Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Robert Pinsky
By David Fedo
Robert Pinsky, now 72, has long been one of the most admired contemporary American poets, and with good reason. Ranging widely in subject, length and form, his poetic output has been prodigious: eight collections from Sadness and Happiness (1975) to Gulf Music (2007) and Selected Poems (2011). In addition, there is a score of insightful critical works – among them, The Situation of Poetry (1977) and Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry (2002).
He has also translated Dante's Inferno (1995), and The Separate Notebooks (1984) by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. His translation/adaptation of the German playwright Friedrich Schiller's drama, Wallenstein, opened in a production to rave reviews just this April in Washington, DC.
The list continues. His novel, Mindwheel (1984), has been called a work of "interactive fiction", while his other works include anthologies and the libretto for an opera, Death and the Powers (2010), with music by Tod Machover. In the midst of all of this, Pinsky somehow has the energy to continue to teach in Boston University's famous Graduate Writing Program, and to serve as poetry editor for the online journal, Slate.
A native of New Jersey, Pinsky received his undergraduate education at Rutgers University, and his MA and PhD in English from Stanford University. He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States for a record three times, from 1997 to 2000. During his tenure as Poet Laureate, he initiated the extraordinarily popular "Favorite Poem Project", which attracted an astonishing 18,000 submissions from Americans aged five to 97, and from every state in the nation. Some 50 videos that were later made of citizens "reading and speaking personally about poems they love" are now in the archives of the Library of Congress.
Pinsky is also the recipient of numerous other awards, including the prestigious William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry Society of America. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife Ellen. They have three children and seven grandchildren.
1. What are you reading right now?
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
So the misconception is that I am a smiling, sociable advocate or promoter. I think I am less nice, and more interesting, than that.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you most identify with, and tell us why.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
6. What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
7. What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
12. Please complete a couplet with the following words: spring, unwisely, hope.
In Wallenstein, the characters all grope
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soirée, and why?
16. Is the Favorite Poem Project, which you initiated while serving as the United States Poet Laureate, still active in any way?
Yes, there are communities – like Newburyport, Massachusetts – which continue the Favorite Poem Project in various literary festivals in their hometowns. The impetus for these activities and events is the annual Boston University Summer Poetry Institute for Educators, which is now in its 11th year and which builds on the principles of the Favorite Poem Project – which is, as we say in our announcements, "committed to celebrating and documenting poetry's place in American culture and improving its place in American classrooms." I teach in this July programme, along with such colleagues and poets as Louise Gluck, David Ferry, Mark Doty, Gail Mazur and Rosanna Warren.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?