Conversation: C.K. Williams

BY Tom LeGro  May 6, 2010 at 4:19 PM EDT

C.K. Williams has published many books of poetry, including “Repair,” which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, “The Singing ,” which won the 2003 National Book Award, and “Flesh and Blood,” winner of the National Book Critics Circle Prize in 1987.

I last talked to Williams in 2003, shortly after he won the National Book Award for “The Singing.” (You can find that conversation here.) This year, Williams is out with two volumes: “Wait,” a collection of new poems, and “On Whitman,” an exploration of the work and genius of that great American poet.

We spoke earlier this week about his new books:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: C.K. Williams has two new books out. One is called “Wait,” a book of poems, and then he has a book called “On Whitman,” of course on Walt Whitman. And he joins us now from Princeton, correct?

C.K. WILLIAMS: Correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to you.

C.K. WILLIAMS: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to talk to you again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, again. We last talked when you won the National Book Award for “The Singing.”

C.K. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I was looking through the new volume, “Wait,” here, for themes, and I find a variety of things.

C.K. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I don’t know if I was after that, but it somehow worked out that way. I hit many different things over the course of years that I wrote the book. At the end when I put it together I was very pleased at how many different directions the book had gone in.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you were surprised yourself? I mean, explain that. I mean, I’m sitting here reading a volume — you don’t write it as a volume.

C.K. WILLIAMS: No. Just write it as a sort of day-after-day poem-thing. And then you put it together. And it’s actually grouped in four sections and I just realized, my goodness I’ve spoken about a lot things that concern me and a lot of feelings that I have and I was pleased with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give me an example of something that surprised you when you put it all together.

C.K. WILLIAMS: Just the number of different things that I spoke and the number of ways I’d found, without quite setting out, to speak of those things. So there’s a lot — I don’t know if I call them styles, but there’s a lot of different ways of approaching themes and ideas in the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m wondering has that changed for you? Well, you sort of used the word style, but I’ll call it approach to writing, and the form and length of line — are you more at ease with that? Has that changed for you over time and how …

C.K. WILLIAMS: One wants to change, otherwise you feel as though you’re doing the same thing again and again. But you can’t really sit down and say, ‘Ok, change.’ That’s not the way it happens. It sort of that you’re struggling with a way to say something and you find a way that you hadn’t suspected that you could before, so then you have found — quote — “a new style,” which is not really a new style, but I have varied the length of the lines over the last three or four books actually, which has given me perhaps a different kind of freedom.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you were talking, I was just flipping through the book. The variety of line is quite striking.

C.K. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Sometimes very long, sometimes very short.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what determines that?

C.K. WILLIAMS: A different kind of thinking. When I’m using the long lines, it’s more of a kind of narrative, sometimes almost storytelling voice. When I’m using the short lines, it’s more a compressed, directly lyrical voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about aging and getting older? Does that affect either form or process at all?

C.K. WILLIAMS: I was thinking that probably you would ask me that question. I was thinking. My first response was the old Frankenstein junior movie, which is one of my favorite movies. And at one point, Dr. Frankenstein says to Marty Feldman, who’s the humpback, he says, “You know, I can take care of that hump.” And Feldman says, “What hump?” And that’s the way one sort of feels about age, you say, “What age?” So you spend half your time not feeling your age and the other half of it your time convincing yourself that you really are this age. Very complicated subject.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have the volume in front of you? I wanted to ask you to read something.

C.K. WILLIAMS: I can read one that I particularly like. It’s got my wife in it. We visited Uganda a few years ago, where we helped support some kids and I was very struck by Africa and Uganda. And so this poem has some of that in it.

It’s called “The Coffin Store.”

I was lugging my death from Kampala to Krakow.
Death, what a ridiculous load you can be,
Like the world trembling on Atlas’s shoulders.

In Kampala I’d wondered why the people, so poor,
didn’t just kill me. Why don’t they kill me?
In Krakow I must have fancied I’d find poets to talk to.

I still believed then I’d domesticated my death,
that he’d no longer gnaw off my fingers and ears.
We even had parties together: “Happy,” said death,

and gave me my present, a coffin, my coffin,
made in Kampala, with a sliding door in its lid
to look through, at the sky, at the birds, at Kampala.

That was his way, I soon understood, of reverting
to talon and snarl, for the door refused to come open:
no sky, no bird, no poets, no Krakow.

Catherine came to me then, came to me then,
Open your eyes, mon amour,” but death
had undone me, my knuckles were raw as an ape’s,

my mind slid like a sad-ankled skate, and no matter
what Catherine was saying, was sighing, was singing,
Mon amour, mon amour,” the door stayed shut, oh, shut.

I heard trees being felled, skinned, smoothed,
hammered together as coffins. I heard death
snorting and stamping, impatient to be hauled off, away.

But here again was Catherine, sighing, and singing,
and the tiny carved wooden door slid ajar, just enough:
the sky, one single bird, Catherine: just enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that certainly has some of the themes we were talking about. Well, let’s turn to Walt Whitman.

C.K. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I guess the first question must be why write about him? This is a fellow that so much is written about.

C.K. WILLIAMS: There’s volumes of bibliography alone about him. I was actually commissioned. Princeton University Press started a series of writers on writers. And they approached me about four years ago. And I started thinking about who I wanted to write about and I went through a couple of names of poets who were very important, and then I realized that Whitman is just this huge presence in American poetry. He’s always been important to me. In the book I refer to him as being something like the subconscious, the unconscious of American poetry, that he’s there whether you are directly referring to him or not. I worked on it for one summer and felt as though I was being overwhelmed by Whitman, that he was annihilating me. So I left the project and thought I wouldn’t do it. And then when I finished the book of poetry, I somehow went back to it and wrote it, with great delight actually. He’s an amazing presence, an amazing personage. In the book I speak of the person he creates in the poem named Walt Whitman in the poems, who isn’t really Walt Whitman, is possibly the greatest human being who ever lived. I mean, he’s just all accepting, all encompassing, all adoring.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you say, a presence, yes, certainly a presence. But also I would imagine an intimidating presence for poets.

C.K. WILLIAMS: I did begin to be intimidated by him, but mostly as one is by any great poet. You know, if you sit down and you start reading a great poet — I’ve written a poem recently called “Whacked.” It’s about getting whacked by all the great poets everyday. But he’s more than intimidating; he’s liberating. I mean, the scale of his vision, the largeness of his conceptions. He isn’t intimidating in the way, say John Donne is, where you think I could never write like that, I could never see like that. He’s more opening. He offers you things and you can take it or not, but he’s there as a sort of.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you come to have an understanding or a sense of how he was able to expand that vision of America, as well as the kind of poetic form and poetic vision of …

C.K. WILLIAMS: There’s a lot of mystery to it, frankly. I mean, his notion of America is very historically determined. But how he came to this poetry — and I speak about this in the book — and to this particular poetic music that he developed remains a mystery. There’s been a lot — I mean, endless volumes written about it. But you can’t really ever explain it. It was just sort of a little personal miracle he had. When I write about him the book that is must have been like a conversion experience when he found this voice that he had.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok. C.K. Williams has two new books out. One is “On Whitman,” Walt Whitman, and his own book of verse called “Wait.” Nice to talk to you again. Thanks so much.

C.K. WILLIAMS: Thank you.