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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

RAE: A Poet Post-Pulitzer
By Inga Kiderra

Professor Rae Armantrout has had a year to digest the news of her Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and what a year it has been.

exact

Quick, before you die,
describe

the exact shade
of this hotel carpet.

What is the meaning
of the irregular, yellow

spheres, some
hollow,

gathered in patches
on this bedspread?

If you love me,
worship

the objects
I have caused

to represent me
in my absence.

*

Over and over
tiers

of houses spill
pleasantly

down that hillside.
It

might be possible
to count occurrences.


Outage

1
We like to think
that the mind
controls the body.

We send the body on a mission.

We don't feel the body,
but we receive conflicting reports.

The body is catching flak
or flies.

The body is sprouting grapefruit.

The body is underperforming
in heavy
trading.

2
Reception is spotty.

Someone "just like me"
is born
in the future
and I don't feel a thing?

Like only goes so far.


soft money

They're sexy
because they're needy,
which degrades them.

They're sexy because
they don't need you.

They're sexy because they pretend
not to need you,

but they're lying,
which degrades them.

They're beneath you
and it's hot.

They're across the border,
rhymes with dancer —

they don't need
to understand.

They're content to be
(not mean),

which degrades them
and is sweet.

They want to be
the thing-in-itself

and the thing-for-you —

Miss Thing —

but can't.

 

The Pulitzer Foundation never called. Who did call poet Rae Armantrout on the day before her sixty-third birthday, was a PR woman from University communications, congratulating her on "the award" and warning that the media would want to talk to her soon.

It was April 12, 2010, and Armantrout couldn't imagine why. Why would the press care about her month-old win of the National Book Critics Circle Award? It took a moment or two—salted with a handful of words we won't print here—to sort out that the award was the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, for her tenth book of poems, Versed. After a moment, Armantrout hollered for her long-time husband, "Chuck, Chuck—come here!" Then the media started calling.

A year later, requests for interviews have slowed down but Armantrout is still going strong. Her eleventh book, Money Shot, came out in February.

What's changed since she won the Pulitzer? She travels even more than she was already doing—to readings, conferences, book festivals. In February, for example, she was on a plane practically every week of the month, crisscrossing the country. April saw her in China. In October she plans trips to the Bay Area, to Paris and to Cambridge, England. And always appended to her name now is The Prize: "Rae Armantrout, Pulitzer winner."

What hasn't changed: She continues to teach at UC San Diego, in the literature department, where she started lecturing three decades ago. She is still married to Charles "Chuck" Korkegian, whom she met as an undergraduate at San Diego State. The rare cancer that dominates the second half of Versed—"How could it not?" she says—is still in remission. As of June 2011, she has been cancer-free for five years.

Though she struggled with what she calls "winner's guilt" for a little bit after winning the Pulitzer, wondering if she deserved it and if the work was really any good, she got over it and got back to writing.

As she has been doing all along, Armantrout assembles her poems into collages that are at once spare and vivid. There are found words—snippets of overheard conversations and bits of things she reads, prosaic things (like a phone bill) or arcane (a volume on physics, say). There are glittering dribs of images. And there are her own, often wry, observations.

"I'm a big note taker. I always have a journal," Armantrout says, pulling one out from her purse and reading two of the latest entries: "He's your typical bowie knife expert," said by someone in a Louisville hotel, and notes from an article on memory in rats.

Armantrout guesstimates that about 10 percent of her journals' contents makes it into poems. The notebooks themselves are finding their way to libraries at Stanford and UCSD, both of which hold collections of her papers.

A native Californian, Armantrout was born in Vallejo and first moved to San Diego when she was 4. She started college at SDSU then transferred to UC Berkeley, where she studied with poet Denise Levertov. She earned a master's at San Francisco State, and it was in the Bay Area, in the '70s, that she came of age as a poet. Armantrout is a founding figure in the first generation of Language Poets, an innovative group often credited with bringing the post-modern to poetry, but one that is still being defined as its central members continue to write.

Her latest collection, Money Shot, was already at press, at Wesleyan, when Armantrout won the Pulitzer. The book's provocative title borrows a term from pornography. It refers to the scene that proves a male performer's orgasm is real. After writing the title poem, Armantrout thought she could never use it for the whole book and then couldn't resist. Money Shot examines the global financial crisis, the market manipulations that led to it and other, as Armantrout calls them, "revelations," in her trademark style.

She is currently at work on a twelfth collection, tentatively titled Just Saying. The book in progress, Armantrout says, doesn't have as dramatic a theme as cancer or worldwide recession. Some of the poems concern speech acts. Some "riff off physics and science." Many start in a hotel—which she likens to "a waiting room in hell." She is not sure when the book will be published. "I'm a little bit afraid they're already tired of me," she says.

Armantrout's fears are misplaced if the starred review of Money Shot in Publisher's Weekly is any guide. "Armantrout," writes PW, "is only getting better: these new poems are among her best, and among the most relevant poems now being written."

And a review appearing in the San Diego Union-Tribune—after noting that "when Armantrout mixes the language of the body with the language of the news, the result is beautiful and strange"—concludes: "[A]lthough the poems in this collection are not easily summarized—in fact, resist summary and simplification—at their most evocative, they stitch together a recognizable pattern, of our lives in this time, in this place. For what else is the poet's role than to 'write things down / to show others / later /or to show myself / that I am not alone with / my experience'?"

Then again, if Armantrout profoundly wanted to take a break, perhaps she could make a second career in the other way that she's really good with words—Scrabble. In her bag, next to her bound, paper journal, is a wireless e-reader device. In addition to containing the Lydia Davis translation of Swann's Way by Proust and Brian Greene's new book on physics, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, it also has her latest Scrabble game. Her total so far: 318.* The computer's is 100. "Hee hee hee," she says, "Score one for humans!"

*Armantrout is careful to point out that she doesn't always beat the machine—just sometimes.

Inga Kiderra is director of communications for the divisions of social sciences and arts and humanities at UC San Diego.