Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Elise Burchard, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Robert Pinsky about his book At the Foundling Hospital (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is among the final five selections in the category of Poetry for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
At the Foundling Hospital is more than a collection of poems, it is a collection of infinite sounds—a symphony that plays to our deepest, most vulnerable questions about culture, ethnicity, identity, and the human condition. With a steady bass and a spinning, weaving melody that pricks and pulls you through each poignant line, Pinsky’s words are enough to send vibrations through the skull, the heart, the stomach, and the soul. Opening with “Instrument,” and closing with “The Saws,”—a poem that contemplates the meaning of the word “saws” as “old sayings”—we are called to more deeply consider sound and language as our means of building entity, identity, and humanity. His words offer space to meditate upon the questions of who we are and what we are given. Timely and potent, Pinsky’s image of the foundling is one that strongly represents every one of us as we are born into this mixed American culture that we must navigate. Through his own masterful blending and merging, Pinsky lends the reader the chance to reflect upon these ideas of origin and all the many things, both beautiful and awful, that are part of “Betokening a life.”
Elise Burchard: First, let me tell you, I couldn’t believe how relevant the book was for me, on both social and personal levels. I’ve already mentioned the illuminating experience I had while reading your poem “Grief,” and I just feel so lucky to have read this book as a whole.
Robert Pinsky: That means a lot to me, Elise. Young writers may underestimate how much their attention can matter to us older ones. So, in two words—thank you.
EB: How important is the element of sound to your reading and writing process? What do you see or hear? You begin At the Foundling Hospital with “Instrument,”—a poem that evokes the sounds of strings and plucking. How does your experience with music, sound, and translation inspire your work and perhaps this work, in particular?
RP: The sentence-melodies are at the heart of poetry for me. In a way, “writing” isn’t the right word for what I do—composing might be more accurate. I can do it with both hands on the steering wheel, or in the shower. The actual sound of the lines is primary. I may have ideas and feelings for months or years— but they don’t become a poem until I have the tune of a sentence and hear how the sentence-melody might play with and against the lines.
EB: Wow, that is truly amazing and very clear in your approach to your wide range of work. The Inferno of Dante is another great example of your capacity for composition, especially in your attunement to both the sound and intent of the language. Everything you wrote in At the Foundling Hospital just reads, sounds, and feels so complete. Your work has a pulse, a kind of bass to it beneath a melody—it’s very multidimensional. So, knowing your style, that answer makes a lot of sense.
RP: For me to tell the kind of truths I want to tell in poems— to strive toward the truths I get from Emily Dickinson, or William Butler Yeats, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Ben Jonson—I have to get the sound right. The truth comes from that. It’s a matter of breath. and how the breath gets shaped into sentences, the vowels and consonants.
EB: What type of music most inspires your writing? While you were working on this book, were you hearing any kinds of music or sounds in particular?
RP: The two kinds of music I listen to most are jazz and classical music—and my taste in both is slightly old fashioned. Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon. I know less about Verdi, Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, but I respond to the music. Many people in my generation respond more to contemporary singer-songwriters than I ever have—not that I ignore that kind of music—but at the deepest level, you know, when I was a teenager in college, nothing was more cool than the Modern Jazz Quartet or John Coltrain. That music and that approach to art, and that—what shall I call it—that mixing, that way of combining different musical and cultural elements: somehow, that’s what I feel the most.
EB: In “The Foundling Tokens,” the reader might imagine the Foundling Hospital through the various objects at the museum in London. I recall having similar transporting experiences while visiting a museum, especially when visiting a place like Ellis Island or something. A special and strange kind of transference occurs when you're looking at the possessions or “tokens” that had once belonged to someone. There’s something so powerful about a moment like that, and I hadn’t seen it put so exactly before.
RP: A few days ago I was at one of the museums I mention in that poem: The Immigration Station museum, on Angel Island here in the San Francisco Bay. It has something in common with the Foundling Museum. Angel Island is beautiful. You get there from the city by ferry. It’s was where the United States, under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and for many years later, used to intern Chinese Immigrants, sometimes for months, or even years, before they were deported. It’s quite shameful for our country. As I say in the title poem, these detainees wrote poems that they inscribed on the walls. The authorities tried to destroy these poems, which mostly were about the bitter experience of incarceration. The guy who ran the place had the Chinese characters filled with putty and then plastered over. Eventually, the plaster decayed and fell away, the putty fell out, and now we have those poems. There’s an anthology of them, in translation, called Island.
I felt something similar there and at the Foundling Hospital museum in London, where I found the anonymous poem that I quote in my poem. Some woman who with her infant child faced starvation and infanticide wrote this memorable moving poem that she left with her baby— as a “token” as they called it— at the Foundling Hospital.
EB: I was going to ask if you had a particular experience that inspired the poem, and then ultimately the title of the book, and now I’m just blown away. I hadn't realized that part of the poem was written by a woman who was there—that is so cool.
RP: Her poem appears in italics in my poem. So, in a way, seeing her poem was the “particular experience.” But there’s a universal part of the experience that her extreme embodies. In general, being a foundling is the opposite of being an orphan, it has to do not with what you lose, but with what you get, or what you’re presented with, what forms you, by time and chance. In America, as in any specific culture, you’re presented with a particular combination of disparate things, and you try to make sense of that— to make your identity out of it. The figure of the foundling that I try to convey in the poem is an extreme, defining version of every one of us, encountering all of the good, and the horrible, and the in-between things presented by our culture, and our place in it. How we are found, and how we find ourselves.
EB: Did you choose the image of the foundling, and the idea of the Foundling Hospital, as a way of making a commentary on the human condition? Perhaps a commentary on what it means to be human in America, specifically?
RP: Well, we have these realities we have to deal with that are made up. Some of them are beautiful— may be works of art—and some are horrible. Realities that are made up, by craft or accident or will. Race, for example, is a delusion: there’s no scientific basis for it. But just the same, we have social and deep personal pathologies that are built on it.
The infant comes into the world and language, religion, all these things, find you. For me, most accounts of how much an identity is individual and how much has to do with cultural origins are much too simple. Every one of us is kind of such a mix, such an improvised blending of, for instance, this mongrel language, “English” that you and I are speaking to one another. It’s the language of an island that was invaded many times, with people enslaved and expropriated by a series of raider or conquerors, and every time that happened the language assimilated new words. Our religions and our music is a result of a comparable process. Almost all of American popular music is based on the blues, which has to do with African people being torn out of one culture and put at the dehumanizing bottom of another— and they put together European marching band instruments, African rhythms and field chants, Caribbean sounds, and who knows what. For me, American jazz or the American feature film, the poetry of Whitman and Dickinson, all are products of a sometimes traumatic, or imposed, cultural blending. A cultural blending means it’s almost impossible to trace or break down into its elements. The foundling is a way to maybe comprehend or respect the different, fused elements.
EB: At the Foundling Hospital is such a timely read, especially on a grander level. It seems to me that you’re taking this momentum and constantly putting out new material that relates to all of these themes—concepts of names, ethnicity, and identity. Are you feeling inspired to continue writing about some of these same ideas even outside of the completed book?
RP: We’ve had this horrible resurgence of the very old American tradition of nativism and xenophobia. If you go to this museum I told you about here on Angel Island you can weep at how these Chinese people needed to build a railroad in the 1870’s, how they were victimized and stigmatized as a scapegoating move when the economy had a bad time in the 1880’s, and that’s not a new story here, it is resurgent. All my life I’ve been aware of the things I love about American cultural mixing and I’ve also been aware of anti-Semitism, racism, the whole ugly bag that comes along with our expansive kind of imagination and culture. I’ve been thinking about this all my life, since childhood, and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it for the rest of my life.
Robert Pinsky‘s new book of poems, At the Foundling Hospital, was published last December by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. As Poet Laureate of the United States (1997-2000), he founded the Favorite Poem Project, featuring the videos at www.favoritepoem.org. His best-selling translation The Inferno of Dante was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry and the Harold Morton Landon translation prize. His other awards include the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Korean Manhae Prize, the Italian Premio Capri and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pen American Center. He performs with pianist Laurence Hobgood on the spoken word CDs PoemJazz and House Hour, from Circumstantial Productions.
Elise Burchard is an MFA candidate and WriteOn Fellow at The New School in New York City. There she had the opportunity to explore several genres of Creative Writing and work with 6th and 7th-grade students at a local middle school. She is deeply devoted to her first novel-in-progress but experiments with songs and poems on the side.