“The Question in the Mirror”: A Conversation with David St. John
JANUARY 13, 2018
I INTERVIEWED the poet David St. John, my friend of several years, shortly after the death of writer Sam Shepard. Shepard’s death influenced my reading of St. John’s latest book, The Last Troubadour: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins), not only for the similarities between the two writers’ origins as Californians, but also for their shared obsession with the fleeting beauty of the American West. I started to recognize how this trait of St. John’s work, attuned to the piercing intimacies of sex, love, and landscape, perpetuates his very elegant poems with an elemental American roughness I find irresistible. For a poet who is so often praised for his voluptuous intricacy, St. John has for me produced a rare fusion of refinement and grit, while also revealing what makes California so particularly Western and so particularly American.
Our interview took place in his office in the English department at the University of Southern California, where he serves as Chair, and where he has taught creative writing for 30 years.
I. Troubadour Days
MICHAEL JULIANI: In other interviews with you, there’s often a discussion about how you approach your work book by book. It’s clear that each book presents something unique for you. This being your second volume of selected poems, what does that mean for you? How did you look over your previous work and decide what to use?
DAVID ST. JOHN: It had been more than 20 years since my first new and selected poems, Study for the World’s Body. With The Last Troubadour, I made the decision that, from over 40 years of poems, I would select no more than 50 poems. I thought selecting 1.25 poems per year was a good ratio for any poet; if I could find 1.25 poems a year over the previous 40 years, that would make me happy. Even though, as you say, with each individual book, I’ve always wanted to construct a book that was its own entity, I saw that in choosing poems from all those books I found a consistency of voice that I hadn’t anticipated. Those 50 “selected” poems, for me, began to tell a story of my own life in poetry, stylistically, that I was happy to tell.
How do you characterize some of your stylistic impulses, relating both to your life’s work and the new poems included in The Last Troubadour?
When I wrote the book Prism, I found that I liked a kind of breathless quality that removing punctuation had allowed me. But I wanted to do something formally that allowed me both to race and to slow down, move quickly and then pause, and so I began working with the couplet stanza with the second line indented. I thought of it as a trellis that I could run certain rhythms and lines along. I liked being able to push a line the way C. K. Williams and Charles Wright would push a line. Charles Wright would often push toward a hexameter line, an Alexandrian line, and then come back with a shorter line, and that was something that had always appealed to me. What I liked about Charlie Williams’s work was how his lines propelled the narrative. I think of the new poems in this book as highly charged cinematic vignettes; even though many of the poems are in first person, I hope it’s clear that all the speakers are not necessarily me. So, I created these more elliptical vignettes that work as mirrors all the way through.
In this process, did you gain a new sense of how your relationship to some of your primary influences has changed over the last 40 years?
I could talk forever about the poets who influenced me, writers like Eugenio Montale, Alexandr Blok, and Paul Éluard. Those poets share a kind of respect for the world’s luminosity. One of the things that writing poetry at this moment necessitates for me is simply a harder, sharper edge to the sensibility. I hope the poems of the new section, “The Way It Is,” have more of a sense of a whip snapping in them as the reader moves through the poems. I wanted there to be opportunity to create disjunction, both narratively and syntactically. It’s a commonplace, but poetry really is about time and the experience of time in language, so I wanted the lines to be able to shift ground, to have little trapdoors within the stanza breaks that might shift the temporality, so that ideas of memory and the present become interleafed in some way.
I noticed while reading the selected poems, as you suggested, that it gave clues to me as to how you may have arrived at the forms of the new poems. Previously when I may have thought there was more of a difference between your books, I actually saw the story all the way through.
I think that’s true. One of the things I learned in reading through this new group of selected poems was that there was a continuity between all the 40 years. Not simply an obsessiveness, but a stylistic impulse that kept finding other iterations, and the work is basically tonally intact from the beginning, which surprised me. I thought it would be more various. One could say, “Well, it’s a unified body from 40 years of work,” or one could say, “He didn’t do one goddamn new thing for 40 years,” depending on your perspective.
This reminds me of something thematic that I noticed, in relation to what you said about the poems being cinematic. There’s something about how the speakers and relationships presented in these poems relate to each other, this sense that the poems elaborate on intimacies, and with that elaboration between people, there are revelations of things that may displace lovers, friends, and family from each other, and then there may be elaborations that bond them completely. There is this sense, not only in the language that displaces the reader, pleasurably, throughout the poem, but also in the narrative content.
Absolutely. One of the things that I’ve often talked about in interviews or essays for many years is the sense that, for me, a poem is an enactment, in language, of a writer’s sensibility. My own sensibility revolves around the notion that experience is fluid and, like the fiction of the movement of film, continuous. We know that that is not so. We know that the world is full of fracture and disjunction. You could argue that the history of 20th-century poetry is the history of fragmentation, beginning, let’s say, with The Waste Land. Disjunction and fragmentation are what any artistic consciousness has necessarily looked to confront in our own time. Much of the poetry I love is a poetry that acts as a model of consciousness and a model of the fluidity of consciousness, in that it’s able to absorb (we hope) the jagged and fragmented pieces of experience that are thrown at us by our own lives, our own cultures, everything around us.
What art can do, I believe, when it’s working well, is allow us to experience the fragmentation and the disjunction, and at the same time provide us with the fluidity of experience that allows us to absorb those disjunctions as a reader, or in looking at a painting, or at a performance of a piece of music or dance. Every art grows within and every art reflects the conditions of its own time. For this past century, and more, we have seen how much wreckage needs to be considered a part of what we consider to be inevitable, even beautiful.
How does this relate to your own poems?
From the very first, the poems I’ve written have employed an I-thou kind of dialectic. What’s important to me in this notion of the dialectic is that it is reciprocal. The voice may issue from one of the two poles of the conversation, but in fact, unless the poem also contains the latent other within it, then it’s not doing what I hope it can do. For me, even though the poems continue the fiction of a single speaker, which of course we all know is a fiction in any case, that speaker is not only constructed of the fragments of him or herself, but also the fragments of that other person. The new poems, especially, are more aggressive in trying to make those little movies leaner and more exacting in the kinds of refracted images that arise.
II. The West
With the recent death of Sam Shepard, I was thinking about how he tried to live in Europe and then sort of came running back to the United States. Many of the poets you name as primary influences are European, and it’s certainly no secret that you’ve written a lot about Rome, that that is part of your sensibility. However, there is, with that sharpening of the newer poems, something more American or going-back-home about them.
That’s so true. Shepard is the perfect person to invoke here. Although the poems of my first and second books, Hush and The Shore, are filled with California landscapes, what I began to recognize (I think this was something I recognized first when I was editing Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze) was that, in one of my later books, The Auroras, I had returned again to California. One of the things I recognized in myself was that I was returning in my own work to a very elemental home place. I was looking back to the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno, the foothills of the Sierras, and again to the Pacific Coast. I realized that I wanted to keep those landscapes alive in my new poems also.
Stylistically, I began also to move from the enactment of the cinematic to a more representational sense of the imagistic, which is why photography and the image (as well as the homage to a photographer like Weston, or the secret poem about Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe) appear in the new poems. I wanted the sense of a harder, more clarified edge to the images.
It’s striking to me how performative these new poems are as well. In some ways, they’re far more theatrical. My idea of the perfect film script is Paris, Texas. When I went to live in Rome at the American Academy, I had a room that was basically as big as a double closet, but it was a gorgeous room that looked out on the cortile of the American Academy. I’d brought one cassette with me, and it was the soundtrack of Paris, Texas. This is by way of saying how important Sam Shepard’s work has always been to me. That language of those plays and the sense of, not just what William Carlos Williams would call the American Grain, but the grain of the West. You could argue that, in some ways, Shepard went east to find what was true west. Certainly, I think one could say that about me. One could say that in some ways I’ve come full circle. My friend Howard Norman, the remarkable fiction writer and memoirist, who was a longtime friend of Sam Shepard’s, is, other than you, the only person to recognize the huge presence of Shepard in my work. I find that incredibly gratifying that you both can see that.
I was thinking of the epigraph to Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, from César Vallejo: “never did far away charge so close.” I think that sums it up. I also think of some of your poems, like “In the High Country,” in relation to Shepard’s stuff. A lot of people discard Shepard’s poetry from Motel Chronicles or Hawk Moon, some of those rougher books of his, but I think he actually has a great ear for it.
He has one of the greatest ears for the American language and actual speech of any poet, playwright, or fiction writer. He also understands how a voice is enacted first in language and then in physical space.
III. On and Off the Court
I thought that maybe I’d ask you what it was like to publish your first book since Philip Levine died, but that led me to thinking about how you were a tennis player when you were young, and when I was growing up, my uncle was a tennis player. He told me that in order to get better, you should play against people who are better than you, ones who are as good as you are, as well as ones who you’re better than. It struck me that, in a basic way, my uncle’s advice resembled how your career, and your life, really, has been defined by your friendships, by your mentors, and by your many students.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the mentors I’ve had, both those who were officially teachers of classes and those who weren’t. Peter Everwine, Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, and my longtime friend Norman Dubie. Most people know that meeting Philip Levine and Larry Levis at Fresno State was a defining moment for me. Levine was the most eclectic of teachers. His method of teaching was to make sure that one read great canonical poetry and poetry that he believed was, however new it was, extraordinary. From the day I first met him, at 18, our conversations were always about, “Wow, have you read this? Have you read what so-and-so just did? Have you seen this translation of so-and-so?” It’s something that I think both Larry and I internalized and used later as we became teachers. I was also lucky in meeting Levine because, before I left Fresno, he introduced me to many people I ended up spending time with later, like Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, and Mark Strand. A poet who was so central to me — and only a few people understand this — was Adrienne Rich.
I met Adrienne when I was 19 or 20. She came to Fresno and I met her at a very difficult time in her own life. We became friends and corresponded. When I taught at Oberlin, she came to do a reading and a visit. Before she arrived for her visit, the poets there, David Young and Stuart Friebert, asked her what she wanted to do when she visited and she said, “I don’t care, just make sure that David’s there at dinner,” and they were like, “What the fuck?” It was a friendship that continued through the years. I would see her in odd places, like Key West — we were there at the same time a couple of times. Then I started to see Adrienne regularly after I moved to Los Angeles because one of her sons, Jacob, had moved to Los Angeles. She would come to see Jacob and her grandson very frequently. It was great because it gave us both a kind of built-in excuse to hang out. Also, of course, I had her come read at USC three or four times after I came here, and at the Getty Museum as well.
My conversations over the years with Adrienne had to do with political issues and questions. The poem of mine that Adrienne cared for most was my long political poem about Pasolini. That was the poem that, when it appeared in a book, she instantly wrote to me about, because it had a resonance and a scope that I think she had been waiting to see in my poems. Because she knew me, she sensed there was a political life and a range of political concerns that had only really found amplification there, in that poem.
IV. The Last Question
I’m going to conclude with an old journalism school trick. They say to always end every interview by asking, “Is there anything that no one has ever asked you that you’ve always wanted to talk about?”
It would be, “Why haven’t you stopped writing?” The reason that’s an important question is that I ask myself some form of that question every day. I ask myself, “What the fuck?” It’s not “que sera, sera.” It’s not “Is that all there is?” It’s more about asking what is it that permits me the arrogance to continue. I do it because I love doing it, and I keep doing it to discover if I can do things that I’ve never been able to do in language. I have no interest in writing the poems I have already written. I have no interest in those poems. I think some of them are good poems, but I don’t want to write those poems. I want to write some poems that I don’t think I can write. The truth is that maybe I can’t, maybe I won’t be able to do that. I think the delicious prospect of never writing again is always what’s there in the mirror every day. I’ve long ago befriended that question in the mirror. I’m someone who has gone significant periods not writing. After the first long period of not writing, when I began to write again, I never was afraid of that long period of not writing ever again. What I’ve done is what most writers do. I just read things I love and I look for new work to startle and console me.
If there’s anything good about my habits as a writer, it’s that I always read new writers; I read young poets. When I was coming up, I saw too many of my revered elders making the decision that they didn’t care to read younger poets because they couldn’t find their own relevance to what these new poets did. The poets I mentioned earlier were not those poets, of course. Otherwise they wouldn’t have read me, for one thing. And I wasn’t the only younger poet they read. Somebody like Kinnell, for example, was a famous champion of younger poets, and people don’t always remember that. He championed Ai, he championed Carolyn Forché, he championed me. That’s how my first book was published at Houghton Mifflin — because of Kinnell. I’ve told that story elsewhere. I see it as one of my pleasures to be able to read a lot of young poets. I believe in a plurality of voices, a diversity of voices, a poetry of every issue and every stripe. Anyone who’s ever been my student or who knows me, knows that’s just a given in what I feel about poetry. But the question remains: why should I continue? I know there are lots of people who, when they read me saying this, will be happy to write me and say, “Please stop. We love you but please stop.” Or they’ll say, “We don’t love you and please stop.” I’ll keep doing it, however, as long as it interests me and I’m able to go somewhere I’ve never gone. If I feel like I can’t find a new path, a new door, a new drug — then I’ll stop writing.
Michael Juliani is a poet, editor, and journalist from Pasadena, California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in outlets such as Washington Square, BOMB, The Adirondack Review, Los Angeles Times, The Conversant, and the Huffington Post.