Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Gail Mazur

When you consider your own "tradition," do you think primarily of American poets?

When I consider my own "tradition," I think of American poets but also poets in translation, specifically Yehudi Amichai and Milosz- living poets, but senior to me, and bearing the burden of history, a history that is very much a part of my tradition.

Do you believe there is anything specifically American about past and contemporary American poetry? Is there American poetry in the sense that there is said to be American painting or American film? Do you wish to distinguish American poetry from British or other English language poetry?

American poetry, as it has sprung from Whitman, breaks through much of the tradition of British poetry. At its most characteristic, it comes from our landscapes, its language comes from the vernacular not the mandarin, it includes and embraces the variety of popular culture, and high culture, of the natural world, of human nature. It reflects the poly-heritage of the American people.

What import does regional poetry occupy in your sense of American poetry?

Sometimes I like to map poetry, particularly contemporary American poetry, as "regional." Although many of us have lived in severla parts of the country, still I think of the Midwest as James Wright's, Snyder or Hass as quintessential West Coast Poets, Bishop as "northern," Lowell as New England, Resznikoff and O'Hara, New York, etc. Really, the names of places, or descriptions of landscape, have little to do with this identity. The voices of different parts of our country have their own sounds. Social landscape varies, histories vary. Distinctions still survive in our culture, thank goodness. Still, any poet I look to for inspiration transcends "regionalism."

Are you more likely to read a contemporary non-American poet who writes in English or a contemporary non-American poet translated into English?

My experience of the writing in English of the non-American poets whom I admire is frustrating. I think the best versions for an American reader of the poems of non-American poets are the translations by really good American poets. Those translations which seem to be collaborations between poet and translator are often the most satisfying, and the versions in which the poet's intentions are recognized and "imitated" most truly.

What do you see as the consequences of "political correctness" for American poetry?

Political correctness is deadly in every aspect of our lives, our cultural lives, and our socio-political lives. It's impossible to imagine great art being produced with obedience to any politics of conformity.

What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?

How can one predict the course of art? It's unpredictable course is what makes poetry, or any art, vital. I'd hope for vitality to prevail as long as civilizations last. Any forecasts would seem to me doomed- - or a "social" prediction, futurist, science fiction. The deaths of painting, of poetry, of the book itself, have long been foretold, or even anounced (as having occurred). What will the poems be of the first whole-body-transplant poet?

Published 1999.

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