Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Philip Levine's News of the World

News of the World by Philip Levine
ISBN 978-0-307-27223-2
New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009
Cloth, viii, 65 pp., $25.00

Philip Levine’s News of the World

By Zara Raab
Reprinted courtesy of The Adirondack Review

In his teens and twenties, Philip Levine worked in Detroit’s factories, and that working class world–– the grinding poverty, dysfunction, drunkenness, violence, as well as the courage, stoicism, and longing––became his great subject, as Chicago was Carl Sandburg’s subject, and the stuff of seventeen books and numerous prizes and awards. Weaving in and out of his vivid, unswerving portraits of working class life in America at mid-century are the elements of his own essential American story: turn-of-the-century, immigrant grandparents; Yiddish-speaking grandfather; solidly middle class family wrenched from its moorings by the Great Depression, American jazz, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, anarchism.

Levine is primarily a poet of images skillfully crafted into narratives maintaining an even distance between poet and his material. The embodiedness of his images create the excitement of his poetry and demonstrate a deep psychic intelligence. Image and richly detailed narrative are Levine’s primary poetic strategies. There is little of Steven’s rhetoric, flamboyance, or excess of imagination; no significant variety of tone or the playfulness with diction of Frank O’Hara in Levine’s work. But within his narrow range, lucid yet at times intricate, Levine achieves results of some power. His narrative––hierarchical, sequential––demonstrates Levine’s commitment to stories and his passion for the possibilities of poetic depth. In “Closed,” he writes:

"The diner was closed. The two brothers stared through the window & could see no one behind the counter. One small light burned over the cash register . . . . Max, the huskier brother in a checked mackinaw, suggested they find another dump. “If Teresa’s ain’t open, nothing gonna be open,” Bernie, his taller, wiry brother said. “There’s the Greek,” said Max, “come on, it’s close.” The Greek was actually Yervan, an Armenian who’d opened a small grocery store that sold delicatessen across from the transmission plant. Bernie thought of lighting a joint on the short walk but realized he was too tired for that. “What you got today, Nick?” Max said. “What you want?” said the Greek. “Coffee & two eggs over easy with crisp bacon & whole wheat toast,” said Bernie. Yervan told them to try Teresa’s because this wasn’t a restaurant. “You call Teresa’s a restaurant?” said Max. “For eight hours I been thinking of nothing but breakfast,” said Bernie. “This has spoiled my whole weekend, maybe my whole life.” By this time the sun had cleared the stacks of the transmission plant & broken thorough the dusty window of the deli. The Greek shielded his eyes a & knew it was going to be a long day. . . . “I got coffees & fresh milks,” he said, “those little pies you guys like.” “Okay,” said Bernie & put both bands on the counter & leaned in to them. “If I had anything left in me,” he said, “I’d cry.” [42]

Echoes of Carl Sandburg live in Levine’s narratives of city life in the ear-splitting, filthy, perilous, machine-drive factories of the Mid-west. But more than Sandburg, Levine’s poems have a pressing undertow of loss and defeat. The metaphor of the closed diner resonates throughout the poem. What these young working class men seek in life is closed to them; they are shut out; all that’s on offer after an eight hour shift is cold pastry. “This has spoiled my whole weekend, maybe my whole life” says how just how beaten down these working class brothers are.

But Levine’s is an American gloom, at mid-century still with some hope in it; other pieces in this new collection capture an American exuberance that seems more 1990’s than 1930’s, as in the title poem, in which the poet and his companion make their way, as tourists, to Andorra, a tiny country high in the eastern Pyrenees on the border between Spain and France. There they find “what we’d come for: the perfect radio.” The shop owner, a communist who’d fled Germany in the 1930s and stayed, tells them he can get them anything they wish for. “Anything?” the poet asks. “A Cadillac?” The shop owner could have it that very afternoon. Only an American film star will take a little longer. [44]

Levine captures the struggle, the occasional bitter-sweet triumph, of an earlier time: “I had to put one foot in front of another,/hold both arms out for balance, stare ahead,/breathe like a beginner and hope to arrive.” [61, “Magic,” News of the World] Octogenarian now, Levine finds even in death the thought of freedom and release: “Think of it,/my name, no longer a portion/of me, no longer inflated/or bruised. . .a tiny me taking nothing, giving/nothing, empty, and free at last.” [58, “Burial Rites,” News of the World].

Levine’s perennial theme of fraternal solidarity recurs in this new book. In “Dearborn Suite,” he imagines a decrepit, sleepless Henry Ford coming down to his factory:

The old man, King Henry, punches in
for the night shift with us,
his beloved coloreds and Yids,
to work until the shattered
windows gray. There is a justice
after all, there’s a bright anthem
for the occasion, something
familiar and blue, with words we
all sing, like “Time on My Hands.” [20-21]

Some reviewers focus on Levine’s anarchistic political beliefs and his lack of sentimentality. I have found in Levine a religious poet whose narratives, interwoven with society and politics and class struggles, give meaning to the working class experience of life and express a religious view in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s 18th century Enlightenment understanding of the concept as “a feeling of absolute dependence.” Levine’s work acknowledges how

. . . people rose one
by one from cold beds to tend a world
that runs on and on at its own sweet will.

18, “Sweet Will,” Sweet Will]
What makes Levine’s work religious, besides such reveries on the power of the universe, is his grace, unconsumed by bitterness, rancor or regret in the face of loss.

Levine is a also poet of memory, ‘”stewing/in a rich compost of memory/or the simpler one of bone,” [58, “Burial Rites,” News of the World], so it is natural that family memory enter his poems, the grandfather crossing the ocean:

Yusel Prisckulnick,
I bless your laughter
Thrown I the wind’s face
Your gall, your rages,
Your abiding love
For money and all
It never bought,
For your cracked voice
That wakens in dreams
Where you rest at last,
For all the sea taught
You and you taught me:
That the waves go out
And nothing comes back.

Levine spurns futility and fantasy, and emphasizes instead the ways of ordinary living over abstract beliefs. In an earlier poem, “Jewish Graveyards, Italy” (from Sweet Will), the poet had written,

I . . . bend to the names
And say them as slowly as I can.
Full, majestic, vanished names
That fill my mouth and go out
Into the densely yellowed air
Of this great valley and dissolve
As ever the sea dissolves beating
On a stone shore or as love does
When the beloved turns to stone
Or dust or water [54-54]

Levine’s poems recognize our dependence on each other as well as the world: “Manhattan is not an island,” he writes--

“All these voices are singing about who you are. For a moment you are part of the mainland.” [38, “Islands”]

In News of the World, Levine sustains his production of well-mannered, well-proportioned poems that still rumble and groan with a certain passion. Like the products of a factory, Levine’s poems roll out on schedule, one much like the next in formal qualities, in size, diction, and metrics. Like the cars from an assembly line at the General Motors plant, where Levine worked as a young man helping to make the cars he admits to driving joyously in his youth, the poems provide the undeniable pleasures of a good ride, sturdy and compelling their forward movement. Yet how unlike the standard manufactured product! How earthy and perceptive they are, and how complex.

Zara Raab’s poems appear in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her book Swimming the Eel is due out in soon. She lives and writes in Berkeley.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Interview with Lucille Lang Day 2011 by Zara Raab

This interview first appeared in the San Francisco Book Review
in the “Writing Around the Bay “ column

Author of six books and three chapbooks, Lucille Lang Day (http://lucillelangday.com) is a visible presence in the Bay Area poetry scene, a frequent guest reader at public events, and director of Scarlet Tanager Books. With an M.F.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State University, as well as a Ph.D. in science and mathematics education from UC Berkeley, (as well as other degrees), for 17 years she directed the Hall of Health, an interactive children’s museum in Berkeley. Her most recent book is The Curvature of Blue from Cervena Barva Press (2009). Her memoir Married at Fourteen, will appear from Heyday in 2012. She will be reading as part of the Marin Poetry Center's Summer Traveling Show on July 19th at the Dance Palace, 503 B Street, Point Reyes, 7:00. Visit www.marinpoetrycenter.org for more details.

Zara Raab: You were married when you were fourteen, and had your first child when you were fifteen. Yet you have multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. in science and mathematics education. How did you manage this?

Lucille Lang Day: As a teenager, I found that I didn’t like working as a waitress, gas station attendant, cosmetic salesgirl, or phone girl at Chicken Delight, so I became truly driven to acquire credentials that would qualify me for other lines of work. My mother took care of my daughter when I went back to school.

ZR: To evoke this period in your life, I’d like to quote from your wonderful poem “Reject Jell-O,” which I just heard you read at Moe’s Books in Berkeley as part of the Poetry Flash launch of Jack Foley’s long awaited Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940–2005.


The man I married twice—
at fourteen in Reno, again in Oakland
the month before I turned eighteen—
had a night maintenance job at General Foods.
He mopped the tiled floors and scrubbed
the wheels and teeth of the Jell-O machines.
I see him bending in green light,
a rag in one hand,
a pail of foamy solution at his feet.
He would come home at seven a.m.
with a box of damaged Jell-O packages,
including the day's first run,
routinely rejected, and go to sleep.
I made salad with that reject Jell-O—
lemon, lime, strawberry, orange, peach—
in a kitchen where I could almost touch
opposing walls at the same time
and kept a pie pan under the leaking sink.
We ate hamburgers and Jell-O
almost every night . . .

ZR: This is a wonderfully evocative poem. And you have a memoir coming out next year from Heyday, so I look forward to reading more about your life. But mostly you write poetry. Why?

LLD: In the form of a poem I can best express some things I want to say. Sometimes a poem feels like the only sensible way to say it. For example, in my latest poetry collection, The Curvature of Blue, the poem “Playing ‘St. Louis Blues’ at Auschwitz” combines the idea of multiple universes with the story of Louis Bannet, who saved his life by playing the trumpet at Auschwitz. I think an essay with these elements would come out garbled, but in poetry I could bring it off.

ZR: What compels you to write poetry?

LLD: Strong emotions. Things I find particularly beautiful, ugly, or interesting. Dreams. Concern for the environment. The fun of playing and experimenting with words. Poetry keeps me from getting bored. Also, I feel that I experience my life more fully when I write. The process helps me see more, remember more, and clarify my thoughts about it all. Plus, sharing the poems deepens my sense of connection with other people.

ZR: Why not a novel or short stories, or for that matter nonfiction?

LLD: I have tried all of the above. I started two novels and totally abandoned one of them. After writing about 60 pages of the second one, I took out the fictional elements and turned it into the first couple of chapters of my memoir. My imagination and sense of narrative, I’ve concluded, do not work in the manner of a novelist. However, I have published many short stories and personal essays, so with short fiction and creative nonfiction, I seem to be on firmer ground.

ZR: How is the memoir coming out from Heyday different from the poems?

LLD: It contains a lot more information about my life than I have been able to pack into my poems. I should say, however, that writing poetry has helped my prose immensely. In poetry it’s essential to get rid of all of the extra words and to be aware of all of the sounds and rhythms of language. This also happens in good prose.

ZR: You have a publishing imprint, as well, called Scarlet Tanager Books (http://www.scarlettanager.com). What’s happening with that now? Will you be coming out with a new book this year?

LLD: I’ve decided to publish anthologies for now, rather than books by individual authors. The first Scarlet Tanager anthology, entitled Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry, is edited by Andrena Zawinski. It will be released in February 2012. Anthologies will enable me to publish many more writers than I was able to showcase in books by individuals.

ZR: What are you reading now?

LLD: The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America, by Berkeley author Richard Kluger. It’s about the persecution of the peace-loving Nisqually tribe by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens and his cronies in the mid-19th century. Leschi deserves to be remembered along with such figures as Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo. And Dick Kluger, who won a Pulitzer for his book about the tobacco industry, deserves a second Pulitzer for this one.

ZR: Who are your favorite authors?

LLD: In poetry Pattiann Rogers and upcoming Bay Area poet Rebecca Foust are among my favorites; in fiction Elizabeth Strout and Charles Baxter; and in nonfiction (memoir) Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, and Frank McCourt.

ZR: How do you decide what you're going to read?

LLD: I tend to read books, poetry and prose, related to what I’m working on. I also look for new books by my favorite authors, books my friends and husband recommend, and books by my writer friends.

ZR: What books/ authors influenced you as a young writer?

LLD: In poetry I was influenced by Emily Dickenson, John Keats, and Sylvia Plath; in prose by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Flannery O’Connor, and Grace Paley.

ZR: What books influence you now?

LLD: Books by contemporary writers. For example, Pattiann Rogers’s Song of the World Becoming and Alison Hawthorne Deming’s The Monarchs have influenced my science and nature poetry. Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club have influenced my memoir.

ZR: What are you writing now? Can you describe your current projects?

LLD: I’m working on sequences of poems about place, the natural world, ancestors, family, and mortality. In fiction, I’ve completed eight stories for a collection whose main themes are emerging as identity and loss of emotional control.

ZR: Do you belong to a book club? How important is a sense of community to your writing? How important is your writing to a sense of community?

LLD: I don’t belong to a book club, but a sense of community is very important to me as a writer. I belong to a women’s poetry salon that meets every six weeks, and I have a small writing group (three women, including myself) that meets about once a month. I also get support and inspiration from the broader community of Bay Area writers, as well as from writer friends nationwide. The sense of community is a big part of what keeps me going.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

This review of Roads of Bread: The Collected Poems of Eugene Ruggles (Petaluma, CA, 2009) first appeared in the newsletter of the Marin Poetry Center, June 2011.

Eugene Ruggles: Poet of Hands

“Here is to the five horses grazing at the end of your wrist.”

––Eugene Ruggles

By Zara Raab

Eugene Ruggles had an intensely expressive gift for opening his mind to vivid imagery and apt metaphor. It’s a powerful, hazardous gift, a rapture that could be deadly and certainly led in his case to misjudgments and occasional ruin. It was as if he made and lost himself in a single gesture, like a waterfall. It is no accident that water(s) occurs twenty times in The Lifeguard in the Snow, fifty-eight times if we include cognates like river, sea, and rain. The place that holds the water even as it falls is a pair of cupped hands, making Ruggles the Poet of Hands. Though he is often described as a poet of the heart, but in a closer look, he becomes the Poet of Hands, in a contest with hearts, Ruggles’ hands (mentioned thirty-three times) win hands down. Even in poems that do not explicitly mention hands, their gestures are integral to the poem, as in “A Simple One,” in which the poet imagines lying in his coffin beneath the ground “looking up at a wooden sky/with the rest of the immigrants/my friends the roots//waving—“ [32].

Ruggles finds and expresses his meanings in the simplest physical gestures, often though not always involving hands. The gestures of kneeling, folding, covering, guarding, protecting, occur again and again in Ruggles’ poems. In “Beginning Again as Morning,” we are instructed:

Kneel down with the insects

where the sea has been folding

a scarf for you,

open her leaves of water. [44]

Ruggles’ presence in his own body, and his awareness of it is palpable in almost every one of the thirty poems in the remarkable Part I of The Lifeguard in the Snow.

Stretching as far as I can

As though to hear through my forehead

Like a snake come down to drink

My mouth pressed against the weeds

[5, A Poem of Weeds]

This presence extends to the elements in physical contact with him, the weather, the land, the quality of light, the time of day, seasonal affects:

She has placed the wind about me

like a shirt without a seam,

and told me that the words

like men, should have weather in them.

[14, The White Goddess]

As with powerful actors like Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, or Anthony Hopkins, it doesn’t matter so much what is said. Alec Guinness is eloquent by his very presence. A person can speak with his entire physical body and mind. So Ruggles writes in the title poem of The Lifeguard in the Snow:

Watching those young children all last summer

Has folded this black sunburn through my chest—

A small girl water carved out of my arms forever. [6]

It is the way we speak to ourselves, in incomplete sentences, unmindful of grammar, when we feel something deeply.

Ruggles’ descriptions of the body are fresh, original. An old man’s arms are “thin as oars/buried in the sliding daylight” [23]. A man’s “dark face” is “packed with scars” [24]. The lover embraces the beloved, his “arms like the rain about [her]” [27]. Ruggles’ understanding of the world is derives from his physical body, his very words brushing “against/the ancient drawings on the walls/of the mouth [28]. In “Love I Have Kept You Poor,” the lover withdraws “this last breath/from the bank of your thigh” [31]. Ruggles’ bodies are part of a seamless fabric of living things. A logging foreman sleeps alone in the woods where, “after a few hours of sleep/there are small movements in the dark/hollow where he has lain,/as when you roll back an old log/in the fields” [25].

Of the twenty-nine poems in Part I of The Lifeguard, all but the final poem have at least a few, often several, of the cognates for weather––water, rain, snow, wind, light (or sunlight), and various cognates for the physical body––body (bodies), hand, thigh, arms, bones, earth. In The Lifeguard as a whole, body and its cognates—bones, heart, eyes, fingers, shoulders, stomach, ankle, waist, skin, thighs, chest, face, arms, hair, blood, and especially hands, occur an astounding 263 times.

John Updike, a far luckier man than working-class, last-of-a- gaggle-of-kids Ruggles, once famously described a television in one of his novels as a “warm fire.” For Ruggles, in “Lines from an Alcoholic Ward,” the television becomes, more vigorously, a raging stove into which the poet “shovel[s] [his]. . . share of coal” [48]. The external world is not “out there,” it is fully incorporated by the experiencing, perceiving body. Ideas are in things, and specifically in the human body, the poet’s body: “I stand in my casket light and piss/through it” [63, “Deciding to Run for Office”). Describing the coming of night in the alcoholic ward, the poet writes:

Now there’s only the moon.

A full November moon. Nailed

In the corner of a barred window

[no stanza break]

And my hand a yard turning dark.

[48, “Lines from an Alcoholic Ward”]

The poor in prayer are

ecstatic as the fingers of an old baker

of loaves who is brushing

the last flour from his apron.

[64, “From the Coats of the Poor”]

In other poems, Ruggles sometimes stumbles, losing control of his image. In “The Poor Man moves through Washington, D.C.––Spring 1968” (one imagines at an anti-Vietnam war rally), the poet’s “vision [is] shaded by the scar tissue/above his heart. And he is bringing/a load of firewood in his arms./These are the different logs of his rage.” In this, and in the Earth Day poems in The Lifeguard in the Snow, written in 1973 and comprising the middle section of Lifeguard, he strains too much for a political statement. “Ending War,” for example, advises

Chain all pregnant women together

to form a circle in every town

and aim rifles at their stomachs.

Do not let the women know

the rifles are empty.

. . . .

Let every stomach hear the clock

from each rifle and then

release your woman [53]

In this poem and some others, Ruggles’ intellect, his ideas, do not harmonize with his own physical, embodiment. But even in the apolitical poem “Back Inside the Crowd,” he writes,

The two legs of the heart are longer

Through men and women than I ever realized. [51].

I am not sure what to make of this. Ruggles seems to lose his sea legs; ashore, he cannot quite make his way. There are remarkable poems in both Spending the Sun and Enough, the two unpublished manuscripts––“The Animal That Waits Beneath Me,” “Love’s Migration,” “The Room,” “Small Morning Prayer,” “The Unemployed Automobile Workers of Detroit,” “Homeless.” But some of the power is gone; the physical vigor of the earlier poems wanes all too often to the kinds of spiritual, political, emotional searching common to much of contemporary poetry since Lowell’s Life Studies half a century ago.

Ruggles can still astound, even as he gropes for subject matter, once he returns to his core themes. “Amputee” is one of the later, unpublished poems we are blessed to have in this new volume. I quote it in full:

I feel strongest alone.

Removed, late at night.

The fire burning down

beneath my ankles,

touching nothing I’ve known

I listen to the dark

healing between us.

When it has finished

covering the last opening,

where the skin belongs,

I empty into sleep,

into many. A crutch, the oar

of a pencil tied in my hand

with rope, growing back

toward all of you. [156]

In “Amputee,” Ruggles returns to the archetypal image at the heart of “The Lifeguard in the Snow,” the collection nominated for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1977 when the poet was thirty-eight years old. In the unforgettable title poem of that collection from which I quoted at the beginning of this essay, the poet narrator returns in winter to the swimming hole where he was the lifeguard on duty when “a small girl [was] carved out of [his] arms forever.” An era of history can leave its signature in the emotional lives of a generation. In the times of Eugene Ruggles, with the Vietnam War still a foul taste in the mouth, and when to be a man was not to be a warrior, but still to guard and protect, the failure to do so could mark a life, a body of work, and perhaps an era, as well.

Zara Raab’s most recent book is The Book of Gretel. Swimming the Eel is due out later this year. Her work appears in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, The Dark Horse and Spoon River Poetry Review, with poems scheduled to appear in Evansville Review and River Styx. Her literary reviews and essays appear in Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Rattle on-line, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review and elsewhere. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Interview with the poet Jackie Berger April 2011

This Interview first appeared on the San Francisco Book Review’s
Writing around the Bay

Jacqueline Berger is the author of three prize-winning books: The Mythologies of Danger (the 1997 Bluestem Award and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award); Things That Burn, (Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry); and The Gift That Arrives Broken, (Autumn House Poetry Prize). Garrison Keillor recently read two of Berger’s poems on National Public Radio’s Writers’ Almanac. With an Master of Fine Arts from Mills College, Berger teaches creative writing and directs the graduate program in English at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. She lives in San Francisco.

Zara Raab: You’ve written three books, all poetry, all award winners: How did you manage this? Is it as easy as it looks for you to publish?

Jacqueline Berger: I’m incredibly tenacious. I keep sending out my work until it finds a publisher. It took me over a year to find a publisher for my first book, but the first book didn’t ease the way for the second one, which was short-listed for a lot of prizes. I began to feel I was always a brides’ maid, never a bride, but after four years, I did find a publisher for that book, and the next one. Manuscripts never come to a resting place for me: they are always evolving. I begin sending a manuscript out in the fall, but by the spring, it’s a very different manuscript, because I’m constantly revising.

ZR: What are you working on now?

JB: My parents died last year within four months of each other, and my new book’s about death and loss, about living without my parents. My mother got sick in June and died in October. I wrote many poems at the end of her illness, and many are addressed to her. It’s the first time I’ve written to a specific “you.” I could keep her alive through the poems. I could tell her the things that happened to me since she died. We were very close. We didn’t talk about death at the end, because for my mother it wasn’t gong to happen. My mother was sure she would live to be ninety. She died when she was eighty-three. Her belief was her faith and her denial of her own death. What is the relationship between the two? I was left with a lot of conversation that I needed to keep having with her.

I’ve also been invited to China to judge a televised high school and college writing contest, and I’m getting ready for that trip. It’s my second assignment there, and I’m looking forward to being wined and dined.

ZR: Where do you find the impetus for your writing? Why did you decide to become a writer?

JB: At Goddard College, I studied with Olga Burmas and Jane Miller. I’d always been interested in writing but the experience of free writing was transformative, and I tapped into something in myself I had no idea was there. I ended up studying with Olga in Freehand Women’s Writing Community in Provincetown, Massachusetts on the Cape. I’m one of those writers who writes in order to know her life. Crafting is part of knowing.

ZR: Why have you taken up poetry and not other forms of writing, the novel, say?

JB: Many of my poems start with ideas that I want to tease out. That’s what writers like Philip Lopate and Bernard Cooper do in their essays, which are fabulous. If I didn’t write poems, or if I had all the time in the world, I’d write personal essays. When we narrative poets choose another form to work in, it’s not usually the novel.

ZR: In The Gift That Arrives Broken, you remind us of the limitations of language, yet your work as a whole is what editors call “accessible.” You’re not just writing for others poets or artists, but for a wider audience, is that correct?

JB: You don’t choose what you’re going to write. If someone gives you an assignment, you can sit down and write in a certain style, but it’s not what you’re going to write when you’re on your own. I can do an experimental, language poem, but it doesn’t have any meaning for me.

ZR: Which authors—poets and otherwise––inspire you?

JB: I love Jack Gilbert, Robert Hass, Mark Doty, Marie Howe. Hass and Doty, in particular, are narrative poets, but they are expansively narrative. I love that.

ZR: What books are you reading at the moment?

JB: During the time of my mother’s death and then my dad’s four months later, I found Donald Hall’s Without, a book of poems written to his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. I also discovered Kevin Young’s wonderful anthology The Art of Losing. Poetry became more important to me than when I lost my parents. I had started Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and I was 50 pages in, but I had to put it aside for six months, as I had no emotional space for anyone’s else’s story. When times are hard, people turn to poetry. But I did, in fact, later finish Franzen’s book and loved it.

ZR: How do you decide whether to pick up a book? Referral from a friend? Or something you read in a book review or on-line?

JB: It’s intuitive. I run my hand along a shelf until something begins to hum. In the case of The Art of Losing, I’d gone to AWP [Associated Writing Programs] in Colorado in 2010, when the book came out, and I just knew that I wanted this book. With the Donald Hall’s Without, I’d owned it for years, but not really read it until now. I keep certain books on my radar, so I try to stay alert to new books coming out.

ZR: What advice would you give to aspiring young writers?

JB: Join a writers group because it's just too hard to write in isolation. And a good group becomes the immediate reader, thereby quieting the “so what?” feeling that stops young writers before they give themselves a chance. A good group also inspires and provides a deadline. I've been meeting with my group for fifteen years, every other week, and I never come empty handed. Other advice: read a lot, sure, but also become deeply curious about yourself and your relationships. You want to develop two skills -- knowing how to write and having something to say.