They're Poets, and They Know It

In two short years, the Palm Beach Poetry Festival has evolved, like a rhyming Ebola virus, into a sort of iambic pentameter circus. Last year, it was small, with four big-time poets trucked in, including crowd-pleaser Billy Collins, the ex-U.S. poet laureate. This year, it will live larger, with readings by ten of the United States' leading versifiers, including Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Tony Hoagland, and local poesy powerhouse Campbell McGrath.

While most of us are well-acquainted with slams, some of us might shy away from the threat of stuffy readings. But formal readings, especially given by folks born and bred in the poetry universe, can actually surprise, in person, with a richness of painstakingly deliberate verse.

A trenchant question, however, is how these famous rhyme monkeys fancy South Florida? Do they enjoy the sandy respite from their cloistered Emily Dickinson-like studies? To find out, I interviewed the festival's "big ten" poets, collectively... sort of.

Question 1: So, it must be kind of nice to come to a poetry festival in January that's also within spitting distance of the warm ocean, huh?

Susan Mitchell: Listen to the ocean, always raising and lowering itself. Listen with your eyes closed. Open the car windows, let the hot moist air drift in and the murmuring. (From "Self-Portrait With Two Faces" in Rapture, 1992).

That's sweet, Susan. But have you ever driven past the Swap Shop in August? I, for one, fully recommend the poetic value of air conditioning. What do you think, Marilyn Nelson?

Marilyn Nelson: Last night the dolphin came to me again, all splendid in its huge wisdom. I dreamed its voice came thin as water out of the vague sea, and bloomed like dawn over the chaos of sleep. (From "The Language We Dream" in For the Body, 1978).

OK, lovely, and thanks, I guess. Tony Hoagland, you just won the prestigious Mark Twain Poetry Award. Are you glad to be in South Florida?

Tony Hoagland: Sometimes I wish I were still out on the back porch, drinking jet fuel with the boys, getting louder and louder as the empty cans drop out of our paws like booster rockets falling back to Earth. (From "Jet" in Donkey Gospel, 1998)

Right on, big guy, and keep the Tums coming. Finally, how about you, Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda?

Pablo Neruda: Like absence spun out, like a sudden bell, the sea shares out the heart's own sound, raining, dusking on a lone coast: night falls without doubts and the lugubrious blue of its shipwrecked banners fills with a stridency of silver planets. (From "Barcarole" in Residencia en la Tierra, II, 1935).

Hold on. Pablo? I just realized... you're dead. But thanks for weighing in anyway. You're awesome. Word!

Question 2: What inspired you to devote your lives to poetry?

Campbell McGrath: The word. It is the word I'm looking for. The moment, the place, the power and righteousness of a certain melody, not even needing to believe its dark intransigence but hear and glory in it only, the moment when noise begins to resemble music, when music comes to resemble noise. (From "Baker, California" in Road Atlas, 1999)

Wow, C.M., that speaks volumes. Laure-Anne Bosselaar, any thoughts?

Laure-Anne Bosselaar: I love to lick English the way I licked the hard round licorice sticks the Belgian nuns gave me for six good conduct points on Sundays after mass. (From "English Flavors" on

You should try the chocolate-covered espresso bean. Kurt Brown, are you also into the English language, or are you only in the poetry biz because, as we all know, it's just so damned profitable?

Kurt Brown: It's clear how money passes through our hands like water, and our sources, once dried up, leave us thirsting after more. How funds diverted, often vanish, and those without a "safety nets" go "belly up." How all we have goes down the drain, and we get soaked. (From "Money as Water" in Return of the Prodigals, 1999)

Yikes. First round's on me, buddy. No worries. Finally, Jane Hirshfield, what inspires you?

Jane Hirshfield: More and more wanting to learn how to leave things be. To live as the old Dutch painters looked at a fish: all of it eaten but leaving no sign. (From "White Curtain in Sunlight and Wind" in The Lives of the Heart, 1997)

You know, I was thinking the exact same thought this morning while waiting in line at Starbucks. But, Jane, you say it so much better. By the way, can you explain to me what a triple venti, low-fat, 140-degree latte is? Hell, I can't figure it out, but the guy in front of me ordered one.

Question 3: What do you think of these crazy poetry festivals?

Sharon Olds: Sometimes I think I know nothing about sex. All that I thought I was going to know, that I did not know, I still do not know. I think about this out of town, on hotel elevators crowded with men. (From "Know-Nothing" in Blood, Tin, Straw, 1999)

Um, Sharon? The question was actually about poetry festivals. But, anyway... let's talk later. Ring me. I'm in the book. Ahem, Galway Kinnell, can you please bring us back on topic? How should we approach poetry festivals?

Galway Kinnell: Wait. Don't go too early. You're tired. But everyone's tired. But no one is tired enough. Only wait a little and listen: music of hair, music of pain, music of looms weaving our loves again. Be there to hear it, it will be the only time, most of all to hear your whole existence, rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion. (From "Wait" in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, 1980)

Cool, G.K.; that sounds like sage advice. Lastly, but not least in our hearts, Thomas Lux, can you give us an overall perspective. What do you really think, brother? And, don't hold back.

Thomas Lux: Bonehead time, bonehead town. Bonehead teachers. Bonehead mom, bonehead dad, bonehead aunts and uncles and cousins too. Bonehead me, bonehead you. (From "Bonehead" in The Street of Clocks, 2001)

You're a rough nut, Lux. But I appreciate that. And that solidifies this interview. Thanks to all of you wild poets. Have fun in South Florida, by the way. Remember, SPF-15 is not enough... unless your skin is hardy and tough.

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Dave Amber