“I said to free will or the pagan god of making things, or whoever, let me write my own stuff. I’ll give up everything I’ve learned, anything, if you’ll let me write my poems. They don’t have to be any good, but just mine.”
It was in the syntax of her prayer that came an epiphany. She explained:
“What happened was enjambment. Writing over the end of the line and having a noun starting each line — it had some psychological meaning to me, like I was protecting things by hiding them. Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also, toilets.”
She started going to writing workshops at the local YMCA, and eventually she published her first collection of poems, called Satan Says (1980). She later realized that she wrote in the structure of the hymns of her youth, which is what felt comfortable to her, but that she “had to ride over the end of the line” to craft her poems.
When her first book was published, she was a few years shy of 40. Within a decade, she’d released several highly acclaimed, best-selling collections, and she’d also become the director of the Graduate Writing Program at NYU. She was so busy that she decided for one year she would not watch TV, read a newspaper or book, or go hear music, just so that she’d have enough time to do her job and keep writing poetry.
She was poet laureate of New York from 1998 to 2000. She still teaches creative writing at NYU, and she writes poems from her apartment on the Upper West Side, in a rocking chair with a view of the Hudson River. She uses different colored ballpoint pens to compose poems, and sometimes puts stickers on the pages of her drafts, which remind her of the stained glass windows of her religious youth. She said that she loves “odd” or “strange” words. She said:
“By the time I see that it’s a poem, it’s almost written in my head somewhere. It’s as if there’s someone inside of me who perceives order and beauty — and disorder. And who wants to make little copies. Who wants to put together something that will bear some relationship to the vision or memory or experience or story or idea or dream or whatever.”
She once described poetry as coming from her lungs, and said that to her,
“Poetry is so physical, the music of it and the movement of thought.”
She said that over the years, she has noticed that ideas for poems will come to her when she’s dancing or running, and that these ideas seem to come to mind with the act of breathing deeply, with the intake of oxygen. She said,
“Suddenly you’re remembering something that you haven’t thought of for years.”
Her advice to young poets is this:
“Take your vitamins. Exercise. Just work to love yourself as much as you can — not more than the people around you but not so much less.”
She once said:
“I’m not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. Just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.”