Getting The Gig: The Life Of A Career Poet
Like many poets, Charles Simic has a day job, teaching in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire. The Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate has traveled the road for over 50 years — giving hundreds of readings at schools, book stores, jazz clubs and abandoned malls.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
Most of our celebrated poets don't make a living writing poetry, but from teaching it. That doesn't mean that they don't get any income from books and magazines, from readings and other appearances - but not a lot. In a blog post for the New York Review of Books, poet Charles Simic describes life on the road, and gigs in schools and bookstores in abandoned malls, and in jazz clubs. We want to hear from poets in the audience today. Call and tell us about your most memorable poetry gig - 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Former poet laureate and Pulitzer-prize winner Charles Simic joins us by Skype, from his home in Strafford, N.H. His latest collection is "New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012." Good of you to be with us today.
CHARLES SIMIC: Good to be with you, too.
CONAN: And there's a - well, in your post for the New York Review of Books, you describe both the sublime and the ridiculous; being treated like a prince and well, being treated not so well.
SIMIC: Well, I mean, that's entirely inevitable, if you do so much, you know, traveling; if you have done so many readings. I mean, I'm sure, you know - and any jazz musician, any nightclub performer, anyone who travels and - to do something some place, I mean, has - you know, millions of stories like that. And so, yes. I mean, usually, one is free to - well, I mean - so, you know, otherwise, you wouldn't go. But, you know, there are always these wonderful things - I mean, these accidents, or the things that occur on the road, that are memorable. And I, you know, it's the poetry month that - April is the poetry month. So I thought, well, I'll write something about poetry. And then I thought, let me mention few of these adventures on the road.
CONAN: Well, you mentioned nightclub performers and jazz musicians. Many of them make a living performing jazz or in nightclubs. You have, as you point out, a day job there in New Hampshire. And so...
CONAN: ...you're often, what, leaving on a Thursday night and flying home on Sunday?
SIMIC: Oh, no, no. I mean, it would depend on the reading. Yes, I mean, readings tend - it could be even, you know, there could be Mondays and Tuesdays and so forth. So I would have to shift classes or present - I teach at the University of New Hampshire. And so it was usually during the week because very rarely are readings on weekends because most readings are given at colleges and universities. This is all the result of Allen Ginsberg and the beat poets in the, you know, late' 50, '60s, when poetry reading is extremely popular. So every school in the nation felt obliged to have a poetry reading series.
CONAN: And you describe a day, and it was some years ago, when in several states, they would have a circuit.
SIMIC: Well, yeah. I mean, there were some heavy circuits where you wouldn't be doing - in fact, three poets a year sort of to come to the states and to give readings, you know, at least a dozen schools, more than that, probably 15. And they'd give you a car, and you would read sort of early - in the early afternoon at one place, and at night in another place. And if the states - if the state was, you know, a large state like Ohio or, you know, California or - you tend to do a great deal of traveling between some of these gigs. Sometimes, you know, it was well-arranged, I mean, about the distances, but sometimes it wasn't. So it was pretty hectic. I mean, it became incredibly exhausting.
And just a little detail of it - I mean, usually, when you get directions - you used to get directions; I mean, this was before the days of GPS - and they would usually say, you know, I go two lights, and then you see the Pizza Hut, you know; turn left or, you know, Gulf station, or usually sort of the landmarks - you know - in most American towns; so the importance of the outskirts of these towns, once you get off the highway. And I remember after finishing some of these, you know, these circuits and get back to New Hampshire, every time I saw a Gulf station or a Pizza Hut, I wanted to turn left - just, it conditions.
SIMIC: So that was it. I mean, it was, you know, you had no idea of what you're going to find there. I mean...
CONAN: You described it as exhausting - yes - but also exhilarating. Why?
SIMIC: Well, because, I mean, you know, this is the chance for you to read poems to living human beings. I mean, poems are written in, you know, privacy, late at night. And as I said in the piece - you know - poets, generally speaking, you know, don't have much confidence in what they've done. And, you know, so you get there and you really have to - you have to say out this poem - say it out loud in front of the audience. And you look at the people, and some seem interested, some seem kind of skeptical. So it's a great test.
And very often, reading it aloud, some flaws become obvious, which were not obvious before. I mean, I remember once reading a poem of some six or seven stanzas, I don't know, five lines per stanzas. And I realized when I got to the fifth stanza that the second and third stanza that I had just read were saying essentially the same thing.
SIMIC: And I stopped, and people looked at me. And, you know, I thought that I was having a heart attack. And I - so I calmed down, and I told them, I said, look, I have to tell you this. And I told them, of course. But, you know, I just want to find out these things.
CONAN: Well, we want to hear from poets in our audience about their most unusual poetry gigs in just a moment. But Charles Simic, I was wondering if you would read to some live people right now. There's a piece you wrote, a poem that appears in The New York Review of Books in the May 6th issue, or the May 9th issue?
SIMIC: May 9th.
CONAN: If I can get my glasses adjusted, there.
SIMIC: Yeah. I don't have that poem with me.
CONAN: Oh, you want me to read it?
SIMIC: Read it.
CONAN: OK. It's called "As You Come Over the Hill," and I hope I don't get it too badly.
CONAN: "As You Come Over the Hill," by Charles Simic. You'll see cows grazing in a field and perhaps a chicken or a turtle crossing the road in their sweet time, and a small lake where a boy once threw a girl in who couldn't swim, and many large maple and oak trees offering ample shade to lie in, their branches to hang yourself from, should you so desire, some lazy afternoon or evening when something tells the birds to hush, and the one streetlight in the village to keep a few moths company and the large old house put up for sale with some of its windows broken.
SIMIC: Yeah, that's it.
CONAN: That's it.
CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Sharon, Sharon on the line with us from Portland.
SHARON: Yes, hi.
SHARON: I am a stand-up comedian, and I was performing in Uganda, Africa just this last month. And I had an opportunity to also perform poetry at a poetry slam for the Luganda-speaking audience, which was amazing. It was an amazing opportunity to perform poetry in another language that very few people know.
CONAN: And how did it go?
SHARON: It went very well. The poem itself was about a true experience that I had just had a couple of days prior to the performance about - I was on a motorcycle boda-boda taxi, and I saw an accident occur where a teenage boy was riding his bicycle home from school and accidentally hit two young children. And everyone ran to help the children, but no one ran to help the boy. And I was shocked. I ran to help him finally, and it turns out that in Uganda, the person who is perceived as the perpetrator of an accident is sometimes assumed guilty before proven innocent, and anyone who helped him is also guilty.
SHARON: And so the audience was kind of, I think, taken aback with my story. But it was a true story.
CONAN: Well, I'm glad you enjoyed the experience.
SHARON: It was amazing. Thank you for letting me share it.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Sharon, for the phone call. And I wonder, Charles Simic, do you - have you ever composed a poem on the spot and tried it out in front of a live audience the same day?
SIMIC: No. No. I'm trying - I'm thinking, but no, never did. I mean, usually, you know, I'm a very slow writer, and it takes me months, you know, to get something right.
CONAN: And you mentioned realizing something was a little too long as you read it aloud. Have you ever thought reading something aloud, it was too short?
SIMIC: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, all these things become obvious. It's very curious, because it could be a poem that's, you know, been published in books over the years. And you looked at it, you know, before many times. And then all of a sudden, something extremely obvious strikes you. A word needs to be removed from the fourth line. And it's kind of a shock because, I mean, these things are tinkered endlessly with, you know, poems. I mean, the whole idea of poetry is you can say everything in a few words. So everything has to be right, and words in the right place. And then after years of that, you know, it dawns on you that you don't need this word.
SIMIC: Or you move two words around, and it's better. It sounds better. So, yeah, I mean, this is - I think this is a great adventure, because I'm just - it just occurs to me now, you know, when you - on my own, I don't read my own books. I don't read my own books. I always spend my evenings picking up volumes - my old volumes and reading my poems. So the only chance I really have to read them again is when I do readings, and that's why these things happen, and I'm very happy that they happen.
CONAN: We're talking with Charles Simic, the Pulitzer Prize-winner. You can find a link to his piece "A Poet on the Road," at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We have this tweet from Mike Hayflinger(ph). His most memorable gig - house gig in Brighton, where a famous U.K. poet passed out drunk on the floor while we read.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's get Diane on the line, Diane with us from Denver.
DIANE: Hi. Am I on?
CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANE: Thank you for having me on, and Happy National Poetry Month.
CONAN: Thank you.
DIANE: I'll try to keep my story brief. This goes way back to 1973, '74 in Gainesville, Fla. There was a feminist gathering, and it was very large; and it was at the edge of park near the campus. There were probably 2,000 women there. I had never read to such a large group. I was a housewife from Jacksonville, Fla., and I was leading women's poetry classes at the Unitarian church. So they said we could come. And we went to the gathering in Gainesville - drove an hour and a half; stunned to see so many people there.
I got up on the stage at my assigned time. I was shaking. And I looked out on this huge group and I said, OK, hi, women. Hi, ladies. And I started with a poem by Marge Piercy, who was like our personal poetry goddess, in this group. And I read "The Woman in the Ordinary," by Marge Piercy. Huge cheers - they all loved it, clapping. It was wonderful.
So then I said, OK, I'm going to go back a hundred years. I'm going to read a poem by Emily Dickinson. I read a very short, perfect, beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson. Then, the crowd started chanting, "something by you, something by you!" So - brought a poem...
DIANE: Yeah. I had brought a poem, called "Bread Poems," which is about how women live their lives baking bread and making poetry, and the poetry and the bread and the lives are the same - so it's called "Bread Poems." And I read "Bread Poems," and I was - again - shaking. And I looked out, and 2,000 women had their fists in the air, and they're chanting. And I finished the poem; I thought I was going to faint, but I was sweating profusely.
DIANE: It was like 96 degrees outside, and I said, ladies, thank you very much; you know, onward - or forward, or something, you know. And...
CONAN: But you realized the moment was there, and time to get off the stage.
DIANE: Exactly. Get off the stage, as I'm going to do in a minute. But, you know, a lot of lives were changed during the '70s, for the women. So it was a moment of personal liberation, as your screener said to me, and it was a moment of group unity and solidarity - a beautiful day.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much for sharing it with us.
DIANE: Well, thank you. Thanks for the show. I love it. And thank you for doing a poetry day.
CONAN: OK. Thanks very much. Let's see if we go to Patrick, and Patrick's on the line with us from Bedford, New Hampshire.
PATRICK: Hi. How are you? Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
PATRICK: I have a very quick question for Professor Simic. I've been a huge fan of yours for a couple of years now. My first collection that I read of yours was "Dismantling the Silence," and one of the things that I've read among a number of critics who have gone through your work is a discussion of the significance of windows in your poetry. And even though - the last poem that you just read on the air talks about windows at the very end. And I was just wondering if you could speak more to the significance of windows in your work, if you wouldn't mind. And I'll gladly take my answer off the air.
CONAN: And while he's presumably taking notes for this thesis. Go ahead, Charles Simic.
SIMIC: That's very funny. Well, windows, I mean, you live in New Hampshire, so you understand. I mean, I live in a very, very small town surrounded by woods. As you know, the weather here, especially this winter, endless winter - I mean, the first thing you do is you look out of the window. I mean, otherwise, there's not much of a life unless you look out of the window. So, yes, I mean, I'd never realized that, you know, there were so many windows. But I never used them, you know, consciously as a symbol of anything.
But even now as I'm sitting and speaking to you, I'm looking, you know, out of a window at some bare trees looking miserable still, just trying to bring out some buds. And so, yeah, I mean, I think it's the result of living the way I do. But if you have a small house, you look out of window, make - you know, so you could get out of yourself and see what's going on out.
CONAN: Well, if he submits that answer to you in class, give him a C. It stinks. Charles Simic, thanks very much.
SIMIC: Thank you.
CONAN: Charles Simic, former poet laureate and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. His latest collection is "New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012." Tomorrow, sifting through clues on Twitter, and social media's role in forensics. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.