JEFFREY BROWN: Last week on a visit to Washington, Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser visited some favorite places, the National Gallery of Art and the National Cathedral.
Salter and Leithauser are acclaimed poets, with over a dozen volumes and many honors between them. They’re professors at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and they’re married to each other.
Poetry, in fact, is how they met, in a Harvard class of young would-be bards. They’ve been a team ever since, married for 26 years, raising two daughters.
But on the day we met up with them, the poets were preparing to face off in a rather unusual competition.
So it’s a little like preparing for a big game here. How do you feel?
MARY JO SALTER, Poet: Well, I think the best way to think of it is as a game, because otherwise, if I take myself too seriously, I won’t be able to do it at all.
BRAD LEITHAUSER, Poet: Well, it’s funny, when you get to your 50s, to be playing a big game at all.
JEFFREY BROWN: The game is called Quickmuse. Two poets are given a topic or prompt. They then have just 15 minutes to write. A computer program records every false start, every phrase, well-turned and otherwise.
For the poets, it’s an exercise in deadline poetry, to try to compress what is usually an extended process into a short, intense window. For readers online, it’s a chance to see the mysteries of poetry-making in action.
Ken Gordon, the founder of Quickmuse, spoke to us from his home near Boston.
KEN GORDON, Quickmuse: I think it’s sort of a way of getting people closer to the idea of what real poetry requires. It requires a facility with language and an ability to edit oneself. It requires emotional honesty and the ability to really dig in there and find that metaphor that really speaks true.
It gives regular people a chance to see poetry. So often poetry is held up as something that is beyond ordinary people, and this is a real democratization of the process, I think.
JEFFREY BROWN: On this day, with Valentine’s Day in mind, Gordon sent a William Carlos Williams love poem as a prompt to Salter and Leithauser, and the two set to work. Salter, going first, used all of her 15 minutes.
MARY JO SALTER: Actually, I got out of FireFox. I’ll have to get back in.
JEFFREY BROWN: Leithauser focused quickly and finished with under seven minutes on the clock, a companion in his lap.
BRAD LEITHAUSER: To use the competition metaphor, you know, a football player, you’re going long or short. And within about a minute, I thought, “I’m going short here.”
JEFFREY BROWN: We asked Leithauser to read his poem.
BRAD LEITHAUSER: "Another Act."
After the rain,
the light began to flower,
which perhaps wasn't unexpected,
though I think we were both surprised.
What happened next wasn't unexpected,
I guess, given the rain--
but things began to flower
between us. And I was surprised
(perhaps we were both surprised)
at how something so expected
could nonetheless flower
so newly, after the rain.
JEFFREY BROWN: Salter, who often writes in rhyme, was surprised she didn't here, but pronounced herself fairly happy with the result.
MARY JO SALTER: I guess I was pleased, in the sense that I got away from the prompt. The William Carlos Williams poem is about roses. And the first thing I knew, which apparently you didn't because you went ahead with roses, but I just thought, "No, I can't write a Valentine's poem about roses." So I made it...
JEFFREY BROWN: Wait a minute. You just refused to write about -- that's too obvious, to write about roses?
MARY JO SALTER: Yes, I thought it, for me, would be a killer.
JEFFREY BROWN: But she did stay with flowers them, writing about a kit of narcissus bulbs she buys her husband. Here's part of her poem.
MARY JO SALTER: Until one morning at breakfast
one of them breaks,
and then everybody wants to do it,
the breaking out.
Day after day,
a month of breaking out and free.
Taller and taller,
each one a different height,
until they can't bear
being so far
from the sight of themselves,
and they lean into the polished
surface of the kitchen table.
Look into it.
There they are,
looking at themselves,
and at you, looking at them,
and I am in our doorway,
holding your coffee,
looking at you looking at them.
'Striking while the iron is hot'
JEFFREY BROWN: To put it mildly, this is an artificial situation for writing poetry, but it sort of raises the questions of what it is to write a poem.
MARY JO SALTER: There's something for striking while the iron is hot. And I too often think that I have an idea that will keep, and it won't.
So, in real life, you would write this, and then you might say, "No, that's not the angle I want to take. I'll scrap those lines. I'll start again." But the principle of doing something now while you have a feeling is a very good principle.
BRAD LEITHAUSER: One of the things I'm constantly saying to my children, if they write something, or my students, you know, is I don't like most of what I write myself, so I can't be expected to like most of what you all do all the time. And I think there's truth to that sense of, ultimately, you let yourself down. And one does it every day and gets up and does it again.
JEFFREY BROWN: But does it ever get a bit competitive for two poets who live together?
MARY JO SALTER: It did flash through my mind that he might write something more romantic than I did, and then I'd be in trouble, but, you know...
BRAD LEITHAUSER: I think we sanely have recognized the idea that, you know, poets are essentially insufficiently appreciated, at least that's how poets tend to feel. So I guess what I'm saying is, no matter if, you know, Mary Jo gets some acclaim that, you know -- my sense is that's all to the good. I think I say that sincerely and genuinely.
JEFFREY BROWN: You think?
MARY JO SALTER: It's true. It's true.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ultimately, our poets agreed, the Quickmuse exercise is a useful one, up to a point. A successful poet, it seems -- and, dare we add, a successful marriage -- must combine the thrill of the deadline moment, with a major commitment over the long haul.