An Interview with Gerald Stern
By The Editors on 9.17.10
Gerald Stern, the author of sixteen poetry collections, has won the National Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award, among others. In July, W. W. Norton published a collection of Stern’s best early work spanning four decades from 1965 to 1992. The following interview was conducted by Stephanie Smith on behalf of Poems Out Loud.
Q: When did you start writing poems?
Gerald Stern: I actually started to write poems when I was in high school though I never truly studied poetry or thought in any way of myself as a poet, whatever that was or might be.
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Q: Why did you start writing poems?
GS: It is impossible to answer a question like this, although it is extremely intriguing. The answer would always be psychological. I guess I liked language and how it sounded; I liked to play with ideas; and I had an intense need to express myself indirectly, metaphorically, allegorically, even ambiguously, the way you can in poetry and certainly can’t in the analytical prose required of us in school in those days.
Q: What do you think precipitated your coming into your voice in those early poems of Rejoicings (1973)?
GS: This is a very good question and I have answered it at length in an essay called “Some Secrets,” published in the book In Praise of What Persists and republished in my own book of essays called What I Can’t Bear Losing. Essentially something was happening to my psychologically in my mid to late thirties that made the writing of those poems possible. They were couched in simple, direct, lyrical, personal language. Some of these poems are “When I have Reached the Point of Suffocation,” “The Bite,” “Turning Into a Pond,” and “The Naming of Beasts.”
Q: What are some of your favorite poems?
GS: In addition to the ones I have mentioned from Rejoicings, I might mention in particular poems from Lucky Life, including the poem “Lucky Life,” “Behaving Like a Jew, [listen]” “96 Vandam,” and “Underground Dancing [listen].” Early Collected Poems includes 550 pages, so I could go on and on. Should I mention “The Shirt Poem,” and “The Roar” from The Red Coal, “One Bird to Love Forever” and “Leaving Another Kingdom” from Paradise Poems, “Bella” and “Another Insane Devotion” from Lovesick, “The Bull-Roarer,” “The Founder,” and “The Thought of Heaven” from Bread Without Sugar?
Q: When you were writing some of your more well-known poems such as “Lucky Life,” “Underground Dancing,” “Behaving Like a Jew,” “Soap,” did you have an idea that they would resonate with the culture as much as they have?
GS: Actually I didn’t, maybe I thought “Soap” would, because of its subject. The attention they got was always surprising, delightful, and embarrassing to me.
Q: How does your early work inform your later work?
GS: The easiest way of answering this is that the later work is buried, concealed, or latent in the early work. I have become increasingly more ironic, angry, and direct, without giving up “the song” in my later work. Also, the work in my last few years has come to me with increasing rapidity and clarity.
Q: If you had to, what would you define as the subject matter of your poems?
GS: Needless to say, the nominal “subject matter” might not truly be what a poem is about, but I could say that my poems are extremely political and elegiac and also examine the shared anguish of being human with all of its hopes and ignorance—and limitations. They may consist of a memory of the death of a dear friend, a cultural loss, or the struggle for social justice and decency. But I don’t want to imply that they are sermons for, in my cases, they are, as critics have observed, ironic, humorous, and even funny.