Interview with Carol Moldaw

1. What is you personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.

The line is an essential element in my understanding and reading of poetry, as well as my writing of it. A line should have its own integrity, not necessarily a syntactical completeness, but its own momentum, balance or drive, one that often counterbalances or adds complexity to the syntactical drive. I usually work and rework the first few lines of a poem to get a sense of the poem’s rhythmic design before I’m able to move on. As far as I’m concerned, lines can be long or short, and of course they can vary within a poem, but they must feel alive and vibrant, not slack—they are the poem’s chi, the energy courses through them.

2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?

I do have a sensory and sensual relationship to words on their sonic level, and often think of them as having certain textures, as if they are cloth and feeling them on my tongue is tantamount to feeling them between my fingers. I’m not that conscious of my body when I’m writing, except perhaps that I shift and squirm in my chair when I sit too long. I like to write and then take a shower or a walk and then write some more, I find that both water and walking loosen words and thoughts in me; walking is one of the ways I find out what’s on my poetic mind. When I’m in the midst of a poem, driving also often provokes it to move along, and sometimes I pull over to write down lines. I think there is a direct relationship between our pulse, our heartbeat and our stride and the meter or rhythms of poetry.

3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?

I do sometimes dislike the sitting, as I tend toward restlessness. I’m also still uncomfortable and don’t know how to respond to the way people not involved in writing or reading react to the news that I write poetry—“That’s SO wonderful”–as if I’m an archaic artifact that floated up. In general, I don’t think about “being a poet” so much as I think of myself as a person who writes poetry and is a bit obsessed by it. I like the obsession and discovery that come with writing, but dislike literary politics and most theorizing.

Additional questions:

I was intrigued by your process in putting together your New and Selected Poems, So Late, So Soon, just out from Etruscan Press. Can you say something about how you assembled the book? Did you have to leave out anything you liked? How did you work the balance between new and old? Any advice for a poet embarking on this kind of selection?

Putting together So Late, So Soon was the perfect way for me to feel my way back to writing poems after working on my novel, The Widening. I had a Lannan writer’s residency at Marfa, and would spend the first part of the day working on new poems and going through old notebooks and then in the afternoon and evening read through my previous books. It was a wonderful immersion. At first I divided the poems, by book, into ‘yes/no/maybe/probably not’ columns, but I allowed them to shift around as I read and re-read. I was aware of creating a balance among, as well as within, books, and did have to leave out poems I liked, particularly from The Lightning Field, which is still in print. I also, for instance, left out the long ballad, “Reb Shmerl and the Waterspirit,” from my first book, Taken from the River, even though I like it, because it’s anomalous and just dominated the selection too much. One hopes that new readers will look up the single volumes if they like the work. Phil Brady, my publisher, and I decided together that we didn’t want the book to be a compendium, but wanted it to really shine. I have to say that it made me feel good about my work when I weeded out the poems that to my mind hadn’t held up as well over the years. Working on the book also provided an opportunity to revise a few poems that I thought worked over all but had glitches that bothered me. That was very satisfying. Advice? Go into it with an open judicious mind, neither overly critical nor overly attached, take your time, and make it into the best book possible.


Carol Moldaw is the author of five books of poetry, including most recently So Late, So Soon and The Lightning Field, and a novel, The Widening. She won the FIELD Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Poetry Prize in 2002, and an NEA fellowship in poetry in 1994. She will be the Louis D. Rubin., Jr. Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University in the spring of 2011.
Selected poem:
Canning in Chimayo

“Feed me fuck me feed me fuck me feed me”–
knife a whirligig, each trochee slashed off,

translucent venous beet wheels heaped
like raked-in poker chips, her disquisition

on canning upended by the nightly crapshoot
she can’t in her viscera shake, only vitiate

at the chopping block. Eyes pop. Widen.
Not one of us can slice that fast. Someone

passes a jay. Someone pours more wine.
Cheeks streaked, wrists ribboned, thumbs

pressed to temples, she aprons her head.
Then the beets are vinegared, the whole mess

sealed in mason jars; the Italian plums
eviscerated, mounded with sugar, put to boil;

the corn cobs flayed, pearl onion and red
pepper strips stirred into the kernels, all

four of us at the counter, mulling it over:
feed me, fuck me, pressure cooker, preserves.

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