Interview with David St. John

The below is an excerpt of Andrew Kuhn’s interview of David St. John. Full interview text is available in the book How a Poem Can Happen, or upon special request.

David St. John read for the Katonah Poetry Series on September 29, 2013.

Andy Kuhn: Describing your poetry, Robert Hass has written that, “It is not just gorgeous, it is go for broke gorgeous.” But in the decades you have been writing, the kind of gorgeous you go for, and attain, keeps changing. How does it happen that you have been not just prolific, with ten collections of poetry, but protean as well?

David St. John: As much as possible, I’ve tried to do something different with each of my books. I’ve wanted to keep certain values about the importance of music and beauty in poetry intact, but I’ve also tried to shift the angle of perspective from book to book, to test myself, to try out new altitudes and attitudes. I’ve seen too many poets simply write the same poem over and over, in the hope that their readers will finally get it. That has never interested me. I trust a few readers will be there regardless.

AK: Philip Levine was a teacher of yours, I understand, and he tells a story on himself about being bamboozled by an 18 year old undergraduate—you—into thinking that the post-war British poet Philip Larkin had written a handful of heretofore undiscovered, marvelous poems (they were in fact yours). So you plainly started with something like the poetic equivalent of perfect pitch. Has your growth as a poet involved going through periods where you allowed yourself to be possessed by another poet’s voice, and “the anxiety of influence” be damned?

DSJ: Well, that was when I was an undergraduate in Fresno, and it was one of my other teachers, a scholar named Stanley Poss–a colleague of Phil’s who taught a British lit class that I was taking–who actually slipped him my poems with the implication they were a group of Larkin poems he’d just run across. These poems were, in fact, imitations of Larkin that I’d written for a paper for Stan’s Brit lit class. The previous spring, Levine had introduced me to Larkin’s poems, which he loved, and of course I flipped over them. I ordered the English editions of his books and went to school on his work. I also wrote imitations of Yeats and D. H. Lawrence during those undergraduate years. After that, as time went on, I tried to absorb my influences rather than let them absorb me. In answer to your question, after Stevens, I’d say the two most profound influences have been Montale and Paul Eluard.