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A Conversation with Stanley Plumly

Lisa Meyer

Stanley Plumly was born in Barnesville, Ohio in 1939, and grew up in the lumber and farming regions of Virginia and Ohio. He is the author of five books of poetry. His first collection, In the Outer Dark, received the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award; his third, Out-of-the-Body Travel, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other titles are Giraffe, Summer Celestial, and Boy on the Step.
Having taught at over a dozen universities across America, currently Plumly is a member of the faculty at the Department of English at the University of Maryland. His sixth collection of poems, The Marriage In The Trees, will be published by Ecco Press this September. Robert Penn Warren said of Plumly: "In poem after poem, I find a great -- and teasingly original -- satisfaction. The only way that comes into my mind to say it is that Plumly has established a new sort of ratio between the poet and his subject -- or even his poem. It's a new turn of mind, behind the turn of language, in haunting, visionary pieces." The March 1995 interview with Lisa Meyer that follows took place in the basement pub of the Nassau Inn, in Princeton, New Jersey.
Plumly has
established a
new sort of
ratio between
the poet and
his subject -- or
even his poem.

Autobiography and Archetype

Lisa Meyer: In a 1984 article in The Christian Science Monitor, Steven Ratiner wrote that the emphasis in poetry since the 1950s has shifted. "Poetry has become a personal and social response to the daily business of living, an act of exploring and ordering experiences and thoughts." He offers examples: the poet thinking aloud, the highlighting of the poet's perspective, the poet in the act of making life into poetry. Do you have a comment on this theory?

Stanley Plumly: There is a lot of writing that is very self-referential. I believe, however, in something Randall Jarrell called dailiness -- the sense of the detail or object in front of you that wants to be transformed. But I also believe strongly in the archetype, the larger figure outlining the smaller figure. I believe in poetry's philosophical discourse, the verity of the universal or common. In that sense I guess I'm a romantic. I think there are problems when the focus is merely diurnal and of the moment. There's almost a rigorous sense of that in some poets in the last many years. They have a lot of verbal skill and dexterity and depend on wit and irony and surface tension, but under it I don't find an appeal to a more archetypal configuration.

LM: What do you think is the reason for the shift? Multiculturization comes to mind.

SP: Absolutely. That's part of it. Poetry is not supposed to be a popular art but there are tremendous numbers of people writing it. I don't know how many are reading it. A lot of people go to readings. Poetry seems to me very popular in an odd way, and different constituencies have different expectations of the art. When you talk about poetry, you really have to be rather particular about what kind of poetry you mean and what kind of writer you mean. There is, of course, street poetry: the coffeehouse poem. There is that kind of poetry of the moment, part of an oral tradition, a kind of poetry therapy that goes on, and that's very popular, a kind of bar poetry. You see that all over in major cities. A poet like Charles Bukowski -- a wonderful, strange figure in our literature -- fits that mode, and yet he's someone very much who writes for the page as well. And the Beats started out that way, as part of an oracular and oral tradition. The best of them -- and I'd say Ginsburg is the best of them -- understood the power of the page and were very much interested in a literary career too, as well as winning over live audiences. There is that kind of poetry. And then there's the academic poetry, the poetry of chamber music and high-minded intellectual illusion. There's just incredible diversity but I'm not sure the constituencies talk much to one another. I think there's terrific antipathy from one kind of writing, one notion of what poetry is, as opposed to another notion. And maybe that's typical of our culture.

I believe in poetry's
philosophical discourse,
the verity of the
universal or common.

LM: In the Steven Ratiner article, he went on to explain the shift to the personal as the beginning of a confessional school of poetry characterized by poets like Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. Ratiner claims, as you did earlier today, that your work is autobiographical. However, he said that you escape the confessional mode both because your tone is understated, and through metaphor you universalize the personal event.

SP: That's what I'm talking about when I say the archetype. I think in fact there's only one true confessional in that whole so-called confessional school, and that's Anne Sexton, and I think that was her undoing. In spite of the many fine poems she wrote, she could not find, as Sylvia Plath did, a larger figure to which she could attach her pain and her struggle. And I think Lowell transcends it too by creating a kind of powerful fiction. He's like a fiction writer in that way -- he creates a world that is really more interesting. Lowell in so many ways becomes a fictional figure in that world, and when he does, he's interesting. When he doesn't, he's merely whimpering and he's not very interesting. When he's confessing his drugs or whatever he finally got into near the end of his career, that's not very interesting to me. But Lowell transcends, I think, confessionalism, as all of the really fine "confessional" poets do.

LM: So you would define confessional poetry as more tone, or more content, or some of both?

SP: It is both, and I don't know if you can separate the two. I think confessionalism is when the material remains the property of the poet.

LM: No larger message is being communicated?

SP: When it isn't about the reader's life as well. And that's what I mean by a larger and more archetypal figure. You could argue that Wordsworth is a confessional poet. But he's making the appeal to the reader to this extent: "You. Come into the poem. This is about your life too." I don't think the pure, unadulterated confessional poet really sees that. It's poetry as therapy in the purest sense. At her weakest, Anne Sexton's experience remains only that -- idiosyncratic and pathetic, but not tragic in the larger sense.

LM: Prevalent throughout your work is an investigation of the father and son relationship, not so much in terms of the Bloomian anxiety of in-fluence, but a reversal of the Virgil/Dante dynamic. The son feels he must carry the image of the father -- who is overworked, alcoholic -- on his shoulders. The burden paralyzes his son because he is unable to separate how he sees himself from how he sees his father. In your collection Out-of-the-Body Travel the narrator struggles to separate from his father both physically and emotionally. Could you comment on this interpretation?

SP: I couldn't put it that well. I love that reversal Virgil/Dante construction. My father still looms emotionally, of course. I believe parents -- I guess I'm a Freudian -- are the real sources of our emotional lives. In that sense, you must in a way forgive them or forgive something in yourself that is connected to them. And I do see my father as a representative and powerful figure in my own imaginative world and my emotional space. He pops up now in even larger terms although I don't know quite what he stands for -- surely all kinds of things beyond any personal or limited autobiographical reference. He was a particular kind of American, very much of his era, and one of these days I really need to write about him -- and while this will sound contradictory, it isn't, it's only paradoxical -- in a very honest and autobiographical way. It would probably be prose because there are certain gaps I didn't want to fill in before. But he's very much a muse.

LM: William Meredith said in the New York Times Book Review that your poetry reflects your need to "understand and share the long inarticulate suffering of your parents' lives and the hereditary implication of that suffering." This statement suggests a therapeutic function of poetry, in general for the writer and even vicariously for the reader. Do you find this true in your own work, and about writing in general?

SP: What Bill Meredith is saying is certainly true about Out-of-the-Body Travel, which is the first book in a trilogy that deals with these issues. But by the last book in the trilogy, Boy on the Step, the parent's suffering is no longer the issue. The world in which they are embedded is much more the issue, and that suffering and my own memory of it and my need to deal with it and transcend it, or even faithfully represent it, show what I've learned from it. What is it Camus says? That you're lucky if in your lifetime you have one or two good ideas. That's profoundly true, I think, in the sense that you go back to certain material and you find what you missed over and over again. I'm working on a poem right now about some childhood friends. I grew up in Ohio in the countryside, a little country school. I spent year after year after year with 20 to 25 students at any given time in that class, and there seemed to me an inordinately high rate of suicide or eccentric deaths in that group. So I've dealt with it in this poem. And yet it isn't about them in any limited way. It's an allegory, and they just happen to be the source. In my own poems, the autobiography is rooted, as it must be, in actual emotional experience, in very literal experience, and yet the information does not limit the context of the poem. It only begins the context of the poem. The poem becomes part of the present moment. The essence of lyric poetry is the moment and memory. You lose something if it's just one or the other.

The Act of Poetry
LM: Most of your poetry records the past in order to capture the fleeting moments of life and render them immortal through naming or defining them. The narrators feel frustrated because they know on some level that their renditions are imperfect, that immortality is an illusion. Could you comment on the narrators' own self-consciousness and the act of creating a work of art? Is this a form of metapoetry, writing that investigates the process of writing?

SP: That's an essay, that question. The term "metapoetry," like "metafiction," is an odd hybrid of language that came up some years ago in order to talk about critical assumptions about the art of poetry -- that the poem is really about how the imagination works, the process. And I know that's true in fiction writers like Paul Auster and Don Barthelme. In fact, Don Barthelme's fiction may be the purest metafiction we have in American literature. But in poetry there is also a sense of the authentic presence of the person who has had the experience -- the purpose of the art of poetry is to authenticate the experience. And one doesn't choose, arbitrarily, to be a symbolist like Wallace Stevens or a naturalist like Robert Frost. One day there's a fork in the road and you're studying at the Iowa Workshop or as a Princeton undergraduate, and you say, "Well, I think I'll be Emily Dickinson. I'm not going to be Walt Whitman." You have to deal with who you are. For me it's not possible to live in the enclosure -- and what I consider the claustrophobia -- of a completely imagined world. I have to drag in the furniture that real people sat in and talked on. And the weapons they used, I have to bring that in too, and if there was blood, I have to notice that, and I have to say it was real blood, it wasn't metaphysical blood, and so forth.

LM: That brings me to your style. It is a combination of realistic vignettes and metaphors. Your vision is based on concrete examples and expanded into more general statements through analogy. Do you in-tend to convey any sort of political message with this technique, this sort of grass roots perspective?
SP: No, if I had to categorize myself, I think of myself as being closer to a magical realist than anything else -- a North American version of South American insight about how reality works. The poet I feel closest to in the Lowell generation we were just referring to is Elizabeth Bishop. I find her a powerful poet beyond any political consideration and just a wonderful example of what an American lyric poem should look like, what it should have in it. There's something about her pacing, her tone, the rigor with which she rewrote her work, and yet admirably, none of that shows in the poems.
"For me it's not
possible to live in
the enclosure -- and
what I consider the
claustrophobia --
of a completely
imagined world."

LM: Can you explain your writing process? Do you write every day? Do you begin with an image, an idea?

SP: It's spasmodic. It depends on the rhythm of a particular time. I've been for a long time laboring over a book of prose about John Keats. It's not about his poems but his life, and it's been very difficult, and has demanded almost an exclusiveness of my attention that has got in the way of writing poems. Periodically I'll say to Keats, "Get thee behind me," and then I'll just start writing poems. I wish I didn't allow myself these indulgences. I wish I just wrote poems, but there are some things you have to say you can't get into poems. So the prose is an interference, but for me it's a necessary interference. I could just sit down and write poems every day, that wouldn't be a problem. In fact, I do. There's not a day goes by that I'm not fiddling. The actual writing goes very fast. It's the rewriting that is a labor of time.

LM: Alice Walker once wrote, "What the artist has not loved, does not love, he should not depict." In the Contemporary Authors interview you were quoted as saying that the poem "Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me" was liberating in your career. You say, "I wrote that poem when I was about 25, and it taught me that poetry is an act of love and not an act of anger. It doesn't work otherwise." Could you elaborate on that?

SP: Well, I started writing poems when I was about 19 in a very serious way. I loved reading them, but I really started writing them then and really had a sense that that's what I wanted to do. It wasn't just a little of this, a little of that. I wrote a lot. When you're just beginning, in your innocence, the leaves on the tree are enough to write about. About a year and a half later I decided I had more things to say, and I realized what I had to say was full of the wrong kind of darkness. There was no illumination in it. And I would call that anger -- the narrowness, the self-absorption -- and a lot of it was directed at my father and about my father. Then when I was about 23, I realized I was the same age as my father was when I was born, and that was a revelatory experience because there was no way I could have been a father and still functioned as a person. And I thought, my God, how did he do that? A little empathy went a long way toward insight there. That was my first real poem ["Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me"].

LM: Joan Didion once said that every time one writes about someone, one sells that person out. She was speaking of nonfiction, the depiction of a real person who is suffering. The writer profits economically and professionally, then continues with his or her life while the subject is still suffering. Could you comment on this observation?

My worst fear is
that, if any of my
poems survive, I will
be seen as a poet who
treated the natural
world with nostalgia,
because by the 1970s,
'80s and '90s it was

SP: I think that I am celebrating, not selling out, anyone who figures in my work. Joan Didion, it seems to me, is talking about people she doesn't love; they are not intimates. She may have empathy and respect for them, but they're not part of the longstanding psyche of her experience. They are objects on the landscape for her. And I think that's what she's referring to. My father was still alive when my first book appeared. It was very much an apprentice book and his only comment on it was, "How did you remember all of that?" And my mother, who died this last fall, always read everything when it was published. She was my fact checker, that was her interest. She never once made any comment or judgment about anything in the work pertaining to her. There's a pretty strong poem in Boy on the Step called "Infidelity," in which my parents appear. That's one of the most direct encounters with them. She never commented on that.
LM: There's a wonderful, evocative phrase in that poem, "Language is a darkness pulled out of us."

A recurring theme in your book Out-of-the-Body Travel is the idea of being called home. Young boys are constantly being called home by their mothers. Does this theme of being called home signify a larger psychological dynamic, how the house which has been constructed in one's mind is not so easily dismantled?

SP: It's true, that calling voice is always there. All I can do is agree with you.

Recalling a World
LM: The images of an emotional and material wasteland pervade your work: the inability to connect, backbreaking physical labor, images of water freezing and thawing, the search for a catharsis to counteract emotional numbness. Could you comment on what I see as an extension of perhaps T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," an extension that offers the possibility for rejuvenation through memory and grieving?

SP: Well, that's a high-minded question. Let me try to lower its sights a little bit. It's interesting you bring up Eliot's "Waste Land," because the real subject of the poem is a failed marriage. His first wife is very much the object of affection and affliction in that poem, and it is about failures to connect, in a very personal way. I guess I saw my father as a solitary figure very separate from my mother. I'm the oldest and the only son, and so I grew up in a very Oedipal situation. Maybe that's the real emotional source we've been talking about. It's very hard for me to see my parents as individuals without my being in there as part of a triangle. My father was a very popular man in the community but very unpopular in the family. Not just in our family, in his entire family. His father disinherited him. How was that possible? He was a very likable guy but he was an addict. His drug was alcohol, and it changed his personality. It was a Jekyll and Hyde situation. This is common in America and everywhere. It's become an exploited subject in our time, of course. But how to redeem this is really the question, how to rescue this material. To a certain extent the poems are about that. To go back and revisit the event and not see it through any kind of romantic vision. You have to be selective to make a work of art. To look back and identify the patterns that were real and true, from the perspective of a future moment. In that way, memory really is the future, not the past.

LM: In your poetry, the image of the mother is one of comfort, a respite for the narrator -- and the reader -- in a body of work that investigates the darkness of the father. Do the memories of a compassionate mother allow the narrator to look at the more disturbing images of the father?

SP: It is interesting how my mother is a marginal figure, even now in poems. She pops up as someone on the periphery, whereas my father, whenever he is present, is not just omnipresent, he's in front. I guess that's why I describe him as a muse, maybe a single muse. It's always puzzled me, that part of it. So many things didn't get resolved. This may be true with mothers and daughters too. Things don't get resolved, and they're not resolvable in person, so they have to be resolved in a different way, and maybe that's what we're talking about. It's not just me I'm writing about. In that way it's archetypal.

LM: In your poems, orders and cycles in nature are often healing and regenerative. In your precise and vivid descriptions of the natural world, are you transmuting such regenerative power into a new medium, bottling that regenerative power, as if it were a magic elixir?

SP: My worst fear is that, if any of my poems survive, I will be seen as a poet who treated the natural world with nostalgia, because by the 1970s, '80s and '90s it was disappearing or had already disappeared. To me that's not it at all. If I were a city poet and the city were my setting, then that would be my nature. It's just that I grew up in the countryside, on the edge of towns, as it were, which is a pretty typical American experience -- the so-called natural world, or the domesticated natural world. I'm not talking about the wild. I'm not talking about kodiak bears or anything here, but the familiar world, the rather English-American natural world, if you will. Someone once said to me that he had read a review of one of my books in an English magazine, and I was being reviewed as the most English American poet, and I didn't know quite how to take that. I think part of it was my notice of the landscape. But to me, birds, flowers and trees are part of the setting in which human events belong and are made more alive. If I'd grown up among warehouses, that would be the natural setting. This poem I'm working on right now is called "Souls of Suicides as Birds." In it, people become particular kinds of birds that fit their remembered personalities or the way they died. . . . It's an ancient Greek idea, the idea of the soul as a bird. There's a great old memory there somewhere.

LM: Can you explain the title of your book, Out-of-the-Body Travel?

SP: What I'm talking about is flight in all ways, a running away and a flying to. Human beings have always wanted to hover above their experience. Dreaming is like that. It is a kind of afterlife in one sense, but also a way of traveling.

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review

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