Pultizer Prize-winner Mark Strand on falling in love, leaving the U.S., and the next chapter.
Mark Strand finds it somewhat un-poetic to know too much about himself. He isn’t always sure what he’s saying when he writes a poem. What he does know is that he’s going to “relinquish basketball and become a fútbol fan,” that he wants to shake up his life, and that he is ready for “harmony in the boudoir.” So he has decided to take a chance and leave New York for Madrid, where he’s more fascinated by who’s waiting for him on Calle del Marqués de Riscal, the street where he’ll soon reside, than the luminous streets of the Spanish capital.
This decision to relocate is no surprise, as Strand has lived an itinerant life. He was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada on April 11, 1934, but moved frequently as a child on account of his father’s career as a salesman. At four years old the family went to the United States, with stops in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. He spent his teenage years in Latin America: Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and Mexico. His mother, a painter, encouraged him to explore art. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from Yale University in 1959 and a Master of Arts from University of Iowa in 1962. In between, he traveled to Italy to study nineteenth-century poetry.
Those close to Strand always knew that the visual arts would have a part in his future. What they didn’t know was that he would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet or win the MacArther Fellowship, the Bollingen Prize, the Rockefeller Foundation Award, and the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other honors. Neither did they imagine he would serve as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1990, nor as Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1995 to 2000.
Strand went on to author twelve previous books of poems, including Man and Camel (2006), Dark Harbor (1993), The Continuous Life (1990), The Story of Our Lives (1973), Reasons for Moving (1968), and Blizzard of One (1998), which won the Pulitzer Prize. He has published two books of prose, three books for children, several volumes of translation, and monographs on artists such as William Bailey and Edward Hopper. He’s also edited numerous anthologies.
Despite all his publications and accolades, the visual arts spark the greatest fervor in him. He has started doing collages again and has been rather productive in his output. But he has much else going on in his life. At seventy-seven, he has found love, retired as a professor at Columbia University, and just published a new collection, Almost Invisible.
On a windy and sunny winter afternoon in February, I sat with the poet in his Chelsea apartment after having attended a few of his readings the previous week. He was tranquil, perhaps even meditative, as he greeted me and shared some of his collages. His new book of poems seems to reflect his state of being, concerned with the human condition, mortality, “the enigma of the infinitesimal” and that “beautiful place… [almost invisible]… the luminous conjunction of nothing and all.” This book is filled with fable and humor. Its wit and irony are enthralling, its pursuit of a certain beauty intoxicating. And never far is a looming nostalgia, a promising or unpromising melancholy.
—Nathalie Handal for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said that because of your many childhood moves you come from nowhere. Now you’re preparing for another relocation. Why now, and why Madrid?
Mark Strand: I’m not really sure. I mean I’m not sure why now. I know why I am going to Madrid… because I met a woman with whom I am in love and we decided to live together and she is Spanish. So that left out Paris, Moscow, Beijing, Sydney, a lot of other places. It seems reasonable to live in Madrid. She knows a lot of people there and we were able to get a very beautiful apartment in the center of Madrid on a quiet street.
I’ve wanted to leave New York. I don’t feel I’m as productive as I might be elsewhere. I think New York is an assaultive city—one leads a reactive life much more than, let’s say, a meditative life. It is very hard to cut yourself off or shut yourself away in New York. Also, I didn’t want to teach forever and I thought I should retire. So falling in love, retiring, being tired of New York, all conspired to make the move to Madrid a possibility.
Guernica: I wasn’t expecting love—that’s inspiring.
Mark Strand: Well let me say, there are different kinds of love. I am not a sixteen-year-old or even a thirty-year-old falling in love. In the old days, I would never say I’d fallen in love but now, what the hell. It seems like too romantic a disclosure but I’ve disclosed it.
Guernica: Having spent your summers in St. Margaret (near Halifax), you’ve said that’s the landscape that you have carried with you. Why did this particular landscape have such a significant impact on you?
Mark Strand: It’s the landscape I experienced when I was very young. It was the most secure landscape in that although we moved a great deal, all our summers were spent in Nova Scotia. It became imbedded in my psyche. It became the decor for my imagination. It was replaced when I moved to Utah (1981-1994; one year off in Washington, D.C.) by the mountains. But it’s never really gone and it’s never really the landscape or the seaside of Nova Scotia. It’s some composite that I’ve constructed. It’s a composed landscape. There are elements of Nova Scotia but it isn’t Nova Scotia. I am not a journalist, so I’m not obliged to be faithful to the look of a place or even the feel of place. I’m much more interested in constructing a poem and using elements of the landscapes I’ve been in.
Guernica: Does this landscape manifest itself differently in you now?
Mark Strand: I’m not a nature poet. Everything is rather generic—hills, trees, water, sun, moon, stone, grass. I don’t go into detail(s). I am more interested in positioning the action of the prose piece or the poem than I am in evocating a particular place.
Guernica: After devoting a lifetime to the craft, you now declare having stopped writing poetry? Why?
Mark Strand: I’ve declared this, I’m ashamed to say, a number of times. I get tired of it. I feel drained by it. I need time to recoup my energies. I am not a poetry writing machine. It’s not a reflex. It’s not an automatic thing with me. I have to feel I’m in that world. After I’d finished Man and Camel I felt drained. I felt I’d run out of gas and this happens periodically to me, which makes me think I’m not a natural poet. Some people just keep writing and writing and never seem to run out of ideas or energy or desire. I write few poems. I work rather hard on them, that is, it takes me a while to finish a poem. I do many drafts, sometimes as many as thirty or forty. I don’t trust my first, or second or third draft. Maybe it’s a little over dramatic to say I’ve run out of gas. I just think my interest flags.
When I was younger, I felt if I wasn’t publishing, I didn’t exist. I don’t feel that any more.
I become a little less interested in my poems. Sometimes, I think I’m beginning to repeat myself, and it’s time to stop and do something else. What I have usually done in the past is take an enormously long hiatus, as in 1980-1990—although in 1985 I started writing poems again. But during those five years I wrote a book a stories, many magazines articles, three children books, three art books—the Hopper book, a book on William Bailey, a book called Art of the Real about the first generation American figurative painters after Abstract Expressionism. I was busy. I broke the spell of not writing poems and going back to poetry when I read Robert Fitzgerald’s masterful translation of The Iliad. I felt inspired to say the least. I started writing right away.
Guernica: There are moments you’ve said that your identity is anchored in writing and being a writer, that it’s what keeps you alive, that you would lose yourself—that you love poetry as much as your own self.
Mark Strand: I think that happens when you are younger. When I was younger, I felt if I wasn’t publishing, I didn’t exist. If I didn’t have that public exposure, that I was compromised in some way. I don’t feel that any more. And I have ceased to feel that way over the last twenty or twenty-five years. It’s always fun to publish a book. But I publish in magazines. I do it because it’s really a habit. I don’t keep the magazines. Magazines will be unhappy if they ever read this interview to know that. Sometimes, I never even reread them.
Guernica: I am curious to see what you will write when you are in Madrid.
Mark Strand: I know I am going to finish a memoir there. I worked on it a little over two years ago and I’m going back to it. Almost Invisible suddenly inserted itself and claimed my attention, although I wrote it quickly–in a matter of eight months–which is unusual for me. I sort of stopped thinking about the memoir, and I also started doing collages and I’ve done a lot of them. It’s almost like a reversion to childhood. I make my paper with the help of a master papermaker and I color it the way I want it colored, and control the thinness or heaviness. Then I begin to play, tearing it and cutting it and arranging the pieces into these little collages. I put them in a box. Most of them are now in Madrid—I don’t know what will happen to them, although my French publisher, Vif Éditions, is doing a book of twenty of them. They are a small publisher but they do very beautiful books. They are publishing my poetry and my Hopper book in a big format, art book size—and this little book of my collages for which I have written an interview with myself.
Guernica: This reversion to childhood you speak of reminds me of something you said: “To turn away from where we were headed.” At 192 Books, and again at Blue Angel Reading Series, you also said you stumbled into poetry. Maybe you are finally ready to be a painter—you might not have had the vision for it then, as you mentioned, but you have the vision for it now.
Mark Strand: I did stumble into poetry, although it’s rather dramatic to say stumbled. I always thought I would be a painter. I painted when I was a child. I would lock myself in my room to paint as a thirteen-or fourteen-year-old. I showed some talent at that age. I mean, I was no Picasso. But I did have some talent. It was generally believed that the visual arts would have a part in my future. But the fact is, I went to art school, where there were people more gifted by far than I was. And much more mature. I suddenly felt that maybe I wasn’t destined to be a painter. On the other hand, I read poetry. I liked it. And I thought I’d try it and started writing poems in art school.
When I was writing poetry earlier on, I wanted to be recognized as a really good poet. I was ambitious. I think I ceased to be ambitious after a while. I think the lack of ambition allowed me to give it up. I don’t feel I am losing anything by not appearing in print.
I did a little when I was in college and was discouraged from doing so. Although, I had a wonderful teacher—Nolan Miller—who encouraged me. So I started writing poems, and continued, and began publishing, and one thing lead to another—books came out, poems were published. I never thought about being an artist although I would amuse myself by making collages—I fooled around continuously but they are different from the kind that I’m making now.
Guernica: What’s the difference?
Mark Strand: They were very landscape-ish. I’d use magazine cut-outs and color-aid paper. What I’m doing now is totally different. My collages now are meant to look like little paintings. In fact, they do look like paintings. So yes, I am going back to what I thought I would be doing early in my life. Although I thought when I gave up painting that I had a very limited visual imagination. I can see now that over the years without much practice or prompting that it has developed. And I don’t feel when I am making a collage bereft of ideas. Of course, my collages are all highly abstract and I deliberately avoid the suggestion of content in them. I’m not rescuing bus tickets, train schedules, newspapers from the garbage and giving them a new life as a work of art. I am just making papers that I think will look good when I tear them up and put them next to other pieces of paper.
A lot of collages, the German collages of Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann were very political in intent. And say the collages of Kurt Schwitters, highly influenced by cubist painting, and also made up of pre-fabricated stuff—bus tickets, colored scrapes of papers. But I know no one making paper to use in collages so I feel I’m doing something a little different. Maybe the most interesting collages were those done by Max Ernst. When people make collages today they are in the Ernst tradition—cut-outs, figures, photographs, putting them in unexpected locations, bathing beauties on an ice float on the North Pole, riding on the back of a polar bear. I don’t do that. I’m just pushing paper around hoping for a nice arrangement. It’s very modest. I’m not competing with anyone. When I was writing poetry earlier on, I wanted to be recognized as a really good poet. I was ambitious. I think I ceased to be ambitious after a while. I think the lack of ambition allowed me to give it up. I don’t feel I am losing anything by not appearing in print.
Guernica: Maybe it is just about allowing yourself a certain freedom—you don’t know where you are going, what you are going to do. You said, “I write about what I see,” and maybe now you are collaging what you have written.
Mark Strand: Maybe. I think my poems do have content. It is impossible to avoid content when you are writing. But my collages don’t–they work as objects that either hold together or don’t.
Guernica: Is there something painting can do that poetry can’t and vice-versa?
Mark Strand: The painter would like his identity to reside in the work and the poet in the poem–it’s not what you write about, it’s the way you do it. Style is identity. There are a lot of landscapes, a lot of paintings of trees. The trees of Constable are different from the trees of Corot or the trees of Milton Avery. The voice of Robert Frost is different from the voice of Wallace Stevens or Jorie Graham or Robert Pinsky or Charles Simic or Charles Wright. The work is individualized not by content but by style. It’s the style that you tune into that is the voice of the poet. It’s the style in a painting that one experiences. The way the artist makes the subject matter his own. Style is content.
Guernica: I want to move to the word dark, it’s often present in your work, including this collection. I’m intrigued by the way you use it when you write, “I no longer write, the dark is my freedom and my happiness.” Can you elaborate?
Mark Strand: That’s in one of my prose pieces, “A Letter from Tegucigalpa.” In some ways dark or the darkness has always been my freedom because it’s where I can project whatever I want. I can create whatever arrangements of light I feel will satisfy me. But I always begin with nothing in the dark. Or when I’m writing, I begin with a white sheet of paper. White and black are interchangeable in that respect. You can fill the blackness with light and fill the light with [the] dark or with color or with pigment or with words. The lights are out in my head until I have an idea—that’s all the dark it.
Guernica: For a long time, you didn’t know what prose poetry was, but wrote what you called “prose pieces.” You said they were an escape from poetry. Could you expound?
Mark Strand: I thought I knew what prose poetry was for years and years. It was simply prose that had the integrity of poems, that is they seem to hold together. They were short pieces of prose. Each word had a different and specific gravity than words have in just pure prose. They have the weight somehow of poems. And that’s true of prose that some people call prose poetry. I was just trying to define something for myself. I don’t feel in my new prose pieces that words have that kind of weight. I think the book is essentially a light book.
I feel rather sunny about everything, except the political situation in Western Europe, Africa, Asia, the United States, and South America.
You don’t feel the pressure in those prose pieces that you would in a poem. You don’t feel so much hinges on an individual word. I think you can feel their writtenness but they don’t have the compactness or the weight of a poem. And when I said escaping poetry, I meant the concerns that a poet has over lineation, the adjustments one makes for measure if one if using meter or rhyme or the syntactical consideration that you experience when writing poetry. In prose, you are essentially writing sentences, that’s what I’m doing. Each of my prose pieces is a paragraph. I am not writing stanzas. I’m not saying should this twenty-four line poem be in six four lines stanzas or four six line stanzas. I’m not worrying about the same things. And I’m free to be funny.
Guernica: I was going to ask you what role humor played while writing this new book.
Mark Strand: I’ve often thought I was a rather funny person, that I had a sense of humor. But you wouldn’t know it. I think in some of my recent poems you would know. Most people experience their gloominess. Well, they do the same with my prose pieces, I think. There is a kind of gloom but I guess gloom excites me, inspires me. But I don’t feel gloomy in my life. I feel rather sunny about everything, except the political situation in Western Europe, Africa, Asia, the United States, and South America.
Guernica: Concerning the political situation—you were Poet Laureate in 1990-1991 at the beginning of the Gulf War, much has changed…
Mark Strand: Well, not much.
I wouldn’t mind being Canadian, but I think it’s a little late.
Guernica: So you don’t think these political events have changed Americans, or the American literary landscape?
Mark Strand: Poetry-wise, I don’t know, because I don’t keep up. I don’t read that much poetry. I read poems of friends of mine who are very good poets or poems by my students or poets’ students suggest I might read. I’m not a great reader of poetry. If I read poetry, I go back to the older poets. Well, not that much anymore either.
Guernica: So what are you reading?
Mark Strand: I am reading a book called Love Stories (Everyman’s Library)—so short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Mansfield, Vladimir Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence—a good story called “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughters.” I just read Anne Michaels’ second novel.
Guernica: Any foreign authors?
Mark Strand: I recently read a few novels by Mario Vargas Llosa. I read Edith Grossman’s new translation of Don Quixote, and the novels of Javier Marías. I always reread Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Tommaso Landolfi, Italo Calvino, Dino Buzzati.
Guernica:Almost Invisible is translated into how many languages?
Mark Strand: Italian, French, German—but I don’t have a German publisher anymore—Dutch. Hebrew, Spanish in Spain and South America—translated by the Venezuelan poet Beverly Rego. She is very nice.
Guernica: Why didn’t you cultivate your French? it was your first language.
Mark Strand: I was persecuted when I came to this country as a kid because I spoke French. I vowed never to speak French again. Well, I didn’t consciously vow never to speak French but something in me decided I was going to be American and speak English. It is probably somewhere in there.
I work best when there is no noise, no sound. Soundless. Silence. Yes, they are the same.
Guernica: You were never tempted to go back to it even as an adult?
Mark Strand: I think that child is still very powerful. Tyrannical.
Guernica: You never considered yourself Canadian?
Mark Strand: In Europe, they think of me as a Canadian poet who lives in the United States. I don’t think of myself as a Canadian and the Canadians don’t think of me as Canadian. I wouldn’t mind being Canadian, but I think it’s a little late.
Guernica: So you don’t have a Canadian passport?
Mark Strand: I almost got one and then decided I won’t. But maybe I will get a Spanish one.
Guernica: It seems like you are heading that way. [laughs] I agree when you say that we allow ourselves time to understand so much in our lives yet we are not patient with poetry. We have to give poetry time. What should change so that we can allow more poetry into our lives?
Mark Strand: I don’t know because the claims in our time become more numerous and more aggressive and more bombarded. People are always on their cell phones, texting each other; they don’t really have time for each other. I have no solution.
Guernica: But it’s an essential human activity as you’ve said… so do we continue to write and teach poetry?
Mark Strand: People escape into other things; you don’t escape into poetry. You confront yourself when you are reading poems; they draw you inward, they don’t project you outward. I think people want to escape themselves. They do not want to do the work. They want to been entertained. Poetry is a kind of entertainment but a different kind, its meditative.
Guernica: Being quiet is important to you—especially when you are writing. Is it the same when you are painting or doing your collages? Is there a difference between silence and soundlessness?
Mark Strand: I think maybe they are both the same for me. I haven’t bothered to make a distinction between the two. I would say soundlessness is more severe than silence. Soundlessness is when noise has been sucked out of a room—it’s like a vacuum. And silence is maybe simply quiet; there can be sound but it’s not intrusive. Although, silence means no sound… When I make collages, I’m in a quiet room. I could listen to music. I’ll try it… see what happens. But when the music is on, I find it distracting. Like listening to voices is distracting. I work best when there is no noise, no sound. Soundless. Silence. Yes, they are the same.
Guernica: I am interested in your notion of beauty…
Mark Strand: I don’t have a definition of beauty. I think when I write or make collages, they are, in some ways, are what I think of as beautiful or close to as beautiful as I can make them. Beauty is a very difficult thing to talk about. I don’t think anyone has talked about it successfully. You can talk about what it’s not which is what Kant did. But what it is, I’m not sure. When I see it, I know it. When I hear it, I know it. When I read it, I know it. But I haven’t a definition of it. I think it’s something you experience but that you don’t know.
Guernica: And being such a nomad, how do you define home?
Mark Strand: Wherever the stove is.
Guernica: In the process moving to Madrid, have you discovered something new about yourself?
Mark Strand: No, it’s too late… It’s not a discovery but I’m ready to take a chance. I felt I was walking the same streets, beginning to think the same thoughts. My life became a convention unto itself. I thought I should shake it up a bit. Live in another language, live in another city, live in a different way. I could go through the motions of being Mark Strand in New York and not really be interested in my life—just sort of coast along in it. But the move has made me much more engaged in my experience. I really do look around me when I’m in Madrid. I do want to study the subway system. I want to improve my Spanish. I’m going to relinquish basketball and become a fútbol fan.
Guernica: To go back to Almost Invisible, when you reread the poems, is there a poem in particular that keeps you there longer, and why?
Mark Strand: One I think is pretty good and pretty funny is “Those Little Legs and Awful Hands.” It seems to work. The book strikes me as fairly lightweight. Perhaps that’s what I really am, a lightweight. I think the book is rather amusing. My imagination is quite alive in it.
Guernica: In your Pulitzer Prize-winning book Blizzard of One You is the poem “I Will Love the Twenty-first Century.” So how is this for you so far?
Mark Strand: That was before the twenty-first century. Well, it’s going great. I won’t live to see the twenty-second century but you wouldn’t either.
Guernica: You half-jokingly said a few nights ago, “I’m always trying to be almost invisible.” Is it because Mark Strand is so visible or not visible enough?
Mark Strand: This is a tall person’s desire to be small… No, that’s too neat. As you become older, you become less present. You feel that the world is going along very well without you. And I’m fine with it.