How Do You Get People to Read Poetry When They Don't Have Time?
The poet Robert Hass headlines the O, Miami Poetry Festival at the New World Center on South Beach tomorrow night (Saturday, April 5). Anyone can watch on the Wallcast from the park just outside the building.
Hass was U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995-97 and now teaches at U.C. Berkeley. He won the Pulitzer, a MacArthur Genius grant and it seems like just about every major literary award there is. In honor of National Poetry Month and our own "This is Where" poetry contest, we talked about what it means to write about the place where you live and why it matters.
AZ: I want to start by reading a quote about your work from the poet Stanley Kunitz:
Reading a poem by Robert Hass is like stepping into the ocean when the temperature of the water is not much different from that of the air.
RH: (laughs) That’s definitely Floridian and not Northern California water, which is almost icy.
AZ: A lot your work evokes some very specific places. Can you talk about the idea of capturing a place?
RH: I’m not sure if I can. I’ll give it a try. I guess one of the things about growing up in a place is it gives you a subject. The typical wildflower of the whole region between the countryside between Los Angeles and San Francisco just turns acid yellow with mustard flower, just for a couple of weeks right around the middle of March. And that’s part of the rhythm of my world.
And I imagine that people in Florida had the experience that I had growing up in California, which is that most of the children’s books and the readers were published in either Boston or New York, and so Jack and Jane were always jumping up and down in the snow or the falling leaves. So the world in books didn’t really reflect the life of the place where I grew up. And it’s a kind of gift to try to understand and reflect the places that we live. Your grandchildren are not going to know what you saw, or what this place was like, if you don't tell them.
AZ: Did holding the U.S. Poet Laureate position have any effect on the way you think about poetry and politics?
RH: It made me think about poetry and public life. You’re given this strange job, what should you do with it?
You become for a year or two—depending on how long you want to do it, or how long they want you to do it—you become the kind of unofficial spokesman of American letters to the rest of the country—people who are working two jobs, trying to raise kids, trying to get their cars started, and have a little bit of time to read. And some of them want to read history, and some of them want to read detective novels, and also books about how to get stains out of fabrics. You want to find ways to reflect what you love in the American arts back to people.
AZ: We don’t have a music laureate. We don’t have a theater laureate. We don’t have a sculpture laureate. Or a National Music Month. Why do you think we have these things for poetry?
RH: I watched some of the meetings that brought National Poetry Month into being, and I had slightly mixed feelings about it because I felt like the answer to the question: Why National Poetry Month? was the desire of people who read poetry and love it intensely to get other people to read poetry and love it intensely.
And [I'm] aware that most people don’t read it and love it intensely. So a part of me thought, we shouldn’t have to market poetry. If the poetry’s any good people will find their way to it. But for bookstores and for poets and to raise the profile and awareness of the possibility that you might want to pick up a poem, which is to say hear the voice inside yourself, that seemed worth doing.
Hass splits his time between Berkeley and the small coastal town of Inverness, California. This poem was published in the local paper there, The Point Reyes Light. You can hear Hass read it at the end of the interview at the top of this page. Just click play.
Tomales Bay is flat blue in the Indian summer heat.
This is the time when hikers on Inverness Ridge
Stand on tiptoe to pick ripe huckleberries
That the deer can’t reach. This is the season of lulls —
Egrets hunting in the tidal shallows, a ribbon
Of sandpipers fluttering over mudflats, white,
Then not. A drift of mist wisping off the bay.
This is the moment when bliss is what you glimpse
From the corner of your eye, as you drive past
Running errands, and the wind comes up.
And the surface of the water glitters hard against it.
Submit your own poem about a place in South Florida -- a place that means a lot to you. Make sure to include the phrase "This is Where."
Happy Poetry Month!