An Interview with David Shapiro
by Joanna Fuhrman
David Shapiro's ninth book of poetry, A Burning Interior (Overlook Press, $24.95) has just been published. He has also published books of criticism on John Ashbery, Jim Dime, Jasper Johns, and Mondrian's Flowers, and edited the important An Anthology of New York Poets with Ron Padgett. All of his writing is simultaneously earnest and explosive. To read a David Shapiro poem is to enter a space in which "emotion" is as abstract as theory and an "idea" is as visceral and tender as the best pop song. Currently a Professor in Art History at William Paterson University in New Jersey, Shapiro has taught poetry and architectural aesthetics at Cooper Union for the past twenty years. This interview was conducted at the café in the Cooper Hewitt museum on a sweltering August Monday, drinking decaffeinated diet cola.
Joanna Fuhrman: How has your idea of what poetry can do changed since you were young?
David Shapiro: Poetry was very important in my family. My uncle had published sonnets in The New York Times. My grandmother was very literary. My mother read something like a book a day and loved to read to me. One of the great influences on my life was my father constantly memorizing Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and he had me do the same, as soon as I could speak. Music was also important in my family, so my idea was that poetry was this musical/theatrical thing. What a Russian called "the articulatory dance of the speech organs," I associated with songs. So when I was about nine writing a song with words, something about an irradiated man, I realized I just had written a poem, and I started to write poetry an hour or two a day, like violin playing. One of the things I tended to do was to fall in love with a poet-for example I would memorize The Wasteland, 1958 or so, then try to write like that. I went through a Beckett period where I wrote a lot of bad plays. I fell in love with Theodore Roethke, and if he would use the word "tendril," I would use the word "tendril." It got to the point where I would memorize their voices - I had a lot of the Caedmon records - just like one would a concerto. I kept being influenced by different people. The French Symbolists one year were very important to me, and then they were important to me forever.
I was about 12 or 13 when the Donald Allen anthology came out and I memorized that too. I was called the "Beat Prophet" in eighth grade. I would go to parties and recite Howl.
My ideas of poetry changed very rapidly between the ages of 9 and 15 in the sense that a different poet would be a different universe. I liked the big golden voice of Dylan Thomas. Kenneth Koch read my poetry to me, when I was fifteen, in a very quiet voice-I liked that. I had considered the poem very fortissimo, a little bit like D.H. Lawrence but also with Dylan Thomas in mind. When he read it very quietly, I liked that. He also showed me new work by John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath. In was in July or August of 1962, and I thought it was fairly ugly: "To employ her / construction ball / Morning fed on the / light blue wood / of the mouth," and so on. Then I came upon sections which were more melodic, and I had a big conversion to the idea that he was floating melody inside static. Lines like: "I must say I / suddenly / she left the room, oval tear tonelessly fell" or "I moved up // glove / the field. "
And I thought, oh he's using the word "I" like it's any other word in the dictionary. That's interesting. It reminded me of a Raushenberg collage and suddenly I fell in love with it. I was converted by The Tennis Court Oath and I still love Cubo-Futurist style. I liked a lot of the lowness and the cheapness of the words. Allen Ginsberg said to me, "But can you memorize it," and after I recited a lot of it he said, "Oh it's like Alexander Pope." I didn't think it was like Pope, but I liked its elegance. I loved lines like: "Over Mount Hymettus / And sudden day unbuttoned her blouse" and I know Kenneth liked that line too. I liked what was very fresh about it; it seemed to be draining all the sentimentality I loved in Theodore Roethke out of poetry. It was definitely something new. I feel like I had good taste in that sense, for a fifteen year old, but I must say my taste has continually changed. The difference between me and other New York Poets is that I never gave up my love of what I already loved. I'm still a person who can see what is good in Eliot, Stevens, etc. I don't feel like I renounced earlier ideas of poetry. I like the idea of something synthetic or pluralist. I don't like the idea that one style beats another style. Kenneth said to me in 1962, "You'll see there's only me, Frank, and John." We were on a hill in Staten Island, and I said "What about Martin Buber?" And he said "He's a minor Jewish philosopher." And I said, "Sometimes it's better to be a minor Jewish philosopher than a dogmatic poet."
My idea of poetry now is pretty endless. I know people who just like Ted Berrigan's Sonnets, they just like one kind of thing. Particularly because of music I tend to not think in that way. I like John Cage and I like Eliot Carter. They don't like each other. I once said to Eliot Carter, "What do you think of John Cage?" He said, "No I don't really think so." And the same thing happened when I asked Cage, "Don't you like Carter?" "No." " What about the 'Polyrhythms'?" "Not really." They both hated each other, but I think poetry can combine these different things. I like a sonnet and I like shattering a sonnet. I like The Tennis Court Oath, but I also like Some Trees. This puts me in a bad position because you might say I therefore lack certain purities.
JH: What about your own work-how do you think it has changed?
DS: When I was young, my work was very expressionistic, sort of like my brain. Obsessive and expressionistic. Like anyone else I felt like I had to drain that. Ron Padgett once mocked me-I had written a poem when I was fourteen called "We are gentle" and he said, "We are gentiles," and Ted Berrigan called it, "We are jungles."
Ted once said to my sister, "The difference between your brother and me is that he writes, 'I am on a beach,' and I write 'I am on a beach ball,'" but that doesn't seem to be very fair. The truth is that like everyone else I wanted my poetry to be as tough as this table top [he taps on it]-I wanted it to be cold and tough like Formica. When I was seventeen Marianne Moore said about my poetry, "He is not stark enough… He is an accomplished man and artist, but he is not stark enough. I too lack dynamite." They used some of that blurb, but I used to brood on "adequate starkness." I liked the severity of Jasper Johns's newspaperese period. On the other hand, I wrote books like Man Holding an Acoustic Panel in a science/hardware kind of interrupted style. I constantly was changing from one style to another. One thing I liked was the melancholy of Johns's smallest light bulbs. I wanted a poetry, and I think I still do, that would be as melancholy, dense, and severe as that. I wanted a poem that would somehow emit that kind of darkness. I also wanted poems that would go from one tempo to another. I loved Mozart's divertimenti and I liked the fact there would be one movement, another movement, another movement, but they would form a unity.
I like the poems of Ashbery like "The Skaters" and "Europe" that you might say have one style but are also very multiple. My best poems attempt that. I also wanted a poem that was more Lucretian, that would explain. What I loved about "The Skaters" was that it seemed so vast. I asked Kenneth what "The Skaters" was about before I had read it, and he said it was not about anything, it was a whole philosophy of life.
Still, I also love writing smaller poems that are like watercolors. I like the immediacy of Cézanne going out with just red, blue and green. I recently wrote a poem where I just used a Ryokan index of first lines and changed the nouns-it's like a little watercolor. And sometimes I feel I am really getting someplace in my collages. I hope they lead to a new impersonality, but not Eliotic. I am not a confessional poet, but there's enough in me of Jewish guilt to make a lot of my poems more naturalistic than what other people might find. Someone once said there was very little sex in my poems and I said, "What else is there?"
When I am writing a long poem I think about how not to merely intimate. I want something more like an epic, but I found I'm not as good at that. Kenneth Koch once said "Write an epic poem about the history of music"-I haven't been able to. That generation was very good at the long poem: Kenneth, John, Frank. My best long poems are sequences, and I actually get sad when people ask, "Why hasn't he written a long poem?" I really do regard my sequences as a long poem. I've keyed them so that one part follows the next like a divertimento. Or I think of them as panels of paintings that go together. But people don't always read it like that. I think that's a problem with my work. I sometimes print them as separate poems so people just see them as separate poems. Eliot did that with the Four Quartets, but no one thinks of them like that. If the seams show, maybe that is a problem. I love the idea of Keats's that you wander in a very long poem, and I wanted an entire book like To an Idea to be one suicidal fairly depressed poem-though in it there are different kinds of things.
When I give poetry readings it is very hard because I tend to see them as little encore pieces and don't play the concerto. Or I am very worried about boring people with an adagio. Charles Bernstein said, "What's wrong with boring people?" But as a violinist, I hate to see the woman in furs yawning, as I once saw when I was giving a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I was playing "Gypsy Airs," by Sarasate, and it's very hard and very flashy and the woman in furs was yawning and I thought, "Ok, I am giving up music." But I haven't given up music because poetry is music, and I don't care about parts of the audience falling asleep.
But I always liked the idea that poetry doesn't need to be performed; my greatest moments in poetry have been quietly reading. Like when I had the forty pages of "The Skaters," when I was 16-it was written on crinkly paper from Paris, and every page seemed more beautiful than the last. Every line seemed up to the level of the last. When I was finished with that experience, I really felt very great poetry had been written in our time.
JH: You mentioned the Donald Allen anthology. How do you think the state of American poetry has changed since that moment?
DS: I was saying to my wife, it's canonic to praise that anthology and I've committed an anthology too, as they say. But it is interesting. One thing I liked about the Allen anthology is it gave a lot of information that was hard to find. I had heard of John Ashbery because I was reading things like the Partisan Review. Kenneth had a very bizarre early essay putting down a lot of minor poets which ended by quoting and praising a section of "Europe."
But I will say, Kenneth wasn't very well represented in that anthology. Frank O'Hara was. One of the reasons I wanted to attend the Wagner Writer's Conference when I was fourteen and fifteen was I wanted to meet Frank O'Hara. I knew his poems by heart. I loved "Ode to Michael Goldberg ('s Birth and Other Births)." It was a very great poem. The beat generation was sort of known already. I fell under the spell of Charles Olson for awhile-I loved "The Kingfishers." I really loved his variations on Rimbaud. Also there were people in there who weren't such great poets and that was very useful to see too. It was very clear that Olson and Duncan were better than x, y, and z. It was clear "Howl" really did something compared to others. It was harder to say how good Jimmy Schuyler was, but there were some very beautiful poems: "Their scallop shell of quiet / is the S.S. United States / It is not so quiet and they / are a medium-size couple / who when they fold each other up / well, thrill. That's their story." I remember memorizing that. It's a very pretty little piece, and John's poem "How much longer will I be able to inhabit the divine sepulcher / Of life, my great love?" So, that was a very good anthology because it contains differences; people like Frank did not like Charles Olson very much. I think that's been one of the best anthologies because Donald Allen was not dogmatically inclined toward one.
The weaknesses of anthologies are obvious. I know an Italian scholar who said his father would never have an encyclopedia in their house. But then there's Diderot's great encyclopedia. The eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is so beautiful. It has (Donald) Tovey's articles on music, Whitehead on math. My father used to buy them all the time and I would give them away just for the illustrations. There are moments when a good anthology is useful. The bible is an anthology. But I am always impressed by how many people were lit up by the Donald Allen anthology. I think that's because it has these four swathes. It's funny that it didn't connect them. It did connect them against a certain kind of poetry. It was very clear to people like my friend John Ciardi, who I knew in youth, that they were not in it. Likewise Richard Wilbur, who is a terrific translator of Moliere in rhyme, represented a version of gentility that was not included. Though I love tennis, I remember an anthology with a picture of him playing tennis and it said, "What does a poet look like? He could look like this," and I thought "Oh, no."
JH: So what about the state of poetry now?
DS: The hardest thing for me was feeling that the Language school had, as a group, somehow "disappeared" certain New York poets. I put it this way once to Charles Bernstein, which my son thought was too turbulent a way to put it and he made me call Charles up to apologize, which I did. But I still sometimes feel that a lot of us get no credit for what we did between '62 and '80 .
For example, an academic who will remain nameless once told me she'd never seen 'C' magazine and had never read Joseph Ceravolo's poetry, and this was after she praised people who were using the same techniques but much later. In art history, we don't praise you if you do a drip painting today because we have a sense Jackson Pollock did it in the winter of '47.
I thought someone like Joe Ceravolo never really was given his due. Or someone like Dick Gallup, who had an amazing poem in 'C' magazine called "Life in Darkness." Now if it was published, people might say "Very interesting poem in the style of, let's say, Bruce Andrews," but that's not really fair. There are a lot of ways in which the last twenty years created a labeling, or "branding"-horrible word-of certain formal innovations that weren't really innovations. A tremendous amount had been done by John and Frank and Kenneth, yes, but also by Ron Padgett and Ted Berrigan and others, and somehow there was an inclination to overlook it. When I mention this to some of the "Language" poets, they say they felt like we were already known, so they had to start their own team. At any rate, language and experiment are not magazines or precincts. No one owns language.
So when you say what's happening now in 2002… I still think it is a useful period. You can feel in your generation that people are not willing to buy a party line. I guess Americans really don't like popes. And the New York School really had a tremendous sense of being a male team, though with some women in it. I am still apologetic for having left out Barbara Guest from the anthology-a turbulent decision-but I am happy that there are twenty poets who had hardly been published before.
This is a much looser period. Maybe like the '70s in art. It's much harder to write minor imitations of Clark Coolidge and call it an innovation, and so there are less claims that lines like "Clump Peach Ounce" are dazzling. Clark's geology is so singular: each word a stone.
I might seem like an embittered poet. Maybe Zukosfsky felt like this at the end of this life. But I think there would be a lot of information out if people had, for example, all of Ted Berrigan's 'C' magazine printed together. It's really amazing that people have gotten away with an ahistorical take in an American culture that fetishizes history. It's not because of a war of style, it's simply that in a mood of generosity I wouldn't want to overlook the gifts of certain people. I still feel like people don't know what Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath is, or Ceravolo's poetry or Clark Coolidge's. I think a lot of things are buried that are very good.
But it is always a good time to be alive. It's good the way someone like Barbara Guest can be partially rescued by younger poets who saw what she was doing with stained language and syntactical disruption. But still, why wasn't Joe Ceravolo's book [The Green Lake Is Awake, a selected poems published in 1994] launched with greater flair? Joe was remarkable for a flawless Reverdy thing, and though he was a student of Koch, he went beyond that in many ways. We edited only a partial aspect of his work, because Kenneth wanted a perfect book. I wanted everything. It would have been better if Joe had been represented by a 500 page book. We still really need that to know his range.
The other thing is I think almost anyone like me who wasn't making a claim to a certain kind of technical problematic was disappeared by a kind of taboo against certain subjects. And I think we lost a lot because Frank O'Hara was much more of a pluralistic acceptor. He liked my poetry, Frank Lima's poetry. He said to me about his "Ode to James Dean," "Don't you think it's sentimental? Kenneth thinks so." And I said "No, I love it." But then, we entered a period in which poetry became less and less. I once asked Meyer Schapiro why neo-expressionism was catching on and he said "People want more meat." And he didn't mean it just as a put down. And it's true poetry can be lovely in its reductions… Ron Padgett could make the finest candies, like a Robert Herrick. On the other hand, he himself will sometimes write a very different kind of composition. It's very important to realize that poetry can be like a honey that's sweeter, richer, but also a protein. Kenneth Burke called it "equipment for living." I love Clark Coolidge not just for his smaller poems, but for the whole Crystal Text. So, you can like a rock or a water color, but you can also like a whole geological strata or a mountain.
Here I am using a kind of short hand. All of these assertions would have to be made very particular.
I do want to say though it is impossible to get away from the idea of groups. We are either alone or not alone. I didn't invent the English language. "Even your dreams are social," as Meyer Schapiro suggested, critiquing the surrealists. And I understand that. It is wrong for me to put down any group of poets who push themselves forward in different ways… that's just what young people do in a jungle.
But I think there should be more of the joys of influence than the anxieties of influence. The saddest thing in poetry is where you have what I regard as male competition. Neo-Nietzschean noble rivalry is one thing, but it becomes very male, in which one person wins and one loses. Tennis: which is not poetry. Then there's the Swedenborgian "the more angels the more room." Meyer Schapiro, if he praised Jackson Pollock, would praise someone doing an equal and opposite kind of work. He liked the underdog. Sometimes I think there's an irresponsibility which certain scientists know-if a scientist doesn't footnote a work on penicillin it's considered a lack of generosity. Meyer Schapiro said the love of footnotes was a love of generosity.
JH: How did you meet Kenneth Koch?
DS: When I was a kid, I was probably over-professionalized; I was sending out my poems to bad magazines and loving that. And I had heard that Frank O'Hara was coming as a guest to the Wagner's Writing Conference. One of my ninth grade teachers said, "You are really not old enough for this, but I heard you liked poetry." My sister's friend said, "This is ridiculous. The conference is supposed to be for teachers." But I thought well, you never know. So I sent them poems, and William Moss accepted me, saying "there will also be this Puerto Rican juvenile delinquent who is nineteen and just out of jail, who has written poems like, "I am going to beat you out of your lunch money again for my drugs and evening fix."
When I went to Wagner, I met Kenneth. I hadn't liked his poems that much in the Allen anthology, except for "Fresh Air," but I didn't tell him that. He was dressed in a white suit. Very seductively, he said, "Oh, I see you like Rilke and you also like the form of questions." Of course, I immediately liked him a great deal. I realized he wasn't just a satirist. We got along. Then I met the 'Puerto Rican jailbird' Frank Lima who became almost within a second one of my best friends for life. We still talk to each other about once a day, and I just edited his selected poems. He was just out of jail, but he was very gentle and very brave. He was a boxer, very disciplined. He loved language. He became a very close friend of Frank O'Hara. Lima still impresses me everyday.
Joe Ceravolo was there also, and he was little depressive and a little older. He loved to talk about the poetics of engineering. That moment was like the Donald Allen anthology. Edward Albee was there too. Kenneth said to me, "If you don't beat that guy in tennis, I'll flunk you." I said "Why don't you like that guy?" And he said, "Oh, he's the kind of guy who knows what the weather is going to be like the next day."
I met a lot of different people. There was a whole swatch of academic people there who would say, "But Professor Koch, Frank Lima's poems are disgusting." And Kenneth defended them wonderfully, saying "Perhaps, but after having read them, I can no longer think of English literature without them." Kenneth could be wonderfully brave. In the hospital, I lied and told him he wasn't missing much when he wanted to go out and get some fresh air and he said "Oh yes, I am."
JH: For twenty years you have taught at Cooper Union. Could we end by talking a little about your experiences there?
DS: I was very lucky. This mad dean, John Hejduk, my best friend for twenty years, believed architects should be thinkers, not greedy connivers, and that they should learn from poetry. So bizarrely enough, though I have always taught children and believed in it long before other people did, I began to teach young architects. I saw them as structuralists of the imagination. I taught them not just to write sestina, but then to build a house in the form of a sestina, or to build a house in the conditions of a villanelle, or to build a pantoum house.
Teaching architects at Cooper has been very important to me. It was the first completely drenching experience I had after teaching with Kenneth at Columbia, but Cooper was more widely open. When you went into Cooper Union, you might meet a doctor, a surgeon, a poet, an anthropologist. I invited Israeli novelists and French philosophers. We were all interested in analogies-to see if you could get some immortal energy from these different fields and make your architecture as fresh as a surgical cut or your poetry as fresh as a spare cage.
So for many years John Hedjuk was scorned. It was hard to get through the accreditation processes. He had to make the school very strong in practical ways so they could do this other thing. Most architecture said we destroyed architecture. A lot of people felt like it was a wonderland: enter here and give up everything but the imagination. John felt a drawing was just as great as a building. He gave Emily Dickinson's poetry as the best thing ever done to the president of Romania.
It is very unusual for a non-mediocrity to land on top, for a genius of creativity to be able to do the bureaucratic work of creating a school where the faculty and the students could meet at a place of thought. He used to say he'd done better than Black Mountain; there's just person after person who after this experience has changed the vocabulary of architecture. Now architecture with literature is taught all over the world.
I wrote a poem that has a line "Blessed is the school," and people asked, "What school are you talking about. Is that David Shapiro's mad academicism?" But actually, its kind of anti-academic. To me school became Cooper Union, a very special place of freedom and thought.