Man Made Out of Words
Part One of Mark Strand's Last Interview
April 1, 2015
Apr 1, 2015
25 Min read time
Part One of Mark Strand's Last Interview
Image reproduced courtesy of the artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York City
Last fall, to celebrate and honor the publication of Mark Strand’s Collected Poems (Knopf), I conducted several interviews with the poet and asked him to reflect on his career, both the work and the life behind it. Sadly, it would become, unknown to either of us at the time, Mark’s final interview. On November 29th, 2014, Mark Strand died after a long battle with cancer.
While Strand began as an artist, he quickly changed course at Yale Art School to writing poems. His success was immediate and distinct, and his accomplishments are many: the Pulitzer prize in poetry for Blizzard of One (1999), the United States Poet Laureateship, the Gold Medal for Poetry by the Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. Today, his style remains one of the most easily recognized in contemporary American letters
Even so, his “real life” biography has always been something of a mystery even as his fame from the 1970s on earned him prestigious awards and teaching appointments across the country, as well as devoted readers in Spanish, Italian and throughout the world. Born the same year as Amiri Baraka, and two years after Sylvia Plath, Strand was among a generation of poets who had inherited the hallucinatory imagery of the modernists, but were in various stages of revolt, formally, as well as concerning borders between self and voice, confession and concealment, tradition and innovation.
Yet as notoriously reticent as he had proved to be in prior interviews, in the hours that accompanied questioning him about his life, career and poems I found him to be surprisingly revealing as he was once enigmatic. In some sense, I attribute this to the fact that he was a man, not just a poet, facing his mortality. I hope that readers will have yet a richer appreciation of the mystery he found, and made, through clarity of poetic rigor. In the short time I had known him since studying with him at Columbia School of the Arts in 2008, Mark proved to be one of the most generous poets, teachers and friends I have ever known. The generosity of his soul and the warmth of his voice breathes through this interview.
Adam Fitzgerald: When did you decide you that you were going to do a Collected Poems?
Mark Strand: When it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to write anymore. Also you get to be a certain age and it’s kind of odd fun to see what it’s like to have all your poems together. And people have been telling me that I should—it would be an interesting thing to see—all the books from beginning to end.
AF: Was this something that you instigated or your editor?
MS: My friend Jorie Graham thought it would be an excellent idea. I listen to her.
AF: Were you resistant to the idea at all?
MS: Initially, a little. I wasn’t sure about my early poems and you know it’s always better to have a very strong selected. But then, you know, I was fairly careful when I was writing my poems, so—I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant, but I mean, there aren’t that many bad poems in the book, but there may not be any great ones either, but there certainly is a good middle class. I don’t think it shows too much weakness of mind on my part.
AF: Did you have any trouble recognizing the former work or self of Sleeping with One Eye Open? You’ve said your themes were there from the beginning.
MS: I was 30. Those poems I wrote were when I was between the ages of 26 and 29. Some of them seem bad, and they seem like simply generic poetry. Some I thought would be perceived as humorous or pastiche and I can see that the likelihood is that they were perceived as being very serious works for me. I try to make fun of myself, but it just sounds like more of me. A couple of those poems that weren’t in the book—if you do a collected poems, it means you do all that’s been published in previous books. And I was interested in a degree of formalism. The early books with measured lines and rhymes and the kind of high diction. Not really high, not like James Merrill. I was very concerned with meter, rhyming, and also with breaking free. But throughout the book I go back, there are a couple of villanelles, pantoums later on, a couple of simply rhymed poems, there’s an old-fashioned ballad in there. You know, I said, what the fuck, I might as well have fun writing. It’s fun to write a ballad.
AF: Was the poetry that you began reading formal and metrical work?
MS: I really began when I was beginning to write it. Then I paid attention—greater attention to Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop and [Robert] Lowell and you know, people I was reading then: Edwin Muir, [T.S.] Eliot, also poets of the movement in England: Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, [Elizabeth] Jennings, [Robert] Conquest, Seamus Heaney. This was when I went to Italy on a Fulbright in 1960. I came back in ’61 and went to Iowa.
AF: And you started at Yale Art School in ’56? Before, you’d gone to Antioch, studied English Literature. What made you decide on the turn of a dime that you were going to go to art school?
MS: Well I always wanted to—my parents wanted me to go to college. I wanted to go to art school. I wanted to go to Cooper Union. My parents said “No. You must go to college. You need that degree. It’s your ticket to freedom.” My mother attended Macdonald Teachers College in Montreal, I think. Then she got a Bachelor of Science in Fine Arts at Tyler Art School in Philadelphia. So I compromised. I went to a college that had the least amount of time on campus and you were working out of the cities and I did that. My girlfriend at the time was there. Of course, we broke up soon as I arrived. And I was thinking of leaving—I wasn’t happy there. But I had a great teacher named Nolan Miller who encouraged me to write. He had a crush on me.
AF: Was he a poet himself or was he an enthusiast for poetry?
MS: You know, just a novelist. No great shakes. In the freshman class we read some poems. But I always liked poetry. I gravitated towards it. I liked reading Marianne Moore and Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens and [Robert] Frost.
AF: Did your parents care for poetry at all? Was it something that you had around the house?
MS: Well my mother had written some poems when she was in school. And they weren’t bad. I mean, I remember one—I can’t quote it—I don’t remember. I wish I had a copy of it. For my father poetry was somewhat remote, although he knew some poets in Greenwich Village because he lived there when he was a young male, although it was hard to say at what time during his youth that he was there. He was in jail from ’29 to ’32. So it was the…I don’t know when he was in Mexico—he may have been in the Village after he got out of jail. He didn’t write poetry. He said he’d written plays but I never saw one. I said, “What were they like?” He said, “A lot of swearing.”
AF: Do you believe him? That he wrote plays?
MS: I don’t know. I mean, he told the truth about some things and fabricated so many other things, and I believe all the fabricated stuff but the true stuff I never believed because it was less exciting. No, there was, I think, because my parents were readers of nonfiction, fiction, and history; poetry wasn’t part of their diet of reading. They were always reading. My father was an extremely fast reader. He would go to the bathroom with a novel and he would come out and he’d read the novel. I mean, I think he read the four volumes of the Cambridge Medieval History in two weeks. And he taught a great books course. He was at St. Mary’s in Halifax, but it turns out it was at the synagogue, at one of those synagogues there. Although he was friendly with some of the priests at St. Mary’s. Greek history, Thucydides, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle. He was self-taught. My parents wanted me to read. “Just an hour a day,” they would plead, “Please, Mark, an hour a day.” It was hard for me to sit down for an hour a day. But eventually I did and they couldn’t pry me loose from the chair. I read all of Thomas Wolfe. I was sixteen then. And Hemingway, Faulkner.
AF: I wonder about, I mean, you told me about your father before, and maybe you were being a little flippant when you said that he was somewhat of a pathological liar.
MS: I think I was being flippant.
AF: But what inspired you to make that remark?
MS: There is a pathology attached to the degree of his fabricating about his origins, life, anything. He made it impossible for anyone to know anything about him but what he told them. No relatives, no way to check up on anything that he said. Rather sketchy about his youth. But the adventures are there as episodes, not a sustained narrative of “this happened” then “this happened” then “that,” there’s just these adventures that come up, and in no particular order.
AF: And growing up, how did you learn he served time in jail?
MS: Through the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI files.
AF: So that was somewhat recently?
MS: Fifteen years ago.
AF: Were you completely surprised?
MS: I was surprised that he was in jail. But I was also pleased, actually. If you were going to take away some of the glamour, well, here was a new element that I’d never expected.
AF: You said for four or five years?
MS: I think he was sentenced to four, but I don’t think he served four, I think he served three.
AF: What was he sentenced for?
MS: Grand theft. He took money, he never spent it—hid it, showed the cops where it was, gave it back. He was a wise guy and they had it in for him, everybody did, and they put him away. They thought he was a little crazy.
AF: And this was before he met your mother?
MS: Oh yeah.
AF: And do you think she had any idea that he’d ever served time?
MS: No, I don’t think so. I asked my aunt who was still alive, she was ninety-seven then, and this was about seven or eight years ago, I told her that my father had been in jail and did she know that, and she said, “No, but it doesn’t surprise me.” And then she said—I asked, “Well do you think my mother knew?”—and she said, “No. She would have confided in me.” He always embellished, that’s part of telling stories. And he loved attention. And he was very often the center of attention because he was a great storyteller. He told wonderful dirty jokes, he had a great laugh, and he told wonderful stories about his growing up.
I think in the last analysis the universe is very large and we are very small, and I think that we are so small, and we know so little, that it doesn’t behoove us to be arrogant.
AF: Did you believe everything he told you?
MS: I did at a certain age, and then it began to dawn on me in my teen years: some of this strikes me as hard to believe; but then my father did so many extraordinary things, it appeared. Why not a few more extraordinary things? And this was my father. Now, you mentioned the fact that I was going to write something, and I have written part of a book. That’s the father I knew, the father that did those wonderful things. I wished I could be him, that I could be that boy sleeping outside under a bridge in Cleveland, or in a newsboys’ home in the winter, and have that kind of independence, that autonomy that I craved when I was a kid, instead of being bossed around by adults and negotiating an adult world. But I couldn’t relinquish that father. On the other hand, when I began finding out more and more, it was more heroic, really, what I found out. And I began to feel for this guy who spent his entire adult life covering up because of a single mistake he made in his past.
AF: So you think he had to lie and cover up and be mysterious by necessity?
MS: I think he loved the captive audience. At least my sister and myself were absolutely astonished by the things he said. We were two protected, middle-class kids whose parents gave them pretty much what they wanted, whose adventures seemed so tame, so suburban. His life seemed so wild. So when I found the truth out, I began to think: he’s even more remarkable. Hey, he’s a great storyteller, a remarkably courageous guy. And you know, strangely innocent, both my parents.
AF: Did you know growing up that your father was actually a Czech Jew named Strandsky?
MS: Not till after my sister went to Prague and saw the name Strandsky, and my father’s mother’s maiden name, Flusser, on the walls of the synagogue there. Growing up, he would say, “I’m Jewish!” Nobody believed him. He looked like—he was a blonde—he looked like a German, a German burgher. He didn’t speak Yiddish. Religion wasn’t a big part of my childhood. I never went to synagogue. I went to Sunday school for a year because all of the kids in the neighborhood in Cleveland were going to a Presbyterian Sunday school, so I went, too. My parents didn’t care. I was in Canada until I was four and a half. Then we moved to Philadelphia, then we moved to New York City, and then up to Westchester, no, Cleveland. We lived in Philadelphia, Westchester, New York, Cleveland. When I went to Mexico first with my family, my mother, father, sister, and I drove when I was twelve years old—a long family trip—and that was an adventure. Then I went back periodically. My parents lived there, so I would go visit them. You know, I think the gift of fabricating or invention or exploiting one’s imagination, in my case, was probably inherited from my father.
AF: Do you think it’s ludicrous to think of your imagination as a Jewish imagination?
MS: I’ve told Harold Bloom that I’m Jewish, he doesn’t believe me. I’ve told Leon Wieseltier I’m Jewish, and Leon said, “In what ways are you Jewish?” I said, “I don’t know. Because my father said, ‘If anyone asks, say you’re Jewish.’” You know, I know nothing of Judaism, I don’t belong to a synagogue, I’ve been in a synagogue twice in my life. In what way am I Jewish? But in what way am I anything else? Religion plays no part in my . . . I don’t ask my friends, “What religion are you?” They don’t ask me. I mean, I don’t . . . it’s not part of the way we identify ourselves. My identity is just a writer. That said, I do feel a kinship. I don’t know whether it’s willed on my part, or whether it’s, in fact, actual. I have a kinship with Kafka, with middle Europe, with a certain kind of fatalism that attaches itself to Jewish humor. I feel those things quite deeply, and they interest me more than, you know, straight autobiography.
AF: Do you think there is a way in which your poetry, which seems so sufficient and in a way deliberately a world of its own and unto itself, but do you think in a way, at the same time, it reflects the fact that you’re a man who, in reality, had very mysterious origins—a father who was himself embroiled in fiction and storytelling and artifice, and that, without subsuming one to the other, that there’s a parallel between your identity as a person, and the way that your poetry is obsessed with erasure and the unknown?
MS: Yes, certainly I think there is a connection. I mean, I’m naturally reticent, in case you hadn’t noticed, a naturally reticent person. I don’t offer many details or facts about my life. I think in the last analysis the universe is very large and we are very small, and I think that we are so small, and we know so little, that it doesn’t behoove us to be arrogant. Very often I don’t feel like I’m there, or here, or anywhere. I know I’m “existing” but, every minute of the day I’m not saying, “Here I am, I’m Mark Strand, and I’m sitting down at a chair.” I don’t locate myself in the universe that way. I don’t think it’s necessary that people know everything about me. I don’t care to know everything about anybody else. I think our stay on this earth is so brief, and there’s so much variety in the world, we can’t help but be mystified, surprised. I mean, I don’t know why I was born—I mean I know how it happened—but, you know, here I am: a sentient being, talking about life. I had the luck to be born a human being who can speak. I might have been a dandelion or a goldfinch. I might have been a buffalo in the zoo. A fly! I don’t know why I’m here.
AF: Who was the first poet that you read a lot of? I know you mentioned to me once, the now forgotten George Barker.
MS: Well that was my first year in college. I was reading Auden then, George Barker, another Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, Louis MacNiece, C. Day Lewis, Edwin Muir.
AF: All formalists.
MS: Well, there wasn’t much else in those days. I mean, I could have read [David Jones’s] In Parenthesis, but that’s formal poetry in a way, too. I read the WWI poets, I read the WWII poets. I read people like Henry Treece and David Gascoyne and people we don’t really hear much of now.
AF: I’m just trying to understand how someone who didn’t study or make art, suddenly on a dime decides “I’m going to Yale Art School!”
MS: I was always interested in art as a kid. When I was 12 and 13 and 14 I’d lock myself in my room and do fairly realistic self-portraits in paint and I would draw, copy over—my mother, we had a lot of art books, and I would copy the figures from my mother’s books of Donatello, you know, the sculptor Donatello, Michelangelo. I was always looking at American painting and I was fascinated. I would go to the Museum of Modern Art by myself when we were here in the city and I would sneak sometimes into the art students’ league when I was 14, 15, and it was a life class that I would attend who could really draw. What was his name, he’s a very well known artist—I can’t think of his name now, but he would let me draw. It was in my mind, always, that I would be an artist. Then I went to Yale and it was in everybody else’s mind and they were way ahead of me. I was more literate. But they could draw.
AF: Does any of your work survive from that period?
MS: Yeah, Harold Bloom has a drawing of mine, which I gave him. And I have a drawing that I saved. They’re both in the Bernard Chaet’s book, The Art of Drawing. Maricruz discovered amongst my papers that I had all packed away some drawings I did, figure drawings with the skeleton underneath. She thought they were really good. I don’t know. I did driftwood, and I don’t think they’re any good.
AF: So at what point did you decide?
MS: There was an article in Life magazine on Joseph Albers, and thought, I can learn something here, so I applied. They let me in. Albers had a system. He had a color course, you had a basic Albers drawing course, those were the courses—I took color twice. I actually assisted in my last year in his basic drawing course. Bailey and I were teaching that together. I think I was an assistant. I’ve always thought I was an assistant but maybe I wasn’t. He was a great teacher. His color theories were worked out beautifully and they did work. But they were difficult solutions to find and he was interested in the way you used color and he could be very mystical and poetic in his descriptions of what was happening. In particular, collage—we did collages—that’s where my aptitude for collages was born.
Left: Mark Strand with collages. Right: Mark Strand with the collage that became the cover of Blizzard of One. Photos: Adam Fitzgerald
AF: Were you taking any literature classes there?
MS: I took a lot of them. I took a 19th century novel course with Gordon Haight. I took tragedy with Richard Sewall. I took a very good history course called Northern Renaissance: Art with Colin Eisler. Did I take another English course? I don’t know, but I met Cleanth Brooks and [Robert Penn] Warren and they took me under their wing. I had a kind of great career there. But was poor. I think they romanticized me in the English department. I had one white shirt. I worked the tables at Mory’s. I worked at the Old Heidelberg. I delivered laundry. I worked my ass off and then the English department would have me tend bar at their parties. I met Thornton Wilder, gave him a lecture on abstract expressionist painting, after which he said, “Well you passed your PhD orals, bye.”
AF: At some moment you decided to pursue your poetry. Do you remember when that was?
MS: Yeah, it was in my second year at Yale. I kind of hit the wall. I didn’t think I had a visual imagination that would carry me through. I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was what other people were doing and were doing much better than what I could ever do. [Arshile] Gorky, [Willem] De Kooning, James Brooks, Conrad Marca-Relli, you know. And even in the art school: Bailey, and a few others. So I began writing and it gave me pleasure.
AF: Wasn’t that hard to let go of, though, your ambitions to be a great artist?
MS: I never had an ambition to be a great artist. I just wanted to be a painter. I never lived in a sphere larger than my immediate surround. The classroom, school, my parents’ house. I don’t think I had the idea that I would take my place in the world as an artist or a poet—it would have been terribly arrogant of me then and certainly remote enough that I never thought about it.
It was in my mind, always, that I would be an artist. . . I never had an ambition to be a great artist. I just wanted to be a painter.
AF: Then you decided to do a Fulbright in Italy. What turned you on to that?
MS: Well, I don’t know why Italy. I think because I was reading Montale in translation and Quasimodo and Ungaretti and people like that. I read a lot of poetry in those days. And I’d been—I was known at Yale as the young poet. By then, I did pretty well in my English courses and I was publishing in the Yale literary magazine. And when Robert Frost came to Yale, I was asked to take care of him for three days when he was there and squire him around. It was nice. He didn’t spend much time chatting with me. He was always surrounded by, you know, high-powered people in the English Department.
AF: Was he an intimidating presence?
MS: No, but I was in another world. I wasn’t intimidated. I might as well have been a chair in the room. But I did meet Robert Penn Warren—and he was really nice to me—on one of those dinners that I went to for Frost, because I had to go everywhere with him. And it was nice meeting Warren and we remained friends. The Baileys and I drove Frost back to Cambridge. And he inscribed a book for me. He was chatty, loved adulation. I had drinks with him at Gordon Haight’s house and I think I had dinner with him there.
AF: So much of your work is contextualized in the tradition of Wallace Stevens. But it seems like Frost has in some ways been just as important a model to you.
MS: He was. I mean Stevens was my favorite poet because Stevens was more of a painter’s poet. The rich visual imagery. Frost was a national figure in a way that no other poet except maybe Carl Sandburg was. Stevens, I was much more interested in and I went to Yale and I traded the first edition of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments which I bought in a second-hand bookstore in Nova Scotia for a collected poems of Wallace Stevens. I still have it. First edition.
AF: What do you think the young Mark Strand would make of how you’ve developed and the work that you’ve written?
MS: I have no idea.
AF: Do you think the meaning of “beautiful writing” (something now much out of fashion) was the same for you then as it is now?
MS: A lot of people wrote beautifully. Wordsworth wrote beautifully. Keats wrote beautifully. All the great poets wrote beautifully. But I think it’s just the degree of play in early Stevens. The investment in language. This was true of Hart Crane, too. Conventional words we use all the time put in a slightly different context, along with words we don’t use all the time. It takes on a different color. I was never really sure what Stevens was really talking about but I was dazzled by what I thought was amazing language. Now I think of late Stevens as the really beautiful Stevens—his clarity and simplicity. “A Clear Day and No Memories.” “The River of Rivers in Connecticut.”
AF: When did you start publishing your first poems?
MS: Mainly in The New Yorker. The New Yorker bought a couple poems when I was in Italy on my Fulbright. I was 26. And then I got a contract, first reading agreement. And I was publishing a lot in the New York Review of Books. But my first poem in a national—besides the Yale literary magazine—was the Yale Review in 1958. A terrible poem. It’s never been republished. It’s heavy on the Stevens, as I recall.
AF: Do you think you were confident then? Getting poems published by The New Yorker when you were 26 years old! That’s an accomplishment.
MS: Well, in a way. Because I really wanted to be Merwin and I hacked it. And Merrill, especially. Merwin and Merrill. And before I went to Italy I read Ashbery and Locus Solus and The Tennis Court Oath, which had just come out. I read Some Trees and loved that, falling asleep over “The Instruction Manual.” A lot of those early poems—“[The Picture of] Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers.”
AF: You took to it right away?
MS: Yes, I didn’t think I could do that, but I couldn’t do John Hollander or James Merrill or Richard Howard, or any of those people—certainly not Anthony Hecht or Merwin or Merrill. My head was turned. I mean, skill-wise, I knew I wasn’t as skilled as any of those people. Although everybody could measure lines and write in rhyme, I wasn’t particularly good at it. But I wasn’t terrible. But there were many who could do it as well or better. My influences became Kafka, Borges, Calvino, Landolfi, the kind of vaguely surreal, really European, middle-European fantasists.
AF: Were you conscious of wanting to do something early on in the poem that no one else was doing? Taking an early look at your poems in your first two books, clearly there’s this sense of the fantastic in the form of fables and parables. An elaborate narrative framework.
MS: I had the sense that I was doing something different, that I was bringing some of those—the Kakfa, the Landolfi, the Calvino, the Buzzati—using them to sort of adjust my sights—readjust my sights as a poet. I was drawn to their work—I was drawn to surrealist painting in those days, too. But the fantastic interested me. Even as a kid, seeing [British horror film] Dead of Night—we just watched it the other night, it’s a fantastic movie.
AF: In your famous Paris Review interview with Wallace Shawn, you say, “We don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life.”
MS: Well, the meanings are embedded in the poems, but I think the poems represent a particular vision of an individual living in the mid-20th century. And into the 21st. I can’t claim that they are more than that. They don’t tell you how to live your life. Poems that purport to give the reader the meaning of life would tell you this should be the meaning of life, but I don’t preach. I’m not a preacher. I’m always astonished when I read some of my earlier poems. They’re very much like what I would have written today. They have a slightly different way, but the kind of anxiety that exists in the earlier poems, the sort of spookiness, even the humor is in some of them. I was writing prose poems all along. Because it’s fun. I wrote because I enjoyed it. It was work, and it was frustrating, but all in all, when you’ve finished a poem, you have this thing that didn’t exist and it exists independently of anything else. There’s nothing else in the world exactly like it. It’s not a multiple of anything. It’s simply there. And you brought it into the world. It’s pretty amazing. To do something that’s never been done.
Editors' Note: Read part two of Adam Fitzgerald's interview with Mark Strand here. Huge thanks to Will Brewer and Diana Nguyen for the transcription.
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April 01, 2015
25 Min read time