An Interview with Ed Ochester

Ed Ochester grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He is the longtime editor of the
 Pitt Poetry Series (University of Pittsburgh Press), and the founding editor of the journal SAM. His own collections of poetry include We Like it Here (1967), Dancing on the Edge of Knives (1973), Miracle Mile (1984), Allegheny (1995), Snow White Horses: Selected Poems 1973-1988 (1988), The Land of Cockaigne (2001), Unreconstruced Poems Selected and New (2007), and Sugar Run Road (2015). Ochester is professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and is on the faculty of the Bennington College MFA Writing Seminars.

Interviewers: In the poem “Having Built the Coop,” and many others, you mention prominent postmodernist figures such as Jacques Derrida and Bernard-Henri Levy. Do you ascribe to the postmodernist philosophy and if so, why?

Ed Ocherster: Note that the “Levy” mentioned in the epigraph
is the poet D.A. Levy. I don’t ascribe to most of the views of Derrida et al, and think that the prominence of them in American English Literature departments has been a disaster—English Lit. used to be one of the largest majors in colleges of arts & sciences, but in the past couple of decades its numbers have shrunk dramatically—mainly because of the “theory” people . . . In this poem, the drone of cicadas (background noise) is derrida derrida derrida. I make a comment about “theory” in this poem from my most recent book:

Ross Gay

sent an e-mail to Ross Gay:

congratulations on the Times’ review

of Bringing the Shovel Down

though even in a good review of poetry

there’s almost always a snotty little quibble

unless the poet’s dead or English

(this reviewer hates “shimmering labia”)

“yeah” said Ross “I laughed about that too”

maybe it started when the horde

“theory” ph.d.’s rose over the horizon

and poisoned all the books they landed on– luckily then they

started to kill each other off (we can use split infinitives now) —

but around that time American poets

began to write about John Clare

the mad sweet nature poet lost

in an unjust world one of the theory people

I worked with wrote a novel (unpublished)

so bad cats and dogs might double over

which deepened her hatred of her

irrational colleagues publishing

poetry and fiction–perhaps Yogi Berra

explained it best (note that “Yogi”

like the poet we call “Homer” is growing

by incremental repetition and now

has an enormous oeuvre) Yogi said

“in theory there’s no difference

between theory and practice but

in practice there is”

I: You seem to mention Greek and Roman figures from History and Literature quite often in your work. Does this particular period of history interest you more than most others and why?

EO: I mention Greek and Roman figures often because they’re important to me (and our culture) — the founding fathers based our Constitution on what they learned from Greek and Roman experience, and that experience informs not just our literature but our science, religion, philosophy and historiography. On the other hand, I make a lot more contemporary references than classical ones.

I: In your poem “Poetry” you talk about the private life. How do you believe the meaning or value attached to the private life has changed? How does your poetry show this?

EO: “The private life” isn’t as private for most people as it used to be because of our electronic interconnectedness, and our compulsion to “share” personal experience. That’s not all bad, obviousy, but it can/does lead to a lot of blabbing. And much of what concerns us as individuals is not important to others (see the kind of gossip about TV and movie stars on the web). And people who spend all their time on trivial stuff have trivial lives. I don’t want to sound snotty about this — I love to gossip and talk baseball/ football as much as the next person — BUT many people I know are reduced to that. There’s more to life.

I: How does the area in which you live, outside Pittsburgh, inspire and influence you? What specific aspects of the place in which you live, if any, inspire you?

EO: The rural area in which my wife and I live forces us to depend more on ourselves. We like that. We’re not a-social, but we don’t enjoy the population density of cities. And we love to garden, like clean air, lots of trees, etc. etc. We have a very simple house and simple tastes in accessories — we don’t usually want “the latest” this or that. My wife, Britt, is a bird lover and has attracted well over a hundred species to our property over the years. Our main form of entertainment is reading (not movies, TV, and
so on). Lest all this seems too primitive: I spend a fair amount of time each week working on the net.

I: Along with writing, based upon your poem, “My First Teaching Job, Boston University Night School ‘Intro to Lit ’” you also spend some time in the classroom. How do you feel working as a writer influenced your effectiveness as a teacher?

EO: I started my academic life as a teacher of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but was one of two people to organize the MFA in writing at the Univ. of Pittsburgh and spent 20 years as the director of the program. I took early retirement from Pitt in the late 90’s and since then have been teaching at the Bennington low- res MFA. A part of my usefulness as a teacher is that I know how things are put together (I’ve also worked as the editor of the Univ. of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series for many years). I have very eclectic tastes in poetry (as evidenced by the books I publish in the Poetry Series), and that’s useful also for students: there isn’t just one-way of doing a poem. And I’m very proud of my students. The best known of them are Li-Young Lee, Terrance Hayes and Michael Chabon (you can find an essay by him online which de- scribes me and his undergraduate days at Pitt), but literally dozens of them have published books, and many more have remained poetry fans.

I: At the reading you performed at Providence College, you shared a couple pieces of political poetry. What inspired you to incorporate politics in your written work?

EO: Two of the greatest poets of the last century—Pablo Neruda and Bert Brecht—wrote many political poems. In most countries political poems are not unusual. But in the U.S., we have an old (and spurious) academic tradition that views political poems with disfavor. I think ANY human concern (including politics) is a possible subject for poetry.

I: More specifically, you read and referred to a number of poems about President Trump. We would be interested to know what effect you think the current presidency will have on the content, tone, and volume of art in the coming years, particularly written work such as poetry. President Trump has proved to be more polarizing than many administrations have been in a long time, do you think this will come through in the nature of art, either in protest or support? Do you think it will generally have a positive or negative effect on literary art and culture?

EO: Well, don’t get me started on Mr. Trump. I grew up in the same area of Queens County that he did, and most New Yorkers know that he’s a con man (but he’s a good con artist and took in many good Americans). He is “polarizing” but he’s also the most ignorant, vulgar, self-contradicting, lying person who’s ever occupied the office of the presidency. Also, a sex criminal. (What’s not to like?). There’s already a good body of writing in all genres contra Trump, including work by many prominent conservatives. It will grow.

I: Are we then to expect a change in the tone of your future publications?

EO: I’ve had fun writing a group of Trump poems. I suspect
the tone of my poems won’t change much if at all. On the other hand, who knows? I’ve always been interested in seeing what hap- pens, seeing what surprises my unconscious sends me. You plan out poems after, not before, those messages.