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Strand: Figuring out what comes next

The topic was “Poems and Where They Come From.” So Mark Strand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, MacArthur Fellow, and former United States Poet Laureate, began with a confession:

“I have to admit that I most often don’t know where they come from,” Strand said. “I just hope they come.”

Strand, lanky and laconic, was the final keynote speaker in Thursday’s Academic Symposium at Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall, held in honor of the inauguration of Alice P. Gast as Lehigh’s 13th president.

The choice of a poet to speak at an academic symposium on research and its global impact might seem odd. But Robert Thornton, the MacFarlane Professor of Economics who served as master of ceremonies throughout the day, said it was a natural fit.

“In a way, we can think of poetry as research as well,” Thornton said. “Research, of course, is the process of discovery, at least the way I see it. Poetry is also the process of discovering something about ourselves.”

During the interview session that concluded Strand’s presentation, Bob Watts, professor of practice in English whose first collection of poetry, Past Providence, won the Stanzas Prize, asked Strand about the impact of poetry on the world and culture.

Strand said the primary impact of poetry is its “ubiquity.”

“Everyone has it in their life … ,” he said. “Can there be love without the language of love? … I’m an advocate of the inner life. If we forget we have an inner life, we forget that we’re human.”

Strand said his poems “sound autobiographical, but really they’re not. They’re shaped by experience. But most often, I can’t put my finger on that particular place.”

Writing about his own life, Strand said, would be “exceedingly boring.”

“I’d rather create little fables. I like conceiving of odd and impossible situations,” he said. “I try to dream up situations that my wit, my intelligence, my sensibility—whatever it is—has to find its way out. That’s what writing is. It’s about figuring out what comes next. There are a thousand possibilities. What’s the best one?”

Sometimes, Strand said, he sweats over poems for years. But one night in Iowa City, while playing a card game at 2 a.m. with fellow poet Donald Justice, he blurted out, “Wait, I’ve got an idea.”

He went into the kitchen, and wrote the poem, “Keeping Things Whole.” When he finished, he resumed his card game with Justice.

“I never changed a word,” Strand said.

In introducing Strand, Stephanie P. Watts, assistant professor of English, said: “His poetry has changed the shape, the sound, and the soul of the art of poetry.”

One of the main sources of inspirations for Strand is reading the work of other poets. In addition to the 11 volumes of his own poems he has published, Strand also has edited several poetry anthologies.

“I am very influenced by what I read,” he said. “I don’t mean that I imitate what I read. It’s just that reading seems to supply me with ideas, it jump-starts my imagination and pretty soon, I’m off and running.”

To read about the other Academic Symposium sessions, please see Academic Symposium explores global impact of research.

--Jack Croft

Posted on Thursday, April 12, 2007

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