MICHAEL ODOM INTERVIEWS DAVID YEZZI
PAUSING DAVID YEZZI: POET, EDITOR, CRITIC, LIBRETTIST, DRAMATIST, BIOGRAPHER, HUSBAND, FATHER, PROFESSOR…
There is an authenticity in discovering poets the way I discovered David Yezzi. He was one of several poets reading a poem or two of their work at a bookstore event to promote the New England Review. I listened attentively to all and forgot all but Yezzi.
He was not dressed loudly as a pop star might to grab your attention. He did not adopt histrionics nor virtuous rants as is common of “performance.” No, all he did was read an evocative poem directly and well, “Woman Holding a Fox,” the experience of which I still hold in mind two decades later.
At the time, I was a bookseller, an “outsider.” In the next few years, I felt a kind of affirmation as the poetry world discovered him as well. At the time, Yezzi was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Next, he was an associate editor for the legendary journal Parnassus. Later, he became the director of the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y, and until recently he was poetry editor for The New Criterion. He has published poems and criticism in every journal of importance, and is the author of three of the best books of poems of the last two decades, Azores, Birds of the Air, and last year’s, Black Sea.
The mid-career David Yezzi I interview here is the editor for The Hopkins Review and teaches for the Writing Seminars at John Hopkins University. He is also, as we will discuss, active in theater as one of the few contemporary authors of verse plays, including this year’s Schnauzer. He is also working on a biography of one the 20th Century’s greatest poets, Anthony Hecht.
Michael Odom: You seem to wear a lot of hats: husband, father, professor, multiple theater careers, editor, arts presenter, poet. Any one of those could take all your time and energy. How do you prioritize, balance, choose? Do you find any or all suffer for the sacrifices the other roles require?
David Yezzi: It’s quite possible that my poems would be better if I focused on them more exclusively. That seems entirely possible; I’m not sure. I know I’m better off personally when I’m busy. Less time to brood, I guess. And making a living has always demanded a huge amount of time. That seems to be the big question in a poet’s life: how do you support yourself while writing poems? I’ve done a bunch of different things (like the kid at the opening of “The Spoils”), and none has been wholly satisfactory. But then neither would sitting by myself all day with a note pad, so it’s a curious balance.
MO: You mention the unsatisfactory ways you've worked to squeeze being a poet into an already full life. Could you elaborate on some of those, why they failed and which has worked best?
DY: I started out as an actor in New York—telemarketing and waiting tables, doing itinerant productions, even co-founding a theater company, which later moved to San Francisco. I ultimately felt that I wasn’t cut out for it. Acting is the hardest. It’s saying something that, when I began to focus on writing in grad school at Columbia, there were far more opportunities for work as a writer than there had been as an actor. Plus, I was the worst waiter in New York. It’s lucky I didn’t wind up behind bars.
I still feel a connection to the theater. Maybe it’s because I failed at it or abandoned it. A lot of my poems are dramatic in nature. There are a number of dramatic monologues, which I have directed and performed on stage. I recently published a verse play called Schnauzer, which grew out of a monologue in Birds of the Air. I hope to do more of that. Having moved recently from New York to Baltimore, it’s much easier to put work up on stage. Everything’s cheaper, and there’s lots of available spaces.
MO: I know you've written librettos, but I also know the story of when Robert Lowell worked on a libretto and was treated like an ignoramus and advised to take a class. I didn't see anything like that in your work.
DY: I’ve been lucky to work with composers who really understood words, and even dramatic structure. Working with David Conte was the best class I could have had. I learned a lot from him. I also try to write for singers. I sing the libretto as I’m writing it, even if I don’t know what the ultimate tune will be. The vowels have to be available, so singers can really dig in where they need to. I also try to think about the rhythm, the speed, though those are largely in the composer’s hands. Opera is a composer’s medium, though many of their compositional cues can come from the text, which in my experience has always come first.
MO: I get the impression that music is very important to you. Do you play an instrument? What is your relationship to music?
DY: I do feel that poetry is primarily a musical expression, though the music of language is not the same as notes in a score. It’s this idea that “the sound is the sense.” In other words, the emotional communication in a poem is carried by the sound, above and beyond the denotative sense of the words.
In Baltimore, we have more room, so we have a piano and a place to set out stringed instruments. I play guitar and banjo, and a few other odds and ends. And I’ve been teaching myself piano—very simple pieces by Bach and Satie and The Beatles. I think playing music—though I am not very good at it—is one of the most consistently pleasurable things. I love it. I find it all amazing: intervals, syncopation, counterpoint. Muscle memory—when your hands know the tune and can play it faster than you can think it—is one of the wildest things I ever experienced.
I’ve read about how the centers in the brain that are stimulated by music are the same for poetry. That seems right. The two were a unified expression for thousands of years, so it would make sense. I get a lot from reading poetry on the page, but for me the poetry is primarily a physical excitation in both the speaker and listener. Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Great poetry makes my whole body start to sway. It’s that rhythm that lets the feeling in.
MO: I've asked others their reaction to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize. No one yet objects. Except me. I felt it took for pop culture one of the few spaces left for poetry. I believed it absorbed and confused the literary art of poetry with the related arts of music and performance. Also, it made clear the committee found no poet writing in print to be worthy of the award. With your background in performance and writing librettos, you might have a closer insight. What is your reaction to Dylan's Nobel?
DY: For me, they are all confused all the time. Up until the Renaissance, poetry and music typically went together, so they are deeply related arts. It’s true that words apart from music are called on to do different work, to create their own cadences and sounds unassisted by music. But I don’t think the Nobel Prize (which has suffered its own blind spots and limitations over the years) needs to prescribe too narrowly the kinds of poetic expression it deems acceptable. The onus is on the artist to create “memorable speech” (as Auden defined poetry). Dylan writes beautifully, powerfully, evocatively. He has lodged more lines where they will be “hard to get rid of” (Frost) than any other contemporary writer of verse I can think of. “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Eastertime, too / And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through . . .” There’s easily a hundred lines as good. Wonderful stuff, I think.
MO: With Schnauzer and even the opera, The Firebird Motel, the subject, characters, and setting would comfortably sit in a Carver or Updike story, but the verse and operatic effect seems to want to heighten and abstract. How do you balance high & low, classic & contemporary, life abstracted & life lived?
DY: Those are both pretty gritty in their way. Opera is famous for extracting soaring lyricism from seamy circumstances. Anything is possible in a poem—high and low, classic and contemporary, life abstracted and life lived. (All of these are very much present in “The Waste Land,” for example.) I like to draw on a wide range of registers, since feeling is never communicated in any one of them exclusively.
MO: Does verse naturally heighten a subject? Does drama naturally heighten? Opera?
DY: Verse communicates feeling as precisely as possible. Drama turns emotion into an action. The dramatic action in opera is communicated directly though the words and music together.
MO: Should someone who writes with an awareness of verse traditions and the history of the art expect to reach beyond a small coterie audience such as that T.S. Eliot might have expected or that Daisy Fried once suggested in comparing the audience for poetry to that for Art Song? Or is there a kind of evangelism implied in writing that assumes writers must reach as many readers as possible and bring them to our truth?
DY: “A fit audience . . . though few,” was what Milton hoped to find, and I think that’s about right. That in itself is a lot to hope for, since most poetry will be forgotten; most of it doesn’t outlast the life of the author. There’s something in the difficulty of this that makes it seem worth doing, though it often leads to frustration and near despair. For me, it’s the little flashes of life, of energy, the small discoveries in the music of words, that keep me at it. That and the fact that I’m desperate to try to make sense of my life.
MO: Your answer seems to imply you write for yourself. One thing that echoes in my mind is advice I got when preparing to go back to school for my MFA. I was told “you don’t go to graduate school for your hobby” and “you don’t take student loans for your hobby.” I bring this up because I find that to be the common attitude in our country toward this art. Most people see this as an expensive middle-class hobby. My hobby could only be of passing interest to anyone who does not share the hobby. Is that what we’re doing? Your poems don’t seem as personal as confessional poems. They are as reserved as public poems even when talking about your life. And they do seem to go beyond “speaking for myself.” I would almost say you keep your revelations to what’s relatable. Is that a consideration? Being relatable for the audience?
DY: I think poems are primarily a communication, so, no, I don’t think of it as something I do for myself alone. I dislike the word “relatable,” but I do hope that my poems will move other people and resonate with their experiences.
MO: I find the relationship between written lyric poems, performance, and time very interesting. It’s something I find frustrating about performance: that it moves on and on until it’s entirely gone. How do you see that relationship?
DY: It’s the same with music, isn’t it? Fortunately, we have recordings and sheet music and can repeat the performance. So, too, the poem on the page. I do think, though, that the poem lives most fully in performance, as a spoken expression, as a physical sensation, an excitation, a vibration. Again, the music is the meaning, I think, and the music of words exists in the mouth and in the ear. Even when we read poems to ourselves, we hear the words in our head, as if it were spoken aloud. As Yvor Winter’s suggests, there is no such thing as the silent reading of poetry. You can’t speed-read a poem.
MO: As an actor, you must have a lot to teach about reciting and performing poems. What does it take to move an audience with verse? How does it differ from performing prose? Does it work as well with a poem that's not necessarily dramatic?
DY: I love teaching performance. Performing poetry and prose are similar in many respects. The main difference is that poetry accounts for every syllable. Poetry is the most precise tool we have for managing feeling in language. A writer can play with the tension between speech rhythms and a prosodic pattern more fully in verse. Also, poetry is circular and recombinant, while prose is more linear and headlong. A Shakespearean actor playing King Lear delivers both poetry and prose. It’s the same actor, the same equipment, but the awareness and the approach shifts from one to the other. It’s a different kind of verbal music.
One note on moving an audience: I once produced a staged reading of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, directed by his daughter Judy Friel. Blaire Brown was playing the part of Grace, and she was incredibly moving in the role. It was interesting though that, in rehearsal, she choked back tears as the character, which caused me to completely loose it. In performance, though, she began to really cry, and it felt less moving to me. Sometimes if you give yourself over to the emotion as a performer you rob the audience of their chance to feel it most fully. Still, Robert Frost was right, I think: no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. By this I take him to mean “tears” at the moment of composition, not of performance necessarily. It’s the audience’s turn to cry at that point.
MO: Are the arts of writing verse and performance separate? They used to say of a great actor, “I could watch them read the phone book.” Or of a great writer, “I’d even read a laundry list they wrote.” Couldn’t a great performer make even the most prosaic or incompetent verse sound great or kill a great poem with a dull reading?
DY: Performance can become a kind of special pleading; it’s true. That’s why actors are not always the best readers of poetry. Less-gifted actors get too hammy and self-conscious. The best actors, though, read poetry brilliantly. The English actor Anton Lesser, for example, reads all of Paradise Lost, available on CD. It’s so musical and expressive without embellishing or overlaying any shtick on the text. The best readers allow for the full connotation of the words to register, without distracting embellishments. Larkin is a wonderful reader that way. I often feel I’ve understood the poets “voice” for the first time, when I hear their own speaking voice—the two are closely related. Tone is another element that really seems to come into its own in performance.
MO: Is it different for lyric? It seems drama is a collaborative art and the poet will have to cede a lot of those decisions to an actor, a director, others. Does having complete control over all the elements in a work of self-expression allow a poet to use even the most subtle technique, hoping a sensitive reader will get it? While writing dramatic verse leaves so much to others, even the crowd, are you tempted to either do less or try harder to keep anyone from getting confused?
DY: So far, I’ve really only been thinking about lyric poetry. Dramatic poetry is an outlier at best these days. Dan O’Brien writes incredibly powerful plays in verse. So does Glynn Maxwell. Their plays are widely produced, but they exist as plays first and poetry second. Drama is collaborative, as you say, and invites many challenges, like the ones Yeats bemoans in “The Fascination of What’s Difficult.”
When Frost or Hecht write dramatic poetry (or narrative poetry with a strong dramatic element), they are really working in a lyric context, I think. They’re not stand-alone plays; they’re often not even dialogues. They are a speaker (not the poet) speaking to another character, a la “My Last Duchess.” But, in the end, they are still fundamentally lyric, though the thematic material is organized though voice, character, and situation.
What I like about writing drama, as in Schnauzer, is that the work proceeds though action. The words support and reveal what the characters are doing, so at that point you need actors and a director to illuminate the piece.
MO: Yet in Schnauzer, Clip, the main character, seems to live through an over-arching metaphor as a lyrical poem would. He seems to live out the man-as-dog’s life. It feels tightly constructed around that metaphor as a lyric would. What were your thoughts in beginning it? How much do you know when you start? Do you start poems that become plays or start plays that insist on staying poems?
DY: For me, it usually starts as a poem and then grows from there. Schnauzer is based on a story I heard about a friend being held against his will. The story of the two dog owners meeting is based on people I observed at the dog run underneath the Queensboro Bridge in New York.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the play is about. Mostly, I wanted to know what each of the characters wants. For Clip it’s some degree of freedom, for Shayla it’s a human connection after the loss of her dog, for Pam it’s a child (though that desire is almost entirely submerged in the play). The main challenge in writing a play is to discover the “action,” what in Aristotle is described as a movement of soul. I’m delighted that you found a lyric cohesion in the play. Once the scaffold of action is worked out, the language—the metaphors, the diction—can help to elaborate and reinforce the action. In this case, it wound up having to do with animal instinct, and dogs became the vehicle for that.
MO: How is your biography of Anthony Hecht progressing? I was warned when translating about the danger in subjugating my own work to another poet’s. Is that an issue? In preparing for this, I reread my way through Hecht’s poems. I had thought of your work as a clear match formally. But on going back to both of you, the contrast is stark. His work is dense and complex, gives no quarter to the reader. Yours is conversational and clear. Is Hecht someone you reacted for or against in developing your style?
DY: I’m cautiously optimistic, now that the writing is past halfway. The research needed is massive and, in a sense, never ending, but at some point, you just have to tell the story of the life with what you have. When I was starting out, my editor said that the challenge would be knowing not what to include but what to leave out.
In terms of my own poems, I do wonder about influence. It’s definitely there, though, as you say, it’s more a turning away than a following on. I’ve always loved Hecht’s poems, and rereading my first book, The Hidden Model, a few years ago I was struck by how strong the influence of Hecht was, though it was almost entirely unconscious. It was written long before I ever imagined writing his biography. Even now, I’m drawn to many of the same things as Hecht—the dramatic voice, Shakespeare and Renaissance lyric forms—but the voice is very different, as you say. It’s not really possible today to write in the high register that Hecht used much of the time. I try to capture something of the way we talk now, which is not the way that Hecht talked, or Frost, or Bishop, or Hayden, or Larkin. Then there’s Hecht’s wonderful dark irony and sense of humor, which is so much a part of who he was as a poet. I like humor and irony as well, but hopefully they sound different somehow, of a different moment, though that moment is always passing.
MO: The moment is always passing. European poets, like those you mention being drawn to, try to transcend the moment to write for literary immortality. In reading Black Sea, I thought I was seeing that conflict between common and uncommon speech, the formal and prosaic. I think it is a very interesting aspect of your work. With so many poets now, I don’t see any poet living before 1970 in their choices. Since I’ve been following you since “Woman Holding a Fox” (even the title screams art history!) and taught “Crane” as a justification of received form, I am left wondering what your thoughts are on form? Can you tell the story of your long progression of style? What do you teach your students about style, form, past greats?
DY: A big question. It seems to me that a lot of poets (and possibly so-called “formalist” poets most of all) misunderstand something fundamental about form. I don’t think of myself as a formalist, though I often use rhyme and meter. The bottom line is you have to make music in poetry. Prosody is the toolkit poets use to manage musical language. I think some people see writing, say, a villanelle as a kind of end in itself, like, hey, I did it! Check me out. In a great formal poem, it’s as if the poem itself necessitated the creation of the form, as if for the first time. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop does that. It’s nearly impossible to do—to have a poem appear to call a form into being—so I’m baffled when I see people writing whole books in received forms. “The Book of Yolek” fairly invents the sestina.
But meter, rhyme, refrain, etc.—these are ancient, powerful tools. If the goal is “memorable speech,” then poets need all the help they can get. It’s hard to imagine writing something that people will still be reciting a hundred years from now. I assume everything I’ve written will be completely forgotten. Still, I think it’s a worthy project to “try to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of,” to commemorate the way we speak right now. Those poets who jettison all formal verse technique on principle seem to be hobbling themselves at the outset.
David Yezzi is the author, most recently, of Black Sea (Carnegie Mellon) and the verse play Schnauzer (Exot). He lives in Baltimore, where he teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and edits The Hopkins Review. In the spring of 2020, he will perform the title role in the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production of King Lear.
Michael Odom conducts our quarterly interviews. Michael is the author of Boredom, Vice and Poverty and the chapbook Strutting, Attracting, Snapping. His poetry has been published in the literary journals, Clean Well-Lighted Place, The Henniker Review, In Posse, Pucker up, Watershed, and others, as well as two anthologies, Between the Leaves and Ritual Sex. Between 1989 until recently, he was a bookseller, Manager, and Buyer for both independent and chain bookstores. His latest books, Selene: In Poems and Count Arnau & Other Poems of Joan Maragall are available on Amazon.com.