[from an interview conducted by Bryan Parys]
bp: You studied with Derek Walcott in grad school; how much did his tutelage affect your own work?
Mark S: Let me admit here for the good of my soul that I didn’t really know Derek’s work when I applied to Boston University’s graduate creative writing program. Or Robert Pinksy’s either. Just their names, which had appeared over poems I’d seen in Norton’s. I knew a bit of lore about Lowell and Sexton and Plath, and even Starbuck, but I also appreciated that their ghosts weren’t going to help me with my poems (James Merrill notwithstanding). What mattered most to me was that Boston University was only an hour’s train ride from my house. So my pedestrian (or commuter rail) motives were rewarded out of all proportion.
But what did Derek teach me? To rise at 5 and write for hours. To make the beginning of a line as vigorous as its end. To labor not merely for the line or word, but even for the letter. To write longhand. To read aloud both poetry and prose for their training rhythms—Edward Thomas, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway… One time Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky came in to argue with Derek about the poems of Thomas Hardy—whose work they all loved and which we all read aloud. These things Derek taught, although they’re not necessarily things I learned. I don’t rise, as he does, at 5 and write for any amount of time. But my work was affected by his tutelage. I became more accountable for each word or phrase in my poems, so they got shorter, denser, better. And Derek liked my poems, which allowed me to believe in them. When he told me to send them out to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, I went ahead and did it. Derek didn’t believe me when I said they hadn’t landed. “Show me the rejection letters.” I showed. “It doesn’t matter. I’d publish them.” So I put that in my pipe and smoked it for a good long time.
He was an extremely alert and agile reader of one’s stuff. Once I brought him a poem which I felt went awry somehow at the end, and when he got to that spot he started saying, “Oh no, no, no, no!”—while I was saying, “I know, I know.” And that’s all we said about it. I was pleased and gratified by our mutual un-enumerated horror. Then there was his most impressive reading moment.
bp: Which was?
MS: You’ve heard this before, and you’ve probably made fun of me for repeating it. But, OK, briefly: once in a sit-down in his office Derek was quietly reading a poem of mine, one that was composed entirely of eleven-syllable lines. On that first reading—the first time through it, mind you—he looked up from the line “and the black lacquer table is peeling,” and said, “Top, I think. Table top is peeling”—thus bringing my errant 10-syllable line into the poem’s overall pattern. I hasten unnecessarily to add that he did this without counting on his fingers, as anyone who hears this anecdote must do.
bp: I remember that story.
MS: I know you do—but it was kind of remarkable. A bit like “The Princess and the Pea” in its way. And now my poem includes a word “written” by a Nobel laureate. It appears unattributed, of course.