Claire Hamner Matturro interviews poet Thomas Rabbitt


Claire Hamner Matturro

When I was in graduate school at The University of Alabama, Thomas Rabbitt was one of my poetry professors. I took several workshops with him as well as an introduction to modern poetry class. Professor Rabbitt was both an excellent teacher and an excellent poet. I credit him with finally teaching me control and focus in my writing, lessons which carried over from poetry to nonfiction and fiction as well. He also turned me on to reading Galway Kinnell and many other great contemporary poets. It’s been my pleasure to reconnect after all the decades between.

Educated at Harvard College, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Iowa, Thomas Rabbitt taught at the University of Alabama from 1972 until 1998. His first book, Exile, won the 1974 “Pitt Prize” (the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum). His other books include The Booth Interstate, The Abandoned Country, Enemies of the State, Prepositional Heaven and American Wake: New & Selected Poems. Individual poems appear in such prestigious magazines and journals as the Nation, Esquire, Poetry, Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review, and Black Warrior Review, and have been reprinted in a dozen anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2000 and The Pushcart Prize XIX. He now lives in Tennessee.

Claire Matturro

CHM: Thank you, Thomas Rabbitt for taking the time to share your thoughts on a few subjects from horses to Ireland to Tuscaloosa to sonnets. First, a historical question if I might. You went to Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1972 to organize a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing there. You stayed there as its director until 1998, leading the program to national prominence, and publishing several acclaimed books of poetry along the way, including Exile (1974), winner of the Pitt prize in poetry. But where were you before Tuscaloosa professionally?

TR:  Before Alabama I spent two years in Iowa at the Writers Workshop; before that I lived in the San Francisco area, first working in advertising and then teaching seventh and eighth graders. Before my California adventure I spent a year getting an M.A. at Johns Hopkins and before Baltimore I was in Cambridge for six years, four as a student at Harvard and two passing – like many arty types – as a ribbon clerk.

At the 1972 MLA convention in Chicago where I was interviewed for the Alabama job I was asked two questions the answers to which I believe got me hired: did I really study with Robert Lowell? (Yes, in two poetry writing workshops.)  And had I ever been to Alabama. (Yes, again: I was arrested during the 1965 Selma march and charged with parading without a permit in a white neighborhood; charges dropped. No interviewer asked whose bed sheets I was wearing.)

From 1972 to 1998, I taught at Alabama. Hysterical revisionists have claimed I didn’t really found the MFA program because someone else had suggested the idea over coffee in a place called the Little Bohemian. However, I seem to remember writing the proposals, shepherding them past unwilling colleagues and senior administrators, arguing for funds and more faculty, trying to keep those colleagues from misappropriating program money for their own pet projects. Actually the infighting was fun; I was able to misbehave for a worthy cause.

I especially remember typing, in the days before universal Xerox, all the student poems for the weekly worksheets. I typed them on what were called “spirit masters” which, before they wore out, produced purple copy. It was all I could do to keep from revising or correcting. Eventually all mistakes seemed inevitable, even reasonable. Like “spirit masters” and the color purple. No one ever realized that my typing was closet criticism.

I’m not sure when exactly I stopped being program director. For a while the job rotated from me to Allen Wier, Dara Wier, and Don Hendrie Jr who was especially good at it. It settled on him until his illness and retirement. I replaced him for a while and, at last, was able – sometime before 1998 – to surrender my sash and my keys.

 CHM: That’s quite the journey. I remember those purple “spirit masters,” even have a few in a box somewhere, but I never realized you had to retype our poems to make them. May I offer a belated “thank you” for all that typing. Now, how and when did you discover you were a poet? And how did you feel about that discovery?

Thomas Rabbitt

TR:  I fell in love with the language of poetry – the magic of sound – before I could read. By listening I was able to memorize “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.”  I was about three and was encouraged to speak the poem to company. Sometimes I suffered stage fright and couldn’t continue, much to the embarrassment of my parents and their friends. Stage fright still haunts me. Some wonderful poems – not my own – haunt me as well. But as a child I didn’t think of myself as a poet. When I was a Harvard freshman, I took a creative writing class from Edgar Rosenberg. For our first conference I gave him too many bad poems which he read with kindness and patience. When he finished reading, he looked up at me and said, “Mister Rabbitt, you’re a poet.”  I thanked him for what, mistakenly, I thought was a compliment. “Don’t thank me,” he said; “I had nothing to do with it.”  Still, I felt as though I’d been officially appointed to the office. I still think of it as the high point of my career.

CHM: Tagging on to that discussion, in your interview in 2004 with storySouth, you mention a child hood poem about a dog. Do you by chance still have any of your childhood poems? I won’t ask you to share, but if you still have any, did you detect early on a theme or format or something that suggested the poet you have become? How has your poetry evolved over the decades? Do you think you are bolder now in terms of topics and themes?

TR:  No childhood poems survive. Too many were saccharine religious pieces meant to please my mother.  “My Dog” was the only truly personal poem I can remember. It matters to me because I didn’t have a dog, though of course I wanted one. I was probably five or six when I wrote it. At that age I learned the most important Socratic/Platonic lesson: poets are liars. At nine I got my first dog, a collie puppy I called “Rex.”  Auden, in his dirge for Yeasts, wrote that poetry makes nothing happen. I had to wait a few years for that nothing to happen for me: Christmas morning, 1952. I’ve tried to keep faith with Little-Big-Man’s notion that sometimes the magic works, that the poems will work if, like Peter Pan, one continues to believe.

In 2003, after three years in Ireland, I returned to the US and within a few months I stopped writing because I felt that my most recent book at the time, American Wake, my eleventh collection, was a last chance failure. I saw no sense in going on. The twin towers had fallen. Belief failed me. Or I failed it. I had to read Tolkien for the magic. I began writing again about four years ago.

CHM: Those poems you began writing again “about four years ago” must be some of the ones in your newest collection of poetry, Tour of A Lifetime: Glenamaddy to Gomorrah (Pine Row Press October 2022), as your publisher Hank Hudepohl indicated to me that the sixty poems in that collection were new. They are poems written in the sonnet format on a wide range of topics. Might you tell us more about this collection, how it came to be, where you wrote these poems, and why use sonnets?

TR:  Between 2019 and 2022 I wrote several hundred poems, most of them sonnets. None was written in a closet. In the fifteen years when I wasn’t writing I would get plenty of ideas for poems, but when an idea came, I’d see it as the occasion for another nap and soon enough the idea would be irrecoverable. In a letter I wrote to my friend, the poet Jim Cronin, I opened with a sentence which, as Jim noticed, sounded a lot like poetry. It was too late for another nap so I finished the poem which became “Out of Time.”  Like the little Dutch boy taking his hand away from the hole in the dike, I released a torrent. Soon I had enough copy for something of book-length which I sent to a few competitions. In exchange for my entry fees I got a couple of nice notes. I tried again the next year, mostly new poems, still mostly sonnets, with the same results, nice notes at least one of which was identical to a nice note of the year before. When I submitted Tour of a Lifetime, I had so many new poems I put together two books. I paid my fees and double-dipped, sending a pair of manuscripts to competitions which had indicated that more than one was okay, as long as I paid for each. One manuscript was a collection of poems of various shapes and sizes and the other all sonnets. But I was beginning to lose confidence in the sonnets, especially the Shakespearean arrangement of rhymes with the final couplet clanging like a tocsin. I tried to undo those couplets or at least subdue the noise. And, while I don’t mind writing decent sentences, I didn’t want the poems to be airless, so I began to open the syntax and the lines and play both structures against one another. I was also nursing a pissy memory – of an editor who, according to rumor, would not accept any poems that smelled of lavender. So I performed transsexual surgery on several poems and was pleased at the time to see them published. But I knew that I was sacrificing some sort of truth for false gratification. Poems are fictions which try to find the truth. Many of the poems of Tour of a Lifetime take seriously time spent in Gomorrah, even if the Irish sound of the word can be a distraction, another sort of romantic lie.

CHM: If I have my facts right, you started the MFA program at Alabama in 1972 and left it in 1998. From what I recall of the program in the late 70s when I was a graduate student at UA (though not in the MFA program), the faculty was you, Barry Hannah, and Marcel Smith, and I’m not even sure Professor Smith was really part of the MFA program. And Hannah didn’t join the faculty at UA until 1975. So from a barebone beginning, the Creative Writing program at UA has grown to have three pages of faculty listed on its website. My general impression is that you built the program while also teaching full time, raising horses, and writing fine poetry. Looking back on the MFA program, what memories might you share?

TR:  When I began at Alabama the creative writing faculty was me and the fiction writer Otha Hopper, a hold-over from the days of the infamous Hudson Strode. Otha and I began as friends, but he was a sad man, disappointed by life and his career as a writer. Our friendship ended abruptly when he was told I was a queer. Not much I could do about that. Hannah was hired to replace Hopper, who retired soon after I won the Pitt and the department voted me tenure (though the administration held off for a while). Marcel Smith, my dear friend and one of the department’s polymaths, was never officially part of the creative writing program, but he was always enthusiastically involved.

CHM: Horses! When you were in Tuscaloosa as director of the MFA in Creative Writing program, you lived west of the city in the country, and you had horses. Now you live in Tennessee, and you have horses. As I read your standard bio, however, you grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. So how did a city boy discover horses? And how did you learn about them? One of the sonnets in Tour of a Lifetime speaks of “Two foals came earlier than expected,” which at least hints that you might still be raising horses. What kind of horses? Do you train and show them?

TR:  Before Harvard I attended Boston Latin School, at the time all boys, and the oldest public school in the United States (established in 1635, a year before Harvard). The course of study was either six years (for students entering the seventh grade from grammar schools) or four years (for those entering the ninth grade from parochial schools). In my class, that of 1961, about 1200 boys enrolled (800 from public schools, 400 from parochial).  Two hundred and sixty-three graduated. Every graduate was admitted to at least one college or service academy. Twenty-seven were admitted to Harvard. One eccentric went to Yale.

For six years I commuted by bus and trolley from my neighborhood in Hyde Park to Avenue Louis Pasteur, near the Fenway and Harvard Medical School. The ride, crowded and uncomfortable, could take as long as ninety minutes. We were burdened by textbooks and the homework we hadn’t finished. In 1954, when I was eleven years old, Hyde Park, the last town annexed by Boston and the farthest from the city center, was changing from rural to suburban. My street was still gravel. Almost every house had a chicken coop. Milk was delivered. The rag man and the produce man drove horse-drawn wagons. When I was still in grammar school I rode my bicycle even further into the country to one of several livery stables where, in exchange for cleaning stalls, I could ride for free. I wanted a horse even more than a dog. When I was in my first year (Class 6) at Latin School my mother complained to my English teacher that all I read were books about horses and dogs. “So what’s the problem?” Mr. McNamara asked. “At least he reads.”

In 1972 I bought my first horse at an Amish livestock sale in Kalona, Iowa. An orphan colt for twenty-six dollars. (The Amish were also selling beer.)  My friend, the poet Roger Weingarten, helped me transport the colt in the camper of his little pick-up truck. From Kalona to somewhere near Iowa City I sat in the back with the little horse, both hands wrapped around the halter, my feet braced against the wheel wells, his front feet dancing dangerously between my knees – my first adventure as a horse owner.

I’ve owned horses since then: quarter horses, paints, thoroughbreds, and now – because of their intelligence and elegance – I raise Straight Egyptian Arabians. I no longer ride because I’m physically unable to, but my disability has taught me patience, which the horses seem to appreciate.

CHM: Ah, so not a big city childhood, but one with some rural influences. That’s a wonderful story about you and your first horse. Now, let me switch gears. In the 2004 interview at storySouth, you wrote at length about your relationship to sonnets. You said at that time that you did not “consider myself primarily a writer of sonnets and do not want to be labeled as such,” yet in Tour of a Lifetime, you wrote exclusively in the sonnet form. Might you address how you currently feel about sonnets and why you used that form, with all its strict format and required discipline, in your recent work?

TR:   In Tour of a Lifetime I included only sonnets, but I was at the same time writing poems that were not so strictly formal. They appeared in another unpublished collection. I know it sounds flippant, but for me one of the attractions of the sonnet is that I know when it’s done. I also know that, unless I import a few feminine rhymes, I have only one hundred and forty syllables to work with. I must work without waste and in an honest voice no matter how many lies I tell. For me the honesty has been most difficult to achieve. My second book, The Booth Interstate, is also a collection of sonnets, several of them double or triple sonnets. However, the difficulty in carrying a sonnet too far is that I sound like I’m mixing cement.

CHM: Yes, I recall the sonnets in Booth Interstate. Which leads me to say, forgive me, but I am not quite done with sonnets yet. When I was a student in one of your poetry workshops, you had the class write a lot of sonnets. As I recall—and this is admittedly an old memory—you determined that we needed to learn control and discipline in our work and so assigned us to write sonnets. Would you advise aspiring and beginning poets to experiment with sonnets as a learning experience now? How about more experienced poets who might be struggling with a particular poem or even facing a difficult stage in their writing?

TR:  I don’t remember assigning any class “a lot of sonnets.”  I think most poetry writing students believe that one sonnet is a lot. And it can be. Like a truck-sized granite rock you want to look and feel like a valentine. You think you have to throw away a huge load of rock and for most poets that seems like an awful waste of work. What I always wanted students to consider when they tried sonnets was the tension between syntax and cadence (or grammar and rhythm, or language and music). I wanted students who didn’t trust form or trust themselves with form to recognize that an iambic line is light enough to carry anywhere and strong enough to get you from one cliff face to another. Iambic or trochaic, whatever the case, it’s just an element of craft, something to remember you keep in your kit.

CHM: Well, I did admit that the “lots of sonnets” was an old memory, and, yes, even just one would have felt like a lot in those days of stream of consciousness and free verse. Now, and I promise, this is my last question about sonnets, would you share a bit about your technique and process in writing a sonnet. How about revisions? Do you ever bring back a poem you wrote years before and rewrite it? And what makes a sonnet a form that is so appealing to you?

TR:  Sometimes when I begin a poem I know where I want it to go or to take me; however, usually I don’t have a clue – whether it’s a sonnet or a sestina – about what I might discover or where I could end up. Sometimes I run out of gas. I might return to the poem hours or days later. Or I might begin another poem, only to discover that parts of the unfinished poem belong in the new one. I can’t remember who said poems aren’t finished, just abandoned. Sounds like Pound. In any case, once I’ve abandoned a poem to the dust bin or to a great anthology, I’m pretty much done with it. I do most of my revising in the few days or weeks after initial composition. Otherwise the changes begin to feel like decomposition; the poem might be flawless, but I’m more likely to think it’s lifeless.

CHM: In that 2004 storySouth interview, you spoke of a kind of unease in finding yourself, a Massachusetts native, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1972. And to quote you in that interview, you said “the traditional South was – and still is – beyond my ken.” Yet you stayed 26 years and now you live in Tennessee. Did you and “The South” finally make peace with each other?

TR:  No.

CHM: One of your brief bios mentions that you lived in Ireland for a while after leaving Alabama. Could you share with us when that was and some of your experiences there. Did you write many poems while there? Did you write many about Ireland?

TR:  I lived in Ireland from the summer of 2000 to the summer of 2003. I left because I was ill. I wrote some poems while there: all of the “Tuam” section of Prepositional Heaven and most of the “New Poems” section of American Wake.

CHM: In your interview with the publisher of Tour of a Lifetime, you mention that “Already I have enough [poems] to build a few more books.” Might readers expect a new book from you? And if so, any time soon?

TR:  I told the publisher of Tour of a Lifetime that I could put together a few more poetry collections, but he hasn’t shown any interest, which is understandable considering the small scale of his operation. I could try shopping a future manuscript around town, but I’ve reached that point where the future is mostly in the rear-view mirror.

CHM: I will stay alert and hopeful while waiting for another new collection. In the meantime, thank you, Thomas Rabbitt for sharing your thoughts with Southern Literary Review. And, thank you for teaching so many fine writers during your days at The University of Alabama.

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