Poet to Poet Practice: A Conversation with Erica Jong

We were having a correspondence through first and last lines. Am I too old to be a poet?” And I said, “Are you kidding? Here, this is a poem that didn’t ever get published. No, it was the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I think because you’ve nourished your soul. I know that in our daily lives poetry vanishes sometimes because it’s too painful to live like a wound that never heals. We are not creatures of constancy. In a way, similar to Forest Lawn. This is what poetry reminds us in both reading it and writing it. You see — that’s the wonderful thing about poetry — it’s timeless. And poetry is also music and must be read aloud. But a wound that never heals is rather stronger than that. One of the female poets that permitted us to express anger. Why is it the most precious form of writing? Totally. It’s very typical of me and my poetry because I want to make the reader laugh — and cry. [Laughs.]
That’s cute. You write both and also say, “Novel writing is like mining salt, poem writing is like flying.” Do you still believe that? What will we call that, Kim? Deaf to blessings
the world burns. [Laughs.] Baudelaire said that there’s no beauty without melancholy. But I think the most emotional, meaningful exchange was when your mother was dying and you were with her. And you sent one back to me. But we do have publishers sitting there trying to figure out what will sell, and inevitably they can be wrong but we want to be out of that world. I think often with us we’d use each other’s first lines to help ignite our own poems. It may have a date on it or not, and you say, “Oh, this is not bad, I could make something of this…”
Exactly! And I think everybody needs a friend like that. As a novelist too, you’ve talked about how often you have to choose: do you write novels or are you a poet — and you’ve never had to choose. I wish I didn’t, and I can’t necessarily change that. Perfect, Kim. And I would thumb through the book in the morning to put me back in that place, in the place of poetry. Sometimes in the daily coil you forget there’s a place for poetry. A poetry correspondence or a poetry exchange with someone you admire and trust always ignites your own work and allows it to flourish. You know you’re not going to earn a penny, you know it’s out of the commercial world, which is a very important thing. That’s right. And I wrote the line in a notebook, and it resurfaced almost 40 years later! Erica and I met in my early “professional” life as a literary publicist promoting a book I asked her to blurb. Because I had come to admire you in different ways as a friend, and in other ways, so when you asked me, “Can I write poetry?” I said, “Of course!”
I remember that. I could never believe that near Marilyn Monroe’s grave the bushes were singing. I think way back you who said to me, “Send me a poem.” And I did. Her first book of poems, Fruits & Vegetables, was my (and remains my) treasure. Fear of Flying, written after she’d already published two collections of poetry, changed my life. People are always trying to figure out, “What’s the new trend? She was one of the poets that permitted us to be angry. But what does poetry have that other writing does not? Yeah, that’s true. To speak of love and define it,
to bless the animals and wake the world. I don’t think you can understand human nature without acknowledging ambivalence. in the late ’70s. Our daily lives sort of fight against us finding that place, and if you have a friend who sends you a poem, you say, “Okay! Sometimes I have several of them sitting in the notebook, and I haven’t done anything with them. The Japanese believe that when you are an amateur, you do something for love — you make a screen, you print something, you do calligraphy. Why? It goes directly into the unconscious mind. We want to be in a world where there is a purity of emotion, of expression, self-feeding, self-delight. We did this not to “workshop” but rather to say: “tag, you’re it…” Here’s a prompt, and wait for that poem to appear. Lazy or disbelieving. We’ll call it poet to poet practice. And what will people read novels about?” Writing should never be in that category. For example, when Keats says in his letters, “Load every rift with ore,” what he means is that poetry becomes the most precious form of writing. I read and loved Erica’s work when I was in high school and college. That’s absolutely true. And so it feeds the writer. You needed it — and you needed somebody to give you permission. Not just a decaying piece of flesh. Sort of like a crown of sonnets where you start the new sonnet with the last line of the last one. There’s a poem, one of my favorites, from Ordinary Miracles called “What You Need to Be a Writer.” I introduce every class that I teach with this poem to illustrate how a fun and quirky poem can take that delicious turn and deliver the gut punch that leaves us stunned — the last line we think about forever. In the stupid way, we need permission given. When I became well known and continued to write novels I was always nervous when I was writing the novel, thinking: Will people resonate with this? To your poems. That place is not lost. That first miraculous line! Yes. So, you have The World Began With Yes, and Stevens talks about the yes that the future world depends on …
It’s interesting because people are now talking about the #MeToo movement and how can you say “yes” when you’re looking at such a black view between men and women? Other writing plays games, but poetry must be totally transparent to the life of the emotions. That is perfect, and I hope you share that with your students because that is very much in your poetry as well, and I think one of the links between us is that we see life as joyous and tragic. Don’t you think we write to save ourselves, but we know if we ever get to that place where things are finally okay we’d have nothing more to say? [Laughs.] “The bushes singing” could be the beginning of a poem also. I studied with Thomas Lux. Talk about the physical feelings of writing a poem, because there definitely are some …
What happens to me is I get a line and I don’t know if that line will lead anywhere useful, and so in my notebook I’ll scrawl that line. Especially as women. The sounds of the words make us happy. That really is amazing. You have to take a vow in a way to keep going to that dark place, whether in fiction or poetry. A lot of people have talent, but not everyone has the desire or the courage to go to that dark place they fear they’ll find at the end of the poem. I think it may be because we have so much technology that excludes the individual voice that the individual voice is just bursting to come out. I never worry about that with poetry because poetry is perfectly obscure. But I was so thrilled that you asked me. Right. Do you live like a wound that never heals? A poetry mother. And that’s very important. You don’t think about it in a commercial way. In your case, you have another profession. Our poems literally spoke to each other. And so the joy of poetry is that it cannot be commercial. [Laughs.]
There’s a kind of freedom. I still remember the paisley bedspread in my college dorm I laid across while highlighting page after page. You came from the Upper West Side of Manhattan and settled in Los Angeles. And we need that in our lives. Yes. And then underneath I’ve scrawled, “Should I keep this?”
[Laughs.] Well, that’s always the thing under every poem I write, “Should I keep this?”
[Laughs.] You go through your notebook and find something. You inspired the poem about my mother at the end of her life at 101, responding to colors. [Laughs.]
Well, yeah, I guess! In late September 2018, Erica and I spoke over the phone about the process and sensation of writing, and how our poetry exchange has electrified and inspired each other’s work. I think that somewhere in my endless oeuvre, I said something about that, I think it was Fear of Flying, “Everybody has talent, very few people have the courage to go to the dark place where talent leads.” And it is true. Your poem gives another poet her own prompt. What do you mean? You don’t really worry about that with poetry because you know nobody reads it. Your mother and colors and what she …
Oh, right! Exactly. I believe you wrote me something about that because I wrote you back, and I think part of that poem is in this book. In Ordinary Miracles — you’d already written three novels at this point — you say in the foreword: “I keep on writing poems because poetry is the wellspring of all my other work and also because there is no more ecstatic experience than receiving a first line and spinning it, weaving it, draining it into a poem.”
Well, that’s very, very true, and sometimes you know the first line leads you to a poem and sometimes you get an amazing image and you follow it. Death is not black, or something like that …
That’s right. A lot of poems could be written in graveyards, there’s no question about that …
I have been suggesting to writers who question me that if they can’t find a sympathetic writers group, where people are encouraging and loving to one another (which I think is very important), that they should find a friend who they have a special relationship with and who admires their work and whose work they admire. The poet fights fire with words
to save the world. My new book is called Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave, which is something I did when I moved to L.A. With novels, you never know if it’s going to give you back anything. That’s why I would sit in my study and read whatever new book of poems I had: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, yours … I would look at these books and be reminded that poetry lives. Francis Prayer. I keep a poem by Wallace Stevens on my desk: “After the final no there comes a yes / and on that yes the future world depends.”
Oh, that’s beautiful. “Can I still be a poet — I’m 40?!” I mean, this is ridiculous but there it is. And there’s an intimacy when two poets share poems — an intimacy you can’t find elsewhere. But what we never knew, years before we knew one another, was that sharing our poetry would be our bridge to a deep and lasting friendship. It’s very hard to write novels. Over the next 10 years we’d email one another brand-new, vulnerable, half-baked poems — not for “critique,” but for encouragement, support, and as a way to jump-start one another to continue writing. Was it in Forest Lawn? It’s such a Jewish poetry. Right — and it’s that first line. I think the increase in reading poetry is the deep need we have in a corporate culture where everything is merchandised, the deep need we have to feed our own spirits and the spirits of others. ¤
KIM DOWER: I’ve admired your work since I was in high school, and what has always shone through for me in all of your collections is how in love with poetry you are. 
ERICA JONG: Right. I want to make the reader go into the unconscious and then show how joyous poetry is, but then you have to live like a wound that never heals in order to write it. The courage to live like a wound that never heals …
Exactly. Both are important, but more and more in our current age people need the voice. It was not difficult because it was clear you needed to go back to that self. I remember that. Maybe it isn’t finished yet:
The job of the poet is to argue with the gods
and defeat them with philosophy. Tell me. Because there are many other things you have to do — in my case, I write novels for a living. How did our correspondence start? The voice gives life to the poem, and it’s really important to hear poems as well as read them with the eye. Back then, I never dreamed I would ever meet Erica let alone become her friend. She was delighted to know this — encouraged me, and asked for a poem. And there is always joy when you nourish your soul. And yet poetry is being read by a larger audience than it has in a long time and people are reading it on the internet and on Instagram …
Because it feeds our hunger for spirituality and our society has become so corporate and so commercial. It’s like when you’re depressed about your life and you read the St. What we need to be able to do is to have the “no” but not let it absolutely bury the “yes.”
We have over many years sparked one another — how’d we do that? We knew each other for years before I felt safe enough to confide and divulge my “secret” — that I, too, was a poet, though I’d stopped writing poetry and was aching to get back into that miraculous zone. Nature takes us there, yes, but a friend can take us there by reminding us that there is that still, small place that the average world doesn’t give a shit about unless they’re dying or having a baby or getting married. There’s more immediate joy from writing a poem. Also, it’s the nudge I need — waking that part of me that gets lazy. I feel like a godmother. I’m not entirely sure. You’re showing someone a raw part of yourself and saying, “This is what was in my head this morning,” while at the same time asking for something in return. We can’t ever forget that however delicious life is, there’s a gallows at the end or a Hitler at the end who’s going to obliterate us. ¤
Kim Dower has published three collections of poetry with Red Hen Press and teaches workshops at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Erica and Kim each have new collections coming out April 1st from Red Hen Press: The World Began with Yes (EJ) and Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave (KD)
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Banner image by Ann. You’re trying to get the reader to turn the page. Also, I remember when you were at a certain age in your life you said to me, “I always wrote poetry. Yes. When I lived in Germany in the ’60s, I had a very precious copy of Ariel by Sylvia Plath. He reminds you that you are a spiritual being encased in meat, not just a meat-being. In our different ways with our different metaphors, but we both see that ambivalence in life. Sometimes the poem doesn’t work and sometimes it does. DECEMBER 19, 2018

FOR ERICA JONG AND ME, poetry has always been our first and probably most sustaining love. You’re just ready to be a poet with your whole life.” And I encouraged you. You’ve said that when one reads a poem aloud that moment of existence comes back with as much intensity as it was lived. Can you have your own mini writing group by sending work to each other with the understanding that you are never cruel but always honest? You once said that when you finish a poem you dance around the house. And how do you stay in the place of poetry? Well, if you have a friend who sends you a new poem in the morning, you say, “Oh yes — I’ve got to go back to that place.” And that’s the value in it — to remind yourself that there is that green garden in a green shade which poetry is and that you can go there when you need it. Your new book is called The World Began With Yes. 
Exactly. Because it’s totally transparent. [Laughs.] And to be reminded that the process is available to you. I can find it.”
I think that’s what we’ve done for one another.