Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan. Photo by Oliver Pastan

In her poem "Traveling Light" award-winning poet Linda Pastan writes, "our lives have minds/of their own." And it is these minds that Pastan illuminates in her deceptively quiet poems in which we are revealed by what we take notice of, by which objects and moments of ordinary life bear us witness. A native New Yorker, Pastan is a former poet laureate of Maryland (1991-1995) and spent two decades on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Pastan will take the stage in the NEA Poetry & Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival on Saturday, September 24 from 12:45-1:30 pm. We caught up with the Maryland resident via e-mail to discuss the poet's life.

NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?

LINDA PASTAN: I live a quiet, an ordinary, an old-fashioned woman's life: the kitchen, the grandchildren, books, the woods. I am unadventurous, don't flirt with danger. But when I sit down to write I give myself permission to dare anything. So, for me at least, the artist's part of my life is invisible, is lived on the inside. All I ask of dailiness is the time to sit down, to let everything else go, and to write.

NEA: What do you remember as your first experience/engagement with the arts?

PASTAN: When I was in college in Cambridge, I went to the Brattle Theatre and heard Dylan Thomas read his poems. I knew little of Thomas, but some of my friends seemed excited about his appearance---talked of his drinking and his womanizing---and so I went. I was totally unprepared for the torrent of language that would pour over me or for the emotional, nearly ecstatic, response I would have to that language. It was partly his words, partly his very voice. But I would never again think of poetry in quite the same way.

NEA: What has been the most significant arts experience of your life to date?

PASTAN: Going to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference for the first time (I ended up teaching there for 20 years) and realizing that there was a whole world of people who thought poetry was the most important thing in life. I would return home to the solitary job of dealing with the blank page, but I knew that there were other people out there doing the same thing.

NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?

PASTAN: I have always believed that the act of reading a poem could change a person---could exercise his or her imagination as if it were like any other muscle---even the job of understanding a metaphor can be work. Since evil, I believe, grows from a lack of imagination  (do lawmakers cutting poverty programs know what it feels like to be hungry?) poetry can become political in the most basic sense.

NEA: Conversely, what do you see as the responsibility of the community to the artist?

PASTAN: To not interfere with her work. To help provide venues, in large and small places, where people can experience all kinds of art ( painting, music, literature) that can enrich, even change their lives.

NEA: Why do you think the general public needs poetry? Why do you need poetry?

PASTAN: I am most often asked if people can use my poems at weddings and at funerals. The public needs poetry, I need poetry, to help celebrate and to help console.

NEA: Any advice for young poets? And for not-so-young poets?

PASTAN: Read! Read! Read!

NEA: How do you think we can get younger generations to engage with the arts outside of what they might see on American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance?

PASTAN: It would help if teachers could introduce the various arts to their students as something to be enjoyed, not endlessly analyzed. A work of art is not a puzzle to be solved.

NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can...I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to the field of poetry---or even the arts as a whole---what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work that poets and the community of writers is making that isn’t yet there?

PASTAN: When I sit down to write a poem, I don't think about the kind of abstractions David Harrington mentions, though I am glad that others are able to. I think about a sound or an image and try to follow it to where it wants to take me.

NEA: What does Art Works mean to you?

PASTAN: I like this phrase. It can mean that art does real work in the world; that good art works; that the act of making art is work. Or it could simply be the name of an interesting, new gallery.

Do you have a favorite Linda Pastan poem? Leave a comment and let us know!

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