The Colloquial, the Intense Voice
Amy Wright: What was your first job?
David Baker: I started teaching guitar at age thirteen. Next job: playing solo or with musical groups and bands at around fourteen or fifteen. I had a steady band for weddings and school dances and Elks clubs and such, and then I starting playing in the lounge of the local Ramada Inn on Wednesdays and a local Italian restaurant on Saturdays at fifteen. All during this time I was mowing yards, too, up to ten or so in the summers. Regular yards were $2 and big ones were $2.50. I still love to work in the yard, in the trees and grass and bushes and gardens and flowers and back in the deep woods. My first job-job was as a grocery clerk at eighteen in the local market. Then I went back to guitar, playing a lot through college and a while after.
AW: Do you still play?
DB: I play often. I have set up a little studio in my house. I have a great old tube amp, a Fender Super Reverb. I have my old Gretsch guitar—the orange Chet Atkins custom—to play blues and rock, and I have my old Yamaha acoustic for ballads and country and bluegrass, and I have a newer dream guitar, a big hand-carved Heritage Super Eagle archtop acoustic-electric, for jazz. I sit in with pals, and sometimes I play in the rhythm section with the Rick Brunetto Big Band in Columbus or with the Kapital Kicks back in my hometown in Missouri. I love to play with big bands on those old dance standards. I became a poet, I’m pretty sure, because of its affinity to the musical sense, as Poe calls it.
AW: I mentioned to you my idea of compiling an anthology of poets talking straight, offering practical advice gleaned after years of wrangling words into formation—not about writing but about, say, how to keep a friend or get last minute symphony tickets. Since my car was in the shop at the time, I also asked you about brake shoes, and you gave me good advice about the price, having recently had yours replaced. You finished by saying, “I like knowing about stuff. My father is that way; he can (or could) do pretty much anything. Didnʼt finish high school, but could do anything.” Did you ever feel the need to make poetry do something practical, use it to fix life, or at least tinker with it?
DB: Poetry is practical in the way music is, since we were talking about that, and dance, and visual art. It instructs our hearts and educates our minds and shapes both our social and private imaginations. What’s more practical than that? It helps to make us human. Without it, without the expressive arts, we are data-machines.
Now, will poetry change a tire, or even change a vote? Nope. It will not change a vote but it may change or shape a mind. Its practical uselessness is important to me, and beautiful.
AW: What has your Dad done, or might he do, that you never could?
DB: He dropped out of high school. He served in the Merchant Marines, the Army, and the Air Force. (I was born at the Dow Air Force Base in Bangor, Maine.) He can survey a plot of land with the geodolite and a rod, and he can convert those figures into contours, and he can turn those contours into actual graphs; he can take those graphs and sync them with aerial photographs and then make a finished map of the whole thing. I helped him do all that when I was a kid, but mostly I held the rod, and wrote the numbers down, and watched him use the Kelch machine and three-D glasses to draw the maps. He can skin and field-dress any manner of animals or fish. On and on. He is hands-on, outdoors, improvised, make-do, fix-er-up, and count-twice-cut-once.
AW: How many times do you count before you cut?
DB: I count (or measure) two or three times, and cut once, if it’s hardware or wood or something by hand. I count to ten and cut once, if it’s a poetic line. But I’m likely to re-cut that line, and then again and again. The line is more flexible than wood, at least until the whole thing sets a while and hardens into shape.
AW: Currently my favorite poem of yours is “Morning and Afternoon” for the final image of “a few red lights clenching, / and unclenching,” which aptly captures the underlying tension of the everyday. I notice from the Acknowledgments page that this poem, which is divided into two parts, was originally published as two separate poems. I assume that you must have written them some time apart, perhaps not recognizing the poem as unfinished. Will you talk about the writing process for this poem, especially as it reflects your general practices?
DB: Poems find their forms slowly sometimes. I tell my students, and remind myself, that there’s just no hurry. And yes, “Morning and Afternoon” came together slowly. The second part is at least two years older than the first part; I published the second as “Good Hand,” and in its original form it was a sonnet in ten-syllable lines, then nine-syllable lines. The first section was originally called “The Dancer” and appeared in a different magazine from “Good Hand.” I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately in Manhattan, in the East Village, and writing about the streets and neighborhoods there, the busy and not-so-busy people and noise and endless movement of it all. Those two poems just seemed to gravitate together as a diptych of sketches of a little part of a big city.
It’s not unusual that I write a poem in a form and then take it apart. My first compositional method these days is to write in syllabics; that tactic provides me a line, a look, a sort of phrasal and visual movement to pull me along and help me shape my language in those early, desperate hours and days of writing something new. Sometimes I stay with that. Many of my poems in the last decade are, or are nearly, syllabic. And sometimes I dismantle that shape, or bury that form inside another form which is usually more scattered, like part two of “Morning and Afternoon.” In Never-Ending Birds, if you look at poems like “Before” or “The Feast” or “The Rumor,” you can detect clearly the decasyllabic origin. Form inside of form, ghosting it all. The bones inside the body. The tone inside the tune.
AW: Can poetry protect anything? I am thinking of the “watchers at the gate” from Midwest Eclogue, from which nothing can be kept, and wonder if poetry keeps anything for us or from us.
DB: I don’t know. That’s the big question, or one of them. We write, at least partly, from the sense of lastingness. Nothing is permanent or ever-lasting, of course, but some things want to be built so well they will withstand the daily ravages of weather and stupidity. I do think poetry can protect, at least maintain, some things: idiom, the colloquial, the intense voice, the inner weather of a soul, the larger storm fronts of cultural dynamics.
I write poems these days, some of my poems, in the hopes that I can express something of my sadness and outrage at the rapid destruction of our green world, the old-growth woods, watersheds, mountains and meadows, coral reefs and deep currents. We “develop,” as we say, the natural world for human needs. But what we do, in our greed and hunger and hurry, is destroy. There are too many of us. There are too many of us with too little sense of ecological humility. The world is not there for our use. Can we protect the earth from ourselves? It’s a tossup right now. We’re on the cusp of real disaster, and our leaders aren’t interested in talking about it, let alone doing anything substantial. One of our two major American political parties seems absolutely insane—I mean that literally—in its misunderstanding and appropriation of nature, and the other party is at best befuddled and inept. And the money-machines of massive corporations and soulless governments just keep chewing it all up.
AW: In “October Storm” from Midwest Eclogue, you relay the story of a frightened colt gone storm mad and striking a man. The details are brushed into the air of metaphor, but the sense is sharp of the momentʼs fury and its calm. What are the advantages, assuming there are some on each side, of such stories in poetry versus nonfiction?
DB: Well, again, that’s a whopper question. I like poetry better than nonfiction. I like the intensity of the formal demands, the compression, the infolding push that counter-balances the shove outward of temporality. I like those forms of pressure.
I am also more comfortable with the narrative range of poetry than nonfiction. I mean, the range of options. I feel more able in poetry to fuse the imagined with the actual, the fictive with the fact-based. I know that good nonfiction uses dramatic and fictional methods to make itself vivid. But by its very nomination as non-fiction, the genre identifies its own imperative to reportage or at least its own apparent stricture as that-which-happened, as opposed to that-which-may-be-imagined-to-happen.
I write a lot of nonfiction—from critical essays to a kind of personal essay. I like the elegance of good prose, and I like its function as a vessel of information. But finally it’s the rigor of poetry and its intensified demands as both music and meaning that most compels me.
AW: In the poem, “Hyper-” from Midwest Eclogue, a daughterʼs drawing of a wounded deer reveals her awareness of her fatherʼs hurt and the possibilities of recovery, even as she is pulled by the many demands upon her attention. Life demands such close study, it seems almost impossible to process it all at once. Does time factor into your conception of poetry? Is emotional processing a clock-driven matter or is there some other aid or criteria?
DB: Poetry tells time. That is the inevitable fact of language, of grammar itself. I don’t agree with those who like to divide poetry into the either/or categories of narrative and lyric, as those modes seem to indicate time-telling and time-stopping aspirations. To me the very relationship of subject to predicate is a chronos. The operations of grammar, the phrase, the clause, the sentence, are time-bound and time-telling operations. And so any good poem is always expressive of both narrative and lyrical characteristics, in and out of time always, in and out of song.
There are many ways to tell time in a poem. Linear, chronological, compressed, elliptical, multiply-exposed, poly-temporal, expansive, imploded, concurrent: forwards and backwards and leaping all around. But time is the fundamental material of every poem, time and language.
As to any particular poem, yes, it takes time to process experience and thinking into an artful utterance. Poetry is not spew or therapy or instant memoir or any of that. It is an artful thing. It takes time. And gives time back.
AW: What a gift. How does it do that?
DB: It takes time to write a poem, sometimes a lot of time. And in a different way it takes time—it requires the materiality of time—to provide the particular ingredients for a poem. I mean its materials are time and those time-telling things like story and song.
It gives back time, it counts back time, as it unfolds in its linear living as phrase and syntax, as sequence and consequence. And it gives us back a bit of time by keeping memories and hopes and fears and by establishing for a while a new way of naming the beautiful and significant and remarkable.
AW: Your speakers address love repeatedly and across books. What has apostrophe taught you about speaking to or from the world?
DB: The tactic of speaking to a specific listener teaches me that poetry is always spoken (or sung) to one person at a time. That’s part of the intimacy of the form. It’s an intimate exchange where both parties—the speaker, the auditor—are complicit in the making of meaning of the thing. They need each other the way lovers do or high-wire aerialists. Now, that auditor can be a part of the dramatic scene of the poem itself, an involved actor, or that auditor can be more audience than costar. That’s part of the dramatic scenario of the poem at hand.
AW: We have a shared love for the work of Emily Dickinson. Will you tell me about your first significant encounter with her?
DB: High school. The standard dozen anthology pieces, to which I think I must have said at the time, “What?” But I guess that’s not significant. When I took an introduction to American lit class in college from Joseph Adams, and then a year later when I took a Whitman/Dickinson seminar from Larry Olpin, that’s when I started to pay real attention. I love her like crazy. I can’t think of a more relentless, scary, idiosyncratic lyric poet in our language than Emily Dickinson. We have the dozen or two favorites of hers we read and read, but really, hundreds of her poems—of the more than 1800 total—are magnificent and strange and absolutely inimitable. Her best poems never hold still for me. They are always becoming something new. They are bottomless.
AW: You have written about how birds figure into Dickinsonʼs oeuvre as an “episodic presence.” They figure quite consistently in your poems as well. Do you associate birds with certain memories? What conjures the robin, connotes the whippoorwill, the hawk?
DB: Dickinson treated her birds purposefully, as you suggest. They are virtually symbols, even at a time when the symbolic was becoming suspect. Everything in Dickinson shudders with the many meanings of the symbolic or suggestive or representative, so her birds are like an avian doctrine-of-signatures. So also her treatment of flowers and herbs is precise, meaningful, but that’s part of the shared mythology of her time: Her readers (her few real readers and the imagined many) all shared the lore and myth of the birds and trees and flowers. They knew what each flower was in a poem—its color and smell and habitat—but always what each flower meant, what it carried forward in the long fable of meanings and myth.
Not so now. I don’t often select a particular bird for its allusive purpose. A bird in my poem is there because I saw that bird, or wish for that color or song or size or habit or habitat. Or the sound of that bird, or that word.
Personally—apart from poetry—I do associate some birds with actual memories. I adore the redwing blackbirds, in part, because they accompanied me on every fishing trip to the ponds and they ghosted the cattails along the rivers where I camped when I was a kid. They seem still wild to me, solitary. The robin is a village bird, the whippoorwill a night bird, the hawk a hunter and a sentry, a watcher.
On and on they go.