The Country Dog Review interviews Alan Shapiro
CDR: Congratulations on the unusual achievement of having both a poetry collection, Night of the Republic, (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2012) and a novel, Broadway Baby, (Algonquin Books, 2012) out in the same year. I’ve heard many poets say they cannot let themselves read or write too much prose because it affects the ear. What are your thoughts on this, and can you discuss the process of writing each book? Do you possess the unique ability to write poetry and prose simultaneously, or were there long periods of rest between each endeavor?
Alan Shapiro: I work on one thing at a time—I write poems one at a time, and when I’m writing poetry I don’t write prose, and when I write prose I don’t write poetry. But that said, writing for me is writing. And the distinction between poetry and prose, poetry and fiction, grows less important the older I get. Writing Broadway Baby was like writing a poem, but on a much larger scale, on a bigger canvas. But the process of writing was the same, one word after another, clause by clause, sentence by sentence. However, as a kind of hedge, I write the novel in short discrete scenes, so that if I hadn’t been able to get it published I could mine it for poems.
CDR: Your newest poetry collection, Night of the Republic, is fairly different from your other poetry collections. Faithful readers of your work are often enamored by poems with interesting characters falling into or out of love. You have written beautifully about painful losses, and the poems are often deeply personal yet universal. In this new collection, the focus seems to be looking outward on the human world, which is often empty. Can you discuss the process of writing this book? Did you have an idea in mind which drove the poems to be written, or did you simply begin to notice a trend when it was time to collect the poems?
AS: I found myself in a supermarket at 3 AM and found it be one of the strangest places I’d ever been in, and I wondered why I had never noticed how strange 24/7 supermarkets are, brightly lit all through the night, aisles stacked with goods, mountains of produce, freezers full of food, and I realized it was because there were no people around. And I wondered if every public place would seem equally strange once you looked at them at night when they were empty. So I imagined myself to be a kind of anthropologist from Mars, attempting to infer from empty public spaces the desires and obsessions of the people who inhabit them. Basically, I’m asking, what kind of creatures with what kind of needs and interests would construct and use this or that sort of place. I have been a very narrative poet over the years, and even when I’m not narrative my work has been devoted to personal experience. I loved writing something with no people in it (though desire and aspiration and dream and psychological preoccupations is everywhere throughout the book), and I loved roaming around the most familiar public places and seeing them under some new and profoundly strange light. When I wrote the first poem in this series, the one about the supermarket I knew immediately that I would write many others, and suddenly as often happens when you get a generative idea the whole world was waiting there for me to write about it—everywhere I went I found a poem in a public place once I was able to imagine that place without anybody in it. In other words, after the first poem everywhere I looked I found low hanging fruit.
CDR: Writers who are beyond their MFA or PhD programs might be interested to learn your process of self-editing. So many talented writers still need encouragement or a “go-ahead” from trusted readers before they’ll send a piece out for consideration. How do you know when a poem is ready for print?
AS: Valery says we never finish a poem; we just get finished with it. I work on poems until I’m not having fun any more, till I feel as if I’m just moving words around on the page, not discovering anything, not finding something new. I also show work to a couple of friends, and if they think it’s finished it usually is.
CDR: How do you know when a poetry manuscript is finished?
AS: Same answer. I’ve exhausted whatever the generative impulse was.
CDR: When you were a young writer, did you receive one or two bits of advice you come back to even at this stage in your career?
AS: Nothing in particular though all along the way I’ve had great teachers and great friends as readers and great readers as friends. But no one ever said anything in particular that repeat to myself as a mantra. I don’t think mantras work when it comes to writing. And the process is so individualistic, every writer finds his or her own set of rituals and habits, and ways of proceeding. The advice I give myself though is to be patient when the work feels like it isn’t going well or isn’t happening at all. Sooner or later everything you need to write because you can’t not write it will get written. Main thing is never to lose what Elizabeth Bishop calls “the self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration” that writing anything well requires. If you sit down at the desk at 9 Am and then look up a moment later to find that it is 4 PM, then you’ve had a good day’s work, no matter what the quality of the work is. You’ve been in what the athlete’s call the zone, and for that you should feel nothing but gratitude, even if nothing comes of it.
CDR: Broadway Baby’s main character is a woman, Miriam Bluestein, which is delightful, and yet impressive because it is a feat not often attempted by male writers. What research did you do for this character?
AS: None. Like most people, I had a mother. I thought of her and went on from there.
CDR: Writers who straddle the line between poetry and prose often make the best kind of writers. Their sentences are lyrical, buoyant, and tight. Which poetic prose writers do you admire most? Did any particular novel influence you?
AS: This book was really an homage to Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. That book, about an upper middle class woman from Kansas City in the mid-twentieth century, is composed in short chapters, I don’t think there’s a chapter in it longer than 3 pages. Each chapter is focused on a single moment, a single scene. The prose is gorgeous, not in a lyrical or poetic way though there are lyrical moments throughout, but in a way that was so thoroughly empathic with the main character’s sensibility. I tried to follow as best as I could Connell’s example, though his book is a masterpiece and mine is just another book.
CDR: We hear a lot about the (often negative) impacts children have on women’s writing, but very little is mentioned about how fatherhood affects a man’s work. You’re a very prolific writer who is also a father. How has fatherhood changed or influenced your work?
AS: It’s made me a more serious, more empathetic and loving human being, and it’s also made me a more humble human being. Anything that makes you feel like you’re a hostage to fortune (and nothing makes you feel that more than bringing children into the world) is good for your imagination and awareness.
CDR: Where do you go to find the most engaging new poetry? Are there any emerging poets you’re excited about?
AS: Plenty. Too many to mention, especially among African-American poets. I think your generation of poets and even younger poets are better-educated and more sophisticated than I was certainly. And I love how open and flexible so much of the new poetry is. Younger poets seem to feel that experimentation isn’t confined necessarily to experimental work alone, to collage or fragmentary ways of writing; they seem to feel that any good poem, no matter what it’s form or structure, is experimental if it’s good. I like that inclusive spirit. I feel very confident that American poetry is strong and getting stronger, becoming even more diverse and vital.
CDR: You’re keeping us busy this year. What can we expect from you in the near future?
AS: I’m finishing up a new novel about The Alamo, about someone, an historian, writing a book about the Alamo. And I have a lot of new poems, which eventually I’ll collect into a new book, but not any time soon.