Whose Words These Are (13): Michael Ansara

In anticipation of the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which pops into full bloom tomorrow (Saturday) in the city of Lowell, the question has been: where does poetry come from these days? And where is it going?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Michael Ansara. (43 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Michael Ansara stands for the poet lurking in every one of us, and in this conversation he instructs us — revision by revision — how to liberate our inner Wordsworth. Once upon a Sixties time, Michael Ansara was a famous radical. When the boss of the Vietnam war, Robert McNamara was engulfed by hostile Harvard students in October, 1966, Michael Ansara at the head of SDS was ringleading the rebels. He followed his principles into a stormy career of political and union organizing, and he’s a ringleader still, of the second-annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Lowell this weekend. It turns out now he was reading serious poetry all his life and in his fifties decided to write some. In a poem titled “19 Weeks,” for example, he’s reflecting on an ultrasound picture of a grandchild in his daughter’s womb; and then he explains to you and me how he worked through Shakespeare and the Thesaurus and 50 or 60 rewrites before he felt he’d given birth to a poem.

Q: Who is your favorite fictional character of all time?

A: I would say, if I were being truthful, the protagonist whose name I cannot remember for you from The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie.

Have you ever read that book? It is about mountain men in the 1840s. I think I have read it eight times.

Q: Who do you think of, Michael, as kind of a doppelganger out there? Who does the work of your inner man in some other medium?

A: I have always thought of Bruce Springsteen as a Walt Whitman of our time. I think it would be way too presumptuous but would I aspire to having Bruce as my doppelganger? You bet. And not just because of the crowds, but because of the music of his lyrics as well as his melodies. He tries hard to sing of America: of its people, its place, its soul, its torments, its virtues.

Q: Think of a talent you’d love to have and don’t, yet?

A: Music. I have been taking piano lessons for ten years now and I can no more play than I can fly.

Q: What is the quality you look for in a poem, any poem?

A: I would say it is several. One is music. I want it to sing; I want the lines to sing. The second is vividness of image and I want the image and the line to work with the music of the words so that you hear it in all ways.

Q: When somebody spots you walking down the street who do they suppose you are?

A: Some older gentleman. A little shaggy. A little rumpled. And a little out of place.

Q: What do you think of as the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: The understanding that I have an enormous amount to learn. Striving with humility. And willing to work.

Q: How do you want to die?

A: I can only answer this way: what I want is to be at ease with dying. I am not. I would like to get there. I would like to die well: with a moment of grace.

Q: What is your motto, Michael?

A: “Work. Work. Work. And try, aspire, to be nice, to be gentle and to hope for some wisdom.

Related Content

  • Michael Ansara, the name rings a very small bel from the 60sl, but I like what he’s saying today!

  • sidewalker

    Thank you Christopher for introducing the sounds of another wonderful and thoughtful poet. As I mentioned in my email, I am listening with anxious and open ears, even if I do not faithfully post comments. Please keep capturing and recording those special voices for us as only you can.

    I loved to hear what Mr. Ansara had to say about revision and about the poem having a life of its own. That can be said for all writing, I think, and having the courage to let go of or transform a thought or a line, as a favorite old t-shirt turning to a polishing rag, is always an emotional struggle, but offers the chance to let your effort glimmer. Mr. Ansara’s poems certainly do.

    I’d like to take up your offer to post our own poem to honor my father, who past away recently. I was lucky to be able to spend a week with him at his hospital bedside as he made peace with his loved ones and his life. That time inspired the poem below. He was always a proud British Columbia son, so I tried to reflect that. The milky petals are those of the dogwood, BC’s official tree.

    Released (In memory of my father)

    Depart, spring’s milky petals fall;

    the humbled hart, in meadow laid.

    Long sultry days of summer gone,

    now wilts the verdant blade.

    Depart, lone winged albatross:

    befriended ketch hast come agroun’.

    The oak ablaze in autumn’s sketch

    has lost it’s treasured crown.

    Depart, the weary sun of dusk;

    stars swept aside by stormy brush.

    Away, away the sterling cranes,

    from winter’s chill they rush.

    Depart, as mist, the salmon spawned;

    proud grizzly dens when shadows creep.

    A crystal moon, from perch descends;

    the rugged hills, at peace, may sleep.

    Depart, beholden I to Time;

    still, sweet memories bequeathed.

    Love’s sorrow, golden, silence sounds.

    This life’s last breath…released.

  • nother

    Deeply moving, sidewalker. Thank you for sharing.

  • Christopher –

    I enjoy how your voice shows the naked passion of a true explorer. How do you find these remarkable minds?

    I’ve listened to your work for years.

    Thank you!


    Todd Finley


  • Michael Lydon: Are you thinking of Michael Ansara the actor? As Cochise in the TV series ‘Broken Arrow’ he was one of my boyhood heroes.



  • nother

    The first 2 minutes of this interview with Heidegger seems – to me – to be especially apropos to Whose Words These Are.


  • nother

    Great interview! Michael is great, his calm constitution hovers like a layer of milky fat in a cooking vat – gallons of boiling sustenance seeping slowly from below.

    His poetry is not founded in cleverness and I appreciate that.

    And I love how he defines poetry as neither form nor prose but something with music and rhythm in it. It reminds me of a passage I recently read in Moby Dick, Chapter 48. Great prose may be distinct from great poetry as Michael points out, but that doesn’t negate the potential for great poetry to exist within great prose.

    “So, so; there you are now; that’s the stroke for a thousand pounds; that’s the stroke to sweep the stakes! Hurrah for the gold cup of sperm oil, my heroes! Three cheers, men—all hearts alive! Easy, easy; don’t be in a hurry— don’t be in a hurry. Why don’t you snap your oars, you rascals? Bite something, you dogs! So, so, so, then:—softly, softly! That’s it—that’s it! long and strong. Give way there, give way! The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep. Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull. Pull, will ye? pull, can’t ye? pull, won’t ye? Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes don’t ye pull?—pull and break something! pull, and start your eyes out! Here,” whipping out the sharp knife from his girdle; “every mother’s son of ye draw his knife, and pull with the blade between his teeth. That’s it—that’s it. Now ye do something; that looks like it, my steel-bits. Start her— start her, my silverspoons! Start her, marling-spikes!”

  • nother

    Thank you for this poetry series on Open Source. The best part for me was to hear so many people bearing and sharing their souls.

    Here is my crappy contribution to the lot – 40 or so revisions short of the 50 that Michael advises (not that that would do any good :)). Although it was fun to write. My plan going forward is to devote more time to writing poetry. To follow Mr Beckett’s advice and “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

    Happiness is: What’s Possible

    Walking on my sidewalk at noon this June,

    I refrain from the urge to run.

    A surge of euphoric energy tingles and prods every fiber of my ready being to run;

    To run would be superfluous.

    Onward to the riverbank Charles, where

    a mile of brownish brush chaotically blooms.

    On bended knee

    my chastened cheek meets prickly ferns;

    their summits jettison out from my low perch, unraveling

    a Himalayan vista.

    Nestle with me

    In this nook where wild Glory Lilies

    protect my mountain range in this metropolis.

    Laugh with me

    a heartier laugh

    no jester has induced.

    Kiss me

    with Shakespearean release;

    pressing hard with loose muscles.

    Dance with me

    a ritual of glaring and grinding

    like primates on the perimeter of fire.

    Cry with me

    the glass shattering wail that ever shimmers in the gut,

    muffled by routine, rattled by loss.

    Exhale with me

    purging all your notions with respect to

    what’s possible.

  • Catherine Parnell

    Global attitude is all, and Michael Ansara does so much to set the stage and tone for poets across MA. Thanks!

  • How should poets be paid?

    It’s a fascinating question. And it’s interesting that it should come up in an interview with the representative of “amateurs.” With some passing references to the Internet as an alternative to publishing.

    Not to be contrarian but I must disagree with Ansara on a point or two. As I think about this, I tend to think a lot about music in this “Internet age.” As a semi-disclaimer, I’ve been blogging on occasion about music’s diverse business models.

    In this interview, Ansara made an analogy with plumbers and, I must say, I “just don’t see it.” I’m not really thinking about the difference between manual and artistic labour.

    I’m thinking more about “paying for services.” In this sense, a plumber is in my humble opinion more similar to a member of Best Buy’s Geek Squad than to a poet: they fix things. Moreover, they fix specific things which belong to specific people. Like engineers, they’re troubleshooters. But their services are paid in a different way.

    There are poets who work like this, to an extent. In Mali, there are some jeliw (“griots”) who do this kind of thing. As bards, they’re the prototypical wordsmiths and their mastery of oral literature is equivalent to poetry among Europeans and North Americans. But when jeliw are paid for specific services, they’re not acting like the poets about whom Ansara was talking. In fact, jeliw performing specific services are more similar to speechwriters, in some ways.

    Other jeliw take a role during events. For instance, there are jelimusow (female jeliw) who sing at weddings. These are more similar to what Ansara was describing, as a function. But they’re also “totally unlike” plumbers. They’re like performers in general: instrumentalists, actors, singers… Europe and North America, similar functions are rarely taken by poets. It might happen, but it’s not part of what North Americans and Europeans imagine poets are likely to do. Mostly because of the way poetry is conceived, in those regions. Possibly because of the obsession with the written word.

    Then there could be the poet laureate model, as a way for (very few) poets to “make a living” through poetry. It’s not an uncommon thing, around the World. And it does (or did) exist in the United States and, if I remember correctly, Lydon has interviewed some of them. Apart from the fact that it only employs very few people, it sounds like a very different type of service than the one Ansara was describing. In a way, it sounds a lot more like the work of a priest or civil servant. Without getting into political lateralization, it does sound like something which happened in Cuba and Russia more commonly than in the United States.

    There’s also the “publishing” model. There are poets who get paid to publish in magazines and, possibly, in books. It’s a rather restrictive model, and it provides a relatively broad audience for poetry. It may be the main “market” for poetry, the main “business model.” But, as Ansara says, it doesn’t seem to sustain a lot of people. And it’s radically different from the “plumber” model.

    Tang mentioned the Tang dynasty model (25:37). Hadn’t heard about it before and it sounds like an interesting example. What it brings about is something entirely different: poetry isn’t necessarily the person’s job but it’s required as part of a professional system. If I understand the idea correctly, it sounds more like assessment than like work. It could probably fit in the United States where assessment and competition are so important. But it also brings poetry outside of the “paid labour” logic.

    Where, I think, it belongs. Along with a large range of activities.

    And this is where I may ruffle some feathers. But so be it.

    As I was listening to some recent interviews in this series, I was thinking about the notion that, possibly, more people write poetry than those who read it. It may sound like a quip, but it’s part of a broader stream of thought. Of course, those who write poetry also read it. But maybe the main audience for poetry, in today’s North America, is the set of people who at least “dabble” in poetry. As Ansara mentioned, workshops and academic jobs are part of poets’ “bread and butter.” We may see something wrong with this. I personally think it makes sense.

    Here, an easy and relatively neutral analogy could be with philosophy. How do professional philosophers make a living? Mostly through teaching, I would guess. They also publish, but my hunch is that the market for philosophy books isn’t enough to sustain a large number of philosophers. Of course, many philosophers work in other fields, as practitioners from any discipline are wont to do. But the “business model” for philosophy is mostly about getting others to do some philosophy. Some philosophers may be involved in selling tools for philosophy, but most philosophers who get a regular income from philosophy are probably doing so out of training other people to “philosophize.”

    The same is probably true of a good number of artisans. Sure, North American artisans sell their crafts at fairs and such. There are some craftspeople in North America who “make a good living” out of selling their products, especially if you include culinary arts and crafts like baking bread, brewing beer, or making cheese. But my guess is that most people who recognize themselves as craftspeople and get a regular income out of a craft are those who train or sell tools to others who want to do the same. Here, I’m thinking about traditional material culture, including embroidery, basket-weaving, beadmaking, etc.

    There’s a whole lot to be said about the distinction between arts and crafts. In Europe and North America, this distinction has often been accompanied by a distinction between professionals and amateurs, with added complications from the world of commercialism, the issue of commodification, and the way status is granted to individuals in a given social context. But, still, North Americans and Europeans may have in mind a fairly straightforward distinction between arts and crafts. Arts are done by (pro) artists while crafts are done by DIYers.

    As a kind of caricature: An amateur who creates a piece of jewelry is doing a craft. A professional jewelry-maker may be considered an artist, if she wears a scarf and doesn’t sell her goods on a large scale.

    Is someone who writes poetry on his own a poet? My guess is that McDonough would say “yes” and Ansara might be on the fence. In both cases, though, I think there’s a perception that the goal of most poets is to be read. I would extend that further and say that the same happens with a lot of people who read poetry. Not everyone who reads poetry and not necessarily consciously. But my guess is that a lot of people who read poetry would like to become poets. So my apparent quip wasn’t about poetry being read by few people. It was about reading poetry being a gateway into poetry-making.

    But, then, what of Sarah Kay’s parents? Are they poets? Did they ever aspire to become poets? Was their lunchbox poetry a way to train their daughter to become a professional poet? I have no idea. But my guess is that their poetry was less “utilitarian” than this.

    After all, many love letters are poetic. As ethnopoeticians like Tedlock and Hymes would probably say, anything can be deemed to be poetic. Jakobson even described the “poetic function” of verbal communication to be present at varying degrees in any form of verbal communication. “Uniforms and badges promote brotherhood” is as poetic as “I like Ike” and “colourless green ideas sleep furiously.”

    Some love letters even use traditional poetic structure and techniques. They fulfill a function, of course. But they’re not necessarily created in view of a poetry career. Most people who write love letters probably don’t think of them as something which would become a “day job.” In fact, there are some negative connotations to some “day job poetry,” especially if it comes in the form of a greeting card. The dismissal of “Hallmark poetry” might even be part of a broader process by which people take poetry away from life. Poetry becomes a museum exhibit instead of a way to live.

    Now, to be increasingly provocative:

    Should poetry be a spectator sport?

    Should we pay others to do the poetry for us?

    If we think of poetry as we think of love, are professional poets like “love professionals?”

  • Whose Words These Are was a great series I hope you will continue.

    Here’s my doggerel of the day…


    Love is a lamp

    in the wind.

    It will flicker

    and sway but

    it lights the way.