Released earlier this week, Poet at work is the latest release from Paris Review Editions, the book imprint of The Paris Review. The anthology contains thirteen Art of Poetry interviews from the magazine’s nearly seven decades of history. In the foreword to the book that appears below, The Paris ReviewPoetry editor Vijay Seshadri explains the process by which he selected this baker’s dozen, as well as the special delights of the magazine’s Writers at Work interview series.
The Paris ReviewThe first Art of Poetry interview was conducted with T.S. Eliot and published in issue no. Spring-Summer 1959. Since the magazine had published interviews since its inception in 1953, turning a commonplace American journalistic trait into some sort of art form, it is not inappropriate to ask why it took so long to Become a Poet. (Robert Penn Warren had been interviewed, but about his fiction, and an early attempt to corral Robert Frost had failed.) However, poets sensitive to the prerogatives of their art were only to be reassured by the nature of the Paris Review Interview itself – a natural-looking object that is actually delicate and labor-intensive and contains the overlap of many random elements, not least the rare sympathy between interviewer and subject that brings a conversation to life. Along with the usual chances and nonsense of publishing when it came to a magazine that saw itself as canonical (in a time when there was such a thing as canonical) and at the same time improvisational, secular, hip, casual. and cosmopolitan editorial decisions must have been made under multiplying, contradicting pressures.
Whatever the reason, once the poet interviews began, they sprinted on, perhaps stimulated by the editors’ realization that poets are very good at talking about themselves. The resulting more than a hundred conversations from which this selection was made are rich and varied, and so satisfactory across the board that it was an excruciating task to select just a dozen bakers. Even if you limited yourself to poets born before the historic turning point of World War II, there were more than sixty to choose from – interviews with fathers of civilization (Frost, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, WH Auden), wrongly neglected or forgotten poets (Conrad ) Aiken, Charles Tomlinson, May Sarton, Amy Clampitt, John Hall Wheelock, Karl Shapiro), masters outside the Anglophone tradition (George Seferis, Evgeny Jewtushenko) and some of the most famous poets of the silent generation (Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, Charles Wright) .
None of the poets in the above brackets are included in this anthology. Given their stature and that of others who are not included, it is probably important to clarify why the thirteen are here and not others, if possible. Some of these decisions come from the information, the news, in the interviews. Some come from acknowledging history and its complicated, sometimes tragic, relationship with literature. Some use the small licenses that anthologists have to reflect on their own experiences. Ezra Pound was the poet I picked first – because of his central role in the poetry of his and our time, because of the great historical stage he sought, and also because of the compelling, sometimes insane quality of the interview. Pound seemed historically entangled with Yehuda Amichai – whose work I happen to love and whose interview is just as convincing as Pound’s. Aside from his poetic importance, the enormous romance of Pablo Neruda’s life seemed to necessitate his presence. Nothing could ever stop me from including Elizabeth Bishop in an anthology when I had the opportunity. So it made sense to include Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore as well, because apart from their greatness as poets and the value of their conversations, Bishop’s life as a writer was implicated in hers. (I went back and forth between Moore and Anne Sexton, opposites as poets and people; I would have liked to include both for the sake of contrast.) Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery were important facts in the literary landscape of the last fifty years and were important facts to me in my early years as a poet. When I was twenty I met Ishmael Reed, a great literary presence in the Bay Area in the 1970s.
If these reasons are psychological rather than logical, it seems to me inevitable. A hundred educated readers grappling with the problem of creating this anthology would find a hundred different solutions. It hardly seems to matter. Even the most perverted selection wouldn’t be outrageous. The intersections and entanglements, the similarities and fascinating contrasts between these poets and their conversations are endless.
Almost as important as purely literary considerations was a broad interest in the way in which these poets with and against the genre of Paris Review Interview itself – a format that is as dramatic and musical as it is journalistic, with its staging, its careful give and take, its back and forth, its rhythmic movements and countermovements, its subtle editorial design. Goethe said the string quartet was like a rational conversation between four people. A Paris Review The interview, a rational conversation on the surface, is like a violin sonata with keyboard accompaniment by the interviewer or a cabaret with a singer who is supported by a piano. Sometimes, like in Wallace Shawn’s interview with Mark Strand, it morphs into a full-blown violin and viola duo. People who want to learn about the poets here will find literary history, literary insight, gossip, humor, perspective, universal and special knowledge. People who already know the poets and how their poems and lives intersect will experience continuous musical delight along with the pleasure of rethinking their knowledge.
Vijay Seshadri is the poetry editor of The Paris Review.
Poet at work is on sale now.