Dignity of a Human Voice: An Interview with Robert Pinsky, by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis


My very first introduction to Robert Pinsky was on the *Poetry Foundation website, where I had the opportunity to read many of his poems and articles. But the most interesting way of learning more about him was to watch a number of videos, in which he was either performing, reciting poems or teaching his students. If you have not seen that warm glitter in Robert Pinsky’s eyes and the smile radiating on his face, when he passionately talks about poetry, music, and art, then you have not known the poet.

My formal introduction to Robert Pinsky took place in 2013, the year “Life and Legends” was launched, and we had the honor of publishing the three-term Poet Laureate of the United States, in the first issue of our journal. I felt deeply honored. Over the course of two years, I read more of Robert Pinsky’s works, mostly poetry, and felt inspired to translate some of his poems into my mother tongue, Hindi, which are soon to be published in some reputable Indian journals.

Reading his poems from the depth he writes, and understanding his works in the backdrop of his cultural heritage and traditions, well blended into America’s mainstream, gave rise to many questions in my mind about his creative thought process. It also triggered my curiosity about his journey as a writer, poet, critic, musician, and teacher, that resulted in this interview, now before you. In this conversation, I explore the sensibility of a writer and poet, whose voice has a universal appeal, who eludes complexities that surround him to reveal the simplicity and dignity of a human voice, important to him. I’m honored and thrilled to have this important conversation with one of the best American poet-critics of our time. Robert Pinsky is here, in his own words –


KALPNA SINGH-CHITNIS (KSC): Who is Robert Pinsky to you?

ROBERT PINSKY: He wrote poetry, including the closing passage of “History of My Heart.” Also prose, including The Life of David.

He founded the Favorite Poem Project, with three anthologies and the videos at www.favoritepoem.org. He fought a long legal battle to enable showing of the Countee Cullen video.

He and Ellen Pinsky raised Nicole, who wrote the notes to The Inferno of Dante; Caroline, who is the head veterinarian at the Wayland Animal Hospital; and Elizabeth, the pediatric psychiatrist.

KSC: You are a Poet, Musician and Teacher, what role do you like the best?

ROBERT PINSKY: Poetry and music are aspects of one thing, to which I have devoted my life. My teaching is a corollary of that devotion.

Robert Pinsky performing

KSC: How did you become a poet?

ROBERT PINSKY: I don’t know. Part of it comes from compulsive awareness of how words and sentences sound. It seems related to a kind of disbelief that one really is an adult.

KSC: Do you remember your first poem?

ROBERT PINSKY: There is no first poem for me– I do not come from a family or milieu where one “wrote a poem.” But I was making things up, with attention to vowels, consonants, pitch, cadence, as long as I can remember. In my crib, I suppose.

KSC: What inspires you to write?

ROBERT PINSKY: Emily Dickinson, Charlie Parker, Buster Keaton, Isaac Babel, Ralph Ellison, Pablo Picasso, Francisco Goya, Mozart, Dickens, Yeats . . . Willa Cather . . . Jimmy Scott . . . Mark Twain . . . Max Beerbohm . . . Louise Bogan . . . William Carlos Williams . . . Sid Caesar . . . Fred Astaire . . . Dizzy Gillespie . . . William Faulkner . . . Walt Kelly . . . Akira Kurosawa . . . and hundreds or thousands more.

Art, I believe, is inspired by art. As Dexter Gordon says, you remember the feeling you got from music that thrilled you, and you would like to give other people that feeling.

KSC: Did you have the influence of any writer and poet on you? Who are your favorites?

ROBERT PINSKY: See the preceding question!

KSC: What defines American literature?

ROBERT PINSKY: I don’t care about such definitions. If they have any use, it is that artists play the game of evading or surpassing them.

KSC: How is the cultural diversity of the United States influencing modern American literature? Are the unique voices being heard?

ROBERT PINSKY: Diversity is in the nature of culture, including modern American culture. Culture– contrary to various ideologues– is by its nature impure, hybrid, in motion.

Purity is an illusion, often (as in much 29th century history) sinister.

Similarly, every voice is unique.

Those are my convictions.

Robert Pinsky 2

KSC: Do you think, government efforts to preserve Native American culture, languages and literature are enough?

ROBERT PINSKY: Efforts to preserve (and if possible, revivify) the past should be amplified, extended, redoubled– even though it may be thwarted or doomed. This is particularly urgent, and particularly a moral imperative, in relation to Native American languages (I like your plural!) and cultures. Yes.

In Massachusetts, one non-academic woman took a course in the language spoken by her Wampanoag ancestors and over years, as she became more learned and more committed, she turned it from a dead language into a living one. A model worth pondering.

KSC: You have served three terms as the poet laureate of the United States. What responsibilities did it bring on your shoulder as a poet and cultural diplomat?

ROBERT PINSKY: It’s just a title— no grand responsibilities to it. I am grateful that thanks to a young man at the NEA named Cliff Becker, the Bill Clinton administration, and the Clintons, I was able to create the Favorite Poem Project, with the remarkable videos at www.favoritepoem.org. But that was not part of a responsibility or cultural diplomacy. It was just something very cool, made possible by the title.

KSC:  The United States sponsors many cultural missions abroad. During your terms as the poet laureate of the United States, did you lead any such mission, and was it gratifying to you?

ROBERT PINSKY: The US State Department used to sponsor many more cultural missions than nowadays. At some point, the kind of program that brought Dizzy Gillespie to Soviet Russia, Philip Roth to what was Yugoslavia, many many other “Ampart” . . . got dropped. It’s mostly things about management, marketing, software, etc. There used to be more musicians, artists, writers, scholars— but there’s no such program any more.

I think there are people in the State Department that regret that . . . not because it was nice, or nice for the artists and scholars, but because it was good for our country.

Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (left), Rita Dove (Center) and Rober Hass (right) with President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House in 1998. Photo courtesy: National Public Radio.

KSC: Do you think art and literature can influence politics in a significant way; and a writer, poet, journalist and artist can contribute in finding solutions to a national or international crisis? Or, they shouldn’t bother, and leave these issues to the politicians only?

ROBERT PINSKY: The effects of culture on society have always been profound. To ignore or minimize that fact is willfully blind.

Politics is an important subject.

On the other hand, one of the Yiddish poets, back in the 1930s I guess, said something like “Yiddish poetry is not simply the Rhyme Department of the Jewish Labor Movement.”

KSC: Would you agree that political correctness compromises the authenticity of what a writer or an artist creates?

ROBERT PINSKY: «Correctness» of all kinds, in the sense you mean, deserves some skepticism. But maybe excesses are corrective. When I was in college, I was asked to read poems by Archibald MacLeish but not by Robert Hayden or Gwendolyn Brooks. So maybe that calls for the cultural equivalent of a general, compensatory «ouch!» or «mea culpa!»?

KSC: What do you consider as your major accomplishment serving as the poet laureate of the United States?

ROBERT PINSKY: www.favoritepoem.org — those videos and the three anthologies, published by Norton.

KSC: What inspired the Favorite Poem program?

ROBERT PINSKY: It reflects what I’ve done most of my life with friends and family: saying the words of poems to one another. Plainly, directly, reading things one values. It’s not poetry as performative art: something quieter, more intimate, and in my opinion more fundamental.

Robert Pinsky 1

KSC: You have published over twenty five books of poetry, translations and essays. If anyone wants to read one of your books, which one would you recommend first?

ROBERT PINSKY: In verse, Selected Poems or The Want Bone. In prose, The Life of David or Thousands of Broadways.

KSC: Democracy, Culture, and Poetry, what inspired you to investigate these themes together in your book “Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry?”

ROBERT PINSKY: Show business on the one hand, the academic curriculum on the other hand— sometimes it seems that people accept those as constituting culture. All respect to show business and to the schools: no! Culture is larger and deeper than either, includes them, reaches beyond their authority. Poetry, based on the individual dignity of one human voice, provides a good example of that. Thus, that book.

KSC: What are you writing next?

ROBERT PINSKY: My new book of poems—finishing touches right now— to be entitled At the Foundling Hospital, will be published in the Fall. Soon, New York Review Books will reprint John Williams’ great anthology English Renaissance Poetry, with my introduction. And there is a new prose project stirring.

KSC: When you are not writing, teaching or playing music, what do you like to do?

ROBERT PINSKY: Family things.

KSC: If you have to give a piece of advice to the writers, what would that be?

ROBERT PINSKY: Read. Read like a writer. Read not to keep up with the present but to understand the past and the future. Be guided in your reading by your individual appetites and needs. Be guided in your writing by your reading.

KSC: How do you connect to the rest of the world?

ROBERT PINSKY: I’m kind of a small town, neighborhood yacker or chatter-up. I love conversation, email, telephones, web searches . . . I engage in communication of the available kinds . . . maybe to a fault.

KSC: Have you ever been to India and had the opportunity to read literature being written there?

ROBERT PINSKY: I’ve long had a somewhat fearful, fascinated desire to visit India, never have. From the Heinrich Zimmer books, Louis Malle’s “Phantom India,” many other sources, I have the idea that India includes more languages, cultures, art-forms, beliefs, than all the rest of the world put together. Of course any reader of English has read many Indian writers! (Including some from the Indian diaspora.)

Robert Pinsky with educators

KSC: Do you have any message for our world involved in fighting wars, terrorism, hunger, poverty, discrimination, environmental disasters, etc.? Do you have any cause close to your heart?

ROBERT PINSKY: I won’t presume to have a message of that scope. A cause close to my heart involves American teachers, especially public school teachers, especially of small children, especially in poor communities. I’ve earned my bread as a teacher most of my life. I grew up in a poor neighborhood. I benefited from a few good teachers (Mrs. Lane, Mr, McWithey, Mrs, Judson, Mr. Ippolito) and suffered from ones I thought were cruel (Mr. Kolibas, Mr. Florkiewicz, Miss Warwick). The Favorite Poem Project conducts, every July, a one-week poetry institute for K-12 teachers, at BU. I wish we could do more to support and reward good teachers, and that we could do more to care for our small children.

KSC: How would you like the world to remember Robert Pinsky?

ROBERT PINSKY: See the first question, above.



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