Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Joseph Bruchac

Before going into these questions, I think it is necessary to make a linguistic and geographic point. The United States is part of "North America." All those who live in North or South America are "Americans." Americais not just the United States, even though we use it in a way that psychologically denies the existence and the affects of the other American cultures to the north and south of us. We are less isolated than we think as a nation--at the same time we subconsciously assert our superiority. My answers, therefore, are in response to a question that I believe actually was meant to mean "What is United Statesish about U.S. Poetry?"

Are there essential ways in which you consider yourself an American poet?

I consider myself an American poet in a number of ways. I feel that the American language has been a decisive factor in the shaping of my own poems and my view of the world. That American language itself has been subtly (and not so subtly) affected by the landscape and by the original languages which were spoken and continue to be spoken on this continent before the coming of Europeans. The more I learn about the Algonquin languages spoken by my American Indian ancestors, the more I see the effect of those languages on "American" speech patterns and thought. Further, I am deeply affected by the history and multiplicity of cultures which make up America, past and present.

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

My own tradition is as mixed as the bloodlines of this continent. I think of American poets--including those anonymous Native Americans whose oral traditions have deeply influenced me--and also poets from around the world writing in English and in other languages. My primary tradition, insofar as I write in English and use the English language, might be seen to be that heritage of Chaucer and Shakespeare we share with the British poets. But it is more polyglot and interestingly tangled.

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?

Specifically American? Very much so. The sense of place and the value of nature, the use of specialized languages, the belief in equality of opportunity, a sometimes na ïve optimism of the sort we find in movies such as "It's a Wonderful Life." A rebellion against authority and convention. Informality, wild experimentation. These are all part of that American grain (harking back to WCW). Yet American poetry can also digest formalism--or regurgitate it back up as something entirely different. Look at the way American writers played with syllabics or the way James Wright flowed from formalism into open forms that still managed to convey a sense of control.

Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?

I can think of no historic poetic voices in America that I personally value more for helping to generate an American voice than Whitman and William Carlos Williams. I might also add Thoreau, whose journals are poetry, whose way of seeing was so influential.

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

I think the best American poetry continues to be regional poetry.

What significance does popular culture possess in your sense of American poetry?

Popular culture and American poetry are often the same. But not always.

What about the American poets who lived primarily in Europe (Eliot, Pound, Stein)? What about the European poets who have recently lived or worked in America (Heaney, Walcott, Milosz)?

To my mind, the question of where one lives physically is less important than where they live with their spirits and their minds. Heaney and Walcott and Milosz could never be viewed as "American" poets. Were Pound and Eliot British poets? Where were their hearts?

Are you interested in poetry written in America but not in English?

I am deeply interested in American poetry written in other languages. Spanish poetry in America has very deep roots and there are also Native American poets writing in their native languages.

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

I am as likely to read a contemporary non-American poet who writes in English (and we forget how wide the Anglophone world is--spanning five continents!) as to read a poet who writes in another language--either in translation or in that language. I am constantly learning from and delighted by the work of contemporary poets from other parts of the world.

Do other aspects of your life (for instance, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity) figure more prominently than nationality in your self-identity as a poet?

The primary thing about my life which has created my self-identity as a poet has nothing to do with ethnicity, gender, sexual preference or whether I wear boxers and briefs. My long standing love affair with language bears all the blame for making me want to be a poet.

Do you believe you could readily distinguish a poem by an American poet from a poem by other poets writing in English?

I can usually recognize a poem by an American poet and also make a pretty good guess about the origin of a poem by a poet from elsewhere writing in English. The uses of language, regionalisms, formality or the lack of it can be very specific. But not always.

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

"Political correctness" is a stalking horse. It is a term coined by conservative think tanks to draw unfavorable attention to the practice of trying to be respectful of others and more sensitive about the things we write and say that are hurtful (intentionally or not). Let's stop using that damned term and be honest!

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

As always, American poetry will continue to surprise us.

Published 1999.

More Q & A: American Poetry