Forge Interview with Edward Butscher

By Tim McLafferty

Welcome to the first Forge Interview. Here we set forth on our series of interviews with makers on making. Conceptually cast as craft interviews, we offer time and space to invited poets and writers, the goal of which is manifold: to get to know the artist better by trying to understand how they make a thing, to better understand the thing itself, and hopefully, to provide a lasting utility.

Our first guest is Edward Butscher, a complex poet with a luminous head-piece, who has been more than generous in answering our seemingly dilettante questions; we sincerely thank him for helping us start our new project.

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TM: Describe your working day, what time of day you like to write?

 

EB: Unlike my other writing, poetry has never been a matter of regimen or time of day, although mornings, especially in summer when free of teaching, have been most conducive to poetry.  It was a long summer, in fact, when I sweated out And Thus Spake Godfrey, my whale of an unpublished anti-epic epic—Godfrey was a beloved cat with a divine sense of humor.  In general, however, poetry comes when it comes, usually generated by some event or idea or memory that strikes a deep note, sinks into the murk of unconscious brooding and begins accruing coral images, perhaps even a narrative thrust.  Sometimes, the triggering event is a newspaper report, as, for instance, when a local paper recounted how a middle-aged nurse, still in uniform, committed suicide one sunny afternoon by sitting on the LIRR track in Hampton Bays, where we then had a summer house.  The poem that resulted, “Spring Harvest,” was part of the Child in the House collection in 1994.

 

Spring Harvest

 

The engineer reported, “shaken,”

that the woman sat  (luminous

as a lily in her starched uniform)

so still, head aslant, as if

blessing the gravel at her toes

when the express tore her free.

Her shoes, whiter than the way

an unexpected wave smashes sand

down to diamond chips, blind me

as they dance around the sun

sucking us into their wake

with the ease of season.

 

 

TM: How long do you think about a poem before you begin to write it?

 

EB: The gestation period varies, as the above suggests, and the poems tend to come in clusters, one igniting another, as if in an oxygen-rich zone or mood—the happiest time for a poet, a period of intoxicated inspiration. Of course, when in this state, you do not know where the poem is going, but you are, via a process of associative chaining, following unconscious nudges even as your conscious mind labors to gain control of the material.  As T. S. Eliot once commented, so acutely, the good poet knows when to be conscious and when to be unconscious.

 

TM: How about revisions? If you do revise, what are some of the elements that you are looking to remove or build upon?

 

EB: Revisions are writing.  To be sure, the urge to revise, after the poem has been finished, or “let go,” to use Valéry’s phrase, is powerful, but should be resisted, as Auden sagely advised.  Occasionally, the urge stems from an accurate diagnosis of a misstep or the need for cuts, more intense images, and you plunge back in…if the poem is elaborate or extensive, as in the Godfrey epic, it can be like trying to repair a ship in a bottle, risking a total collapse.

 

TM: How about abstractions?

 

EB: Go in fear of abstractions, Pound might suggest, with much justice, but they are at the pith of language and the glory of our grey cells.  It was in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I think, where Eliot began transforming abstractions into their opposite with great impact, but emulation by theft might not travel well.  Perhaps Williams’ dictum of “no ideas but in things” is a better sign to hang over one’s computer.

 

TM: How do you balance clarity and abstraction?

 

EB: I’m not sure this is a legitimate opposition.  Clarity in a poem is not always a virtue, since form follows function and Robert Frost is laboring to say one thing and mean another.

 

TM: I wasn’t thinking of these as opposites, but as elements; certainly not a clear question. What I mean is, in a poem, how are you balancing personal symbols, myths, history, veiled meanings, abstraction: things that are more inside to you, against things that would be clearer to the reader? Is the reader a concern? Is communication a goal, or just the making of the object (poem)? Is there a balancing act?

 

EB: Interesting tactical question this way.  Personal history feeds the beast inside the psyche when in heated Ahab-like pursuit of the poem. One is repeatedly translating private experience and emotions into the symbols and narratives that constitute the treasure chest of our culture.  A major source of the psychological energy behind the quest is the “family romance” construed by Freud to explain a vulnerable child’s fantasy vision of an exalted destiny.  The reader is a concern, but she or he is an idealized version of yourself, thus able to appreciate what you have accomplished.

This brings up the question of obscurity, how much to reveal to the reader, how much information to provide.  It is a subject Simon Perchik and I have discussed at various times over the years of our friendship.  Si is closer to the surreal core than I, edging nearer to abstraction and Gertrude Stein’s grand mistake, more worried about the danger he sees in the poets all around us of lapsing into disguised prose.

 

TM: What about meter and form?

 

EB: Like most poets, or artists, I began in early adolescence to master the conventional forms, that is, to write poems that were both rhymed and metered…the restrictions offered genuine pleasure in their demands. But exposure to Whitman and his modern descendants, in league with a growing rebellion against the restraints imposed on what I wanted and needed to say, led me to vers libre.  In place of meter and rhyme, I explored alternate ways of making music, if you will, via assonance and consonance, alliteration, etc., sometimes even syllable-counting, à la Marianne Moore.

 

TM: Do you spend much time reading your poems out loud?

 

EB: At times, I do read a poem aloud during or soon after its completion, and my considerable ego thrives on public readings, although my shyness—doubtless an aspect of the same ego—causes me to turn to alcohol for support, not to mention the simple self-aggrandizing joy of being drunk. Like the late and mourned Dwight MacDonald, I find a guilty pleasure in reading my own work, although at times exasperated by uncaught errors, aesthetic missteps, and the like.

 

TM: How about the poems of others? How do you study them, read them, enjoy them?

 

EB: Reading and studying the poems of others were, of course, part of the educational process from high school on through college and graduate schools, although reading poems of contemporaries became a habit and joy as well, beginning in the late 1950s.  There was a special excitement reading the collections of ‘confessional’ poets as they came off the press, new books by John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Snodgrass, et al., then the discovery of Sylvia Plath after her suicide and the posthumous publication of Ariel.

Equally electric for me were the volumes of Dylan Thomas’s verses—the latter’s 1953 death in New York on one of his drunken tours added to his extravagant poetry’s allure as the product of a doomed romantic genius.  It was while taking a poetry-analysis seminar at StonyBrookUniversity one summer that I was introduced to Plath’s tragic life and determined to become her biographer.

 

TM: Do you read novels?

 

EB: Like the culture at large, my primary literary experience has been reading novels from childhood on—my very first one was a glossy hard-cover book about Uncle Wiggily, a birthday present from my older brother John, which led to finding others on my own, popular ones about Robin Hood and other such mythic heroes available in cheap hard-cover editions, as I also devoured Classic comic books and pulp fiction.  And, inevitably, I gulped down the novels often disliked by my fellow students, ranging from The Yearling and Johnny Tremain through Silas Marner to Giants in the Earth. Biographies, literary and otherwise, were also fodder, as were history texts, American history in particular, and assigned books from Ancient Greece and Rome.

 

TM: What poets have influenced you most—when you were just starting, and through the years until now?

 

EB: The poets who had the greatest impact on my formative years were the traditional 19th century American poets in the classroom, most indelibly Longfellow, Whitman, and Dickinson.  When I was in Flushing High School and Queens College through the late 1950s and early 1960s, the poets dubbed “confessional” by M. L. Rosenthal, the keenest critic of contemporary poetry then writing and a teacher of mine at NYU, exerted a major influence, as did Wallace Stevens, discovered on my own and judged as merging the wit and intelligence and linguistic dazzle closest to what I wanted to achieve.   Johnson’s “Metaphysicals” also enthralled, and Shakespeare remained the inescapable master, his sonnets a yearly read and frequent deconstruction specimen in the classroom.

 

TM: What are you reading lately?

 

EB: Sad to say, I do not read nearly as much as I once did but have recently read John Banville’s Ancient Light and Rebecca Goldstein’s 1991 novel, The Dark Sister, along with several volumes of letters, those of George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin, and William Gaddis—a favorite form of history and essential research tool.

As for poetry, aside from much magazine verse, I largely relished Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012, despite a distressing trend towards mysticism, and Si’s latest surreal graveyard dances, Almost Rain.

 

TM: Do you carry and use notebooks?

 

EB: I love the idea of a notebook, so conscious of how many poems are lost because notions and images are not jotted down during moments of inspiration, but have never followed through.  These days, I still tend to write my poems in long hand first, usually on yellow legal pads, before moving on to the computer, which provides an almost physical satisfaction of its own.  Correcting typescripts is the dessert course.

 

TM: Do you give up on some poems and leave them unfinished?

 

EB: If a poem gets started, that is, if it gets beyond the idea phase and has begun to weave some leit motif or field of vision, it might be put aside at a critical juncture for further recollection in tranquility but will, in most cases, soon resume its loom march towards a vague final arras. There have been a few times, however, when they were thrown into a drawer instead—languishing ghosts of what might have been.

 

TM: Do you show your unpublished poems to anyone, and if so, is it helpful?

 

EB: I have never been comfortable sharing incomplete poems or drafts with anyone, even with Paula, who is the ultimate judge of all I write, as well as an acute editor of my prose writings, whether essays, reviews, or biographies.  Ego is, again, the problem where the poetry is concerned. But there is a kind of triangular trade route among myself, Si, and Anselm Parletore, psychiatrist and passionate poet in the Geoffry Hill mold living on the West Coast.  We share poems and criticisms with candid freedom.

 

TM: Can you describe your affinity with the visual arts?

 

EB: I have always loved painting and sculpture.  When very young, I bought (or stole) a complete painting set and several canvasses.  I had a certain drawing skill, could copy anything or anyone with reasonable fidelity. Subsequently, in high school, I encountered a classmate who was truly gifted—we competed sketching WWII airplane and ground battles—and realized I could never become a great artist.  Books, which I always loved, would have to be my canvasses.

I used to drag my younger brother Ronald, now deceased, by subway into Manhattan (while playing hooky) to sample Times Square treats and tour the museums, usually MOMA and the Met.  The former was most attractive for me, because I instinctively related to the modern, whether the harsh naturalism of the Ashcan School or the different realistic visions of Wyeth and Edward Hopper or surrealism of every kind—a natural predilection of the literary-minded.

 

TM: What are some of the best ways that you’ve found to improve one’s poetry?

 

EB: Aging rapidly, too rapidly, in flesh and craft, I find that the treacherous ground under my poems is exposed when they come too swiftly.  I must force myself to fight against their imperative flow to completion, summon enough resistance to supply missing friction.  As I observed elsewhere, it is far too easy when you grow old and appear to have achieved a certain success, to do what Picasso warned against and imitate yourself.

 

 

Born and raised in Flushing, Queens, Edward Butscher’s poems, stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of journals since the early 1970’s, including the Saturday Review of Literature, Poetry, Georgia Review, Newsday, and the American Book Review. In 1976 Seabury Press published his Poems About Silence and Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, first biography of the controversial poet. He also edited Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work (1978) for Dodd, Mead, and his Adelaide Crapsey was published in 1979 as a title in Twayne’s United States Authors series.

Cross Cultural Communications published two collections of his poems, Amagansett Cycle (1980) and Unfinished Sequence (1981), and his only novel, Faces on the Barroom Floor, appeared from Contemporary Press in 1984. He co-edited (with Irving Malin) a special issue of Twentieth Century Literature in 1986 devoted to the work of Paul Bowles. His Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale, published in 1988 by the University of Georgia Press, won the Poetry Society of America’s Melville Cane Award for that year

Edward Butscher is the author of Peter Wild (1992) in the Western Writers of America series and Eros Descending (1992), a group of lyrics from an on-going sequence issued as a Dusty Dog Chapbook, and has been a contributing scholar for a number of reference works, among them, The Reference Guide to Short Fiction (St. James Press), MaGill’s Survey of Contemporary Poetry, and Oxford University’s Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English.

More recent poetry collections are, Child in the House (1994) from Canio’s Editions, with an introduction by David Ignatow, and the full sequence, Eros Descending (2010) from The Amagansett Press. Edward Butscher lives in East Hampton, NY, with his wife, Paula Trachtman.


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