Poetry Santa Cruz
Poetry Santa Cruz

A Higher Lyric Pitch—An Interview with Christopher Buckley

by Maggie Paul

In his new book, Star Apocrypha, the poet Christopher Buckley reaches for a higher lyric pitch and succeeds admirably. Buckley's poetry addresses matters of this world and of the soul, daily life and the life of the imagination with brilliant language and finesse. His poems perform an eloquent dance between memory and the here and now, turning time into the very same stuff as the clouds and stars.

Christopher Buckley is the author of eleven books of poetry. He has edited three anthologies, including
The Geography of Home: California's Poetry of Place, and most recently, How Much Earth: the Fresno Poets. He is Creative Writing Chair at University of California, Riverside.

In the following interview, the poet discusses contemporary poetry and his latest book, Star Apocrypha.

Maggie Paul: Can you recall some of your earliest experiences with poetry and how they influenced your decision to become a poet?

Christopher Buckley:
My earliest memory of poetry is from Mt. Carmel School in Montecito ­ fourth grade, fifth? I wrote a poem for Mother's Day in class, the nun passing out white paper and blue construction paper to paste it on. I remember this because I found it years later in a trunk, my mother had saved it It was in fact in quatrains rhyming abab, three or four of them with sunlight and bluebirds flying about the edges of the stanzas. I think I came across it while I was in college or working on my M. A. in grad school and was amazed at how adequate I was with forms at that age, even though I must have simply been repeating platitudes and greeting card sentiment. I wrote bad poetry ­ truly inaccessible, encoded, meritless poems ­ through high school and college. I never had the benefit of contemporary poetry in either place. But I was always interested for some reason, in poetry. I was a surfer all through my teenage years. One day I opened Surf Guide, one of only two surf magazines in those days, and the center spread was a huge perfectly breaking wave and superimposed in the curl of the wave was a stanza from Algernon Charles Swinburne's "The Garden of Proserpine." What great music he had. It's one of the few pieces of poetry I still have committed to memory. But as far as making a "choice" to be a poet, I'd have to say two things moved me in that direction. The first was the regular working world. I'd taken my B.A. in English and was working in a grocery store, a liquor store, while teaching tennis part time. Heavy boredom. I had a sheaf of bad poetry and didn't know any better, so I headed off to graduate school. The second thing was deciding to risk failure; my first teacher at San Diego State, Glover Davis, explained that, and what re-writing and work really were. So I decided to invest the time and risk everything else to try and do this little thing that didn't seem to matter to most people.

MP: Who are your favorite contemporary poets? Who are your favorite poets of all time?

CB: My favorite contemporary poets are Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, Charles Wright, Gerald Stern, Diane Wakoski, Mary Oliver, and closer to my own age Larry Levis and Bill Matthews whom we lost not too long ago, Mark Jarman, Robert Wrigley, Gary Soto, and a couple of poets who don't get as much notice as the more celebrated, Richard Jackson and Jon Veinberg. James Wright and Richard Hugo ­ both who should still be with us ­ are all time favorites as well as William Stafford. Philip Levine and Charles Wright and Peter Everwine have been my main influences starting back in 1972. Also great and early influences have been Nazim Hikmet Jaroslav Seifert, and many Spanish and South American poets ­ Machado, Hernandez, Alberti, Lorca and Gerardo Diego ­ and of course Cesar Vallejo, Carlos Drummond de Andrede, and Neruda. These days, I read a great deal of Milosz, Szymborska, Amichai and Zbignelw Herbert in addition to Levin, Stern, and Wright. Go figure - the voices that speak most deeply and directly to me, a regular Irish extraction lower middle class American, are those of older Jewish men and older eastern European men and women. It's the directness that holds me.

MP: Has teaching creative writing influenced your work in a positive way? Do you think that the proliferation of creative writing programs across the country is having a good effect on the field of poetry in general?

CB: Sure, teaching creative writing has a positive effect. The only more positive effect would be not having to work at all, and have my time only for writing. But if you have to work as most of us do, to be actively engaged in your own field helps keep you vital and open to change and possibility. Moreover, I've been blessed with years of fine students, many of who have become fine writers, have published, and now are teaching other writers. It's a cliché to be sure, but if you're paying attention, you do learn from your students.

Yes of course all the new MFA programs have a good effect on poetry. Anyone who tells you different has some ivory tower, elitist, or overly self-important agenda. A lot more folks are interested in writing and are learning, to varying degrees, how to write and better read. This creates a larger audience, a more informed public and more support for the art(s). What could be wrong with that? Of course not everyone is going to come out a Phil Levine or Margaret Atwood. But that was never the proposition. Do we hear complaints if the enrollment of English PhD or Philosophy PhD programs increases ­ or MBA programs? Of course not. Whenever I have read the usual articles about how bad MFA programs are or that poetry is going to the dogs, etc., there is usually a sub-text that says, "However I, (who have NOT attended a graduate writing program), know the true and better way, and finally, I am a better poet than most. I have never agreed much with Gioia's article in
Atlantic Monthly years ago. He made some good points about the audience for poetry, but he painted with a broad brush and smeared many good writers who are effective, dedicated, conscientious teachers. Sure some "star" poets take the easy road, don't work hard in the classroom. But he never named names ­ who exactly was he talking about? In over 25 years of teaching creative writing, I've come to know good and hard working teachers who out number the "stars" who do not do their job by 25-1 at least.

MP: You taught at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, the location where the Form and Narrative Conference is held yearly. What is your position in the debate between formalism and free verse?

CB: Yes I taught at West Chester University. A miserable place save for the excellent writing students and a handful of colleagues. My friend there, Michael Peich, who is a printer, started the conference. His good friend is Dana Gioia who attends yearly, and Mike has long preferred formal poetry. I think the "debate" between formalism and free verse is not good for poetry, and I think it has largely been advanced by "the new formalists" to promote themselves. My teacher Glover Davis is a formalist, but he does not network and is not political and has no connection with "the new formalists." He teaches formal patterns to his students and encourages traditional free verse as well. I know many poets who write often or occasionally in formal or inherited patterns, when it fits the subject. Form follows function in my view. But the notion advanced by many, that "traditional" or inherited forms are the only true or correct or proper way to write poetry is ridiculous and does not deserve much discussion. Can you imagine walking into an MFA painting studio and telling the students there that the only "true" way to paint is in the classical realistic style of centuries past? If you make a good poem, it is a good poem no matter the form. None of the free verse poets I know care at all if other poets write in inherited forms. My good friend Mark Jarman has written strongly imagistic poems, then very narrative poems, then a strong and inventive group of sonnets; right now, he is working on prose poems. He's an excellent poet no matter the form. It's all good. Who, you have to ask yourself, benefits, advances, gets press from such a divisive "debate?" The conference at West Chester, I will say, is politicized in the direction of formalism. My connection to the conference consisted solely in being invited to drive the van to the Philly airport picking up folks coming to the conference, and to drive them back to meet their planes. I did hear Donald Justice who I admire greatly as a poet of both formal poems and free verse.

MP: Does the public sometimes confuse you with the political satirist/novelist Christopher Buckley? How do you handle this? Has "the other" Christopher Buckley ever contacted you in this regard?

CB: Ha! I have an essay I'm going to write some day on this. YES, of course, all the time. In 1981 I had a poem in
The New Yorker, and they forward letters if people respond. This was the first time it happened. The letter I received was surreal and crazy as I read it to my colleagues with whom I was teaching then at UC Santa Barbara ­ none of us had a clue. Later, someone found a magazine piece on the other CB and we got it: the woman writing me of course thought I was the other CB and was picking up more or less from where she had left off talking to him when he was visiting in Detroit. So then the "lizard erased from your hand" and some notions about the use of language made sense. I've been called to be on the Today Show and had to say something pretty direct about what I thought of George (Daddy) Bush to get them to realize that I was not the man they wanted. The other CB is also the Yale educated son of the famous conservative William F. Buckley, and besides writing novels like The White House Mess, he was a speech writer for Bush, twice. Our politics are 180 degrees different. Once I was giving a reading at the museum in Philadelphia in their "first Wednesdays" promotions; they had jazz and movies and food and wine downstairs, and a poetry reading far back in the cloisters of the second floor. After I read, one of the twelve people in the audience approached me with a magazine in his hand, pointed to a picture of the other Chris Buckley (tall, thin, blond) and said, "You're not Christopher Buckley; he comes in to my dock every summer in Connecticut and buys gas for his yacht!" "So that's what happened to my yacht!" I replied. No, the other CB has never contacted me, but I still get calls from editors and magazines asking for him. I direct them to TV Guide and The New Yorker for which he has written small humorous pieces.

MP: The epigraph to Star Apocrypha comes from a poem by the late Larry Levis. Can you tell us what kind of an influence Levis was on you and your work?

CB: Well, I published a 20 page essay on Larry in the inaugural issue of
Poetry International and also wrote the bio/crit essay on him for American Writers. It would take something about that length to really answer your question. In an interview I published with Levine for Quarterly West a few years back, he said essentially, that not only was Larry the best poet of his generation, at times he was just the best poet writing in America. Larry was an absolute original and had, before the age of 50, achieved the kind of poetic wisdom, and humility, that allow a great poet to speak directly and inventively and originally. No one sounds like Larry; no one has at once the craft and the honesty, the intensity of imagination serving the human condition. Larry's poems offered an intimate sense of detachment that allowed him to examine himself as an objective character, an emblematic character in the world, and yet write of the most personal events and aspirations and ideas in an objective, factual style. He was a brilliant image maker and consistently found new ways to approach the lyric and historical. Rhetorically, emotionally, he pointed the way for the rest of us; we learned from him. No poetry gives me more satisfaction nor better enunciates the conflict of body and soul in a music absolutely personal and convincing.

MP: There is a mention of the speaker's father being a salesman. Was your father a salesman? How did he feel about your interest in becoming a poet?

CB: Ah yes, my father. If he ever worried about me making a living, he never said so to me. He worried about himself, mainly. And, as I wrote in an earlier poem/book, when he suggested I try real estate as many other teachers had, it was more about doing something that he thought mattered or looked good in the business world, not about me making ends meet. He flat out never cared that I took three university degrees, taught, published books ­ he never read one. He had his $9,000 Rolex, his sports cars on lease. He died leaving his wife in debt, not leaving me one red cent, as he used to say. With something like 30 or more students of mine gone on to graduate programs in writing, however, I cannot remember one whose parents said, "Thank god you're trying to be some kind of an artist and not wasting your life as a doctor or an accountant or a lawyer! My parents were the same when I was in graduate school, though my mother later was very supportive and reads my books.

MP: Your Catholic upbringing surfaces in a number of these poems. How much do you think your Catholic school experience contributed to your imagination and interest in the world of the soul and matters of the spirit?

CB: The Catholic upbringing is largely behind it all. I am not a Catholic, though I attended Catholic schools through to my undergraduate degree. I think I stopped buying into it at about 11 years old. But it gave me a target. And once free of hypocrisy and superstition I was left with a big question nonetheless ­ the soul and matters of the spirit, as you say. In my 20's and 30's, if I was close to anything, it would be Hinduism and mysticism, and that was very good for me. Anymore, I flip-flop week to week. Charles Wright, who I admire immensely, has said something to the effect that his poetry is an ongoing argument with himself about the unlikelihood of salvation. Ditto. Wish I had said it. Nevertheless, it's all we have and it has always seemed to me hard to have art without some spiritual notion and that we have art so we might formulate some notion of the spiritual. We could be chasing our metaphysical tails, but I hope not.

MP: Images of nature, i.e., clouds, stars, the sea, trees, etc. figure prominently in your poems, not only in the new book, Star Apocrypha, but in your other books as well. Can you talk a bit about how or why nature is so effective in conveying a sense of what it is to be human in a world largely mysterious to us, despite our knowledge of math and science?

CB: Well, the nature as moral tutor mode is hardly original with me. I in fact did not think about it; I was not a Wordsworth scholar. It was just my good fortune to grow up in a fairly edenic place, Montecito, a suburb of Santa Barbara, in the 50's. Something from a new poem one of the first afternoons in 2nd grade at Mt. Carmel School, sitting in back of the new classrooms with a handful of other kids I did not know well at all, but who were plenty nice to me. We just sat in the wild grass or leaned against sand stone boulders beneath the palms and acacia trees and ate our sandwiches and Fritos and drank our little cartons of milk. We were in the foothills, the sky was bluer than it will ever be again and a few great white fair weather clouds floated overhead. Among friends in the luscious breathing world - I got it - that was my theme long before I ever thought to write about it. Here are a few polished sentences I worked up for my publisher that never came to any use, but which, I think speak to your question: "Beyond our own invention, beyond myth, beyond the transcendence of light in the trees each day, what can we be sure of? Cosmology, theology, philosophy, politics do not sustain us against the hard and fast questions of mortality. What are the claims of the past, and in their attempts to offer meaning and unpuzzle the burden and brilliance of a physical life, don't those claims, doesn't that past, offer us a clear glimpse of transcendence, of salvation, as any new and immediate knowledge of science?" Nevertheless, I love the new ideas and details from science and cosmology; I read it and write about it a great deal. For the most part, I find the information to be new and extended metaphors for the basic questions of the soul.

MP: Do you see
Star Apocrypha as being different in some way from your previous books or as part of a continuum?

CB: Star Apocrypha is more of a continuum. Stylistically, however, it is different ­ for the most part the language is more compact (for me) and tight and the phrasing and lines lean a bit more toward the intuitive than the predictably narrative. That said, there are still poems such as "Last Days of the Hot Rod Kids" which are more narrative and discursive. There's the Charles Bukowski prose poem in there too which folks seem to like. But for the most part, the poems are trying to reach a higher lyric pitch.

MP: The third section of Star Apocrypha stood out as containing poems of praise, contentment, the speaker embracing the ability to derive joy from life's small pleasures. Can you comment on how you see the shape of the book, the movements, so to speak, of the three parts, and what determined the three sections?

CB: In one sense, the subjects of the three sections are slightly different. Section I has poems more of a biographical nature, more childhood. The poems in section II all have some other person or persons involved as important catalysts ­ Zeno, Bukowski, Benito Juarez, etc. Poems in section III are the most ambitious and risk more strategy and style and voice. It is a more imagistic book than the previous though it is of course lyrical. The view is skeptical while the voice reaches for further music. My hope is that by that point in the book a reader will know the voice and the focus well enough to find them accessible and worthy.

MP: In your poems you move seamlessly between the "black and white" '50's and the colorful '60's of your childhood to the present where you have reached, pardon me, middle age. These childhood memories are as vivid as if they had just happened yesterday. Is there something in the present that acts as a trigger and brings certain experiences back to a writer so clearly that it could have been yesterday?

CB: Yes of course, there is always a trigger. But it is specific to each poem. There is no secret, no "method" to employ that will bring it back, every time, the right memory. A writer's business is largely memory, and individual bits and detail will stimulate an entire event or emotional complex at times. I pay attention to the past and try to make sense of it, try to remember some detail that will recall much more. So I am interested in old photographs, TV shows, magazines, beer labels, anything ­ I just try to keep my satellite dish on and ready to pick up information.

MP: How do you resolve the sense of the infinite with the day-to-day particulars of life?
CB: The sense of the infinite is the source of hope, dare I say some moderated Joy, if I'm in the right mood. What should we love, what should we cherish given the rush of experience? Isn't it possible that the metaphysical is contained or at least glimpsed in the physical? Shouldn't we praise the smallest portions of our lives, the narrative that teaches us modesty, regard for the earth and yet a desire for something more, beyond that? Might not some truth be found in the simple attention the soul pays to all that surrounds it? How tenuous is the evidence of a grand design. In the humbling face of infinity, isn't there some practical work to be done each day?

Poet Christopher Buckley read from his work at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz on Tuesday, June 19th at 7:30 PM. He was joined by Gary Young.

A portion of this interview appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The entire interview will also appear in the literary journal Smartish Pace.

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