5 Questions with C. K. Williams

C. K. Williams
C. K. Williams

C. K. Williams, one of the nation's most renowned poets, will be reading at the Arts Café-Mystic Friday. Williams, who has won nearly every award an American poet can win, including the Pulitzer Prize, will be premiering his 11th book of poems, "Wait," which includes poems ranging from political protest of the war in Iraq to intimate conversations with himself. We asked Williams five questions about his work.

Q: As a young man you decided you needed to live in a garret in Paris to become a poet. You discovered then that you had no idea what it was to be a poet. You also, you said, "discovered the limits of loneliness." Looking back, wouldn't you say that's where you really began to be a poet?

A: That's a nice thought, but I don't think so. I actually wrote about the moment I think I became a poet in a poem, "My Mother's Lips," which says: "…when, really alone for the first time in my life, / I found myself leaning from the window, incanting in a tearing whisper what I thought were poems." That was being alone, but not loneliness-the real loneliness, from which I thought I'd never recover, came the next year in Paris.

Q: Somewhere between the publication of "I Am the Bitter Name" in 1972, your screed against the war in Vietnam, and "With Ignorance," your next collection, published in 1977, you shifted from standard issue free verse to the long, flowing lines that have dominated your poetry ever since. What led to that shift?

A: I've been asked that question so many times. The shortest answer is that I felt that by using the normal free-verse line, I had to leave out too much of what was actually going on in me, and in the world, and I stumbled onto the longer lines which gave me more room to move around in.

Q: Before you found those long lines, you made one intriguing detour. From 1973 to 1976 you translated a collection of haiku by the Japanese poet Issa, taking certain liberties to, marvelously, tease out his meaning. What drew you, O writer of the long line, to the lapidary verse of Issa?

A: It was sort of a negative propulsion. I'd been reading translations of haiku for many years, and learned much from them about poetry and the soul, but then there began to be a lot of haiku written in the U.S., and I felt it was a fake industry, so I decided to violate the rules of real haiku, and make little poems that embodied the Western literary traditions. I chose Issa's poems to work with because among the great Japanese poets, his poems have the least edge of sanctity in them, and a strong commitment to ordinary life.

Q: Your poems tend to focus on our inner landscapes and the meanings of moments in our lives. Your jealousy poems, for example, are exquisite dissections of that emotion. How did you become so familiar with jealousy?

A: By being jealous, fiercely, unreasonably, insanely. When I began writing the series, I thought that I might cure myself of that terrible emotion: fat chance. I'm as jealous as ever, but at least I have the poems.

Q: In your poem titled "The Poet," you describe an encounter with "Bob the Poet" who has a nervous breakdown, and you write: "Whether you're up from a slum or down from a carriage, how be sure you're a poet? / How know if your work has enduring worth, or any? Self-doubt is almost our definition." How, indeed, after all these years, do you know you're a poet?

A: I don't. I wrote a poem about it recently that I'll read Friday, "Whacked," which talks about being "whacked" every day by great poets, "Wiped out, every day…I mean since becoming a poet. / I mean wanting to be-one never is, really, a poet. Or I'm not. Not when I'm trying to write…"

"Wait" By C.K. Williams, 144 pages. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $25

If you go:

WHAT: The Arts Café — Mystic continues its 16th year with a celebration of National Poetry Month, featuring C.K. Williams, who is widely hailed as one of America's greatest living poets.

WHERE: The Mystic Arts Center at 9 Water Street in downtown Mystic.

WHEN: Friday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m.

COST: $8 at the door; $6 for seniors;$4 for students.

INFO: (860) 536-5680

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