Literary Hub

Meet National Book Award Finalist Rae Armantrout

The 2018 National Book Awards will be held on Wednesday, November 14 at the 69th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. In preparation for the ceremony, and to celebrate all of the wonderful books and authors nominated for the awards this year, Literary Hub will be sharing short interviews with each of the finalists in all five categories: Young People’s Literature, Translated Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction.

Rae Armantrout’s Wobble, which Elizabeth Lund called “a collection of tight, chiseled poems that forces readers to consider how greed, excess and lack of critical thought have led to environmental destruction and a nation wobbling toward the edge of collapse,” is a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry. Literary Hub asked Armantrout a few questions about her work, her writing life, and the art she loves.

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Who do you most wish would read this book? (your boss, your childhood bully, Michelle Obama, etc.)

I think my father was my childhood bully. He’s dead now, but I wish he could have read this book. I have no idea what he would have made of it, but he would have been surprised. He didn’t have a very high opinion of women. He read a good deal but never spoke about books to me or to my mother. As I recall, he never gave me the slightest encouragement. I became a writer both because and in spite of him.

What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?

I would like to discuss my use of rhyme—by which I mean subject rhyme more that sonic rhyme. I’m interested in the way one image may echo or complement another while also being part of a very different conceptual landscape. (For that matter, I’d like to talk about the importance of literal landscape in my poems.)

What time of day do you write (and why)?

I take a notebook with me wherever I go so I can write down interesting things I see or hear—as well as promising stray thoughts. Almost every morning, I look at that notebook to see if there’s anything there I can develop into a poem. So, over coffee in the morning, when the caffeine hits, I try to coax new poems into being or I work on poems I’ve already started.

Which book(s) do you return to again and again?

Dickinson’s Collected Poems: Over the years the Franklin edition has been close at hand. No one beats the boldness and freshness of her word choices.

Williams’ Collected Poems: I really learned to write by studying the way he could make what we used to call “free verse” sing. I guess if I had to choose one book by Williams, it would be Spring and All. It’s wild and perfect.

Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet: I know my poems look nothing like his, but there is something about his scrupulous observations, his attention to the world around him, that helps keep me honest.

Anything by Lyn Hejinian: Her work always leaves me thinking. Without being at all pretentious, she poses the deepest questions.

Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?

Well, any response I make to this question will be an exaggeration. I could say Bach’s Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites. But I won’t. I’ll say the Rolling Stones from about Aftermath through Exile on Mainstreet. I don’t actually listen to them much anymore, but they were important to me for quite a long time. I know it seems odd. Their gender attitudes are . . . problematic, for starters. But, in the early days, I found them liberating. They were pulling hidden attitudes and feelings into the light.

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