Glück fuses poetry, teaching, style

Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Glück is one of the leading voices of American poetry. At Yale, she is both an artist and a teacher.

Glück, whose recently published “A Village Life” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, teaches “Introduction to Verse Writing” and “Advanced Verse Writing” at Yale. On Sunday morning, Glück talked to the News about National Poetry Month (which is this month), poetry classes and wearing leather jackets.

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Santiago Correa
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Q: What do you think of National Poetry Month?

A: I don’t like it. And the reasons are myriad. It describes itself as being a celebration of poetry, but really it is a kind of hawking and forcing of an art, as though without that push from publicity, the art would not survive. So it seems to me demeaning, insulting and misguided. I think the art will survive. It always has. The idea of National Poetry Month is that it would be better to have a bigger audience. But I think poetry has always found an audience, and that audience makes up in passion for what it lacks in numbers. And that’s fine.

Q: How has being a teacher affected your life and your work?

A: It’s affected it profoundly, and as far as I can tell, entirely positively. When I was young, it seemed to me that [by teaching] I was presuming to confer what I did not possess. I also thought it was a distraction from my “sacred calling.” In my late 20s I found myself in the first of what would turn out to be many periods of prolonged silence. In that time, I did a reading at Goddard College. They suggested I come for a semester and teach. I was wary of teaching because I hadn’t myself completed college and because I feared that teaching would involve spending energies that should have been directed into my own work. But at the time I had no work. I had an epiphany: “I’m not going to turn out to be an artist. My dearest wish for myself will not be granted. And I’m going to have to figure out something better than secretarial work.” So I moved to Vermont four days before the semester started and took a room at a rooming house, and as soon as I started to teach, I started to write. The degree to which I learn from my students is almost impossible to communicate. I have never felt any conflict between teaching and writing. For me, they’re necessary companions.

Q: What things do you think are important in a writing class?

A: Each one is different. The one thing you can absolutely do is encourage a kind of probing reading in the students because the skill that can be practiced critically on someone else’s work will serve the student well in his or her own work, but it’s easier to learn on someone else’s. That’s why I like teaching really smart, gifted undergraduates. They are in a period of learning very much, very fast — sometimes faster than they can bear. The brain is very porous and elastic and at the same time disciplined. Students catch on quickly. I [also] try to encourage a sort of spirit of grand companionship, as though everybody’s in it together and one person’s victory is not at another’s expense. I want my classes to be the opposite of intimidating. I’m so curious about my students and so interested in them and what they do, that I think if I have gifts as a teacher, they grow out of that genuine curiosity and admiration. That’s not to say I instantly admire everybody who walks through the door, but I’ve seen so many students who start out awkwardly, writing wooden, inert poems, transform themselves into artists, real artists. And it’s astonishing.

Q: You have been here for six years now. What do you think of Yale in general?

A: I have no reservations. None. I love it. My sense of the students I teach is that they’re ardent and eccentric and brilliant and combative, and they invent things I don’t know about. And they know things I don’t know about. I’m sure there are criticisms to be made … but I wear a Yale hat all the time. I really feel like a poster person for the school.

Q: If you had to give one piece of advice to young writers, what would you say?

AI think young writers need to know that it never gets easy. The fantasy exists that once certain hurdles have been gotten through, this art turns much simpler, that inspiration never falters, and public opinion is always affirmative, and there’s no struggle, there’s no torment, there’s no sense that the thing you’ve embarked on is a catastrophe. I’ve been seriously writing since I was in my earliest teens, and I suffer the same torments that I did then. And the only difference is that now I know they’re never going to go away. I think it’s lucky for poets that they have to find other jobs, because at least there’s a kind of continuity available in another job that can help you through hard times in your art.

Q: You are well known among your students for your style. That leather jacket?

A: I was always really interested in fashion. This interest [in fashion] doesn’t always go with art, but it doesn’t seem to me surprising that somebody with an interest in form would be interested in design. I can’t afford paintings, and I like things I can use. I like pottery. And I like clothing. And gardens. I like these art forms that actually enter into the daily living. And I like leather. There are times when I think, “Is there a cutoff point on leather? Is there a point where you’re so old you shouldn’t wear it?” And then I think, “I don’t know, I still like it.” There’s maybe a middle point where you can’t, but then you get old enough to wear jeans with leather, and you look like Mick Jagger. But I also spend most of my time looking like a homeless person. Adornment is taxing, and you’re constantly coming up against your own limitations. I couldn’t get up in the morning and rig myself out every day, so mostly I just wear sweat clothes and gym shoes. And no makeup. And my Yale hat.