Jonathan Galassi is a poet, a translator, an editor, and the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which happens to be our favorite publishing house.
Jonathan Galassi is a poet, a translator, an editor, and the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which happens to be our favorite publishing house. He previously served as editor in chief of FSG and senior editor at Random House, and he was the poetry editor of the Paris Review for a decade. When we say that Galassi has dedicated his life to the creation and fostering of great writing, you’d better believe that we mean it.
Eileen Myles, as we have said before, is our favorite poet working today and also pretty high on our list of fiction writers and essayists. We suggest her story collection Chelsea Girls or her new collection of writings on many topics, The Importance of Being Iceland. If you’re looking for some poems, grab anything you can find by her. Her most recent collections, Sorry, Tree and Skies, are both exemplary. But really what you need to do is go see Eileen read. If you already love poetry, it will warm your cold heart. If you’re not too sure about poetry, it will convert you.
We recently brought Jonathan and Eileen together at Jonathan’s office at FSG in Manhattan for a rambling talk about poets and poetry. They began by discussing their shared Massachusetts roots. Let’s join them now…
Jonathan: Are you from Boston itself?
Eileen: No, I’m from—I can give you the accent correctly—Arlington.1 Somerville, Arlington. I know that you went to school in Boston.
Jonathan: Well, I grew up in Massachusetts.
Eileen: Oh, you did?
Jonathan: Down near Plymouth, South Shore.
Eileen: Which town?
Jonathan: Plympton, Massachusetts. But I went to high school in New Hampshire—boarding school. 2 My father was from Boston. Well, and New York.
Eileen: You don’t sound like you’re from Massachusetts.
Jonathan: Well, I guess I sound like my parents. I don’t know where they got their accents. You sound like your parents, don’t you think?
Eileen: In part, until you try and get rid of them.
Jonathan: So, what are you up to right now?
Eileen: I’m just kind of finishing a book tour. I wish I’d brought the book. It’s called The Importance of Being Iceland. 3 It’s essays about art and poetry. There are two big essays in it about Jimmy. 4
Jonathan: Oh, really?
Eileen: Yeah, so actually… I’ll send you a copy.
Jonathan: I’d like to see it.
Eileen: I have an essay in it about that first reading Jimmy gave.
Jonathan: I was there. At the Dia Foundation. 5 At the time it was the only reading he had ever given, and it was such an event. Everybody in the poetry world was there.
Jonathan: It was so moving; it was such an incredible event. Of course then you couldn’t shut him up after that.
Eileen: Right, right. He was like, “Why didn’t anybody tell me that reading was so much fun?”
A note on the footnotes: Each person wrote their own. “JG” denotes Jonathan, “EM” denotes Eileen and “V” denotes Vice. Clicking "Back" will return you to the referenced line.
1 Given Eileen’s exaggerated New England-accent delivery here, this comes out as “Ahh-lington.” [V] Back
2 Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, New Hampshire, where I got my education. I had great teachers and friends who got me interested in everything I care about today—including poetry, writing, languages. music, and art. [JG] Back
3 Semiotext(e), 2009. [V] Back
4 James Schuyler, poet of the New York School (b. 1923, d. 1991). Both Jonathan and Eileen were friends of Schuyler’s. Eileen was his assistant in the late 70s, and Jonathan was his publisher. [V] Back
5 In the 1980s the Dia Foundation, which was run by Charles Wright, had a gallery and performance space in SoHo, where, among other events, they sponsored a distinguished poetry series that was probably the most glamorous and elaborate ever offered in New York City. The foundation produced beautiful not-for-sale anthologies of the poems selected by the poets for performance at their readings. [JG] Back
Vice: You spent a lot of time with him at the Chelsea, 6 right, Eileen?
Eileen: It was actually a moment when he came out of the hospital in the late 70s. I was hired to basically live with him seven days a week and dole out his pills and do whatever else he needed, which wound up being pretty interesting.
I was the first assistant, and then a bunch of different people, like Tom Carey 7 and various poets from St. Mark’s 8 would be like the Jimmy assistant person.
Eileen: But it turned out to be just when he got the Pulitzer Prize. 9 His life was just suddenly opening up. After some illness, I mean, and he became more social, you know, and started to give readings, and it was almost clear sailing to the end of his life.
Vice: The Morning of the Poem is incredible.
Jonathan: Yes, that’s a great masterpiece.
[Here we suffer from a minor recording malfunction during which, somehow, the subject of age is brought up.]
Jonathan: I’m going to be 60 on Wednesday.
Eileen: I love it. That’s so great. I’m going to be 60 in December.
Jonathan: Oh, so we’re the same age.
Eileen: I kind of suspected it, but yeah, that’s great.
Jonathan: I’m really dreading it.
Eileen: Yeah, it’s a little weird, any way you look at it. I’ve got a month to think about it. I’d love to have a big party, but I don’t like the idea of a restaurant. I don’t like the idea of a public space.
Eileen: Whose painting is that? [referring to a rectangularly oriented oil painting consisting of thickly applied vertical striations of blues, greens, whites, and browns that hangs above the couch in Galassi’s office]
Jonathan: That is by a man named Nanno de Groot, 10 who was married to the artist Pat de Groot. 11
Eileen: I know Pat de Groot.
Jonathan: Pat de Groot was a cousin of Roger Straus. 12
Jonathan: This painting was in Roger’s office. It’s of sea grass in Provincetown.
Jonathan: And I like this picture a lot, actually.
Eileen: I do, too. So, how did you get into this mess?
Jonathan: How did I get into writing poetry?
6 Chelsea Hotel, 23rd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, Manhattan. [EM] Back
7 Novelist and Franciscan monk who worked as Schuyler’s assistant in the 70s and was one of his most beloved friends in the last years of his life. [EM] Back
8 St. Mark’s Poetry Project, on Second Avenue and East Tenth Street. [EM]Back
9 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1980 collection, The Morning of the Poem. [EM] Back
10 Dutch (b. 1913, d. 1963). [V] Back
11 American/British (b. 1930). [V] Back
12 Roger W. Straus Jr. (b. 1917, d. 2004), founder of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, of which JG is now president. [V] Back
Jonathan: Well, I was, you know, a teenager. So it was probably the same way as everyone else, just feeling miserable and—
Eileen: Yeah, yeah.
Jonathan: —wanting to find a way to talk about it, and then falling in love with poetry.
Eileen: In college or later?
Jonathan: In high school and then in college. I really tried to learn about it in college, and it became my primary interest, and it still is. What about you? What was the first poetry that really excited you?
Eileen: I think it was Dylan Thomas. 13 I went to a Catholic school in Arlington, and we had this giant reader. And I think we had one nun who was into Yeats, 14 but mostly we just never had anybody who took it very seriously. And so, reading ahead in the book was one of the things I did during long, boring days in high school. Wordsworth, 15 nature poetry, 16 and Dylan Thomas were the ones who I thought were really exciting.
And I think that I knew Baudelaire 17 was cool, and Allen 18 was sort of exciting, but the nature poems, one in particular by Dylan Thomas, “It was my thirtieth year to heaven,” 19 I was just—there was something about the combination of numbers and age and then just the way he kind of fell down through the landscape.
I know Dylan Thomas is so not cool and hasn’t been for—
Jonathan: Oh, he’s a fantastically talented poet. I think he’s still very, very popular. He may not be “in,” but I think he’s very serious stuff.
Eileen: But then in college, I think I could have been attracted to poetry because it was short.
Eileen: To a distracted mind it seemed like a great place to land.
Jonathan: And did you start out writing in a loose, free way, or did you write sonnets?
Eileen: Oh, I think in a loose way. I mean, I think I was imitating Dylan Thomas for a very long time. You know, there was some kind of loss of innocence that I was trying to articulate while I was still pretty young. There was just kind of a sentimental nature poem I kept trying to write.
Actually, just before I came to New York, there was a poetry workshop in Harvard Yard, in Phillips House, and somebody there brought in a Frank O’Hara 20 poem, and they were also—this was 1972—talking about Patti Smith, 21 a “New York rock poet.”
The O’Hara poem was completely, disturbingly great. I mean, it was “To the Harbormaster,” 22 which felt like a prayer.
Eileen: It had that incredible rhythm.
Vice: It was read at O’Hara’s funeral by John Ashbery. 23
Eileen: Yeah, so, those two things gave me something to go to New York with, and then both of them opened up immediately.
Jonathan: I was always drawn to the New York School poets, especially Frank O’Hara. But I studied very formally, with Lowell 24 and Bishop. 25
Eileen: They were there when you—
Jonathan: I had them both as teachers. She was my favorite teacher ever.
Eileen: That’s astonishing.
Jonathan: But it was very much in the, you know, the poets-in-the-university thing. And so, the New York School always seemed like something that had a kind of frisson of illicit freedom.
Eileen: Right, right.
Jonathan: And you know how Boston feels about New York 26 and all that.
Eileen: Totally, yeah.
13 Towering Welsh genius (b. 1914, d. 1953). We recommended starting with his poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” [V] Back
14 One of the kings, if not the king, of Irish poetry and drama (b. 1865, d. 1939). [V] Back
15 Romantic poet (b. 1770, d. 1850), source of the movie title Splendor in the Grass. [EM] Back
16 Poetry about nature. Come on. [V] Back
17 French 19th-century poet (b. 1821, d. 1867). First modern poet. Invented ugly beauty, crowds, and the prose poem. Author of Les Fleurs du mal. [EM] Back
18 Allen Ginsberg (b. 1926, d. 1997). New Jersey-born author of Howl, friend of Jack Kerouac, globally known, descendent of Walt Whitman in generosity, and lover of man, and men. [EM] Back
19 “Poem in October” (1945). [V] Back
20 New York School poet, the best of the best (b. 1926, d. 1966). [V] Back
21 20th-century rock poet (b. 1946) who turned her poems into songs and got a band and changed everything. Horses, Horses, Horses. [EM] Back
22 Famous poem by O’Hara about his love for painter Larry Rivers. [EM] Back
23 Probably the “king” of the New York School (b. 1927). The greatest living avant-garde poet. Won all the big literary awards for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror in 1975. [EM] Back
24 Robert Lowell (b. 1917, d. 1977). Leading postwar American poet, author of Life Studies, For the Union Dead, and many other works published by FSG. [JG] Back
25 Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911, d. 1979). Leading postwar American poet, and a close friend of Lowell. Author of Questions of Travel, Geography III, and other works also published by FSG. The complete correspondence between Lowell and Bishop can be read in Words in Air, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (FSG, 2008). [JG] Back
26 Boston thinks New York is vulgar, nouveau riche, corrupt, godless, and, secretly, superior. New York thinks Boston is straitlaced, parochial, hidebound, in love with its past, self-denying, and self-limiting. Stop! They’re both right! [JG] Back
Jonathan: And so, when I came down in the mid-70s from Boston to New York, I felt I had missed out, actually, on the great moment of New York, which was the 60s artists and poets.
And, of course, something else was happening here then, but my own training was much more rigid, I guess. So I always had a kind of hankering for the freedom of the New York School. But those two cultures didn’t talk to each other. There’s a famous debate, you know, the Lowell and Ginsberg 27—
Eileen: Were you at that reading? 28
Jonathan: No, but I’ve heard about it. And today, when you go back and read them side by side, what you’ll see more than anything is what they have in common.
Eileen: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Jonathan: But at the time, it felt like the mandarin versus the voyant, someone influenced by drugs and all who had this kind of dangerous freedom.
Eileen: Right, yeah. I remember hearing Denis Donoghue 29 giving a talk one night in the 80s at the Poetry Project and saying, “Well, the last poet that anybody really broke friendships over was Lowell.” And in that room, it was such a crazy thing to say, like, “What? Where does this man come from?”
Jonathan: I love that, “broke friendships over.”
Eileen: Yeah, yeah, even the phrasing was just astonishing. And it’s so funny, too, because Allen, though he associated himself with a life of doing wild things, like posing naked and writing about his asshole, was in fact, in terms of drugs and all that, a moderate. He was always the person mopping up after everybody else.
Jonathan: But he was about freedom, and experimentation and, you know, breaking taboos and all that kind of stuff. It’s a quintessentially New York thing, somehow. It’s there from Walt Whitman 30 on down. Don’t you think?
Eileen: What is?
Jonathan: The kind of freedom, the experimentation, the looseness, the humor, the spoken quality. I think of it as less worked. Do you think that’s right?
Eileen: Less worked? You mean the—
Jonathan: In other words, if you look at a Lowell poem, you know that it’s been sewn into its form.
Eileen: I guess I think of Schuyler, again, because his philosophy was so great about it all. I remember him saying that the writing-the-poem part is the easy part; it’s the rest of your life that’s the problem.
Eileen: And I think that with Jimmy and a lot of poets, though they certainly do edit, there still was a perception that the practice was the life itself, and the economy was expressed in the line rather than in the edit.
I mean you really could break down poetries into the poetry school that believes in perfection, and pushing the poem toward that, and the poetry school that believes in practice and is about profuseness.
Jonathan: Right, right.
Eileen: With somebody like Jimmy, it’s like you want to find the really great ones in a slew of poems.
Jonathan: Right. I think that’s a good way of describing it. It’s not just a different formal approach, it’s a different approach to writing per se.
Actually, I think of Bishop as someone who stands in between the two because she was a very, very hard worker on her poems, but she loved O’Hara and Schuyler. And I think that the naturalness of her voice—though it has a very different formal vestment—is much closer to the spirit of Schuyler than to Lowell, actually.
Eileen: Yeah, and her poems land in ways that feel like the poem happened. Like that sonnet that ends, “and you love me.”
Jonathan: “And you love me.” 31
Eileen: It was just like Jimmy ending his poem “This Dark Apartment” 32 with “They were/not my lovers, though./You were. You said so.”
Eileen: Both of them kind of end with this shove or this grief.
27 At a certain point in the late 50s and 60s, it could be said that Lowell and Ginsberg represented the poles of two poetic cultures in America. As Lowell wrote to Ginsberg (April 10, 1959; see The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton [FSG, 2005], p. 344): “I think letters ought to be written the way you think poetry ought to be. So let this be breezy, brief, incomplete, but spontaneous and not dishonestly holding back.” Lowell and Ginsberg were wary of each other in the way that powerful adherents of noncomplementary aesthetics would be. Yet Lowell was so moved by Ginsberg’s reading of “Kaddish,” his elegy for his mother, that, according to Frank Bidart, he had to leave the room. [JG] Back
28 Lowell and Ginsberg read together in New York in February 1977. Lowell claimed (Letters, p. 665) to have been “heckled by [Gregory] Corso, not calamitous.” [JG] Back
29 Irish-born literary critic and professor (b. 1928). [EM] Back
30 Whitman (b. 1819, d. 1892) is the original American poetic libertine, the unbridled, self-promoting, sexually outside New Yorker, contrasting vividly with Dickinson’s solitary, inward, transcendentally sublimated—yet also deeply transgressive—New Englander. [JG] Back
31 The last line of “Insomnia” (in A Cold Spring ). [JG] Back
32 “This Dark Apartment” (in The Morning of the Poem [FSG, 1980]). [V] Back
Jonathan: “—Yesterday brought to today so lightly!/(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)” That’s the end of one of Bishop’s last poems.
Eileen: Wow. I don’t know that poem.
Jonathan: It’s called “Five Flights Up.” 33 She’s listening to the birds as she wakes up. So, what do you think is happening in poetry today?
Eileen: That’s what I was going to ask you!
I guess I’m thinking about a young person today who’s into poetry and almost no matter what their persuasion is, there’s kind of a sense that there’s a lot of hurdles for them to jump over toward becoming a poet. It seemed so open when I got to town, and it seemed that you would learn a lot just by being here and by going to readings or meeting everybody and looking at all the other kinds of art.
When I think of our generation, I think, in many ways the gesture, or the one that’s gotten the most play, is Language poetry. 34 But I feel that there’s an eruption going on right now, too, and we’re not hearing about it yet because of all the historical talk, the need to make schools of poetry, and because of the tendency of people in their 50s and 60s to be telling their history…
Jonathan: Rewriting history?
Eileen: Yeah. I was trying to be kind, but yeah. Like a bunch of them have started to write a group autobiography about this particular reading series in the 70s and how it produced them. [laughs]
I mean, I love many of these poets and their work, but there’s something troubling about poetry revisionism. Because I think lots of other things were happening too in the late 20th century. Messier things. I think that since they’re clearly staking a claim, putting a big sign on poetry history, I think there’s a need to pull out and explore some of the other things that happened in the 70s and 80s and 90s besides them. 35
Jonathan: Right. I’m doing a book with Charles Bernstein, 36 a selected poems, because I thought it would be fun to have FSG publish something from the Language-poetry school. But you know, when you read his book, it’s not very different from a lot of other folks. It’s a bit like what I was saying about Lowell and Ginsberg. When you actually step away from the polemics, the differences aren’t as large. I think that Language poetry has been—and I don’t read it that much—but my impression of it is that it’s going more toward other things now. It’s less meaning-averse; it’s much more meaningful.
Eileen: Yeah, yeah.
Jonathan: Is that right?
Eileen: Yeah, I think that even ten years into it, it was like film—experimental film. Suddenly it was like, “Why not use an ‘I,’ but ‘I’ doesn’t mean ‘I’ necessarily,” or, “Why not do a narrative, but a disrupted narrative?”
Jonathan: I always felt like Dada, 37 for instance, which is like an ancestor of Language poetry—
Eileen: Or New York School, I think.
Jonathan: Yeah, except, Dada is where the meaning is disrupted, and it’s not supposed to have a meaning that’s rational, that’s prosaic.
Jonathan: But once you’ve done that once, you’ve done it. You’ve made your point, and then you have to do something else, I think. And I feel that way about Language poetry, too. But maybe I’m missing something. It’s just not my thing.
What is my thing, though, that I associate with New York School, is its open speech. Relaxed, natural, but very artful. I think Schuyler is the best at it. And when he was at his best, he was as good as any other poet who’s writing now, I think.
It’s very close to the best of even Lowell and Bishop. Like Lowell in Day by Day, 38 his last book, which is free verse, really, not rhymed and not sonnet form. And it’s very melancholy and depressed.
Eileen: Going back to Schuyler, I think it’s interesting that he keeps getting rediscovered.
Jonathan: His flow is—sometimes the flow is verbiage, but when he hits it, it’s just the natural stream of consciousness.
Eileen: Yeah, it’s limpid.
Jonathan: Limpid, and it couldn’t be better. It’s perfect.
Eileen: It’s interesting, a lot of queer theorists are suddenly discovering him, because he holds a certain history but also because the gesture is just completely new.
Jonathan: What do they see in it?
Eileen: I think it’s the seeming naturalness. You know? Because I think there are people who are interested in performance and all in gender theory, and I think that there Schuyler is, because it’s a performance of thought and a performance of body and nature, and also one in queer history, without even making much of it. He slips it in. What’s that poem? Is it called “Poem”? 39 It goes from an urban landscape to grass to copper, and there’s a little bit of grass reflected on flesh. Oh, and the woman jogging a baby in the window, you know. It ends: “It’s a day like any other.” And it just goes through so many states, and I think it’s kind of remarkable that he did that, he produced that layered effect without media. I think that that kind of thing is part of what people will be more and more interested in, too. Here we are in this time where there’s a kind of speech where everybody’s BlackBerrys are going off, and everything is being copied and duplicated.
It’s such a distracted speech, so kind of amended and abetted by technology. And Jimmy’s work manages to take that into account somehow.
Jonathan: Right. To me, he’s much more comfortable with that—or we’re more comfortable with him in that. You know, there’s all this stuff about being able to download poems onto all these devices. I think, in a way, “Wow, of course. It’s a small text and can be read immediately, and you can ponder it, and so why not?”
But the throwaway nature of that is kind of antithetical to poetry for me. I think that the thing you said that most struck home today is this idea that writing the poem is one thing, and the life around it is the problem. In a way, the flow of Schuyler’s work is the flow of life; it’s all one thing. That’s a very contemporary concept.
Eileen: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
Jonathan: So, maybe he’ll become a best-selling poet all of a sudden. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.
Eileen: All we need is a movie of Nathan’s biography of Jimmy. 40
33 “Five Flights Up” (in Geography III [FSG, 1976]). [JG] Back
34 A movement in poetry that came into prominence in the 70s and 80s with the rise of theory in the art world. The focus is on the materiality of language itself, and maybe less on the embodied feelings of the author. [EM] Back
35 Poetry impacted by the AIDS crisis and the presence of sexuality as subject matter. Poetry influenced by performance art, kitsch, punk bands, dirty political work. Work that performed a discourse about itself. I’m thinking of New Narrative writers in San Francisco. Or I’d look at the new anthology from Alyson: Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS, edited by David Groff and Philip Clark. [EM] Back
36 All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (FSG, 2010). [JG] Back
37 Early-20th-century European art movement. According to Wikipedia, “Its purpose was to ridicule what its participants considered to be the meaninglessness of the modern world. In addition to being anti-war, dada was also anti-bourgeois and anarchistic in nature.” [JG] Back
38 Day by Day (FSG, 1977). [V] Back
39 “February” in Freely Espousing (Paris Review Editions/Doubleday, 1969; Sun, 1979). [EM] Back
40 The critic Nathan Kernan, who is writing a biography of Schuyler for FSG. [JG] Back
Eileen: Julian Schnabel would be the guy to make it, because he’s into making impossible movies. If he can do somebody who could only move an eyelid, he could certainly do a man who stayed in a lot.
Jonathan: Do you know the actor and writer James Franco? He played Harvey Milk’s boyfriend in Milk.
Jonathan: Well, he’s making movies of poems.
Eileen: Oh yeah?
Jonathan: Yeah, he made a movie of a poem by Frank Bidart. 41 He’s making one of a poem by Spencer Reece. 42 I don’t know what he’s doing with these movies, but I think that’s really interesting.
Eileen: Poetry’s getting rediscovered. The art world is starting to discover poetry again. It reminds me a little bit of the 70s when bars were empty in the afternoon. “What are we gonna do to bring in business? Let’s have a poetry reading.”
Eileen: It’s like there’s nobody in the museum; there’s nobody in the gallery; there’s nobody buying anything. So I think the poverty of the fact that you can’t sell it becomes a plus.
The Serpentine Gallery in London had a two-day poetry marathon last month. 43
Jonathan: I think Augie—August Kleinzahler 44 —was part of it.
Eileen: Yeah, yeah. And Brian Eno was at the event, and he was amazing.
Eileen: It was interesting to watch the British art world trying to figure out what poetry was. They made a lot of weird stabs.
Jonathan: I actually think you’re right that the fact that poetry is not commercial is its saving grace. It’s what makes it so alive. You can’t get anywhere with it. So many people have felt that, and I think it’s really true. It’s not commercial, and it’s not a career; it’s a vocation. This whole syndrome of MFAs and jobs and all doesn’t speak to me; it doesn’t interest me at all. I mean, there are good poets who do that, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with poetry.
Eileen: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s no more connection to the life of poetry around some MFA program than there is in any other situation, except it just so happens that it’s sort of like a tree. That’s where a lot of leaves happen to be right now.
I was in the industry myself for a while. I went out to San Diego, and I was creating an MFA program at UCSD.
Jonathan: I’m not against it. I think it’s a great way for people to learn how to read, but I don’t think it creates good poems and poets, necessarily.
Eileen: I think they should function more like think tanks. Accept ten poets and just support them for two years, and let them have two years to write poetry with one seminar a week. You know? But often, that’s not what they get. They get $50,000 in debt and, you know, another day older.
Jonathan: It seems to me that to go through the wall into the poetry room, all you need to do is have someone take you in there.
Jonathan: You just hear something. You hear somebody speak something, recite something, and all of a sudden it makes sense. I mean, it’s not magic. You don’t need a pass card to get into the poetry room.
Eileen: It’s a very easy room to get into, in fact, yeah.
Jonathan: It’s impossible to get out of.
Eileen: Well, you’ve got to die; that’s the way to get out. That’s the Joe Brainard45 joke, right? It’s sort of like, “One good thing about dying, I don’t have to go to any more poetry readings.”
41 Contemporary American poet (b. 1939), published by FSG. The poem in question is “Herbert White” from Golden State (1973). [JG] Back
42 Contemporary poet (b. 1963), author of The Clerk’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). [JG] Back
43 The event ran from noon to nine o’clock in Regent’s Park and about 100 poets read including Augie, me, Richard Hell, Caroline Bergvall, Kenny Goldsmith, Tim Griffin, and Agnes Varda. [EM] Back
44 Contemporary poet (b. 1949), author of Sleeping It Off in Rapid City: Poems, New and Selected (FSG, 2008) and other works. [JG] Back
45 American artist and writer (b. 1942, d. 1994) associated with the New York School. Famous for collages and rewriting Nancy comics. [EM] Back
Vice: That’s funny that you bring him up now, because if I have a friend who is interested in poetry but has trouble reading it alone outside of an academic sort of place, a book I often give them is I Remember 46 by Joe Brainard.
Vice: I think it’s a good way to get into the feelings or the ways of poetry. It’s so funny, but it’s so poignant also.
Eileen: It’s great to just go and listen to poetry. When I came to town we would all go to St. Mark’s Church every Monday and Wednesday night, no matter who was reading. It’s so much more niche now because there are so many series, each with its own flavor. Yet over the years I’ve brought friends and girlfriends to readings and I’ve seen that conversion thing happen, where somebody came just because they were dating a poet, or they had a crush on a poet, or a poet was an art writer. So painters would come.
And how many poets have had somebody come up to them after a reading and say—and I mean, it’s my favorite compliment—“I loved your reading, and I hate poetry.” You know?
Jonathan: Yes, right.
Eileen: And it’s just, “What is it that you hate, then?” The one reading you went to where somebody went, “The night was incredible”? 47
Jonathan: Or the terrible class they had, where they read Shelley 48 or something, and they didn’t get it.
Vice: Or the way poetry was treated in high school, where it felt like a punishment. It was brought up in English class once a month or so.
Eileen: Or, “I want your secrets.” The poem of personal revelation, where it’s got to have a kind of redemptive little payoff—a moment. You know? And I think people feel raided by that. You know?
Jonathan: Well, let’s face it: There’s a lot of bad poetry out there. Really bad.
Eileen: And there are a lot of bad bands.
Eileen: There are a lot of awful painters in New York.
Jonathan: There’s a lot of bad everything out there.
Eileen: Yeah. But poetry gets the rap for badness, weirdly. How many times have you heard somebody say, “Yeah, I was just drinking a lot and writing a lot of bad poetry.”
Jonathan: But remember where Emily Dickinson 49 talks about how when she feels the top of her head coming off, she knows it’s a poem. 50 All you need is to have that experience of suddenly seeing things in a different way or of hearing words in such a perfect expression that they couldn’t be any better. They’re locked into significant form or whatever you’d like to call it. And we live by those words.
Jonathan: I always say that in the future, it will be things that poets said that are remembered and that will characterize our time. Quotations from poets will be how we understand the time, and feel it.
Eileen: Because they are fragments, often. It’s this beautifully constructed fragment, and you don’t remember the whole thing. You remember a moment, and you’re getting on the subway, and you just hear like… It’s very piece-y.
Jonathan: Piece-y, yeah. I think poetry is very much the art form of our time in the sense that we’re living in the time of TMI. But poetry has that sense of come and go, of ebb and flow, of fragment and of endlessness, that really relates to the flow of the internet, I think, in a certain way.
Eileen: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Vice: It’s surprising to hear you guys say that, because I think that to read a poem and to really get a poem inside you takes some time, whereas the way words are treated on the internet is the opposite of that. I always thought of blogging as antithetical to poetry writing in terms of process and in terms of consumption.
Jonathan: But it’s free. And so the flow is free. I mean, you can go into lockdown mode and privacy and all, but there’s something compelling about the flow of it.
Eileen: When you teach poetry what you’re always trying to get them to realize is that there’s a constant flow of language in your head, in the world, and somehow you’re wanting them to figure out some individual signature about how to take parts of that and make something.
It’s almost like body language. Like Tim Dlugos 51—did you know Tim?
Jonathan: No, but I liked his work a lot.
Eileen: Yeah, Tim was a wonderful poet who died of AIDS. After he died, I just remember walking down the street and suddenly seeing somebody who walked like Tim, and I never knew that I knew how Tim walked. It was such a distinctive rhythm. Often, when a poet dies, there’s a reading, and everybody gets up and reads that person’s poems. And it’s so funny, because you hear one thing where everybody makes it sound just like them. You know? But there’s this other thing where nobody can actually read the work, and people are stumbling and tripping and not quite able to do it, because it’s such an absolute reflection of the way that person puts things together. People call it voice, because they don’t know what else to call it, but it’s sort of skeletal.
It’s a moving thing, and it’s very personal and yet very anonymous. And I think that’s why it feels good when you get it right and when people hear what you did. It’s because it’s not you; it’s sort of like you did something of everybody’s. Poetry is a very communal art form, I think.
46 Granary Books, 2001. [V] Back
47 Eileen is here imitating the false rhythm of bad poetry being badly read. [V] Back
48 Great English Romantic poet (b. 1792, d. 1822). [EM] Back
49 American poet (b. 1830, d. 1886). [JG] Back
50 “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” [JG] Back
51 American poet (b. 1950, d. 1990). Read Powerless, Selected Poems of Tim Dlugos, edited by David Trinidad (High Risk, 1996). [EM] Back
Vice: I’d be interested in hearing both of you talk a little more about your own writing, if you’re into that.
Eileen: Well, you know, I think as a life changes, the poems change, too. When I went to California, people were saying, “Don’t move to California, it ruins your writing.” [laughs]
But truly, I learned a lot. For instance, Rae Armantrout 52 is a poet whose work I like a lot, and I understood her work more when I moved to San Diego because there was a way in which you were really alienated from where you lived. There wasn’t a lot of conversation and there wasn’t a lot of encounter. There wasn’t a lot of collision in that sort of Walter Benjamin 53 way.
I was kind of sailing along in my car, looking at the landscape and relying on information in a way that was not what I had done before.
Another poet friend of mine, David Trinidad, 54 when he came to New York, asked, “When do you people think?” And what he meant was that when he was in his car in California, he would think, and then he would have his life. We don’t have that time here in New York.
So in California I started to write in my car, and there was a slow observation of what was going on outside of the car. It was beautiful, and I even started to use a little tape recorder in the car to try and write just by voice.
Vice: That seems like an updated version of Wallace Stevens 55 and his walks.
Eileen: Oh, maybe, yeah. But what you had to get over was the kind of grossness of your own voice, kind of like looking in the mirror all the time. And then the hard part was coming back to New York and suddenly absorbing all this again, all the people and the conversations.
And of course, every time you fall in love, every time you have a loss, every time, whether they come literally into the poem or not, the form of the poem gets shook. I’ve heard people say, “She’s been writing the same poem for 20 years,” and part of me gets mad, and another part of me thinks, “Well, that was my intention.” You know?
Vice: What about you, Jonathan, in terms of your own work? What kind of a place are you in right now?
Jonathan: Well, I’m actually finishing two books that I’ve spent the past ten years on. One is a translation of Leopardi. 56 It’s coming out next year. And then I have a book of my own poetry. I’m going to be 60 and I’m finishing my third book. I’m very slow.
Eileen: Slow is good.
Jonathan: One thing that has been happening in my work is that I’ve been trying to find ways to have more flow. I’ve hit on certain formal devices that have helped me to get looser. I find that the freedom of looseness is really hard, because the temptation is to throw in a lot of stuff that really is extraneous. You have to be a self-editor, But you know, you said someone thinks you’re writing the same poem for 20 years. Well, poets write their poem. I mean—
Vice: You mean like the big poem?
Jonathan: In a way. As Montale 57 said: “I’ve written one book.” And it’s true. There are his themes, his metaphors, his images—his language is very constant. He reuses the same things over and over. It’s like he’s rewriting his poem. He didn’t get it right; he didn’t say what he needed to say, so he’s going to try and say it again.
I think that that’s one way of looking at what you do as a writer. It’s just like with a translation, you try to get as close as possible to the original in another language. That’s what you’re doing when you’re writing a poem, too. You’re trying to get as close to the truth of your experience as you can. And you never can, because you’re using one medium to create another. You can’t do it; it’s a translation.
Jonathan: But it’s wonderful to have that way of trying to make sense of your life. I don’t know what people who don’t write poetry do.
Eileen: I know. That’s the thing I always wonder. When I was younger, it was sort of like when I’d done some bad thing, I would write a poem.
Jonathan: Wow, what would your analyst say about that?
Eileen: I don’t go to one, luckily. [laughs] Then a shift was when I realized that no matter how good the poem was, it wasn’t worth what I had done.
52 San Diego poet (b. 1947). Her book Versed (Wesleyan University Press, 2009) was a finalist for the National Book Award. [EM] Back
53 German critic (b. 1892, d. 1942). Most famously wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” [EM] Back
54 American poet (b. 1953). [V] Back
55 Hartford, Connecticut-based poet and insurance-company employee (b. 1879, d. 1955). Really major guy. [V] Back
56 The first and greatest modern poet of Italy (b. 1798, d. 1837). [JG] Back
57 Leading 20th-century Italian poet (b. 1896, d. 1981), much of whose work JG has translated. [V] Back
Vice: Would the poems be directly addressing what you had done that you felt was bad?
Eileen: Sometimes it would be in there in a way, but it was kind of like having to offer up some—
Jonathan: It’s as if the poem is the residue of your sin.
Jonathan: It sounds very Catholic.
Eileen: Yeah, I’m sure. I think there’s no escaping it.
Jonathan: That’s a fascinating idea.
Vice: Instead of saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers, you’d just write a poem?
Eileen: Yeah. And like I said before, the first time I saw a Frank O’Hara poem, I felt like it was a prayer. I felt Augustine in it.
Jonathan: And O’Hara was such a Catholic poet.
Eileen: Yeah, yeah. And Rimbaud, 58 I mean, it’s like, how can you read Rimbaud and not feel the prayers running through it? You know, it’s so beautiful.
Jonathan: I love Frank O’Hara so much.
Eileen: Yeah. He’s so postmodern, you know? If you read “Personism” 59 again, that whole thing about picking up the phone, and it’s just completely interruption. And “Lana Turner we love you get up.” 60 It’s sort of like he just used the culture. You know?
Vice: He’s another person who a lot of people who aren’t particularly interested in poetry can really pick up on. You don’t have to be a poetry freak to pick up on O’Hara, I think.
Eileen: It’s sort of like, “Where’s the click?” He is kind of a total web poet, because you would sort of click on a line, and the whole poem opens up.
Jonathan: It’s very direct. There’s a way in which certain poetry is not very different from certain kinds of stand-up comedy.
Eileen: Oh yeah, yeah.
Jonathan: I think that O’Hara has some of that irony and wit and humor and campiness that people really respond to. And again, a freedom that’s just very, very winning—and immortal.
58 French poet (b. 1854, d. 1891), known for advocating the “disordering of the senses” as a way to prepare to make poetry. Patti Smith, a fan of his, famously wrote “Go Rimbaud.” [EM] Back
59 “Personism” is O’Hara’s manifesto, which appears in his selected poems. Read it. [EM] Back
60 “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)” (1964). [V] Back