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Anis Shivani

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Exclusive Interview With Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Franz Wright

Posted: 09/21/11 02:46 PM ET

Over the last few years, it's been an honor for me to get to know Franz Wright, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for "Walking to Martha's Vineyard" (his father, James Wright--whom I consider one of the greatest late twentieth-century American poets--also won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry at roughly the same age, making them the only father-son pair to win the prize in the same genre). During the last few weeks, as his new book Kindertotenwald was released, Franz and I exchanged a series of emails about the book, the results of which follow. As Franz battles a grave illness, while also putting the finishing touches on his next two books, F and Changed, I very much appreciate the intense effort he has put into our correspondence. Franz is always compassionate, generous, and kind and friendly in unexpected ways--and I hope the following exchange conveys a little of his warm personality.

Anis: Franz, can we begin by talking about the significance of the unusual title?

Franz: Thank you, Anis, for taking the trouble to compose these questions. I have to say one thing, though, before we begin. How on earth could I ever give a coherent description of the writing process as I experience it; how could I ever possibly describe what always was and remains so utterly mysterious to me?! There, I feel better. I will do my best.

And thank you for asking about the title, as we can just tackle that one head-on and get it over with. People seem reluctant to talk about it, and I suppose I knew perfectly well they would, and I fully realized that being confronted by such a title, one in another language that is not familiar to me, might actually be irritating to some, some might impute motives of some sort of haughtiness on my part, these things all occurred to me of course, but the word carries so many deeply private associations, is so profoundly magical to me, and most important is so suited to the nature of the prose pieces I had in mind to try writing--pieces that might sometimes employ, might glorify, satirize, or twist the fable, the quest myth, the fairy tale, the parable in some manner--I could not resist.

You know, I'm delighted to be free, in this correspondence interview format, to be free of anything resembling the formal constraints of the essay, but that does not mean I will not make every attempt to keep to the point. I stray as I speak, as I write, sometimes, and translating feelings, impressions and thoughts into consecutive sentences that follow logically from one to the next is sometimes so excruciating to me that I just flee from any confrontation with prose of this kind--and come to think of it, some of what may at first appear to be the strangeness or bewildering element of some of these writings (there are those, as well, which are perfectly literal and straightforward) may be attributable to one of the book's major aims from the start: to create models, in a sense, of the way I seem to think and perceive, which is far more associative and irrational than I could ever convey, it seemed to me, unless I just cut loose with the intellectual music of the English language, and as I tend to perceive reality through the lens of language, really I think for the first time in my life stand up there and see what I could do.

I have a powerful need to communicate things to others, to verbalize (though not, I hope, exerting the total domination of my father in his glorious days or sharing his mother's tendency to view conversation as an opportunity to offer her body as instrument to the passionate spirit of one perpetual glittering aria with you, age six, as spellbound audience) and have aspired for more than forty years to be simple and lucid in the transmission of impressions or ideas or those strange near-wordless moods I longed to share, when young, with a few people I loved, and those other dark exchanges over the decades with the inner friend, the one with a need to express himself as well, only a good deal more crudely and violently and whose ass I'd like to kick sometimes. (I know he means well, but others cannot be expected to be so forgiving.)

Damn, I just wanted to get everything in there, the taste of the whole world through words spanning the whole keyboard from the kinds of things an intelligent young reader in sixth grade might read to what my old revered teacher Charles Simic once called in a letter to me "the lyrical absolute."

Back to the title itself again: I can only tell you I have always loved classical composers, which means German composers, and philosophers which so often has meant German philosophers, and theology, which to me meant early twentieth-century German Protestant thinkers interested, as people were for a time and no doubt always are to some degree, in developing critical methods for sifting the genuine saying of the historical man named Jesus from those later attributed to him by the believing (I would say inspired) Gospel writers...it is my favorite historical period, the cross a vast crossroads.

But more than anything I loved German poets, beginning with--who else?--Rainer Maria Rilke; though there were many others, Rilke was for me, as he remains for young people and the old, for whom he continues to blossom, to reveal more and more in the manner of only the very greatest poets, to increasingly become more than a literary figure.

That may be a mistake, but it is a fact; and I think there is some truth to this: some of the very greatest poets (like the ones I write about in the first seven pieces of my book) simply cannot be seen as mere literary figures. Whitman, and the more inward or implosive, Emily Dickinson--Baudelaire and Nietzsche as I imagine them, Basho and Frank Stanford. Blake. James Joyce.

We know there are poets who are chosen, by what or whom we no more know than what lies beyond our final breath, or what caused a certain action which resulted in the fulfillment or the desecration and collapse of what we most cared for in life . . .And the history of German poetry is as filled as French or English with poets whose greatest joy was to leap headlong into the flames.

But how do you explain the Germans? How do you explain the phenomenon of the young Hitler saving his money all week in order to attend one of Mahler's new symphonies, possible passing Rilke or Franz Kafka on the street? But enough of that. I love the concreteness of the language, its hold on something primeval in the speech of human beings, its phonetic logic somehow connected with the eerie literalness that can still provide glimpses of the awe in which this force that caused a second world to be, an invisible world superimposed on the world of appearance, the means the metaphor by which this two-fold increase in the infinite seemed to occur.

There is some of that sense that surrounds ancient Greek, from what I have been told, of being present at the still molten and too hot and brilliant birth of prayer, spell, the transmission of truth or its concealment through the air between heads. . .

I love the almost three-dimensional quality, the thinglike quality particularly of the long compound nouns routinely made use of, so mysterious to an English speaker, though again a clue as to why it might be that the Germans have often tended to be among the world's greatest sinologists.

There is an almost a suggestion of the pictorial, I surely felt this to be the case with Kindertotenwald, a world I coined while writing one of the very first pieces in the book, the longish "The Scar's Birthday Party" which does in fact take place in this very wood, the forest of dead children or of the deaths of children: the word itself, Kindertotenwald, originating in one much like it and discarded by my friend the poet Cynthia Cruz combined with the magnificent song cycle by Mahler, the Kindertotenlieder, Songs of the Deaths of Children, &c., introduced to me by a contemporary and close friend of my father, the poet John Logan, around the same time he noticed my translations of Rilke's long poem sequence Das Marien-Leben, The Life of Mary, in Field magazine in the mid-1970s, and sent me, completely out of the blue, a recording of Hindemith's Marien-Leben by Glenn Gould and the soprano Rosanna Roslak, music which remains so moving to me that it is impossible for me to listen to it when I am by myself.

Granted the dead child is not a subject one is likely to enthusiastically seek out, it is undeniably one that involves a universal aspect of human experience, one not well served by a word as dull as puberty, the physiological and psychological metamorphosis which causes, God knows why, the light around children to go out at about eleven, as Freud sadly noted, and which rushes the lost and bewildered soul into Experience, in Blake's haunting terminology, into contact with sex, and its connection to birth, itself notoriously the inseparable familiar of death . . .

Yes, in large part it is the creation of death by a new generation, as Yeats would have it. Neither hope nor dread attend the dying animal, man dies hoping, fearing all. . . Man knows death to the bone. Man has created it.

It was humiliating to me at the time, like almost everything else, but I clearly recall at a certain point actually grieving for that child, lost or dead, I no longer had the deepest things in common with. This mysterious commonplace, the second birth, entering the dark archetype of speechless and ignorant loneliness, is finally followed at some point by the realization we have come through it but that child did not--it is at the center of so many of life's most elated and terrified experiences, its most triumphant peaks and potentially lethal lows, nothing more needs to be said.

I don't want to forget, though, a strange moment when I first divulged the title to a nonplussed German friend who told me it made her see the children themselves as the trees of the forests. . . . Nor will I ever forget what is probably the greatest compliment I have ever received, when my old friend, my once-German professor at Oberlin, magnificent poet, and the harshest critic of my work I have encountered, Stuart Friebert, who had known Paul Celan personally, wrote me briefly to say that Celan would have approved of my title! It brings tears to me eyes to think of it.

There is a final association, secret to me until now, and always precious, which was an experience I had while serving several years ago as poet-in-residence at Brandeis, the great Jewish university constructed in the late 1940s on the wooded ridge overlooking the Newton-Waltham valley and the whole of the western section of Boston, and Boston itself some ten miles to the east, the airport and the shining sea. It is said Henry James used to wander those woods. One warm windy autumn day, before the rain, as I was rambling around campus thinking about a class I had to teach that day, I came upon the terribly moving monument to the Six Million just outside the Temple off in a wooded corner, lovely in its solitude, quiet, and big lotus pool. I spent one of the strangest half hours or so of my life sitting on a branch in front of the dual monoliths like facing pages of dark marble in which were engraved the sixteen names of the concentration and death camps, and slowly copying them into a small pocket notebook, leaning over to protect the pages as the rain began, just like poor Baudelaire in the "The Wall" at the beginning of the book, it now occurs to me.

I was so pleased, reading through your questions, to see that you were fond of "Five After Midnight"--some of the names in that piece, the ones that have inexplicably replaced the normal names of successive train stations, were taken from among the more obscure camps, Klooga, Chelmno, Transnistria, Gurs.

Another related point, with regard to "The Yes," a piece that comes right after the opening section of poems on writers (and composer Messiaen, who wrote Quartet For the End of Time in a German prisoner of war camp when Germany took Paris), like so many poems in this book it is a love poem to my wife or addressed to her in one way or another. In that piece, I was able to use two of the more well-known sites, Buchenwald (which means, and the beauty of it still makes me desolately sick, the Forest of Books, the Book Wood) and Ravensbr├╝ck: "Across the raven's brook and barefoot through the pathless wood of books, already she is traveling toward me . . ."

And to conclude, consider: Buchenwald was originally an artists' colony. Goethe is said to have loved to sit in the shade of the woods on the sun-checkered woodland floor and read there. God only knows what took place at that very spot in the middle of the twentieth century, a couple hundred years later. Now wherever I am, I wonder what it might be the site of centuries from now.

Anis: Why did you turn, in Kindertotenwald, to the prose poem? In terms of your capacity to say things as a poet, what did you gain by turning to the form, new to you?

Franz: You know, Anis, I had been trying to see what I could do with that strange form right from the start--I seem to recall, yes, absolutely! There was a prose poem, one of fifteen pieces in the very first little book I had out, hand set type, there in northern Ohio January of 1976. It was called "The Knife." I never could get it just right. (Speaking of that, it did make it into Kindertotenwald! It is the one-sentence piece called "Blade"--and dated 1975-2010. It is one sentence, a super-condensed sentence, and it is what has finally become of a prose poem which took up about a page.

So I wrote them now and then. Why now, and so exclusively all of a sudden, I really don't know, now that I think about it! Over the years, I have become far more confident about my ability to wield prose, and I love the way it allows you to escape from a certain, well, constipation of the lyric poem! When the thing really works, it is a miracle of nature in its weird perfection, I mean when you really pull it off, as happens a few times a year, in my experience, a pure gift. And naturally, it will be a poem people single out as their favorite--not the one you spent five and half years on, I'll tell you that.

There was a period of time, in my late twenties and into my early thirties when I could read nothing but Beckett, but Beckett led me to finally was my real true love, Pinter. To me he is the greater. No, the hell with that. I am not doing that anymore--when you get writers at that level, no one is "better" or "worse" than anyone else anymore. They have mastered the craft and the instrument (which is in part their own body and fate). I published a short poem a while ago, in a magazine, it was in a chapbook as well, I can't recall which, with the realization that "the instrument can't hear the music." It still disturbs me.

Also, with this prose--perhaps this is why I mention Pinter--I found there were voices inside me that had been dying to speak but had never found an appropriate place in my--I don't know what to call them--my earlier poems. Sometimes they are so stripped down, you can hone a blade until there is no blade, right? But prose allowed some of these voices to have their say, even to contradict each other and argue. "Do I contradict myself"--beloved Whitman--"then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."

You know, by the way, don't you, that in reality Whitman was terribly shy, and once, writing under a pseudonym, reviewed one of his own readings in Brooklyn, raving about the filled hall, the hushed anticipation, then the entrance and great operatic power of the voice of the poet of the United States, &c. I believe there may have been two or three bums drinking wine out of paper bags or something, and someone present at another reading told people that you could not hear a single world he said! Something to ponder! Remember. Baudelaire said the poet needs a persona before anything else. This is easily and despicably misconstrued. But he was serious. Yeats had something to say about the masks as I recall. The persona. The mask, worn by the ancient Greek tragedians.

The breathing of a god through us, the unleashing of all the selves who must remain mute in normal life.

Anis: How long did it take you to write the book, and how did the conditions under which you wrote it affect the final result?

Franz: I wrote this book in--for me, at least--an unprecedented fifteen months. I just could not stop, the mood was there, not once or twice a week (or month) as during so much of my previous life, but every single day (and night) for days and weeks on end! I once worked for sixty hours straight, with little half hour "naps" when I needed them.

I finished Wheeling Motel and immediately wrote seven of these prose pieces very quickly (and please bear in mind that I rewrote nearly one hundred times the central piece of the seven, "The Scar's Birthday Party," which began with my bewilderment over the way I myself and people I knew far more severely abused than my stepfather's utter silence and contempt every time I entered a room he was in or the savage beatings he administered for no particular reason about once a month to both of us (my brother, five years younger than I am), the way he used me and my brother as pawns in his ongoing war with my mother (who could be the sweetest woman one day, the smartest and funniest person, someone I could tell anything, and the next the almost clownishly raving bitch I myself would have left, and my father had and as my stepfather did about once every six weeks).

Anyway, this is small-time stuff compared to stories I have heard from acquaintances and from people I have met on psych wards, both as a volunteer and as a patient, but it was sufficiently distracting and terrifying for me, as I grieved the loss of my father--it was worse than if he had died, because I knew there were other people three thousand miles away in New York who could see him everyday, whereas I, in San Francisco, where I lived between the ages of eight and eighteen (1961-1971, momentous years, especially in that part of the country, as everyone knows) could never see him and where I set about constructing an ideal godlike father suitable to his invisibility and immensity in my consciousness, and in my devastating loneliness--I can still recall a pain in my chest, a knife, a heart attack, walking the streets of San Francisco by myself, such a strange place after Minneapolis and the Midwest, but one I came to love so much I consider it and the surrounding northern California landscape easily the most beautiful and fascinating part of the country. I am getting off the track again.

I wrote that piece in an attempt--hypnotically, musically, intuitively and with everything I knew from forty years of daily struggling with writing under conditions less than propitious for such an activity: constant financial fear, homelessness on occasion, a florid array of mental illnesses and very serious drug addiction and alcoholism--in an attempt to understand why people who have been brutally abused by their families continue to remain in contact with them and even visit them.

It is very strange to me that I did not, at seventeen, when I left home, simply spit on the ground and walk away from them forever. What I did do, incidentally, was beat my stepfather to a point where he would surely have died if police had not intervened--allowing me eventually to enter Oberlin College rather than San Quentin, or Soledad. Did you know there is a big maximum security prison in the middle of California named Loneliness or Solitude? Well, a warning to men who beat up little boys. They sometimes grow up into strong and savagely angry seventeen years olds who will kill you fucking dead, so give it some thought.

So I finally cut the thing down from perhaps, finally, one hundred and fifty to sixty-five pieces, plus the sixty-line lyric poem (Poetry published it last January) that comes at the end. By the time I had reached the final stages of the book, that point where you know nothing, nothing, nothing can stop it from happening, I had received a diagnosis of lung cancer and was congratulated right and left by doctors who said this news just plain rattles some people when they receive it, while I reacted as though I'd been told I needed to lose some weight or get to work on my blood pressure. One doctor said he had never seen anything remotely like it.

What they did not know was that I was walking on the air about an inch above the floor. I knew I was on to something. I showed the manuscript to Simic, and he wrote that he found it one of the unclassifiable works that appear out of nowhere now and then, and defy genre categorization. I was doing final revisions of the book while receiving chemotherapy, radiation which burned my esophagus so badly I could not take a sip of water or eat anything until I had about 120 mg of morphine in me; I was sitting up in bed all night in ICU revising and arranging the poems after half my right lung had been removed. I don't know how to explain this to you, but aside from the anguish I felt my very brave and stoical wife going through, I think it may have been the happiest time of my life.

I had also been working on many new poems that would not go into a book such as Kindertotenwald, and they eventually turned into two distinct collections, one called F, the other Changed, which are scheduled to be published--posthumously, no doubt--in 2013 and 2015. I am working as hard as I can right now to finish the last one. I think I have mentioned that I have come to see the books from Wheeling Motel on as a kind of tetralogy, just as I considered the first three books Knopf published, The Beforelife (2001), Walking to Martha's Vineyard (2004), and God's Silence (2006) a trilogy.

Anis: Did the form come naturally to you, or did you have to work hard at it?

Franz: Over the years, without being particularly conscious of it, I think I had been learning how to write prose simply by the God knows how many hours I have spent in deeply solitary situations--I was very lonely, let's just admit it--and therefore corresponding with friends. We don't write letters in verse, right? A whole range of effects are what we are trying for, from the comical to the most terribly intimate and even desperate.

We have, as I put it once in a poem, donned "the mask of the first person." I think that is where I mainly got my training. Every time I have consciously tried to sit down and write, say, an essay or a review, I was later so embarrassed by the results, by the kind of person I came across as, I wanted to find every copy of the thing in existence, buy it, and set it all on fire. But in corresponding with friends, I of course had no such worries.

Anis: Are there examples of previous prose poetry that were influences on you?

Franz: The poetic prose that most interests me is that of Henri Michaux. I would never to think to call them prose poems, I suppose they are more like strange fables. Beckett's Stories and Texts for Nothing is probably my favorite book. Beckett led me to one of my great loves, Pinter, whose plays I know practically by heart. I love writers for whom there seems to be very little concern about genre, and the switching back and forth between the "prosaic" or more literal and (that marvelous term of my old teacher Charles Simic) the "lyrical absolute."

Anis: Do you see a distinction between the earlier and later parts of Kindertotenwald?

Franz: I really don't. If I was really standing with my back to the wall, I would say I saw/felt the shaping of the book in symphonic terms. Again, though, we're entering that area in which I am immersed in a mystery I don't have adequate words for. I can tell you there is nothing in the least random about the arrangement of these pieces--at the same time, it would seem deadly to me to have an ordering of contents that came across as intellectually deliberate. None of my books are mere miscellanies of poems--I still love the old line of--whose? it's Robert Frost's I believe--to the effect that if you have 24 poems in a book the book itself should be the 25th.

But that means there must be a good deal of mystery attached to it, to the arrangement itself, even to its creator. In poetry you routinely find yourself dealing with the unsayable. And that old concept still seems true to me--if a book or an individual poem does not have elements of unsayableness, unparaphrasability--is there such a word?--it does not feel at all genuine to me. If the poem does not in some way show me something I was not even aware that I knew, aware I had in me, it's no good, I have to keep going.

But there is a loveliness to the random sometimes, isn't there? I used to comfort myself with the idea of a book with serrated, detachable pages, so that you could read the thing the way it came and then shuffle the pages, like a giant deck of cards, and read the book in an entirely different order. It would be a different book, wouldn't it? It would be one of infinite books.

Anis: Franz, can you talk about some of the predominant themes of Kindertotenwald? Perhaps with reference to "History," "I Am In a Chamber of Lascaux," "The Window," and "Brothers"?

Franz: If there are themes they are always the same, I think, in my books--the world as it was presented to me as a very young boy was a horrifying and hideous place of danger and fear which I have struggled very hard all my life to turn, within my own small range, into one of compassion and beauty, and I am quite sure I failed, but I can say I did try and that the poems are one result of that attempt.

Anis: Does a prose poem allow you to be more open-ended than writing in traditional forms?

Franz: Writing in prose certainly seems to open up and increase your chances of hitting on just the right rhetorical coloring or tone, yes, it really does seem that way--there were cases in which I would be trying to write a verse poem and get so hopelessly lost that I thought I would try something I'd noticed, from seeing copies or facsimiles of their notebook pages, that both Rilke and Yeats seemed not to concern themselves too much with where to break a line, at first they would just let the words flow, and you see the places where they'd begin to insert little slash marks to indicate possible line breaks, and so forth. That helped me, for some reason.

And this reminds me of a strange case in which I got a glimpse of Faulkner's writing process. I got a fellowship of sorts at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, for a year--1980-1981, the fall after my father had died in New York--and I used to go over to the building where their magnificent rare manuscript collection was (also Edgar Allan Poe's little room with a sealed off glass "door" you could peer in through--how strange that was--I think he lasted about three semesters there, before being asked to leave due to excessive drinking and unpayable gambling debts &c.). And I found out that what we know of as the incredible opening pages of The Sound and the Fury originated in what was obviously a prose poem Faulkner wrote as a young man in Paris and must have carried around with him for a very long time. . . When it became the opening of the novel, you could see where he prosed up the rhythm a bit, forced himself to make it a bit more irregular somehow, in terms of inner rhymes and cadences and so forth . . .This made quiet an impression on me. That holy page.

Anyway, when the little privately printed book with the first seven prose pieces (7Prose, Marick Press, Michigan) came out I was so proud of having published a book in prose! I began to feel that perhaps without knowing it I had been all along like one of those guys in baseball who can pitch or hit either right or left handed, as my father once told me his father could do on a Sunday afternoon down there across the river from Wheeling, West Virginia.

It seems very clear to me that a poet has a tremendous amount to learn, things he can carry over into his poetry, by learning about how prose is written; I already knew that many of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century started out writing verse first--wait, of course this was true of Thomas Hardy first--there was Faulkner, wonderful Malcolm Lowry of England who wrote Under the Volcano, which must certainly be among the very greatest works of prose in the world; there was F. Scott Fitzgerald--The Great Gatsby sometimes still strikes me as an epic poem in some ways. And many other cases. I am very proud to say Denis Johnson, the novelist, is my friend, and he wrote four marvelous books of poetry before beginning his career as a novelist. There is certainly a connect.

Anis: I would like you to speak about memories of your father, especially as you describe it in the touching poem, "The Last." How do these memories affect your work?

Franz: I love my father very much (many people don't seem to know that I did not actually live with him after the age of six or seven due to my parents' absurdly violent divorce), and I am sure I think of him and speak to him every day of my life. I was in my mid-twenties when he died. He could be the funniest person, the best company in the world, and he could be something that approached the saintly at certain moments--and at others, I have to say I have never known a cruder or more cruel and violent person.

What can you say about a love for someone so profound you can hardly bear to think of them, combined, alternately, with a desire--as Berryman said somewhere--to dig him up and kill him all over again?

It is true that he gave me a small black lab puppy when I was four, and that its barking disturbed him at his work in our very small first apartment there in Minneapolis where he had his first teaching position after working with Roethke up in Seattle...and that he appeared, nude, with his belt in his hand, and whipped that small utterly helpless and innocent creature nearly to death right in front of me; he slammed the bathroom door in my toddler brother's face, almost completely severing one of his little fingers--I can see it, I see the blood everywhere, hear the screams. And well, I guess it partly made me what I am today, someone who very much made the right decision not to have a child out of fear that I might be even worse than he was.

Anis: Could you speak about the nature of brutality versus mercy in the Saint Teresa of Avila part of "Portrait of Two Saints"?

Franz: I really don't know how to answer this profound question, except to say the events in my prose poem are literally or historically accurate. In their lust to acquire sacred relics, her former colleagues and friends at the monastery simply went mad and tore her body to pieces. I cannot bring myself to think about it at any greater depth than that, it's too much for me.

Anis: What is the nature of the paradox in "Memory of the Future" and "Song"? How does this paradox apply to your own life and work?

Franz: These are both cases--especially "Song"--where I really could not tell you what I meant by them, I don't know, and could not paraphrase them. They were simply given to me that way, and I didn't ask questions, I wrote them down.

Anis: Often, in these poems, you proceed by negation of previously stated propositions. The sum of negations in an individual piece might add up, however, to a vast affirmation. What do you think of this way of describing the pieces in Kindertotenwald?

Franz: I can hardly imagine a better way to say this than you just have in your question, I can only say how wonderful it is to have such a perceptive reader, what my father used to call "an intelligent reader of good will," something we are in very short demand of.

They won't have that kind of thing in most MFA programs, and virtually every poet of note teaches in one, with the exception of me and, in my father's generation, Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin, and virtually every poet who publishes a poem in the United States is the product of these programs, where twelve or fifteen blind children sit around a big table and give each other advice on how to write in the manner that is fashionable at the moment (sometimes they have an illustrious poet with no training whatsoever as a teacher to guide them, sometimes a poet nobody has ever heard of and probably never will, perhaps because...never mind--I hate the subject,

I hate the dumbing down of poetry, the lowering of the bar until, as both revered teachers and friends of mine Donald Justice and Simic commented, it is almost impossible for young people to tell the difference between a good and a bad poem, since for decades it has been fashionable to write in such a manner--obscurity for obscurity's sake is how I would describe it--that makes it virtually impossible to tell whether you have any talent, have anything very interesting to say, etc.

It is a remarkable thing. The greatest poetry in the world, it seems to me, was being written by American poets until--coincidence?--around the late seventies when MFA programs became ubiquitous in American colleges and universities. Richard Howard once quipped darkly at a PEN gathering I happened to be at to receive a writing award, that there are now more writers than readers of poetry in the United States.

Anis: I love the poem "Five After Midnight," where your life flashes before your eyes, in the proverbial manner. What would you like to say about mortality with reference to this poem?

Franz: God bless you, just for calling it a "poem"! I think it is one, too, that as you can see, I have a great deal of difficulty explaining why. I just reread the piece myself and was very relieved to find there is some basis in there for your approval!

Anis Shivani has just finished a novel, Karachi Raj. His other books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (forthcoming 2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (forthcoming Nov. 2011), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (forthcoming 2012), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).