Robert Pinsky is an American poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator. From 1997 – 2000, he served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Pinsky is the author of nineteen books, most of which are collections of his own poetry. His published work also includes critically acclaimed translations, including a collection of poems by Czeslaw Milosz and Dante Alighieri.His honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, both the William Carlos Williams Award and the Shelley Memorial prize from the Poetry Society of America, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He is currently poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate. Pinsky has taught at both Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Question: What is the purpose of poetry in jail?
Robert Pinsky: Oh its American prisons are one of the few places in our culture where indisputably prisons that I have been in. Poetry is quite important. It’s an art. You don’t need a lot of equipment to do. If you memorize a poem, you need any equipment at all to recite it and you can write in your head. One of the guys at Guantanamo, I put this in the poem in my new book. Incised his poems in telephone cups, mentally got writing material modern is set to write them in soap, but then eventually they are memorized. That mean the poetry --- the very things that make it small and it also make it new and make it very essential to the fact that you don’t need a lot of equipment. The fact that I can be reciting to a poem by myself while I am inside while I am driving or taking a shower. Can’t do that with your electronic instrument I don’t think haze that you have once been using the shower, but you get what I mean and as far as I could see which is not so far in the poem ----- I am reading translations and a translation is done basically by legal interpreters. They are not translation as it a literary. As far as I could see as in prison, there is a range of sophistication. I did some teaching in medium security prison which had some lifers in it. Those guys were like graduate students. Some had published, they're lifers. There is lot of time to read. There are lot of time to think. There are lot of time to practice an art. They are not going anywhere and they become sophisticated writers. That’s moving in a way. Most moving to me were things opposite. Really young kids, very naïve writers, “oh mom I know I did something wrong. I wish I could make you a better song.” Very crudely rhymed, ernest. Sometimes you can tell that they'd not been so well in high school and they are innocent. May have done very nasty things or somewhat nasty things drugs and that was one of the things that struck you about in prison, where I was anyway, where is this terrific range and a centrality of the art. Those prisons were interesting play. Eventually I couldn’t stand it. Some people get into it. They do it for ever. It sounds like a joke and reminded me too much of junior high school. I couldn’t stand the regimentation. Every time I had to put a coin in a locker with my watch and take it out which book I could have and couldn’t do and I did something wrong every time and it was just like junior high school. I also did something wrong every time. It just was too depressing for me to really become one of the main people doing this. Its one of the few those poetry readings at the ---- I think they have migrated to another institution that time. It was Massachusetts Institution at Norfolk. Same prison Malcolm X was in. It’s still those people. It was racially much less segregated than your average I believe dining hall. It’s just that those guys have gone through American racial nuttiness and come out in the other side some how. So that you go to some --- seen the stupid scene at Princeton or somewhere and people are segregated by race and here these guys at the poetry reading --- I am not doing that. In prison these are bunch of some of the murderers, bank robbers, certainly drug dealers.
Recorded On: 3/25/08
Robert Pinsky: I think skepticism toward things like titles, good reviews, what the world calls distinctions, recognitions, can become mechanical, but it’s a good armor too.