Noted Poet Albert Goldbarth Speaks on the Poetic Process

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Monday, poet and novelist Albert Goldbarth gave a poetry reading in the Scheuer Room of Kohlberg Hall. Goldbarth, who has twice been awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, read selections from his most recent collection of poems, To Be Read in 500 Years, along with a few of his past poems. Following the reading, the Gazette had the opportunity to speak with Goldbarth about his work.

Gazette: How do you prepare for a reading like this? For example, how do you choose what you are going to read or what you think the audience will respond to?

Albert Goldbarth: A good question but I’m not sure what the answer is. As you can tell, my poems are often lengthy and I tend to read slowly, showily. So, for better or worse, only a few poems fit into an hour reading. I try to mix up lengths, prose and poetry, serious and humorous. There’s a spectrum of possibilities.

Gazette: In your most recent book, To Be Read in 500 Years, you vary between poetry and prose. Was there any significance to this? How do you decide whether you are going to write in poetry or in prose?

AG: The truth is, I really don’t sit around and think about the aesthetics at all. Poems come to me, I try to give voice to them the best I can and some parts of some poems just intuitively seem to want to fit inside of prose. Certain kinds of sentence lengths, certain kinds of factual material, certain kinds of dialogue, certain types of narrative just seem to be in prose. I think I know when to recognize when it’s true for my writing.

Gazette: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” This quote has appeared in at least two of your poems. What does the line mean to you and how did these two poems, “Tuvalu” and “Geese Jazz,” either grow out of it or grow to encompass it?

AG: The line originally comes from the French poet François Villon. It’s a line that speaks with a great bittersweet sensibility about the fragility and passing of beauty. It’s a refrain line in the ballad and it’s been used to encompass the idea of the passing beauty of human lives and the passing beauty of pretty young ladies. There’s something about it, it seems to me, that almost asks for other poets to lift it off like a torch and to carry it on to further poems, into the future.

Gazette: Many of your poems begin with epigraphs. Usually, do the epigraphs inspire the poem or are they afterthoughts?

AG: I really do have a belief that the poems want to stand independently and be their own moment and
shouldn’t require a kind of backdrop any more than a movie does. No one expects Steven Spielberg to have to step out from behind the curtain and explain what he was thinking when he first got the idea for the Star Wars Trilogy. Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t have to, the Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t have to do it. For some reason, people always expect poets to have to – or even to be eager to – provide these kinds of crutches behind the scenes, insights into their work. I would hope that it wouldn’t make any difference. Any poem that I have that uses an epigraph either works for you or it doesn’t. It takes off the page, flies with you a little, sinks into your memory node where it can’t be dislodged or perhaps it doesn’t, it crashes through the ground. But for the record, probably most – not all, most – of them come first and the poem rolls off like an awning.

Gazette: How do you feel when you preface some of your poems during a reading, for example, “You’re in this moment” or “Know this before you read the poem”?

AG: I’ve enjoyed giving readings, I hope I read well, but I write for people to read. The page is [the poem’s] primary existence and if I couldn’t give readings for any reason – if I turned mute tomorrow, if schools like Swarthmore didn’t have money to fly poets out – I wouldn’t feel at a loss particularly, so long as I had people out there willing to – eager to – read the poem off the page. It’s simply true that when I read a poem like the last one, for instance, if you don’t have the poem in front of you, “f-l-u” versus “f-l-u-e,” it’s just lost, “p-a-w-s” versus “p-a-u-s-e,” it disappears. So, I encourage myself to go out of my way a little bit to provide that structure so that at least the basic vocabulary is as clear to you as if you were looking at the text itself.

Gazette: Would you want to ask a poet [Keats, Wadsworth], if you had the chance, what went into his or her writing?

AG: Often for me, the better the poem, the less I want to know about it. I was talking to Nat [Anderson] earlier and likened it to going to a great magician’s performance, you know, David Copperfield. I went to one of his performances once with my wife and he flew right over our heads. There were no wires, there were no mirrors, there was no machinery and he freakin’ flew over our heads. A real poem for me is like magic – my jaw drops and I’m just absolutely thrown into another universe of wonderments. I’d be a fool to want to know what machinery is clanking about behind it. I don’t want to know how David Copperfield flew and I know he doesn’t want to tell me. That’s his business and whether or not I’m the David Copperfield of poetry, that’s the way I’d like to feel about my poems.

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