An Interview with Anne Stevenson

Michael O’Siadhail

Among Anne Stevenson's collections are: Correspondences (1974), Enough of Green (1977), Minute by Glass Minute (1982), The Fiction-Makers (1985). This May saw the publication in paperback from Oxford University Press of her Selected Poems. Bitter Fame, a biography of Sylvia Plath will be published this autumn. A new collection of poems The Other House is due in 1990. For the last two years she has been writer in residence at the University of Edinburgh.

You have written "You have to inhabit poetry If you want to make it". How or when did you start to inhabit poetry?
In my childhood my father read aloud to us for as long as I can remember, mostly Victorians: Matthew Arnold, a lot of Walter Scott The Lady of the Lake, The Lay of the Last Minstrel and so forth. These were the days before television. My father was a first generation intellectual. He was extremely excited about poetry, about music. He was a marvelous pianist. He himself taught philosophy and was well known as a philosopher. He and my mother were Midwesterners. They came from Cinncinnati in Ohio. They had met at highschool and found they had in common a great deal of enthusiasm for the arts and when they married they were determined to bring up their children as cultured civilized Americans. I wasn't self-conscious. Poetry was something that came with my childhood. Inhabiting poetry came in the sense that I learned poetry by heart and knew a great deal of it before I was ten. I grew up in the house of poetry.

You were actually born in Cambridge?
I was born in England but my father was then studying philosophy under Wittgenstein in Cambridge. Soon after I was born, six months later, they took me back to America. This was 1933. Hitler had just come to power. Things didn't look too good in Europe and my father also had a fellowship at Harvard. He went from Cambridge, England to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then we moved to New Haven, where my father taught for
many years at Yale. During the war we moved out to California and then back to Ann Arbor, Michigan. So I grew up a polyglot, having been born in England, then transferred around America. We moved out to California for a very crucial year when I was in the eighth grade and then back to Michigan, where I went to highschool and college. You described with equal incisiveness American and English suburbia in Living in America and Reversals. Was your third book Correspondences in some way a coming to terms with your split background or at least with your A merican background?
Correspondences was an act of rebellion. I wrote Correspondences in the early nineteen seventies and by that time I had decided to reject, or at least not to participate in, the whole scheme of academia. I had been brought up in academia. I had been in a sense force-fed with the values of academia and in the sixties I as
 .  ,
it were, turned my back. I considered Correspondences
particularly to have been a poem to my mother. When I spoke about it at the time I said I must exorcise my mother. My mother had died in 1963, two weeks before Sylvia Plath died. She was in her fifties, younger than I am now. But when she died I was enormously upset. It was a cutting of the umbilical cord. I had to come to terms with that death and I also had to come to terms with my resentment of certain elements my mother represented. So that poem was really a cutting of the umbilical cord to America, saying: "Look, what's gone wrong with America"? "Why has it gone wrong?" My contemporaries were Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. They were exactly my age, Anne Sexton perhaps a little older. I think they felt very much the same sort of pressure, being brought up in a world of genteel America, carefully sheltered, protected by every form of culture. Suddenly we were plunged into the world, a world threatened by the atomic bomb, nuclear fission, a third world of oppression and suffering. One had this inborn sense of guilt. One had to exorcise this guilt. So in a way I think Correspondences was a poem grappling with this sense of American guilt. It was personal but, by extrapolation, social. I felt at that time Correspondences was my goodbye to America. I would never go back again. I was very angry with America.
Throughout your work, it seems to me, there are descernably different voices which persist and deepen: there is the wry observer, the sensuous even erotic voice and there is the passionate or measured meditative voice oj, say, The Sonnets for Five Seasons. How conscious are you of these dIfferent themes and styles?
I've never felt that a poet ought to write one style. For a long time I was trying on various personae, various images if you like. Curiously enough, when I write what I consider to be a real poem, out of the concentration that you need to write a real poem, these voices become reconciled. I do start from different stand points. Sometimes I start from anger and then the cynical me takes over. The cynical me isn't very deep; it is just superficial anger. Then I think of the passionate erotic me; there is a good deal of that. But underlying that, deeper than that there is something which is balanced. And thinking back on it now I think I owe a great deal of that balance to the sanity of my parents. I was brought up in a world in which sanity was assumed, Although I've been tempted by insanity, every poet is, by the very attractive extremes of insanity and madness and romanticism. At the bottom I think there is a classical calm. That doesn't come out when you are younger. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I was a bad poet. I wasn't in any way as accomplished a poet as, say, Sexton or Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich, people from my generation. Although this may sound selfflattering, but I don't mean it that way, I think I was swimming in deeper waters. I never found anything to hang on to. So I tried these various personae on. Only when I write from my deepest self is there something very calm, and poetry helps me to find that. In the end my poetry is probably difficult because sanity is not an easy balance, especially today, when one is swept aside this way and that by all sorts of political, social and cultural emotions and feelings.
In some ways it seems to me that only women really pick up other women's foibles. In A Crush you allude to Mr. Darcy. Do you feel your descriptions of women are in the tradition oj, say, Jane Austen or George Eliot?
It is interesting you say this. I have always felt Jane Austen to be my refuge in times of stress. I read her when I was in my teens. I also read the Brontes. I can remember finishing Pride and Prejudice and picking up Wuthering Heights and putting down
Wuthering Heights and picking up Pride and Prejudice and between the two I swung. I didn't come to George Eliot until later but then with great passion and recognition. If you say the tradition of Jane Austen and George Eliot I would say "thank you very much". For a long time, for instance, I resisted Emily Dickinson. I thought she was coy and cute and I didn't see what people made a fuss about. Now I come to her with a recognition of her real depth and strengths. She was swimming in deep waters, different deep water from mine, but I see Correspondences in some ways as defining those waters which were ecclesiastical cl:ri~al, puritan., I now have an enormous respect for Emil; Dickmson especially for her concision. I can learn a great deal there and also from Elizabeth Bishop who has balance and, at her best, objectivity which I so value. I don't think it particularly matters whether these writers were novelists or poets; it is a kind of condition of mind that you are looking for, upon which you stand like a floor you trust.
Your biography of Sylvia Plath Bitter Fame is due out in September. I know that in an unpublished poem Letter to Sylvia Plath you have written:
Dear Sylvia, we must close our book.
Three springs you've perched like a black rook between sweet weather and my mind.
What are your feelings at this point?
Working on Plath was horrendous because Plath really had no life except what was evidently her inner life, which was tremendously confused, disturbed. I don't use the word "schizophrenic" at all in my book. I do believe she was hysterical and, in many respects, paranoid, but I think this is something she shared with a generation which was in a total social confusion. So it was helpful to me as a poet to work my way through Sylvia Plath's journals. I found this the most valuable aspect of the book. When her journals come to an end in 1960, I was floundering around with a lot of impressions from people who knew her from the outside, many of whom did not like her, while many others met her and almost worshipped her. So I was at the mercy of these antagonistic impressions. The upshot of the book is that I have more and more respect for Sylvia Plath as a poet. I have realized how she honed her technique, and her ear was almost perfect, I think as a poet she probably is supreme in our
era. On the other hand, she does give us little more than the myth of her own entrapment. Not only entrapment in her culture but in her own bell jar of ambition. There was a weakness of ego at the centre of her, which, in the circumstances, was magnified by the bell jar, the mirrors around her, to a gigantic self-consciousness and self-concern. This is something that I think of as American: self-concern because one is uncertain of oneself. In this respect she becomes a kind of architypal figure of American women and by extension all woman in our time. Her life is almost a morality play; its tragic end points to a direction in which we really should no longer go, the tunnel of the self. I wrote an article about her called The Romantic Iconography of the Mind. Her's was a form of romanticism that drags you down deeper and deeper into this jungle of the self and you never, never achieve anything above ground. The body of her work is for me a cartography of hell. Once that becomes clear, you see what, by mercy of God, one has avoided. It is very complicated. I am very glad I wrote the book but I don't want to spend the rest of my life thinking about Sylvia Plath. Bitter Flame is something done and put behind me. In Making Poetry you speak of "the siren hiss of publish, success, publish". Elsewhere you speak of "too damn much literary ambition". You have at times been exasperated by English Literary
Yes, I think so. People in England talk about the establishment. The establishment doesn't exist except in the minds of people who either think they run it or people who feel themselves to be oppressed by it. It is an egotistical fiction. The most important book I have written since Correspondences is The Fiction-Makers. I thought fiction-making was my own idea. I see now that Jeremy Bentham and other people anticipated it. I came very much to the conclusion that much of social behaviour is fiction-making. Human beings cannot live without fictions or myths of their importance. It was a work of exorcism in which I tried to exorcise my ambition as a writer. Every writer is jealous, every writer feels they deserve more attention than they are getting, especially if they are misunderstood. This is universal. It matters not at all; the only important thing is to sit down and write the poem. The poems will take you in their own direction if you trust them, but if you keep looking in the mirror of society, the
fictions of establishments or literary circles, you get nowhere. Eve~y. mature writer realizes that. When you are young you are ambltlous and you are afraid. When you are older, you realize that everyone is just as afraid as you are. I would say that now doesn't seem to be any reason to take literary circles very senously.
To return to your own poetry, you once said you admire "what is controlled, finely wrought yet passionate". Apart from the marriage of them.e an~ form which you have so often achieved, I feel a great authoruy z~ your later w.0rk, for example, Resurrection, Lockkeeper s Island, Dreammg of the Dead. Do you sense this yourself?
It is very hard to know. I think some of them good poems. The last poem in the selected poems Naming the Flowers is an important poem to me. As a writer one lives in words and words are a medium of creation. I think I have the authority of having worked that out. It is not something anybody can tell you (people do tell you) but it is something you find out as you write. This sort of authority, of course, its always the next poem. There is always the fearfulness of the blank page. When you sit down to write, there is always the question "am I going to be able to keep on?". Poetry is the result of intense concentration. I cannot write anything at all if I have a social life, if I am pretending to be somebody I'm not, or if I'm concerned with images or personalities or any of the sort of media promoted activities which are so ~opular today. So in so far as I have authority, it is, I suppose, havmg the courage, to believe, to retreat and write what I feel I have to write. Again this comes with a certain amount of battling through the world, finding a way that is possible to live with integrity. I am very fortunate in having a husband who allows this to happen. I'm fortunate in that my children have grown up so that I no longer depend on the public world. I have no real sense of ~ee~ing. it. This means that I can have objectivity towards vlewmg It, I hope, a compassionate objectivity. When you are oppressed by the world you are angry. This comes through, for instance, in Sylvia Plath. Her terrible rage against the world which is wrong. Of course, the world is wrong. The world is full of evil. You must realize this is endemic. Once you've seen this, you don't need to take it personally and you can work, you can speak from a personal integrity and just to hell
with the rest of it. You do always, throughout the world, meet similar spirits. So there is communication, not mass communication but individual communication. I think the poet needs to reach out to people he or she has not met. That someone will read your poem and say "yes, that is right; I know that, I recognize that" . I think poetry always has that interior communicable strength.

Page 6, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 26