Robert Pinsky

A QuickMuse Q & A

Robert Pinsky is a generous guy. We tossed him a few bare-bones questions and he threw back a big sack of jewels.

QuickMuse: Can you describe what it felt like to improvise online? Was it difficult or thrilling (or both) to have total strangers -- lots of them -- watch over your shoulder as you typed?

Robert Pinsky: The truth is, I have been doing this kind of composing, playing with sounds and meanings, all day long -- sometimes all night long -- for most of my life. Inside my head. That's why I'd prefer a ten-minute or even a five-minute time limit, and a requirement that composing begin within thirty seconds -- no time to think ahead! This improvisation was just slowing down to type those seven or eight minutes of that habitual activity.

Thinking of a certain deliberate kind comes later on in the process, when you are actually writing a poem -- which can take me weeks or months. I can put the clay on the table almost immediately, but shaping it can sometimes be a long, painstaking process of revision and reconsideration.

The way some people hum to themselves, or drum their fingers, I write lines in my head.

Certainly, having unseen people I don't know looking over my shoulder may add some pressure or adrenaline, but that is modified by the fact that I do this, within myself, all the time. I know that familiar river is there, the river of vowels with its rocky bed of consonants, and I know that any stimulus at all will find related stuff that comes floating down the stream.

QuickMuse: Did QuickMuse teach you anything you didn't know about your compositional habits?

Robert Pinsky: Possibly, but no, not so far -- I've known about this peculiarity about my own mind since childhood, when it caused me a lot of trouble. In the Dumb Class in eighth grade, lots of failure. I'd pray for a pop quiz, or a test on some subject we hadn't been assigned, the only times when I'd feel I had a fair chance. It was hard, maybe impossible to explain to teachers.

I guess your QuickMuse framework, this way of talking about it, reminds me of that peculiarity, and in a gentle & acceptable way it reminds me of those painful early years. Talking to Dinitia Smith, the Times reporter, trying to explain to Dinitia how vowels and consonants resemble clay or musical notes, how it's all like noodling at the piano or experimenting with plasticene -- that was a reminder to slow down, that not everyone assumes what I assume.

QuickMuse: Looking at your finished poem now, are there any revisions you'd like to make? Any chance we'll see a revision in print somewhere?

Robert Pinsky: It's not a "finished poem" or even a poem to me, just a slice, a seven-minute sampling, of what's going on up here in my skull much of the time. I suppose I might return to some of the sounds, "afar" and "bar" and "art" or all those abstract nouns in "-ty," "cruelty, generosity" up against the dental sounds at the end of "hacked" and "intellect"... but not really. I'm working from my memory right now, haven't typed out the lines or printed them.

Those lines, responding mainly to Miles Davis' posturing and teasing -- he's really, himself, being the character he describes as Parker, in that quotation -- are just one of many such things that emerge in my thought-stream every day, the way I bong on my Casio (set to "mellow piano") every day: once in a while you hit something that has promise or emotion of a certain kind, a musical or verbal phrase. And then you get to hard work, revising, thinking. Tinkering. Despairing and rallying.

But who knows, it's also possible that I'll return to those lines, or to something in them. You never know... I've always been moved by the plushy insides of an instrument case, a kind of womb, and half-consciously behind the reeds-case image was I think Moses in the bulrushes: that infant in his little case made of reeds, among the reeds. Like the brain in the skull or the horn in its plush and leatherette case.

(That's an example of how I might "return" withou exactly "revising my poem" -- not the way a carpenter gets back to a cabinet, or a cook removes a cake's layers from the oven to let them cool before icing. For me, the process is not necessarily that direct or mechanical, and it's certainly not necessarily done on paper. More like muttering or humming to oneself.)

One way or another, maybe most writers are always unreeling and unreeling that tape of images, memories, new stimuli and old, composition and attention, always at work? Set on "Record" and "Play" both at once! In our email conversation afterwards, Julianna and I talked about that, and about the paradoxical fear that the tape could stop!

QuickMuse: Do you have any ideas about how we can improve the process?

Robert Pinsky: The people who respond should be asked to use their real names, just as we poets use ours.

It would suit me if the poets should be requred to start writing within a few seconds, thirty at most. I'd be more comfortable if the overall time limit were five or ten minutes instead of fifteen. That would make it clear that this is true improvisation, which would be more comfortable for the poets, that reassuring clarity that this is play -- or the quicker pace would be more reassuring and comfortable for me, anyway.

I'll confess that I wanted it noticed that I finished in about half the allotted time -- in school, when I handed in a half-hour quiz after five minutes, and got a "D" -- as often happened -- I used to wish I could get credit for speed!

The "competition" aspect of the idea seems trivializing, even childish to me. It was fun having the same assignment as Julianna, but neither one of us felt, or feel, like we were engaged in a "poetry bee." I take her Pedro Martinez reference to be a kind of joke mocking that competitive set-up. Maybe you should have two or more poets improvise in eclogue-style, in converstion with one another. Like Rollins and Coltrane on "Tenor Madness," where they quote and even imitate one another, for fun.

QuickMuse: Would you be interested in writing some more on-the-fly verse for QuickMuse?

Robert Pinsky: Maybe some day, why not?

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