Poet Louise Glück spoke to the New York Times last week, a few hours after the news of her Nobel Prize broke. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How did you first hear the news?
A: This morning I got a phone call at something like quarter to seven. I was just awake. A man who introduced himself as the secretary of the Swedish Academy, he said, “I’m calling to tell you you’ve won the Nobel Prize.” I can’t remember what I said, but it had some suspicion in it.
I think I was unprepared.
Q: How did you feel once you absorbed that it was real?
A: Completely flabbergasted that they would choose a white American lyric poet. It doesn’t make sense. I thought, I come from a country that is not thought fondly of now, and I’m white, and we’ve had all the prizes. So it seemed to be extremely unlikely that I would ever have this particular event to deal with in my life.
Q: What has your life been like during the pandemic? Have you been able to write?
A: I write very erratically anyway, so it’s not a steady discipline. I’ve been working on a book for about four years that tormented me. Then in late July and August, I unexpectedly wrote some new poems, and suddenly saw how I could shape this manuscript and finish it. It was a miracle. The usual feelings of euphoria and relief were compromised by COVID, because I had to do battle with my daily terror and the necessary limitations on my daily life.
Q: What is the new collection about?
A: Falling apart. There’s a lot of mourning in the book. There’s also a lot of comedy in the book, and the poems are very surreal.
I’ve written about death since I could write. Literally when I was 10, I was writing about death. Aging is more complicated. It isn’t simply the fact that you’re drawn closer to your death, it’s that faculties that you counted on — physical grace and strength and mental agility — these things are being compromised or threatened. It’s been very interesting to think about and write about.
Q: A lot of your work draws on classical mythology and weaves together mythic archetypes with more intimate contemporary verses about family bonds and relationships. What draws you to those mythic figures?
A: Everybody who writes draws sustenance and fuel from earliest memories, and the things that changed you or touched you or thrilled you in your childhood. I was read the Greek myths by my visionary parents, and when I could read on my own, I continued to read them. The figures of the gods and heroes were more vivid to me than the other little children on the block in Long Island. And certain stories particularly resonated with me, especially Persephone, and I’ve been writing about her on and off for 50 years.
Q: You’ve experimented with different poetic forms in the course of your career, though your voice has remained distinct. Has that been a deliberate, conscious effort to push yourself by trying different forms?
A: Yes, all the time. You’re writing to be an adventurer. I want to be taken somewhere I know nothing about. One of the few good things to say about old age is that you have a new experience. Diminishment is not everybody’s most anticipated joy, but there is news in this situation.
Q: Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
A: If you consider the fact that I started out by wanting to mention nothing, and then I talked my head off, no, I can’t think of anything. Most of what I have to say of any real urgency comes out in poems, and the rest is just entertainment.