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: When did poetry first spark your interest?
Robert Pinsky: I don’t think I ever got into a thing called poetry writing poems the way somebody in a more traditional college educated family might. From as long as I can remember I have thought about the sounds of words. I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t making little tunes out of the sentence and tuned ------ I can’t stop doing that and as long as I can remember I was thinking about consonants and vowels and also where words come from and there is a sentence that ends with a rhyme come from and when I learned how to read I liked reading the dictionary I not only like learning stuff from it I like the style of it. I like any of several varieties of blah blah. Two denoting as in one, but with the two, I like that and it didn’t occur to me that ---- and I like both when other people did it when I can do it to make up alternate obscene or ludicrous words to popular songs. I always like all that and it was much later that I learned there was an art based on all of this.
Question: How did you come into that art?
Robert Pinsky: It was a gradual failure as a saxophone player. My ambition through my teens was --- I don’t know if its ---- its probably not as dignified as my ambition. My day dreams were to be a great jazz player. The main obstacle to --- the only obstacle to that was deficiency of talent and I did play in a band in high school. It was professional in the sense that we blew into the instruments and people gave us money. Actually I was the only one blowing in instrument. It was basically a drummer, base player, piano player and me. We played Latin music at the beach club, swimming pools in the summer and we play high school dances, bars.It wasn’t very glorious. My day dreams were glorious and when I went away to Rutgers there was one particular occasion I went back and I auditioned with these guys at a bar in Atlantic islands and as Wordsworth I might say I stunk up the place and my mind turned toward poetry. So almost overnight those day dreams of being a terrific musician changed into day dream of being a terrific poet. At that time I was reading, starting to be aware of this other art.
Question: Do you still play?
Robert Pinsky: Yes and still quite badly. In my study I always have a keyboard with headphones, so that only I can hear what I do and from time to time including right now I take out the saxophone and have a set up and I honk in that usually when I try to make sure there is no one the house. My wife is a psychotherapist with an office in the house and I only will if I even think that there might be a patient in the house and I am quite sure that I am just using the key board with the headphones. I don’t want to kid the music and I don’t want to embarrass myself and I am happy I took lessons for a while with the guy and I like playing with the Jamie hydrosol tapes which are rhythm sections. I am content. I am happy with that.Charlie Simik and I did the thing with mixing poetry and Jazz with some musicians a couple of months ago the jazz standard and to do something like that again in May. I like going on stage with musicians. I have done some narratives for classical music. I did a series of appearance of the tuckers string quartet. I am content to pretend to be one of the musicians and I prefer that to pretending to be a musician. I pretend to be a musician in the privacy of my own home.
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.