In anticipation of the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, where does poetry come from these days? And where is it going?
Ron Slate is the poet who flies business class. He’s also the corporate strategist of darting eye and allusive readings with nothing of the boardroom or the brochure about himself or his language. Wallace Stevens was his heroic poet in college and his Olympian model of the New England business burgher who writes, gorgeously. He remembers, too, an aphorism from the late Amherst poet, Robert Francis, who said: “it’s not for me to save poetry; it’s for poetry to save me.”
Ron Slate took James Tate’s seminar at UMass Amherst. In mid-life he became a student again with Louise Gluck, and found a teacher, editor and champion. In his books — The Incentive of the Maggot, at age 55, in 2004, and his second, The Great Wave this year — and in his reading for us, Ron Slate is an inquiring man of the world in the global marketplace of technology and culture. His poem “Coconut Grove” is a self-conscious reconsideration of his family history of the infamous Boston nighclub fire in 1942. Ron’s website, On the Seawall, is a mainstay of the contemporary poetry world, graced by his own close readings of essays and literary fiction as well as new poetry.
Q: Which poem got you started?
A: Wallace Stevens is my touchstone. Jim Tate came in one day and read Stevens’ “The Man on the Dump”. Recited it. I said: that’s what I want to do. I want to be able to be with people and use this kind of language to get them agitated.
Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other mediums?
A: In photography: Walker Evans. He gives you that sense of this pure vision of humanity and the images themselves are very rich. And Robert Frank. With him, you get that, but you also get the energy of his eye. When he shoots the city, not only is it in motion, he seems to know where it is headed.
Q: What’s the quality you love in a poem?
A: The feeling of unresolved conflict: a clash of forces that is becoming apparent as you move through the poem. When you get to the end of the poem, you are vibrating with that sense of unfinished business. The poem keeps on going, because the thought keeps on going. There isn’t closure, and yet formally, the poem ends.
Q: What’s the keynote of your character as a poet?
A: Nervous uncertainty.
Q: What talent do you covet that you don’t have, yet?
A: I wish I could swim. I’m not very buoyant.
Q: What’s your motto?
A: “We do what we want.” The fact is I don’t want to dive into water, and that’s why I don’t swim.