It was a real highlight of my life to interview Galway Kinnell in 2008, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, Wallace Stevens Prize, and former poet laureate of the state of Vermont.
Here is a selected transcript of our interview.
Dr. Kent: Are you working on a new book? Is there a new project going on? Are you supporting these? What’s your plan right now?
Galway Kinnell: I don’t really have plans you know, usually. Occasionally I do. For example, when I wrote The Book of Nightmares, it’s one long poem and it self forms a book. So from the beginning of that until the end I didn’t write anything else and I considered that I had a plan to finish this poem and publish it but that was uncharacteristic. I just write poems and then publish them in magazines maybe and revise them from time to time and put them in a little pile and if the pile gets a little thick, then I think well, maybe I should put out a book.
Dr. Kent: So you mentioned The Book of Nightmares. I’m curious about and that was concerned with the Vietnam War. I’m wondering what your take is right now. Are you writing poetry that’s political then; that was back in 1971, are you still in that place?
Galway Kinnell: Well not really but partly. I think in some of these poems I’ve been writing this Iraq War has slid in and I don’t know provides a kind of context for what I’m writing about, whereas in the Vietnam war I wrote a lot of poems specifically about the war. Trying to persuade the young people from supporting it.
Dr. Kent: And now at the same time you also served in the military and from what I gather you were also in Iran?
Galway Kinnell: Yeah I was in the Navy in the Second World War and I spent about maybe ten years later I spent two years in Iran. Not quite two years. Two chunks of two years, maybe it all added up to a year and a half. I lived in Tehran and I went there as a Fulbright Professor, as a teacher at the university of Tehran and I did and made a lot of acquaintances among the students. Then my time came to go but I didn’t want to go, I was so attracted by this country and so I stayed around for quite a while after that and made my living by writing for the English language edition of the Tehran Journal. I translated a newspaper, the first prominent newspaper.
Dr. Kent: So it sounds like a painful experience through the years to see Iran in the news for the last 25 years.
Galway Kinnell: Yes indeed. At the time I was there the money, the oil money had not started to pour in the way it did later and the Shah who was very progressive in many ways in road building and removing any fines for people, women without fedoras and so on. He was very good in that respect but you could tell that he didn’t really connect with the people. He stood apart and he could not have stayed in there very long and then the oil money came in. This was after I left, and then he was able to do whatever he wanted without any fear and his fear, the fear of the Americans who were there and of the Iranian Regime; their fear was of the left. Everyone was caught by surprise when the revolution came from the right.
Dr. Kent: How did all of this turn for you into a career in poetry? Were you a poet even back at the very beginning in the Navy? When did you sort of start to own your poetness?
Galway Kinnell: I never call myself a poet. Robert Frost said that the term poet is a word of praise and therefore one must never apply it to oneself or it sounds like boasting. But in any case, I was serious about writing my poetry even before I went in the navy and when I was in boot camp I was put in charge of 120 men who had also come into boot camp at that time and I was put in charge because I had taken a semester of college. Then I fell into the habit at night when everyone was in bed and it was very quiet of reading one poem before the lights went out. So, I’ve been interested in poetry, in writing poetry basically all my life but I hadn’t published anything then. When I was in Iran my first book was published in this country and mailed to me. That was very satisfying to see that book.
“We hit that tree with the sound of lightning.”
I nearly lost my life in a car accident on the afternoon of 3/11/2001, exactly 6 months before 9/11. That event and its aftermath forced me to reexamine my life, and to dedicate myself from that day forward to “things that matter.”
The leaves are almost all fallen here in Pennsylvania where we are currently hanging our hats. I hope that you have braved the first snows and freezes of autumn with good courage and many cups of hot tea.
After teaching Millenials for a decade at Stony Brook University and a few other small colleges in New York, and working with clients from military generals to CEOs to young entrepreneurs, I see one thing on the decline everywhere I look: #creativity.
That’s the main reason I applied for, and accepted the invitation to speak at the TEDxSBU conference last month. It was a great honor to see the big TED Talk symbol behind me on the stage, to have incredible filming done by Livestream and Stony Brook, and to spend 18 minutes on the red carpeted dot that so many incredible thought leaders have stood upon over the past few years.
I delivered the most emotionally difficult speech of my life.
Please take a listen, and start the conversation with those around you about the importance of creativity in this fast-paced world.
I know that TED Talks are long. This is no exception. I used just about every one of my allotted 1080 seconds to deliver my message. So here’s the deal. If you listen to this TEDx speech of mine, I will give you something that takes me 18 minutes to do. You name it, and I’ll do it! Just drop me a line, or hit me up on social media with your request. (No reasonable request will be refused)
My former students enjoy the part of the talk where I describe the incredible power of creativity in our lives and work. I describe our experiences and training as a “wingsuit,” and encourage us to make more “leaps” in our lives — to take measured risks — and in my favorite line of the talk, I say: “We will #fail, but we will never fall.”
Here’s just one more thought to leave you with. I believe there is significance to sharing our stories with people. I could have spoken about so many things, whether music (where I have my PhD and academic credentials), publishing or business (where I make my career and run a successful company). But I decided to speak about the three words that changed the rest of my life. Ever since March 11, 2001, I have decided to blink my eyes open each morning and do things that matter.
How about you?
I would love to hear your thoughts — and how you blink your eyes open each day. We are alive! Also, if you are moved by this talk, please drop me a line and/or spread the word:
Today is a big day in my world: I’m giving away my book, and my brand new record Short Life of Trouble: A Tribute to Arthel Doc Watson. It’s easy to download both – just visit NoiseTrade here: http://bit.ly/kent-noisetrade – or listen to a bit of the record below – and click to download the album and the ebook right here.