Interviews Fiction 2008

The Poet's Poet

Mary Jo Salter talks about her new collection, Phone Call to the Future; editing The Norton Anthology of Poetry; and her early days as an assistant poetry editor at The Atlantic.
book cover

A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems
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by Mary Jo Salter
240 pages

Most poets hope that their message might be conveyed to future generations—though perhaps not necessarily via the telephone. Mary Jo Salter’s A Phone Call to the Future, a new collection of recent and selected poems, gently ribs this poetic ambition even as it, in a sense, embodies it. Salter’s title poem, riffing on the social customs of various stages in the development of telephone technology, takes on the difficult task of describing the past to the present, and the present to the future. Imagining the way our own time will look from the vantage point of the future, she writes, “We were Martians,” with cell phones that made us appear “to be walking about like loonies / talking to ourselves.” The poem concludes: “All of it was so quaint. And I was there. / Poetry was there; we tried to write it.”

In light of her role as one of three editors of the influential Norton Anthology of Poetry, Salter is also keenly aware of the importance of looking to the poetry of previous generations as an instructive record of what was once thought and expressed. (She describes the process of sifting through thousands of poems to select just a few for inclusion as extremely humbling.) This editorial position, which she still holds, is one of several in which she has been engaged at the intersection of poetry and the wider culture; she is also a teacher who has worked with students at Mt. Holyoke College and now at Johns Hopkins University, and she has served as the poetry editor of The New Republic and an assistant poetry editor at The Atlantic.

In addition to A Phone Call to the Future, Salter is the author of five previous books of poetry, and The Moon Comes Home, a book for children. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, the poet Brad Leithauser.

—Sarah Cohen

Mary Jo Salter
Mary Jo Salter

It seems appropriate that this interview is appearing with The Atlantic’s summer fiction issue, because I noticed that many of your poems, especially the newer ones, are set in the summertime. Is there something about summer that you find conducive to poetry?

Well, the practical answer is that summer is when a teacher like me has more time to write. But actually, if I looked over my whole career I think that I would have more wintry scenes, and that, too, would have a practical explanation: I’ve spent a lot of time at the MacDowell colony—I’ve been there thirteen or fourteen times, and always in January. But yes, summer is my favorite season. I don’t believe in astrology, but I was born in August, and I’m a Leo, and I’m something of a sun worshipper. I love walking around feeling light as air, in light clothes, when my body is in harmony with the temperature outside. There’s something very freeing and happy about that.

Is that connected to the lightness that seems to be part of your style?

Lightness is something that I admire in a lot of writers. I was just thinking about that in terms of Elizabeth Bishop, whom I’m currently writing a little talk about. She has a way of talking about sad, heavy, difficult things with a kind of shrug—with a feeling of offhandedness. In other hands, that technique could seem shallow, but you never feel it’s shallow with her. A lot of the writers I admire either tell a few jokes or make a few shrugs along the way, though they don’t skirt the difficult aspects of life.

You’ve just released a collection of “new and selected” poems. Do you see your work changing over your career so far?

I think my interests have remained very much the same—almost alarmingly so. I do learn things as I go along; I get interested in American history for a while, and then I get interested in Alexander Graham Bell for a while, and so on. But in a larger sense I discover retrospectively—and I certainly discovered this looking over all my books and trying to come up with a Selected— that some themes come back over and over. The notion that things aren’t always what they seem, for example—that you look at something once and it appears one way and then you look at it again and it looks different.

One thing I would say is that although I remain fascinated by formal complexity and formal demand, my technique has gotten a little looser, by choice. I’m more interested in a somewhat more conversational tone than when I was younger. These are all broad generalizations, and I could find exceptions to what I’m saying, but I think that in my later poetry there’s a looser sense of what rhyme is, and more striving after off-rhyme rather than exact rhyme—more variation in rhyme scheme, things like that.

As you’re writing, do you consciously think about taking your work in new directions?

I worry, as I think most middle-aged writers do, about imitating myself unconsciously. Every once in a while I’ll realize that I really have written some version of that poem before. So I do want to try new things and new angles. I find that reading other writers who are unlike myself is one of the best ways to jump-start. A wonderful poet like Rick Kenney is one example. He’s just wackier than I am, and I love that wackiness and, apart from the delight I take from his poems in themselves, I find it helpful to read him from a purely selfish point of view. On the other hand, I don’t think that novelty for its own sake is worth very much. At the same time that you’re pushing the boundaries of who you are, you have to know who you are and not pretend to be somebody else.

It is hard to find that balance between variety and consistency, especially when one has to keep finding ways to get each new poem started.

Yes, getting started is so much of the game for me. It’s figuring out what tone of voice I want for this subject: What’s the angle? Am I writing in the first person? Am I rhyming this? What length are the lines? But mainly tone. I just think that tone is so much of what makes a poem, and until I’ve got the tone the way I want it, I can’t really proceed. A lot of being a more experienced writer is having the confidence in yourself to abandon your first five ways into a subject. For example, you might have a dark subject and want to go a little lighter with it, but if you go too light it’s going to look like comic verse, and that may not be what you want. The idea is not to assume that the way you started is really the way the poem ought to be.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about subject matter as the starting point for poems. Is that normally the first thing that comes to you?

It can be. I don’t sit down and say to myself, “I will now write a poem about winter,” but I might have some image that I’m going with. Just as often, though, I’m starting with an unusual rhyme or an unusual cluster of words that don’t rhyme but that belong together somehow. By investigating those words and what they can do together, just in terms of sound, I may, if I’m lucky, arrive at something I’ve always wanted to say—something that actually is a subject but that I didn’t know was a subject until I started playing with the words.

So there can be all sorts of prompts for starting a poem. It might be a stray remark that somebody makes, and you think, “Oh, they don’t even realize how poetic that is.” Or it can be just a purely visual simile—something you see in the world around you. Or some heartache that you’ve always been wanting to dare to approach and then one day you’re finally in the right frame of mind to approach it.

When you were just starting out, you studied with Elizabeth Bishop. Can you say a little bit about what that was like and about how it figured into your development as a writer?

Also see:
Interviews: "Paper Trail" (January 20, 2006)
How best to piece together the unfinished work of a consummate poet's poet? Alice Quinn reflects on the delicate task of vetting Elizabeth Bishop's notebooks.

I studied with her in the fall of 1974, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard. I had just met my husband to be, Brad Leithauser, and he and I were in the workshop together. It was an amazing group of people: a lot of us went on to become professional writers, though not necessarily of poetry.

Miss Bishop was very mild-mannered and she didn’t require much. She had only five more years to live, I’m sad to say, and she was, by her own admission, not very interested in teaching. She had fairly standard assignments, like writing imitations, but also others that were more surprising. I remember that one of her assignments was to write a Christmas poem, and nobody did it. I didn’t either. The problem was that it was an optional assignment—the only one. I did write a poem about a Christmas tree three or four years later, and I sort of mentally dedicated it to Miss Bishop.

She didn’t require any reading at all except for the two-volume memoir by Nadezhda Mandelstam, the wife of Osip Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. She said that she wanted us to know that there are people who have died for poetry. I was very interested in that choice, given that Bishop was not a political poet. She encouraged us to read a lot of other things, but that was the only reading she required. She said it was very important to read Keats’s letters—that in some ways Keats’s letters were even better than his poems, and I remember that I did read Keats’s letters that year. Philip Larkin’s High Windows had just come out and I remember her reading some of that aloud to us, including some of the profanity, which was amazing from Miss Bishop’s mouth. She was modest and quiet and wry and very generous to me. My big regret was that when the class was over and she invited me to come visit her in her apartment in Boston I was just too shy to ever do it. I’m very sorry I never took her up on that.

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Sarah Cohen's poetry is published or forthcoming in The Paris Review, Indiana Review, and Pool. She received an MFA in poetry in 2006 from UC Irvine and is now working on a PhD at the University of Washington.

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