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.
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
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