As the only Poet Laureate to be turned yellow for an episode of "The Simpsons" and to guest-judge a “Meta-Free-Phor-All” between Stephen Colbert and Sean Penn, Robert Pinsky has seized numerous opportunities to coax poetry down from its lofty heights and into the lives of regular people.
While he was the nation's official poet from 1997-2000, Pinsky founded the Favorite Poem Project, which invited Americans to share their most beloved poems, some of which ended up in the project's documentary DVDs and anthologies. Pinsky will be giving two readings in Atlanta this week.
Q: As the nation's poet, were you literally in service to "The Man"? Did you feel in any way restricted by the post, or were you mostly pleased with where the authority could take your work, and take poetry?
A: The somewhat silly title, Poet Laureate, does not mean one serves "The Man", or any man or woman. In fact, the modest stipend comes from an endowment, not from government funds. I am skeptical of titles and, to use the word ‘authority’ in art. And I don’t think poetry needs to be taken anywhere except to the human voice.
Q: You've put yourself into the world most of us non-poets are part of, and chased off the notion that poetry is only for elite thinkers. Can you elaborate a little on why this is and continues to be important to you in your career?
A: To me, it is a bizarre idea to suggest that poetry is only for elite thinkers! It's fundamental and basic, like dancing, singing, home decoration. Hard to imagine a culture without it. The whole point of the Favorite Poem Project was to ask people about poetry, not tell them. In the videos [from the DVD that comes with the anthology ‘An Invitation to Poetry’] the construction worker reading poetry by Walt Whitman, the Cambodian-American immigrant reading poetry by Langston Hughes are certainly intelligent and have striking things to say about the poems they read aloud. But I don't believe that makes them elite thinkers.
Q: What will you be reading at the fundraiser Saturday? And how will your free reading the following day approach Emory's theme of ‘translations?' What are you hoping to get Atlanta audiences thinking about?
A: On Saturday, I’ll be reading poems I love from earlier centuries, back to the late 1500s, from my recent anthology ‘Essential Pleasures: a New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud.' I’d encourage people to understand the nature of poetry as vocal, but not necessarily performative: in each individual reader’s voice, not necessarily part of show business or dependent on the poet’s performance. On Sunday, I'll be reading my poems in concert with jazz musicians – The Gary Motley Trio. The patterns of my reading aloud will be ‘translating’ what I hear the musicians do as they ‘translate’ the words by responding musically to their feel and meaning.
IF YOU GO
Annual 12th Night Revel, fundraiser for Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library. 7 p.m. Jan. 30. Piedmont Driving Club, 1215 Piedmont Ave. Tickets start at $150 per person. 404-727-8780.
Free public reading. 4 p.m. Jan. 31. Glenn Memorial Auditorium, 1652 N. Decatur Road.
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