Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Aaron Shurin

In art, books, essays, poetry, writing on March 31, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Aaron Shurin. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2013).

Aaron Shurin. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2013).

An introduction to Aaron Shurin, whose latest poetry collection is Citizen (City Lights Books, 2012). Shurin is the author of over a dozen books, both poetry and essay collections. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gerbode Foundation, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and the California Arts Council. He cofounded the Boston-based writing collective Good Gay Poets and was the director of the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco.

When asked if he has a philosophy for how and why he writes, Shurin answered, “Poetry is attention, and it is the means of attending experience. Attention is the key word both for what it requires and what its nature is.” And that sense of attention comes through when you read his work. One of the pleasures of Shurin’s poetry is the focus on sound and rhythm. It makes for a powerful experience to hear him read. He doesn’t rush the words—each phrase has its own breath, deliberately chosen to add meaning, and momentum builds throughout the poem. Shurin graciously read some poems exclusively for this interview.

Listen to Aaron Shurin’s poems

Quick Facts on Aaron Shurin

  • Shurin online: Poetry Foundation profile
  • Home: San Francisco, California
  • Comfort food:  Russian food, kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats and pasta shells or bow ties mixed together with mushrooms, onions, and lots of butter).
  • Top reads: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, HD, Robert Duncan, Michael Palmer
  • Current reads: Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography by Lisa Jarnot, and Jarnot’s new book Joie de Vivre

What are you working on at the moment?  

New poems, and a collection of essays and talks assembled from about thirty years of work.

Where did the idea for Citizen come from?

The genesis of Citizen was an event that I participated in with some other poets at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) in response to a show by the sculptor Martin Puryear. I felt like I was asked not for a paper response, but a poetic response. I went to the show and I started writing down words that I saw as his materials, from the museum tags describing the pieces. It could be wagon—there was a wagon, cedar—which the wagon was made of, yellow—the color something was painted. I just wrote those words down and then took a break and went to eat. While I was having lunch, I just started writing. I felt like for this show my response was that I would write poems using the same materials that he used, except that my materials were the words of his materials. I think I wrote the first two or three poems that way, by writing down a little grid in my notebook of these words and being led by those words. For the presentation at SF MOMA, I did my one and only PowerPoint presentation, showing the poem, and then showing my notebook and the words. So that became the structural model of Citizen, it’s cohering element, and I wound up adhering to that. For many years, I have often pulled in derived language to my work. I didn’t plan it, the procedure arrived; I found it, and it stayed interesting to me so I followed it through.

What do you hope readers will take away from Citizen?

I hope they take extreme pleasure in the sensual and intellectual synthesis of language at play. I’m not sure I can say much beyond that.

Well, I’ll tell you a little bit more about the background of Citizen. There were several threads within the book, and one was the structural one I just described. Another was that I wanted it to be permeable to the world, as narrative is inclined toward the world. I was traveling a bunch, mostly to Mexico and some to Arizona, and so I made the decision to let the sights, sounds, artifacts, and experiences of my travels come through. As for what people take away, everything that I put in, I wish for them to get—the meeting point of the imagination and the world.

“Everything that I put in,

I wish for them to get—the meeting point

of the imagination and the world.”

One of the things that I talked about with my publisher is the title, and it has occasionally given some readers trouble. Some people had pre-formed ideas of what a book called Citizen should be in this climate. In my view, Citizen had multiple layers. It was also situating myself as a citizen of the imagination, which seems to me the primary locus of poetry, and also as the cover suggests, that I am a citizen of the book, of the language of poetry. I would love for all of those layers to be active for readers.

How would you describe the ideal reader of your work?

Anybody who loves poetry is my ideal reader. 

Where would you most want to live and write?

In this beautiful new home of mine, absolutely. I’m very portable, actually. I often write longhand in a little journal, not fragments as many people do, but the poems, whole poems in the journal. I frequently write outside, in parks, wherever I am. It’s not locked in. I write that way more than at my desk.

Do you have a writing routine?

No writing routine. Sometimes there are very long periods between books. I’ve gone a year, year and a half, two years recharging or gestating. That’s proved to be not so unusual. When I’m on it, I’m on it at kind of white heat and I’ll write all the time everywhere constantly. If I’m in a poem, I’m really in it, thinking about it, walking around with it and attending it.

Do you listen to anything while you work?

“I’m so interested in the music of language

that I never ever want to be distracted from it.”

No, never. I’m so interested in the music of language that I never ever want to be distracted from it. I know many people who do, but it would be an interference for me. The musical component of language is crucial for me.

When you’re stuck getting started on a poem, where do you look for inspiration?

So much of my work in the last twenty years has involved derived language, but I don’t go to derived language when I’m stuck. I go to derived language as a continual process. I don’t get stuck in that way; either I write or I don’t write. I write good poems or I write bad poems. Even though it can be two years between writing a book, I usually don’t feel stuck during that period, I’m just not writing. Stuck isn’t something that actually sticks with me.

I think it was after Involuntary Lyrics that I had the first long caesura. I figured out that I didn’t feel depleted, I felt completed. I saw that I wasn’t writing, but I that I didn’t want to be writing, so what’s wrong with that? You’re only stuck if you want to be writing and can’t.

How have your goals as a writer changed over time?

Well, when I started putting together this new collection of essays and talks from over thirty years, I expected the early pieces to creak a little bit more. I was surprised and gratified that they didn’t really. Everyone has juvenilia, but from the point in which I came to some focus in understanding what I wanted to do in 1980, I am surprised that it hasn’t shifted very much. Questions of identity, gender, and subjectivity were there, and in many ways they still are. The interest in saturated language, both sonically and in terms of texture and interplay—that’s an abiding interest. The counter-play of fragmentation within the framework of complicated embroidery—that tension was there at the beginning and still is. Things have gotten more complicated and more refined, richer. I have a sense that I can do many things at the same time; that’s maturing, I suppose.

I’m surprised at how consistent my interests have been. What I tell my students when we talk about style is that it’s not something you create. Style is retrospective. If you stay by the things that you’re interested in, and keep staying by them, that becomes your style. Style is the figures, lures, limitations, and refinements that are your interests. I think of Creeley, for example, not inventing a style to have a style, but having theoretical concerns around the line and speech. Those were his concerns over and over again, and so his style is what we see as the repetition of his interests and concerns. 

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Mostly it’s about paying attention. Push harder. One of the things I started talking about in these last years of teaching was disposition, which is almost like position as in the posture of writing: how to adopt the posture of what writing will be so you can enter it most complexly and richly. You have to learn to want there to be that much, learn to have the space through which the line can sink all the way down to the bottom. Anything less is less. I talked a lot with my students about how you create the disposition, how you frame that.

“Anything less is less.”

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

In Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, he discusses the poet’s responsibility to glory. In a way that’s what I mean by disposition. If you adopt the posture that suggests that you have a responsibility toward glory, what does that mean that you have to write?

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I love to walk in the hills and woods, and I’ve had many literary-minded walking companions.

About Aaron Shurin

Poet and essayist Aaron Shurin was born in Manhattan, New York, and grew up there, in eastern Texas, and in Los Angeles, California. He earned a BA at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied with poet Denise Levertov, and an MA in Poetics at the New College of California. Influenced by Robert Duncan and Frank O’Hara, Shurin composes lyric poems that explore themes of sexuality and loss.

Shurin is the author of more than a dozen books, including the poetry collections The Paradise of Forms: Selected Poems (1999), a Publishers Weekly Best Book; Involuntary Lyrics (2005); and A’s Dream (1989), as well as the essay collections King of Shadows (2008) and Unbound: A Book of AIDS (1997). Shurin has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gerbode Foundation, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and the California Arts Council. He cofounded the Boston-based writing collective Good Gay Poets and was the director of the MFA program at the University of San Francisco. (Biography source:

Buy Citizen, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Aaron Shurin.” Words With Writers (March 31, 2013),]

Citizen by Aaron Shurin (City Lights Books, 2012).

Citizen by Aaron Shurin (City Lights Books, 2012).

  1. […] Mohamadi, Sheida (2011) Newman, Denise (2010) Philipson, Robert (2010) Rogow, Zack (2010) Shurin, Aaron (2013) Spahr, Juliana (2010) Walls, Yon (2011) White, Hazel (2012) Wolpé, Sholeh (2011) […]

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