May 2000

David St. John


David St. John is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Study for the World's Body: New & Selected Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry; In the Pines: Lost Poems, 1972-1997; and The Red Leaves of Night, which was nominated for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. He is also the author of a collection of prose, Where the Angels Come Toward Us: Selected Essays, Reviews & Interviews. He has received grants and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. In 1984, he received the Rome Fellowship in Literature awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities. David St. John is Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at The University of Southern California.

This interview was conducted by Charles Harper Webb, December, 1999.

Charles Harper Webb
: I know that you were raised to be a tennis pro. How does that sensibility enter into your poetry? Or does it?

David St. John: Well, my father and my uncle were both terrific tennis players, and my uncle was a pro. I started playing tennis when I was about 7 and played competitively from about 9 to 15. During certain periods of my life, I would play twice a day—once in the morning, once in the afternoon. The way it affected me is that it instilled in me a kind of necessary discipline. Tennis is a tremendously solitary activity, just you—and somebody else—out there, so it's actually good training for somebody who wants to be a writer, wants to be an artist. It also has its chess-like qualities in that it's a very psychological game as well. And you have terrific anticipation. You have to be able to look several shots ahead or, as in chess, several moves ahead. I realized, actually somewhat recently, that I do that somewhat when I'm writing as well. I have a sense of how things might be shaping up a few lines down the road. I don't go into a poem knowing “what” I'm going to write about. For me it's important that it comes, that the writing of the poem should be an act of discovery. But I have a general concern, or a general notion, or some sense of verbal music that I want to play out. I stopped playing tennis competitively when I was about 15. By that time, I was playing in rock and roll bands—really bad rock and roll bands, let me say—and I started putting more of my time and energy into that. My style of playing was not showy, but very elemental and understated. It would be hard to say that about my poems.

David St. John talks about where he gets ideas for his poems.

CHW: Somebody—I forget who—once told me that you claimed your favorite reading material is fashion magazines. Is there any truth to that? I know you dress well…

DSJ: Well, certainly Molly would argue whether I dress well or not, but I was really half putting somebody on, but half not. I think fashion magazines are entertaining. On the one hand, as a writer, there's all the necessary “serious” reading I have to do. In recent years, I've been judging lots of contests, so I'm reading virtually every book that's being published, and then there's the reading I do connected to reviewing and the reading I do connected to teaching, so 80-85 percent of what I do is serious reading. But for entertainment, I read Rolling Stone and Molly's fashion magazines. The great secret, you know, of Conde Nast fashion magazines and a lot of magazines is that they pay really good writers to write for them, and so you have somebody like Francine Prose writing the fiction reviews. Francine is someone I've known and admired for a long time, and it's always fun to know what she has to say about new novels. But I read those for entertainment the way I read Rolling Stone. I like fashion magazines for their edginess. There's a whole new generation of pseudo-edgy magazines out there looking for a young, upscale market. Another thing you find in fashion magazines is the work of really great photographers. There's Patrick Demarchelier, there's Avedon, Mario Testino, Jurgin Teller; some of the most interesting photographers are feeding themselves by doing fashion photography.

CHW: You were raised in Fresno, went East, then returned to the West. Do you think you have a West Coast sensibility? And what is a West Coast sensibility?

DSJ: I'm not sure what a West Coast sensibility is, but I'll try to answer the best I can. I first went to graduate school in Iowa, then taught for a couple of years at Oberlin College, so I kept moving East. Then I taught for ten years at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. But even though I was living in the East, I was writing a lot about the west coast, especially in the book called The Shore. The long sequence in The Shore called "Of the Remembered" has several of its sections set either in the West or in the Sierras. One passage is set in Yosemite. But alternate parts of that are set in the East Coast, on the, sort of, Atlantic shore. The sense of the book The Shore was that both shores were being worked in that book. It's interesting because even when I lived in the East, people thought of me as having a kind of West Coast sensibility: something actually Anthony Hecht once said; he said that it had to do with the way light happened in my poems. He said to me, “Why don't you use David Hockney for your cover next time?” I didn't do it because it was typical of a sense of how I was being seen by other poets. Even in The Shore, but most especially beginning with No Heaven, the landscapes were often European landscapes. I wanted that kind of displacement. I wanted the poems and the speakers in the poems to be on recognizable but not completely familiar ground, so the reader would be on somewhat unfamiliar ground. And then in Terraces of Rain, since that was a collaborative project with Antoine Predock, the architect and painter, all of those poems were set in Italy as we had conceived it when we were both at the American Academy. And then in The Red Leaves of Night, some of the poems still have European locales there. So I think that people think of me as having a West Coast sensibility, which, in poetry, really has to do with a sense of permission. It comes out of their understanding of a writer's working with a kind of freedom that can stand parallel to but outside what's, in America, an East Coast literary tradition. Donald Allen's New American Poetry is filled with poets of both coasts and a sort of alternative to the “academic” poetry of the time. 

Poetry, more than anything else, addresses those things that most resolutely defy being spoken of.

There's always a strong counter-current in American poetry. Sometimes, calling someone a West Coast writer is meant to be pejorative: it's meant to say they're not serious, they don't work hard enough, but I think it's also sometimes said with a kind of envy. What's entertaining, of course, is that half the people you meet in L.A. are from Manhattan, and they've all come out to escape that. More than anything else, I think the West-Coast sensibility has to do with a sense of permission that writers feel to work outside of the normal channels or forms, of literary pressure that I think is felt, actually, much more profoundly felt living in the East. Certainly I felt it far more profoundly there.

CHW: You've lived in L.A. for 13 years now. How do you think the L.A. poetry "scene" has changed since you arrived? Or do you give any thought to that sort of thing?

DSJ: Oh, absolutely. I'm one of the people who's always believed that L.A. had a strong poetry scene. When I arrived 13 years ago, a lot of interesting, hard-working, dedicated poets were already here. I think San Francisco tends to get more East-Coast attention, especially as so many of the Bay Area poets have aligned themselves with language poetry, and before that with the St. Mark's School; and because a number of those people came out from New York to live in San Francisco and in Bolinas obviously, but for me, Los Angeles has always been fiercely independent: the poets here developed a kind of strong, quirky, idiosyncratic voice that I think is really unique. And I think that not enough has been written about it critically. It's just one of those fascinating events that nobody's quite picked up on. I think the change, in fact, is that more and more people from the outside are aware of the writers here, in addition to the fact that people know Carol Muske and I are here. What's important to me is that people know that there are all these other fabulous poets here: you're here, Suzanne Lummis, Stephen Yenser is here, Ralph Angel, Ceclia Wolloch, Molly Bendall, Stephanie Brown in Orange County, Michael Ryan. It's something that people are slowly becoming aware of, and yet, there are people who hold on to their clich�s desperately, because if they have to think anew about it, it becomes very dangerous.

CHW: Do you think there is an L.A. aesthetic in poetry?

DSJ: I think there's a sense of humor; I think there's a kind of irony that's wicked and, to me, tremendously entertaining. I think there's a sense of self-consciousness that's properly post-modern. And I think that there's also an incredible sense of impassionment and that, oddly enough, the irony doesn't lead to poems that are incredibly jaded. In fact, it seems to me that all of the irony is very forgiving and that the poems seem really generous towards the failings and foibles of the world around them.

CHW: Do you see yourself as having an L.A. aesthetic?

DSJ: Only in as much as I take pleasure in the poems of the poets doing that. Obviously, it's hard to generalize because everyone is doing something so individual. But I take a real sense of solace in the community itself. I think that, stylistically, I'm just lost in my own sense of conflict of today from poem to poem and book to book. But I have to say that the idea of humor in poetry has begun to interest me a lot. I don't know if I can do it. I don't know if I'll ever try to do it. But I want to try to write about it because I think it's something that allows—I think it's true in drama, too— it's a sense of that Beckett-like dark humor I like seeing in poems. There's been more a sort of vaudevillian humor of someone like Jim Tate, but both Jim Tate and Charles Simic are very dark at the edges, obviously, and that really interests me. Tate, Simic, and Mark Levine, who is really interesting; it's the darkness of the humor in those poems.

CHW: Your poems are full of gorgeous images and objects. I always think of "The Man with the Yellow Gloves" as an archetypal David St. John character. Did you ever want to be a painter or any kind of visual artist?

DSJ: Yeah, I did. My father's sister was a really wonderful painter. It just happened that, as I was growing up, my focus was really language; and although I really loved paintings, I didn't have any really serious exposure until I was already writing and playing music. At given times in my life, I spent a lot of time around visual artists and have been able to indulge my love of the visual arts. Some people know this, some don't: when I was going into the PhD program at the University of Iowa, one of the areas I was going into was art criticism. Then I suddenly got offered the job at Oberlin, so I took the job instead of going into the art program. 

David St. John on what we should ask ourselves as poets.

One of the things I wanted to do was write about the art criticism of poets. All the way across history, poets have written about paintings, and it's been a really wonderful body of literature. But paintings have always been an important part of my life. Looking at paintings is an experience, just as profoundly engaging a kind of experience as meeting a new person. And the kind of opulence, in terms of the poems, the beauty of the images, is all there to provide a kind of context and sense of both visual and aural pleasure as the poem gets under the skin of the reader. It's one of the ways to seduce the reader into what might be sort of a starker revelation in the poem.

CHW: You've mentioned that you used to play in bands. Is music still important to you? What music are you listening to these days? And does it influence your poetry?

DSJ: Yeah, it's still really important to me. And, you know, we both came of age at a time when singer/songwriters, people like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Tim Buckley were important voices, when rock musicians were important lyric voices. Getting to know Jackson Browne is kind of interesting because he won't call himself a poet. He says he's a songwriter, and he's very careful to make that distinction. I think most of the rest of us would say that he's also a terrific poet. But I think the music I listen to now is tremendously eclectic. I've always loved both classical music and jazz, but I've also always kept up with everything from The Clash to Mary Lou Lord—and I love Mary Lou Lord—but lately, in the past few years, and partly because of Molly's influence, I've been listening a lot more to world music. She just discovered this amazing Indian musician named Jai Uttal, and he's just off-the-charts... amazing, plays sort of everything; and his most recent release, which I've been trying to buy for people and can't find anywhere, is called Shiva Station. Music has always been essential to my sense of what matters in poetry. I think the single most important aspect of poetry is the music of the language. Poems persuade by the music of the language, the music of what poems say, not the content of what they say because poems aren't essays, they're not arguments. Poems persuade insidiously. From within. And so different rhythms of consciousness, different rhythms in music help me think about different rhythms of that insidious persuasion in poems as well.

CHW: Your poems seem to evoke a world that's far removed from late 20th century Los Angeles. I've heard it referred to as fin de si�cle, as decadence, and so forth…

DSJ: That's very conscious. I really have tried to meld together a sense of something that sometimes seems out of this time with something, some detail that's contemporary so that there's this kind of double vision. That's something that I like a lot. I like echoing especially 19th century symbolist poetry and, to some extent, expressionist painting. I love 20th century French surrealism, which has gone way out of fashion, but not quite as out of fashion as French symbolist poetry. I like all that rich, luxuriant, out-of-fashion stuff, and I like trying to make it up-to-date and make it… well, try to bring (what I see as the risk of bringing) those writers and artists into a 20th century context and bring it into a confrontation with 20th century landscape and experience. I love a bit by the British poet Geoffrey Hill called "Mercian Hymns." What goes on in Mercian Hymns is exactly that conflation of two different times. Like my poem, "Troubadour:" On one hand it's an ancient troubadour and, on the other hand, they're sitting at a Santa Monica restaurant, waiting for the valets to bring their cars. Putting together those anachronistic things seems to me one of the most interesting kinds of things to do.

CHW: For many years now, there's been talk about the shrinking audience for poetry. Do you think it's true that the audience has shrunk? And do you think it's true that the main audience for poetry consists of other poets?

DSJ: Neither of those statements is true. There's a wonderful essay by Donald Hall where he debunks those myths. He talks about how those statements are cyclical—how every 15 years some new person arises to say, “poetry is dead, poetry is irrelevant, poetry has no audience, and the only people who read poetry are the poets.” And if you look—and Hall does this: he pulls out the publishing statistics and shows that more books of poetry are being published than ever in the history of poetry, and more copies of those books are being sold. And if people believe that MFA students are actually reading poetry, that's a nice idea, but it's not true. For one thing, they only have the money to buy a few books, and they're not the ones buying those books. My sense is that it tends to be an audience of people between 30 and 50 who are buying poetry books. Certainly that's what I've seen in the last 10 or 15 years. The audience of poetry is wildly various, and there's a solid audience for every kind of poetry from formal poetry to language poetry. It also cuts across all kinds of demographics. It's really boring to see these new cultural critics come out every 10 or 15 years and lie about this. I was really grateful to Donald Hall for taking on this kind of misinformation.

CHW: Why should people read your poems? What do your poems offer the reader?

DSJ: I don't think anybody should do anything they wouldn't want to do, but if they had some interest in reading poems,… I mean, there are a lot of poets whom I'd suggest they read before I'd suggest they read me. I think there's a kind of psychological urgency to the poems. I think there's a confrontation of overtly sexual concerns in the poems that they might not find in other poems. I'd just suggest reading a few poems, and if the experience is pleasurable, then read more. But I would never try to justify to anyone what I wrote. I've never tried to persuade anyone that what I've written matters. If it matters to people, fabulous. But if it doesn't matter to them, then I'd rather they go do something that does matter to them, whether it's going to a museum or playing pool in a bar. Whatever matters to them is fine with me.

CHW: Do you have anything in particular that you want your poems to do?

DSJ: Yeah, I want the poems to give the reader an experience, an artistic experience—and because it's a poem, the experience is an engagement of language—that is unlike any experience they've had. I want the way in which their brain has to move, the way their consciousness has to work to move through the poem, to be somewhat disconcerting and new because that's how I think we learn as people. I want the poems to open up a sense of possibility to people.

CHW: People are always interested in where poets get their ideas for poems. Do you have any helpful hints?

DSJ: Well, I buy all my ideas from other poets. I have a lot of young poets on retainer, and I just call them up and say, “It's time for a new book, give me a couple good ideas.” No, I think that to some extent all of those things take you by surprise, that after you've written a certain number of years, you know that you could pick any “topic” and write a pretty decent poem. You have enough facility to do that, but, at least for me, that holds no interest. I want the poems to be “about” things that take me by surprise, things I don't even know I'm concerned about until the act of writing reveals to me that it's something I'm thinking about. A lot of it has to do with how people treat each other and interact. I've always been obsessed in the poems with how men and women engage with each other socially, sexually, psychologically. That's really the terrain I find most compelling.

CHW: Where do you see your work heading in the next few years?

DSJ: I want to keep trying to do things I've never done. I want to write a book-length poem. I want to write a sequence of pseudo-sonnets. Not real sonnets; they'll all be sonnets that are maimed in some way. They'll be sonnets that are limping in some significant way—a sequence like that. To keep doing things that seem to me provocative. I don't know exactly what that will be, but I've got a lot of ideas that I think will be fun to try. And sometimes I try these things and they're just bloody awful, so I say, well, that's too bad, and then go on. But if I knew what I was going to be writing, I probably wouldn't bother, so it's still that sense of discovering what I'm going to be doing. I have some really vague ideas about the shape of books that I want to do. I like to think of books as books and not just as collections of poems. It's more interesting to me that way.

CHW: You're married to a very fine poet, Molly Bendall. What's it like for a poet to be married to a poet? Do you help each other with your work, or do you keep hands off?

DSJ: The way we've worked it out is that we work on the poems very independently until we think they're finished, and then, at that point, we'll show each other what we've been working on. Usually, then, we're able to at least be the first reader for each other, and if there's something particularly embarrassing or stupid, we can catch it before it goes into the world. But I think we're actually very hands off with each other's work and get involved only when one of us asks the other, when we have a particular concern. When I write essays or reviews, I always ask Molly to read them because she's good at having me cut back on my sort of natural extravagance in talking about things. So that's always helpful.

CHW: Has your daughter Vivienne affected your poetry in any way that you could specify?

DSJ: That's an interesting question. I think that she's influenced the work in this way: her birth sent me back to a lot of old English poetry, anonymous poetry and ballads. It really sent me back to this sense of language as song. W. S. Merwin gave her this really beautiful book of poems for children. When she was young, Molly would read poems to her from that book, and it reminded me of the kind of elemental urgency and the simple beauty of those poems. Obviously, a lot of those poems are also dark and filled with ravagement. But I mean things like old sea shanties and ballads and the child ballads and things like that. It was really fun for me. In a practical way, what her birth changed is that I now work very late at night instead of during the day because the day is filled with other concerns, and the night is when it's quiet.

CHW: We should probably mention that David has a daughter who is five.

DSJ: Now six.

CHW: We're talking about a little daughter here.

DSJ: If I had a teenage daughter, I'd never have any time to write at all. I'd be bailing her out of jail at all hours.

CHW: What is the question you would most like to be asked in an interview—something I haven't asked, which you think is important to talk about?

DSJ: I think people need to ask themselves, “Why in this culture does poetry—or literary fiction, but not to the same extent—have the marginal place it does in the perpetuation of what we value in our culture?” The answer might be really simple: that as a highly material culture, what we value are those things that perpetuate our adoration of the material: TV, movies, things that are part of a co-modified culture. Poetry, literature, ballet, and opera, like religion, all have to do with questions and issues of the soul and the spirit. People sometimes ask, “Why is there such a huge audience for poetry now?” I think the answer to that is that all of those questions of the spirit and the soul which used to be addressed by religion, are now going wanting. And instinctively and intuitively they're turning to poetry, which is reverential and devotional and celebratory of the world and filled with faith in human beings and the world in which they live. It seems to be no accident that two of the biggest sellers on are Rumi, for example, and Rilke, two poets who most nakedly address matters of the soul and the spirit. People are hungry; people are lonely, and poetry, more than anything else, addresses those things that most resolutely defy being spoken of. All of the things that resist being said in our lives, poetry helps to lure out into language. That's one of its great values and virtues, but I think that the place of the arts in this country is once again beginning to suffer. The legacy of Jack and Jackie Kennedy and the NEA and the importance of the arts that we've enjoyed for the last 40 years is beginning to be held suspect. I think that's always bad for culture, and American culture is tremendously arrogant. As a young culture, it's a punk culture in that it doesn't want to learn from older cultures—and that's perfectly understandable—but we also have this incredible fear of… let's say, in the realm of literature, anyone who uses language too easily and too fluently. We're still a culture that believes in extreme reticence, and the less said, the better. And that has a really deep impact on all facets of our lives.



David St. John: Interview
Copyright � 2000 The Cortland Review Issue 11The Cortland Review