About the Author:
Ron Padgett grew up in Tulsa and has lived mostly in New York City since 1960. Among his many honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters poetry award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Padgett’s How Long was Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry and his Collected Poems won the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Los Angeles Times prize for the best poetry book of 2013. In addition to being a poet, he is also the translator of Guillaume Apollinaire, Pierre Reverdy, and Blaise Cendrars. His own work has been translated into eighteen languages.
Ron Padgett in conversation with Amy King
Amy King: How Long dives headfirst into the stew of memory, being, redemption, and much more. Did you consciously take on questions of a philosophic nature in these poems?
Ron Padgett: I’ll have to think a moment about the image of my book diving into a stew. It’s true that these recent poems deal more directly with philosophical thinking, that is, with the real life of the spirit and the mind. I guess the older I get the “deeper” I become. Maybe someday I’ll be deep enough to dive into myself.
Amy King: Quite a cast of characters make cameo appearances here—Christopher Marlowe, Sir Thomas Browne, Karl Marx, Jesus, René Descartes, etc. Why do history and historical figures feature so often in your poems?
Ron Padgett: I don’t know. Perhaps because historical figures, as we call them, sometimes seem like historical figurines, which lends them a comical and/or slightly scary effect. But among the literary writers you mention, the answer is simple: I admire their work.
Amy King: How long has How Long been in the making?
Ron Padgett: The poems in the book were written as far back as 2004, but the impetus to write them goes back much further.
Amy King: What prompted the title?
Ron Padgett: One of the poems in the book is called “How Long.” I tried out several other titles, but they didn’t hold up, and I found myself referring to the manuscript as How Long. Maybe I was wondering how long I was going to take to give this book a name!
Amy King: How did the story of the Hidden Valley make it into “What Are You On”?
Ron Padgett: The poem started by my thinking about the British question of “What are you on about?” Then it took off on its own. At one point I found myself in an imaginary place called Hidden Valley. I wasn’t thinking about the salad dressing brand at all. In fact I was surprised when I learned that such a brand exists. The Hidden Valley I imagined might have been based on an old postcard I had seen, advertising a dude ranch. Grandma and Grandpa seem to be a combination of my maternal grandparents and Ma and Pa Kettle.
Amy King: Is Hidden Valley, metaphorically speaking, the perfect place for poetry?
Ron Padgett: I’m not sure what a perfect place for poetry would be, other than the entire earth.
Amy King: There’s simultaneity to the way the historical, the fabled, and the endless, ephemeral present coexist in these poems; how do you experience time?
Ron Padgett: Time has always seemed so variable to me. As a child, I thought five minutes in a dentist’s chair was an eternity, but five minutes in a bumper-car was over in a snap.
Amy King: In “I’ll get back to you,” you follow two trains of thought at once and end with a nonlinear image that enters into the eternal present. What are the rewards of writing a nonlinear narrative, or dropping narrative altogether?
Ron Padgett: I grew up in a linear society, but when I was 15 or so I was introduced to the idea of time as circular or spiral. (I had already spent several years pondering Einstein’s notion of time as the fourth dimension, that sort of thing.) At age 18, I had a vision of time as being simultaneously linear and circular. The next year I read Eliade’s The Eternal Return, as well as books by psychologists and anthropologists that acquainted me with concepts of time from ancient and so-called primitive societies. The relationship between linear time and the lineation in poems is something else to think about.
Amy King: At what point do you realize a poem will be long? How long does a long poem take to write? Should one read a long poem in one sitting?
Ron Padgett: Sometimes I’ve written a long poem just because I hadn’t written one in a while. The long poems in this book were written over several days, then revised over several years. But the reader can read them at whatever speed he or she wants. Forty-five years ago, I experimented with speeds, by reading only one line of a poem per minute, or one word every five seconds. It was interesting and sort of awful, but I convinced myself that I had learned something from it.
Amy King: How did your grandson Marcello respond to “Happy Birthday to Us”?
Ron Padgett: Marcello loves all poems that mention him.
Amy King: Who or what is the grasshopper (of the poem “Grasshopper”)?
Ron Padgett: That poem started when a grasshopper jumped onto my back and stayed there for a while. He was impressive.
Amy King: Do you think America today is really less expansive than the America of “Walking with Walt”?
Ron Padgett: Yes, I do, though I’m only guessing at what “America” is.
Amy King: Who is Barber Tom (in “Death”) who averted the storybook carnage with his everyday intent?
Ron Padgett: He’s just an imaginary, regular fellow who wandered into my poem.
Amy King: In “Thinking About a Cloud,” the cloud in conversation says, “In fact I never say anything.” Your poems include many such conundrums. Do your poems intentionally defy Western logic?
Ron Padgett: No, although sometimes I like to write things that throw my mind off-kilter.
Amy King: The persona in “I Remember Lost Things” thinks his way—from the city to Joe Brainard to García Lorca to Columbia University’s sundial-sphere—through a childhood, finally landing on the shiny chrome head of an Indian man topping the hood of a car. Is there a way in which the poem traces an interconnectivity between seemingly disparate things and ideas?
Ron Padgett: These things are not disparate, insofar as they are all lost things.
Amy King: In “What Are You On,” people are cue balls, and in “On Decency,” ideas of mortality are depicted as billiard balls. Does this objectification of attention have something to do with your thoughts on technology?
Ron Padgett: No, it’s just that I used to like shooting pool at Julian’s Billiard Academy on 14 Street in New York. And I still marvel at how perfect billiard balls look, though the cue ball reminds me of my own bald head, or the head of an extraterrestrial on the cover of a science fiction paperback in the 1950s.
Amy King: Who is “Snowman” for? Did you write it consciously, from the start, as an elegy? I didn’t know it was an elegy, or didn’t know I knew, until the last few lines of the poem—very much the tempo of sadness/memory’s ambush.
Ron Padgett: I wrote “Snowman” thinking about my friend George Schneeman, who had died a few weeks before. His last name is German for ‘snowman.’ The poem had an elegiac undertow from the very beginning, but the eruption near the end ambushed me too.
Amy King: How did you write “From Dante”—what is it based on? It is more allegorical, more oblique than other poems in the book.
Ron Padgett: It is loosely based on three poems by Dante.
Amy King: Why is René Descartes so tired?
Ron Padgett: Deep thought is exhausting, even for a genius.
Amy King: Why did you imagine the “Flame Name”? It reminded me of Williams’ “I saw the figure 5 in gold…”
Ron Padgett: I don’t remember, but your association is interesting.
Amy King: Did you write “The Great Wall of China” while in China with Anne Waldman, or when you were riding the cloud back to New York?
Ron Padgett: I wrote it in Beijing, beginning in the morning and ending that evening. And yes, Anne Waldman was there.
Amy King: At the end of “On Decency,” you acknowledge that though you don’t have the earth, as your grandparents did, you have them. How does humanity feature in your poems?
Ron Padgett: I just wanted to tell my forebears how grateful I am to them for being who they were.
Amy King lives in Brooklyn, New York and is the author of I’m the Man Who Loves You and Antidotes for an Alibi, both from Blazevox Books, The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Press), Kiss Me With the Mouth of Your Country (Dusie Press), and most recently, Slaves to Do These Things (Blazevox). I Want to Make You Safe is forthcoming from Litmus Press, 2011. She is currently preparing a book of interviews with Ron Padgett. Amy founded and curated, from 2006, the Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry, until 2010. Please visit www.amyking.org for more.
“Ron Padgett’s poetry is utterly unique. He writes with an apparent directness and simplicity that results from an extremely fastidious and artful attitude towards language. Each of his poems is an exquisite construction, yet at the same time he works to strip poetry of artifice and pretension. His poems are often hilarious—he may be the funniest living American poet—with a humor that is all the more powerful for its subtlety.”—John Koethe, Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award Judge
“Reading Padgett one realizes that playfulness and lightness of touch are not at odds with
seriousness . . . As is often the case, leave it to the comic writer to best convey our tragic
predicament.”—Charles Simic, New York Review of Books
“Ron Padgett’s poems sing with absolutely true pitch. And they are human friendly. Their search for truths, both small and large, can be cause for laughter, or at least a thoughtful sigh.” —James Tate, Academy of American Poets Chancellor
“Ron Padgett makes the most quiet and sensible of feelings a provocatively persistent wonder.”—Robert Creeley
“Always discovering new pleasures and reviving old ones, full of what, in Frank O’Hara’s
phrase, ‘still makes a poem a surprise,’ Ron Padgett’s poems, among those of our times,
are in the small company of authentic works of art.” —Kenneth Koch
“Padgett’s work is unique in American poetry precisely in its fusion of novel imagery, humor that’s based in both New York and his native Oklahoma, and a various musicality. . . . Much more mysterious than words, the figures in dreams are funny, elegant, and changeable. We think with them every night, but Padgett also thinks with them in his funny, elegant, mercurial poems.” —Alice Notley, in Coming After: Essays on Poetry (University of Michigan Press)
“[Padgett] is a major figure in contemporary American letters.” —Clayton Eshleman, in Companion Spider: Essays (Wesleyan University Press)
“Ron Padgett is the poet that people who don’t like poetry have never read.”—Colorado Springs Independent
“Ron Padgett is a poet of the New York School, second generation. He, Ted Berrigan and Joe Ceravolo seem to me to be the most accomplished of that group.”—New York Times Book Review
“At his best, Padgett re-orders our perceptions of the world.” —Poetry Magazine