How did your foreign settings—those places—figure into your poems?
It’s more how those places resonate in me. Rather than writing a poem about those places, they create something I write about.
Is that why your style is unadorned and not ornamental?
Oh, I like ornament at the right time, but I don’t want a poem to be made out of decoration. If you like that kind of poetry, more power to you, but it doesn’t interest me. When I read the poems that matter to me, it stuns me how much the presence of the heart—in all its forms—is endlessly available there. To experience ourselves in an important way just knocks me out. It puzzles me why people have given that up for cleverness. Some of them are ingenious, more ingenious than I am, but so many of them aren’t any good at being alive.
It sounds like even in your San Francisco days you sustained a rather remote life away from others. Is solitude important for you?
I don’t know how to answer that because I’ve always lived a life with a lot of quiet in it—either alone or with someone I’m in love with.
Do you think that being reclusive has preserved your career?
Certainly to the point that it gave me some control over my vanity and helped me keep a grip on what really matters.
You expose a lot of yourself in your poetry. Are your poems taken directly from your life?
Yes, why would I invent them?
Do you ever feel uncomfortable about naming the women you’ve been with in your poems?
No, I’m so proud—even the ones that didn’t work out, like Gianna.
What was your life with Michiko like?
Pure. It was all the same piece of cloth—always gentle, always devilish. Always loving.
When you write, do you read your poems out loud?
Sometimes. If my instincts register that something is wrong with the rhythm then I work on it, but it’s almost always unconscious.
The hard part for me is to find the poem—a poem that matters. To find what the poem knows that’s special. I may think of writing about the same thing that everyone does, but I really like to write a poem that hasn’t been written. And I don’t mean its shape. I want to experience or discover ways of feeling that are fresh. I love it when I have perceived something fresh about being human and being happy.
Ezra Pound said “make it new.” The great tragedy of that saying is he left out the essential word. It should be make it importantly new. So much of the time people are just aiming for novelty, surprise. I like to think that I’ve understood, that I’ve learned about something that matters—what the world should be, what life should be.
Do you feel you have any flaw as a writer?
I can’t spell. I’m hopeless.