Interview with Walter Ancarrow


Walter Ancarrow: There is much ado about young writers, like The New Yorker's "30 Under 30" list or the Best New Poets Anthology (which defines "best" and "poet" whimsically). More interesting, because more rare and surprising perhaps, are the late-bloomers, the writers who find success later in life. You began writing poetry seriously at 70 and published your first collection, Unglobed Fruit, at 75. Why, as a septuagenarian, did you finally hear the muses singing?

Esther Greenleaf Murer: I'd been sneaking up on it for awhile. I guess around 2000 I started working with Steve Kowit's In the Palm of your Hand. I think that was my first venture into trying to learn more about craft by doing exercises. In 2001, I signed up for the forum on poets.org, but it wasn't functioning, so I forgot all about it until suddenly, a few days before my 70th birthday in 2005, it was there. A lot of stimulation, experimentation and encouragement followed. It was a wonderful community while it lasted.

Having been completely turned off poetry by negative experiences in the '50s, I found it a liberating revelation to realize that "there are a thousand different ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right." There's a kind of "first fine careless rapture" about self-education when you really get into it.

WA: What happened in the '50s that you found more crippling than Kipling, as it were?

EGM: I found the literary fashions of the '50s totally off-putting. I was around some snobbish English majors and was made to feel that the kind of poetry I felt drawn to was inherently second-class stuff. I reckon there was a sexist subtext too—women only write light verse (or compose light music). It was a liberation and delight, considerably later, to delve into Cummings, who wrote poetry of depth and power with tongue firmly planted in cheek. He was the first twentieth-century poet I really studied in depth, memorized, etc. He showed what a comic muse could do, though I didn't realize that until quite recently.

WA: Well, what can the comic muse do besides be comical?

EGM: For me it functions as a leaven. If my tongue doesn't stray into my cheek at some point, the result is bound to be flat, leaden. It's the comic muse that enables me to let go, take risks. Yes, there are other kinds of leaven—anger, for one—but even so I need an element of play, a touch of the absurd, to lift it off the prosaic plane.

Cummings' poetry is full of affirmation-in-spite-of, a stance I wish I could take more often (though in recent years it's been hard, which may be why I write so much nonsense these days). Cummings is mystical and political and disgusted with American spiritual vacuity and always funny even when he rages. (His syntactical/typographical experiments are one of a kind, no use trying to emulate them. And it took me decades to realize that some of my favorites are sonnets—such as "pity this busy monster, manunkind": ABABCADCDDEFEF.)

WA: You were once a composer. Does the act of musical composition influence your writing process?

EGM: John Ashbery wrote "I feel I could express myself best in music. What I like about music is its ability of being convincing, of carrying an argument through successfully to the finish, though the terms of this argument remain unknown quantities. What remains is this structure, the architecture of the argument, scene or story. I would like to do this in poetry." [In Michelle Boisseau's Writing Poems: 190.]

In composing too I liked to play with forms or musical ideas; attempting modern versions of medieval forms such as a motet or thirteenth-century Conductus, or figuring out how to use a dominant seventh configuration in a context outside the major/minor system. In a nineteenth-century Unitarian hymnal I found a translation of a medieval Latin hymn by Samuel Longfellow (brother of Henry), who had cast it in the mold of "Come, thou Almighty King." It began "Come, thou almighty Will; Our fainting bosoms fill / with thy great power...." I laughed out loud, it sounded like such a typical Unitarian bowdlerization. But later I realized that it was a very strong lyric, it just needed to be divorced from that tune and brought into the twentieth-century. So I wrote a setting for soprano, alto, and continuo in Locrian mode—one of my few compositions that ever got performed.

About "A day in the life of..." [to be published at KIN this issue]: when it occurred to me to try to combine accentual-alliterative with Sapphics, I just sort of filled in the blanks with sonorous nonsense, loosely structured around times of day. I often do that sort of thing when trying out a new form. Sound is more important than sense. Playing with possibilities, I guess one could say.

WA: It's surprising that you talk about Quaker hymns influencing your musical compositions because your poetic output doesn't seem remotely religious.

EGM: I joined Friends 30 years ago. I come from a long line of Midwestern Unitarians and Universalists and grew up in the Bible belt; my own love affair with the Bible began when I was 3 or 4 (asking questions about the death of an infant cousin)—but my upbringing was anything but orthodox Christian. Transcendentalism (mystic wing of Unitarianism) plays a large role for me; the hymns I referred to were Transcendentalist, not Quaker.

Religion has been very important to me all my life. My recent poetry isn't overtly religious, but it certainly draws on the Bible a lot. Most of the consciously religious poems have been published in print, not online—most recently a sonnet based on Numbers 9 in the Quaker poetry anthology Gathered.

WA: Your poem "Oxydoxes and Paramorons," which we are publishing at KIN, takes lines from John Ashbery and responds to them in the style of Ogden Nash, in what you hilariously call a "Nashbery." Why these two poets?

EGM: I read a lot of Nash in my teens—even got his autograph when he did a reading in my home town. My first poem to be accepted by a literary magazine (Light Quarterly) was a Nasher. It strikes me that he pioneered with rhymed free verse.

Ashbery delights and excites me. I don't feel any need to "understand" his poetry. Charles Simic well expresses what appeals to me:

Whatever an Ashbery poem eventually turns out to be about is not an idea he started with but something he stumbled upon as he shuffled phrases and images like a pack of cards. It's precisely because he has nothing to say initially that he is able to say something new. Poets who think they have new things to say run out of ideas quickly and are condemned to say the same thing over and over again in their poems. This may not make very much sense, but that's how it works in practice.

There's something else too. Most poets trim their experiences down to their manageable parts. If they are writing about what happened in the woods one snowy night, they are not likely to include stray thoughts they are having at that moment about taking a pair of pants to the cleaners. Ashbery does. He includes such extraneous material, no matter how irrelevant it seems to be. It is his refusal to make a choice between what is 'serious' and what is 'trivial' that drives his detractors batty. They want poems to tidy up experience, while he keeps insisting that messiness is part of the picture. What it comes down to is a quarrel about truth and beauty. Can a poem bear the mention of barbecued pork ribs dripping with grease and still be a lyric poem? If one believes that randomness and nonsense are an integral part of the human experience, as all comic writers always have, then those for whom poetry is synonymous with delicacy of feeling and verbal decorum will go away unhappy and even angry. (Charles Simic, "Tragi-comic soup: On John Ashbery" in The Metaphysician in the Dark: 95.)

Reading Simic on Ashbery made me realize that my muse is comic, but that that does not mean that I have to restrict myself to writing light verse.

WA: One thing that strikes me about your work is its adventurous spirit. You often use forms to surprising effect: the sestina "Les Six: Concert Program Notes," published at KIN, hides its repetends in homophones; and your "Chain Ghazal: Chickens," published in The Guardian, combines ghazals with blues poetry. These are just two examples of your many experiments and unlikely pairings. What is your relation to form?

EGM: Play, predominantly. I like to try new ones. Mastering them is not a goal—I'm too old for that. But some forms, such as ghazals and rondels, I return to again and again.

I need some sort of formal element to hang a poem on, or else it comes out as prose with line breaks. It was a great revelation to me in my late self-education that there were so many different kinds of handles, not just received forms. I suppose about half my poems are "formal" in the narrow sense.

The idea of hybrids intrigues me. Gene Doty's The Ghazal Page has encouraged me to experiment with other ways of hybridizing the ghazal form.

Form tends to lead. Most of the time, not always. As when I decide I'm going to experiment with, say, a given type of slant rhyme, and so what comes out is a nonsensical sonnet. I often start with phrases from dreams.

Lately I've been reading more about Oulipo, which I've worked with before, and that has opened up a lot. I don't see any hard and fast line between formal poetry in the classic sense and the oulipian idea of constraints; but then, I tend to use any kind of formal idea as a springboard, a starting point to develop from, not something to be followed slavishly.

I also try to improve my grasp of structure: scattering variations on a motif through a poem, for instance. Ashbery does a lot of that. Stephen Dunn's essay on the necessity of a poet to be a fictionalist has been helpful to me; narrative is not my strong point, I have never in my life been able to write fiction.

WA: I'd like to go back to your comments about self-education. We share an adversity to writing groups and "schools" of poetry.

EGM: For as long as I can remember, faddism has been my bête noire. The story is that when my elders would ask me what I'd done in nursery school, I'd say "The other children strung beads and I cut paper," or "The other children sang 'Silent night' and I sang 'O little town of Bethlehem.'" (It runs in the family: Every time I went to observe my newborn son in the hospital nursery, either he was sleeping and all the other babies were crying, or vice versa. As for my daughter…).

Certainly I learn from other poets, but what (and how) I learn is very idiosyncratic—and gets more so with age. When we lived in Norway I couldn't bear the thought of taking Norwegian-for-foreigners classes. I had pretty traumatic memories of language conversation courses. ("What time did you get up this morning?" "None of your damn business.") Having to talk about stuff I didn't want to talk about, not being allowed to talk about what engaged me. So instead (once I'd gotten some kind of handle on the language) I took elementary courses in subjects that interested me at the community night school.

Workshops and writing groups present the same problem. As I maybe said already, I'm a glutton for prompts and exercises, but rarely do anything with them these days. If I had to do an assigned one, I'd probably be unhappy. A Quaker quote (on speaking in Meeting): "If nothing flames, silence is my portion." I guess that's very close to sounding like I insist on waiting for inspiration—sometimes one must just dig in and write something. Still. Quaker silence is a wonderful thing—waiting to see what, if anything, wants to be said.

Esther Greenleaf Murer has been writing poetry all her life and got serious about learning the craft when she turned 70. She published her first collection, Unglobed Fruit, in 2011. Links to many of her poems published online may be found on her blog. She lives in Philadelphia.

Workshops and writing groups present the same problem. [I'm] a glutton for prompts and exercises, but rarely do anything with them these days. If I had to do an assigned one, I'd probably be unhappy. A Quaker quote (on speaking in Meeting): "If nothing flames, silence is my portion." I guess that's very close to sounding like I insist on waiting for inspiration—sometimes one must just dig in and write something. Still. Quaker silence is a wonderful thing—waiting to see what, if anything, wants to be said.