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An Interview with Donald Justice The following interview was conducted in Iowa City in the winter of 1979, just prior to the publication of Donald Justice's Selected Poems. The interviewer is Larry Levis. Interviewer: How did you begin writing? Do you remember exactly? Justice: Not exactly. It was during adolescence, when many people must start. I think there is a sort of stir, a boiling up of things. What I was really interested in was writing music—I had a kind of basic artistic . . . desire. At the same time, I read a lot. Reading a lot, playing a lot of music and trying to write music, I began to write a few other things, little stories and poems. Most of this was done in isolation. My friends were often musi­ cians but only one of them wanted to write music. And yet I knew no one who wanted to write stories or poems. So what writing I did was done in even greater isolation until, I suppose, I got to college, at which time I began to think more seriously about it, and met a few others who had similar ambitions. But it was a long time, quite a few years, before I began to settle on poetry rather than prose. Interviewer: So you began with prose? Justice: With both, with either, with anything—plays. I've always want­ ed to write plays but have never been very good or lucky at it. At that time in my life, I was willing to write anything. The same with music. . . things were just pouring out, you know that sort of sensation. If I could have drawn or painted, I'm sure I would have tried that, too. But I had no ability, no knack for that. Interviewer: Do you think that playing, or practicing music, influenced you as a poet, or would it be possible to know whether it did? Justice: It must have, but in what specific ways I can't imagine. One of the dimensions of poetry that have always fascinated me has been the rhythms, the meters, and I suppose that would be roughly analogous to T h e M is s o u r i R eview • 41 “There would be a common sensibility in composing music and writing poems . . . " something in music—but the rhythms of music and of poetry are by no means the same. There would be a common sensibility in composing music and writing poems; the same sort of . . . of creative desire would obviously lie behind virtually any of the arts. But music and poetry are the two that I would know most about from personal experience. In both there is the same kind of joy in working something out, quite compul­ sively perhaps, and that is what must have engaged me when I tried to write music, and does now when I try to work out a poem. And the joy of working it out and completing it are both part of the process of making something up—I don't mean inventing only but actually creating some­ thing—and then trying to get it right. Interviewer: Do you think that translating, say translating Eugene Guillevic , and other poets, has had much effect on your own work? Justice: Reading what was then contemporary French poetry in the early sixties, as I was doing for a project—getting together a book of French translations—reading in that poetry did affect what I was writing . . . and especially when I found a poet who seemed to have a singular style unmatched by any of the styles then or now in vogue in American poetry—Guillevic. Just to read him seemed to constitute a kind of discov­ ery for me. I had, for a while, the ambition to translate that style, as it were, into American verse. That was a passing interest, but it did engage me seriously for a while and I think that I did manage to do just that, in fact, but it made no difference to anybody else, as far as I could tell, or to the history of poetry . . . [laughter] I'm glad I did it. What I tried to...


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