David R. Slavitt, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
MK: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. If you want to skip a question, feel free—and then if I’ve left something out that you want to say, please let me know.
You are not only one of the most prolific but one of the most versatile writers I know: poetry, novels, short stories, performance pieces (such as “Welfare: the Musical” with Fred Wiseman and Lenny Pickett) and non-fiction, both academic writing and journalism—and an account of your having run for political office. You’ve also edited, with Palmer Bovie the Complete Greek Tragedies and the Complete Roman Drama. You said that the total was “about” eighty-two books. You write faster than I can type.
DS: I’m not sure whether this is a question, but it invites a comment. I am a quick writer. Stendhal was fast; Flaubert was slow. The issue isn’t speed but quality. Either way is good. The advantage of having so many books – 91, now, actually – is that this is discouraging to literary critics. So there’s less nonsense that has been written about my work than there might be if there were less of it (and less work for the would-be critic).
Anybody who undertakes to “do” me has so much to deal with that, unless he or she likes it or is totally insane and a masochist, the chances are that he or she is an admirer.
MK: You began your writing career with Newsweek—becoming an associate editor and movie editor (l958-1965). Did that experience leave you with something that’s been especially useful in your other writing?
DS: Yes, it taught me how to write fast. And also to be a little less self-indulgent. It was a more useful experience, I think, than time at some graduate writing program would have been. And reviewing movies was great fun. The only reason I left was that I was getting to like it too much, and I didn’t want to wind up like James Agee, a good poet who somehow left most of his output in the back-of-the-book at Time. I’d been there seven years. I was thirty. It was time to get out.
MK: Do cinematic techniques influence your poetry or fiction? How?
DS: Anything is an influence. Everything is an influence. What distinguishes me from younger writers, though, is that when I was a kid there wasn’t television. And movies were an occasional experience. My primary and earliest imaginative experience was through books. This is an advantage that very few writers who are younger than, say, sixty, have enjoyed.
MK: What were you writing before you were at Newsweek? Did you write when you were a young boy or a teenager? What sort of encouragement/discouragement did you find for your writing as a career?
DS: When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I’d published in the Kenyon Review, the Yale Review, the Sewanee Review. I was a phenom. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren were my teachers, and while they taught me some things, their greatest help to me was that they took me seriously, which enabled me to suppose that my idea of being a writer might not be altogether delusional.
PC: You wrote a number of novels pseudonymously, (Henry Sutton, Henry Lazarus, Lynn Meyer and David Benjamin)—nine, I believe—what went into the decision to write and publish under a pseudonym? You were writing poetry and other fiction simultaneously, was that a factor?
DS: It seemed a good way of keeping my audiences apart. When Gore Vidal wrote mysteries, he published as Edgar Box. When Day Lewis wrote mysteries, he published as Nicholas Blake. This seemed more successful and more tactful than Graham Greene’s practice of calling some novels “entertainments,” which merely set graduate students to work trying to demonstrate that the “entertainments” were better than the “serious” novels. Longines makes a cheaper watch and they call in a Wittnauer, and everyone understands what they mean.
MK: How long have you been translating, and what drew you to translation? Would you talk a bit about deciding to learn Greek?
DS: I’ve been translating for a long time. It’s something to do when the fountains of inspiration are not gurgling. When one does translation, one is riding on somebody else’s talent and vision. And one is also learning. My earliest writing teacher was Dudley Fitts, at Andover. I just assumed that all grown-ups translated from Latin and Greek, and I am still mildly surprised that this isn’t the case. It is deeply satisfying to hear great work resonate in my head and my voice. And the challenges are mostly technical and craftsmanly.
I learned Greek on the train on my way to New York to go to screenings. It was a way of maintaining my self-respect. What grown-up gets up in the morning, shaves, brushes his teeth, and goes off to see an Annette Funicello movie? It was good to have Clyde Pharr’s Homeric Greek in my brief case. A kind of permit de sejour.
MK: Did the Greek and Latin poetry influence your own poetry?
DS: Of course. And that’s one of the reasons I started doing it and have kept on. I did the Georgics mostly to learn how to manage long passages of relatively abstract verse. No contemporary writer does this better than Howard Nemerov, but if I learned how to do it just from him, I’d have sounded like him. To sound a little Virgilian? Not a bad thing.
And, anyway, who would notice?
PC: You’ve done a translation Sixty-One Psalms. Why that number?
DS: I’d done most of the ones that I liked and needed to do. And it came out to sixty. But I’d had my sixty-first birthday, so I did another so that we’d both be sixty-one.
MK: You were doing poems in forms before the so-called “new formalism” took hold. Why do you think writing in tradition forms has made a comeback?
DS: Boredom. People rebel against what the generation before had been doing. The beats were rebelling against the old formalism. And they had their ride. Then younger poets came long who found that vieu jeu and the only place to go was back toward formalism. I do vers libre on occasion, but it is only “free” verse if you have chosen it freely. If you can’t write in demanding forms, then there’s nothing free about choosing not to.
MK: You’ve written book-length poems (for example, Dozens) as well as collections of your work. What is the relationship between doing a book like Dozens and, say, collection of inter-related stories or a novel? Or is it so minimal that it’s not worth mentioning.
DS: I have done A Gift, which is a verse biography of da Ponte, and, I guess, the epic section of Epic and Epigram is almost book-length. It’s partly a challenge that few other poets have been addressing these days. (Fred Chappell does wonderful long poems, and William Heyen. William Jay Smith has done The Cherokee Lottery, which is a splendid one. Snodgrass did The Fuhrer Bunker, which is amazing. But how many others are there?) It’s a tempting form because you don’t have to worry about magazines, which mostly use poetry the way they use cartoons, as filler between the prose pieces. So it’s defiant, a little. It defies the audience, too, I rather think.
MK: When you write a novel do you know all about where it’s going before you start writing, or ...?
DS: Only once, in Paperback Thriller which is a mystery. You have to know who did it, and the trick of a mystery is to keep the book from being too mechanical, opening up odd vistas and suggesting that there is freedom, when, really, there isn’t. This is probably why I’ve never done a second mystery, even though there were times when I could have used the money and mysteries are relatively easy to sell. Otherwise, in “real” novels, it’s a process of discovery. You have to let the book tell you where it wants to go, and you have to negotiate so that it doesn’t have its head entirely (or yours) and the compromise you reach is better than either you or it could have imagined. Of course it takes months to find this out, and also to find out whether the book works or not.
PC: You’ve done some collaborative work, both in editing and in your performance pieces, enough so that you must like it. What do you like best about collaboration? Least?
DS: Writing is very solitary. It’s fun to spend time on the phone and sending emails. The illusion of “business” is much easier to maintain when one is putting together some series. And the personal contact is, most of the time, fun. But all the time, one knows that one could be doing one’s own (real) work. So that’s the answer to “Least?”
MK: Any thoughts on freedom and writing?
DS: One main thought would be that you need the freedom to do it. “Xremata! Xremat’ aner!” Pindar says, and it means “Money! Money is a man.” Which is to say that without money, without financial independence or what Jane Austen would have called a competence, you can’t do this. You certainly can’t make a living doing it. Pindar was talking about the freedom to be a complete man, thinking and reading and being politically active. You can’t do this if you spend twelve hours a day tending sheep or weeding in the fields. You need leisure, which is to say, freedom. Brendan Gill came up to Yale in the fifties to tell us kids how to be writers: “Sponge off your parents for as long as possible; then marry money.” It’s better advice than we realized at the time.