Interview with Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro talks to Andy Kuhn

Alan Shapiro will be reading for the Katonah Poetry Series on Sunday March 11 at 4 pm. Author of many acclaimed books of poetry, as well as memoirs, criticism, and a novel, he is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For over thirty years his work has offered a moving and vivid lyric account of his and our lives and times. Recently Andy Kuhn spoke with him about his current work and his development as a poet, and learned that, on top of everything else, he’s a kidder.

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.

AK: Your early work, in the Seventies, during and after your stint as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, was rigorously rhymed and metrical, which at the time was even more against the dominant cultural grain than it is now, if that were possible. But by the mid-Eighties, enough other poets had published work harkening back to earlier forms that they were collectively dubbed “The New Formalists”—at which time you took care to dissassociate yourself from them, with some pretty scathing essays. Would it be fair to say that you have a contrarian streak?

Alan S: I lose no matter how I answer this. If I say no, you’ll see that as proof of my contrarian streak. It is true I have an aversion to movements and groups. I disassociated myself from the new formalists because none of the poets identified with the group were particularly skillful in the handling of form; plus, in my view they fetishized form as if writing in form were inherently valuable whereas I’ve always believed that form (and this includes free verse forms as well as accentual-syllabic forms) are only valuable in so far as they help you say something—they should serve emotional and intellectual needs, not the other way around. For many of the new formalist they seemed to think that all you had to do is count to ten and divide by two and you had a poem.

AK: I’ve neglected so far to mention that besides being a distinguished poet you are also a generous and at times emotionally searing memoirist. Unlike many writers, who protest any attempt to link the work and the life, you almost invite it, in a very disarming way. How did you arrive at this unusually open and un-defensive stance?

Alan S: Sheer genius? I like telling stories. All writing, whether poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction, has to be first and foremost a story, a memorable story, it has to be a story in order to be memorable. The only difference between memoir and fiction is that fiction is just story whereas memoir is story under oath. I write to make sense of experiences that are muddled; to bring a little clarity to what otherwise is confused in vexing ways.

AK: You seem to have grown up very much in the teeth of the Sixties, when every personal and esthetic choice was seen through the lens of politics. Your older sister was an SDS radical banished by your father, ultimately for dating black men. Your essay “Woodstock Puritan” is the only account of that watershed event I’ve encountered that doesn’t mention the music; by the time you escape the chaos and filth—on the back of a garbage truck, aptly enough—the reader is as relieved as you are. You seem to have emerged from that era with a powerful mistrust of orthodoxies, whether of the Dionysian or the law-and-order varieties. But in your poetry, you continue to honor and enact the tension between structure and chaos, holding firm and letting go. How would you say your experience of this tension, and your expression of it, have changed over time?

Alan S: Jeez, I don’t know. I do think that the only way you can get at formlessness is through form, the only way you can understand excess is in relation to some sort of measure, or norm. I think this is true socially as well as metrically. In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas says that where there is dirt, there is a system. What society defines as dirt indirectly reveals its notion of purity or cleanliness. In the sciences, we are always encouraged to understand one thing in relation to something else, sometimes to that something’s opposite. Isn’t that what metaphor is? Eudora Welty says that every story is really two stories and the trick of writing is to find the story within the story, to put one thing in conversation with something else. I’m interested in things in relation or the relation between things more than the things themselves. I don’t think I’ve answered your question, or my answer doesn’t seem to have risen to the level of intelligence in the question.

AK: You continue to insist on writing about recognizable people in identifiable human situations, which a lot of current poets, judging by their work, would seem to consider scandalously outmoded. Is hostility to intelligibility a growing force in poetry now, or do you think it’s on the wane?

Alan S: I don’t know. I’m an Old Age guy, not a New Age guy. I think in terms of human experience, in terms of a world I share with others. I’m interested in language of course since it’s where much of our experience takes place, but unlike the language poets I’m not interested in liberating the oppressed from the shackles of clarity.

AK: Night of the Republic is a haunting and haunted piece of work, it seems to me. You place the reader in nightscapes that are observed with an almost supernatural intensity—empty places still charged with the passage of those who are no longer there. The narrative voice is spare and magisterial in an unassuming way, which sounds like a contradiction in terms but in your poems somehow isn’t. Can you tell us a little about how you conceived of this project?

Alan S: I had to run out one night around 3 in the morning to get some Metamucil for my wife. I found myself alone in a blindingly lit up super market; I was the only customer in the massive store. The place just seemed so completely strange without people in it; it was as if I was seeing it for the first time, as if I had been a Martian anthropologist come down to earth and was trying to figure out what kind of weird life form had created this place. Then I began to imagine all the public places I spend so much of my life in at night with no people in them. And suddenly I could see how utterly improbable the most familiar things were. Which is to say, that suddenly there was poetry everywhere I turned.

AK: I’m wondering about the title, specifically the Republic part. You’re not overtly political in this collection, but thematically and in terms of tone it’s about as far from, say, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as could be imagined. Is that an intentional reference, or echo?

Alan S: I was thinking more about public spaces; the spaces that constitute our social lives, our corporate lives. Where we are when we’re in each other’s company. So while there’s nothing overtly political (with the exception of “Convention Hall” which is about how bankrupt our political discourse has become), politics, exploitation, war even does stand back of many of these places—that is, many of these places are the effects of absent cataclysms.

AK: As you know, the Katonah Poetry Series has hosted many distinguished poets in the past four-plus decades. Looking at the list of past readers, can you identify any who influenced your own development as a writer?

Alan S: That’s an impressive list of poets who’ve read for you. I greatly admire Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Robert Wrigley, Billy Collins, Adrienne Rich (who was a teacher of mine, as was Galway Kinnell), and the amazing Mark Strand. None of these poets, however, with maybe the exception of Mark Doty, has informed my work in any sort of direct way, the way, for instance, CK Williams or Robert Pinksy, Tom Sleigh or Elizabeth Bishop have, but they are all poets whose work I follow and always always enjoy.

AK: Thanks so much for talking. We’re really looking forward to your reading on March 11th.

For some poems from Night of the Republic, see:

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