The Wolf Interview: Alfred Corn

Welcome back to England. Let’s begin with travel, as it frequently appears to plot a narrative course through your most ambitious poems (I’m thinking of Notes from a Child of Paradise, the title poem from A Call in the Midst of the Crowd and ‘1992’). You’ve spent long periods in the famous metropolises—London, New York, Paris—and others moving through rural America. What has the idea of home and the freedom of nomadia brought to your poetic practise?

Before we begin, let me say that, though I usually know exactly what I think—or at least think I know—as soon as a question is put to me, my mind goes blank. So the hound chained to his tree may have to circle several times before he gets pulled close to it, and I fully answer your question. So, places I’ve lived: the longest was in New York, about thirty-five years, though there were interruptions. A year in Paris, four years in New Haven, and briefer stays in London, plus medium-length stays in several cities in the USA. The first long-term visit I made to London was in 1986, but in recent years the visits have come more often and lasted longer. My interest in the three metropolises you’ve mentioned had to do with literature, visual art, theatre, history, and architecture. And with people who were involved in all those things, not to mention the unfamous multitudes who give a city its characteristic flavour. I suppose any one of the Big Three would have sufficed, but it has been, what, instructive (and fun) to know all of them well. If I read a French novel that has a scene take place in, for example, the Place Vendôme, I have mental pictures I can attach to the reference—the same as when a British poem mentions, say, Clerkenwell. What’s more, I can confidently refer to comparable landmarks myself, say, 125th Street in Harlem, in my own fiction and poetry. As in fact I’ve done. Add to that the expansion of mentality that comes with going to hundreds of art exhibitions, concerts, plays, operas, and readings, not to mention the walkabout pleasures of city life and the probing or hilarious conversations you have with city folk, and you wonder why every artist doesn’t live in a world capital.

Can you imagine yourself settling in Blighty? I remember you once saying how a fascination with the idea of New York as the unwritten cultural capital of America drew you to it back in the 1960s. You claimed that you wanted to share the city with important influences on your early writing, like Whitman, Crane and Moore. Early in the 21st Century what draws you back to London, a place you’ve visited for over 40 years?

Yes, I think I could be quite happy living here, and—stay tuned!—it may be about to happen if I can get the visa sorted out. Why did I come to London, specifically? For one thing I was pretty sure I’d meet people like yourself, James, writers passionately devoted to literature and, even apart from that, interesting as people with both brains and hearts. My genetic origins are in these islands, beginning with the Corns who migrated from England to Virginia in the 17th century or Irish forbears who first went to Nova Scotia in the 18th century. More recently, there’s a great-grandfather from Edinburgh on one side and on the other a grandfather born in Liverpool. Not sure I believe in ancestral memory, but the truth is, when I first came here in 1967, everything looked strangely familiar. And I’ll admit to a Romantic or sentimental desire to tread the streets that were trodden by the English-language writers I admire and tried to learn from. I always stop to look at the blue plaques on buildings I pass. Besides that, and for whatever reason, British poets and editors I’ve met have welcomed me. There seem to be readers here for what I publish.

I don’t think of you purely as a transatlantic poet or even as a Europhilic American (though you may be both), I see you as someone who is increasingly Globocentric. Last year you visited Morocco for a Mahmoud Darwish conference, a few months ago you wintered in Buenos Aires. Only this week you read your translations of Portuguese Fados in London. All this is a little surprising given that your first real trip away from your birthplace (the hinterlands of Georgia) was to visit Paris where you researched for a doctorate about influences on Camus. Could it be said that from this point on a world that had been previously hidden from you opened up and has never stopped unravelling?

For the record it was Melville’s influence on Camus I was writing about. I suppose there’s also a thesis to be written about any number of American writers’ impact on the course of French or English literature. Given that most of Europe has been USA-philic for about a hundred years now, it seems only right to return the compliment. Oh, sure, we’ve got an isolationist current in the American tradition, hard-shelled patriots who pretend not to be interested in European culture, but then we’ve also had figures like Washington Irving, Henry James, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Anne Stevenson who lived over here and found it stimulating for their work. Even figures who never came to Europe, like Poe and Stevens, incorporate European language, culture, and ideas in their texts. Meanwhile, as compensation, the U.S.A. ended up snaring W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn, who also made the most of their New York or San Francisco relocations. But as you’re suggesting, I’m also interested in other continents besides these two. Latin American literature is important to me (and I do read Spanish and Portuguese), as well as African and Asian writing. The international perspective makes the most sense to me. All countries are closely bound to each other now. If someone catches cold in Beijing this week, a week later someone will be sneezing in Berlin. If a big financial institution collapses in New York, within a month all the world’s banks have become shaky. If a new idea goes up on a website in London, within a couple of weeks it’s the latest buzz in Kuala Lumpur and Buenos Aires. If an earthquake occurs in a small island nation, within a matter of days aid workers from a dozen countries are on their way to bring assistance. It’s one world, why can’t we simply acknowledge that?

In the past, critics have commented on the many different kinds of poems you write, in fact, one said there is no ‘typical Alfred Corn poem’. Why is that?

It’s true I take quite a few different approaches, from standard metre and rhyme to unmetered verse, to shaped poems, narrative and autobiographical poems, dramatic or interior monologues, poems about works of art, and poems of elusive or indeterminate content. Let’s think for a moment about Pessoa: he wrote under four separate pseudonyms, with each of these invented personae writing a different kind of poetry. I understand why he wanted to do that. I do the something similar, only I sign all the poems with my own name. Recent critical theory has posited that the identity isn’t fixed or fully defined. But Montaigne as early as the sixteenth century made the same claim about his own multifarious identity. Also, Whitman said of himself ‘I contain multitudes’, as well as, ‘I resist anything better than my own diversity’. Even apart from all that, it would become tiresome to me if I continued writing the same kind of poem year after year, decade after decade. A poem is a lens. If you have only one kind of lens, you can see only one sort of reality. It seems a shame to cut yourself off from potential knowledge that you might otherwise have.

I remember how, in the stunning autobiographical prose poem, ‘A Goya Reproduction’ (from Present) you accentuate the idea of art as a ‘lifeline’ to you. How important has it been in your approach to poetry to somehow bind the disparateness of very different child and adult lives? How resistant have you had to be in avoiding a search for reconciliation?

I don’t know that I make a conscious, willed effort to bind the two together. I write what comes and let the work bind or unbind as it sees fit. In earlier interviews I’ve speculated on the question of whether I belong to the tradition of Southern writing in the U.S.A. The early years have appeared as a subject in several poems and one short story. And maybe I share some traits with other Southern writers—an interest in the past, an eagerness to tell stories (especially if they’re funny). But possibly the main influence from my early years arises from a close association with African-Americans. In the South where I grew up, racism was the rule, but what you found, even so, was close contact between black people and white, something that doesn’t seem to be duplicated overall in the North, even though racism isn’t officially acceptable there. Equality but no intimacy, if you see what I mean. Children don’t at first question the world they are born to, but, as I got older and more able to understand the unjust basis of the society around me, political awareness was awakened. With the result that I’ve always sympathised with the underdog, unjustly treated groups of every kind—not only people of African descent, but women as well, and Jews, gay women and men, and colonialised people the world over. Nowadays I’m intently focused on the plight of the Palestinian people, the urban and rural poor in the U.S.A., and the Christian minority in Darfur.

If you could have voted for a political party during the recent elections in England, I presume you’d have been drawn to the environmental ethics of the Green Party. It seems clear to me that every collection you’ve published has a keen botanical sense of wonder at the natural world—The West Door strikes me as an example with its rural shamanistic sequence ‘Tongues on Trees’. Is it fair to say that your environmentalism as a poet has been overlooked by critics over the years?

Last year I published a poem in Poetry London titled ‘Audubon’, which takes that nature painter’s work as a starting point for a lament about the extinction of species and the replacement of natural environments with our repellent urban and suburban ‘developments’. You would think that the sense of beauty alone would stand in the way of land clearance and throwing up these hideous shopping malls. We’ve seen that it doesn’t, but just possibly we can demonstrate to the unthinking part of the public that resources are limited and that environments currently being destroyed (for example, the Brazilian rainforest) are irreplaceable. Works of art that evoke the wild in all its vividness and colour help us to appreciate its value and therefore firm up the desire to rescue it. So I’m entirely in favour of ‘nature poetry’, I mean, so long as there’s more to it than what you see on the lid of a biscuit tin. If the public were really convinced about the importance of wild nature, then they’d have to make huge changes in how they live. Recycling is only the beginning. The fanatically consumerist approach to life would have to go. People would have to put on extra layers of clothes rather than turn up the heat. They’d have to walk or bike or use public transport instead of drive. They’d have to give up meat entirely or have it only at feasts and, meanwhile, use the saved money to buy organically grown vegetables. Also, to pay a little more tax in order to fund government research on solar and other alternative sources of energy. They’d have to content themselves with just one child or none. (People nowadays seem practically to worship their children but seem to have no concern at all for the future children of their children.) We’d all have to decide that it was better to mend than toss things out, that it was smart to wear clothes more than once before washing them and that shirts looked better wrinkled than ironed. We’d have to learn to let sponge baths suffice on most days, as the Victorians did. And guys would have to follow fashion and not shave so often, or, indeed, they might even let a beard grow. This all sounds trivial of course, but multiply it across the billion-plus population of the modern West and carry it across a decade and an enormous difference in use of resources and energy will be tabulated. You don’t see more than a minute percentage of the population doing these things. And given how difficult it is to change ingrained habits, admittedly I don’t have much hope for the future of the natural world. Then, when the planet is thoroughly plundered and exhausted, there goes civilisation as we’ve known it.

You’ve been a vegetarian for a number of years. How does that affect your writing?

Oh, all to the good. Low cholesterol intake has meant that the texts have eluded problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, and poor circulation! And the money saved gives more room in the budget for books, music, and theatre tickets, all of them valuable stimulants for the creative juices. What else? Maybe if you’re opposed to the butchering of defenseless animals then you’ll be that much more reluctant to make a butchery of the language and the literature composed in it.

Let me put to it to you that, in contemporary poetry, the favouring of the short lyric poem can deny the ability (even the desire) to fully explore one or two central themes in a poem. I’ve always admired that your work—particularly in the longer poems like Notes from a Child of Paradise, but also in Contradictions, through poems like ‘The American Hop Hornbeam’ and ‘A Walrus Tusk from Alaska’—the knack of being able to deal with the multivariousness in a single object or idea. This requires great skill, but also a developed curiosity and concentration. The way you accomplish ‘variations on a theme’ reminds me of two poets who I know you admire, Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens. What have you learnt in dealing with ‘thingyness’ over the years, particularly when utilising different forms and lengths for poems?

My sense is that a poem gains substance and impact when it includes solid objects and a developed array of sensory information. The word ‘esthetic’ is derived from Latin aisthesis, which means ’sensation’. I’m sure this is the basis for Pound’s ‘Go in fear of abstractions’, and Williams’s ‘No ideas but in things’. So much depends on that red wheelbarrow and the white chickens, right? Even before I’d attempted to come up with a ‘poetics’, as we now say, I was drawn to those writers who found verbal equivalents for sounds, sights, smells, textures, and tastes: Spenser, Shakespeare, Marvell, Keats, Baudelaire, Whitman, Moore, Williams, and Bishop. As for how to use the senses when writing short, as opposed to long, poems, I don’t have a rule so much as a hunch that there’s more room for abstraction in a long poem. A catalogue of sounds and sights alone would become tiring in a long work.

You’ve never shied away from exploring sexuality in your poems but, again, with real variety on the theme. In Contradictions, for example, ‘My Last June in Chelsea’ finds you inside and outside the ‘scene’ during a gay parade, ‘Replacing a Part’ faces up to singledom whilst eyeing up the mechanics and later on there is a poem ‘To a Lover who is HIV-Positive’, which ends powerfully with ‘Until you see yourself well in them, / love, keep looking in my eyes’. Do these poems fall out from the personal archive or do you have to go searching for them?

Apparently I’m self-obsessed. Probably two thirds of my poetry is autobiographical. That began in the apprentice stage when I had as mentor the late critic David Kalstone, who published a book titled Five Temperaments, dealing with the poetry of Lowell, Bishop, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and James Merrill. He discussed them as autobiographical poets, which is obviously true for all of them, except Ashbery, but even there you can make connections between what John has written and the life behind it. So, yes, I do write about my life, despite the constantly reiterated strictures against ‘confessional’ poetry. I don’t actually think I am ‘confessional’. It’s a religious term implying that the writer is looking for some sort of absolution, whereas my poems wouldn’t be trying for that. When I’ve done wrong things, I don’t turn to a reading public (few of whom I’ve so much as met) for absolution. I go to the injured party and make my excuses to them and hope for broad-minded generosity. As for being gay, I don’t see it as a crime or an illness or a sin requiring forgiveness, but as morally neutral—though of course gay people can do wrong things just as quickly as straight people. Nor do I see mental illness as anything requiring forgiveness, from a public or from any individual. For that matter, neither is alcoholism, which we now understand as a physical ailment something like diabetes. As for divorce, it normally involves wrongdoing on the part of one or both spouses, but—this is based on personal experience—I’d say that the wrongdoing in question was a matter that should be settled between the people who were married, not something to be cleared with an impersonal public. So I wish we could ditch the term ‘confessional,’ though of course I know there isn’t much chance that anyone will pay attention to my druthers. There are several terms in the contemporary critical vocabulary that strike me as inaccurate or obsolete, like ‘free verse’ or ‘formalism’ or ‘avant-garde’, but no amount of argument seems to shake public faith in them, so I will shut up.

Are you surprised that homosexuality, given its legality, is still a slightly ticklish subject in British poetry, especially, it seems, for male poets? Is this a problem not only for poets to consider, but also for publishers, anthologists, and the wider artistic community?

To some degree it’s still uneasy even in America, despite well-known lesbian and gay poets like Marilyn Hacker and Mark Doty. The rule for magazines seems to be: publish gay and lesbian poets but not poems containing explicit gay experience. Unless of course the magazine is itself a gay publication. Poems depicting gay encounters can appear in books, but even there you don’t see very many. It sounds plausible to say that people will only seek out literary representations of experience like their own, yet African-American poets are read enthusiastically by the white American audience. If that’s true, why not poems about gay life? After all, I read and admire poems about heterosexual experience, and have even written a couple myself. So why shouldn’t the converse situation hold?

Here in Britain, you have lesbian poets recognised as such—Jackie Kay a prominent example. But the few gay male poets who are ‘out’ as gay don’t seem to have a wide readership. The UK’s most prominent gay male poet, for reasons known to him but not to me, has never disclosed the fact in print. When I’ve mentioned him in this context to my British poet friends, most are surprised, having never thought of him as gay. The most famous lesbian poet here has only given out veiled hints about her orientation, never stating it in so many words. This is strange in a country where homosexuality per se involves no criminal penalties and where people of the same sex can even enter into a civil union. Not to mention the fact that some of your best writers have been gay—Marlowe, Byron, Wilde, Forster, Strachey, Charlotte Mew, Auden, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Thom Gunn. I mean, what risk is involved?

On the other hand, there’s this: I recall giving a reading at the Manchester Poetry Festival a few years ago. Things seemed to be going well, but then I read a poem using gay experience. Instantly I felt a chill come into the hall. You always know during a poetry reading whether the audience is with you or not. It was interesting that not one person came up after to say she or he had enjoyed the reading. So perhaps there is indeed a risk, though I’d like to know exactly why social attitudes have lagged behind Common Law. True enough, no one likes to be put in a pigeonhole, their esthetic identity summed up in one term such as ‘woman poet’, ‘Indian-British poet’, or ‘lesbian poet’. But it is interesting that no one even says, ‘X is a white poet’, or ‘Y is a male poet’, even when the category is inescapably obvious. The tags get applied only to so-called ‘minorities’, and meanwhile of course women are statistically the majority. I know I’m belabouring all this, and if I do it’s because I always thought of the British character as one shaped to an unusual degree by reason and objectivity. On this matter, no. Which is puzzling. But things could change, certainly. Let’s hope they soon do. As for the closeted poets, why not give them the benefit of the doubt and speculate that their reasons aren’t mere cowardice or career worries, but, what, maybe, the wish not to hurt or embarrass a parent or someone else close to them? It’s sometimes that.

How possible is androgyny for the modern poet? Shouldn’t voice and tone be able to explore aspects of the masculine and the feminine?

I don’t recall that any of the speakers in Browning’s dramatic monologues were women, but certainly the modern period gave us examples of male poets writing in women’s voices: Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife’, Jarrell’s anonymous American women characters, Richard Howard’s Jane Morris and Edith Wharton. The same goes for quite a few poems I’ve written, either in dramatic first person or free indirect discourse in the third person. I’m weak where theory is concerned but am aware even so of a huge body of critical writing around the theme of androgyny. The gist of which is that human faculties have been arbitrarily divided according to gender lines, as a mere cultural and historical product; and that there’s nothing intrinsic or inescapable about the apportionment. Women can throw off cultural conditioning and become more commanding and more linear in their thinking if they choose, just as men can become less pugnacious and more sensitive. Clearly they can, but it still seems more like the exception than the rule. At least the possibility exists, and that’s very important. For artists, I imagine that the capacity to tap into both the traditionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ personality traits is indispensable, that is, if you want to go beyond your own psychological back yard and move toward a comprehensive grasp of human experience. I’m aware, nevertheless, that many women resent the appropriation of women’s voices and women’s experience by male authors, just as colonialised people dislike their culture being exploited by writers from the dominant society. But I don’t know, maybe we can rethink this. Obviously, it can’t be done in a shallow or condescending fashion. If the writers in question have done their homework; if they’ve had close contact with the other category they are trying to represent; if they exercise the mysterious faculty of the imagination that allows us to empathise with people other than ourselves; if the representation is inflected by an active sense of justice; and if the audience understand that these are works of fiction instead of non-fiction, then there’s no reason one category can’t arrive at an artistic embodiment of the experience of another. For example, if a heterosexual West Indian woman poet decides she wants to write a dramatic monologue in the voice of a gay white male, why shouldn’t she? I mean, with the qualifications in mind that I’ve just mentioned, which will prevent falling back on ridiculous or offensive stereotypes. I have to say I’m really tired of fictional treatments of gay serial murderers, just as my African-American friends are tired of seeing so many works where black characters are thugs or amiable stepandfetchits.

Since being in New York I’ve been slightly surprised at how weak the transatlantic dialogue remains between American and British poetries. It still seems very selective what gets published and reviewed. As someone who—to some degree—straddles both camps, why do you think it has been like this for so long and do you see signs of an improved dialogue through blogging, facebooking, etc?

This past autumn in PN Review an American critic named Stephen Burt published a talk he’d given in Glasgow, the main assertion of which was that American poets don’t read British poetry, but that he did and therefore thought it was too bad that other American poets didn’t read them because, after all, Americans could learn a thing or two from British poets. I certainly agree with the last part of that, and would add that, apart from learning something, they’d find pleasure in the reading. But I don’t know what random sampling he uses as the basis for his claim that Americans don’t read British poets. I always have done, and the same holds for most of the American poets I know. Burt might want to expand his circle of friends. Granted, you can find an anti-British current of opinion in some quarters of the poetry scene, even over here. Among the poorly informed, there will be this assumption that the British are snobbish; that they are neat and tidy to the point of fussiness; retrograde in subject matter, diction and form; and disdainful of Americans. But those of us who read contemporary British poetry know it ain’t so. OK, so you say ‘to-mah-toes’ and we say ‘to-may-toes’, but neither group says ‘po-tah-toes’. I’m hardly the person to tell you that there is every sort of poetry being done here. You’ve got people who are highly skilled in metre, rhyme, and verse form, to be sure. But British poetry is now also unmetered, multicultural and experimental, feminist and anti-colonial. And that stance means of course that American poetry is read here with an open mind and often as not with enthusiasm.

The fact remains, though, that, say, an ‘Evening of Eastern-European Poetry’ would sell more tickets in London than would an ‘Evening of American Poetry’ or an ‘Evening of British Poetry’ in New York. I know, because I participated in an American event here and have attended the counterpart over there. I suppose we’d have to say it’s because the exotic always attracts, and that neither of the dominant English-language literatures seems exotic enough for its transatlantic counterpart. We’re divided by a common language, as they say, whereas it really ought to unite us. Consider that very few of us can actually read Eastern-European languages and therefore have only a partial sense of the value of that poetry. Yet we seem to prefer it to other English-language traditions. I suppose, besides, that some practitioners might feel that they are competing with the other nationality for global dominance in the language—which is to assume that neither Ireland, Australia, India, or the West Indies is really in the running. But then you have to overlook the fact that, of the two living English-language poets awarded the Nobel Prize (and anyway almost certainly the best), one is West Indian and the other is Irish. But to my mind this sort of competitive spirit is silly, not to say destructive. It’s a boost in spirits to reflect that an astonishingly varied output of poetry is now being produced in the differing Englishes currently spoken the world over.

I’ve had the privilege of reading Tables, your new unpublished manuscript of poems. Again you travel back and forward through time (Timetabling?) with a confidence bordering on reflexivity. Some of the time-travel makes use of the epistle (letters to Fenton, Hacker and Pinsky among them). The literary epistle is a form that surfaced right from the beginning in your books (I recall a letter written in the voice of Madame de Sévigné’s daughter to Sévigné herself in All Roads at Once). In Tables, to what extent does the recipient’s work inform the style of your epistle?

I tried to have the prosodic template reflect the addressee’s practice, so that, for example, the letter to Fenton uses syllabic metre; to Robert Pinsky, blank verse; and to Marilyn Hacker, dactylic hexameter, given that she has used unusual metres in her poetry. The letters were meant to give some idea of recipients as well through choice of site and topics discussed, of course. I made it a rule that the recipient had to approve the final draft, otherwise I wouldn’t publish it. And they all generously rubber-stamped the poems. Marilyn even wrote an epistle to me in turn, the best sort of acknowledgement you could have.

Tables is dedicated to Richard Howard, a long-time colleague and friend, who you met quite early on in New York. You recently claimed that James Merrill was the funniest poet you’ve ever met. Could Howard be one of the most erudite? (I suppose Merrill himself might contest that title).

Richard is indeed very learned but probably outdistanced by John Hollander in the erudition department—that is, to the extent I’m qualified to make such a judgement. I certainly wish I knew as much as they both do, while still somehow retaining the identity I’ve grown accustomed to. But you can’t have everything; even someone as poorly-educated as myself knows that.

I remember a beautiful poem from A Call in the Midst of the Crowd called ‘Return’, written for another long-term friend, who you also met early on in NYC, Edmund White. The lines: ‘Night falls like a sentence / With too many clauses, and you pronounce one word / In your defense, an amalgam of Summer’s end, / The ages, doubts, appetite, love and strife: / a syllable standing between you and death.’ ‘Return’ is a supreme elegy for the living, but it only works because there is real affection behind the language. It’s as if your generosity as a friend subverts Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’ and declares: ‘not among me and mine, it isn’t!’ How important has friendship been to a recurring spirit of celebration in your poems?

I’m trying to think. Friends are very important to me, maybe too much so, but there it is. My parents have died, my sisters live far away, preoccupied with their own families, I have no children, and I’m currently single. So I’ve come to regard friends as my second family, the people who give you a sense of continuity. I met Edmund in 1966, long before either of us had published, and we’ve seen each other pass through many phases, and, in fact, there were periods when we didn’t speak to each other. An old friend is someone you don’t have to explain everything to: they were there, they saw the whole sorry mess, as well as the feast days. I haven’t written a poem titled ‘On Friendship’, but in the past few years I wrote the letter-poems we discussed earlier. Those make literal the proposition that a poem is one’s ‘letter to the world’, to quote Dickinson. In the best-case scenario, the reader becomes at least temporarily your friend, having read the metaphoric ‘letter’ composed for that projected reader’s satisfaction.

For the first time you’ve recently turned your hand to playwriting, tackling a psychotic episode of Robert Lowell. What was it like channelling Lowell and do you have plans to stage it?

I read the Ian Hamilton biography of him and of course everything he published. That includes the selected letters that Saskia Hamilton brought out, where you’ll find, if you look hard enough, one letter written to me. I’ve listened many times to recordings of him reading his poems. We met only twice, during the last year of his life. Just when it seemed acquaintance was beginning to firm up, he died, at the very early age of sixty. But it’s very easy for me to hear his voice in my head and to recall the famous facial expressions, including the ‘oval Lowell smile’, he wrote about. All of this was useful when time came to get down to brass tacks with the play. The title is Lowell’s Bedlam. Elizabeth Hardwick is also one of the dramatis personae and, again, I was able to draw on the occasions when we met to compose dialogue for the piece. Also, Elizabeth Bishop, who appears in the second act. I met her I think three times; she was possibly even more important to me as a poet than Lowell. About a year ago Saskia brought out a ‘stereophonic’ collection of correspondence between Lowell and Bishop—but of course you know, because I published a review of it in The Wolf. We seem to keep returning to letters, don’t we? Anyway, based on all this, I think I was able to capture those voices and to present several conflicts that they were actually grappling with, quite apart from Lowell’s bipolar illness. Saskia read the play and, while noting a few departures from historical fact, seemed to think that the representation was fair. The next step is getting a production.

Questions by James Byrne


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