You seem to write mostly if not exclusively in prose poetry. Were you inspired to write prose poems by someone you admire or did it seem the natural vehicle for your imagination? How did you start down that road?
David Friedman: For many years I wrote linguistically interesting but rather private verse. I was in a rut, and all my poems sounded the same. A friend challenged me to write a personification. It worked. I wrote a prose poem, and I have stayed with that form ever since. It has been liberating. It gives me flexibility to use alliteration and cadence and other music-making devices while achieving more accessible meaning. I also realized that some of the best poetry I ever read was prose poetry: occasionally in Shakespeare; in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Michael T. Young: Your poems seem to move along, often propelled by wordplay and satire. Do you find that in composing you are led by the wordplay, or do you find yourself starting at first with an idea or thought about something?
David Friedman: I rarely begin with an idea or thought. Wordplay and language are most important. When I read a poem, I read the writing first, later the meaning. Thus I focus on the quality of the writing. Anyone can dish out meaning (or meaninglessness) or tell a story in verse. I like to think my poems give pleasures only poetry can give: the joys of language, music, emotional impact.
Michael T. Young: You use the character of the green bear a lot in your poetry. What do you see the green bear as representing or symbolizing?
David Friedman: The green bear (all lower-case) is a character I invented and brought to life to take on the burden of some of my poems. He is not a symbol. I suppose it is significant to say that the bear’s color suggests his specialness as well as an apartness or alienation. Finally, bears are sort of lovable, and there are not a lot of talking green ones out there.
Michael T. Young: The poem, “Time Poem” says, “If I conclude that I am awake, how can I get where I am going without fresh obsessions and delusions?” I had a sense that the movement of time is a personal thing, not merely a measure of change by a watch or atomic clock. Is there something to this and how do you see time and our personal relationship to it?
David Friedman: I think this poem is as much about the fear of multiplicity and about the yearning for perfection as about anything else. It is also, as you say, about the movement of time as a personal thing.
Winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series, chosen by Stephen Dunn
Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, March 6, 2006. 96 pages, ISBN: 978-0252072925
(click the image to be taken to where you can order The Welcome)
Michael T. Young: There seem to be a few key poems in the collection The Welcome that connect identity, history and time: poems like “The Past,” “Time Poem,” and “Seasons” to name a few obvious ones. What do you see as the vital connection among these elements: identity, history and time? Is there any and if so what characterizes it?
David Friedman: I would have to be a philosopher to answer your question. But all three are in the mix and impact on each other. Regarding History: I believe it is important to try to connect with history, especially one’s own history. Someone in my poem says that the green bear would do well to close the gap between himself and his forefathers. This is very difficult and problematic.
Michael T. Young: The collection also seems to explore questions of identity as in poems like “Missing Person” or “Who I Am.” They seem to suggest a slippery quality to the self, that it is not easily graspable or even wants to be graspable. As “Who I Am” says, “I am mythic and protean.” Do you feel the self is somewhat indistinct or not as definite a shape as we often take for granted or do you feel differently? How do you feel your personal thoughts on what constitute a self played into the collection?
David Friedman: I do believe the subject of the self is slippery, like the subject of time. I think you read my work well in this regard. The question perhaps relates to the notions of being in time or outside of it; and of being both Everyman and not Everyman. So the green bear is not the same as the author. I like to think of the self as a kind of work in progress. I love Keats's idea that the world is the vale of soul-making..
Michael T. Young: There seems to be a need to connect with the earth within the poems as in the poem “Bird of Paradise.” The green bear figure comes in again where he is “not on any proper map” and has mixed feelings about this situation. But a bird of paradise sympathizes with him, claims to be homeless as well and guides him with the words, “Now I go by the winds, by the aromas of forests, by the strength of cataracts.” Then the green bear is assured in his place. Is this rootedness in earth and trust in his connection to the earth something you feel we have lost and need to return to? What characterizes its vitality? What do you feel would be a consequence of ignoring it?
David Friedman: I believe in the importance of rootedness. But I also believe it is not the only solution to alienation. I hope the poem speaks for itself on this. We ignore nature to our peril, and we value what is "down to earth." It's scary not to be on a map (and sad, especially when there are so many places with beautiful names). The green bear stands ambiguously alone: on his own feet and lonely. To stand alone is uncomfortable and brave. Independence is good and risky. Otherwise we would never leave home. It's good to try your wings. It's also good to use what you have and to be resourceful. So this poem seems to be "about" many things. Another is the idea that anonymity may have its virtues. Perhaps this poem is about ambiguity.
Michael T. Young: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? Which one is it and what is significant about it for you?
David Friedman: The title poem, “The Welcome,” has had a lot of play, and it is, I suppose, a crowd-pleaser. But I’m not ashamed of that.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?
David Friedman: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Sons and Lovers inspired and confirmed my desire to be a writer, an artist. I love both books.
Michael T. Young: I had the pleasure of giving a reading with you recently. Do you enjoy giving readings and do you feel they help listeners enter the work in any way?
David Friedman: Although I enjoy poetry readings, I believe it is easier to hear the real and subtle and complex music of a lyric poem and to apprehend its intellectual or humanistic content by reading it silently on the page.
Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
David Friedman: I like classic films, meeting with close friends including my brother, Indian food, and sitting on a Village street watching the world go by.
Michael T. Young: David, thank you for taking the time for this interview. Let’s close with your favorite poem from your collection.
. . . Do you wish to immigrate to my heart? Where are your
papers? What are your purposes?
. . . Are you lost? Are you broken? Come to the chamber of
my heart for safety. Remember the old country. I was not
there. I was waiting for you here.
. . . Do you wish to be naturalized in my arms? Let me instruct
you in the new tongue. Tread softly; Death too first makes
inquiry, then shows the way.
. . . Come, pledge allegiance to my tattered proud flag. Here,
and here only, the streets are paved with gold.