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C.K. Williams

Poems - Bio - Interview



Children love gravel, kneeling to play in gravel,
even gravel covering dry, irrelevant dust.

It's not, "Look what I found!" but the gravel itself,
which is what puzzles adults, that nothing's there,

even beneath, but it's just what Catherine likes most,
that there's no purpose to it, no meaning.

So, that day in the metro when the pickpocket
she'd warned a tourist against knelt, a hand at his ankle,

glowering at her, I wonder if one layer of her mind
had drift through it, "Like a child, with gravel."

That the thief may have been reaching into his boot
for a knife or a razor didn't come to her until later,

when she told me about it; only then was she frightened,
even more that when the crook, the creep, the slime,

got up instead and shoved her, and spit at her face,
and everyone else stood there as blank as their eyes,

only then did she lean against me, and shudder, as I,
now, not in a park or playground, not watching a child

sift through her shining fingers those bits of shattered
granite which might be our lives, shudder again.


-from The Singing 



Poems - Bio - Interview


C. K. Williams was born in 1936 in Newark, New Jersey, New Jersey. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including The Singing (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), which won the National Book Award; Repair (1999), winner of a Pulitzer Prize; The Vigil (1997); A Dream of Mind (1992); Flesh and Blood (1987), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Tar (1983); With Ignorance (1997); I Am the Bitter Name (1992); and Lies (1969).

Williams has also published five works of translation: Selected Poems of Francis Ponge (1994); Canvas, by Adam Zagajewski (with Renata Gorczynski and Benjamin Ivry, 1991); The Bacchae of Euripides (1990); The Lark. The Thrush. The Starling. (Poems from Issa) (1983); and Women of Trachis, by Sophocles (with Gregory Dickerson, 1978).

Among his many awards and honors are an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Pushcart Prize. Williams teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University and lives part of each year in Paris.
An Interview with C.K. Williams -by Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley: You recently won the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize with a purse of $100,000. Did you put it in the bank, go on a vacation, or take time off to think about new work?

C.K. Williams: We were just buying a new house, so a good chunk of the money went there. Then I gave some to my kids, then I put another part of it away for the IRS. By the way, in the civilized countries of Europe, literary and artistic prizes aren’t taxed: they used not to be in America, either, before we began to move back to the stone age.

Collin Kelley: You’ve been traveling out of the country a good bit. Is this for work, pleasure, both?

C.K. Williams: I haven’t been “traveling," actually: I’ve lived abroad for part of the year for the last thirty years or so. My wife is French, and we’ve spent part of our time in France during those years. Right now we live half the time in the States, and half in France, in Normandy.  

Collin Kelley: Has your process changed from writing poetry since the publication of your first collection, Lies, in 1969? Do you write every day, or do you wait for a subject to inspire you?

C.K. Williams: I haven’t actually thought of it that way, but no, the writing process hasn’t changed for me at all since Lies: I write every day. At the same time, though, one is always waiting for inspiration; sometimes it seems you can go out and grab it, other times there is a lot of waiting. Right now I’m in a heavy waiting time, which I hate.

Collin Kelley: You started writing poetry at age 19. How has your poetry evolved from those early days? Who were your inspirations?

C.K. Williams: The stuff I wrote at 19 was utterly incompetent, by 21 it was mildly incompetent, by 22 merely awful. My first models—inspiration is something else, isn’t it?—back then were Baudelaire and Yeats and Rilke. They still are, to a great extent. They more or less defined poetry for me, its splendors and its obligations, and though I’ve had many models since then, my notion of poetry still resides mostly in what I gleaned from them.

Collin Kelley: Recently experimenting with writing a ghazal myself, I was curious about your thoughts on taking traditional forms and modifying them to achieve the outcome that you desire?

C.K. Williams: I wrote a number of sonnets when I was in my apprenticeship, and did a lot of modifying, mostly using para-rhymes—I read a lot of Wilfred Owen right then—but I haven’t done much with traditional forms since then, except for one villanelle, in which I tried to stay as close as I could to the definition of the form.

Collin Kelley: You won the Pulitzer Prize for Repairs in 2000. Is the experience as surreal as one imagines? Who was the first person you called or told after you were notified?

C.K. Williams: My wife actually found out about the Pulitzer before I did; I was in a class and she came to tell me, so she was the first person to know, and she was the first person I’d have told anyway. “Surreal" isn’t the term I’d use for the experience. I’d already been a finalist twice before, and one of those times I’d been told by one of the judges that he was sure I’d get it, and of course I didn’t, so it was a bit of a shock to find it actually had happened. I was at an event that evening at the Poetry Society in New York, and when it was announced to the audience I’d won, there was a round of applause. That was especially nice.

Collin Kelley: Your poetry has been described as having an almost novelistic approach. Do you view your poems as short stories or meditations on a moment in time?

C.K. Williams: No, poems aren’t short stories, and yes, they can be meditations on a moment in time, but they can also be meditations on centuries of history, or on a perception, or an emotion, and I’m not sure that a poem is a meditation anyway: it’s a poem, which is really unlike anything else in human experience. A poem can meditate, it can shout, it can cry: it’s what certain people do when their souls become taken with a particular attitude towards the music of their language and culture.

Collin Kelley: In your memoir Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, My Self, you write lyrically of your childhood and paint a vivid depiction of your parents’ shortcomings. Are you still haunted by your past or was the memoir successful in exorcising the demons?

C.K. Williams: I wouldn’t say I’d been “haunted" by my past, though there were things in it I wanted to make clear to myself, at as deep a level as I could. The book actually started out as an experiment in form: I began to write short prose pieces, which had a sound to them I’d never found before in my work, I was taken by it, and gradually realized as I kept at them, that they might make a book, and they did. I don’t know if there were demons to exorcise, but if there were, I guess they were.

Collin Kelley: How has today’s political climate affected your work and that of poetry in a broader sense?

C.K. Williams:
Today’s political climate is so utterly depressing that the main affect it’s had on my work is to stop it cold, because I find it so difficult to think of anything but the utterly cruel and dismal future being contrived for us and for our children and grandchildren by our current government. I’ve never known a time so dark and dire and lacking in hope, and I find it difficult to write about anything else, which is an awful feeling. Almost everyone I know…no, everyone I know, shares the dread I feel, and though I don’t see yet how it’s affecting poetry in a broader sense, it has to be.  

Collin Kelley: The debate continues over “academic poetry" versus the popular “performance poetry." Do you envision an eventual middle ground for these diverse styles?

C.K. Williams: No, I don’t, actually. The times I’ve heard “performance poetry," I’ve felt it was, like songwriting, a different medium from what I think of as poetry, and it seemed to have little to do with either the exaltations or necessities of poetry as I know it. I sensed in it also—I should say that my experience of it is rather limited—a kind of desperation about trying to seduce a larger, more “popular" audience. I wouldn’t, by the way, define poetry that’s not performance poetry as “academic." The poetry to which I’ve attached my life has more connection to the work of Archilochos and Issa and Rimbaud than to anything to do with an “academy." I’ll add another point by the way, which is that all poetry is performance poetry: all poetry is meant to be spoken aloud; even if you’re reading it to yourself, if you’re not saying it aloud in your mind as you read, you’re not reading it properly. The whole point of poetry is that it infuses ordinary language with rhythms and cadences which don’t exist in it otherwise. Reciting your poetry to an audience is just saying it a little louder than you say it to yourself.

Collin Kelley: What are your thoughts on the revolution of online poetry journals? Do you feel your work is reaching a larger audience thanks to the world wide web?

C.K. Williams: To tell the truth, I haven’t had much experience with the revolution of online poetry journals. I’ve only recently become aware they’re there, and I have no idea what effect they’re having. It’s always nice to imagine a larger audience out there somewhere, but I don’t think that has much to do with what poetry is finally about.

Collin Kelley: Could you elaborate a bit on that last phrase, “what poetry is finally about"? What do you think it’s “finally about?"

C.K. Williams: It has to do with what I just mentioned, about the poem being spoken aloud in the mind of the reader. Poetry is the most intimate of the arts; it’s the voice of one person’s mind and musicalized language speaking directly to the listening mind of someone else.  Novels and the dramatic arts are defined by the assumption that the writer is speaking to many other people, that’s why you find the device in the novel, in Conrad, say, or Proust, of establishing a narrator who’s also a character, so that precious intimacy will be evoked.  But it can’t ever be as intense as it is in a poem, because the narrating character is of necessity a fiction, while a poem, at least a lyric poem, is by definition generated by a real person, with a real person’s mystery and capacity for pain. If you want to use that phrase, poetry is finally about a fusion between two active, living minds that doesn’t exist in any other medium.

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