Interviews January 2009

Lyric and Narrative

Poet Linda Bierds talks about her career, her new collection of poetry, and her perpetual quest to capture "the grand ineffable"
book cover

Flight: New and Selected Poems
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Linda Bierds
Putnam Adult
224 pages

Linda Bierds, whose poetry has appeared regularly in the Atlantic since the 1980s, has enjoyed a prolific and successful career; her work has earned multiple Pushcart Prizes, grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Macarthur “Genius” award in 1998. Her latest book, Flight, a collection of new and selected poems, showcases work from her seven previous collections of poetry, distinguished by a precise and musical voice, a passionate eye for detail, and a distinctive, decades-long exploration of the lives and voices of well-known artists, scientists, and historical figures.

Bierds depicts these figures not posing for their textbook portraits, but caught in private moments that highlight their unique ways of seeing the world. Often they appear as children: Galileo as a boy cuts through a hailstone with a violin string; a young Benjamin Franklin uses a kite to pull himself across a pond; and a young Charles Darwin studies a fire and perceives animal shapes hidden in its flames. Many of these youthful scenes contain the seeds of later achievement, and the poems offer an original perspective on the figures and their work. On a more basic level, the poems also capture and celebrate childlike moments of wonder, finding profound glimpses of mystery and connection in the flux of everyday life.

As the title implies, Flight is a hopeful book, for the poems suggest not only that the insights of extraordinary figures are our common heritage, but also that the raw materials of those insights are all around us, accessible to all. Together they gesture toward a faith in human potential – a belief in the idea that, as Bierds’s Gregor Mendel puts it, defending his experiments against accusations of heresy, we are all “on the widening arc / of some grand design.”

I spoke with Bierds at her office at the University of Washington, where she teaches English and creative writing, and she elaborated on her thoughts by e-mail.

—Sarah Cohen

linda Bierds
Linda Bierds
(photo courtesy of
the Rockefeller Foundation)

How did you first get into poetry?

I think my love of poetry began when my mother read A Child’s Garden of Verses to me. I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the words, but I loved the cadences and rhymes. I had a typical 1950s public school education: poetry always as a too-brief unit within a larger course. The focus was often on 19th- and 20th-century poets, and I was drawn to Whitman and Frost and cummings, as most young people were. Dickinson frightened me a little with her brilliant, cold eye.  She still does!

What drew me equally at that time—enchanted me, really—were the intricate, quick-step then change-up lyrics I found in musicals—particularly “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story.” When I was twelve, I memorized all of the lyrics to “My Fair Lady.” I still know them for most of the shows in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  I loved imagining Lerner and Loewe side by side on the piano bench—it’s harder to think of Bernstein and Sondheim there—Loewe casting out a little melody, Lerner filling it with words.  Language and constraint, of course. Although they actually worked back and forth, when I imagined them together, melody always came first.

I wonder if, even as an adolescent, I somehow recognized in those musicals the pleasing tension between individual song and the surrounding narrative. That tension has become a central focus for me as a poet. When I was in graduate school, I took an advanced degree in fiction, not poetry.  After I graduated, I began my “great short story.” And began it. And began it. The work of contemporary poets kept drawing me away. One day I ran across a book by Norman Dubie, In the Dead of the Night. When I saw what he was doing—fusing narrative and lyric, focusing on history and the non-personal, oftentimes writing in the voices of historical characters, but not in the vernaculars of their time—well, I’d seen most of those techniques used in poetry throughout the years but I’d never seen all of them used simultaneously. I was excited by what Dubie was doing and began my own somewhat parallel journey. I never returned to writing fiction.

Do you find your training in fiction showing up in your poetry?

Oh, yes—especially early on. I think that Flight reveals a gradual movement toward more techniques of the lyric. My early poems were composed using a lot of fictional devices: I approached time and transition differently than I do now; I often resolved poems in the way that fiction might resolve its project; and I was very focused on trying to place the reader in a physical setting, using the backdrop and images of the time.

Why did you find poetry to work better than fiction for what you wanted to say?

I’m always hoping to combine the lyric and narrative, and writing poems allows for the economy that introduces mystery and the “grand ineffable.”

How do you choose a specific historical figure to write about?

It’s different for each, so perhaps some examples would give the clearest answer. When I wrote a poem about Robert Schumann, “Traümerei,” I was working at the Women’s Information Center on the UW campus. I was an editor there and read press releases we received for our monthly calendar of events. One release, from a public television station, was about a special they were running on Robert Schumann. It mentioned that Schumann had a mental disorder which, at the end of his life, caused him to convert virtually all sounds into musical notes—and which also led to his death in an institution from starvation. Those facts collided for me, and I thought, I must investigate this man. So that was an instance of being stunned into writing a poem by a fact. The poem didn’t come from any previous interest in Schumann; had that fact been about another musician’s life, I still would have done the investigation.

In the case of The Ghost Trio, the idea for the entire book came from looking at an article on pottery that mentioned that Charles Darwin had married a member of the Wedgwood family. I thought, Hmmm the Darwins and Wedgwoods, art and science, each in its way drawn up from the soil. It was that unformed idea, that little kernel, that served as a hook. It asked for investigation, and the entire book developed from that initial delving. Later, in doing the research, I found wondrous images. In the Victoria and Albert Museum I saw a hollow wig stand with a little trap door where the face would be—it held wig powder—and a pair of ice skates made from the jaw of a sheep. Both were so practical and yet simultaneously mysterious and evocative—the little door, the little teeth biting into the boot sole. And they were circa  Erasmus Darwin’s time, even though they weren’t necessarily part of Darwin’s own life. In both cases I wrote the image into the life of the character, rather than having research into the character’s life provide the image.  They were visual representations of musings appropriate to Erasmus Darwin as I understood him.

Presented by

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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