CJJ: The Yale Younger Poets Prize is a very prestigious and long running award. Past recipients have included: James Tate, Robert Hass, Peter Streckfus, Carolyn Forche, Jack Gilbert, John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin. Muriel Rukeyser and many other well-known poets, but our readers may not know the ins and outs of the award. What, to your mind, should people know about this honor?
WS: Besides its illustrious recipients, the Yale Younger Series has a jawdropping list of judges. The same poet serves as judge for several years, and I think that tradition is what distinguishes the Yale Younger from other book prizes of its kind. (Face it: there are a lot of fine debut book awards out there.) The judge really has a chance to leave his or her mark on the series. Plus he or she is also expected to write a foreword for each book, which is immense! And – at least in my experience working with current judge Carl Phillips – the award offers young poets an opportunity to engage with their elders in a meaningful conversation about the making of a book. Carl really made me feel as though he was invested in Westerly, and that investment means everything to someone wading out into the water for the first time.
CJJ: In your book, Westerly, you have a very melodic and yet down to earth voice that seems to range from the lyrical and confessional to the political and narrative. How, as a poet, do you view your voice. What is uniquely Schuttian in your work? Or, rather, how would one pick a Schutt poem out from any other poet’s work?
WS: Modesty is a virtue I stand by, as is hesitation. But can I call myself modest and still claim to be modest? Regardless, it’s not a quality you would dub unique. Nor is it true of all the poems in Westerly. I’m still young – or so I’d like to think – and therefore still available to a range of voices, as you rightly point out.
It’s also true that I’m given to pretty lush music. I respect some talky poems, but I don’t think the world needs more of them. A poem isn’t everyday speech. Why pretend as if it were?
CJJ: Many of our readers are aspiring poets themselves; do you have any advice for them in regards to the work of poetry? Do you have, for instance, any drafting habits or habits pertaining to keeping a notebook for ideas? What practices most inform and shape your poems?
WS: I don’t think you start with some idea or larger vision and impose your feeling on the material. You start with the material, and with luck that leads to the rapture of a poem. I try to have a notebook handy, yes, always. And I’m not worried about filling that notebook up with descriptions, even if those descriptions wind up on the cutting floor. My interest in description probably stems from my interest in travel writing and the itinerant life I’ve led for the last several years. Travelers stare; that’s their thing. Then they go home and try to make sense of what they’ve seen – or merely admire the pictures for what they are. I’ve just moved to Baltimore, where everyone has colossal tattoos, and all I’ve done over the last few weeks is take all the ink in. Today I stood in line at a kiosk behind a guy with a tattoo covering either calf: a ball of fire on his left, a blue wave on his right with a goldfish leaping out of it. They looked funny on him; nothing else about his appearance struck me as yin-yang. Maybe something’ll come of that.
CJJ: Is poetry a personal or a public act? Once a poem of yours is printed, I mean, in the light of day does it change in your eyes or is it still yours in a personal sense, but somebody else’s in their personal sense. Does poetry have a social function and, if so, what is that function.
WS: It would be untrue to say writing poetry is an entirely personal act, but that’s how I feel at the moment of composition. I don’t go in for large-scale message making and am wary of poets who do. Once a poem is in print, yes, things change. I think poems – in the eyes of their authors – wither with exposure. I don’t like looking at a poem of mine in print. It inevitably fails to move me. I see nothing but flaws. As for its social function, all I can say is that I turn to literature for a shot of language, animating conversation, keener eyes. Delivering those goods seems function enough for me.
CJJ: The poet Mayakovsky claims, in his book How to Make Verse, that a pencil, a notebook and a bicycle are the most important tools a poet can possess (outside of interest, drive and discipline). What tools are in your poetry toolbox?
WS: I might trade that bicycle in for a good pair of walking shoes. Otherwise Mayakovsky’s got it about right.
CJJ: What does the future hold for you? Do you have another book in the works or is it time for a break?
WS: I’m working on new poems, but it’s too soon to say what they’ll amount to. I am also translating the poems of Edoardo Sanguineti, a major figure in the Italian avant-garde movement of the ’60s and ’70s.
CJJ: Lastly, our stock standard question, what authors or books can you not do without. If you are stuck or blocked in your process, to whom (authors) do you turn for inspiration?
WS: I turn to prose as often as I do to poetry, especially the prose of Denis Johnson and W.G. Sebald. Two novels I love that don’t receive enough attention are Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase and James Baldwin’s Another Country. For inspiration I find myself consistently returning to several poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, Henri Cole, Robert Frost and George Herbert. Two contemporary collections I can’t do without are B.H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe and Arda Collins’ It is Daylight.
Interviewee: Will SchuttInterviewer: Christopher J. Johnson