Beyond FINESSE: Poet Mark Strand on Narrative—and Personal—Destiny
When novelist Eli Gottlieb introduced Strand on Saturday he referred to the poet’s “ongoing creative growth through a life of art.” Since the early ’60s Strand has published eleven poetry collections as well as books of prose, children’s books, and volumes of translations, anthologies, and monographs. Originally a visual art student, his appreciation for the craft of painting remains evident in his writing, his outlook, his conversations about living a creative life. As does his love for Kafka, for lines of prose so original he “can’t anticipate” how they’ll turn, for lines that inevitably surprise him and yet exist in perfect harmony within a text.
Both days Strand mentioned the importance of his friends, fellow writers who serve as “ballasts” and sources of “confidence in the face of apathy,” especially during periods of self-doubt. He spoke of going two years without writing, and how he always trusts he’ll return when it’s time:
“It’s a question of time,” he said, “of what’s going to make a difference, of what matters, of what doesn’t bore me to death. And of course there’s a book that comes along.” His eyes brightened as he asked if anyone had read A Heart so White by Spanish novelist Javier Marias, a writer he praised for his sentences, his investments in the “smallest details,” his nuanced expositions.
When he does write, Strand emphasized his preference for writing in longhand because he wants to “slow things down.” Noting that the look of a computer printout is “too final,” he said, “I want to resist that as long as possible, to feel [a poem] is mine until I’m certain it’s absolutely finished.” And he added that when he writes in longhand he’s “hearing” his writing to make sure a poem’s “cadence asserts itself independent of its performance” because “poetry insists on cadence.”
Strand described himself as a fantastical poet who stresses the “psychological imperatives” of a character’s personality quirks (yes, Carleen, that quirk meme is a great tool for character development!), noting the fun that can be had when what an unusual character considers normal behavior is considered bizarre by others.
With all that, a poet (or a fiction writer, I’d argue) must “offer a narrative scheme to keep the reader on track.” A reader will stay with a piece as long as he/she is confident “there’s a destination.” Easy enough, right? Until you take Strand’s next piece of advice to “incorporate absurdity into the narrative destiny.”
But take heart if you’re feeling at all discouraged by the art you’re striving to create, absurd or otherwise. Strand, who fully deserves to rest on his laurels as one of the most widely awarded poets of our time, admits he’s often frustrated: “[There exists] a consistent aesthetic that operates when I write,” he said, “but I want to dismantle it, to write vastly different poems.” He also noted, however, that what you write at a particular time in life is influenced by “the shape of your inner life” and that “a style picks you,” not the other way around. Yet he noted top poets, especially American poets who often “feel their belatedness,” must “take extreme measures to be original” in order to differentiate their new work from everyone else’s—and from their own.
I especially appreciated Strand’s practical advice regarding writing and revising poetry, advice I know I’ll use for everything I write from now on: “[When you have] a vague idea of what a poem should be, revise toward that image,” he said, adding: “In an ideal state, you’ll see it first. Develop that idea as you write. Sometimes you have to change the idea if you’re fighting it too hard; then develop the poem in [the new idea’s] direction.”
“A poem is finished when you can’t do anything with it,” he also said, “when you’re excited about it, when you keep it a while…and are still excited about it.”
When asked if he thought he was a good poet when he started out or even after he’d achieved some notoriety, Strand shrugged and said, “I thought I was good enough to continue.
“I still think I’m not the bee’s knees,” he added. “I do what I do…. We each do what we’re coded to do.”
So…what are you coded to do? Something to think about, isn’t it?
Photo of the poet © Emily Mott at Blue Flower Arts