ARCHIVE: The ‘Boss’ of Bards is Back

Former United States Poet Laureate (and native son of Long Branch) Robert Pinsky makes a special homecoming appearance on Thursday as part of Monmouth University’s Visiting Writers series.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 30, 2009)

Here at Red Bank oRBit, where our interview subjects often reach the level of sophistication represented by Jackie the Joke Man, we’re grateful for those rare opportunities when some eminent personality — a well-known actor or musician, a noted director or artist — consents to chat with us for a spell.

For this eight month old, web-only venture, being treated on a par with members of the “real” media is a special thrill — a thrill tempered only by the anxiety that comes from being called upon to ask questions of the Poet Laureate of the United States.

In this case, it helps tremendously when that Laureate is also famous for his appearances on The Simpsons and The Colbert Report.

Certainly, Robert Pinsky is a formidable figure — a Ph.D in philosophy, a professor at UC Berkeley and Boston College. Pulitzer-lauded author of some dozen volumes of poetry, plus numerous books and essays on art and the greater culture. An accomplished amateur jazz musician who relaxes by jamming with some of the heaviest cats extant. He produced what’s regarded as the definitive translation of Dante’s Inferno, and his unprecedented three terms as America’s official ambassador of poetry (during the second Clinton administration) resulted in the near-universally acclaimed Favorite Poem Project.

Most of all, Robert Pinsky is a native son of the Jersey Shore, born and raised in Long Branch — and as apt to rhapsodize about a classic Max’s hot dog as he is about Greville and Gascoigne.

When Pinsky takes the stage of the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University on Thursday afternoon as part of the school’s Visiting Writers series, it’ll be a homecoming for the man who delivered the commencement address on the West Long Branch campus back in 1997. And it’s all the more significant because this free speaking engagement, co-sponsored by the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, will herald the publication of his new book — an extended essay on small town America, in which the seaside city of his childhood plays a major part. More on that in a moment.

With the April 2 event having been moved to the Pollak from the stately but smallishWilson Hall, this attractor of popstar-sized crowds; this brilliant artist whose working-class origins and Jersey-guy heritage continue to bless his work with outright joy and a never-condescending clarity, can only be called Boss — The Boss of the Bards.

Fielding a set of clumsy questions from the oRBit desk, Pinsky waxed characteristically eloquent on three generations of Long Branch life, the presence of high art in low places, and the miraculous technology for information delivery that you won’t find at Best Buy. Read on.

RED BANK OBIT: What’s the format going to be for the upcoming appearance at Monmouth U? Lecture, Q&A with moderator, informal chat, readings?

ROBERT PINSKY: Whatever feels right — possibly, a little of each. All Of The Above?

I wonder if you have a particularly vivid recollection of a young life spent in Long Branch…a favorite place to hang out with friends? A favorite spot to be alone with your thoughts?

In the Golden Age, you could have a Ballantine’s and a Max’s hot dog when Max’s was on the boardwalk side of Ocean Avenue. When there was a Long Branch boardwalk! Pizza at Freddie’s or Nunzio’s, clams at Danny Maher’s. Crabbing at Pleasure Bay, the circus at Flanagan’s Field. Tea dances at Red Bank Catholic.

It means a lot to me to come back here again. In a couple of weeks, U of Chicago Press will be publishing my little book Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town. The book mixes memories of Long Branch with sections on towns in Mark TwainWilla CatherPreston Sturges,William FaulknerAlfred Hitchcock.

There will be illustrations, including a picture of my bartender grandfather Dave Pinsky standing, with his dukes up, on Broadway near the Paramount theater. Also, my father with his sports team The Jewish Aces, posed in front of Long Branch High School. And a photo of the big Ku Klux Klan parade marching down Broadway.

Would you ever consent to letting the town name something after you, or hold some sort of civic event in your honor? Long Branch is also the birthplace of Dorothy Parker, and the local Arts Council has been successful in turning her birthday into a fun public event, complete with a dog walk to her birthplace marker plaque, and unofficially-sanctioned cocktail party at a local lounge.

From what I know of Dorothy Parker, she would prefer the unofficial cocktail party to the dog walk.

I’ve read about a performance you gave to the music of Stan Getz…wondering if you’ve got some other particular favorites on the reeds that you’d recommend to anyone who’s serious about sax technique? Any musical tastes that some people might find surprising?

I have performed lately with the great vibraphone player Mike Mainieri, and with pianist Vijay Iyer, as well as percussionists Andrew Cyrille and Rakalam Bob Moses. Many tenor players I admire, Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon near the top. The title poem of my recent book Gulf Music quotes the vocalist and piano player Professor Longhair.

You’ve never seemed the least bit cautious about jumping into a new medium, working with a new technology…that said, do you still harbor a nostalgia for the printed periodical; a connoisseur’s love of the book as object?

In poetry, it’s the sounds of the words and syllables and sentences that is paramount: the medium is any reader’s actual or imagined voice. The book or computer monitor or manuscript is just notation. Performance by the poet or an actor is just a hint: the audience’s breath, by which I mean any reader’s voice, is the medium for a poem.

Regarding the many ways in which we engage each other, are we being trained these days to get the point across as economically as possible? Is there poetry hidden within those character-limited “tweets”…kind of like a haiku? Or is it all so much Orwellian “Newspeak?

Human intelligence is resilient and resourceful, takes many different forms. The novel was considered a low-class, degraded form in its first decades, as was the movie. Poetry in the way I’ve defined it — an art with one person’s voice, not necessarily the artist’s, as its medium — is fundamental and undying. Like dancing or cuisine or lovemaking. Changing technology may affect the manifestations, but not the great core of the art itself.

Is it really all that necessary for an audience to “identify” with a character, a mood, a memory, for a work to be deemed “successful?” Would we be better off if we stopped trying to find “us” in everything we read, look at or listen to, and free the artist to take us someplace truly surprising?

Read aloud to yourself, or to one or two other people, and such issues recede.

You’ve written about and cameo’d on THE SIMPSONS; appeared on THE COLBERT REPORT; proclaimed your respect for POGO and Sid Caesar. In other words, you’re not shy about maintaining a place in the popular culture, and I’m interested in hearing your take on the effectiveness of such pop devices as the “spoken word slam” in helping young people tap into their poetic potential?

People take many routes to an art. In a culture that worships performance, in which mighty corporations promote performers and performances, it is natural that for many young people the route to actual poetry may include forms that ape the forms of show business. Why not?

Sid CaesarWalt Kelly’s PogoBuster Keaton, Preston Sturges, and yes, the creators of The Simpsons and The Colbert Report are impressive artists. The “pop” category is not important to me, nor are fads and trends.

Finally, would you be at all offended if we were to illustrate this article in part with a photo montage featuring some of your hairstyles over the years?

Contact my attorneys regarding this matter! (My children will be amused and delighted, the more so the sillier I look.)

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