Frostwriting

Michael Cantor

by Janice D. Soderling

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Michael, in the foreword of your most recent collection Life in the Second Circle (Able Muse Press), Deborah Warren who, like you, is a top-flight formalist poet, has written:

Michael Cantor uses words to paint and sculpt the world—which I don’t say as an afterthought, since verbal wit is Cantor’s forte. But I want to be sure to mention right up front the 3D nature of the Cantor universe. Life in the Second Circle is a sensory kaleidoscope where the poems are more like movies.

I too have always been struck by the cinematic quality of your work. Is this something you deliberately strive for or do you think in pictures, in scenes?

I have practically zero formal training in poetry, and my approach is often cinematic/pictorial because I’ve lived far closer to films and painting (and the short story). I was in my mid-sixties when I started writing poetry. It took only about seven seconds to realize that poetry was where I belonged.

Although I always identified as a writer, I was educated as a engineer and spent over forty years in various levels of corporate management, in the States and around the world, always playing the game that I was there temporarily, only until my first few short stories were accepted, the novel would follow, and I would be off on my literary career and justly famous. After a few years I essentially stopped writing though I always managed to deceive myself that I was a writer. I wrote a lot of advertising copy and a considerable number of raunchy retirement poems for colleagues, but didn’t return to literary writing until I myself retired. I took up short stories again and went right back to my old habit of rewriting every line ten times, and worrying more about the sound of the words than about plot and story and (unconsciously, since I didn’t know an iamb from a trochee) the meter and rhythm of each sentence. It finally dawned on me that I was writing poetry, that sonnets in particular were a blend of poetry and story. I’ve moved away from the form now, but many of my early pieces were sonnets.

So I don’t deliberately strive for a cinematic effect; it’s just the way my mind works. I’m not influenced directly by Richard Wilbur or Frost or Yeats or Eliot. Well, maybe sometimes by Eliot. He’s special. But as I write I often find myself picturing a scene from Kurosawa, or a Hopper painting, or something (maybe only a sense) from Cheever or Updike or Malamud, and letting that mood impact my writing. I draw on my life for many of my poems, and the intellectual part of that life was films, painting, short story, and T.S. Eliot.

Another characteristic I am curious about is how you manage to be so good at finding the bon mot, the witty conversational turn of phrase that cuts like a scalpel. Some examples: life being life, the bitch it wants to be. To think outside the box, prepare the box. I knew a man, who had a man, who knew / a man inside the Ministry. Such gravitas is how one plays the game. The look I want is slightly dégrade. Do these come in a flash, in an instant, or do you go through blood, sweat and tears for them?

The concept of the turn of phrase comes to me in a flash. Sometimes I go into a poem with little else than a neat concept and a general idea of where I want to go with it. But generally the concept is nowhere near ready for publication. Most of my writing is metrical, and the concept has to be aligned with that; much of my writing rhymes and the concept has to work there. It generally takes a lot of work and many, many tries to make a poem seem natural, for those casual turns of phrase to sound casual. I have a brief poem on the construction of a Japanese teahouse in my book in which I state: Great care is necessary to deny/all carefulness… That sums it up.

I have many favorites among your poems, but a special one is “Freshly Shaved and Barbered Well” about an Elmer Gantry type who comes to town and flim-flams the townspeople. It ends:

For the dowser man is here and he knows
streams and rains, and all the secret ways
beneath the church and school; and with my smoke
and mirrors, images and rhythm spells,
and forked young rod and cymbals, pipes, and drum,
I have such tricks as make the public hum.

That last line sums up your dexterity as a poet. In your poems you are truly a dowser man, but I know that you put much work into your craftsmanship and are your own most demanding critic. Would you like to say something to the budding poets about how you view craftsmanship?

This relates to my previous comment. I think that—assuming you’re a reasonably decent poet to start with—the difference between a mediocre or average poem and one that is very special is a matter of writing and rewriting and re-rewriting, of constantly looking at a poem and working to improve it. Usually the changes are small but significant. Particularly in formal verse where every sound counts. Sometimes I even go back to basics and try a different form. There may be a few “first draft/best draft” geniuses in the world, but I’ve never met any. The good poets I know all work their poems over and over. And, at least in my case, if a poem is subsequently picked up for an anthology—particularly if it’s one I haven’t looked at for a while—I’ll check it again. And certainly before I put anything in a book manuscript.

Consequently, I don’t grind poems out quickly. Every once in a while something is “done” in a few days, but normally I work on dozens of poems at a time and any particular poem might take a month before I think it’s at the point where I can workshop or submit it. Or it might be dormant for a year or more, and then I look at it and see a breakthrough. Ideally (even if I rarely achieve it) the idea is to make every poem better than what has come before, unique rather than simply “acceptable”.

You have lived abroad in several countries. Do you think that has given you a special eye for seeing and describing everyday events?

I think it has. I was so young and utterly naive when I started working abroad. I’d attended college on a full scholarship, lived at home, had hardly been out of New York. I flew for the first time when I went to Belgium in 1959. My head was full of foreign films and art and literature and it just exploded. I lived first in Europe and later in Japan. If I’d been more worldly, more mature I might have been less impressed. I was overwhelmed, in a good way. And that feeling of awed awareness has stayed with me.

Janice D. Soderling is poetry editor at Frostwriting and a member of the university class that got us all together. She is guest associate editor for the special translation issue of Able Muse, and assistant fiction editor at Able Muse. Janice is a past featured co-reader at Transatlantic Poetry on Air, teamed up with Roberto Ascalon.

Issue 12 contents

Poetry