Philip Schultz, the Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: Congratulations on having won the Pulitzer for your recent collection, Failure. What do you think about the assertion that the “personal is political”?
PS: My autobiographical poems are actually about my feelings, not the biographical details of my life. I’m not really writing about the lives of the people I love, I’m writing about how I’m affected by my immediate world. Some poets write about their relationship with nature, I write about my relationship with people. Sometimes I try to show how these relationships are affected by the world around us, the great sorrow of Iraq and the damage we’re doing to ourselves and to others. I dislike coyness in poetry. In today’s world history happens simultaneously at great speeds, too great to understand in any rational manner. Poetry has never been more essential, and perhaps more popular because of this fact. I try to be honest about how I feel about what I observe. Perhaps in this sense the “personal is political.”
PC: When did you start writing? And why?
PS: I began to think seriously about writing when my father died, when I was eighteen. I was my high school’s cartoonist and loved painting and art more up to that point. I got a set of oils for my eleventh birthday and painted portraits of everyone in my family. I was secretly painting my father’s portrait when he died. I say secretly because I covered the easel in my bedroom with a sheet. It was a portrait of him as a young immigrant boy standing against the lush foliage of his backyard. The photo I was working from was black and white (taken around 1917) but the details, his tough mean-streets expression, the plants which seemed to spring fully realized out of the intensity of his thoughts, all somehow struck me as a kind of a scene in a story. This man wasn’t my father but an immigrant boy suffering a great ambition. After my father died this impulse lent itself directly to writing because I wanted to exhaust every narrative detail of this story. I wanted to share my feelings directly, as precisely as possible, the way writers did, the way poets did.
Later, I became interested in the ideas behind my feelings. Perhaps this better explains what I mean by personal writing. It seemed as if I was always being overwhelmed by experience and I wanted to understand why as a kind of buffer against suffering. Writing seemed a good way to do this because it slows the world down, slows experience down long enough to appraise it. Understanding was a way to manage my feelings. If I could begin to understand my grief for my father’s death, for instance, it would hurt less, or so I believed. So I began to search for ideas, and that led me to study philosophy. Yes, ideas as a kind of Hoover Dam for the emotions. A system of managing what might otherwise be overwhelming, too painful to bear.
One day soon, if not already, the great ignorant debacle of Iraq will slowly become just another example of American self-destruction and self-aggrandizement, no better or worse than many others. If we can begin to find the ideas behind the sorrow we cause then we can begin to understand and eventually bear the grief of our ignorance. I say we because it’s best not to divide the world into liberals and conservatives, the peaceful and the war-mongering, the good and the evil. Only the truly ignorant do that. There’s a little of many conflicting parts in all of us (evil, or its potential, as well as goodness) and if one tries to understand these contradictions in himself he may be able to eventually discover what is most interesting about himself and his time; in other words, maybe even what is most disturbing about ourselves serves as the raw material for our art, and the pain of our contradictions can be seen, then, as an opportunity for original testimony.
PC: Who are the poets whose work you admire?
PS: I was great friends with the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and his work has inspired in me a hunger for perspective, for history. Reading his work and Philip Levine’s made me want to write poetry. I went to graduate school as a fiction writer but soon fell in love with the music of poetry. Levine’s book They Feed They Lion had a powerful affect on me. The music of that book continues to haunt me, as does his The Names of the Lost. A miracle of pressure and compassion, sheer magic. James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break had the same affect on me. George Oppen befriended me when I was in my early twenties, living in San Francisco. I didn’t understand why he took me under his wing then and I still don’t, but I had dinner at his apartment nearly every Friday for years and what he taught me about poetry has continued to play a large part in my development as a poet. He told me he always tried to look at what he had written that day just before going to sleep so he could solve problems in his dreams. Inevitably, he’d find solutions in the morning. He was extremely generous and I was a very lucky to know him.
I’ve always love Gerald Stern’s work, for its great rapids of feeling, wisdom and rich imagery. I can’t imagine a more open-hearted American poet. The fact that he’s continued to write at a very high level into his eighties is a great gift to our time. On one hand we have the Bush administration and on the other hand we have Gerry Stern -- a rich tapestry of modern contradictions! I was lucky enough to know Denise Levertov in Cambridge, Mass, and she was very supportive of my early work. I loved hearing her stories about W.C. Williams and other poets. We were having a great time at her house one Christmas and I had to leave because I promised to go to another party. She told me it was a mistake to make decisions based on obligations. She was right, I had a terrible time at the other party and never forgave myself for leaving her house. Sometimes it takes me years to understand and learn from the good things people tell me. But the lesson I took to heart is it’s best to follow advice given by people who truly care for you. Even if it’s wrong, it’s best to try to learn from it.
I’ve been inspired by a good many poets, too many to mention, but the two whose books are within reach on my desk today are: Zbigniew Herbert and Eugenio Montale. They inspire in me a desire to go beyond where I’m comfortable going, to dig a little deeper into the rich fabric of my unconscious mind. They are my present immediate family.
PC: What lessons did you learn as a writer of fiction that are useful to you as a poet?
PS: I fell in love with Ernest Hemingway’s work around the time my father died. He wrote a good deal about his father, about fathers and sons, and I think my desire to write was partially inspired by my reading him. His graceful use of the first person persona voice, its intimacy and honesty owns the power of persuasion unlike anything else for me in literature, and art. It fascinated me from the beginning, especially the way he used it.
And no doubt my father’s love of exaggeration and self-advertisement had something to do with my becoming a writer. He loved to turn his Russian Jewish immigrant experiences into lavish epics which drew crowds of family and strangers alike. He’d come into a factory where he had vending machines and people -- bosses and workers, suits and janitors -- would gather round to enjoy his wild energy and operatic appetite for invention. He was shameless, and therefore fearless, in his imagining of stories. No small part of what I do in my work today is inspired by his singular love for the sound of his own voice. And what a voice it was!
I’ve always been interested in the first person voice, its rich possibilities for self-discovery and historical commentary. Perhaps more interested in this than anything else.
PC: Why did an “agenda” assert itself in your fiction?
PS: When I first started writing I didn’t know how to create the necessary distance between my autobiographical “I” and my material, or story. My “I” was really a “me” and not an imagined character and my material was too directly about and from my life, without the necessary reserve or remove of an artistic attitude. Poetic focus forced this on me. You have to get to the point, if there is one, right from the beginning, and having a strong “I” in place helps greatly. It was impossible for me to write successfully without this. Poetry gave me what I was looking for in fiction. So I kept on writing it, using fictional, or narrative techniques I’d learned along the way. My approach or attitude comes from the tension between narrative expansiveness and poetic focus. It took me a long time to work all this out. I’m still working it out.
PC: So what’s this about “kishka” poetry?
PS: Yehuda Amichai and I agreed that the poetry we liked best came from one’s guts, not from one’s head or ideas about poetry. In Jewish “kishka” means, essentially, one’s guts. It’s another word for passion. We liked poetry that stirred us up, even disturbed us, and provoked us to thought. The more passionate the better.
PC: Has there ever been a poem that you were afraid to write?
PS: Yes, every good one I’ve ever attempted. I can usually tell how good a poem can be by how afraid I am of the feelings it arouses. Terror is a good measuring stick. Safe poems come from safe subjects, which cause little disturbance. I write those too, in fact, I attempt to write them at every opportunity, only they often turn out so badly I’m forced to look deeper into my own intentions, and then the real struggle begins.
If I need to qualify this with one particular example, I would give my long poem “Souls Over Harlem” from my book The Holy Worm of Praise. The poem deals with the suicide of a black poet I met in graduate school, a black man who became my closest friend. He killed himself in 1972, and though I dealt with it in a shorter poem (“The Gift”) I published in 1976, it took me until the late 90’s to truly confront the meaning of his life and tragic death, and of course, my feelings about it. I realized that I would have to deal with racism in America before I could begin to understand the particular circumstances of his life. I needed emotional courage, and perspective, and time, to do this. It took over twenty-five years to write it (with years off between drafts) to work it out internally. And this effort probably gave me a style that resulted in Failure, the book for which I recently won the Pulitzer Prize.
PC: You’ve made the distinction between writing as a public activity that requires communication and the private activity that would be in a journal. Would you please say a bit more about this?
PS: On its most basic, perhaps essential level, art is a form of communication. If the subject or style or intention is too private, or personal, then it becomes irrelevant. The work that lasts for me is the work that speaks to me most eloquently, most intimately, of its time. Montale conveys the essential nature of himself as a man in a particular time and place. He balances abstract poetic imagery with great personal feeling in a way that remains uniquely moving, and personal.
PC: Do you keep a journal? If not, why...if so, how do you use the journal in your writing?
PS: I don’t. John Cheever once urged me to. The first thing he did every morning was write in his journal, it no doubt helped carry him through a good number of difficult times. But I have little time for it, for one thing, I have a young family, two boys, eight and twelve, and a large demanding school for writing (The Writers Studio in Manhattan), and finding time to write poetry is difficult. I think the art of journal writing demands the kind of leisure I never enjoyed. And it represents an attitude of self-importance that can be dangerous in the wrong hands, at least so in my hands. I can afford to take myself seriously only while writing poetry, and even then it’s a tricky venture for me. My roots are humble and when I stray too far from them I risk sounding pretentious. Journal writing in the hands of a Cheever, or Nabokov, makes perfect sense though.
PC: What poets/writers have influenced your work—if any—and how?
PS: Certainly Cheever for his love of rich flowing language and great energetic storytelling. Chekhov for his great tenderness and insights into human frailty, Gogol for his wild imagination and great irony, Turgenev for his compression and humanity, Tolstoy for his ambition and love of detail, Stendhal for his love of explanation and clarity, and Walt Whitman for his great reach and love of praise and celebration. And Yates and Keats, Bryon and Shelley, and perhaps most of all, Blake, for his creation of entire original worlds, in art as well as poetry. The philosophers play no small part in my work. Especially the lively dark ones like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and right now Pascal and Miguel de Unamuno. Ideas have always opened a new direction in my work. They give me perspective, distance and a sense of humility, because they remind me how small my own ideas are compared to the truly great ones.
PC: How/why did you start your school?
PS: I wanted to understand why I was struggling as a fiction writer, why I couldn’t find narrators as good as my favorite writers, and when I finally came to my idea of persona narrators and the distance they create through endless trial and error I found that it helped enormously in teaching others how to write. In fact, it made all the difference in the world. The combination of my love of teaching and these ideas came together in the form of a philosophy or approach that eventually turned into a school. I never intended for this to happen. It happened naturally, organically, the way a good poem happens, by the force of its own strange magic. This is the short answer. The longer one will probably become a book.
PC: Would you please tell our readers about your school, its guiding principle, and what students can learn there that makes the program different from, say, an MFA.
PS: I try to help other writers find the right character or personality to help them tell their story. This means finding the right distance from their material, which means knowing what one’s material, or subject, is. The school has different levels, and each one focuses on a different technique that helps with each of these struggles in a graduated, increasingly intensive way. All this also requires a certain degree of self-awareness on the part of the writer. Our teachers, trained in the school, enjoy the opportunity of working with students over a longer period of time. This is a great advantage not enjoyed in more conventional programs, because the more familiar a teacher becomes with a student’s process, the better they can help them.
PC: How is your work as a teacher connected with your work as a writer?
PS: I was always my own most difficult student. I would insist on using a first person narrator when I desperately needed the distance a third person one would give me. I would hear myself making a point while saying something to a student that was exactly what I needed to do to my own work. It happened time and again. I was teaching myself something important while teaching someone else. This extra layer of distance was necessary for me to understand something essential about my work. Writing is very hard work, endless trial and error (mostly error), and no writer wants to accept such an unpleasant idea easily. Finding one’s own original, and personal, voice is perhaps the single hardest thing a writer does, without doubt the hardest thing to teach someone. All our techniques, from using exercises from accomplished writers to helping them find the right persona narrator, are designed to help writers find that voice.
PC: When you go about putting together a book of your poems, what principles do you use in organizing the book? How have these principles evolved over the course of your writing career?
PS: With Failure this was simple enough. I based my narrator on Walker Percy’s first person narrator in The Moviegoer because I wanted the charm and intimacy of his character. And I had my subject, one I’d wanted to deal with since I was eighteen, my father’s business failures and early death. I also knew I wanted the language to be as direct and clear as possible. The shorter poems established my narrator’s history and family life and the long more expansive ending poem, “The Wandering Wingless” tries to heighten my idea of the personal into a more universal or “political” perspective.
My earlier work tended toward more of a miscellany of experience, each poem dealing with its own personal subject. I didn’t have the craft or perspective to deal with anything as ambitious as 9/11 or the revolutions of 1848 as Failure does. But I’ve always wanted the intimacy of a credible first person voice, as I wanted my small stories to imply larger, more historical ones. To find a unity of voice and purpose necessary to shape a poem, and a book. The only real thing that has changed is my technique, my ambition has remained the same.
PC: Are there poems you’ve left out of books—poems you think are fine poems—because you don’t think they fit?
PS: Yes, many. I’m not sure how “fine” they are, but there are poems I like, and worked hard on, that simply didn’t fit the overall theme. More so in Failure in than in previous books, perhaps because the theme excludes so many poems. I’ve left published poems out of books, because they either repeated what other poems said, or kept the book at the same level, without deepening it. I think of Isaac Babel’s famous admission. When asked how he knew how a story of his was finally finished, he said: “When every last line he loved most was omitted.”
PC: When you look at poems you wrote a more than a decade ago, what sorts of discoveries have you made?
PS: That in some cases I didn’t yet have the craft, or courage, to go further, or deeper. But many work fine as it and should be left alone. I’m presently putting together a Selected Poems and find it impossible to tamper with earlier work. I was a different person then and it’s somewhat of a violation to go back and undo what that person worked so hard to get right. The charm of earlier work can be found in its flaws. It’s best to leave them be.
PC: What are some of the things a poet can learn from giving poetry readings? What are, if any, some of the drawbacks?
PS: You get the opportunity to hear yourself reading the poems out loud. A poem’s music is often the last, sometimes most difficult, thing to attain, and hearing yourself read the poems greatly helps the revision process. You can also see how people react to new work, see and hear firsthand how effective the emotional content of a new poem is, or how things fall flat. A reading can serve as a kind of rehearsal or dry run for new work. The only real drawback is that the reading stage may enter into the actual writing process itself. You don’t want to lean toward the easy laugh or effect that a live audience provides. It’s has to be earned on the page first. I live with new work a long time before trying it out on an audience. And I try never to forget that poetry is a silent, intimate art, performed mainly between the intelligence of the reader and the voice of the poet. For this reason I don’t really enjoy hearing actors read poetry, because they often perform it, which can disturb the delicate intimate voice of the poem. It’s exactly this intimacy I work toward in trying to convey the emotional meaning of my work. I want to be understood first by a single reader, to earn her trust, and sympathy.
PC: Thank you again for doing this interview.
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