Monday, December 14, 2009

Marilyn Hacker

Marilyn Hacker is the author of twelve books of poems, most recently Names (Norton, 2009), and of ten collections of translations of contemporary French poets, including Marie Etienne's King of a Hundred Horsemen (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008), winner of the 2009 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and three collections by the Lebanese French poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata. She received the Lenore Marshall Award of the Academy of American Poets and a Lambda Literary award for Winter Numbers, a Lambda Literary Award for Going back to the River, and the National Book Award for Presentation Piece. She was editor of the feminist literary magazine 13th Moon, and, for four years, editor in chief of the Kenyon Review. She is also a writer of incisive criticism and reviews of contemporary poetry, with particular attention to the work of feminist poets, poets of color, any poets whose work she judged worthy of more attention from the American (and sometimes British) reading public: a collection of her essays, Unauthorized Voices, will be published in the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series in the spring of 2010. Marilyn Hacker lives in New York and Paris. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and co-editor of the University of Michigan Poets on Poetry Series.


I want to talk to you about desire,
Hayden, the letter I could have written
on a subject you’d never tire
of turning in a glass, smitten
by a song, an argument, long sorrel hair,
profile of a glazed clay icon in the river,
while your knees needled and breathing
hurt, two packs a day bequeathing
what didn’t, in fact, kill you in the end.
Was it a distraction
from the inexorable fear, my friend,
its five AM gut-contraction ?
But who, of your critics or cortège, pretends
the expense of spirit of lust in action,
didn’t earn you magnificent dividends?

The week they told me my genetic code
was flawed, I ricocheted, desire and fear
like sun and clouds, a mood-
swing reason had no reason for
(but reason’s calibrated in the blood).
Terror. Tumescence. Cloudbursts. Solitude.
No diagnosis, no beloved: balance…
I write, not to you; to silence.
By anybody’s reckoning, now I’m “old,”
and you, an occasion instead
of an interlocutor. Aura of beaten gold
in a winter of cast lead.
Will the scale tip to the side of pleasure
when a taut cord plucked across the grid
invites, vibrates according to your measure ?

A taut-tuned string asserts: the girl in green,
a six-year-old in an oversized sweatshirt
in Gaza City, on a computer-screen
video, not dead, not hurt
but furious. This is what they’ve done
to our house! Our clothes smell of gas! I never wore the sun-
glasses my father gave me
or the earrings my grandmother gave me!

She tosses dark curls, speaks, a pasionaria
in front of a charred wall.
Arching her brows, she orchestrates her aria
with swift hands that rise and fall
while she forgets about fear
even as she ransacks the empty cradle
of its burnt blankets. That baby’s – where?

Not like “upstate,” our January freeze
still killed my window-box geraniums.
Beyond that ragged khaki frieze
of dead plants, Sunday hums
up to my windows. I count each of these
hours, respite, respite, from broken treaties
uprooted orchards, shattered concrete.
Eight years later, still on the street
eight years older, two women squabble
and survive improbably.
A dark-haired boy, pale, imperturbable
sits in front of Monoprix,
wrapped in blankets, stroking a silvery cat.
Your voice begins to slip away from me.
Life is like that. Death is like that.

A glass of red wine spills on the grammar book –
the pupil and the teacher gasp, then laugh.
Their voices branch into the baroque
logic of the paragraph.
Does the Brouilly birthmark presage luck
in learning elementary Arabic?
This school desk is a kitchen table,
but the street outside is peaceful.
Schoolchildren with satchels weave among
shoppers, construction workers, dogs.
No one here is speaking their mother tongue:
perhaps several dialogues
are contradicting contrapuntally.
Two girls in hijab with computer bags
go hand in hand into the library.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

In January of this year. It began with a desire to write something in homage to the great American poet Hayden Carruth, who died at the age of 87 in September; to continue, in a sadly fictitious way, a voluminous correspondence with him that had gone on since the early 1990s; to prolong the life (that is to say inscribe as a possibility within the many of poetic form) of the “paragraph,” (or of the sequence of “paragraphs” ) , a form Carruth himself created, first in the 1950s, and continued to use throughout his long career. It was, at the same time, a response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza, which left close to 1,400 dead, most of them civilians, and immeasurable damage to the lives, property, to the future of the survivors, present in my quotidian life through newspaper articles and videos from many sources, and also from testimony from people I knew, or who know people I know, who were there. There was a personal impetus as well: the discovery that I was positive for the so-called “breast cancer gene,” actually a genetic lack or malformation. The imaginative link between that and occupation/invasion is fairly easy to imagine.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Several drafts—separate drafts on the separate sections, and further revision to make them cohere insomuch as they do.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

“Inspiration,” in my experience, is a reward for persistent work when one is not in the least inspired. The “paragraph,” despite a name that makes it sound like a prose poem, is a fairly complex form. As Hayden Carruth used and described it, it is a fifteen-line poem, which, like a sonnet, can either stand alone or work in sequence. It has a fixed rhyme scheme, and a fixed variation in the number of stresses per line. It is accentual rather than accentual-syllabic, though there is quite a bit of not-necessarily inadvertent iambic pentameter in most of them. With the letter representing rhyme and the numeral the number of stresses, the template would look like this:

5A A carpet raveling on the loom a girl
5B with a widowspeak and misty legs a moon
4A like a fisheye rising from a pool
3B a black longwing loon
5A bursting afire in the sunset a torn sail
5A groveling in a wave a whisper in a stairwell
4C a helmet upturned in the black rain
4C and later a star reflected on a coin
5D glimmering on seastones a sound of motors
3E and machineguns
5D in the dawn a kiss and candleflame a sonata
4E for clarinet a bone cracking a woman
5F wearing a blue veil and in kashan a room
5E where the little darkeyed weaving girls lay down
5F and died a carpet raveling on a loom.

The poem I’ve used to illustrate the template is from “Contra Mortem,” a sequence of thirty paragraphs written in 1966, in which Carruth “loosened” his own strict form somewhat (one could read lines 8 and 12 as having five stresses), as well as being freer with punctuation, which here follows the trajectory of a free-associative but directed thought-and-image process. Carruth liked to emphasize the paragraph’s differences from the sonnet: how the shorter lines 7 and 8 introducing a third rhyme break the train of thought while not forming part of a sestet’s response/resolution, for example.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Given the form above, it is clear that “principles of technique” were conscious. But I don’t know that it would be possible to write any poem--a highly experimental poem, a sonnet sequence, a poem in the narrative unmetered verse to which American readers are most accustomed--without consciously employing principles of technique! A poem is made up of words, in some usually syntactically meaningful order, interesting in their denotations and connotations and equally interesting in their sonorities and their interplay. A jazz pianist (or a clarinetist – that is what jazz-buff Carruth was!) improvising is employing principles of technique that had to be learned before improvisation was possible, and so is the poet, even in the rare situation of sitting down to write a poem that “arrives” more or less intact: this is a reward that follows long practice.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

It appeared in the British journal PN Review about four months later. They publish bi-monthly!

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It varies. Because this poem is at once a response to a series of urgent events in the world and something of an elegy to someone recently dead, I wanted it to appear fairly soon – if possible.

Is this a narrative poem?

There are several narratives and dialogues being negotiated here. The little girl in Gaza is at the heart of the poem, and yet she is cut off from “dialogue,” telling her story and her indignation to an unseen interlocutor. The question of desire (and of disease) is left open-ended. The girl’s anger, and the deliberately unspecified (not to embroider on a reality as far as I could observe it) situation reverberate from everything else evoked (including the language in which I might understand her) but remain painfully separate. The narrative opens out into another one (just as the scene shifts from a room to a populated street).

At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?

Wouldn’t it be neat and tidy if that were the case!

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

The influence of Hayden Carruth is so clear it is hardly a disclosure. I was also reading the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who had himself died a month before Carruth, both in Fady Joudah’s English translations and in Elias Sanbar’s French ones. Poems by Alicia Ostriker, Marilyn Krysl, George Szirtes, Peter Dale Scott, Mimi Khalvati. The Syro-Lebanese poet Adonis’ thorny, violent and erudite “Al-Kitâb,” in Houria Abdelouahed’s French translation. I was myself finishing the translation of a collection of poems by Emmanuel Moses, a French poet steeped in European and Jewish history.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Hayden Carruth was one, and he is dead. Marie Ponsot. The Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant. Several friends, not all of them poets, writers, or even Anglophones. But the ideal reader still seems to me someone about whom I know nothing, who picks up a book in a library or a bookshop. . . .

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it?

Yes – my friend the poet and critic Alfred Corn.

Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Alfred is one; Marie Ponsot – who rarely “comments,” and never blue-pencils, is another. There are several others, more intermittently than regularly. Not a group.

What is American about this poem?

The form is “American,” devised by a thoroughly American poet. Perhaps the situation, that of expatriation, as it swings from imagination to a “reality” itself part fiction. It is written in American English, unmistakeably.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Both. I hope it is finished as is. At the same time, the “paragraph” sequence lends itself to longer continuation. In this case, I wanted the poem to be included in Names, because of its elegiac aspect and because of the immediacy of the Gaza reference – so I let it conclude where it did, with those two young women on their way into the library, and a wine-stain on the Arabic grammar, a toast to Abû Nûwwas!


  1. another great interview. i particularly like how she speaks of inspiration being what you get after all the hard work you put in when not inspired :)

  2. I've been enjoying your poetry for a very long time.

  3. Inspiration comes on its own mysterious schedule to those who sit AND WRITE.

  4. Dear all ,my name is Boukhalfa Laouari , i'm lecturer from algeria , i have read a poem on kateb yacine by Marilyn Hacker, i find it very suggestive and interesting, i have just finished a book length work which is a translation into english of the poetry of kateb yacine , "Soliloquies and Other Poems" 130 pages . i would be so pleased to have my work prefaced by Marilyn Hacker . i do not have any of her contacts , please any one help me get in touch with her ?? thank you so much.

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