Ron Padgett is a national treasure. He's published, edited, and translated dozens of collections of poetry and prose, and over the past fifty years he has been an influential and necessary force in American letters. After coming to New York City from Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early '60s, Padgett became part of what John Ashbery called the "soi-disant" Tusla School with Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Alice Notley and Joe Ceravolo. This fall, we are lucky enough to finally have his Collected Poems published by Coffee House Press, where the astonishing breadth and depth of his work can finally be fully appreciated. In this volume, readers will find some of the most large-hearted, quick-witted poems of the past fifty years. I return to Padgett's poetry again and again when I need inspiration, insight, or simply a shot of sanity. I was lucky enough to email back and forth with Padgett to glean some insights into his writing process, how to be a man, Red Skelton, and more.
You once published a book of poems you didn't remember writing called, "Poems I Guess I Wrote." Which poem in this Collected Poems do you MOST remember writing?
This is a little like asking a father which of his children he prefers. So there's no "most" here. But I can recall exactly where I was when I wrote almost all of the poems in my Collected.
I'm thinking of Kenneth Koch's two poems both titled "The Circus," and how writing a poem can become an act of nostalgia after years of writing poems with different friends around, different apartments, snacks, dogs, sweaters. Do you remember a time when you had the most intense feeling of "I am a real poet" while you were writing?
Those are both wonderful poems of his. If, in the middle of writing a poem, I ever had an intense feeling of "I am a real poet," I think it would stop me in my tracks. When I was 16 I decided, once and for all, that I would be a poet, though over the years that has veered into "I will write poems" and then to "I write poems" and then to "I write." I've been doing it so long that I rarely think about it anymore.
In your great long poem "Cufflinks" your speaker describes himself as a minor poet. Does the Ron Padgett speaking in these poems still see himself that way now that we have this historic collection in front of us? And is there any advantage to a poet keeping himself "minor"?
There is an advantage in a poet's not even thinking in these terms, since wondering if one is major or minor is usually just a distraction. If you match yourself up against Shakespeare, guess what? You lose. It's not productive. Better to focus on the poem you're writing, do your work, and leave it at that. (By the way, the speaker in my poems isn't always "Ron Padgett.")
Was it difficult to continue thinking this way when you're working on collecting your work into a publication like this, and did it influence any of the poems you were writing at the same time?
My aim in assembling these poems was to pick ones that I still like. Doing so had no influence on the poems I was writing at the time, simply because putting the book together made me stop writing. It's certainly an honor to be asked to assemble such a volume, but I found it also somewhat depressing, as if I were erecting my own tombstone. I think I was taking myself far too seriously.
Now that we're a safe distance from the 20th century, do you have a perspective on what role the New York School playing in the history of American poetry?
I don't think of the distance as safe at all, but everyone says that the New York School poets, some more than others, have had a strong influence.
I've always enjoyed your collaborative poems. Do you have any desire to write poems that way now?
These days I collaborate mainly with myself, but two years ago I wrote some poems with the Chinese poet Yu Jian, who is a friend of mine. I wrote in English, he in Mandarin. Neither of us understands the other's language. It was exhilarating, and the poems turned out to have amazing continuity.
You've translated some of the most strident Modernists of French poetry, from Blaise Cendrars to Pierre Reverdy, and yet your own poems find a home in what could be described as the least Modernist place in America, Prairie Home Companion. Is there a tension there, or am I asking a small-minded question? Or both!
Actually Reverdy is mostly a very quiet poet who used simple language. My poems have been on Writer's Almanac and I once performed on Prairie Home Companion because Garrison Keillor has liked one type of my work enough to invite me, which I appreciate a lot. But there's also a wilder, more disjunctive, and crazier side to my work, which probably wouldn't go over well on NPR.
You grew up in Oklahoma with a father whose cottage industry was bootlegging, you became an adult in post-war New York City, and you, a poet, raised a son in the wilds of Manhattan. Did any of that give you special insights into what it means to be a man?
I have never figured out what "being a man" is, other than the obvious biological stuff. My father was a big, tough, handsome, macho guy, something I have never been, but my poetry is better than any he could have written! The funny thing is that he knew nothing about poetry but was very proud of me.
I've always felt that there was a strong "Looney Tunes" and Buster Keaton influence in the way you describe action in your poems. Is that just me? Or, a better way to ask this, what besides poetry itself has been the biggest influence in your work?
One influence, though hopefully not the biggest, is my having been, as a child, a passionate consumer of comic books and animated cartoons, as well as comedians such as The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, Ma and Pa Kettle movies, Dannie Kaye, Jerry Lewis . . . The list could go on.
Of all the poets you've known, who tells the best jokes?
I've known very few poets who tell jokes. The wittiest poets I've known---Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Frank O'Hara, Kenward Elmslie, Anne Porter, Bill Berkson, to name a few---never told me a single joke. I think jokes are a kind of word play that uses itself up, whereas poems can have word play that gives perpetual delight.