The Culling: An Interview with Poet George Held

An eight-time Pushcart Prize nominee, George Held publishes poems, fiction, and book reviews, both online and in print. Born in White Plains, NY, he was educated at Brown, University of Hawai'i, and Rutgers. Recent books include Neighbors: The Water Critters (2015), his third volume of animal poems for children, illustrated by Joung Un Kim. About his poetry chapbook Bleak Splendor (2016), Anton Yakovlev writes that it "bear[s] the full weight of a master poet's devastating wit and lifelong wisdom."

Loren Kleinman (LK): Can you talk about "natural quiet" in The Culling?

George Held (GH): "Natural quiet" is a phrase from one of the key environmental texts of the 20th century, Henry Beston's The Outermost House (1928). The phrase describes the night as Beston experienced it on Cape Cod, where no human noise intruded. One could then hear only the wind, the surf, and the cries of birds--no roar of traffic, hum of electric lines, cries of sirens. Beston revered pristine nature, including its original absence of the intrusive sounds of civilization. Few places now are left in "developed" countries to experience natural quiet, so when I heard it one night deep in the woods of central Sweden, where a friend of mine owned an old house, this phenomenon generated my poem "Natural Quiet."

LK: How does nature represent poetry? How does poetry represent nature?

GH: I'm not sure nature represents poetry or if it does, how. But your questions are necessary ones for anyone attempting to write about nature. While the 19th-century nature poets saw poetry inherent in a field of daffodils or the song of a nightingale, our response to nature today must be to rediscover and reinterpret it for our own time, especially in the context of knowledge that ornithology has provided. The powerful influence of traditional nature poetry on many school children (and their teachers) often has a deadening effect on anyone who tries to write a poem about nature today. Here Ezra Pound's dictum "Make it new" comes to mind, for anyone who wants to write a decent nature poem today must find new approaches and new forms for their writing. Probably more bad--stale, didactic, obvious--poems now are written about nature than any other subject. And maybe that's why no traditional nature poems appear in my new collection, Bleak Splendor.

LK: I love the poem about The Sad Bird "floating in the shallows." Tell us more about the premise of this poem. Where does the infatuation begin?

GH: As to the "sad bird" in question, I've seen firsthand dead birds covered in spilled oil, suffocated or drowned for being too heavy with gunk to keep their heads above the water. As a revenge fantasy, I imagined the CEO of BP with his own head congealed in the oil spilled by his company in the Gulf of Mexico. Undergoing triage, as the damaged birds of the Gulf had to, this sad bird is judged too far gone to save.

LK: You are also a translator. Can you talk about how you began translating texts? Which ones have been the most challenging?

GH: I've always loved reading poets in translation. Among my favorites are Baudelaire, Symborska, Pessoa, and Paul Celan. And I prefer to read translated poetry with the original versions printed along with the translation so I can hear the music of another language and see if rhyme and meter are present and either ignored or accommodated in the English version. I began translating because of my dissatisfaction with some of the translations I read. For example, the Latin poet Martial has for centuries been turned into a rhymer in English, yet in his Latin are no rhymes or English meters. So I tried my hand at making Martial sound like a contemporary--witty, bitchy, lean--and unrhymed for the most part. And I've so far published about a hundred English versions of his epigrams. The hardest translations I've made are from the Hungarian sonnets of Lorenz Szabo, something I had to accomplish with the help of a native Hungarian speaker who wrote out line by line the English prose equivalents of Szabo, and I then made English sonnets out of them. They appeared in the distinguished British journal Modern Poetry in Translation.

LK: If you could be a bird and fly anywhere, which bird would you be and where would you go?

GH: One thing I love about birds is their multiplicity and variety, and the individuality of their colors, calls, nests, mating antics, feeding practices, etc. Water birds, raptors, flightless birds, migrants that cover thousands of miles twice a year on their annual relocation for breeding and overwintering. Bright birds, plain birds, large ones and tiny ones. It's natural for me to write about particular birds because of my fondness for and admiration of them: catbirds, owls, chickadees, cardinals, robins, the yellowbellied sapsucker, the dodo, and crows are some of those featured in individual poems of mine. Among my more successful in Culling, I think, are "Osprey," written in triple meter, "Feeding Chickadees," in which I imitate that bird's calls and describe its feeding behavior, and "Crow(s)," a poem in thirteen parts that nods at Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird."