Interview: Samuel Menashe
The following interview was conducted in late February 2005, at the Washington Square Diner in New York City.
The struggle is against words, words, words.
Can you tell me a little about how or why you started to write that way?
It isn't my decision to write concise poems, that's just me. I didn't decide to be a poet. I didn't decide to write the poems that I write. I remember once coming home — my parents lived in the suburbs and I would come home for dinner — and I said to my mother (they died when they were twenty years younger than I am now, so this was a very long time ago): "You know that poem I showed you last week, well, I've worked on it since. And she asked, "How much shorter is it?" Yes, I'm known for that. I could spend almost an entire summer revising a poem that's already been published, making a three line stanza out of a six line stanza — not just cutting away, but the whole poem goes into the works again. Didn't Poe say that in a long poem only certain parts are poetry? I'm not given to storytelling. There is narrative poetry, but it's not my kind of poetry.
Is there any poem that you can't imagine living without?
Oh, no. Listen, you need oxygen to live. But certain poems are really part of my life. Certain psalms. See, in my day we did memorize poetry. Now people will sometimes ask, "Do you know all your poems by heart?" as a kind of accusation against my ego. Well, I know them because I made them and they're very concise. But I memorize other people's poems, too. There are poems that matter very much to me.
Could you tell me something about how you usually work?
If I'm working on a poem, I'm possessed by it. I have a desk by the window, and I have sun all morning on a winter morning. Well, I can repeat the same lines over and over again while I'm walking in the park in the afternoon. I wake up with them in the middle of the night, and the poem is in the works. But when I'm not working, like on a beautiful day like this — nothing is lacking in this day, even though I'm not working. Shall I recite a short poem?
The friends of my fatherNow, the first four lines could have been written at any time, even in antiquity. That poem in its first version was in my first book published in England. But it was then revised. The revision always makes it more concise. But then I remember, I was walking one evening, a balmy evening, and the poem was in the works (the revision) and I had the line "crinkled leaf of spring," and suddenly when I was walking on a quiet street (there are quiet streets here) I was staggered, I mean physically. Do I dare say, instead of "a crinkled leaf of spring," "spring's crinkled leaf"? And for me that made all the difference. I dared!
Stand like gnarled trees
Yet in their eyes I see
Spring's crinkled leaf
And thus, although one dies
With nothing to bequeath
We are left enough
Love to make us grieve
When did you start writing poetry?
I wrote my first poem, much to my surprise, when I woke up one night in Paris. I was a G.I. student after the war, and I must have been about 23. It was February 1949.
How was poetry a part of your life during the war?
It really wasn't, I'm sorry to say. Staying alive was the thing. I knew poetry as a schoolboy, and I had started college earlier, and I certainly knew some poems by heart, but I don't remember ever reciting a poem to myself during the war or hearing a poem recited.
Did you do any reading during the war?
Yes, we had these little novels they gave us, and we could tear pages from them. They were the forerunner of paperbacks, perhaps. But I don't remember very much. You know, it was very hard, infantry basic training. I remember reading those little pocket novels then, but certainly not during the war itself.
Where were you during the war?
We were trained in Fort Benning, Georgia, the infantry school. We were there at eighteen, then were sent to the 87th infantry division in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, then to England for further training. We were trained in a depressed area of England and billeted in old mills, the earliest factories of the industrial revolution. Then we were sent to France. We were too young to be in D-day, but we were committed to eastern France. When the Germans broke through in Belgium (in what is known now as the "Battle of the Bulge"), we were sent north there.
I think, though, that if I hadn't been in the infantry and lucky enough to survive physically unharmed, I might have had a much more conventional life. I remember I used to hear people, when I came home from the war, talking about what they intended to do "next summer," and I was amazed by their certainty that they would be alive "next summer." I always thought that each day was the last day for the first few years. And then it changed: not each day as the last day, but each day as the only day. It's more hopeful in a way. So I was able to live in the day. Most people are planning for a future. I had no foresight for any future. It's a nice sentimental anecdote for a bohemian to talk about that cold water flat you had on Thompson Street. Well, I still live with a bathtub in the kitchen. If you live that way for two or three years when you're young, and then move to proper middle class housing, you can be sentimental about your old cold water flat. Anyway, I had no foresight.
What kinds of jobs did you have?
Oh, I tutored a lot of French. My French is very good, I'll have you know. I taught at Bard College, and I was a tourist guide in French. I had mostly irregular jobs.
Have you always considered poetry to be your primary occupation?
It became that. As I said, I could never have imagined this. I wrote a very strong short story when I was thirty, which is considered a war story. It was ten years after the war, and I was commemorating a terrible day during the war and the loss of a very close friend on that day. I tapped a vein in that story, and it was written overnight and won a prize. Actually, that was the only prize I had ever won until last year. That's why I qualified for the Poetry Foundation's Neglected Master's Award. I could never get a Guggenheim or anything like that, although I tried.
Has the New York poetry scene been much a part of your writing life?
No, they won't have me. I get to read at local libraries. I love to read at libraries. They're quiet. But I've never been invited to read at any of the places like the 92nd Street Y — maybe that'll happen, but I doubt it. I have really been on my own.
You haven't spent much time teaching in universities, have you?
No, I haven't. But I've patched together an erratic career, and I almost have no rent payment, you know, because I've lived in the same flat for fifty years. I've had my freedom that way.
Do you think that institutionalized "creative writing" programs have changed American literature for the worse?
(Laughs). You're saying that. You see, at my age (I'm in my eightieth year) I love to say "in my day," and in my day there were no poetry workshops. There was one I had heard of. The place was spoken of with reverence. Iowa. The Iowa Writer's...what is it called?
No, it has a more austere name. Iowa. It was the only place, and one was made to feel that it was practically unattainable. It was spoken of almost with religious reverence. Yeah, I don't know about these places. Obviously, the proliferation of poetry workshops across the country has changed things. There are a lot of people who are ensconced in that system; some of them have been teaching these workshops for forty years. It's a livelihood. It's also a way of molding young people more or less in your image. My first poem was published in the Yale Review when I was thirty-one, and I tried to look at literary magazines to see what was being done and where I could send my work, but I never found any work in them that made me feel like I belonged. It isn't that I'm claiming originality, but I've really been on my own in whatever I've done. Even my history of publication is an indication of that.
As a matter of fact, the award I was given in Chicago was really a runaround the New York establishment. No comparable organization here would give me the time of day. In about 1957 I heard Kathleen Raines recite her poetry at the Y with two other British poets. I thought of her a few years later when I was in Europe, because she was a renowned Blake scholar. I sent my poetry to her, and she got it published by one of the leading publishers in London. My friends thought that American publishers would be waiting at the pier for me. On the contrary, it took me ten years to get my first book published here by the most unknown publisher in New York. That has been the story of my life almost to the present. I was published by Penguin in London seven years ago in a very reputable series called Penguin Modern Poets. Each volume included about three poets, and almost all of them were British. And I still couldn't get a publisher in New York. So, it's been a hard life. It's been the opposite of a life buttressed by grants and having a publisher and going to him every few years with new poems. Each time I've had to start from scratch.
How has the attention and the financial reward changed your life.
I aspire to live closer to Central Park, so I might be able to rent an apartment up near the park rather than commuting there. But the big change in my life has been, well, I had three manuscripts out at the time I got a telephone call from Chicago telling me that I was getting this award and that an attempt would be made to get me a publisher and that negotiations were in process with the Library of America. Well, that's what happened. I mean, to be published by the Library of America is extraordinary! It's a total reversal of fortune. Can you imagine being seventy-nine and knocking on doors trying to get a publisher? Everything has changed. My work is secured in a way that was totally unimaginable to me at this time last year. Unimaginable. I'm not a daydreamer, you know. I don't live in daydreams. When I was in my late sixties, I remember the phrase "one's lot in life" came to me. One accepts one's lot in life, and my lot in life was to have a marginal existence with a few important critics, some of them younger than myself. My hope was that when I am dead that there might be enough people around who see enough worth in my work to keep it going. Now, my work is to be secured in a kind of museum collection. I am the first living poet to be published in that series. And the way I was received in Chicago — well, I had never experienced that.
So, there are merits to obscurity?
NO! No, no, no, no, no! You want your work to be read. Obscurity means you're not read.