Brooklyn poet Mark Statman talks about F.G. Lorca, Kenneth Koch, the outlaws of music and Odyssey

"Music is essential to poetry, in terms of line, in terms of rhythm, in terms of choice." 

Mark Statman: The Winds of Poetry

Mark Statman’s most recent books are the poetry collection A Map of the Winds and Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of José María Hinojosa, the first English language translation of the significant poet of Spain’s Generation of 1927. Author of the poetry collection, Tourist at a Miracle ; and a translation, with Pablo Medina, of Federico García Lorca's Poet in New York. His other books include Listener in the Snow, and, with Christian McEwen, The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing.

His poetry, essays and translations have appeared in nine other anthologies, as well as such publications as Tin House, Hanging Loose, Performing Arts Journal, The Cincinnati Review, South Bank Poetry (England), Ezra: A Journal of Translation, South Dakota Review, The Hat, Bayou, Boog, Occasional Religion, Washington Square, conduit, Subtopics, The Florida Review, Ping Pong, and American Poetry Review. He has been featured on Poetry Daily, The Bob Edwards Show, The Leonard Lopate Show, The Moe Greene Poetry Discussion, The Nevada Girls Literary Hour, and PBS New York Voices. A recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Writers Project, he is currently at work on translating the poems of Mario Benedetti, and writing a new poetry collection. Statman is an Associate Professor of Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School for the Liberal Arts.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

What triggers me most in my work is “la vida cotidiana” the day to day. What I hear on the streets, what I see on the subways. Sometimes a line from a poem I am reading will strike me, but most often it is what I refer to in one of my books of poetry, Tourist at a Miracle (Hanging Loose, 2010), when I talk about wanting to be a tourist in my own life. I am interested in the surprise of the usual.

What have you learned about yourself from your writing of your poems?

Writing is a way of knowing. By writing poetry, I get to use the space, the moment, the time, of the poem to think, to wonder, to imagine in a way that is undisturbed. That I am not disturbed. I may write things that are hurtful, to myself, to someone else. I may write things that are loving. Are beautiful and strange, witty, spectacular. Whether those poems ever find publications is another matter completely. I have no interest in publishing anything that embarrasses the people I love. I will embarrass myself, but that is my choice, no?

How would you characterize the philosophy of Mark Statman’s poetry?

I want to write the cleanest and clearest possible lines. I want no ornamentation. I love metaphor but only as it serves the simplest, most naked arguments for poetry.

"I love the music of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash because I love outlaws. The kind that seek through their music to speak with wisdom and toward social justice and love.. And the music of Cannonball (Jesse) Statman (my son—who is tremendous)."  Photo by Sidewalk NYC

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing? How important was music in your life?

Music is essential to poetry, in terms of line, in terms of rhythm, in terms of choice. I loved Yeats saying that he wanted every poem of his sung on the stage. I have worked with composers and been stunned how their music has brought greater depth and timbre to my work. Sometimes, when I am writing, I worry that the voice of Bryan Ferry creeps into my head. But I am good at drowning that out. Still, I love music and do not worry that it influences me too little or too much. I also love Chopin. And Falla. I love the music of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash because I love outlaws. The kind that seek through their music to speak with wisdom and toward social justice and love.. And the music of Cannonball (Jesse) Statman (my son—who is tremendous). But they don’t change my writing, exactly; they increase the richness of my life.

Which has been the most interesting period in your life?

The most interesting period of my life is right now. How could it not be? I have just published what I think is my best book (A Map of the Winds, Lavender Ink, 2013). Lavender Ink has just signed me to a three book contract! I am proud of my work on José María Hinojosa (Black Tulips: Selected Poems, University of New Orleans Press, 2012)—a poet who was a major figure in the generation 0f 27 in Spain and then lost until the end of the 20th century. And, best of all, I have just celebrated 31 years of marriage to Katherine Koch, a marvelous painter—she has done covers for five of my books! And is now working on a memoir of growing up as a child in the New York School. Her father was the late great poet, Kenneth Koch, who was also my teacher in college in the late seventies.

I am also fortunate to teach at an amazing undergraduate college, Eugene Lang College, the New School for the Liberal Arts. This year will be my 29th year there. At the same time I am on sabbatical, which gives me a chance to rest a little from the teaching that means so much to me.

What do you think was the relationship of music to the poetry of Federico García Lorca?

As many García Lorca fans know, he was an accomplished musician, piano, guitar. At one point, when he was young, he thought he might become a professional musician but apparently there was someone in the family, an uncle, I believe, who was considered a ne’er-do-well so that was frowned upon. There are some wonderful recordings of him with La Argentinita. And when he was a young poet, he organized a conference to celebrate Manuel de Falla. When in New York, unable to speak English, he would settle at a piano, or find a guitar, and suddenly he owned the room. The music in García Lorca cannot be underemphasized. It plays a great part in many of the poems. When I think of Poet in New York (Grove, 2008) which I co-translated with Pablo Medina, it is hard not to think of the beautiful “Son of Blacks in Cuba,” and the two waltzes toward civilizations, “Small Viennese Waltz” and “Waltz in the Branches.”

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

If I were a younger man, it would be easier to answer the question, what experiences have been important? Being married for thirty-one years. Being a father. Living in Brooklyn and traveling the world. Dangerous work I did in Central and South America as a journalist in the late 80’s and 90’s.

I loved being the student of Kenneth Koch at Columbia University, how he went on to become my mentor, father-in-law, friend. Being David Shapiro’s student, also at Columbia, taught me how to teach, taught me how to see the world hugely.? My literary friendships over all these years (and I refuse to name names because I would leave a good friend out!). Working in the schools with children? I remember their names, their poems--I wrote extensively on this work in my book Listener in the Snow (Teachers & Writers, 2000). Working with college students who made me feel as though I had done something when everything was already there and I just said hello? When I met my wife for the first time and didn’t even think to notice her? I have made up for that, I hope.

Of course I would be crazy not to think of my family, my parents and grandparents, my father’s huge Cuban family which I think directed me toward the Spanish language and world. And not to name the years I was an athlete, a runner and cyclist, the sense of discipline that came out of that is still a fundamental part of my life.

I have been greatly influenced by the writing of Paulo Friere and Myles Horton, by their writing and by their examples. In a recent exchange I had with the painter Terry Adkins, I noted that when my son was born, twenty years this October 2013, that I wished for him a world full of love and social justice. Horton calls it the long haul. I call it the same.

"Sometimes, when I am writing, I worry that the voice of Bryan Ferry creeps into my head. But I am good at drowning that out." Photo by Bernard King

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

Laughter? I love it. The most recent wonderful moment came when a few weeks ago I was in New Orleans and Katherine (my wife) and I were walking along the Mississippi. An African American gentleman approached us and promised he could tell me three things about me just by looking at me. They were hokey. It was a kind of flim-flam. But what he didn’t realize is that I am a lover of awful jokes and so I started back on him (I admit, I started with the riddle of the Sphinx but from there it wet down to what has four wheels and flies?). In the end, he was laughing, my wife was, I was. It was just a great moment because so unexpected and so full of good-natured fun.

Touched emotionally? I am always touched emotionally. But two things: I know this seems a little egotistical but right now I am in the middle of giving a lot of readings from A Map of the Winds and there are two poems which whenever I read them, I find it hard to go on. One is for my wife, one for my son, and I always reserve them for the end of the reading because after that I can’t go on, I am so filled with love.

tu cancion

                        for Katherine


if you would

make me

a part of it


how much more


my days would be

my days


especially the ones

where the my

seems sometimes absent, resistant


the part of the song

that sings

I have not disappeared 


a gift

                          from Jesse


no longer a baby

but just not

you held yourself up

by the kitchen window

backyards Brooklyn


you said

write me a poem

called a map of the winds


already you believed

there was something I could do


write me a poem


my happy sense

you believed I could

even if this one

wasn’t mine to write

"What triggers me most in my work is “la vida cotidiana” the day to day. What I hear on the streets, what I see on the subways." Photo: Mark Statman and Trinidad-born poet Mervyn Taylor

What from your memories and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

For my birthday a few years back, my wife as a gift gave me a big box full of all sorts of odds and ends. Postcards, photos, mainly. And she decorated the outside with names and words that could cover my life: Mexico, Cannes, Paris, Oaxaca, Nanci Griffith, Malibu, Cuba, The Pisa Girl’s Swim Team. I have continued to fill the box with postcards and photos, with small gifts from people. It sits under my desk in my study, and when I look at it, it is like Proust’s madeleine, each word, each face, each becomes a present story, a present moment.

I think, too, I would want to put in my books, because each one has a different meaning, suggests a different moment of my life, a different moment of thought and feeling. You put them all together, I think, from my childhood to the present, in all of them I think you find me. But, this answer is incomplete, I think. I hope to have a lot more time and a lot more to put in my box.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of European and American poetry?

I am not such a scholar per se of poetry as a devoted reader of it so my thinking on the lines between European and North American poetry may seem a little disjointed. I think North American poetry starts with Whitman and Dickinson: who had ever written like that before? And most North American poets since then (how to name all those?) whether by acceptance or rejection trace themselves back to those two, whether through form or content. Yet, I love the Romantics, British, German, and find in the French and Spanish surrealists something exciting and fun, serious and hopeful. Montale moves me, as does Seferis, Celan, Holderlin, Yeats, Hopkins, as do Rimbaud, Valery, Verlaine, Apollinaire. I’m intrigued by Mallarme, his language. Of course, there is Dante, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, there is Milton, right? And I have been lately loving the sonnets of Charlotte Turner Smith. I wrote some poems lately for the centenary of George Barker, I don’t know how good he is, but there was enough there to keep me. And Pascoli? Oh it all could go on.

I think perhaps the lines are all there but they matter for different poets in different ways. I don’t know how important it is to know exactly who one’s influences are in order to be influenced by them. But I remember reading a poem by Sor Juana and I recognized in it a line that Neruda had clearly used and it changed the Neruda poem for me (made it richer) and gave me a greater sense of how tightly bound we poets can be and in a wonderful way.

Which incident of Homer's Odyssey you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting with you?

The Odyssey and me? Perhaps the moment when Odysseus returns to Penelope. I mean, that’s really what the whole book is about. This crazy hubristic going away, abandonment of wife and son, the lotus eaters, Cyclops, the sirens, all that, is just a big adventure story with an ending like that.

"Writing is a way of knowing. By writing poetry, I get to use the space, the moment, the time, of the poem to think, to wonder, to imagine in a way that is undisturbed."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

A time machine…here I am stumped. I really do like the time I am in, but that is also because for me memory is present, past is present. It is something I love in the poetry of Williams and Schuyler, this sense of time and compression. What happened thirty years ago is still alive in me, is still today or maybe yesterday. The day I was married in Anne Porter’s backyard in Southampton, the fields behind us all purple and yellow, Lake Agawam in the distance, over 200 people there to celebrate. I remember my first trip to Paris in Fall 1982, the smell of coffee and cigarettes from the brasseries, the Jardin de Luxembourg at twilight, so beautiful in orange and yellow and fog, I started to cry at not having seen something beautiful this fall. I love the summer in the mountains of southern Virginia, fishing the Cow Pasture River with my wife’s family, tubing it, and the thunder clouds coming in, sitting on the stoop in Brooklyn on a spring day, the neighbor’s all walking by. These kinds of things are always happening inside me so I feel they are there all the time. I suppose my answer here maybe that I am my own time machine and I carry it all with me.

How you would spend a day with the poets of Spain's famed Generation of '27 in New York?

With my friends García Lorca, Alberti, Hernandez, Aleixandre, Salinas, Cernuda, and so on, I would walk. We would walk in the New York Botanic Garden, we would walk down Broadway, we would walk 14th Street in Manhattan, we would take the Staten Island Ferry, we would walk the Brooklyn Bridge, walk the Brooklyn Promenade, Flatbush Avenue until we hit the Ocean Parkway and we would walk to Coney Island, where there would no doubt be hot dogs, French fries and beer. I would take them to see the Brooklyn Cyclones play a minor league (rookie) baseball game. After that, we would go to Manhattan or Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and we would give poetry readings. The audience would be huge, perhaps it would have to be outdoors. Maybe in Central Park? Maybe in Prospect Park? I would call in my favorite poets and it would be a marathon reading that ended at dawn.

"I hope for a world in which there is, again, greater individual and collective commitment to the environment, to education, to respect and human decency. "

What would you say to Jerry Garcia? What would you like to ask Gary Snyder, Basho, and Pablo Neruda?

To Jerry Garcia, I would say thank you for music that was a part of the soundtrack of my youth and to which, when I listen, I feel that young again. I have nothing to ask Gary Snyder because in his marvelous essay “Language Goes Both Ways” I think I have found all my answers. With Basho I would like to walk with him, follow him in silence and wait for him to start writing, and then I would like to write back and forth with him for a very long time. Stumbling upon Pablo Neruda on a park bench, I would ask if I could join him and if he consented, I would ask him to read me the last poems of Gabriela Mistral.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of world?

Asking a poet about hopes and fears for the world is a little Romantic, no, like Shelley thinking of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I suppose my hopes for the world is one in which people around the world make a greater individual and collective commitment to equality and social justice in all forms, including racial, ethnic, cultural, economic, gender, sexual, civil. I hope for a world in which there is, again, greater individual and collective commitment to the environment, to education, to respect and human decency. Obviously, as a poet, I want a world in which poetry is honored and respected not for being mainstream (which could be fine) but more for being cutting edge, for being dangerous and beautiful, for being pleasurable and challenging, for getting people to stop a moment and think about themselves and the entire world, about the place they have in it, about what they want and need and dream and how to live inside that knowledge.

My fears are this won't happen. I don't have to name what that means. It's another one of the things for which we have imaginations.

Mark Statman - official website

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