All questions asked by Christopher J. Johnson and answered by Sophie Cabot Black
CJJ: Did you always have an affinity for poetry; I mean, did you always want to be a poet?
SCB: I am tempted to say that that an affinity for poetry first began in utero-- the heartbeat of my mother and my own as they intermingled-- I know it sounds rather esoteric and even far-fetched, but some germ began there. Childhood landscape is where I return, often, to begin entering a poem (the idea comes first, then the entering) and also, where I think much of my own longing and sense of disquiet stemmed from.
Also I believe music, rhyme and being read to kept me in a kingdom of sound: Mother Goose, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear.
But the one moment I came to realize the power of getting down my own line of poetry was at school when I was 11, and a teacher had put on the board a selection of photographs pulled from LIFE magazine-- she asked us to pick one image and write to it, and either she, or myself, gave the extra task of writing only in one line. I so loved this-- the distillation and the pressure, something to be puzzled out.
CJJ: Is being a poet a job? Is it sustainable in the sense of work?
SCB: This is a hard one. I think if you are a poet, there is nothing else you can do as well. To be a good poet, you cannot veer away from the path of poetry. It is not something to dabble in. But as far as making a living at it: there are a precious few who really can. Most of us supplement by teaching. But sustainability-wise, if you must write poems in order to live, then that already is part of the equation of your own preservation.
CJJ: What are your influences in literature? Strictly poets? Any novelists or dramatists and so on?
SCB: In poetry, I tend to go back to the dead greats: Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, the Metaphysicals. There are a few (live) poets whose work I follow and always go to when there is a new book from them: Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, C.D. Wright. Also W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, Anne Carson. But I think much influences us in the world by surprise, and so all forms of literature and wordsmithing I look forward to.
CJJ: Desert island books? Do you have any? Do you think it’d be possible to choose, say five or so?
SCB: Today’s desert island books (this changes all the time): Cormac Mccarthy’s THE ROAD, Italo Calvino’s ITALIAN FAIRY TALES, a complete Shakespeare, the Collected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, and a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.
CJJ: What habits are crucial to building a poetic craft? For instance, do you keep a notebook of any kind? Do you have a drafting process?
SBC: I think it complicated to analyze or even speak of one’s own process, but I do use both computer and notebook. Most of the time, in the current phase of my life (mother, domestic engineer, etc.), I cannot get to the desk to write for many many days. Sometimes the whole summer is gone, as I am also summer camp. So I take notes all the time, and however I can. But I also believe in reading out loud the many drafts-- but now it is only to myself, as those whom I did this with in the past have died or disappeared.
CJJ: What is your favorite time period in literature? Is it our own? The Italian Renaissance? Augustan Roman Period? Russian Futurists? What voice in time do you feel the strongest gravitational pull towards?
SBC: I don’t think I have read enough from any one period to land in any one place. I have loved many books, and our current time is fairly burgeoning with them. In fact, I feel I need a curator to get me to the right ones, given how many are being published.
CJJ: Lastly, what is your favorite moment as poet? An award, for instance, or inauguration or particular publication? Maybe it was something in your inner world instead, a realization or feeling of successful growth...
SBC: My favorite moment as a poet? The one right after I have looked up from the page, convinced the poem is done. But this is also the same moment just before I re-read the poem to realize it is still undone! That is a wonderful in between world to live in-- albeit for just a little while-- with the in-door behind you and the out-door not yet apparent.