An Interview with
Peter Meinke

by James Plath

photo & text ©James Plath, 1997

first published in Clockwatch
7:1-2 (1990-91)

As both an accomplished poet and fiction writer, Peter Meinke is well suited to direct the Writing Workshop at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida--a position he's held since 1966. On paper, he's an impressive, if not imposing, figure. His first and only collection of short stories, The Piano Tuner (Univ. of Georgia Press) won the 1986 Flannery O'Connor Award, while individual stories were included in the O. Henry and Best American Short Stories collections. He won a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award for "The Starlings of Leicester Square," and was invited to read from his work at the Library of Congress. The author of a book of criticism on Howard Nemerov, Meinke's own poetry has been well received. He is the author of eight collections, most recently Liquid Paper: New & Selected Poems (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), Far From Home (Heatherstone Press, 1988), and Night Watch on the Chesapeake (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1987). In person, however, Meinke is warm and unassuming, given to talk more about others than about himself. Put him in a shopping mall or on a dock with fishermen and it would be hard to pick him out of the crowd. Wearing slacks and a knit polo shirt, Meinke settles comfortably on a couch at the Ocean Key House in Key West, Florida, where he was in town to speak at the Hemingway Days Writers' Workshop & Conference. At the reading, he worked the audience like a seasoned performer. Now, like Will Rogers, he relates each anecdote with relish and delivers every line with deliberateness, pausing occasionally to allow us both to consider the implications. It's clear that he loves language, and like the celebrated humorist, Meinke smiles wryly throughout the interview, resting an arm on the couch back and sipping from a bottle of carbonated water. Before the questions begin, he talks about his day of sailing with former student James W. Hall, now a successful mystery writer. Like any good teacher, Meinke is clearly delighted to see one of his students make good, and just as delighted to maintain close friendships beyond the classroom.

        Author! Author!    Plath Country

CLOCKWATCH: When you look at a scene--as you were looking at the Atlantic Ocean just now--is your first response in the direction of poetry or fiction?

MEINKE: First response is to poetry, always. I prefer writing poetry to anything. I think it's the most intense kind of writing. It's what I enjoy most. I do the stories with leftover material, in a sense. I have a lot of scenes that I put down in my notebooks. I've always done that. I have this stack of notebooks, and I go back to them sometimes and try to put together some of those scenes to make a story. But my first reaction is to poetry, and that's what I'm thinking of when I make these notes, usually. Even conversations I often use in poetry, too, if I can.

CLOCKWATCH: The voice and the language in your poems are quite different from your fiction. In your poetry, there are playful and fanciful leaps, the kind of Richard Brautigan Zen-play that reminds me of an old joke: "How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: The fish."

MEINKE: (laughs) Well, it may be just that I'm not as used to the fiction, and not as at home with it. I haven't done it as much. I do remember when I first began writing humor in poetry, how, even in very serious poems, I had funny lines. And I felt that's what I wanted do--that's the voice that sounded like the way I talked a little bit, or at least how I thought I talked. I was very happy to do that, and I may not have found that in the short story. I'm usually pulled along by a character in the short story, and this character is not always very funny.

CLOCKWATCH: So the characters themselves actually compete with your own narrative voice?

MEINKE: I think so, yeah. The piano tuner, for instance--that character was somebody who, for some reason, was really in my head. It was partly connected to this boat that I mentioned in the reading. This was in 1984. Robert Boudreaux has this barge called Point Counterpoint II. He travels with the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, and on the barge is an artist--the year I was there it was Bill Lee--and a poet. They go all over, even to Puerto Rico, and now, I understand, they go to Europe. The poets hop on at different times, and we stop and give readings between symphony performances and go to schools, churches sometimes. It's kind of a nice idea, it's an adventure. Sell some books, and it's half vacation. And I did learn to how to read those dials and all that stuff that I refer to in some of the poems. All the Chesapeake poems, for example, came out of that kind of imagery, and I was also writing "The Piano Tuner" at that time. I was taking notes for it, and I was around all this music. I don't know anything about piano tuning, but all that information--"bringing it up a half-tone," all that sort of stuff--came from listening to the musicians. You learn that there's gut-string in the harps, that they're the best kind, and how much they cost--that sort of information. I give a lot of that information to the piano tuner himself. This character came into my head, maybe because it was 1984. I hadn't thought of that before, you know? Some kind of Orwellian vision of society falling apart under this brute, or under brute force, anyway. It took me over. And there's some humor in "The Piano Tuner." It seems more humorous when read aloud, I don't know why that is. When I've read the story out loud, people have laughed at parts that I didn't think were particularly funny. But apparently it is funny--the conversations--because they're so disparate. The piano tuner and this critic don't talk the same languages, and that juxtaposition is somewhat humorous.

CLOCKWATCH: When you approach your poems or your fiction, do you approach them as things to be read and savored aloud, or things that are to be read in silence?

MEINKE: I think of them as something to be read out loud, and I often read them out loud as I'm doing them. It works best when Jeannie and I are working on separate floors, because here's this droning coming from my room . . . .

CLOCKWATCH: You read out loud while you write?


CLOCKWATCH: You're kidding.

MEINKE: Not the whole time, but when I get a draft, yeah, I'll read it out loud to see how it sounds. Particularly the poems--I always do it with the poems, because I think that's important. But I've done it with the stories like the "The Starlings of Leicester Square" in a couple of places, to make the language seem as if really spoken. That was one thing I tried out loud, and then in a couple of passages where I sort of upped the imagery and the rhythm. The ending is the obvious one, where I bring in the starlings to the plane trees, and there are a few other places like that. I wanted it to have a flow to it with a series of images, and I read them out loud, yes.

CLOCKWATCH: "The Piano Tuner" ends in a surprising manner, set up by a tension that slowly builds. Is that threatening atmosphere enhanced by the fact that you create the scene verbally, aloud? In other words, is it like those movies where a fairly innocuous gesture--going to the refrigerator, for example--is made ominous by a dramatic soundtrack?

MEINKE: I don't think so, but it may not be for me to say. The tension builds up because something is going to have to be done with this piano tuner. And of course he's never able to do it. The story ends a little bit like "The Lady and the Tiger." You don't know what's going to happen, exactly. He's behind the locked door and the story is told from his point of view, and he's locked out. You don't know what he's hearing, so the ending's very ambiguous as to what's actually happening. I have one hint in it that the black man is back, which people don't usually get, because the radio music is on again, and I tried to attach the black man with the radio music earlier, and hinted that he was back because the piano is going, the radio is going, and then you hear the wife come in.

CLOCKWATCH: So a similar threat exists at the end for the wife, as well.

MEINKE: Right. If it's a threat--it's very hard to say. But I wanted it to seem like a threat, because one of the things I realized when I was writing the story is that this is a story about what the middle-class white male is afraid of. All kinds of things, you know? And that's why the black man was in there. I remember seeing a black man just like this. In my notebook there was a description of a black man who had a blotchy face, and he was out on the streets of Wilmington, doing his karate kicks at cars--and the cars just ignored him.

CLOCKWATCH: It was a real character?

MEINKE: Absolutely real. And what could I do with him? I didn't think of him at all in writing "The Piano Tuner," as I was going through it the first time. And then as I got toward the end, I realized that this is sort of a story about everything that the white male is supposed to be afraid of: It's blue-collar workers, and it's sex, and it's communication, and it's telling the truth, and it's their financial problems--and in responding to all of these things, he really is a jerk in lots of ways. I tried to symbolize this, for example, with him having no window in his office. He tells a lot of lies, and this kind of thing. Then, I thought, one thing certainly he would be afraid of is black men, and I used that character almost exactly as I saw him behave in Wilmington. I had the piano tuner as this great big bulk, this force, entering into the critic's life. And it's important, in some ways, that this guy was a critic. He wasn't a poet and he wasn't an insurance salesman. He's a very third-rate kind of person, but he's also sort of recognizable. I wanted to make him have characteristics that most of us have, to some degree, so that he would be in some way sympathetic. The idea, for instance of lying down on the floor when the Seventh Day Adventists come ringing on the doorbell, so he doesn't have to argue with them is something that I thought of myself--not that I ever did it, but I have him do it. So I kind of incorporate a mixture of real people and exaggerated American characteristics. That was one level, one reason why the black man came in as a secondary detail to the story--to give it some more point, and also add some drama to it. The part where the black man kicks in the car is a part that people always kind of gasp at, because Americans can't stand that, you know? We love our cars so much, that when this black man very casually kicks a dent in the van, the piano tuner pays notice: "This is very un-American of these guys to behave this way." And the audience, when I read it out loud, they always react to that little detail.

CLOCKWATCH: Moreso that the piano wire around the man's neck?

MEINKE: Well, they gasp at that too, but that's being built up to, and that's almost expected. This gratuitous denting of the VW van is something they react very nervously to. People can't stand it.

CLOCKWATCH: Do you think that you've gotten away with that extreme gesture? I mean, certainly you're pushing it, and I notice you do that a lot. You'll include a gesture, whether it's in poems or fiction, as if you're thinking, How extreme can you take things and still have it be believable?

MEINKE: I like to try to do that. I can't tell if it's successful. What I try to do is set up something that will bring you along step by step, step by small step. And then all of a sudden, you see you're in my country, and anything can happen there. If you go along with the story, yeah, you'll accept that ending--even though from the point of view if you summarize the story it's totally surreal. It doesn't make any sense whatsoever. The way I try to do it is to have it sort of happen slowly and naturally, in a conversational style.

CLOCKWATCH: When you create your fictional country, do you begin with character, plot, or setting as your base?

MEINKE: Character, almost always, I think. I get people in my head who can talk up a story. The setting tends to be where I am when I'm writing the story, for one thing, and if not there, it will come from notes that I've taken. I have a couple of Africa stories that I wrote a few years after I was in Africa, and I was only there one summer. I had the idea of a character who fell in love with Africa, with the textures of it, and really it was my own strong feeling toward it. But I didn't want to make it a "Why I love Africa" kind of thing, because I don't know enough about Africa, so instead I made the character as different from me as possible. It was very crazy for me to make her a woman archaeologist--that was one of my early stories--but it gave me a kind of distance, and she said all the things about Africa that in some ways I felt. I didn't know the kind of character that she became, and so it was very interesting to me. She was not exactly like an artist, but a little bit like that. She becomes a priestess, and reacts to things in a very artistic way. But all the background came from my notes--what the trees smelled like--and then I would remember things. But I didn't know the story. I don't think of the plots. I knew she was going to stay in Africa, but the fact that she would become a kind of priestess didn't hit me until she put on that bracelet, then she took off her clothes. And I didn't know she was going to take off her clothes until I wrote that, you know? I had the idea that she would find the bracelet, but this was an actual bracelet that I saw in a museum. That's what I like to do: to pick a real object and then give it a kind of life--whether it's a bracelet, a piano, a harp, or azaleas--and then have somebody react to them in some kind of way.

CLOCKWATCH: Writing is discovery--that's the cliche--but what are the dynamics of surprise?

MEINKE: I would hate to have a set theory, but I think that I look for a place where conflict will develop, and the conflict can be within oneself, sometimes, or it can be between people, countries, ideas--that sort of thing. Because I start with character in stories, I just get them talking--get him moving, get her driving, whatever--and see where the first conflict movement will occur, and move on from there to try to make it more and more extreme. You start with a small conflict and it gradually gets greater and by imperceptive steps, and all of a sudden you're in deep trouble.

CLOCKWATCH: Have you found that the more you know a character, the greater potential this character has for getting into deeper trouble?

MEINKE: Sure.When I get to know a character through the writing, I'll often back up so the reader can learn a little faster too. I'll give more details--like putting no windows in the critics room, you know?--and I'll add little indications as to what the person is like, particularly in connection with anything that's going to happen in the story. I often don't know what it is, where that conflict is, when I start. When I find what it is, I'll back up and give hints that I didn't have myself, you see, until it got spelled out.

CLOCKWATCH: Unlike minimalists, with their detached narrative personnae, you seem to invite readers to emotionally invest in your stories . . . almost to the brink of sentimentality.

MEINKE: Well, I'm not wildly attracted to minimalism as an idea, though I admire Ray Carver enormously. It's not what I like best. I like to write modern stories that lean on into a sort of surrealism, or into a place where the extreme can still exist within the realms of possibility. I think people are too afraid of sentimentality. Nobody wants to be sentimental, of course. If I recognize it in my writing, then I will cut it back. But I don't like the cold feeling you get in a lot of fiction. I think sentiment is real, and affection is real, and sorrow--all these things--but what you don't want is false sentiment, because that's a very different thing. I guess what I'm saying is that a writer should risk being sentimental.

CLOCKWATCH: How does a writer create the kind of emotion you're talking about? Are you aware of what you're doing, or does it come naturally?

MEINKE: No, I'm not consciously aware. The actual conversations my characters have are different than minimalist conversations. They're more normal in some ways, and they're extended somewhat. My characters are not so laconic as a minimalist tends to be--always making jaded, tough remarks. My characters usually don't do that. They talk normally, though they get involved in things that take them out of their normal range.

CLOCKWATCH: Often your stories begin with a declarative statement that has an unusual detail.

MEINKE: I like the idea of starting with a brash statement, and then it sets a kind of voice: "Hanah Broch didn't like the way her husband dressed, drank, drove, walked, talked, cleared his throat, made love," et cetera ; "That January everyone in Paris was under thirty"; "It takes about six months to make a decent bar." That kind of strong declaration as an opening sentence creates a certain confidence, I think, in the voice that's coming. Here is a story that knows where it's going. Maybe that's what I mean. People like the feeling that whoever is telling the story has something to say. And when you begin in an interesting manner with some theory, maybe, I think that's a help. But I've never worked this out in any particular way. Usually a line will come to me at a particular point, and I'll think, "That's a nice opening for the story."

CLOCKWATCH: And from there?

MEINKE: I'll sometimes start the way I do poems. I'll it start with one line. And I did that with - with the "Decent Life" story. All of a sudden that long line, "Hanna Broch didn't like the way her husband dressed, drank, drove, smoked . . . ," It was just this big long sentence that just came to me one time. I was thinking of the postman and I was thinking of Poland and it's restrictions, trying to figure what I could do with this kind of milquetoast lover that was in my head. And when that first sentence came to me, I didn't really know that I was going to have the state regulating adultery when I first started that.

CLOCKWATCH: Could you elaborate a little bit about the importance of discovery or surprise in your writing, or in anybody's writing?

MEINKE: Yeah, I think that if you know exactly where you're going, that your lack of surprise is very likely to be conveyed to the reader--no matter how you try to avoid this. There are all different sorts of surprises. You could perhaps take a story that you've based on an actual occurrence, so that you know the ending, but you could have surprises in the middle, you can have surprises all over the place. But I think in general it would be a bad idea to have your whole story outlined, or if you are the kind of person who needs to outline, I would advise leaving the outline somewhere along the way, you know? I also think that there's an excitement in linguistic discovery in the course of writing, and that excitement will be conveyed to the reader if you can get it onto your page. And I don't think you can get it if you know where everything is going, if you plotted it all out. There must be lots of exceptions, but as I said, I really only begin with a very small idea of where I'm going. You know, I don't write a story in a day, or two days even. I'm a slow writer and I'm a teacher, so in the summer I sometimes can move it a little faster. Usually I'll just kind of force myself to move along, because, you know, you can always rewrite. I'm not afraid of forging in a wrong direction. I think it's important to get the story moving a little bit. But because I think about it a lot, it takes me a period of over several weeks to write a short story. I'm thinking, what is this critic like, what is this woman like, or what is this athlete like? And I know them, you know? I make up conversations and discard them, but a lot of times they're still in my head, as if these guys really said this thing that I haven't even put in the story. And these are conversations that he's had--I know he's had them--but there's no place to put them in the story. I think it's always true, but particularly in the story "Alice's Brother," where a woman is on the telephone and she's talking to her brother who can't talk back, because he's had a laryngectomy. When I was writing this, she went all kinds of directions, and it was great fun. Over a period of a couple of weeks I made up lots of conversations for her, and I knew her very well. And the story, of course, turned out to be a story where she kind of gives away a sort of incestuous feeling for her brother, you know? It just sort of burbles out of her finally at the end, because she's talking into this vacuum. But I didn't know that in the beginning. I was just having her talk and talk, and loving her brother, and trying to help him, and not liking his wife, you know? And she has to talk about what men are like and what women are like, because all he can do is tap "yes" or "no." But I had lots of conversations with this woman, and they're not in that story, because the story has to go on like a more or less straight telephone conversation. I thought, What would she say? What kind of joke would she tell? Would she say a bad word? Never. So that means she wasn't the kind of woman who swore, for example, and so what she actually was finding out about herself in the story is very shocking to her, because she wasn't that kind of person.

CLOCKWATCH: When your characters cross thresholds or discover things, are you in on it? If, for example, one of your characters slips and makes a self-revelatory comment about incest, is there something bubbling in Peter Meinke?

MEINKE: Yeah. I think I may be bubbling slightly ahead of the character, so that all of a sudden I'm writing the story and there's a little pop and I'll say, "Ahhh. This is where she's heading." There's a little time lag, but when I'm writing this conversation, I can get into it very deeply. Two summers ago we were in the Catskills, and over the mountains there was a boom and a flash of lightning, a loud shaking of the house, and the computer went blank. Jeannie came down to see if the computer had blown or something like that, and she said that I was just stunned. I had lost a whole hour's . . . I didn't even know what I had written. I was deep in conversation in some story, and I couldn't reproduce it. I was just, you know, having these people talk to each other. I knew the general story, and all that, but the actual conversation that I had been writing, I couldn't do it. That storm blew the conversation right out, because I was in it.

CLOCKWATCH: So you weren't ahead of your character that time? You were actually synchronized?

MEINKE: I was synchronized at that time, yeah, and I would like to do that more.

CLOCKWATCH: That's the ideal for you?

MEINKE: Yes, to really get into the story. Then you have to come back and you have to see whether it's dreck. But the idea of getting so that you feel these characters and you talk like them, I think that's very exciting, because you loose all self-consciousness.

CLOCKWATCH: And that leads toward the surprise that you're seeking?

MEINKE: I think it probably does. I don't know enough about psychology, but it certainly clears everything away. And I think that's very helpful.

CLOCKWATCH: Is the driving force in your fiction reality or invention?

MEINKE: That's a very good question. I keep mine closer to reality than many people, and I like to always start realistically. I like it very firmly grounded, I think, and then I'm willing to push it pretty hard. But the hardest I would push it would not be truly surreal, I don't think. Maybe traces of surrealism, something dream-like, you know? "Sealink" would be one where it's sort of in her head, but there's no reality there, really. It's her thinking, and she's seeing these things. (Pause) But I like to have it grounded, in some way, in reality, if I could.

CLOCKWATCH: You mentioned "Sealink". Sometimes your endings take chances. Sometimes, just as your stories play with emotion to the point of saying, Okay, I'll risk sentimentality, I think your endings risk being O. Henryish at times--with that surprise or zinger ending. Have you ever come up with an ending where you had to just erase it and say, Let's start over again, because I think I've pushed it too far?

MEINKE: Yes. I have the tendency in poems, too, to look for a boffo ending, in a way. And I think those are good sometimes. But obviously, many times they're not suitable, and it's better to have a quieter ending. I've had to tone it down, I suppose, on many occasions, in both poetry and fiction.

CLOCKWATCH: Can you think of a specific example?

MEINKE: One would be the story that begins, "It takes six months to build a decent bar."

CLOCKWATCH: "Even Crazy Old Barmaids Need Love."

MEINKE: Yeah. I had that story end with a big smash, in which the main character, when these bikers insult Agnes in the bar, gets up and goes after them. And, of course, he gets the shit beat out of him--in fact, I may have even published this version in a magazine--and in the last scene she is in the ambulance with him, saying something or singing to him. It was very morbid, and I knew it was too boffo, too O. Henry, too much. So in the end I had to have him not confront these people. But then, how would she react? See, that changes things. Then I had to think through her character, and she was someone who had been through so much. She didn't want anybody to confront anyone. She was tired of people who confronted others just to be macho and hairy-chested battlers. I had some of my most wonderful descriptions of fighting, and I threw it all out. The one where the basketball player goes to avenge his father's death, "Losers Pay," had a violent ending also. This is the story about a man who killed the fellow's father and then was let out of jail after doing ten years, and this college guy decided to leave his friends and maybe shoot him, scare him, or do something violent. And all he did was pull his flowers out of his flower box. But in the beginning, the first time I wrote it, they shot some windows. I can't remember exactly what it was, but I pulled all that out, and they go back to college having done nothing but lied to a policeman, basically.

CLOCKWATCH: When you tamper with an ending, or with any part of the story, you have to really backtrack because the whole flow is interrupted.

MEINKE: Oh, absolutely. All kinds of changes have to be made. I think it's worthwhile aiming at some big surprising ending, but you have to earn them, and you have to be very careful of them.

CLOCKWATCH: Beginning writers often have problems with plotting, with the sheer inventiveness of construction. What do you tell your students about plotting, to get them going?

MEINKE: I tell them to read Janet Burroway's book on writing fiction. I actually don't teach fiction very much, but I do suggest that they look for conflict, and have the conflict build. That is, you have a character, and where's this character going to have a conflict? Where's the first conflict going to be? What's the result of that going to be? Then I try to have them look a little further down the road--not all the way down the road, but to move them forward into a conflict and see the results. How will the characters feel? What will they look like? Where will they go? And take it step-by-step, one scene at a time--mainly because that's the way I write. I do it a scene at a time, and that comes from writing poems, I suppose. You do it a line at a time, in a way.

CLOCKWATCH: You've written six books of poetry, but only one book fiction--began, in fact, as a poet. Did writing poetry prepare you for writing fiction?

MEINKE: Yeah, I think it was very helpful. I think that certainly poetry and short stories are more alike than short stories and novels, because of that intensity. What you're deciding in both of them is what you're going to leave out all the time, because that's the main decision. We just talked about leaving out the boffo endings, leaving out conversations that are extraneous. There's a big empty spot around poems and short stories, certainly. That's the thing they have very strongly in common. I don't know whether it's necessary for people to use a lot of imagery in writing, but I think it's very helpful. And if you've written poetry, you have that development--putting imagery into your lines--and so you can use metaphor and simile in your stories, which is a way of of greatly economizing. You know, you can tell a lot about the plot and the characters, and the setting by just one little simile. When the piano tuners says how he really liked seeing those birds with the feet tucked in like little miniature bombs, it tells a lot about the piano tuner. I'm also conscious of rhythms in the short story, though probably to a lesser degree, because you're dealing with a broader canvas with more conversations and more prose. But I think of a short story as constructs for the spoken voice. I'm looking for certain rhythms. Almost all of my stories have sections that pick up sometimes toward the end, but not always. The end of the book is "The Bracelet" story: "The moon was caught in the branches of the God-tree, the three-forked tree leaning over the river which flowed silently and irresistibly toward the great ocean." It has a kind poetic rhythm, so I am aware of the flow of sentences. I think that writing poetry is probably good practice for writing short stories.

CLOCKWATCH: Ray Carver and Tess Gallagher come to mind as people who write in both genres, and I found it interesting that each would talk about having periods where they're only "able" to write fiction or poetry. Do you find yourself doing that?

MEINKE: I do like to work on one or the other, and it's nice being able to alternate somewhat. I can't do them at the same time, because my time is limited. So that when I'm working on a poem--there are always exceptions--I basically stick with what I am doing until I finish it. I might put it away and come back to it, but I normally would not be working on a story and a poem at the same time. And I tend in fact to write in streaks. Like I've been reading and writing poetry all summer, and I haven't written any fiction now for about five or six months. I just haven't had ideas for stories, and the ideas that I have had seem to work best for the poems. Maybe after I go through this summer, and get all these poems finished that I've sort of been working on, maybe I'll clean my palette and then start writing stories again.

CLOCKWATCH: Do you ever get anxious about wanting to return to something, but not being able?

MEINKE: Well, I get anxious all the time, actually. While I do get back to everything eventually, I don't get back fast enough. Eckerd is a small school, and it's heavy teaching. I'm not one of those who feels imprisoned by teaching, because I think it's a decent way to make a living, an honorable way, and I enjoy it most of the time. But many times as the year goes by, my writing is getting pushed too far back. I may have these poems that I want to look at and send out, but I can't. Running out of time is the big problem with teaching.

CLOCKWATCH: Have there been things in your life which you feel have been milestones or shaping factors in the development of your poetry or fiction?

MEINKE: Well, I think that I always wanted to be a poet, so I couldn't see a driving force. I didn't write fiction until we spent the year in Poland. Almost all my first stories were set abroad, because everything else I was able to use in poetry. I had these kind of settings that I felt needed a little broader canvas, and actually knew some stories, certainly met some characters in Poland and Africa, that I couldn't put in poems. So to answer your question, I always thought I wanted to write poetry, and fiction came as a result of experiences from traveling. To that extent, travel was a shaping influence. I was a late bloomer, because I didn't know any writers. I remember the first book of poems I ever bought with my own money--The Selected Poems of John Donne , a paperback with a pale green cover. I still know some of those poems by heart ("Go and Catch a Falling Star," "The Sun Rising"). I was a sophomore at Hamilton College at the time. I probably almost did it secretly, because mainly I was a jock, and I didn't want people to know, somehow, that I really liked poetry. I imagine I liked his poems because they were sometimes sexy, but also a nice mix of serious philosophical concerns, high and low humor, real passion--all in a tightly formed package. Although about half of my poems are "free," I've remained interested in formal poetry. "Shears" and "Country Vacation" are syllabic poems, for example. And my first book, The Night Train and the Golden Bird , ends with a villanelle. There's a section of sonnets in Trying to Surprise God , a pantoum in Night Watch on the Chesapeake , and a sestina in Liquid Paper . But I try to shape each of my poems, if not into some pre-set form, at least into a coherent pattern of its own. I think--I hope--that I get some of my best ideas that way: distracted by the form, my mind roams more freely over possibilities that wouldn't ordinarily occur to me. For example, in "Mendel's Laws," which is a sonnet sequence, there is an ending I would have never thought of on my own. It says: "And in the code that Mendel labored on/our child will be deciphered; there will merge,/ in childish shape and spirit, a paragon/where paradox and paradigm converge./ Now I can see Eve's children in your eyes:/completely new, yet linked to paradise."--and there you have, all in a row: paragon, paradox, paradigm, leading to paradise. I would never have thought of that myself in a million years, but if I weren't looking for a rhyme there, and if it wasn't a certain rhythm, I would never have come up with that. That poem, Joyce Carol Oates picked for the Gustav Davidson Memorial Award, from the Poetry Society of America. That day, our refrigerator had broken, and we were saying "Oh God, what are we going to do?" Got the note that the Gustav Davidson Memorial Award (which was five hundred bucks) went to "Mendel's Laws," and with that money we went out and got a new refrigerator. To this day, we call it the Gustav Davidson Memorial refrigerator.

Q: From a serious poem comes a comic image.

A: Actually, I don't separate my poems into "light" and "serious"--they're cut from the same cloth, using as my model not just Donne, but the tragedies of Shakespeare, with all their imbedded jokes. I have a basically dark view of the way the world's going--notice Night Train and Night Watch , not to mention the idea behind the UFO poem--but I look on poetry as a kind of beacon in the darkness, and I would like my poems, at least, to shed a little warmth as well as light. Not that anyone's looking. But I've kept my fondness for humor in poetry. I like clarity in poems, too--again, like Donne. Not simplicity, but a basic line of sense. I sympathize with some of those who say they don't like poetry because they can't understand it. I think poets should write any way they want, but I want most of my poems to have both meaning and content. Occasionally a poem of mine will come from a dream or from some surreal verbal/imagistic leap, but I believe that to remain vital, poetry needs to keep returning to its base in music and story.

Key West, Florida 7-l9-90

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