Frank Bidart is one of America’s greatest living poets. As author of Music Like Dirt, the only chapbook to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and winner of some of poetry’s most prestigious awards, he still manages to stand apart from the poetry in-crowd. In this conversation with his friend Playboy Contributing Editor James Franco, Bidart discusses how poetry works, how much it pays and his forthcoming book of poems, Metaphysical Dog.
FRANCO: You’ve been writing poetry for more than four decades. Let’s face it: There’s no financial gain in poetry—the competition is for critical achievement. How does that affect your life?
BIDART: Financial and critical capital aren’t wholly separate in poetry. Famous poets get jobs and tenure. “Howl” supported Allen Ginsberg for life. Poets have two different reputations—what the public thinks and what other poets think. Anne Sexton and Ginsberg weren’t respected among poets for much of their careers, despite huge audiences. I’ve written very little critical prose, for the number of books and amount of approbation I’ve had, so I’ve been lucky. People don’t know how to judge poems in our culture, so they do so through a poet’s prose. That’s why people are impressed by Joseph Brodsky, but in his own English translations he’s a terrible poet. If I wanted to establish my intelligence like that, I’d write more prose.
FRANCO: Metaphysical Dog originally had a different title, right?
BIDART: Yes, Hunger for the Absolute, which many people disliked, but it generated things in me. It’s this hunger, really, that’s at the heart of the book. As I see it, we live in an essentially secular culture, and that’s a good thing; religious cultures are much more coercive as to what’s acceptable to think and say. But secular culture doesn’t satisfy our human desire for meaning. Western culture teaches us to make money and rest everything in our relations with other people, but that doesn’t feed our hunger for the absolute. And though religion often answers that hunger in cruel and terrible ways, the questions we want to ask are raised only by religious texts. It’s about our constant immersion in the proximate, the incomplete, the flesh and our simultaneous desire for more. It’s something I’ve felt all my life, in a million forms.
FRANCO: In your poem “Queer,” as well as throughout the new book, you talk about coming out and the disconnect between one’s mind and body. Where does that idea come from?
BIDART: I realized I was gay when I was seven or eight, and for six months I thought, I must be the only person in the world feeling this. Then you learn you’re not. But that inner disconnect from pieties about the social world persists. To me, all writing is really about making mind and body one. In this book I strike at that idea in “Writing ‘Ellen West,’?” which is about wanting to die after my mother died. She became upset after I bought a condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts; she always thought I’d move back to Bakersfield, California and teach at Bakersfield College. I refused, because that was like saying “I want you to die,” though she didn’t know that. But finally she accepted it, sent me towels, and a year later she died. Of course I thought I’d killed her.
Writing as deeply as I could in the voice of a character who wants to sever that connection between mind and flesh was an exorcism of that part of myself. But I’m still glad I didn’t move to Bakersfield. We are on these trajectories that we can’t change. She couldn’t change her feeling, and I couldn’t change mine. I think a limitation of this book is that the crucial relationship in it is with my mother. It’s a little sad to come back and obsess about it at the age of 73, but I did.
The last part of that poem is about writing and about art and finding one’s voice, all concepts you’ve explored in the four years we’ve known each other. You’ve become this Renaissance man, and it’s a brilliant creation—you’re accepted now as having a brain, an artist engaged in dialogue with the culture.
FRANCO: Let’s talk about that, because you’re one of the few people to see the deeper intentions behind even the poppiest things I do. What’s your take on that kind of person?
BIDART: There’s a tradition in Europe of the intellectual with many capacities, and I see only gain in it. Any resistance you’ve encountered is because people feel small. And it’s that process through which we crystallize ourselves, which for me was this terrible period lasting from the age of eight until graduate school. When I was growing up the implication was that by 21 you had to find yourself and know what you wanted to do for the rest of your life. I wanted to be a famous actor when I was a boy; meeting you reminds me of answering those “Have your picture sent to Hollywood” ads. Then I wanted to be a film director. And at Harvard I didn’t say I wanted to be an English professor, I said, “I’m going to be an artist or die, and meanwhile, I’m going to graduate school to read Milton.”
So I understand that impulse, to refuse to be seen as only an actor and wanting to be an artist in a much bigger way. There’s a line in Metaphysical Dog: “Your body will be added to the bodies that piled up make the structures of the world.” Nobody wants to be one of those bodies that piled up make the structures of the world.