06 April 2012

An Interview With Davidson, NC poet Anthony Abbott

Today's post is the unedited text of my recent interview with poet Anthony Abbott. Abbott is the Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of English at Davidson College in Davidson, NC. The author of several books of fiction and poetry, Abbott continues to write and teach regularly. His latest book is If Words Could Save Us, a collection of poetry (Lorimer Press, 2011).

Piedmont Poetry Project: What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?

Anthony Abbott: For me writing poetry is an activity of the soul, it is the way the soul expresses itself in a world that is noisy, busy, and demanding. It is a place where I can express my deepest feelings and thoughts in a way that allows the reader to say, I hope, I have felt that too. You are expressing what I have felt. That reader response is very important to me.

PPP: What are your earliest recollections of poetry in your life?

AA: That is a very hard question for me. I didn't begin to write poetry seriously until the late 1970's when I turned 40. The unexpected death of my daughter in 1967 turned me toward poetry, toward the discovery of a language through which I could express grief, loss, love, hope, joy--a language very different from the academic language of critical articles, which I had been trying to write up until that time. I read poetry before this time, but never with real intensity. All that changed in the 1970's.

PPP: Why, in your opinion, is poetry important in our society?

AA: William Carlos Williams wrote: "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there." Our best poets are our prophets---they speak the truth we do not wish to hear, they speak the truth we need to hear, they speak to the best part of us and urge us to change our lives, to respond to the mysteries within and without that we pass by daily and ignore in our busy lives. Poets tell us to stop, and in the words of Mary Oliver---"pay attention, be astonished, tell about it."

PPP: What inspired you to write "Necessary Music"?

AA: My mother died when I was fifteen. I remember very little about her. This poem is one of several I have written trying to bring her back in some way, through language. She grew up in the South, she drank too much, she sang and played the piano. I try to imagine her drinking and singing and playing the piano, sitting in a bar with a man, perhaps, smoking a cigarette. And I wonder what her voice was like. I wish I had known her better.

PPP: When do you usually write?

AA: I write, mostly, in the mornings between about nine and one. Usually, I take a walk when I get up and think about what I am going to work on before I actually get started.

PPP: Is there a particular place you like to be when writing?

AA: As a retired professor, I have a small carrel in the library with no windows, no distractions, no disturbances. It is a wonderful place to write, very quiet, very private.

PPP: What poets do you read?

AA: In my class at Queens University, I have had virtually the same students for the last ten years. They bring the new poems they have written, and each year we study a different poet for seven weeks. I love that. The poets include Linda Pastan, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, James Wright, Jane Kenyon, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. Next year we will do Yeats. These are the poets I have spent the most time on in the last decade. They are very important to me.

PPP: How would you describe the poems, themes, or central ideas that make up IF WORDS COULD SAVE US?

AA: My new collection includes a CD of me reading twenty of the poems in this collection. In the introduction to the CD I answer this question in some detail. Here is a short version of that introduction. The book is the story of a human journey. The book is divided into three parts: Providence, Ordinary Time, and Grace. In the first part, the central figures of the poems are cast out into the world; they lose their innocence, they come of age and must depend on Providence to care for them. In the second part, they must live in that real world, in ordinary time, both enjoying its beauty and suffering its losses and frustrations and pains. In the third part, ordinary time is transfigured by grace. The central figures experience moments of transcendence--their daily lives are infused with a sense of the sacred, the sensual, the true, the beautiful. We don't all experience that third part, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we did? I transfer that hope from myself to the reader…..

PPP: Have you noticed any trends or patterns in your writing over the past 5-10 years?

AA: I retired in 2001. Beginning in that year I have published a book every other year: two novels and four books of poetry. I have had the time to write and the time to finish projects that I had started a long time ago. Trends? Patterns? Maybe an emphasis on language, both its crucial importance and its inadequacy as a means of expressing the mystery, the pain, the wonder, the joy and the grace in life.

PPP: Share a comment or two about life, parenthood, nature, teaching, writing or anything else that you'd like.

AA: I will be 77 in January of 2012. We live in a youth dominated culture, where old people are generally viewed as not being very important. To stay young despite your biological age, you must have a passion, you must have something you love deeply that you can do. Through that passion, you continue to be alive, to be real, to be a participant in the world. I am a passionate writer and a passionate teacher. I continue to teach short courses at various colleges and universities because I love it. I feel most alive in the classroom, or before an audience. I am lucky to have that, and I wish that for everyone. Rumi says, "Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. it will not lead you astray.

by Anthony Abbott

After I left
the flowers on my mother’s grave—
calla lilies, freesia,
the enormous, fragile
peony—I asked my
heart for her forgotten
voice. Was it soft,
like the lilt
of her Georgia
childhood. Or more
like the dirt red notes
of her piano, out of key
from the smoke of too
many bars.

I search for the music
of her voice
in the rustle
of the naked limbs.
The wind says wait.