An Interview with Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky (born October 20, 1940) is an American poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator. From 1997 to 2000, he served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Pinsky is the author of nineteen books, most of which are collections of his own poetry. His published work also includes critically acclaimed translations, including The Inferno of Dante Alighieri and The Separate Notebooks by Czesław Miłosz. He teaches at Boston University and is the poetry editor at Slate. He has numerous awards for his poetry and translations.

As a follow-up to his reviews, Donald was fortunate to engage Robert Pinsky in a brief interview about his work . . .

Donald: Is poetry your favorite to write or is it translations?

Robert: The way I do translation the goal is poetry. To make the work a poem in English.

Donald: What is your mood setter to get into your writing mode?

Robert: Impatience, irritation with my own disorder or confusion.

Donald: What do you teach at Boston University?

Robert: Poetry. Next year, Norton will publish my book Singing School. The subtitle is: "Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying the Masters." That's what I teach.

Donald: Gulf Music is one of my favorites of your collected poetry works. What was the inspiration behind this book.

Robert: The doings and derelictions of the George W. Bush administration in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mexico. My anger inspired me to approach such things not in an editorial way, but somehow in a poetic way, and in light of history and personal history.

Donald: What is some of your favorite books and authors?

Robert: Ben Jonson, Willa Cather, Isaac Babel, Nikolai Gogol, John Keats, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Wiliam Carlos Williams. Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Homer. (I take a guilty pleasure in the Rieux prose translation of the Odyssey).

Donald: As a writer myself in the beginning stages and to all the others out there. What's your advice to us all.

Robert: When you find a piece of writing you admire and would like to emulate, type it up. Memorize all or part of it. Keep a computer file (maybe called "Anthology" or "Guides") of such examples.

Donald: Regarding the poem "The City Dark", which inspired me to write a novella, what is the meaning behind it?

Robert: The meaning is not behind the poem, but in it. The city dark is different from, and similar too, the rural or suburban dark. It is different from, and similar too, its partner, the city light.

Donald: I am a man of humor, always looking for a great laugh. Tell our readers something funny, life experience, joke or just make us laugh.

Robert: My jokes tend to be vocal. For me, comedy is like poetry, it needs to be vocal. I lack the Lewis Carroll or Dodgson or Thurber gift of funny writing. So I'll quote an epigram by J.V. Cunningham:

This Humanist, whom no belief constrained,
Grew so broad-minded, he was scatter-brained.

Donald: What is next for Robert Pinsky in the world of writing?

Robert: Tonight, the great pianist Laurence Hobgood and I will perform from our PoemJazz CD ( at le Poisson Rouge, which thrillingly, for me, is the old Village Gate. This Spring, the actors at the Shakespeare Theater in D.C. will perform my free adaptation of Schiller's Wallenstein, in repertory with Coriolanus. I've already mentioned Singing School. And another book of poems is taking shape.

Many thanks to Robert for taking the time to sit down and chat with Donald!