Rae Armantrout likes to let her poems pop like a string of firecrackers, all lit by a single thought that serves as flame to fuse.
Both quick and dense, the UCSD professor’s poems may alight on nature, reality television or a rock song and suddenly switch to another topic, like vampires.
Armantrout’s approach to words helped usher in a new genre of poetry in the 1970s. This year she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, awarded for her collection Versed, which is now out in paperback. The judges said her poems are “often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading.”
In person, the 63-year-old Armantrout is warm and a bit professorial, more bookworm than bomb-thrower. A native of Allied Gardens, the postwar San Diego neighborhood near San Diego State, she lives in Normal Heights in a 1920s-era home with her husband, a bookseller.
In an interview, Armantrout talked about language trickery, myths about poetry and her near-deadly bout with cancer. She also delved into the background behind two poems, including one that fetishizes some of her favorite things — words.
How would you describe your poetry to someone who isn’t familiar with it?