Write a bio about yourself:
During childhood, the best part of every year was summer: we went to an old, unheated wooden house my great-great-aunt had built on the shore
of a small Pocono lake. Pines, firs, tamaracks, bass, trout, and blueberries; real iceboxes and kerosene lamps; backpacking, swimming, canoeing,
even dinghy sailing-I see it and smell it clearly as if we had just arrived and opened the kitchen door and stepped onto the worn linoleum.
After finishing college, acting in summer theater, harvesting wheat in the Midwest and working as a longshoreman on the Hudson River docks,
I went to grad school, met Herbert Marcuse, learned Russian and spent a year in Moscow and Leningrad on an exchange with the USSR Academy.
In the years that followed, I published poetry, fiction, and literary criticism in journals across the country and served as a professor of
letters at Wesleyan University, often traveling to England and Europe, including Russia, for research and for presentations. I joined PEN,
served on the Poetry Society of America's governing board, was vice president for a while, edited the Poetry Review, and was part of the
group that founded Poets House. A special friend was the labor organizer Junius Scales.
Thirty years ago I moved to Vermont, where I built a house before settling in an old farmhouse in Wilmington where my wife,
the novelist and Marlboro College professor Laura Stevenson, grew up. In the village, I serve as a library trustee and once in
a while as a member of a town committee.
I feel I've become my books, but that's a different subject.
Here's an informal list of them:
My books of poetry stretch from In the Silent Stones to the three Cat books--The Blue Cat, the sassy The Return of the Blue Cat,
and the even sassier The Blue Cat Walks the Earth--and to the book of impassioned lyrics coming this fall, The Toy Soldier.
The Red Machines was my first novel, a poetic account of wheat growing in the Dakotas; My Sister Life my most recent,
a story of two orphaned sisters making lives for themselves in modern America. Two volumes of short stories describe the
New York City docker world I knew--A Few Rounds of Old Maid and North River. In addition to articles and reviews, I've
written three books of literary criticism-Aleksandr Blok: Between Image and Idea, The Russian Novel, and The White Monk: an Essay on
Dostoevsky and Melville. Robert Frost in Russia depicts both sides of what was a celebrated trip on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis.
My translations from Russian began with a volume of Turgenev's short novels, include the two-volume Anthology of Russian Plays and poet
Bella Akhmadulina's The Garden, and come down to an unabridged version of Leonid Andreyev's heartbreaking study of terrorist idealism,
A Story About Seven Who Were Hanged due out this summer.
Describe the room you write in?
150 years ago the room I write in was a darkened New England parlor big enough for a stove (we took that out a couple of
years ago when we found that the new living room stove heats the whole house); now it's a pleasant, sunny room filled with
space inviting you to come in, sit down, and read and write.
Because it gets lots of sun, it's good for keeping house plants. There was an avocado that had grown to the ceiling, but
it's gone. The rosemary we use for cooking sits by a window on a desk corner. On walls between windows there are pictures.
Along walls that are all wall there are books. There are books piled on the floor, too. Notes, papers, projects, also.
And there are a couple of very cheery, warm Iranian rugs.
When did you start writing?
Bashfully, nervously, secretly during high school, chiefly in the last year and summer after, so when I got to college and saw
a notice for a poetry workshop, I took some samples to the office designated-there and then R. P. Blackmur read them and
admitted me. He was a man of unassuming deportment and intellectual grandeur who, by example, let me know that a life among
books was worthy of an honest man. A dozen years later he introduced what was my first substantial public reading when
Denise Levertov, Daniel Berrigan, and I appeared at a "Y" Poetry Center Discovery evening.
That was in another world, wasn't it?
Do you write every day?
When young, when working on the docks and when teaching, when the children were little-every night; since then, every
morning, often into the afternoon. As Lenin famously said when asked what's the best way to learn Russian, "Practice,
The New England Poetry Club awarded you The Golden Rose, which is a wonderful honor. Please talk about this.
Do you continue to be involved in the NEPC?
The Rose is an extraordinary honor. Perhaps not astounding because we humans are given it, but what it stands for and
its ageless simplicity are, literally, priceless. I keep wishing there were an afterlife where I could hold the rose up
as thanks to the kind, generous people who over the years, down to this moment, have shown me what to do and supported
what I've done. Unlike the big financial prizes awarded now, The Rose goes back a hundred years-a gilded rose in a wooden
box you get to keep for a year, so nobody fights for it, but what a sweet thought for me that Robert Frost received it
the year I was born. That little, slightly oxidized rose represents the continuity of our true cultural tradition of which
I'm happy and humbled to be thought a part.
The NEPC strikes me as the fairest poetry group in the country. There are some fine groups out West, to be sure; there
used to be the Writers' House in Kansas City; but most associations get wrecked by small ambitions, people squeezing people,
when the impelling vision becomes a cloud of corruption. By being patient and unpretentious and guided by Diana Der-Hovanessian
in a persuasively informal way, NEPC gives other groups and universities plenty of room to do what they want and yet remains a
standard of excellence and a host to local initiatives.
Talk about your teaching experiences. What have you tried to teach your students? What challenges do you see in the writing communities?
When you start, you go by the seat of your pants, following texts and procedures you were trained to. Pretty soon you
catch on that that's not it at all. What you're actually doing is, through a veil of texts and materials, exemplifying
your own values and the kind of person you are. At the same time, you're trying to expose to your students what they can
discover about themselves and to keep out of the way of their developing their talents and idiosyncrasies. Your imposition
of intellectual and social disciplines, your strictures, your "corrections" plus your constant encouragement are intended
to sharpen their liberating self-confidence and to help bring about the forms and attitudes of a new generation.
I admire work. It's a great disappointment is to see a young person embark on a creative, original life but to cop out in
response to conventional approval.
When I think of the tornadoes of competition and confusion generated in writing communities, I'm put in mind of the
resourceful few who gave birth to the new Skoda. Back in the rusty past, the Skoda was a joke: "What's a Skoda with
a sunroof? A skip." Then someone at VW put a bunch of factors together, added VW engines and structural parts, Czech
manufacturing costs, and new design, and in 2006 produced an up-to-date, appealing auto at 2/3 of usual prices. I bet
there are equivalent folk lurking in writing programs and arts councils waiting for their chance.
Some of your poems have been set to music. Please talk about what this experience was like for you.
My first shot at putting the two together was borrowing some of Vladimir Ussachevsky's film music for a reading-with-dance of
Nightway. Next came Larry Read's composition for chorus and small orchestra of Alcyone, premiered modestly at London's
Barbican but subsequently given a full performance with 40 voices and a dozen instruments, Neely Bruce conducting, at Wesleyan.
A year later, Andrew Gant composed a lively with-it soprano-baritone-and-piano narrative for The Urban Stampede, first
presented in St. Giles Church where Milton lies. Then this very month of May the Boston Cyberarts Festival opens with
Eric Chasalow's setting of The Puzzle Master, acoustic-electronic music for voice and instruments with visual designs by
Denise Marika. Made over into a modern father-son poem with chorus set in the Caribbean, the Daedalus-Icarus myth has
generated a multi-media production as I hoped, poetry once again serving to bind music and dance into one form.
Some of my poems have been turned into elegant songs by Stefania de Kenessey and the award-winning pianist Jonathan
Summers but I think with special pleasure of Kate O'Connell's setting of "Voices" and the dance music she created out
of the short novel The Red Machines.
But the most challenging and by far the most thrilling was working with the young New York jazz pianist Sonny Paladino
who year before last created improv music for The Return of the Blue Cat and, this year, for The Blue Cat Walks the Earth.
His pals Mike Buchwald and Ed Griffin joined him to form the trio Exit 59; the four of us have performed at a couple of
dozen venues from Boston to Long Island and this year will offer the new work beginning on July 4th in New London.
(John Lake, Dan Breslaw, and Terry Fisher made music to accompany the poems for a performance in Brighton, England in March.)
What is the strangest thing you've done to find writing material?
Have I ever done anything strange? I don't think so. Once I danced on the Philadelphia Music Hall stage and on NBC TV
(this was back in the black-and-white days) but since it was odd and entertaining how bad I was didn't matter. And once
I wrote several chapters about a series of magic performances, some tricks real and some purely imaginary, but since I
scrubbed the series, that didn't matter, either.
You have translated Russian plays. Talk about the plays, your process, and how long it took you?
Moses Hadas put me in touch with Jason Epstein back in the early days of Anchor Books, which led to the two-volume
Anthology of Russian Plays. I was working against time and was unhappy about my version of Griboyedov's verse drama
The Trouble with Reason, then fifteen years later made more miserable by Norton's refusal to allow a new-free!-translation
when they reprinted the anthology. There wasn't a proper version until, twenty years later, I could do it for Penguin's
Nineteenth Century Russian Reader.
Back in the Sixties I was delighted that Arena Theater staged Andreyev's He Who Gets Slapped, but these days the skullduggery
is discouraging: a director picks a writing friend to cobble together either a bunch of existing translations and pretend
it's new or to "adapt" the original (from a translation, of course). Dick Wilbur's Molière is inimitable, but how often do
theaters present Molière compared to Chekhov and Ibsen?
Seems to me that theater people look down on translators the way ladies and gentlemen looked down on
theater people three hundred years ago.
Several of my own plays had staged readings but the closest to actual performance was Alan Schneider's project to
present my play about a young man's machinations to garner a congressional seat his father had held. Alan's death
crossing a London street early that summer took away the finest Beckett director we had.
Who are you reading now? List some of your favorite writers.
Recently read: Arnold Wesker, Basil Bunting, Dmitry Psurtsev, Bernard Schlink, Tennessee Williiams, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Paul Craig Roberts, Wilkie Collins, Robert Fisk, Jared Diamond, Henri Michaux, John Osborne
Assorted old favorites: John Berryman, R.P. Blackmur, E.P.Thompson, Muriel Rukeyser, Frank O'Connor, the Russian
classics (Pushkin to Platonov)
Assorted young favorites: Stephanie Barron, Alastair MacLeod, Gabriel Marquez, Anatoly Naiman,
Viktor Sosnora, My friends