Conversation: Pulitzer Prize Winner in Poetry, Rae Armantrout

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This year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry is Rae Armantrout for her book, “Versed.” The Pulitzer board called the collection, which also won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award, “striking for its wit and linguistic inventiveness, offering poems that are often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading.”

Here’s a poem from the book:

Scumble

What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words
such as “scumble,” pinky,” or extrapolate?”

What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that
others would pronounce these words?

Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the
other person touched them lightly and carelessly with
his tongue.

What if “of” were such a hot button?

“Scumble of bushes.”

What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing
by another’s name?

 

Armantrout is the author of 10 books of poetry and winner of numerous other awards. She is also a professor of writing and literature at the University of California, San Diego, which is where she was when I talked to her by phone last week.

You can listen to our conversation here:

A full transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: The winner for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry is a book called “Versed,” written by poet Rae Armantrout, who joins me from San Diego. Hello and congratulations.

RAE ARMANTROUT: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about the prize itself. Was it a surprise and how important is the recognition?

RAE ARMANTROUT: It was a complete bolt from the blue. It was not something I was even thinking about, which is not to say that I never think about prizes because I do, but that one was not on my radar. I heard about it in a strange way, not directly from the Pulitzer committee. But someone from my university called me and said the press is going to want to talk to you, and I had no idea what she was talking about. I said, why?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, why, or uh-oh.

RAE ARMANTROUT: Uh-oh, is my office on fire? And so then she told and I was stunned. When you look back over its history, some very significant poets have gotten this prize. Some poets who mean a lot to me such as Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams; Robert Creeley got it, John Ashbery.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Pulitzer committee referred to your poems as “little thought-bombs.” Seemed like a nice phrase. Did you like that as a description?

RAE ARMANTROUT: I love that actually. And I think they went on to say that these bombs might go off a little bit later.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, which is even nicer, right, that it kind of lasts.

RAE ARMANTROUT: It sounds nasty, but it’s nice, yeah — bombs that go off when you don’t expect it. I mean, I enjoy poems that make you think, when I read someone’s poems, poems that make you think twice and that have a little bit of a quality of a riddle to them, so that, you know, that they might mean more than one thing and you puzzle them over them and then you go, “Oh!” And so if my poems have that quality, too, then I’m happy about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, I sort of sense this quality of like a very brief moment or thought within some longer conversation or thought or experience.

RAE ARMANTROUT: Yes, that’s very much the case. Many of my poems – not all of them — but many of them are written in separate sections that are divided perhaps by numbers or perhaps by asterisks, and they are separate moments or separate thoughts that are juxtaposed, and I’m interested in the juxtapositions and the kind of friction that bringing in material from diverse situations or disparate realms can create.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is also a real sparseness, even on the page — these are short poems, you are a woman of few words. Is that on purpose? Is that boiling it down in some way?

RAE ARMANTROUT: Yes, it’s on purpose. I mean, I admire compression and I think that sometimes the words can mean more than one thing or the phrases can be taken more than one way, so that there might be, I hope, a kind of density of meaning within the phrase. I could also say that really I almost learned my craft early on from reading William Carlos Williams, whose work is also very condensed, and Emily Dickinson, whose work is tremendously condensed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sure.

RAE ARMANTROUT: The different powerful meanings that she can get within short phrases is really exciting, and so since those my early heroes, they were people whom I emulated, so I guess you see that influence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I want to ask you to read a couple of poems. “Versed” is, we should say, divided into two sections, and sort of broadly speaking, it looks to me like partly outward, writing about and including some of the politics of the time. And the second is more, I guess, personal, connected to your sickness you were going through at the time. Tell us how you divided it, and then you could tell us about the two poems you want to read.

RAE ARMANTROUT: I thought originally that these would be two separate books. I was writing a book called “Versed,” and I was about three-fourths finished with “Versed,” I guess, when I was diagnosed with a rare kind of cancer called adrenal cortical cancer. And I’d never heard of it, but when I looked it up on the internet I discovered that most people die of it, statistically speaking, so that was pretty grim. And I had to have immediate surgery. So then I picked up writing as soon as I recovered from the surgery, but of course, the influence of, the presence of almost immediate mortality had an influence on what I was writing. Not that every poem after that deals directly with cancer, but I think that shadow is on the second half of the book. So the first is one of the more lighthearted ones. It’s called “Scumble.”

What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words
such as scumble,” “pinky,” or extrapolate?”

What I maneuvered conversation in the hope that
others would pronounce these words?

Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the
other person touched them lightly and carelessly with
his tongue.

What if “of” were such a hot button?

“Scumble of bushes.”

What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing
by another’s name?

JEFFREY BROWN: So that’s a real playfulness with language, with the words in everyday use, everyday life.

RAE ARMANTROUT: Yes, it’s about a sort of erotics of language, I suppose, the real pleasure that you can take in language that is almost sexual or at least sensual, and also about the way we like to — we like metaphor, we like to replace one thing with another. We like to talk about one thing in terms of another. What if there were a hidden pleasure in calling one thing by another’s name?

JEFFREY BROWN: The second poem you are going to read is definitely a darker mood. Tell us about that and which one is that?

RAE ARMANTROUT: It’s called “On Your Way.” It’s one of the first poems I wrote after I came back from the hospital. And it takes material from the Egyptian book of the dead. It’s a prose poem, too, by the way. “On your way.”

On your way to The sea of Reeds you will meet the Soul Devouring Demon. You’ve heard it all before and you believe it. Why not? Why would they lie? You must wear the beetle amulet to avoid being consumed. But it’s also true that you can’t really know until it’s actually happening. So you have a sort of knowledge, which even if later confirmed in each detail, is still not real knowledge. He will weigh your heart and, if it’s too heavy, you’ll be swallowed up. What is this extra element that is mingled in when you arrive at the ordained spot?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, before I let you go, because I know you’re a professor of poetry, so I got to hit you up for advice for people listening here, for those who want to write, or want to read for that matter. What do you tell people?

RAE ARMANTROUT: Well, first, I think they are connected. People who want to write should read. If they want to write poetry, they should find a poet who speaks to them, and they should read everything by that poet. And then they should find another one who speaks to them and they should read everything by that poet. I don’t think people do that enough these days, somehow. Also, I think to be a good writer, you have to sort of look outside yourself, as well as inside yourself, and combine the two. It can’t be all you. But, you know, if you look at the world the way you look at the world will be influenced of course by who you are and by what’s happening to you, but you still need to look out at the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Rae Armantrout is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her volume, “Versed.” Thank you so much, and again, congratulations.

RAE ARMANTROUT: Thank you, very much.

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