Q&A: Marianne Boruch, Purdue's Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award Winner

The professor of creative writing and poetry at the West Lafayette–based school lands a $100,000 prize.

Poet Marianne Boruch has won other awards in the past, but nothing prepared her for the news that she’d won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the largest monetary prize for a single collection of poetry in the world. Boruch, who has been teaching at Purdue for nearly three decades, won the $100,000 award for her 2011 collection The Book of Hours. Nature-oriented poems dominate the collection, borne out of the extended periods Boruch spent in the woods over the past five years. Other poems in the collection depict people in more everyday settings, and some ruminate on poetry itself. As she prepared to leave for yesterday’s award ceremony at Claremont Graduate University in California, Boruch talked with IM about the award, her book, and great poetry.

JASON SIMPSON: What does a poet do with $100,000?

MARIANNE BORUCH: What does a poet do with that much money? Maybe get new curtains for my garret? The old standbys: food, shelter. I always tell my students the whole notion of writing is so idealized. The bottom line is we’re like carpenters or plumbers, our heads down, working steadily—as William Carlos Williams said—on our “small machines of words.” We can only hope that our work might be at times as useful to the world as what those carpenters and plumbers manage!

JS: You’ve won other awards in the past, but this is a big one. What does this particular recognition mean to you?

MB: To tell the truth, I would have been happy—and was—just to be finalist for the Kingsley Tufts prize. I was stunned by that news alone. It’s true I’ve been given other awards in the past—a Guggenheim fellowship, and a couple from the National Endowment for the Arts—but these were to write future poems. Those bought me time. This one was truly a bolt from the blue, and recognized work out there, already completed.

*JS: In your opinion, what makes a great poem?

MB: I’m not sure—poems are very odd, mysterious things, more so to me the longer I work toward them. But there are certain ones that have the source of poetry itself in them. They look back at those who write them. You don’t report in a poem; you get in there and discover something you never thought of before, about self or world or both. And as [Robert] Frost tells us, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” No formulas allowed. That’s the maddening thing about poems: One is always reinventing the wheel, and hoping for transformation.

JS: Who are some of your favorite poets, whose work inspires you?

MB: I have too many favorites! Out of the 19th century: I keep learning truly wild stuff from [Emily] Dickinson and [Walt] Whitman. And the British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Of the moderns, I love Frost, Williams, some of Wallace Stevens, and that true oddball, Marianne Moore. More recent poets: Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, scary Sylvia Plath. Among those writing now, I’d include Lucia Perillo, Brigit Kelly, Ellen Voigt, Tom Andrews, Russell Edson, James Tate, and Tony Hoagland. We live in a really lucky time for poetry. All sorts of mad, very interior things are going on; it’s one giant laboratory out there.

*JS: How autobiographical is your work? Are the people in your poems fictitious?

MB: For me, writing is more about losing the self than finding it. That said, I draw from experience—what else do we credibly have? So yes, there is autobiography in my poems at times. I want and need that grounding. My mother’s death runs through The Book of Hours, for example, flashes of what my brother and I went through, and how my mother endured at the end. The observable natural world is huge in the collection too, more “tooth and claw” than sweetly pastoral. Poetry is made of the real and surreal, a matter of attention to both the actual and the imagined.

*JS: What do you think it is about nature that makes it such a great subject (or source) for poetry?

MB: The great subjects of poetry include love and death, knowledge and time—and nature. I feel strongly that every generation has to deal with those. The natural world is absorbing and strange, and with our smarts and worry and opposable thumbs, we think ourselves outside of it somehow. But we’re not. I had this perverse impulse to take the more “poetic” solacing view of nature—as a benevolent and peaceful place and state of mind—and mess it up some, tell the unpretty truth about it. Some of the truth. The natural world is endlessly complex but really, it’s mainly sex and violence in the woods.

JS: What direction is your poetry currently taking?

MB: I have a new collection of poems—Cadaver, Speak—coming out next year, which was triggered by a semester I spent in the Gross Human Anatomy Lab, the so-called “Cadaver Lab,” at the IU Medical School’s branch on the Purdue campus. I also took Life Drawing that term, both experiences quite profound, after I applied for a Faculty Fellowship in a Second Discipline that Purdue offers its full-time staff. But of course I want to go back to the woods. When school’s out, I’m going back to work on new poems at The Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota, another place I wrote parts of the book. It’s at the edge of town near a wonderful rails-to-trails path that cuts through forest and meadow. I’ll put out my begging bowl, and see what drops in.

Photo by Will Dunlap