I wrote poetry off and on in high school, when I could manage to get out of gym classes and sports – using my allergies as an excuse – and climb the hill behind school till I found a nice place to settle down with a notebook and look at Spokane spread out below.
I wrote something when I was 9 that seemed pretty good for a 9 year old; it concerned flowers in our family garden – I was grateful my mother praised it. Of course, I found out later it was pretty silly, but it was the first poem I was proud of.
When I was a young man, I understood that poetry was two things – it was difficult to understand, but you could understand that the poet was miserable. So for a while there, I wrote poems that were hard to understand, even by me, but gave off whiffs of misery.
If I wrote a play with four characters every single one of them would talk like me regardless of age or sex.
If I wrote in a sonnet form, I would be distorting. Or if I had some great new idea for line breaks and I used it in a poem, but it’s really not right for that poem, but I wanted it, that would be distorting.
Probably the biggest influence on my career was the late John Hersey, who, while he was at ‘The New Yorker,’ wrote one of the masterpieces of narrative non-fiction, ‘Hiroshima.’ Hersey was a teacher of mine at Yale, and a friend. He got me to see the possibility of journalism not just as a business but as an art form.
I don’t like to have a calm, orderly, quiet place to work. I often compose while driving, compose in my head. It is true that I wrote my little book, ‘The Sounds of Poetry, A Brief Guide,’ almost entirely in airplanes and airport departure lounges.
I wish I wrote more about the world at more distance from myself.
The wonderful 17th Century poet, Robert Herrick, wrote a poem entitled, ‘To Live Merrily and to Trust to Good Verses.’ Easy to say, Robert Herrick; not always easy to do. But it’s a good slogan, I think.
I wrote two poems about the ’81 uprisings: ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’ and ‘Mekin Histri.’ I wrote those two poems from the perspective of those who had taken part in the Brixton riots. The tone of the poem is celebratory because I wanted to capture the mood of exhilaration felt by black people at the time.