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Meet the Poetry Foundation’s New President Robert Polito
Poetry Foundation Staff: 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?
Robert Polito: 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.
PF: How has working in academia prepared you for being president of the Foundation?
RP: 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.
PF: 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?
RP: 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.
PF: 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.
RP: 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.
PF: 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?
RP: 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.
PF: 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?
RP: 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.
PF: Speaking of continued relevance, what place do you think poetry holds in American culture in 2013?
RP: 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.
PF: Who are some of your favorite poets, and who do you wish would write another collection?
RP: 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 Glück, 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.
PF: What are you working on now?
RP: 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.
PF: Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?
RP: 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.