In the early part of this year, Rae Armantrout was at home when she received a phone call from a girl named Inga; it was the Communications Department at the University of California at San Diego. Inga said, “The Press will want to talk with you.” Then after a short pause –“Why?” asked Armantrout, without a clue as to what Inga was talking about. Apparently the word was out to everyone but her. It was then that she learned she had won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Letters for her latest book, “Versed.”
The World Cultures Program opened the stage to Armantrout for a reading from “Versed” (as well as from some of her other books) during the Book Fair on Oct. 2. Her candid and articulate performance was met with many rounds of applause, and afterwards students and fans stood in line to meet her and obtain their signed copy.
Looking back, Armantrout remembers giving her first poetry reading sometime in the mid-’70s, in Oakland at a bar probably called the White Horse. She was attending San Francisco State University studying for her master’s degree. The bar, though small, was filled. The venue was not a “splash” for the young student, reading mostly to fellow poets and friends, and there was little if any notoriety about this new poet. “The place was full of friends who were also students and poets,” recalls Armantrout.
It was a casual atmosphere where people were involved with art, poetry and literary endeavors. And it was part of the beginnings of a group of poets now known as the “West Coast Language Poets.”
Names such as Lyn Hejinian, (Tuumba Press) Ron Silliman, and Robert Grenier, had found a launching point to their style of poetry which emphasized metonymy, synecdoche and paratactical structures intended to have the reader participate in creating the meaning of the poem. In simple terms, the Language Poets tend to downplay expression and see the poem as a construction in and of language itself.
Mary Rae Armantrout was 4 when her family moved to San Diego, and it was then she wrote her first verse: “The little fish swim/around and around/and away.” She resides in Normal Heights, and frequents Starbucks. She is married to Charles Korkegian (a bookseller), and has one son, Aaron. She has overcome a difficult illness, when she was diagnosed with cancer in June of 2006. Her jubilant spirits attest to the fact that her health has returned.
Althout Armantrout was born in Vallejo, (April 13, 1947) she grew up in San Diego. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1970, after transfering there from SDSU. Armantrout later received a master’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State University in 1975. She has published 10 books of poetry and has also been featured in a number of major anthologies. On March 11, 2010, she was awarded the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award, following a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 and an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007. Armantrout has also toured in Germany, France and Mexico reading her works. In one of her interviews on writing, (David Brooks/U-T) she commented, “I take bits from here and bits from there. A poem isn’t an essay.” Her work truly is universal.
When asked about the journey into her success as a poet, the most significant event was moving to the Bay Area.
“I met friends, made contacts and I met a ‘living poet,’ Denise Levertov, for the first time there.” [A “living poet” refers to a current poet who is published and considered prominent in the field]. Armantrout continued to explain that Denise Levertov was her professor at San Francisco State, and through her class she began to associate with other poets and writers interested in poetics.
She plans to continue teaching at The University of San Diego, where she has been for two decades. On the horizon, the publication of “The Grand Piano: An Experiment In Collective Autobiography (with Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, and Ted Pearson)” a compilation of writings begun in November 2006 – 10 volumes of “Collective Autobiography” by 10 of the “West Coast” group of Language poets, including Armantrout.
When asked for advice to give young writers and poets, she was simple and repetitive: “Connect with other poets at cafes, small venues. Those considered ‘Bohemian,’ and seek out book contests; submit manuscripts that can be considered for a small fee, $25 or $30, or write reviews.”
Some of the major influences to her writing include Emily Dickinson, George Oppen and William Carlos Williams; she states that much of her imagery is reflected from local places. I wondered and asked if she considered her poetry autobiographical and she replied,
“My poetry comes from the observation of the world and popular culture. It is an equal distribution.”
According to Stephen Burt of the Boston Review, “William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson together taught Armantrout how to dismantle and reassemble the forms of stanzaic lyric–how to turn it inside out and backwards, how to embody large questions and apprehensions in the conjunctions of individual words, how to generate productive clashes from arrangements of small groups of phrases. From these techniques, Armantrout has become one of the most recognizable, and one of the best, poets of her generation.”
One example of her work, “Covers” from the book Made To Seem (which I was fortunate to hear her read at the Central Library, downtown, a few years ago) is shown here
slapped her bottom
like a man did
in a video.
then he waited
as if for shadow
to completely cover the sun.
Archeologists found him.