I have to begin by saying that as far as I know, and even listening to all the people talking earlier, I have to say that war is man-made. It’s made by men. It’s their thing, it’s their world, and they’re terribly injured in it. They suffer terribly in it, but it’s made by men. How do they come to live this way? It took me years to understand this. Because when I was a little girl, I was a boy—like a lot of little girls who like to get into things and want to be where the action is, which is up at the corner someplace, where the boys are. And I understood this very well, because that was what really interested me. I could hardly wait to continue being a boy so that I could go to war and do all the other exciting boys’ things. And it took my own life, really, for me to begin to change my mind somehow— after a number of years of actually living during the Second World War. I lived a lot in Army camps. And I liked living in those Army camps; I liked them because it was very exciting, and it seemed to be where it was all at, and there were a lot of boys there, one of which, one of the boys, was my husband. The other boys were just gravy, so to speak.
Of the many resources I’ve mined in researching James Wright: A Life in Poetry, the most vivid have been recordings of Wright’s readings over the course of two decades, when he was a vital public figure in the world of American poetry. A strong impression of his physical presence survives in his voice, in the stories he tells, and in the poems he says—many of them written by others. Wright did not recite poems, and rarely needed a printed text. The word he used was saying poems; they were part of how he spoke, even how he thought. Wright had an astounding memory, so alert to the patterns of sound and language that some I interviewed described it as a “phonographic” memory. After saying poems in Latin, German, or Spanish, Wright would improvise his own translations. He knew countless poems by heart, as well as entire Shakespeare plays, novels by Dickens, and essays by H. L. Mencken and George Orwell—a seemingly infinite store.
I’ve often asked myself: Why write a book?
In part, it’s to tell my story, and it’s also to understand it. In many ways, my childhood is a mystery, even to me. I’m always being asked the same questions: How did I get here? How did I do it? What went right, what went wrong? As I said, if I’m known for one thing, it’s toughness, my ability to keep going when things look bad. People want to know where that quality comes from and, because everyone is hoping for their own chance, how to acquire it.
I thought I’d preface a collection of selected and new poems, Walking Backwards: Poems 1966–2016, that FSG will publish next year, with a poem that reflects on how I began writing poetry and on how it looks to me in retrospect. A few years ago I had a conversation with a very gifted younger poet in which I thoughtlessly rambled on about how much of the poetry I read by younger poets doesn’t engage me; and since then I’ve periodically tried to figure out why this might be so.
Rather than reflect on his poems or essays, which are still here for anyone to read or reread, I want to say a few words about our friendship, one whose nature, though central, is hard to capture, apparently uneventful as it was. Everything that happened happened internally.
Peter Cole and Christian Wiman, two longtime friends, recently exchanged e-mails about the process of selecting their own work for their latest collections. Wiman’s book of selected poems, Hammer Is the Prayer, published by FSG in 2016, was “a stunning reminder of how this gifted poet has transformed suffering into verse that is not just the best of his life, but among the best of his generation” (The Washington Post). Peter Cole’s forthcoming Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations, to be published by FSG in May, showcases the range of Cole’s work, building on his masterful translations and sharp poetry by weaving in dazzling new pieces. “It is,” says Harold Bloom, “a majestic work, a chronicle of the imaginative life of a profoundly spiritual consciousness.” Here, Cole and Wiman discuss the arrangement of collected works, the tension between life and art, and the survival of one’s own poetry.
In trying to sum up the experience of having spent the last ten years editing the poetry of Marianne Moore, most recently in the New Collected Poems, I think of a recent classroom interaction I had. Toward the end of a course on twentieth-century poetry, one of my students, clearly at the end of her patience with me, demanded to know why I kept asking them, “But what is a poem?” It’s probably a measure of how deeply I feel that question that I hadn’t noticed I’d asked it even once before she pointed it out.
Two items from the poet John Ashbery’s private collections appear on the cover for The Songs We Know Best. One is a yellow card from the early 1940s that his father, Chester “Chet” Ashbery, designed to advertise goods sold by the Ashbery Farm.
The madness of March is past, and true to form—here in New York, at least—“lifeless in appearance, sluggish / dazed spring approaches.” What does that mean? It’s National Poetry Month! Starting today, we will regularly post new pieces related to all things poetry.
A sensation in Édouard Louis’ native France, The End of Eddy is an unflinching portrayal of the French working class and the racism and homophobia that its author grew up surrounded by. Here he explains why every word in the novel is true.
Earlier this month at Powerhouse Books in Brooklyn, Kanishk Tharoor was joined by fellow FSG author John Wray to celebrate the launch of Tharoor’s debut short story collection, Swimmer Among the Stars. As trains crossing the Manhattan Bridge rumbled overhead, Tharoor and Wray discussed the short story form, literary influences, and the generative possibilities of history. Below is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.
Ishion Hutchinson’s poetry collection House of Lords and Commons was released to wide acclaim. All Things Considered said it was “ragged and fiercely beautiful;” The New Yorker praised Hutchinson’s “exquisite” sounds: “clusters of consonants . . . and the vowels so open you could fall into them, the magisterial cresting syntax.” Hutchinson sat down with […]
I first met Derek when I came to FSG in the mid-eighties, thirty years ago. He was in his vigorous fifties, teaching in Boston and writing the poems that would soon appear in The Arkansas Testament (1987), and, though I didn’t know it then, composing his magnum opus, Omeros, which we published in 1990.
On March 26, “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture,” a traveling exhibition of the great architect’s papers, sketches, and models, arrives at one of his most celebrated buildings, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Wendy Lesser, author of the new Kahn biography, You Say to Brick, will participate in a public symposium on Kahn’s life and work at the Kimbell on March 25. To celebrate the exhibit, the symposium, and You Say to Brick’s publication, here is a virtual tour of the Kimbell Museum, excerpted from Lesser’s acclaimed new biography.
The pharaoh Necko was not content to rule the Upper and the Lower. He wanted knowledge of the whole. So he plopped a crew of Phoenicians down in the Red Sea and told them to go home the long way. Off they went south, pulling on oars and cursing with lemon breath their bad luck for being alive in the time of the Egyptians.
Hideo Yokoyama’s detective novel Six Four, about a cold case and the conflicts within a police department, was first released in Japan to wide acclaim. Yokoyama’s carefully plotted, high-tension novel seemed perfect for U.K. and U.S. readers that had been devouring books by writers like Jo Nesbø and Steig Larsson, so translator Jonathan Lloyd-Davies was tasked with bringing Yokoyama’s work to English-language readers. We talked to Lloyd-Davies about translating a Japanese bureaucracy, his translation process, and the appeal of a crime novel in a country with a low crime rate.
Jonathan Lloyd-Davies: I was still living in the U.K. when the novel was released, working on other translations, and on a strict diet of reading English to limit the influence of Japanese syntax in my work. Six Four first came my way via a translation summer school in Norwich, chaired by the translator and professor Michael Emmerich, who later brought the project to my attention. At the time I was finishing another translation and looking for something to take on. He was, of course, kind enough to warn me that it was a long book.
The circumstances of my own life have fueled my attraction to Leonardo Padura’s last two novels and led to my translation of them. When I first read The Man Who Loved Dogs—his sprawling novel about Trotsky’s years in exile, and the Soviet plot to recruit and train a Spanish Civil War combatant to kill him in Mexico City&emdash;I was a few years out from a period of having studied Russian intensely and a visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I had been trying to understand the lives and experiences of a whole generation of Cubans who grew up in the Soviet satellite, as several friends and family members of mine did, as I might have myself had my parents not left Cuba in the mid-1960s. That I felt taxed and lonely by the effort of making my way through Moscow as a solo traveler who did not, in this instance, pick up any friends along the way, perhaps predisposed me to feel a certain sense of compassion for Ramón Mercader in the Moscow-based chapters toward the end of the novel. Or maybe it was just that Padura is so wily about making you care about characters that could otherwise be reviled.