Sunday, March 28, 2004

Mark Strand - Chicago, IL

There is one real reason people live in Chicago instead of New York: Lake Michigan. On a pretty Sunday morning, I'm sitting with Mark Strand about ten floors up looking out over Lake Shore Drive, while the 70 degree weather pours in through a bank of open windows. The blinds flutter sometimes, and the sound of weekend construction floats up to us as we talk. From my chair I can see the water and I think about heading over there after the interview to walk alongside the lake, watch the joggers and dogs. Peer up the lakeside all the way to Milwaukee or whatever is north of here.

We're just on the edge of the University of Chicago, where Strand has been for the past several years. He is - as it is clear - a revered and monumental American poet of this or any generation. His work is frankly astonishing in its breadth. His early work virtually reinventing what we understand to be the contemporary poem; his later work clear-eyed and unflinching, poems about age and love and beauty and light.

We sit in his white-walled apartment for a pleasant chat that is long-awaited for me. Strand was among about 5 poets I had at the top of my list more than 6 months ago when this journey started. On my first contact, Strand told me that he was flattered I wanted to chat, but that he really didn't have much to say. When it appeared I'd have a chance to make another loop through the area, I reconnected. He was again very kind, but this time our schedules were off-kilter, and he likely would be elsewhere when I was in Chicago.

Finally, I enlisted the help of one of his long time friends. A phone call on my behalf was made; lies were told about how pleasant I was to meet (!), and when I contacted Strand a few weeks ago, his one line response told me to come on.

So we found our way to Chicago and I waited outside his high rise for a full hour, unwilling to risk traffic, tides, or acts of God that might keep me from the door.

Strand, now unthinkably 70, is tall, lanky, and still the handsome rake. It is not unusual to see the word "swoon" in any retelling of a meeting with him. He's soft-spoken, erudite, and he puts me at ease.

He's pleased that one of my early questions probes a notion that he sees in his own work. He develops the idea for me in his answer. We talk about some of the places of his life, Utah, especially, and then Canada, my home, too. He recalls the watery summers in Nova Scotia, blueberry pies, the beauty and the fishing of St. Margaret's Bay. "I still say 'eh,'" he says with a big warm smile, when I ask him about the Canadian things he has retained besides the memories.

After a time we get up to do some photos. He's got six inches on me easy, and I awkwardly raise the camera a bit above my eye level to get him head on. He stands there, relaxed, smiling. He doesn't think to duck down a bit, and I am glad to be there, reaching up, trying to capture him.