendants, we endure a

Moment of charismatic indecency

And sanctimonious greed. Falsehood

Beyond shame. Our Polish Grandfather

Milosz and African American Grandmother Brooks

Endured worse than this.

Fight first, then fiddle she wrote.

Our great-grandmother Emma Lazarus

Wrote that the flame of the lamp of the

Mother of Exiles is "Imprisoned lightning."

My fellow children of exile

And lightning, the indecency

Constructs its own statuary.

But our uncle Ernesto Cardenal

Says, sabemos que el pueblo

la derribará un día. The people

Will tear it down. Milosz says,

Beautiful and very young, meaning recent,

Are poetry and philo-sophia, meaning science,

Her ally in the service of the good. ...

Their enemies, he wrote, have delivered

Themselves to destruction.

"Un dia," and "very young" — that long

Ancestral view of time:

Inheritors, el pueblo, fellow-exiles:

All the quicker our need to

Fight and make music. As Gwendolyn

Brooks wrote, To civilize a space.

Interview: Poet laureate Robert Pinsky on his work and the world 03/29/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 28, 2017 6:06pm]
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