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Junk Man: Poet and Professor Albert Goldbarth

August 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Poet and toy collector Albert Goldbarth is a two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as the Mark Twain Prize for Humor. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown, Goldbarth discusses his writing, and his latest book of poetry,"To Be Read in 500 Years."
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, poet and toy collector Albert Goldbarth. He’s the only poet to win the National Book Critics Circle Award twice. Last year, he received the Mark Twain Prize for Humor from the Poetry Foundation.

Goldbarth has published more than 25 books of poetry to date. His latest, “To Be Read in 500 Years,” was published this summer. We visited him at his home in Wichita, Kansas.

ALBERT GOLDBARTH: We’re here in Albert Goldbarth’s space collection room, and I love this stuff. Sure, I spend most of my time writing poems — it’s my chief-most passion — but as you can tell by looking around the room, this stuff has also taken up a good deal of time and energy, a little bit of money, too, and it really reinvigorates my insides all of the time.

Most of what you’re looking at here is authentic vintage 1950s’ space toy stuff. A little bit of it even goes back to the ’40s or ’30s. So, you know, sometimes late at night — and I stay up until about 3 o’clock in the morning most days — the house is quiet, I’m by myself, I do my writing and thinking then, I’ll walk into this room, and I’ll just kind of pivot around 360 degrees, and think, “Yes, yes, the newspaper tells me the world is a pretty crappy place, but in here I’m also told that there is a rightness to the universe.”

I teach at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas. I’m the Adelle V. Davis distinguished professor of humanities there. The English department has a well intentioned sleepy little MFA program, and I teach poetry workshops and literature courses in it.

I feel to me as if I were born to write, that that’s why I was put on Earth, and I’ve been trying to be the best poet I know how to be. I try to leave as much time and energy available for writing as I can. And I don’t own a computer, not at home, not at my office at school. My fingertips are computer virginal. They’ve never touched a computer keyboard.

And all of the writing I do is longhand, just regular, everyday, 59-cent ballpoint pen and a regular 99-cent spiral-bound notebook, and finally, when the poem is right, I type up a final version.

The poem is called “Shawl.” I confess I like it. It seems to me to bespeak a little of who I am and what I’m about.

The few times my wife has been in the audience when I’ve done this at a poetry reading, I’ve reminded her that this, in fact, is what I’d like on my gravestone one day. And she always has this little look in her eye that says, to me, I think, “Oh, that’s so sweet, honey, but it’s 14 lines.”

Reading of 'Shawl'

In any case, I now take you to a Greyhound bus going cross-country, "Shawl."

Eight hours by bus, and night

was on them. He could see himself now

in the window, see his head there with the country

running through it like a long thought made of steel and wheat.

Darkness outside; darkness in the bus -- as if the sea

were dark and the belly of the whale were dark to match it.

He was twenty: of course his eyes returned, repeatedly,

to the knee of the woman two rows up: positioned so

occasional headlights struck it into life.

But more reliable was the book; he was discovering himself

to be among the tribe that reads. Now his, the only

overhead turned on. Now nothing else existed:

only him, and the book, and the light thrown over his shoulders

as luxuriously as a cashmere shawl.

JIM LEHRER: On our "Art Beat" page at newshour.pbs.org, Albert Goldbarth shows off his toy spaceship collection and he reads more of his poems.