An Interview with Andre Bernard
by Andre Bernard, 2008
An Interview with Philip Schultz by André Bernard
from Five Points, Vol. 12 No. 2
Philip Schultz was born in Rochester, New York, in 1945. His first poetry collection, Like Wings (1978), was a National Book Award nominee and won him an American Academy and Institute Award in Literature. His second, Deep Within the Ravine, was the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1984. Eighteen years later, in 2002, he published his third collection, The Holy Worm of Praise. Living in the Past was issued in 2004, and Failure, for which we won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, in 2007.In 1987 he founded The Writers Studio, a writing school located in New York's Greenwich Village. He lives in East Hampton with his wife and two young sons.
This interview took place in the midtown Manhattan offices of the Guggenheim Foundation on July 21, 2008. (Schultz, who has won a number of fellowships, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry in 2005.) Schultz is a short, very powerfully built man with a dark beard. His voice has deep, rich shades, and he laughs often. His eyes are startlingly warm and vivid. His casual demeanor, however, masks a taut alertness, and could never be mistaken for real calm. We sat together in an office overlooking the East River:
Bernard: You won the Pulitzer Prize this year, thirty years after your first book publication. Can you talk a little bit about how you became a poet?
Schultz: My first sense of myself was as an artist, a painter. I would see a Van Gogh painting and just love it, the more emotional and passionate the more it attracted me. I started writing stories when I was sixteen, and started reading Hemingway, Salinger and Walker Percy. When I was seventeen, waiting for my mother to have her hair done, I saw a copy of Percy's The Moviegoer in a supermarket and bought it. I was dyslexic and reading was difficult, but I fell in love with the character's first person voice. I think it was the first time I read something that provoked in me a level of emotion that painting did. I loved Percy's passion for philosophical insight and his lyrical, ever-spiraling ideas. So my lifelong love affair with the first-person persona began, a strong self-identified "I" telling a story larger, more important than himself. And this led me to poetry because the first person in poetry is more intimate and demanding, it uses a more intense focus on detail and thought, and these qualities are what drew me to art in the first place. Not so much the story that demands to be told, but the means of expression, which of course is a different matter altogether. My father's death when I was eighteen and his struggles as a Jewish immigrant provided me with the raw material, but for a long time I went from painting to fiction and then finally to poetry before I could find the right way of telling this story.
Bernard: Your first book, Like Wings, seems to have two very centered focuses—Jewishness and your father. The whole collection is suffused with your father, filled with the atmosphere of your father.
Schultz: Really—I didn't even know that, about my father.
Bernard: And then you're also trying to sort out your Jewishness. Was that important to you at the time, and has it stayed with you?
Schultz: First of all, I'm surprised. I know that I was writing a poem for many years that ended up being called "For My Father." Howard Moss, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, saw so many versions of it, he told me that I would never finish it, that it would never get done.
Bernard: In a sense he was right.
Schultz: That's true. That poem—I went home after our lunch, determined to prove him wrong. I finished it that night, and sold it to Poetry magazine. Are there other poems about my father in there? Yes, the first poem, about where he was born: "For the Wandering Jews."
Bernard: Which also brings up an interesting character—your guardian angel, Stein, who shows up on the first page, in the first poem. And he reappears throughout your work over the decades. Can you talk a little about him?
Schultz: I've been trying to write another poem about him for a New and Selected, but am having a hard time, I can't seem to resurrect Stein.
Bernard: Who is Stein?
Schultz: Well,Yehuda Amichai tried to convince me that he was Stein. He made a kind of cameo appearance in an early poem and people started asking me about him, as if he were a real person, so I started giving him material for other poems. I think he was the kind of good father that I wanted as a boy, someone who would be attentive, a guardian angel. He was also a comic figure I used to lighten the mood of dark poems like "Deep Within the Ravine." Perhaps an alter ego too. I could play around with his persona, the way Zbigniew Herbert used Mr. Cogito, as a backboard to hit my ideas off. Although I hadn't read Herbert at the time. Stein really came out of nowhere, like a houseguest who comes for a brief visit and then won't leave.
Bernard: Stein comes back, in the 1970s, the 1980s, the new millennium. Has he been good to you?
Schultz: I was asked over and over again to read my Stein poems so in my second book, Deep Within the Ravine, he got a poem all his own, "My Guardian Angel Stein," in which I made up his biography. Then State Street Press, a great chapbook series edited by Judith Kitchen and Stan Rubin, asked me to put my Stein poems together and I had a chapbook called My Guardian Angel Stein. Stein offered me another view of the world, another philosophy. He was the comedian in me; the part that refused to let me take myself too seriously. He'd sit in the waiting room of the ''1's'' shrink's office asking him if he wouldn't rather read Spinoza. My father was also very funny. He was a great story teller.
Bernard: That's not obvious in the poems. For instance, in Deep Within the Ravine, for the first time you start to write about your mother. There are a number of tributes to your mother. In one poem, "For My Mother," you write about clinging to her leg as she walks about the house.
Schultz: Like a ball and chain. I remember reading that poem in Buffalo once and John Logan telling me now that I had my mother and father poem I could stop writing. It was very funny but I knew what he meant. You can't really write about one without writing about the other too; they're two sides of the same timeless coin. One parent is always implicit when you write about the other. I had to deal with my father before I could examine the impact he had on my mother and me. So I could see her more clearly. I once painted portraits of everyone in my family. I imagine it was my mother's turn.
Bernard: You call it "an embrace with time." It seems to be something you do with all of your poetry—your verse is an embrace with time. You look backwards, as though you are trying to understand where you are now. You keep reassessing, reevaluating your father, your mother, your family, your upbringing.
Schultz: It reminds me of your earlier question about Jewishness in the poems. This was still the era of Bellow, Roth and Malamud, and I was trying to do in poetry what they did in fiction, constant reassessing, weighing and deliberating of the past as a way of understanding the present. And Proust was a big deal in the Sixties, especially in San Francisco, where I lived, his use of time as a major character, not just a theme or background, made a real impression on me. But Bellow was my favorite writer. If I was going to be a poet, I wanted his exuberance and the headlong force of his intelligence in my work. I think the Jewishness was the core of all that. Bellow's story was my story, a Jewish immigrant story of America. There was Phil Levine, David Ignatow, and Gerry Stern and later, younger poets like Eddie Hirsch and Robert Pinsky, but fiction took on that story first, and I guess I wanted a piece of the action. But it wasn't a fashionable, cool, hip thing to do. An editor once told me that my first book was "too Jewish."
Bernard: That's interesting, considering the impact Jewish writers had, certainly in fiction.
Schultz: Many Jewish poets use their Jewishness in a more oblique, diffident manner. They didn't confront it directly, except for the few I mentioned.
Bernard: And yet Jewish fiction writers like Salinger, Roth, Bellow and Heller completely replaced John Marquand and John O'Hara and James Gould Cozzens.
Schultz: For some reason the same thing didn't happen in poetry. Certainly not to the same extent. The Jewish fiction writers were reinventing fiction, making it a vehicle for their own original voices, their own personal stories. Perhaps the English tradition in poetry still had too powerful a sway on American poetry, and the audience for poetry was so much smaller, and to a large degree, academic. There were only a handful of MFA programs, English Departments still ruled the roost. Perhaps the very nature of poetry made it impossible. But I never stopped trying.
Bernard: An interesting thing happens to you after your second book. You published two books of poems, both very well received. The second was a Lamont Poetry Selection. In those books there's almost a Beat feel to your poetry. You use typographic elements, ampersands, short, staccato phrases and words, a jazzy rhythm in your language. And then you publish nothing in book form until 2002—eighteen years—and when The Holy Worm of Praise comes out your entire persona as a poet, on the page, is different. No more ampersands, no more jazzy rhythm, as though you've gone from being a brook rushing down the side of a mountain to a very deep lake. There's a stillness and a depth and power that is a vast difference from the first two books. What happened during those eighteen years?
Schultz: First of all thank you for saying that. It may have been that I finally accepted the fact that I was a poet. I'd stopped writing fiction and embraced poetry. For the first time, I enjoyed thinking of myself as one. I grew up in a somewhat primitive world, a world without books or music or art, a world where survival was the only art form. It was an immigrant, often angry world, and news of the Holocaust and the aftermath of the war only lent an aura of urgency to the way I perceived things. Poetry had no place in this world, one could perhaps earn a living from fiction, or non-fiction, but not poetry. I saw the world through my father's eyes and poetry didn't exist there. I wrote poetry in a secretive way, I think, a secret from myself, I mean. I wrote it because it gave me great pleasure to do so and because it relieved the ever-building pressure of the demanding world around me. It's always served me as a way of appraising, and controlling overwhelming experiences. But this need, and desire, was always in conflict with my need to "survive." My father would've seen poetry, if he ever bothered to think about it, as self-indulgent. Perhaps I wrote about my father as a way of finding myself, and once I did, I found poetry too. But perhaps too, my meeting my wife, Monica Banks, had a lot to do with it. I'd stopped writing altogether when we met. I had failed miserably at fiction and didn't want to write poetry again. When she asked me what I did, I said I'd been a writer. Then, suddenly, I was writing love poetry. So I was writing poetry again.
Bernard: The door to poetry re-opened for you because you found happiness with Monica?
Schultz: Yes. Happiness is a powerful thing. It freed me to do what I always wanted to do. The fiction was behind me. I always thought if I gave up poetry it would lead to happiness, because I was always writing about how unhappy I was, and it turned out to be the opposite. And then I started reading poetry the way I never had before. I mean really reading it, as a poet. I'd get up in the middle of the night and read Eliot, everything, as if I'd never read him before. And I hadn't, I'd always read him as a student, a reader, not as a poet. He's a real influence in The Holy Worm of Praise.
Bernard: Any other poets you felt close to?
Schultz: Yehuda Amichai was the only poet I was friends with during the time I stopped writing poetry. I once showed him a novel and he said, "Go back to poetry, you're a poet." Phil Levine's work was always a great influence, from the beginning, and Gerry Stern's, and Vallejo, Neruda, and Montale, and Herbert, and Whitman of course, quite a few in fact. The passionate poets, who had something large to say.
Bernard: There's a line in Living in the Past: "Once everything felt so necessary, inevitable. What happened to all our enthusiasm for ourselves?" Is this what happened to you during that time?
Schultz: Yes, I had to hit bottom before I came to my senses. It never occurred to me that I could use Bellow's great hunger, his appetite for life, in poetry, even though many terrific poets were doing exactly that. It surprised me that my stubbornness actually had a bottom. I probably get this from my father, who, no matter how many times he failed, he never stopped believing he was going to be successful. I soured on myself so completely I actually believed my very ambition as a writer was at the heart of my troubles. When I started writing poetry again, I naturally combined elements of both fiction and poetry. In "Souls Over Harlem" I took on the subject of a number of my failed novels, a friend's suicide. It turned into a twenty-five page poem, and I realized that the elements that interested me and attracted me in fiction-the storytelling, the largesse and overview of the world-could combine with the lyricism and compression, the music of poetry. And that led to Living in the Past, which is an eighty-one page poem. Living in the Past is the novel I'd tried to write. It was a seven-hundred-page novel that I boiled down to eighty-one mostly small lyrics. I'd finally written my novel.
Bernard: It's about a boy approaching his bar mitzvah. You have an interesting line in that poem too—you say, "We cannot forgive them [the dead] for leaving us behind." There again you evoke your father's memory. (And you have a poem featuring a chopped liver Eiffel Tower, part of the bar mitzvah scene.) You keep circling the same subject from the very beginning—it's one of the great themes of literature, obviously, but for you, for your development as a poet, it comes up over and over and over again, this idea of your father and his death when you were young, and what you perceived to be his failure. This leads directly to your collection Failure, for which you won the Pulitzer. It comes up in 1984 in a poem called "The Red Square Center": "so you joked about his father's epic failures, as if disgrace was a claim to celebrity." The lack of understanding between fathers and sons comes up again and again. In a poem called "The Hemingway House in Key West," you say, "All my life I have wondered what he meant to tell me." That was 1984. In 2007 you published Failure. You're still wondering what he meant to tell you. Can you talk about the genesis of Failure and how, for all of these decades, you've been thinking about your father?
Schultz: It's interesting, because the idea for the book came out of our lunch together. I don't know who started talking first about his father. But we both opened up and discovered we shared a great personality-forming experience, our fathers' failures. I never had a conversation like ours before. I understood everything you told me at a level that both surprised and frightened me. There were great similarities, how a boy is affected by his father's attitude toward himself, how the self-loathing can saturate everything it touches. I was shaken, and then a poem came to me on my walk home, "The One Truth," in a rush, entirely. I never had that happen before, not with the same immediacy, the same urgency. I went home and wrote it and that lead to my title poem, "Failure," which lead to the book itself. People were looking at me as I recited the poem on my way home. I didn't seem to have anything to do with it. I was just overhearing myself write it. Speak it. Sing it. Obviously I'd been writing this poem all my life, from the moment I wanted to be a writer, when my father died. And now I'd found my subject, the shame and ignominy of my father's failure.
Bernard: Did you ever talk to your mother about him after he died?
Schultz: Yes. She thought she was marrying a guy who owned the biggest parking lot in upstate New York, who dressed in three-piece suits, like a sport. She thought she was marrying someone who was going to take her out of her mother's house, give her the new wonderful life he'd promised her. Instead, he managed to be embezzled, be penniless three weeks before their wedding, when he told her he was moving into her mother's house. Where he stayed for over twenty years, like a houseguest. Many years later, when I was a student at Iowa, I asked her if she'd ever really forgiven him. She was very angry after he died. She wouldn't say his name. And then she remembered the moment when he told her they were going to live in her mother's house. He didn't give her a choice; he just told her what they were going to do. My mother was a very passive, frightened woman, but now her hands became fists, and she started to pound on my chest. This was maybe forty years after the fact, and she was feeling the rage she'd never let herself feel before, and I let her.
Bernard: Do you think that publishing this collection or writing this collection has exorcized any of this?
Schultz: Yes, the fact that I'm saying all this—even a few years ago I wouldn't have said most of this. Six months before our lunch, our lunch wouldn't have happened. I was ready to write this. It's probably been floating around my dreams for a long time.
Bernard: Forty years after his death.
Schultz: Now I had a family life. A wife and sons. I was a father, and a good one. I'm involved in every aspect of their lives. We are physically very close; we watch ball games together, the eight year old on my lap, the twelve year old leaning against me; it's wonderful. I'm the kind of father I wanted my father to be. That may be the sweetest revenge. It's given me the strength, the perspective I needed to deal with this material.
Bernard: At some point your sons are going to read this, and they're going to wonder. Is what you have to tell them about your feelings about your father all here? Is there anything you need to add?
Schultz: There's his other side that I've dealt with in earlier poems, his great sense of humor, his wonderful storytelling, the fact that he didn't ask to inherit the world he did, that he worked hard all his life and never looked for the easy way out of anything, even his own death. The look in his eyes when he died was of pure bewilderment, and anger, an anger engendered of disappointment and surprise, but without a trace of self-pity. He never felt sorry for himself one day in his life. There is much to admire about my father. But the story of this book is one I never told before. That I had to tell. For better or worse.
Bernard: In the most recent New York Times Book Review David Orr has a piece about Frances Richey's new poetry collection. He writes, "What's curious is that poetry's 'emotional truth' is so often equated with actual truth—which is to say that poetry is perceived as conveying genuine information about the author's innermost self." But that's false. People assume poetry is real, that is, the events in poetry are real whereas in a novel it's all fiction. But a poet can make up whatever happens in poetry too. But your approach has tended to be generally factual. One reads your poems and gets the facts of your life—the bar mitzvah, growing up in Rochester, the parking lots, the vending machines. You have not fictionalized your story.
Schultz: Actually, I agree with David Orr. Emotional truth is the reward of digging deeply enough to find the truth about how one really feels, but in order to convey this truth with any force, or artistry, one needs to 'create' a form of expression, and this form determines its own 'genuine information.' As Nietzsche puts it: "And who among us poets has not adulterated his wine?" I never was a dog walker or had electroshock treatment or was in a psych ward the morning of 9/11 like my character in "The Wandering Wingless." Shock treatment was a metaphor for the way everyone in New York, in America, in most of the world, felt when the towers were hit, in a complete state of shock. I read in the papers how the psych ward at St.Vincent's Hospital had to be emptied to make room for all the injured (though there weren't any survivors, as it turned out), and so I placed my character there. I took his voice, and some of his existential attitude from Percy's Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, by the way. A complete circle, and another fictional touch. I used the sweetness of his persona, his philosophical voice, to tell the story. And there's obviously no real Stein who whispers in my ear, nor did I ever want there to be. Once I rid myself of the terrible autobiographical weight of my life that had crippled my fiction, I could tell my story simply and directly in poetry. Poetry freed me of all that cumbersome 'information,' which is nothing more than biographical static.
There are real facts in my poems, but facts mixed up in the perverse stubborn stew of imagination, add a pinch or two of revenge and retribution, a dash of amplification and reparation. Previously I confused fiction with biography. But poetry honors no laws other than its own self-created purposes. In the beginning there was art. Its connective tissue is emotional truth, one starts from there.
Bernard: As a poet you seem to carry ghosts around, whether they're real like your friend and your father or imagined like Stein.
Schultz: I talk to my friend Yehuda Amichai. We have lively conversations; we even continue old arguments. We take walks together on the beach. When my dog Penelope hears the name "Yehuda" she turns, as though she knows we've been joined by a friend. In this sense you could say I hear voices.
Bernard: Just for the record can we talk a bit about how you write your poetry, in the old Paris Review style. Do you sit at a desk?
Schultz: Yes. I compose now on a computer. I used to do longhand, writing it out first, but now I write draft after draft on the computer, and then go over it by hand, revising, endless revision. But I type first. I need to see in the first draft the way it might turn out. My poems often start with an idea, some kind of inspiration. I don't expect anything. Every now and then something like "The One Truth" comes out. But very, very infrequently.
Bernard: Do you have readers you trust?
Schultz: Yes. Carl Dennis has been very helpful to me, and my wife. She knows immediately when I'm on the wrong course. She majored in philosophy at Vassar and sometimes tells me what I'm really trying to say. But there's a point, either early on or later in the process, when I don't show a poem to anyone. Criticism is most helpful when I'm stuck, or suspect I'm on the wrong path. Carl Dennis saw a version of "The Wandering Wingless" and was very encouraging, but it was a mess. It's a long fifty-four page poem in four sections, and I'm sure a lot of it was didactic. He was surprised at the final version when he saw it, the fact that I had taken it so much further. Sometimes a reader's comment will set off a whole new course of surprising events. I'm never loyal to any draft of any poem, I want to be disloyal to my original intentions. But at the end, in the final drafts, it all becomes music finally. And the music takes it where it needs to go. But I often have to be merciless with myself first. Nothing is sacred.
Bernard: That's interesting—nowhere that I can think of in your poetry does music itself turn up. Yet for all the jazzy rhythm of your early poems, and living in New York and San Francisco, there's just no music. Do you listen to music?
Schultz: Music has played a large part in my life, especially during the sixties when it was everywhere you went. And I used to write to music, Bach and Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, Gershwin, endless jazz, I'd run off to the Blue Note or the Vanguard when I was stuck, just to loosen up, and be inspired. But it's such a powerful force all by itself I don't know if I could write directly about it. On the other hand I'm now working on a jazz poem, or a poem with a lot of jazz in it. But I write in the middle of the night and I can't wake people up, so perhaps I got out of the habit of writing to it. I listen to music while driving, Sam Cook, The Righteous Brothers, Keith Jarred, the Monk, Trane. But now you have me thinking ....
Bernard: Can you briefly describe the scene when you learned you had won the Pulitzer, and tell what effect that has had on your schedule, your expectations, your daily life?
Schultz: I was walking Penelope in a dog park when Monica and my eight-year-old son, Augie, came running, yelling, "Guess who won the Pulitzer Prize, Dadl" I should add that our school, The Writers Studio, had just given a reading for Eddie [Hirsch] and Junot Diaz and this was the following Monday. Augie loved Junot and yelled, "Junot did! Junot won." My wife whispered in his ear and this time he yelled, "Guess who won in poetry?" And I said, "I don't know, who?" and he said, "You." I looked at my wife and said, "You wouldn't kid about this," and she shook her head. I was in a state of shock. I didn't know how to understand it. I didn't even know they were being given. There's no nomination process. My wife saw it on the internet and looked up the Pulitzer website two minutes after it was posted. It was the furthest thing from my mind that day. I was hurrying Penelope along to get home in time for a tutorial. Suddenly AP was calling, and the Times. My life has changed, a lot more readings, interviews, interest in me and my work. It's quite wonderful, and overwhelming. I liked my life the way it was before, and I like it even more now. But it's a lot to absorb.
Bernard: William Gaddis, who never won a Pulitzer, was very dismissive of the prize. Above all prizes he had disdain for it. Many people who have never won it say that it can be detrimental to one's creative abilities.
Schultz: Because it's the one everyone knows best, the most famous one. William Saroyan turned it down, because he said he didn't want a prize given by a bunch of businessmen. Of course, there aren't any businessmen on the committee. The Pulitzer lunch was filled with the board members, gifted journalists, academics, heads of newspapers large and small, the presidents of major universities—the kind of poetry readers one wants, at least the ones I want. There are three poets who do the nominating, and then the board makes the final decision, so it's a very democratic award. Other prizes are usually given by one's fellow poets, but this added level of judging makes it very interesting. Some people may have a problem with this, because it's the most public of the awards, with all the journalists involved. I didn't know any of the judges or who the board members were, which allowed me to feel that I'd readied the audience I always wanted, the audience fiction writers reach, those serious readers outside of my own little self-contained world, people who take literature seriously, personally. And one very sweet result has been hearing from my readers, the new readers, and from many of my previous students and friends, who took this as an opportunity to express their appreciation, and gratitude. It's been the most overwhelming, powerful aspect of this award, to know how many people are happy for me. I never imagined anything like this, to be honest. I find all this wonderfully moving, and inspiring.
Bernard: Any comment on the irony of a book called Failure leading to this success?
Schultz: Yes! Here it is, the story I was most ashamed of, that I couldn't talk about, that took me a great part of my life to deal with, becomes my largest success. It's more than ironic; it's absurd. Beckett could do it justice perhaps. Writing this book forced me to recognize the absurdity of my having gladly inherited the mantle of my father's shame. I always assumed, and part of me still does, that I am a failure. But instead of hiding this fact any longer, I decided to embrace it, to celebrate it. And look what happened!
Bernard: Kingsley Amis called it a metaphysical hangover, when you wake up at four o'clock feeling that intense self-loathing and self-hatred and anxiety and desperation, the conviction your friends actually despise you and your family is pretending to love you.
Schultz: I have all that.
Bernard: Is that the crucible an artist has to go through?
Schultz: You live with this negative idea of yourself for so long it takes on its own reality, its own story, history—if the person who is your sexual physical role model, whose every gestures you're copying, rebelling against in order to not be consumed by, fails completely in the very thing, the only thing, he aspired to. Success, wealth, power.
Yes, indeed, this is the crucible of art. Every artist has his or her struggle to work out in their work. The more powerful the struggle, the more persuasive the art. Giacometti boiled down his conflicts to tiny figures that seemed to be created out of the very stress they were portraying, figures of great nobility and vigor, going somewhere fast, as if leaving the one scene they couldn't be caught in, the scene of their crime perhaps.
Art is a crime scene in a sense, a crucible, of the mind and heart and our dreams. Zbigniew Herbert survived brutal occupations, of mind and spirit, through his poetry, and his poetry is a testament, an often ironically bitter testament, to what this one great artist has seen and lived to tell about.
Bernard: You have to use a different model. You have to look at yourself through the eyes of your own children.
Schultz: Right. My twelve-year-old is going through his oppositional phase, so I know it is dangerous to look at myself through his eyes. But yes, I enjoy the man I see through their eyes, I enjoy and like him, and am beginning to believe he's at least as real as the one I am so suspicious of.
Bernard: Do you feel part of the publishing world? Are you writing for yourself or for an audience?
Schultz: Yes and mostly no. I have a wonderful editor, Drenka Willen, and agent, Georges Borchardt, and many encouraging magazine editors, and friends like you who are or were in publishing, and I come to New York to teach and run my school, so I'm involved. But the specific circumstances of my life dictate a distance from that world that's probably beneficial to my work. I live one hundred miles away from the city, in East Hampton, and when I'm in town I'm teaching, so my social life is very limited. I'm not part of the loop so to speak, or at least I haven't been part of it, and I've enjoyed and made use of my solitude. As for my audience and who I write for ... a very smart man once said to me that philosophy lost its purpose, stopped being useful and interesting, when philosophers started writing for other philosophers. When writers write directly for the approval of other writers, for the critics and reviewers, something vital can be lost, a direct conduit to intelligent readers of poetry can be a good thing. But then we cannot be known without the help of critics and reviewers. I'm attempting to say that writers should 'write with the idea of being read by an intelligent, receptive human being, not an institution or career-making industry or theory, and on the deepest most profound level this intelligent reader must be oneself. This most personal of relationships must not be disrupted. A relationship of trust, between the artist and himself, with the reader listening in.
Bernard: You remade yourself—you started out as a poet, and you came back as a poet, but a very different poet. You didn't come back as a painter or a novelist. You ramped up the poetry.
Schultz: I guess I came back with acceptance and even pleasure in the idea of who I was. And I've been lucky. The formula for failure finally ended its long run for me. All my ambition is now tied up with poetry. You could say I did go in a big circle and returned to who I was in the first place.
Bernard: Who do you like to read now?
Schultz: I'm reading Zbignew Herbert. He and Montale are my two favorite poets now. They're at my desk, and I use them to inspire me. Herbert especially, the way he deals with politics and his world. He also has a character like my Stein, a whole series of poems that have a personification of him—Cogito—that I love. Montale surprises with abstraction and wonderful imagery. His personal poems are devastatingly beautiful and the music is so perfect. I'm inspired most now by the two of them.
Bernard: Any novelists you like?
Schultz: Yes—I just re-read A Moveable Feast, because I'm thinking of writing a kind of memoir about how I started my school and writers I knew, so that would be the take on it that I'd like to do. I love Hemingway. I certainly enjoyed Junot Diaz's new novel. I'm reading a book called Out Stealing Horses, in which I loved the first-person voice. I read everything by Coetzee. I used to read an enormous amount of fiction, but I don't now. It's mostly a matter of time.
Bernard: Any advice you'd like to give anybody who's feeling emotionally stunted or in despair?
Schultz: I do this for a living. I work with people, sometimes for long periods of time. Sometimes it helps to find a character, a persona, who isn't you. Someone you can look at the way you would look at a friend, from a sympathetic distance. If you can objectify yourself in this way, you can probably begin to see your struggles, your very pain, in the manner of art. Often our most powerful ideas for stories or poems are the ones we're living through right now, subjects that can be turned into ideas that live right under our noses but are too painful to recognize. You have to look at yourself as if you were the subject of someone else's book. This process allowed me to turn shame into an idea for a single poem, which became a book. It's how we can recover from depression. We objectifY pain by talking to a therapist or to a friend, we put it over there where we can look at it. If you see the most difficult thing-again the idea of looking at yourself through someone else's eyes-through another's eyes, it becomes real, and shared with the world, not something only you are suffering from. That afternoon, after our lunch, I realized there must be a lot of people out there, like you and me, who suffered a father's, or mother's, failure-that I was entitled to tell this story because it might do a little good. It might help someone suffer one night or month or lifetime less than I had to. And, I'm pleased to be able to say, that I've helped more than a few people, fellow writers, deal with things they once didn't believe it was possible for them to deal with, successfully. Amen.
About the Author Five Points
André Bernard is Vice President and Secretary of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York.
Georgia State University
Editors: David Bottoms & Megan Sexton