Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ten Questions with Robert Polito

Robert Polito

Last week the Poetry Foundation introduced Robert Polito as its new President. In a Q & A conducted with the Foundation, Polito dicusses his fascination with pop culture, crime noir, Bob Dylan, the state of poetry today and an interesting obsession.

1. You have been the director of the Writing Program at the New School for 20 years.
What attracted you to this opportunity at the Poetry Foundation?

The New School and the Poetry Foundation, notably through the history of Poetry
magazine, are both institutions with distinguished, even glorious pasts that are always in
need of reinvention by each new generation. If you had come to the New School to study
poetry in the 1960s, you could have taken workshops or seminars with Robert Lowell,
Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch, and the legacy of Poetry originates in Modernism—
Harriet Monroe, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, H.D., and Marianne Moore, on down to us a
century later. One way of moving forward sometimes is to try to tap back into the
innovative spirit of a place, not out of nostalgia, but for rejuvenation. Also, poetry—and
what I’ve learned through reading and writing it—is at the center of everything I do. This
is true of my nonfiction as well as my teaching.

2. How has working in academia prepared you for being president of the Foundation?

For all their popularity, writing programs still operate at the margins of academia, but
they advance vital skills that elsewhere are increasingly elusive in universities and the
culture at large, skills involving a close attention to language as a writer and a reader.
That accent on close reading and the importance of an intensive focus on language for
politics, media, and the Internet should be part of our national discussion about what’s
customarily tagged “the value of poetry.” You turn on your computer, and what do you
immediately encounter? Fragmentation, collage, and unreliable narrators—that’s
Modernism, but it is also the grain of daily life for nearly everyone alive today. You
might even say that the Modernist poets and novelists—James Joyce, Gertrude Stein,
Eliot, and Pound—invented, or certainly at least anticipated, the Internet.

3. You were born in Boston, live in New York City, and have taught at Harvard,
Wellesley, and NYU. What are you looking forward to in Chicago?

I love the Poetry Foundation’s new building, and I’m eager to explore the holdings of the
library. Chicago is a grand poetry city, and there are lots of wonderful book and record
stores—the Seminary Coop and Dusty Groove are already favorites. My wife, Kristine
Harris, is a scholar of Chinese film, and in 2007 and 2009, she was a visiting professor at
the University of Chicago, so we already have good friends here. I am also eager to
expand the collaborations of the Poetry Foundation with other Chicago artists and arts
organizations in music, film, theater, and dance. The University of Chicago Press is also
my publisher for poetry.

4. Your 1996 biography of the crime novelist Jim Thompson, Savage Art, won a National
Book Critics Circle Award. Tell us about your interest in noir.

I came to noir through Samuel Beckett: all those beautiful sentences telling you the most
terrible things. Noir—film noir as well as the fiction—is a crucial element of the
American experimental tradition. Think of the self-consuming novelistic structures in
Thompson, or those little repeated bits in David Goodis that intimate the bars of the
psychic prison his characters live inside. Apart from Goodis, who else ever wrote that
way, except maybe Gertrude Stein in The Making of Americans? Noir is also a crucial
aspect of the political and social literary tradition of the “secret history”—in America
from Dashiell Hammett and Chester Himes through James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, but
also European writers like Jean-Patrick Manchette and Henning Mankell.

5. Frank Bidart said of the poems in your last collection, Hollywood & God, “the
obsession with celebrity and the yearning toward God constantly threaten to turn into
each other.” What role does pop culture play in your work? What role does religion?

For Hollywood & God, I wanted to track some of the ways a search for transcendence
coming out of the New England of the 18th and 19th centuries bumps up against
contemporary media and celebrity culture. “The spectacle,” Guy Debord once said, “is
the material reconstruction of the religious illusion.” So the poems include collaged
fragments from Cotton Mather, early execution sermons, last-speech broadsides, and the
Baltimore Catechism alongside B-movie actors, Paris Hilton, as-told-to bios, and Elvis
impersonators. As far back as Hart Crane and Kenneth Fearing, film is incredibly
important to 20th-century American poetry, for both material and montage. For me, and
many other poets of my generation, popular music provided the education in sensibility
that high culture offered to previous writers. Early on, the Kinks, for instance, taught me
so much about tone, style, diction, double-mindedness, and the resources of multiple
traditions. For a graduate school Latin final examination question that asked us to map
the different kinds of irony in the Satyricon, I remember thinking about the ironic range
of Kinks songs and then tipped in passages from Petronius.

6. In 2006, you wrote an essay for the Poetry Foundation website about Bob Dylan’s
creative “sampling” of an obscure Civil War poet. You are something of a Dylan scholar.
What’s your favorite song, and why does he continue to be so fascinating to so many?

There are so many. Right now I’m still exploring Tempest, his latest from this past
September, and discovering fresh wrinkles as I listen—Scarlet Town and Long and
Wasted Years
, especially. But one favorite song? Maybe Not Dark Yet off the album
Time Out of Mind from 1997. To mention Beckett again, it’s the kind of song he might
have written if he played country music. Dylan is the best songwriter in part because of
the many different kinds of songs he writes across the vast traditions of American music.
He’s also a master of self-reinvention, and how you keep your art alive over the decades.
Plus, he’s an amazing singer with just devastating phrasing.

7. Speaking of continued relevance, what place do you think poetry holds in American
culture in 2013?

I was excited to hear Richard Blanco at the inauguration Monday. This is a fascinating
moment for us, as over the past few decades the poetry world in America has smartly
recreated itself around clusters of vibrant local cultures, each with its own magazines,
presses, websites, blogs, and reading series, almost along an old indie rock model. At the
annual AWP conference the most rousing feature is the book and magazine hall.
Recently, I’ve been absorbed by the new—or newish—books of Brenda Shaughnessy,
Catherine Barnett, Tom Sleigh, D.A. Powell, Tracy K. Smith, Sally Keith, Kevin Prufer,
Terrance Hayes, C. D. Wright, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Mark Ford, Deborah Landau,
Timothy Donnelly, Major Jackson, Jorie Graham, Don Paterson, Tom Healy, Nikky
Finney, Susan Wheeler, Christian Wiman, Cathy Park Hong, Gail Mazur, Mark Bibbins,
Alan Shapiro, Ange Mlinko, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Dana Goodyear, Matthea Harvey,
Robin Robertson, Craig Teicher, John Yau, Kevin Young, Brenda Hillman, Rae
Armantrout, Honor Moore, Eduardo C. Corral, Juliana Spahr, Peter Gizzi, Natasha
Trethewey, Laura Cronk, Matthew Rohrer, Alan Michael Parker, and Ariana Reines. So
many superb new books, and those are just the ones that have come my way. As I say,
this is a fascinating moment.

8. Who are some of your favorite poets, and who do you wish would write another

Andrew Marvell is probably my favorite poet, still shadowy and troubling no matter how
often I reread him. Also, Byron, Samuel Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats,
Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Lorine Niedecker, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth
Fearing, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Thom Gunn, James Merrill, John
Ashbery, Frank Bidart, Ron Silliman, Ai, Louise Gluck, James Tate, Robert Pinsky,
Nathaniel Mackey, Anne Carson, Charles Bernstein, and Robert Hass. I’m looking
forward to the next books of Lloyd Schwartz, Lawrence Joseph, Lucie Brock-Broido,
Joshua Clover, Claudia Rankine, Stephen Burt, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and the debut
collections of Adam Fitzgerald and Alex Dimitrov.

9. What are you working on now?

I’m working on a sequence of poems rooted in Plutarch’s essays, and another nonfiction
book, Detours: Seven Noir Lives. Eventually also a Dylan book.

10. Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

Is this where I get to obsess about my little collections? I collect tintypes of people
reading, holding books, or posing with books, mostly from the turn of the last century.
Similarly, and as ambient research, I have a small shelf of the high school or college
yearbooks of some people who interest me—Dylan, Bishop, Merrill, Ashbery, Andy
Warhol, O’Hara, William Burroughs, Goodis, John Cage, and Rube Goldberg.

photo credit: Gerber + Scarpelli

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