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JEFFREY BROWN: This year’s winner in poetry is C.K. Williams for his collection called "The Singing." Williams is 67, teaches at Princeton, and is the author of nine volumes of poetry. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his volume called "Repair." We talked at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble bookstore the morning after the awards ceremony.
JEFFREY BROWN: C.K. Williams, welcome and congratulations.
C. K. WILLIAMS: Thanks very, very much.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is your ninth collection of poetry. Is there a bind, is there a glue that holds these poems together?
C. K. WILLIAMS: In this book, the glue is me, I suppose. What pleases me most about the book is the variety of themes in it, rather than it being any single theme or any single direction. It goes in many directions and covers many of my concerns.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what starts a poem for you? What concerns do you have that make you sit down and start to write?
C. K. WILLIAMS: That varies wildly. It can be some little scene that I see in the street. It can be a little piece of language that comes to me. The most interesting thing about a poem is that it doesn’t exist until it has its music. Every poem has a music. And until it has that, it’s not a poem. It’s just information or data that’s floating around in your head or on your desk.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what does "a music" mean?
C. K. WILLIAMS: Well, it’s the way the poem identifies itself musically in language. Poems have a different music from ordinary language and every poem has a different kind of music of necessity, and that’s, in a way, the hardest thing about writing poetry is waiting for that music, and sometimes you never know if it’s going to come. Sometimes you have a poem that you really want to write and it never happens. The music never comes and then the poem never happens.
JEFFREY BROWN: But sometimes it comes and you know it when you hear it?
C. K. WILLIAMS: Yes, when you hear it. Sometimes you hear it before you know it. Sometimes you hear a music and you don’t know what the poem is going to be about. You only have that little piece of music, and you think… then you look around the world and you say, "what is this music going to be useful for in dealing with the world?"
JEFFREY BROWN: The title poem, "The Singing." Would you read that one for us?
C. K. WILLIAMS: Sure. "The Singing." "I was walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon under the blossoms of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with their burgeoning forth. When a young man turned in from a corner singing– no, it was more of a cadence shouting, most of which I couldn’t catch, I thought, because the young man was black, speaking black. It didn’t matter.
I could tell me was making his song up, which pleased me. He was nice-looking, husky, dressed in some style of big pants, obviously full of himself, hence his lyrical flowing over. We went along in the same direction.
Then he noticed me there almost beside him, and ‘big,’ he shouted, saying, ‘big.’ And I thought how droll to have my height incorporated in his song, so I smiled, but the face of the young man showed nothing.
He looked, in fact, pointedly away and his song changed. ‘I’m not a nice person,’ he chanted. ‘I’m not, I’m not a nice person.’ No menace was meant, I gathered, no particular threat, but he did want to be certain I knew that if my smile implied I conceived of anything like Concord between us, I should forget it. That’s all. Nothing else happened.
His song became indecipherable to me again. He arrived where he was going, a house where a girl in braids waited for him on the porch. That was all. No one saw, no one heard. All the unasked and unanswered questions were left where they were.
It occurred to me to sing back, ‘I’m not a nice person either.’ But I couldn’t come up with a tune. Besides, I wouldn’t have meant it, nor he had believed it. Both of us knew just where we were in the duet we composed, the equation we made, the conventions to which we were condemned. Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone, something is watching and listening, someone to rectify, redo, remake. This time again, though, no one saw nor heard. No one was there."
JEFFREY BROWN: So that’s literally one of the scenes on the street?
C. K. WILLIAMS: That actually was a scene just as it’s described in the poem. It took a long time to find the music for that poem. I had the event, the anecdote of it for a few years before I could see how to make it become a poem.
JEFFREY BROWN: You write sometimes about street scenes, sometimes about politics. What is poetry for nowadays?
C. K. WILLIAMS: Well, what poetry is for is always a question. People always want to know what it’s for from the very beginning. Plato asked the question "what is poetry for?" — and was very suspicious of it.
When you begin to write poems because you love language, because you love poetry. Something happens that makes you write poems. And the writing of poems is incredibly pleasurable and addictive. And sooner or later you come to the point of saying, "well, what is this about?" And when I was writing several of the poems for this book regarding contemporary political events, particularly the war and the various things that were happening around the war, I was writing the poems with a sense of great urgency, and I would ask myself… or I ask myself now, "what was the urgency about? What was the…" I wasn’t going to change anybody’s mind with a poem.
Hardly anybody reads poems. And my sense… the thing that I told myself, and what I think poets tell themselves either aloud or unconsciously, is that poetry is part of the moral resonance of the world, of the repository of morality of the world. Poetry adds to that, that sense that human beings have that we have some moral meaning that is part of the basis of our identity, no matter what our acts are, that we need this sense of being in a universe that has a moral meaning.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you put it out there not sure who is going to read it, if anyone?
C. K. WILLIAMS: Yeah, if anyone.
JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s worth putting out there?
C. K. WILLIAMS: There’s no choice in a way. When you do it, there’s no choice. It’s what… it’s… one becomes driven by it. It’s just… it’s existence.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, C.K. Williams, congratulations, and thanks for talking to us.
C. K. WILLIAMS: Thanks very much. I enjoyed it.