Robert Hass, a San Francisco native and faculty member at UC Berkeley, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet and former poet laureate of the United States. His newest book is “The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems” (Ecco Press, 2010).
Who has had the biggest influence on you in your life?
Leaving aside parents and family … I had a teacher in college, St. Mary’s College. There was a philosophy professor named Brother Robert Smith. He was the director of a program where you read through the great classic works of literature, science, mathematics and philosophy in the Western tradition. In the freshman year, we read Euclid’s “Elements.” He was the first real intellectual that I ever knew. He had a wonderful, wide, skeptical mind and told us what books to read and how to listen to music and what good wine was. He was an enormous mentor figure. When I was in college, I lost my scholarship one year. I had enough money for tuition, but not room and board. So I camped in the hills. He let me sleep in his office in my sleeping bag when it rained.
Where, to whom or to what do you turn to in dark times?
My wife. I certainly turn to her in dark times. And West Marin. When I need to take long walks or sort things out or be by myself — Point Reyes.
Is there something about you that people would find surprising?
I chauffeured Jean Renoir — French filmmaker — when he was in residence at UC Berkeley in 1960.
What book, piece of writing or poet has had a large impact on you?
The first book that really knocked me out was the “Brothers Karamazov.” I read it when I was a senior in high school. And the second book was Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” And there’s a third book in between those two: Colin Wilson’s “The Outsiders,” essays on Camus, Joyce. It was sort of my introduction to what to read in modern literature. It was a study of the young, alienated hero. It gave me a reading list. And a poet who had a terrific impact on me when I was in my mid- to late 20s was Gary Snyder.
How and when did you start writing?
My brother and I were in grammar school when our parents subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post. They had a page called “Funny Poems.” My brother and I sent to them. We never even got a rejection [letter].
What role does writing play in your life?
It’s what I do. It’s what I feel crazy about if I can’t do.
Do you have a favorite line of a poem, yours or someone else’s?
I have so many. “I caught this morning morning’s minion” — Gerard Manley Hopkins; “Snail, snail, -glister me forward. Bird, soft-sigh me home” — Theodore Roethke.
What does it mean to be the poet laureate of the United States [1995-97]?
Drinking out of plastic cups on airlines; motels in the Midwest that have a sign that says “continental breakfast” and it ends up it’s doughnuts with sprinkles.