There’s a popular story about Linda Pastan: she won her first poetry prize as a senior at Radcliffe in the fifties, and the runner-up was one Sylvia Plath. It was an auspicious start for Pastan, even if she had never heard of Plath at the time. She’s gone on to publish fourteen books, amassing a host of accolades along the way. Her latest collection, Insomnia, appeared last fall. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review since 1987; the most recent, “The Collected Poems,” was in the Fall 2015 issue.
“There is no self-pity,” May Sarton wrote of Pastan’s Five Stages of Grief: “she has reached down to a deeper layer and is letting the darkness in. These poems are full of foreboding and acceptance, a wry unsentimental acceptance of hard truth.” The same could be said of Insomnia, in which Pastan, who is eighty-three now, reckons with old age in lines that are variously restless and serene, spirited and subdued. “Why are these old, gnarled trees so beautiful,” she writes, “while I am merely old and gnarled?” In these poems, the bucolic and the morbid are never far apart. In “Root Ball,” she likens an asteroid that lands in her garden to “a giant brain, ripped from its skull.” I spoke to Pastan, who lives in Potomac, Maryland, about sleep, dreams, and manure.
Did a lot of the poems in this collection emerge from sleeplessness?
I do suffer from insomnia myself, and on more than one occasion, while I’m lying in the dark, the solution to a problem I’ve been struggling with in a poem actually, and magically, comes to me. But more usually I try to put myself to sleep by thinking about the plot of a book I’m reading or a movie I just saw. Many people my age seem to have trouble sleeping, and I suppose it may be because that long and final sleep is just ahead, and even if we don’t acknowledge it, we want to be awake and aware as long as possible. I was warned early not to give a book a title that would make it easy for a reviewer to slam you. Such as, If you have insomnia, try reading this book and it will put you right to sleep. And it has occurred to me that one or more people might buy the book thinking it will help them with their own sleep problems. But more seriously, I chose Insomnia as my title because the word conjures for me a struggle with consciousness itself as well as a struggle with the looming dark, just outside the window.
How much did you think about the structure of the book?
For me, putting together a new book is a lot like putting together a new poem. In fact I think the book itself becomes a kind of poem in its own right, with its own structure, flow, and integrity. And although I usually hide my title poem somewhere deep within each book’s pages, this time it felt right to start with “Insomnia: 3 A.M.” I am often drawn to the circular, both in individual poems and in this case in a book itself. “Musings Before Sleep” seemed the proper ending partly because it closed the circle and partly because it implies that despite insomnia, sleep is sometimes on its way.
You open “The Poets” with the line “They are farmers, really.”
That was partly tongue in cheek, partly serious. For me, there are two distinct phases in the writing of a poem—first the inspiration phase, when language and metaphor come mysteriously into my head, then the planting, sowing, farming phase, otherwise known as revision. The first is a kind of gift, as in “gifted”—it can’t be taught. The second is a matter of learning and practicing one’s craft. But it’s also true that I couldn’t resist having poems planted in manure-filled rows and having poets eyeing each other over bushel baskets in the marketplace.
The last two lines of my poem “Vermilion” are “As if revision were / the purest form of love.” And I believe that for a poet it is. Many of my poems go through at least a hundred revisions—I can spend a whole morning putting in a comma and then taking it out and putting it back in. And I think that perhaps I am at my happiest sitting at my desk polishing a poem, trying to make every word the perfect word.
You have a poem in the new collection called “Remembering Stafford on His Centennial.” Could you talk a little about William Stafford and what his work meant to you?
Often when I sit at my desk unable to write, “blocked” as they put it, I open a Stafford book and start to read. He makes it sound so easy, almost conversational, that I find I have to answer him, and so I start to write. My first four or five lines may have a Stafford ring to them, but then my own voice kicks in and I am on my way. I loved and admired William Stafford both as a man and as a poet. I hate to use adjectives like wise or humble but they seem to fit him as comfortably, as unpretentiously, as an old sweater.
When I wrote the line “How complicated such simplicities are,” I was referring both to his character and to his work. I had in mind, for instance, his famous poem “Traveling Through the Dark.” In the third stanza of that poem, there is a small hesitation—“my only swerving”—before he pushes the dead deer and its unborn fawn into the river, thus preventing further accidents. In that simple pause lie all the unstated complexities such a decision must entail.
Your poems look at the drama and depth of ordinary life without lapsing into sentimentality—and in poems like “After a Long Absence, I Return to a Site of Former Happiness” or “And Evening,” you look at death without flinching.
I am indeed interested, you might say obsessed, not with ordinary life per se but with the dangers lurking just beneath its seemingly placid surface, one of those dangers being loss itself. Death, of course, is the ultimate danger, the ultimate loss, and as I move closer to it, I write about it more frequently and perhaps more feelingly. Though I recently came upon some poems I wrote when I was twelve, and they, too, are about death.
Over the course of your career, you’ve written relatively short poems. Have you had any interest in writing longer work?
I read novels compulsively and would love to write them. But my impulse is always to condense, and the few times I’ve tried writing prose, or even narrative poetry, I keep chipping away at the words until I may end up with no more than a haiku. Has the quality of my poems been consistent over the years? That’s for my readers to say. Has my voice changed? The question of voice is a tricky one. Writers talk about looking for their voice or about finding their voice, and it’s hard to define exactly what they mean. But I do know that the poems in my first book, A Perfect Circle of Sun, are in some ways of a piece, in tonality at least, with the poems in my new book, Insomnia. Whatever voice is, I seem to have found mine early. Not that that’s necessarily a good thing—change is good, too. Yeats’s early poems, for instance, are very different from his mature work, which is deeper and stranger. On the other hand, could Keats’s voice have been any better if he had lived a longer life? I do know that my subject matter has changed—no more delivery rooms for me, no more children leaving home—even my grandchildren are grown by now. But I think my poems have been consistent over the years in terms of their interest in metaphor, in the changing of the seasons, in Eden, in the dangers lurking beneath the surfaces of everyday life, in Death just waiting. And their ambition has always been to be both accessible on the surface and complex, even mysterious, underneath.
Marina Tsvetaeva said there are poets with history and poets without history. You were writing when you were young, but you were first published when you were in your thirties.
As an only child with only books for company, I started reading and writing poetry early—at eleven or twelve. I wrote the poem for the back of my high school graduation program. I scribbled poems in notebooks and on scraps of paper. But it never occurred to me that real people could become poets. I married young and gave up poetry almost completely—one or two poems a year—until my husband told me he was tired of hearing what a good poet I might have been if I hadn’t married him. I had just given birth to our third child, but we managed to set up a schedule, complete with babysitters, that would allow me to devote every morning to writing. I was thirty-two. The poems I wrote before that time were fairly traditional—strict rhyme and meter, a few of them even picture postcard pretty. But when I allowed myself to become seriously engaged by language, actually sitting down to write every day, I think that my essential voice came very quickly.
Alex Dueben has written for The Rumpus, the Poetry Foundation, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere. His interview with William Gibson was included in Conversations with William Gibson.