Rae Armantrout likes to let her poems pop like a string of firecrackers, all lit by a single thought that serves as flame to fuse.
Both quick and dense, the UCSD professor’s poems may alight on nature, reality television or a rock song and suddenly switch to another topic, like vampires.
Armantrout’s approach to words helped usher in a new genre of poetry in the 1970s. This year she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, awarded for her collection Versed, which is now out in paperback. The judges said her poems are “often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading.”
In person, the 63-year-old Armantrout is warm and a bit professorial, more bookworm than bomb-thrower. A native of Allied Gardens, the postwar San Diego neighborhood near San Diego State, she lives in Normal Heights in a 1920s-era home with her husband, a bookseller.
In an interview, Armantrout talked about language trickery, myths about poetry and her near-deadly bout with cancer. She also delved into the background behind two poems, including one that fetishizes some of her favorite things — words.
How would you describe your poetry to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
I like to juxtapose things, images or kinds of discourse against each other in a surprising way. I like poems that move fast — and I hope mine do — and keep up with the speed of thought.
I write very much about what I encounter, and what I think about what I encounter. What makes my poetry different is how I connect things.
What does writing poetry do for you?
Somehow it keeps you from being depressed. It’s a way to talk back at things that bother you in the world.
At a more basic level, my mother read poetry to me when I was young, and the sounds of it appealed to me. It’s almost like singing to yourself.
When I’m composing a poem, I say it over to myself. Even thought I don’t really write in rhyme and meter, I do pay attention to sound. It’s probably a way of self-soothing. Music is soothing and there’s music in free verse, or at least should be and can be.
How did having cancer a few years ago affect your work?
Well, it focused it. When I came home from the hospital, I didn’t have a very good prognosis. I wasn’t actually sick, but it seemed likely that the cancer would come back. It hasn’t, and it’s been four years, so that’s good.
I thought I had a limited amount of time, and it’s just a big shock. And when you’re in a big shock, everything looks different. You can’t believe it. The strangeness of it, oddly, provoked me to write. Anytime I feel like I don’t understand something, I write about it. And how can you understand death?
What do people misunderstand about today’s poetry?
People are afraid of poetry because they’re not very familiar with it. They think they won’t understand it, and they think they have to understand everything or they’re going to fail the test. They can’t just react to it as they react to it. That’s a mistake, but it’s probably one that the school system fosters.
And people who are slightly familiar with poetry may think of it as something that gives you comfort and moral uplift. Life is more interesting than that, and poetry can be more interesting than that too.
What have you been working on lately?
One thing that’s fascinating me now, which I put in a relatively new poem, is this fairly recent obsession with the undead — vampires. Does everyone feel undead? Where is this coming from?
My poem brings that up in the end. The thing with my poems is that almost none are about one thing. That’s what I mean about juxtaposing images and seeing what bounces off what.
Some things in the poem (“Haunted”) have to do with nature. I was just on vacation, and we were at Bryce Canyon. There were all these rock pinnacles that looked as if they’d been eroded into shapes that sometimes looked like spines, like they were a spine with a head on it, and that reminded me of this obsession with the undead.
Tell me about one of your most well-known poems, “Scumble.” It’s sexy and has a sensuality about it. I remember reading it and thinking, this is kind of dirty!
Yes, it is dirty, but there are no dirty words in it!
There are erotics of language — words can be a pleasure to say if you like them. Another thing it’s about is the way people often transfer their interest in genital sex onto something else, like high heels. People fetishize.
I’m making a fetish of these words like “scumble,” “pinky” and “extrapolate.” I pick them because they sound dirty. And I present themselves as someone who would secretly get off on these words. It’s funny — an absurd exaggeration of what goes on in life all the time.
So you aren’t going around asking strangers to whisper “scumble” to you?
(Laughs.) I whisper it to myself, but I don’t need to keep doing it!
— Interview conducted and edited by RANDY DOTINGA