Interview with Alan Shapiro – 2019
by Ann van Buren
Alan Shapiro is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of numerous essays and books. He is the recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship and one from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has won many prizes: the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers Award (1991), Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year (The Last Happy Occasion), 1996,a Pushcart Prize, (1996), and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award (Dead Alive and Busy),2001, among them. KPS will welcome Alan Shapiro to the Katonah Library, where he will read from his latest collection, Against Translation.The reading will be followed by a Q&A and a book-signing reception with the author. KPS is especially grateful to Alan Shapiro, for his work and for the donation of his time to benefit the series. Prior to the reading, he will lead workshops in the community. This interview was conducted via email by KPS interviewer, Ann van Buren.
Ann van Buren: KPS is thrilled to have you back, Alan. By all accounts, your last appearance for the series was one of the highlights in its fifty-year history. The workshops you are doing to benefit the series were filled almost immediately after they were announced, and we expect a full house for your reading on May 5th, at 4PM. Can you tell us about your hopes and expectations for the weekend? What is it about KPS that inspired such generosity?
Alan Shapiro: Writing poetry is partly and mainly essentially a collaborative enterprise. Nobody writes anything without the help of someone else. That can be a friend, a fellow poet or another poem you love and want to emulate, or at the very least be in conversation with. More generally, poems exist not just to be read in the isolation of one’s study but to be talked about, to generate communal bonds and insight. So what I hope is that the poems people bring to the workshop will produce an uninhibited, wide open and robust conversation, not just about the specific poem but about aspects of poetry in general. I know a few of the poets that will be in one of the classes; they’re terrific writers, terrifically smart and generous and their generosity, I’m sure, will spread to everyone. You can learn just as much from poems that are less than perfect as from poems that seem just fine as is. What I expect is that the conversations the poems inspire will generate possibilities for revision that will make the poet more excited about revising than maybe he or she felt in writing the first draft. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal. Regarding teaching as a form of generosity: well, the truth is all poets are students of the art; nobody is a master; in fact, once you think you’ve mastered the art you’re finished, washed up, you turn into the worst sort of imitator, a self-imitator because you stop thinking you have anything to learn from anybody else. To keep growing as an artist you have to be always at the limits of what you know, with everything to learn before you. Teaching serious writers who don’t pretend to have it all figured out reminds me of where it is I need to be when I sit down to write. So I love teaching for selfish reasons, because it makes me a better writer. There’s nothing really generous about it, or if there is, the generosity between student and teacher is reciprocal.
AvB: Against Translation is not your first collection where the struggles of our personal lives share the context of world events. You write about racism in the poem “Hurricanes” and offer examples where it is embedded in our cultural history. In other poems, you refer to The Cuban Missile Crisis and The Troubles. The speaker of these poems is often the foil to an event, not consciously aware of what’s going on while it’s happening.
What does your work say about hindsight? Why do you think that some people are able to consider a broader context while others cannot? How is this way of seeing essential to poetry?
AS: The ancient Greeks believed (metaphorically) that all sight is hindsight, that we are always walking backwards into the future, so to speak, seeing only where we’ve been but having no idea about where we’re heading. The only clue to the future is in the past, which as we move forward is really all we face. As far as why some people have a broader vision of the past than others I think has to do with a lot of things—curiosity, time to contemplate, freedom from the getting and spending that consumes so much of contemporary life. I also think social media has severely atrophied most people’s sense of time; the past for most of us has shrunk to an evanescent Facebook feed with each new post canceling out the one that came before. The pace of technological change has dramatically accelerated, which in turn accelerates our sense of time. Forget here today, gone tomorrow—it’s here this morning, gone this afternoon (“Remember the good ole hours”). As our devices have gotten thinner and faster, and our bodies have gotten fatter and slower, we’ve become bystanders to and spectators of our own lives. Seems like nothing’s real or even happened unless it’s been posted, selfied, texted or videoed. Maybe this gives us an ersatz sense of the past as we hurtle from our origins. It’s like we let our devices do the living for us. If I have a broader view of things than average it’s partly because I’m not on social media at all.
AvB: Many of the characters who inhabit your earlier poetry also reappear in the new work. You re-tell the story of annoying parents, the child who—despite everything—never feels good-enough, and marriages that fall apart. The book implies that, notwithstanding the many times that these stories have been told—by you and by others—they are yet to be written. “Diaries,” the last poem in this collection, describes an old man who does not recognize himself while re-reading a journal he wrote in his youth. At some point, the man’s young daughter gets hold of the journal and writes in it herself. She says, “Dear Diary, in case you haven’t noticed, this is my first entry.”
Can you comment upon this underlying theme that we are all writing the same book, re-living a life that has been passed down to us? What lesson do you intend your readers to learn from these poems?
AS: The way I’d put this is that we all have our appointed subjects, concerns, obsessions, which we can no more choose than we can our shadows. For whatever reason, my overriding concern is the perils and pleasures of human attachment, the bottomlessness of human motivation, and also the wonder and terror of being alive, of life itself, of the why there’s something rather than nothing, and of the astounding good luck that produced this little speck of a planet in a minor region of the universe that happens to be circling a sun that’s just the right size at just the right distance to make life possible; never mind that the evolutionary crap shoot would go from microbes to hedgehogs to hedge fund managers, or even that I’d end up being of Jewish descent. I mean if you just go by the numbers, it’s remarkable I’m not Chinese. As I have gotten older I’ve become more and more aware of just how astonishing everything is. I guess if there’s a lesson not just in my poems but in poetry itself (and all art for that matter) it’s to remind us of how wonderful (in the radical sense of the word, as in full of wonder) every moment of our lives is, whether we know it or not.
AvB: How did you get to the point where you could write such raw and honest pictures of yourself and the people you love despite their imperfections? What advice do you give to those of us who still do everything we can to avoid sharing those secrets? Why do you think that these truths are necessary to the art of poetry?
AS: When I sit down to write I try to claim for myself as much imaginative freedom as I can, trusting that anything I say about anyone however close to me is said from a place of empathy and understanding and not from a hidden agenda or desire to settle scores. I allow myself the full range of human emotion (as much of it as I am capable of embracing), to go anywhere the poem takes me, and not to flinch if where I’ve come to is full of complications and ambivalence. The aspiration is to get as close as possible to what feels real and true, the truth as Herman Melville says “with all its jagged edges.” I try not to simplify, or replace a complex reality with a palatable lie. I try to honor the gritty particulars of what happens. I don’t have any advice for anyone. We all have to find our own ways through the difficulties of writing poems drawn from personal experience, that represent other people, who (no matter what you say, no matter the praise or dispraise) will be made profoundly uncomfortable by anything you say about them. Nobody wants to give up narrative control of their own lives. Nor should they have to. But if people have the right not to be written about, and I think they do, it’s a right I’ve passionately violated my entire writing life.
AvB: I’m interested in your motivation to write prose poetry, a form that many struggle to define. Can you talk about the prose poem?
AS:I decided to see what happens when I got rid of the line and just wrote sentences. And to my amazement it was like finding a new toy, or new register, suddenly whole chunks of experience and ways of sounding became available to me. I was able to find a language for experiences or aspects of experience that had eluded me or remained out of reach. A new form is a new way of seeing, so I could revisit subjects I’d taken on before because I saw them differently, so in effect they were new subjects: the elimination of line, having fewer balls in the air to juggle allowed for a more expansive, more mongrel style. I love writing sentences, and so sentences became my primary expressive resource. It was just a lot of fun to be trying out something I’d never done before.
AvB: In pondering the cycles of life that your work explores, I wonder how you would distinguish the possible title,In Translationfrom the actual title,Against Translation. (This is meant to be a fun and open-ended question, but please feel free to disregard it if it lands as an annoyance instead!)
AS: I’m thinking about translation in a metaphorical sense: the injustice of translating a living, irreducibly unique life into some symbolic medium. The warrior culture of the ancient Greeks was based on the assumption that our best compensation for the shortness of our lives is to die in battle and be translated into immortal song—that art redeems suffering, that symbolic representation is a good deal, an exchange of mutable flesh for immutable monuments. My view is there’s no substitute for the living person. And that it’s a pernicious, even dangerous, lie to think there is, even though the western art is predicated on that belief. In exchange for perishable flesh, the artist offers “monuments of unaging intellect.” Yeat’s golden bird in “Sailing to Byzantium.” Fool’s gold, if you ask me. I’d rather be immortal by not dying, than by writing a poem someone a hundred years from now might read.
AvB: Thank you!