Dan Gerber is the author of books of fiction, nonfiction, and numerous collections of poetry, most recently The End of Michelangelo (Copper Canyon). He lives in Santa Ynez.
The passage of time and growing older are important themes in The End of Michelangelo. What do you understand now about poetry, and life, that you didn’t, say, 20 years ago?
I don’t think there is some “thing” I didn’t understand about life, about mortality. I’ve long known it as “a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,” but I didn’t experience it as vividly, as urgently, as joyfully. The past isn’t passed, it’s present in every moment I’m living now. As in a poem like “Mono no aware.” It also feels, as Noel Coward observed about age, “as if I have breakfast about every half hour.”
The natural world is a constant presence in your poetry. Why does being outdoors seem to inspire you so profoundly?
I spent a lot of time alone in my childhood and didn’t, as I wrote in the poem, “Other,” know early on that the natural world was something I was in, and not just what I was. And it was out being in it that I began to think in images and began to see it in poems. I knew no other living poets the first five or six years after I seriously began writing, and, like Wallace Stevens, it turns out, I composed a lot while walking.
In your poem “Knowledge,” you write: “we are food, exactly / equal to our hunger.” I wonder if you could unpack that thought a little, and maybe reflect on how it relates to other poems in the book.
I think it was first through Joseph Campbell that I learned how consciousness changes when we realize we are not just consumers but also, with all our vaunted intelligence, we are also food. I think artists live through their vulnerability to make themselves more susceptible to life, to beauty and to terror, and to realize how fleetingly we experience them both. And, more literally, I lived in a lot of places where I needed to keep in mind that I was not necessarily at the top of the food chain.