GWEN IFILL: Now, a conversation with a prize-winning poet, and to arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown.
JEFFREY BROWN: Flip through the 30 years worth of poetry in Linda Pastan's collection, "Carnival Evening," and you'll find titles that sound a lot like life itself. A grandmother studying the face of "Anna at 18 Months" in the '90s. A middle-aged daughter facing "The Death of a Parent" in the '80s. A young mother writing "Notes From the Delivery Room" in the '70s.
LINDA PASTAN: "Strapped down, victim in an old comic book. I have been here before. This place where pain winces off the walls like too-bright light. 'Bear down,' a doctor says. Foreman to sweating laborer. But this work, this forcing of one life from another is something that I signed for at a moment when I would have signed anything. Babies should grow in fields, common as beets or turnips. They should be picked and held root end up, soil spilling from between their toes. And how much easier it would be later returning them to earth. Bear up, bear down. The audience grows restive and I'm a new magician who can't produce the rabbit from my swollen hat. 'She's crowning,' someone says. But there is no one royal here, just me quite barefoot greeting my barefoot child."
JEFFREY BROWN: At age 71, Linda Pastan is author of 11 volumes of poetry. And she is this year's winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, given for lifetime achievement and at $100,000, one of the largest around. The prize is administered by "Poetry" Magazine. I talked with Linda Pastan recently outside her home in the woods in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where she's lived for 30 years.
Linda Pastan, welcome and congratulations.
LINDA PASTAN: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: $100,000 is a lot of money for a poet.
LINDA PASTAN: It is. It's a lot of money for anybody, and it's more money than... than I've ever made from all of my 11 books and readings and everything put together.
JEFFREY BROWN: When I read poems from throughout your career, there's a consistent style: Concise, clear, short, small moments captured.
LINDA PASTAN: Well, I have a natural impulse to condense. I'd like to write long narrative poems. I'd like to write a novel. And any time I start anything long, I keep trying to take out anything extraneous, anything that doesn't belong, and I end up with a small lyric poem that just happens.
JEFFREY BROWN: As I read your poetry there was a kind of ease to your writing. Is it easy to achieve that ease?
LINDA PASTAN: No, there is no ease in writing. The job is to make it by the end feel as if it flows easily. But each poem of mine goes through something like 100 revisions.
JEFFREY BROWN: A hundred?
LINDA PASTAN: Yeah, yeah, easily.
JEFFREY BROWN: What is it that you're looking for?
LINDA PASTAN: Well, I want every word to have to be there. I want a certain kind of impact on the reader or on myself when I read it, the sort of condensed energy that can then go out.
JEFFREY BROWN: You write a lot about your life, domestic issues, real-life issues.
LINDA PASTAN: I have always written about what's around me, both the surroundings here in the woods, but I mean, there's always something changing. When my children were small, there were a lot of small children running through the poems. As friends and family have started to age and die, there's a lot more darkness and death in them. But I think I've always been interested in the dangers that are under the surface, but seems like simple, ordinary domestic life. It may seem like smooth surfaces, but there are tensions and dangers right underneath, and those are what I'm trying to get at.
JEFFREY BROWN: But the dangers of ordinary life?
LINDA PASTAN: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: We're sitting here on a beautiful day in a beautiful place, but you feel dangers lurking?
LINDA PASTAN: Always, yes, yes. I feel the cells starting to multiply someplace inside me. I feel when the phone rings, is somebody calling to say something terrible has happened. I've just always been very conscious of the fragility of life and relationships.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the poems that captures that is called "After Minor Surgery." Could you read that for us?
LINDA PASTAN: And I wrote this when I was much younger than I am now. And, well. "After Minor Surgery." "This is the dress rehearsal, when the body like a constant lover flirts for the first time with faithlessness. When the body like a passenger on a long journey hears the conductor call out the name of the first stop. When the body in all its fear and cunning makes promises to me it knows it cannot keep."
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I read that you had started writing, you got married, you had children, and you stopped writing for many years.
LINDA PASTAN: Right. I was a product of the '50s -- what I called the perfectly polished floor syndrome. I had to have a homemade dessert on the table for my husband every night, and this was when I was in college I was married and then in graduate school. And I felt that I couldn't be the perfect wife and mother that I was expected to be, and commit myself to something as serious as my poetry, and I wasn't going to do that half-heartedly. It was all or nothing. And I stopped writing for almost ten years, and I was very unhappy about it during those years. And my husband finally said he was tired of hearing what a good poet I would have been if I hadn't gotten married. Let's do something about it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you just have been given a lifetime achievement award, so I want to ask you, as you look back at your lifetime of work, what do you see?
LINDA PASTAN: From the time, and I was about 30 when I started writing again seriously, I've written a lot of poems. I like to think that they're good enough for someone to have given me an award for them, but you never know. Writers, I think, vary from thinking their work is absolutely wonderful to thinking it's absolutely terrible, why is anyone reading it? And I think most artists go through that... that time of doubt and time of assurance. And it feels good that someone from the outside says "Yes, it's okay, you're doing okay."
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I don't usually get to ask this of poets, but what will you do with $100,000?
LINDA PASTAN: I have seven grandchildren who are going to need some kind of help with college. So I'm going to do something serious with some of that money. But I felt that I had to do something really fun for myself, and since I am a compulsive reader, I am giving myself permission to buy any books I want to buy. I used to write them down when I read about them or read reviews and wait a year until they came out in paperback. Now when they come out in hardback, if I want them I'm going to let myself buy them.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Linda Pastan, congratulations and thank you for talking to us.
LINDA PASTAN: Thank you.