Alan Shapiro reading for the Katonah Poetry Series on March 11, 2012.
Alan Shapiro talks to Andy Kuhn
Andy Kuhn: Congratulations on your publication this year of not only your eleventh poetry collection, Night of the Republic, but also an acclaimed first novel Broadway Baby. Do you sleep much?
Alan Shapiro: I’m actually sleeping right now.
AK: Coulda fooled me. You’ve been dedicated to poetry for decades, as a poet, first and foremost, but also as a scholar, a teacher and critic. What first drew you to poetry, and how have you maintained such an intense and productive relationship with it?
Alan S: I came to poetry in the 1960’s through rock & roll and folk music. Like all teenagers back then, I fell in love with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and most of all Bob Dylan. I had and still have most of his songs committed to memory, and it was impossible not to sing, for instance, “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or even “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and not become aware of the words and not just for the meaning but for the fun of saying them, the feel of them on your tongue and in your mouth. It was a short step from reciting or singing lyrics to writing poems, and once I started writing poems I began reading them, and the more I read the more sophisticated my own sense of what a poem was became. I learned to write poetry the same way I learned to play basketball—I watched and studied the grown ups, the big kids, who knew how to play the game, and when they weren’t playing I grabbed a ball and tried to do what I saw them doing, and eventually I learned how to do their moves and put my own particular stamp on them. Imitation. It’s how all of us learn anything. Which is why it’s so important to read widely so we have the widest range of models to learn from. Reading is not only how one learns to play the game but how one continues improving, how one sustains oneself. You keep going by constantly expanding your expressive resources, by finding new models to imitate. Fact is imitation is inescapable. If you don’t imitate others, you’ll end up imitating yourself, which is the worst possible fate for a writer.