Bill Knott Interview

by on May.31, 2011

Here’s an interview with Bill Knott.


So what fucking “identity as a poet”? I don’t have an identity as a human being, much less a poet.

But what the hell, on the other hand, maybe the state insane asylum (I don’t think they use that term anymore now, but that’s what it was called in 1955, as I recall it) at Elgin, Illinois—maybe the state’s incarceration warehouse for nut jobs, where I spent my fifteenth year being abused and beaten and degraded every day, maybe that shit-hole wasn’t any worse really than Exeter or whatever prep-school in which Pinsky and Strand and Bidart and Charles Wright and C.K. Williams and William fucking Matthews were also suffering the traumas of their teen-angst years at the same time as me, back there in 1955….

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Kyle Minor

    I’ve never seen an interviewer press Knott on the performative aspect of these interviews and the blog presence, etc. — to ask the question directly: “How much of the self-abasing talk and the lashing out at the poetry community you’ve rejected and claim has rejected you is unvarnishedly your position, and how much of it is an extension of the similar varieties of work in the poetry? To what extent is your public persona a consciously constructed thing? When you foreground the negative things people say about you and your work, and diminish or elide the positive things, why do you do that?

    I think that Knott is communicating doubly. In some ways, he seems to want readers to take what he says at face value, but in other ways, he also seems to want readers to be smart enough to engage the ironies that attach to a poet of such obvious accomplishment (an accomplishment that has, yes, been externally validated in ways for which many young poets would give limbs in exchange) saying such provocative things about the lack of regard, lack of reception, lack of audience for his work, especially when some of that lack is chosen by the poet when the poet turns down offers by FSG (the most prestigious publishing house in the work) to publish his New & Selected, when the poet asks his publishers to take his work out of print so he can self-publish it, etc.

    Knott will surely respond to this by saying that I’m promoting capitalist values, to which I’d say: But you’re not Emily Dickinson retreating in the old house. You want readers! And Knott will surely also say: Why are you focusing on the things that aren’t poetry — the circumstances of publication, my personal behavior, etc.? To which I’d answer: Because it’s so interesting! Because it’s in some ways an extension of the performance begun by the poems! Because it speaks to some of the psychological underpinnings of the beloved poems! Because it’s self-defeating in a manner that seems at odds with what’s underneath the grievance, which is that others are keeping you from achieving the victory of readership and posterity!

    Lest this post be misinterpreted as an attack, I want to say explicitly: Bill Knott’s poems mean so much to me. I have a big stack of his books, even the self-published ones, on my desk right now. I read them all the time. They bring me great comfort and great pleasure.

  2. Johannes


    I think you’ve correctly identified Knott’s persona and MO, but it’s hard to say what is a persona and what is the “true self.” That’s why in my post I kind of wanted to fold it in with the poetry.


  3. Kyle Minor

    (in the world, I meant. The drawback to commenting on message boards is that you can’t fix your typos and the inelegances that come when you don’t revise before pressing send.)

  4. John Allen

    Knott’s poetry is up there with WS Merwin and James Tate and Franz Wright–it’s surreal to be able to go to and print out the works of a guy who should be one of the heads of the Academy of American Poets. He has a style so completely his own that I imagine after he passes on we will see posthumous celebrations of him, this and that, but the whole thing is too tragic: it should be happening NOW, while he’s alive to enjoy it.

  5. james bagger

    mr knott’s self publishing efforts are a model effort to further elucidate and mock the perpetually feeble state of poetry publishing where most of the working artists are gladly giving their work away for free on a regular basis. “golly gee, i can’t wait to get my contributor’s copy…!” “wow, i got an award of 5000 dollars and they are going to publish my book that i spend over 6 years working on.” it’s disgusting. that’s why knott is self publishing. because he can, and because he gets just as many readers, if not more. if i cared about having readers, i’d probably do the same thing….