Interview with Rosanna Warren

by Ann van Buren

Rosanna Warren is an acclaimed American poet, literary critic, university professor and scholar. She has also been involved in the editing of collections of translated works by French, Italian and Ancient Greek poets. She was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2005. She has taught at numerous universities and is currently the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

Rosanna Warren presented her work for the Katonah Poetry Series on Sunday, June 6, 2021.

In anticipation of the Katonah Poetry Series reading on June 6, 2021, on Zoom, featured poet, Rosanna Warren shared her answers to questions about Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry (2008) and her most recent book of poems, So Forth (2020). KPS writer and interviewer, Ann van Buren, conducted the interview via Skype.

Ann van Buren: You have led a multifaceted life and lived in many places including the south of France where you became fluent in French. The poem, “Louis XIV” (So Forth, p. 67) shows your awareness of the native language of L’ Occitan, a language which was suppressed by the king. Have you studied that ancient language? Are there communities where it is still spoken? What do you make of the statistic that says that 50-90 per cent of the world’s languages are likely to disappear within the next 50 years? Can you talk about diversity of language and language preservation as well as how that affects the language of American poetry?

Rosanna Warren: Well, one could write a PhD thesis on that marvelous question. I do not know L’ Occitan but as a child, as you saw, I lived in Grasse. It is not exactly Occitania. It’s a little farther to the east but basically in the south of France. People are aware of not only the Romans, but the medieval cultures there. For some years now, my partner and I have been spending some weeks every summer in Montpellier, which is truly in French Occitania. There, even some of the street signs are in Occitan, and there is something of what I would call a romantic revival of the old Provençal culture there. I’d been more aware of this language in my own experience of the multiculturalism and multilingualism of France because as a child I spent two long summers—when I was just seven and eight years old—with my brother in Brittany. We lived in a farmhouse and my parents put my brother and me in the local school with the children of local farmers and fishermen who spoke Breton at home but who had to speak French at the municipal school. I still remember the terror of cowering at our little wooden desks. The nuns were the teachers and if they heard the child speaking Breton—the Celtic language of Brittany—they would give the kid a whack on the head! Each of us shared a desk with another child and I remember when the little boy next to me got yanked up and smacked. It was kind of a terrorist act. I was born in 1953 and so this would have been 1960. They were trying to exterminate a local language that wasn’t French. Another summer, a couple of years later, we were down in the Pyrenees. Again, we were living in a farmhouse. Ours was adjacent to the working farm, just over a small stone wall, and the chickens would wander into our kitchen, and the people spoke Basque. The situation of Basque nationalism in Spain is very tormented, more so in Spain than in France, but it gave me a picture—from childhood on—of a France that was not the totally unified country that it started to become under Louis XIV, Sun King, and that continued under the Revolution in a different way. I am very grateful to have experienced that other France.

Ann van Buren: Have you found that there is a greater awareness of the power dynamic connected to language today? For years I’ve heard about the Basque language, but I was not aware of these different languages in France. Do you make any connection between this situation and the multicultural situation as expressed by language in the United States?

Rosanna Warren: In some general sense, possibly, but I think it’s quite different because France is not traditionally a country built on immigration the way the United States has been. The Bretons have been there for many, centuries and the Basques have, too. These are ancient peoples. So the story of France is more the story of modern nationalism, beginning in the Renaissance, when the French began to conquer lands so that they could force them into a nation state and enforce some kind of linguistic and political unity. These were not immigrants. These are the people who were there and who are being forced into a larger unity, for better or worse.

Ann van Buren: Here in Maine we are considering signage in the Passamaquoddy language, which is the language of the people who are native to this area. I think that language is a powerful representation of a people.

Rosanna Warren: That case of the native peoples on the North American continent is more like the French situation. There is more and more awareness arising about these languages and they too, like the Bretons and the Basques, have suffered having their languages deliberately wiped out, or at least threatened.

Ann van Buren: I guess another parallel we can draw in a place like NY is that NY is a place of immigrants. There might be some justification in the argument that the King’s English— because it was the English that immigrated there first— is what should be spoken. But does this mean that it always needs to be the language that is spoken? There is the discussion of bilingual education—

Rosanna Warren: That’s going on all over the United States. We could have been speaking Dutch. Why not Dutch? The English bought and fought to get hold of the land that is NY. The United States is fascinating linguistically. There are so many communities, not just Spanish but Chinese, etc. We can start multiplying the languages and how people of multiple origins live together in some peaceful, productive and respectful way becomes a problem of federalism. This brings me back to the heart of your question, which about the role of languages in our being fellow citizens as well as sentient human beings. I so yearn for better language education in the schools in the United States. I think monolingualism is a terrible handicap in every way— spiritually, emotionally, imaginatively, intellectually and socially. This is why I am a translator from Ancient Greek, French, Italian and Latin. My contribution, I hope, is helping to open our minds to the other languages, which means opening our mental world.

Ann van Buren: It’s wonderful! I love that you bring this subject to light in poetry.

The poems in So Forth are primarily free verse, yet your life’s work is heavily endowed with the study of classical Greek and Latin poetry and literary translation from Italian and French. One chapter in Fables of the Self; Studies in Lyric Poetry explores the pastoral poetry of Theocritus and Virgil and traces their presence in the poetry of Mark Strand. Your own work is filled with exquisite images from nature. Would you consider yourself a pastoral poet? Are there other ways in which the subjects of your academic work are echoed in your creative writing?

Rosanna Warren: I don’t think of myself as a pastoral poet, though I think of my poetry in relation to pastoral traditions set in a very tense relation so Virgil’s Eclogues. They mean a great deal to me, perhaps because I see them as threatened. The world of shepherds playing pan pipes and dalliances with milkmaids and beautiful boys in a world of fertile vineyards and meadows is already under threat in Virgil’s Eclogues. The Roman soldiers threaten to take away the land from the local farmers. I always feel that the Aeneid breathes down the neck of the Eclogues. This is a sad epic about a world of war and of Aeneas’ invasion of Italy with the Trojans who were themselves fleeing from another war. The story is not just about death in battle and the destruction of cities, but of the wanton death of Turnus. At the end of the story, when Aeneas has defeated Turnus and has a sword over his head and Turnus is begging for mercy, there is no reason to kill him. The war has been won. But Aeneas sees the sword belt on Turnus’ thigh that belonged to the boy he loved. So he kills Turnus in a moment of passion and rage. To me, the heartbreaking wisdom of the Aeneid is how hard it is for humans to hold up to their own ideals of peace and order and justice. That’s where my imagination is inflamed— by the Aeneid— though I love the tenderness of the Eclogues and the sweetness and reverence for nature. I especially love their vulnerability. Virgil knows that the land is threatened already.

Ann van Buren: Having begun your artistic practice in painting, you switched to the craft of poetry. Do you ever pick up the paint brush or sketch pad?

Rosanna Warren: That’s such an intense question for me. I don’t pick up a paint brush because painting was so serious for me through the years of my adolescence and very young twenties. It was such a commitment. But in my early 20’s I was spending more time writing and earning a living than painting. I wasn’t acting like a painter. Paintings weren’t taking shape. That was the end of a deep love affair and I felt all the grief that goes with such a break up. I don’t think I could ever do painting part-time. It was either all or nothing. But I do sketch and my sketch books are private. They are a way that I think about the world around me non verbally. That remains fundamental. All those years I spent studying painting and drawing started from very early childhood. From the ages 3, 4, 5, I was drawing all the time. It was one of my deep ways of relating to reality. That, and my studies in art school, gave me a sense of form. I hope I have carried the idea that shape is meaningful and relationships of shapes are meaningful into my writing. In writing I’m also looking hard at things— looking really hard— and thinking that the shape of a rock against a certain kind of light is very particular and I’m asking, what is that?

Ann van Buren: What you’re saying is a good lesson for all of us. It’s important to let go of things that might not be working, even though we might want them to work.

Rosanna Warren: It’s very painful.

Ann van Buren: So painful.

“The Crux” (p. 33) is a sonnet that takes us to life on death row, where the corridors are lit in “merciless fluorescence” and the prisoners play dominoes through the bars. The poem asks

is this what it’s like to finger the end of a sentence
that doesn’t conclude?

and ends with the statement

the crime wasn’t what we thought
An end will come. But in a different plot.

How does this poem relate to the work you have done as a teacher of poetry in prisons?

Rosanna Warren: Yes, the poem relates to my work teaching in prisons. I taught for three years in three different Massachusetts prisons, medium security prisons where people were in for 20 years to life. I was not involved with people on death row. I did that a long time ago but I’ve been haunted and concerned ever since about the fate of incarcerated people and the horror of incarcerated people in this country. We incarcerate more people than most other countries. We incarcerate an enormous number of our citizens. I can’t help mentioning the fact that our prisons are privatized. They are a business. They make money for people.

This poem came from a photograph I saw in a newspaper of the hands of the two men coming out from the bars of their cell to play this game of dominoes on the floor. They couldn’t see each other; they could just see the game that linked them. Their hands were the contact and the game was the contact. The dominoes were lined up as a cross in this photograph, thus the poem’s title. That’s the way the game was going. I pondered this image for several years and I wrote this poem in many different forms. At one point it was 80 lines long. I took it apart until finally it shaped itself into a sonnet. It’s full of puns. The word “crux” is obviously a pun and there is a play on the words “convicted” and “convinced.” There is the sense of an outsider, in this case myself. I am the voyeur looking at this dire experience of other people and in so many ways I’m excluded. I can’t know what they’re thinking. I can’t know about their lives. I don’t pretend to know. I could just see a pattern that haunted me as a fellow human. So the poem is deliberately mysterious. In the last couplet a crime was not what we thought. In that clinching rhyme of thought and plot, the poem doesn’t pretend to know what the crime is or who is committing the crime. It asks the question, what’s the plot? I leave the reader with the sense of mystery of what is it we’re doing with our prisons and our death sentences.

Ann van Buren: I am grateful for your answer and for this poem that bears witness to what we, as a people, are doing.

Rosanna Warren: I hope these poems have a rawness so that readers feel that it matters personally and not just as an intellectual exercise.

Ann van Buren: Of course they read with that rawness! Some have said that these poems are about aging and very personal aspects of our lives, but I guess I’m being a little selfish because I love to look at how our small lives—our biological process or lived life—can be used as a metaphor for all of these other aspects of the world.

Rosanna Warren: They can and are. I think that art largely understood, including literature, should be a way into life and that life is a way into art. I like to think of it flowing together and not partitioned off. It’s sad to me that sometimes a work that appears on the surface “educated” somehow could seem to exclude people. It shouldn’t be about exclusion; it should be about opening the doors to the mind.

Ann van Buren: I absolutely agree. I might be asking you about some of the places in your work that are more on the academic side because that is where I have questions. Your work is very simple and clear. There are poets who make every other line a footnote and you are not one of them.

Rosanna Warren: Good. I’m glad! They are stuffed with references, but I try to hide the reference, the allusions. I try to think that they have become part of the DNA of the poem.

Ann van Buren: They have! As an interviewer I enjoy playing detective as I explore what is beneath the surface of each line.

Rosanna Warren: Well that ‘s deep reading!

Ann van Buren: The title poem of your book, So Forth (p. 67) implies moving forward, but your word choice also carries the droll connotation of our unremarkable place on the continuum. The poem references “illegible prose” and lines that will “crumble into mulch.” Is the disappearance of text a metaphor for the impermanence of our lives or a testimony to what is always present, even in its absence?

Rosanna Warren: Someone asked me recently why I titled my book So Forth, which he said was such a banal title. I’m not sure I would have thought of it as banal, but yes it’s commonplace and it seems to me a great commonplace that we are all going to die and come to that common place. To live in light of that knowledge through one’s years on earth seems to me both marvelous and very common. I think of Hamlet’s reply to his mother about death. “Ay, madam, it is common.”

Ann van Buren: Your poems are an embrace on that journey.

Rosanna Warren: I would like to think so. I think that this poem—the poem itself rather than the whole book—is about accepting to let go of things. Yes, the houses will decay, our works will decay, what we gave our passions to will decay. Yet there’s the image though the sky is trapped, for now, in a window frame. We have glimpses that can feel like their their own little eternity, one that we can live with.

Ann van Buren: I can live with that!

You mention the commonality of experience and your poem “Glaucoma” (p.76)—although it might be about an ailment that is specific only to some people—manages to talk about global warming. It says we’re all melting/this house is not our own.

Rosanna Warren: Thank you for the way you saw the glimpse of global warming in “Glaucoma.” I’m glad you felt that, because I think there is a huge problem of the imagination now. How can we, as humans, even begin to hold in our minds the scale of the destruction that we are inviting to the planet? I think most of us can’t think about it all the time because if we did, we’d go insane. So I see all around me— in my fellow beings and in myself— different strategies for forgetting or for not thinking about it because we can’t bear it. Then some people make some room in their minds to say ok, I can be helpful in x, y or z way. If you’re a politician you could do more, if you were motivated. But what is a poet to do? I am not a scientist, a politician, or full-time activist. So it seems to me the poet can try to ignite people’s imaginations. We often do that in specific ways. We might get someone to focus on a particular bird in a particular poem, for example. In this case, there is double focus. I see an optical image in a poem about an ophthalmological disease about loss of vision and about the death of a friend. So it’s very particular.

Ann van Buren: All of the poems in section III of So Forth celebrate the remarkable work of women. The first one, “The Triumph of Death” (p.37), is a series of tercets about Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke. She was the sister of Philip Sidney, one of the most famous poets of the Elizabethan era. Her life’s work includes the completion of the translations of the psalms that her brother had begun before his untimely death. Some have speculated that she may even have authored some of Shakespeare’s sonnets! Mary Sidney was also a mother and a chemist who developed invisible ink. Invisibility is a motif in your book. Another motif is translation as a kind of transformation. When did the work of this remarkable woman begin to inspire you? Do you draw parallels between her life and your own?

Rosanna Warren: To answer the first part of your question, I didn’t study Greek in college. I became fascinated by ancient Greek just after college and spent some months living in Crete. I read modern Greek, in translation, and was steeped in ancient Greek literature, in English. It was frustrating to me, so a few years later, when I went back to get a master’s degree at John’s Hopkins, I was enrolled in the writing seminars but hanging out in the classics department. I took courses and tutorials to learn ancient Greek and I read Homer, the lyric poets and Sophocles. From there I got fascinated by the 16th century humanists who were still trying to figure out whether English could be a literary language or just a crude instrument for the populace— or whether truly educated people, including women, could make English as august as Latin or Greek. So there were these experiments and Mary Sidney and her brother Philip were writing English verse in Greek meters. This is very abstruse, but I was passionate about it for a while. The practice was carried on in a fairly oblique way in English, certainly into the 19th century, where Browning was experimenting with Greek meters and Tennyson was experimenting in Latin meters. Swinburne played with classical meters, too. You could say this is a byway of English poetry, not the main story, but a fertile byway that brought a lot of tributary energies into the language itself. How do we consider a diphthong? How do we consider the length of the vowels or syllables in English? These things are not systematic in English. They can’t be. Anyway, this is a long way around Mary Sidney except that I got interested in Mary Sidney because of the psalms we know she translated, especially after her brother’s death. The first poem that I’ve been able to find in English in the Alcaic meter, anywhere, is in Mary Sidney’s psalms. I love that she used this marvelous meter and used it in English. The Alcaic was used in Greek, then marvelously adapted by Horace in Latin, and adapted syllabically in the 20th century by Auden in his elegy for Freud. The Alcaic meter is a passion for me and I love that Mary Sidney was writing a psalm or several in Alcaics. I read all I could read of Mary Sidney. And that’s the long answer to your question as well as the story of how Mary Sidney gave us the Alcaic meter!

Ann van Buren: Brava! Are those psalms the ones used in the King James version of the Bible?

Rosanna Warren: No. The Sidney psalms are shaped as poems in English. They are English meters. They are turned into English poems in the way the psalms in the King James are not. But they are collected and you can read them. They’re beautiful. In another life I would have loved to have been a scholar of the English 16th century. It’s such a fabulous century, beginning with Wyatt and Surrey. It marked the beginning of figuring out what the iambic pentameter really could be. And then— oh man! — you get Marlowe and Sidney and Shakespeare. It’s so fantastic!

Ann van Buren: Yes! But you yourself don’t make use of form as you write, in general.

Rosanna Warren: Over the years and multiple volumes of poems I have felt free, when the subject seemed to want it, to write metrically or to rhyme regularly. Other subjects seem to want a different kind of form. I’ve worked a lot with modern French poetry. By that I mean from Baudelaire in the middle of the 19th century up into the 20th century with Apollinaire and René Char and my beloved Max Jacob. I think of myself as a classicist modernist. I’m intensely interested in the powers that different forms give us. Some of those forms are experimental free verse. Experimental free verse in its different manifestations allows different traction from say, the shape of a Shakespearean sonnet.

Ann van Buren: Maybe free verse is more suited to this exploration of the dissipating world and the body.

Rosanna Warren: It could be. As I described trying to write the prison poem, it started as an 80-line poem and went through many drafts. I had no formal idea, no linguistic idea about what that poem should be. I was just trying to make sense of those dominoes on the floor of the prison. It just organically contracted, finally, into a sonnet. The subject seemed to want that constriction. After all, it was about a prison, a very constricted circumstance for the people playing that game. The sonnet is a kind of game; it’s a logical game about how you’re going to relate quatrain, quatrain, quatrain, couplet with the volta. All those puns and all those antitheses you get in a Shakespeare sonnet seemed to click in a subject finally. I see any poem as an exploration. I never know where it’s going to go. I shouldn’t know.

Ann van Buren: It’s wonderful to have this visit in your mind and a look into your process. Fascinating.

I have one last question that’s more about your life in poetry. You have had a long career in teaching and since 2012 you have been the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Between 1999-2005 you were Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. You are a member of several other academies where great minds meet. Can you tell us a little bit about what the work of a chancellor looks like?

Rosanna Warren: I don’t know what it looks like now because every few years there is a different set of chancellors. This is a great thing. In my experience, the work was hardly work; it was advisory and happy and we were consulting one another. We would meet a few times a year, back in the days, pre-pandemic, when we could actually meet. It was a feeling of fellowship with poets around the country who were bringing different visions and gifts together to figure out how we could help poetry thrive in this country. So to me it was a very happy experience of trying to help the garden grow.

Ann van Buren: So you would meet and bring your ideas about poets who are contemporary to a particular discussion of poetry?

Rosanna Warren: Well, I’m not working with or for the academy now, but the real work is done by the executive director and staff. They’re making a magazine and organizing prizes and juries and that’s the hard work of it. The chancellors give ideas and say, why don’t you do x, y, z, why don’t you try this kind of outreach. It’s advisory. The hard hard work is done by the people in the institution.

Ann van Buren: This is a good bookend to where we began as we discussed lost languages. I recently attended a reading that was introduced by our poet laureate, Joy Harjo, who is a current chancellor. Thank you so much for all of your great work in keeping the language of poetry alive and well, and for your generous sharing, Rosanna. We look forward to hearing you read, via Zoom, on June 6, 2021 at 4PM. The link to sign up for the reading is available here.