Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Gretchen Primack's first published poem.

When you read Gretchen Primack's poems, their music stays with you. There remains an afterglow that follows you and makes visible things invisible to the naked eye. This is an urgent, compelling voice that speaks in incandescent imagery, a voice that echoes in the mind long after you have heard it for the first time.
Primack's publication credits include The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, FIELD, ReviewNew Orleans Review, Rhino, Best New Poets 2006, and others. Her manuscript, Fiery Cake has been shortlisted for several prizes, and recently she completed a second full length manuscript, Buzz. She teaches at Bard College and at two maximum-security prisons through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). She lives in the Hudson Valley of New York. Her chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets was published by last year. It can be ordered from

1. When did you know that you were a poet?
Don't think I can answer this one!

2. What does it take to make a poet?

Attention. That's key. And a willingness to wallow a bit in an image or an idea. And a strong love of language on all its levels: The meaning of course, but also the sounds, rhythms, and visual aspects of it. You really have to be what I call a "word nerd." Just love them: the way they look, the way they sound, taste, mean, etc.

3.What was the first poem you ever wrote?

I wrote a poem in school when I was, what, 7 or 8 or so about a night sky. Actually, it ended up in Cobblestone magazine, which publishes kid's writing. I wonder if my folks still have it?!

4. What is the difference between a good poem and a bad poem?

This is very much in the eye of the beholder. But for me, I need to be able to connect with it on a meaning level—for that reason, language poetry leaves me cold. Also, it has to touch me deeply, make me feel something physically. I often find myself nodding as I read a great poem. And it can't be trying too hard—it has to feel pushed out of the poet rather than an intellectual exercise. I want to feel the poet has integrity. I want to answer "Does this piece of writing matter?" with a resounding '"YES!"

5. What is the most beautiful line in the most beautiful poem in the English language?

Here's a possibility:

'Tranquility at length, when autumn comes,
Will lie upon the spirit like that haze
Touching far islands on fine autumn days
With tenderest blue, like bloom on purple plums…."

and here's one—this is from my favorite poem ever:
'Music, and painting, poetry, love and grief,
Had they been more intense, I could not have bourne,—
Yet, not, I think, through stout endurance lacked;
Rather, because the budding and the falling leaf
Were one, and wonderful,—not to be torn
Both of those are from sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

6. What is the most difficult thing about writing poetry?

Having a sense of worth while doing it—wondering what the value of a particular piece of writing is in the world.

7. What is the role of a poet in our society?

To ask people to pay attention—in both large ways (to war, to factory farms, to mortality) and smaller ways (to the beauty in a single element in nature, to a single human's relationship with another). And of course to pay attention to language!

8. Should poetry be as popular as baseball?

Yes, because I think it's terribly important for us to pay attention. Poetry can demand that. In some ways, I think it's a shame we don't have the patience for poetry despite having the patience for baseball (let's face it—that's a drawn-out sport!), but in some ways I can certainly see why poetry isn't popular—there's a lot of awful poetry out there!

9. If President Barack Obama asked you what he can do for the writers, what would you tell him?

He can simply communicate that writing has value. He could also put more energy and funds into creating serious writers and a love of serious writing in communities that don't necessarily value those.

10. What makes you happiest about your writing?

Right now I'm working on a book about how humans treat the non-human animals around us—"food" animals, companion animals, circus animals, zoo animals, etc. When someone connects with one—say, about the plight of a dairy cow—and it it changes the way they see animals, and even the way they eat, that certainly makes me very, very happy!!

On a more self-centered note, I simply like the way I feel when I'm in the Writing Poetry Zone. It feels like my internal organs are getting a massage. It also feels like I'm making sense of something—a relationship, a dynamic, a mood, an experience, a physical object.

11. Have you set specific goals for yourself as a poet?

No. I live very much from the heart, and so I go where that takes me rather than setting goals.

12. Do you have plans for a new book in the near future?

I have two full-length manuscripts ready for publication, and a third manuscript—the one about the animals, Kind—that is is currently chapbook-length but that I would like to expand to full-length. I'd love to see all of those in print!

This, from The Slow Creaking of Planets


A handful of cornets declared midnight,
unable to wake an old dog
by the palace arch.
They spilled knees, hips, hands
through brass bores and bells, and still
she lay there.

Her father was a Briquet Griffon
Vendeen. She inherited his long
white ears. The yellow cornets
waited for her to drift through the gate; still
she lay on her side, as if all the king's men
crooned only to mend her broken body.

But that was the night she gave over
to space, let the pulley of notes raise her as far
as she could go, and stayed.

That was the night Orion slipped out of the bowl,
leaving only his glittering belt, unbuckled
into an aching arch,
and the slow creaking of planets.

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