On Tuesday, March 29th, James Longenbach and Daisy Fried visited Carnegie Mellon University’s McConomy auditorium, an event sponsored by the Poetry Society of American and supported by the CMU Creative Writing Program and Pittsburgh University. After both writers read some of their work, CMU professor and award-winning poet Terrance Hayes led a Question and Answer session. He began by asking Longenbach and Fried what they think it means to be a great poet.
“I find it difficult to know what it means to be great,” Fried said. “I want to write the greatest poems anyone’s ever written, but it’s foolish to want that.”
Longenbach said he’s not interested in taste, pointing out the differences between the history of art and the history of taste. “Any poet or any artist is in love with their medium. What thrills you is the tactile engagement. If a poet makes you feel that, there will always be something to talk about.” He warned against getting caught up in the fake glamour of the present moment.
Terrance asked both writers to explain their approaches to writing, or as he put it, tell us how their poems “come into the air.”
Fried explained that she gets excited by the little things in poems, and often deliberately finds herself staying in the details. “I have a nerdy approach to writing,” she said. “I don’t start with the musical stuff. But eventually language starts taking over.” She is interested in writing about what a human being is and what makes us human.
“It’s impossible to describe how someone writes poetry,” Longenbach continued. “Each excursion is a new excursion.”
Terrance asked each poet to think of a first poem, favorite poem or poem they find perplexing. Longenbach and Fried discussed Pope, Tennyson, Andrew Marvel’s “The Garden,” and other poems and poets they felt were “under-read, but sonically alive.”
“At what point do you decide there are no perplexing poems in the world?” Terrance asked, and both Fried and Longenbach laughed. In the words of Longenbach, “It’s all perplexing.”