Issue 154, Spring 2000
Carolyn Kizer was born in Spokane, Washington on December 10, 1925, a birth date shared with Emily Dickinson. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, studied at Columbia University as a fellow of the Chinese government and, in 1946, became a graduate fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle. In 1948 she married Stimson Bullitt, by whom she had three children; they divorced in 1954, and that same year she began studying poetry with Theodore Roethke and, later, Stanley Kunitz. In 1959, with two colleagues, she founded the quarterly Poetry Northwest. Her first collection of poems, The Grateful Garden, appeared in 1961. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for Yin: New Poems. Her most recent collection is Harping On (1996). In addition she has published a book of translations, Carrying Over(1989), and a collection of essays on poets and poetry, Proses (1994). She recently was appointed a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Thirty years of conversation—a good deal of it about writers and writing—preceded this interview. I first learned of Carolyn Kizer in 1965 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where she was a specialist in literature, from a Punjabi poet who had heard her give a reading and hastened to a telephone to reproach me for missing it. “She is a goddess!” he said. “She is mighty!”
We met the next night at a dinner party in the tiny, embroidery-crammed living room of a Bengali painter. Statuesque, honey-blond, with a rich and powerful contralto, she was an ideal standard-bearer for the English language in those competitive poetry recitals (mushairahs) beloved in the Indian subcontinent. She seemed to have read and remembered everything, not just reams of William Carlos Williams and Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz, but also wonderful poems no one else had ever heard of: I wonder how many poets in Pakistan still hear in her voice Ruth Pitter’s “But for lust, we could be friends . . .” and Bernard Spencer’s “Yachts on the Nile.”
In 1966 she came back to Washington to the National Endowment for the Arts (she had been appointed the first director of literary programs), sharing with her daughters and a large Persian cat named Myshkin a townhouse whose wall to the garden was a pane of glass against which willow trees inclined. She has always been, as she says, “house lucky.”
For the last seven years she has lived with her second husband, architect John Woodbridge, in a white Victorian farmhouse surrounded by huge acacia trees, just outside the city limits of Sonoma, California, with a mature rose garden, tennis courts and a swimming pool; inside, tall rooms are filled with books and works of art. Kizer writes in a handsome study, painted a pale mauve “to go with the muted colors of Northwest paintings”—in her twenties she began buying the work of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and other Northwest painters.
We began our taping in dressing gowns on a sunny morning in the library. Music played in the background, Vivaldi maybe. We settled into deep leather armchairs overseen by Mark Tobey’s portrait of Kizer’s father. His gaze is both stern and benign. As she says, “It could be a painting of an Adams or a Jefferson rather than a man who started life on a bankrupt farm in central Ohio.”
I know you’ve written about this, but could we begin with the beginning, how you became a poet?
I began writing poems when I was about eight, with a heavy assist from my mother. She read me Arthur Waley’s translations, and Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers, who have been lifelong influences on me. My father read Keats to me, and then he read more Keats while I was lying on the sofa struggling with asthma. A sort of intellectual seduction: there I am, lying on the sofa breathing with difficulty, while Father pours Keats into the porches of my ear. If Daddy had only read Keats’s letters! They’re so wonderful, but Keats is someone you can’t let yourself be influenced by. There’s that interesting group of poets who are fatal to your style: I’d say Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas. The Waley led me to my own interest in Chinese and Chinese translations, which has been a major theme in my life. And Whitman, of course, I idolize, though I’m more attracted to metrical verse. Meter is as natural as breathing or the heartbeat. I think my childhood asthma had a lot to do with my consciousness of the breath unit—in a sense I’ve never really taken breathing for granted.
I wrote poetry off and on in high school, when I could manage to get out of gym classes and sports—using my allergies as an excuse—and climb the hill behind school till I found a nice place to settle down with a notebook and look at Spokane spread out below. As I remember, the first real poem I wrote was about the wheat fields between Spokane and Pullman, to the south. Mother used to say that Spokane was “a walled town,” quoting Ralph Adams Cram; these walls, to her, were the wheat fields to the south, the forests to the east and north, and the desert of the Grand Coulee to the west. I forget what were supposed to be the virtues of a walled town, but it was a metaphor for my mother’s claustrophobia—trapped in this extremely provincial town after living all her adult life in New York and San Francisco (until she met and married my father in her forties). I know that I, too, felt that isolation, with radical parents in an archconservative city—and I also felt trapped, but by the excessive concern of elderly parents with one lone child. Poetry, then, was chiefly a means of escape from a huge, rah-rah high school, from Spokane and from them.
But you don’t think of poetry as escape now, do you?
No, I think what I really want to escape from now is what is happening to my country—the anger, the fear, the knee-jerk conservatism. Which is probably why we bought an apartment in Paris a few years ago. As a child of the New Deal, politically active since I was twelve or so, I never thought I would feel this way! Now poems seem to be social commentary as much as anything; principally, they are focused on human interaction, which one would think is more of a novelist’s concern.
Influenced by . . .
I would put Flaubert first, not only the novels, but the incomparable letters that he wrote to George Sand. And Henry James.
How do you see these influences emerging in your own work?
Well, I think if there’s a major theme in my work, once we get past the love and loss of the early days, it is the impact of character upon character, how people rub against one another and alter one another. A poem of mine called “Twelve O’Clock,” which was published in The Paris Review, was based on that principle of Heisenberg’s that you can’t look at a subatomic particle without altering it. Equally, you cannot meet someone for a moment, or even cast eyes on someone in the street, without changing. That is my subject.
As for James, he is the master of timing. If I may go from the sublime to the ridiculous, so was Jack Benny. And Arturo Toscanini, with whom I was saturated as a young girl. It’s that significant pause, that caesura, the time-out to breathe, which is why we need to hear poetry as well as see it on the page. Because we don’t get the full sense of its music if we just look at it. It’s always a revelation to hear a poet read his or her work.
What was the importance of your time at Sarah Lawrence?
I didn’t learn much about writing at Sarah Lawrence, but I learned a lot about the sources of poems—dreams, myth, history—from the really great teachers, Joseph Campbell, Charles Trinkhaus, Bert Loewenberg, and a young Australian anthropologist named Harry Hawthorne. In class he would fix us with his beautiful blue eyes, and begin, Now, gulls . . . And for a moment all of us would preen our feathers and flutter our wings. Later he went off to Canada to study the Doukhobors, a strange religious cult of Russian descent whose form of protest was to take to the streets stark naked. I’ve always wondered what happened to Harry, and to them.
And during your fellowship at Columbia?
I concentrated almost exclusively on Chinese studies and, as I remember, didn’t write poetry at all, except to attempt some Chinese translations. But nobody taught me how to make a good poem out of a bad poem until I encountered Theodore Roethke ten years later. During my first marriage I wrote one poem, which was published in The Atlantic—and which I hope no one will look up—and I had three children in three years. When that marriage broke up, I went to study with Roethke at the University of Washington. I was then in my late twenties, living in Seattle. I had never taken myself seriously as a poet, and at that point the poetry didn’t deserve it. But then, most women poets of my generation didn’t dare take themselves seriously, because the men didn’t take us seriously—I was almost middle-aged before the idea penetrated. But Ted took poetry seriously, and taught me to do so eventually.
It was an extraordinary class, with James Wright and Jack Gilbert, among others, and the poets David Wagoner and Richard Hugo—Ted’s former students—were around too. There was a shortage of gifted women, although we received a heavy dose of women poets in class, especially Louise Bogan, Leonie Adams, and Ruth Pitter (the neglected English poet who died recently, at ninety-five). But you can see by the names I’ve mentioned that I was in a nest of singing chauvinists. Ted and Stanley Kunitz, who took his place a couple of years later, were always willing to talk shop, but my peers were different. The men would be having conversations about craft, and if I said something they would go on as if I hadn’t spoken, as if I were wallpaper. It was upsetting. But they were very much worth listening to, particularly Jim Wright, who could recite reams of poetry from memory, and several acres of the prose of Samuel Johnson, getting every word right so that those Johnsonian cadences were preserved. Then when he was really drunk he went into the German and recited Hölderlin! But we all went in for memorization, to one degree or another. I wish that more students did it today.