Credit: From Hanwell, London, UK via Wikimedia Commons

Double Identity: Mike Astrue as A.M. Juster On Poetry

April 11, 2015

Mike Astrue, former Commissioner of Social Security, is also a published, award-winning poet who writes under the pen name A.M. Juster.  Normally he joins Jim and Margery to talk politics but this week he was here to honor national poetry month.

It was a wide-ranging conversation that covered his influences as a poet, the state of poetry today, and the efforts on Beacon Hill to establish an official Massachusetts poet laureate. 

Questions below are paraphrased

You were a young lawyer in the Reagan administration; you've been an executive at a biotech company; you served as Commissioner of the Social Security Administration under two U.S. Presidents. Is this why you write poetry under a pseudonym?

When I fist started doing this I was working in the corporate world  and the boss would have just split a gasket had he known. It would have been a real problem. But it’s also true on the other side. A lot of people in the poetry world really think that if you are not sacrificing for your art, in the way that I have not--if you are not teaching or something like that--there is something suspicious there too. So both of my worlds are very suspicious of the other. Having that wall seemed liked a very good thing to do.

Massachusetts has a wealth of poets. To wit: we have two Poet Laureates--Robert Pinsky and Louise Glück--living one block away from each other in Cambridge. Is it odd that we don't have an official state poet laureate? What's going on with the current initiative to make this a reality?

We should. The bill as I understand it—as it does with so many  things- tries to  take  the power away from the Governor- creates a committee of insiders  that will pick this  poet and the history of that is that  they’ll pick someone who doesn’t know  how to speak to the people with poetry.  That defeats the purpose. So just, for the love of poetry, Stan Rosenberg, Bob DeLeo, just let Governor Baker pick someone. And if we don't like who he picked at least it will get a debate going about poetry.

What is the current state of poetry? Why have we stopped reading it?

I have some unconventional ideas. I think there is a lot of bad poetry out there these days. I think, for me, the problem is, it’s become a product of a professional academic class of  people writing to each other.  When you take those poems to an audience  of ordinary people, they don’t understand them, they don’t get them, they don’t like them.  It’s become very unpopular to write in the tradition of Robert Frost or  Richard Wilbur, and to write poems that can withstand academic scrutiny but also connect with real people. I think, unfortunately, that the vast majority of our poets have walked away from that.

We promised you a list of the poets and poetry that Mike Astrue/A.M. Juster shared with us.

POETSRichard Wilbur, X.J. Kennedy, and Rhina Espaillat.

READINGS:

X.J. Kennedy's Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought

Rhina Espaillat's Bilingual/Bilingue

A.M. Juster's tribute to Rhina Espaillat Los Periquitos 

And he closed the conversation with his poem, Moscow Zoo

Moscow Zoo

We saw the mass grave at the Moscow Zoo.

A sullen man dug up a human skull

Then held it high for journalists to view.

Forensic specialists arrived to cull

Remains and clues from this forgotten plot

On which the zoo still plans to cage a bear.

The experts guessed these prisoners were shot

For special reasons; no one was aware

Of comparable scenes at urban sites.

No one knew if these bones belonged to spies,

Suspected Jews or zealous Trotskyites,

So none of us displayed the least surprise

When bureaucrats emerged from quiet cars

To hint this might have been the work of czars.

To take in the full conversation with Mike Astrue/A.M. Juster  you can have a listen  below

 


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