from upstreet, number twelve
Marilyn Hacker (b. 1942, New York City), is the author of thirteen poetry collections and fifteen collections of translations. Beginning with her first book, Presentation Piece (1974) which won the National Book Award, Hacker has reconfigured the American canon through an unprecedented, celebrated oeuvre of formal poems written in the daily vernacular, and her most recent, A Stranger’s Mirror; New and Selected Poems, 1994–2013 (2015) was nominated for the same award. Hacker is also the recipient of the PEN/Voelcker Award and two Lambda Literary Awards. Her unmatched collaboration of sly, brazen, and seemingly effortless rhyme within colloquial considerations of lesbian life, feminism, present day colonialism, and matters of the heart, has earned her the title of “radical formalist,” by The Women’s Review of Books. For a fuller biography and comment, see her entry on the site of the Poetry Foundation.
This interview was conducted by email between Brooklyn and Paris.
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Jessica Greenbaum: Marilyn, I have known you since 1978, when I was an undergraduate at Barnard and a student in your writing class at Columbia. I’d like to start with your own sense of chronology. When you look at the arc of your life as a writer, do you have a sense of when your identity as a poet began to make itself known to you? Where were you? What poets were you reading? What role did writing poems play in the context of your life?
Marilyn Hacker: Writing poems preceded any “identity as a poet”—I was in middle school and high school when I began writing what I’d now consider apprentice poems, influenced by what I was reading: Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, Edna St Vincent Millay, Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as English ballads and narrative poems imitating them like “The Highwayman”—then Blake, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Marianne Moore, Donne, Auden. All in books borrowed from the public library, with a few from my parents’ Modern Library collection on bookshelves at home. There was very little poetry included in the school curriculum, even in the “special placement” classes for clever kids in junior high, or at the Bronx High School of Science: it was word of mouth from other adolescents, or the advice of the librarian. Discovering the 800 section in the Dewey Decimal System! When I hear or read people railing about schoolchildren being “forced” to memorize poems (as if this were different from all the other homework they are required, not forced, to do) I envy those hypothetical children, who’ll know Blake, Wordsworth or Dickinson (etc.) poems by heart for the rest of their lives. And I still know the LaFontaine fables, reciting which was part of the curriculum in French.
But I had written doggerel before that, in imitation of nursery rhymes or children’s books in verse: most people’s first exposure to poetry is, as Marie Ponsot has pointed out, through nursery rhymes, or if they’re lucky, being sung lullabies, before any idea that this is “literary” crosses their or their guardians’ minds.
Writing poems led, in the banal and usual way, to long discussions with other students who wrote, especially Chip Delany, to participating in the school literary magazine…and to a partial scholarship with early admission to NYU, for a prize in a writing competition for high school students—which wasn’t for a poem, but for what now is called creative nonfiction, that is, a personal essay. There, I majored in French literature. I don’t think there was a creative writing program. It was soon after that that I met Marie Ponsot—I was sixteen—through one of the instructors in the French department who knew that I wrote poetry, and knew Marie and her then husband, the painter Claude Ponsot. Marie wasn’t teaching then—she was doing massive amounts of translation to earn a living, and raising her children. But she was writing—and her first book, True Minds, that Ferlinghetti published in his Pocket Poets series, had appeared fairly recently.
I think I was enabled to think of myself as a poet during a few years in my early twenties, living in San Francisco, and knowing some of the survivors of the Jack Spicer Circle. It was clear with them that being a poet did not mean being part of any literary establishment or having the sponsorship of any publisher, but an engagement with the craft of poetry—writing, reading, discussing, criticizing, promoting poetry. I had my first experience as a literary magazine editor then—one of three editors of a bicoastal mimeo journal called City—where I (already) wanted to bring together writers of the San Francisco aesthetic (which went from Spicer to Duncan to Snyder, with a bit of room for Joanne Kyger) and poets like Marie Ponsot. Judy Grahn’s “The Common Woman” sequence was first in that ephemeral journal—though there were not a lot of women poets present with whom to engage in discussion.
Against the San Francisco grain, I began sending my own poems to literary magazines then, a process that would not prove fruitful till a few years later, when I was living in London—thanks to some British magazine editors of journals like Ambit and the London Magazine, and to Richard Howard across the ocean, at the New American Review, whom I had read, admired his work at a distance, but never met.
Greenbaum: Northrop Frye famously commented about the Shakespearian sonnet that “The true father [sic] or shaping spirit of the poem is the form of the poem itself, and this form is a manifestation of the universal spirit of poetry.” Your oeuvre enlarges on this understanding, but not with the sonnet alone. Your elasticity within the strictures of sestinas, for instance, has so much to say about preoccupation, the mind’s alteration of expected repetition and how it may lead to revelation. Can you talk about how different forms might appeal to different preoccupations, different ambitions?
Hacker: I’d add to Northrop Frye’s comment (and at least the poet is the mother of the poem!) that it’s the history of the form as well as the form itself that helps to shape a poem—what it has done or not done in past incarnations. The poet writing a sonnet, a ghazal or a glosa is often dialoguing with that history, with specific poets, with the transmutations of a form between languages, going violently against the grain of the tradition as well as becoming part of it. The first woman known to have written sonnets, in Italian in the 13th century, known only as La Compiuta Donzella—“the learned maiden”—wrote (from what we have left of it ) a sequence of sonnets complaining of her father’s choice of a husband for her, and saying she would rather enter a convent where she could read, write and study: already addressing and transgressing the sonnet sequence lauding an inaccessible desired lady, not by replacing her with a man, but with, well, “Lady Poetry,” as Robert Duncan wrote.
Not in parentheses, a contemporary British poet, Janet Montefiore, entitled her new collection, a sonnet sequence about growing up as a progressive Church of England bishop’s daughter, and her discovery of poetry, “Shaping Spirits.”
I have a feeling that so much that can be said about forms has been said already: that the sestina has an obsessive character that goes along with considering and reconsidering the same subject, or “worrying” it in and out of shape and reason; that the sonnet can be a room to furnish or a block in a vaster structure—that can itself be linear/narrative or as divergent as apartments in a large building with their inhabitants; that iambic pentameter can mimic demotic speech in numerous registers in either North American or British (or Irish, Scottish, Australian) English; that the ghazal can fly all over the globe and the emotional scale from couplet to couplet while kept in place by the rhyme (qafia) and repeton (radif).
Form, whether metrical or open, is a means to the end of creating the poem, a collaboration in that creation. It shouldn’t have to be said that LANGUAGE poetry/post-modern poetry is as “formal” as a heroic crown of sonnets or a double canzone, and that while formal choices may influence the scope or direction of a poem—self-reflective or outward-looking, for example—they can’t be used by a reader to intuit or interpret the social/political convictions of the poet. After a generation when both African American activists and feminist activists of various origins hectored poets—African American, and feminist of various origins—about metrical forms being reactionary, Eurocentric or patriarchal, many such poets—some with experience in the spoken word/performance tradition—have embraced and become virtuosi in those forms anyway, as their choice of how best to narrate, reflect, protest, celebrate, discover.
Greenbaum: Who do you consider some of your greatest influences over time, your great friends on the page?
Hacker: Chaucer, John Donne, Shakespeare, Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Louis MacNeice, H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, Muriel Rukeyser, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, James Merrill, Seamus Heaney, Agha Shahid Ali.
Among living poets, or poets now dead whom I’ve personally known fairly to very well: Marie Ponsot, Hayden Carruth, Carolyn Kizer, Geoffrey Hill, Grace Schulman, Mimi Khalvati, George Szirtes, Marilyn Nelson, Suzanne Gardinier, Lawrence Joseph, Derek Mahon, Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Alicia Ostriker, June Jordan, Eavan Boland, Khaled Mattawa, Fady Joudah, Patience Agbabe, Deema Shehabi, Philip Metres, Etel Adnan, both for her poetry and her prose.
The above are all poets writing in English…then there are French or Francophone poets: the lais of Marie de France, Villon, Louise Labé, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Louis Aragon, Max Jacob, Benjamin Fondane, Jean-Paul de Dadelsen, Edouard Glissant, and, among the living: Jacques Roubaud, Guy Goffette, Marie Etienne, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Nicole Brossard, Franck Venaille, Habib Tengour. I feel both the influence and the friendship-on-the-page of all the poets whose work I’ve chosen to translate.
The influence, to the point of being a kind of mentorship, of Mahmoud Darwish, is something that has enriched me in recent years, more and more so since I can—slowly and painstakingly—also read his work in Arabic. The presence of poets writing in Arabic is more important to my reading and thinking now…from learning more about the classics to the work of contemporaries and younger poets like Moncef al-Ouahibi, who is Tunisian, or Golan Haji, who is Syrian and lives in France now.
Any list like this is going to be glaringly incomplete, and friendships on the page change, not only over the years but over weeks and days—not that I lose enthusiasm for Auden or Rukeyser, but that I spend a week re-reading Derek Walcott, or Celan in translation, or Audre Lorde.
Greenbaum: You have translated Claire Malroux, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Marie Étienne, and with Deema K. Shehabi have collaborated on a book of alternating rengas. Is there a way to distill for us what you admire about and learn from them?
Hacker: You’ve chosen three women among the poets I’ve translated—there are also Guy Goffette, Hédi Kaddour, Habib Tengour and Emmanuel Moses, all living male poets, and Jean-Paul de Dadelsen, who died in 1957, as well as two other women, Amina Saïd and Rachida Madani. I’m just adding this so a reader doesn’t think I’ve made a choice to translate only women—though there would be a point to putting their work forward, since women poets are much more a minority in France than they are in the United States or England—or Francophone Canada.
The interest of translation is the challenge of making a “new” poem that is at once an accurate reflection—in the mirror of a second language—of the original poem, and a poem that can stand alone in its new language. And also of—an image I’ve used before—working in the clay of one’s own language, getting one’s hands grubby with it, while necessarily leaving one’s ego, and sometimes aesthetic reflexes, on the border of the field. The poets I’ve translated, women and men, French and Francophone, are fairly different from each other, though they all share a narrative impulse that isn’t common to all French contemporary poetry. I have the challenge and privilege of trying on their style/vocabulary/prosody in my own language to recreate or evoke their poems.
Vénus Khoury-Ghata, who is Lebanese, and Habib Tengour, who is Algerian, both have the current of another language, Arabic, its daily use in their childhoods, and its literature, as an undercurrent in their work in French.
Guy Goffette and Marie Etienne are both interested in prosody, in the discoveries that are made through the strictures of form. Goffette invented a thirteen-line form made up of three usually unrhymed quatrains and a last line which sometimes, though not always, mounts to the classic alexandrine—he has deployed it in sequences and single poems for twenty years now.
Marie Etienne has several sequences, surreal narratives, in decasyllabic dixains, each one beginning with the last line of the one before—like a sonnet crown. That said, Goffette is a borderline romantic and Etienne more of a surrealist. Her surrealism often incorporates elements of her childhood in Viet Nam and Africa, as Khoury-Ghata’s also surreal, also narrative sequences elaborate nonetheless on her own childhood in Lebanon.
Most of these poets use open forms, but in ways very different from each other—Habib Tengour uses strong internal rhythms; Claire Malroux deeply image-laden, often gnomically short lines; Hédi Kaddour sometimes seemed to be paring the alexandrine down to a more minimalist verse…One sequence of his reminded me strongly of Robert Lowell’s Notebook, which he was very pleased to discover—but had never read (Lowell is among many Anglophone poets with no book translated into French—along with Adrienne Rich). Translating their work is not only an “exercise” for me in using open form, but in practicing it in widely, wildly different modes.
The collaboration with Deema began when I sent her a renga—a form I hadn’t used before—that I had written as part of an “assignment” to poets in different American states, creating a renga sequence, writing one each, taking off with a word/image in the previous poem that one was sent. Deema and I had been corresponding via email—she lives in California, and I, mostly in Paris—but we had never met face to face. This was in the midst of the 2009 Israeli bombing of Gaza, and the poem I sent her described a Gazan child, a fierce five-year-old survivor, whom I’d seen on a YouTube video. Deema responded with a renga of her own; I took a word from her last line and riposted, and an exchange began that continued for four years, with short poems that jumped from continent to continent, sometimes language to language, very much implicated in what we and those around us were living through, or had lived through. It’s interesting that neither of us had worked with the renga and its history of collaborative writing before, and yet it entirely suited us both for this exchange/correspondence. We finally met when we’d decided to and succeeded in getting the sequence published as a book—at the conference of the Radius of Arab American Writers in Minneapolis last year—and then did a series of readings together in California and New York.
Greenbaum: You moved from the upper west side of NYC to Paris many years ago. When I read a poem like “October Sestina,” which describes Paris in the morning: “Addictive day starts with the lit up screen / against the backdropped window, while the street’s / still dark, the gray slate roofs oily with rain…” I think of the many older poems describing your New York apartment and I feel a great anchoring, like it’s still you in there, no matter where you are, no matter how your work, so intimate with its surroundings, defines you. Can you talk a little about the decision to move?
Hacker: I’ve had roots here since the 1980s, and first felt a strong attachment to Paris as a city when I was living in London and working as a late-twentysomething used/“antiquarian” bookseller, specializing in books on or of applied art (furniture, fashion, carpets, wallpaper!), design, architecture. The most interesting of these, from the late 19th century through the 1950s, which was “my” period, had been produced in France where—as in England—many “fine” artists had designed fabric, costumes, rugs, book bindings or furniture, or had illustrated books. I’d come to Paris almost monthly to scour the used bookshops, much more numerous and full of treasures then than now, and bring back what I found, which mostly ended up in the libraries of British art colleges.
In the mid-1980s, after moving back to the U.S. subsequent to the publication of my first book, I took over the lease on the Paris studio apartment of a friend who was moving, and I bought it in 1989. I spent more time here subsequently. The breakup of a longterm relationship, or marriage, though there was no paperwork to it, followed by worsening work conditions at the place where I was then teaching in New York (three courses a semester forever, “pro bono” thesis direction and direction of doctoral level independent studies), as well as more friendships and professional contacts in France, incited me to make the move.
Paris is a fine city in many ways. I live fairly centrally: I can walk almost anywhere—and the public transport is excellent: no question of there being no transfer point from one métro line to another. It’s the cinema capital of the world, with films from every imaginable country, in just about every language, opening in a plethora of movie houses: Manhattan used to be more like that, is less so now. And there is green space, little parks, everywhere, and a river runs through it.
Literary editing has always been a part of my professional and chosen life. Since 2005, I’ve been working on the editorial committee of a literary magazine called Siècle 21, whose uniqueness is that it runs a 100-plus page section on a foreign literature, prose and poetry, translated into French (unless it’s a foreign Francophone literature: we’ve done Francophone Africa and Canada). I’ve been in charge of or shared the editing of dossiers on: Canada—Francophone and Anglophone; Lebanon; the poetry part of the English portfolio; Tunisia; Syria, and African American literature.
And it’s a pleasure to be able to have fairly frequent amicable exchanges over coffee or lunch with the French poets whose work I’ve translated.
But the place of contemporary poetry in French literary culture is even more marginal than it is in the United States—in terms of its presence in bookshops, in university curricula, of the paucity of critical articles or book reviews in newspapers or magazines. The British paper The Guardian has at least one poetry book review, plus frequent interviews with poets, every Saturday; the monthly book section of the Francophone Lebanese newspaper L’Orient le jour has at least one substantial poetry review in every number (I just read one about the French translation of Ingeborg Bachmann), but for Le Monde’s weekly book section, it may be three times a year—optimistically.
There are no creative writing degrees in French universities: at most, a workshop offered now and then for graduate students that may be extra-curricular. I have profound doubts about the usefulness of creative writing degrees, unless they are part of a program that includes the study of literature and, ideally, of a second language. But perhaps (even if it isn’t much reflected in American poetry book sales) the ubiquity of creative writing degrees does increase the interest in reading and in writing poetry criticism, and leads literary magazines, at least, to publish poetry criticism and poetry.
Too, there is a profound distrust of “communautarism” in France, which on the literary level means that an anthology of French poetry by poets of Maghrebin origin, Jewish origin, lesbian and/or gay poets, or even ecologically engaged/anti-capitalist poets, or poets responding to an event like Chernobyl, the Tunisian revolution, or the November murders, would be looked upon askance by publishers and critics. In fact, there are no such anthologies—an anthology of Palestinian poets, yes, or Israeli poets, or Algerian poets, but not French poets of X origin. I have always thought that, in the United States, many readers came to be interested in poetry by first reading some anthology or collection that engaged them in another sphere—feminism, black liberation or simply black culture, Latino/a culture, Jewish history, lesbianism, Arab American life/history—readers who then went on to read poetry more generally. It would be hard for that to happen here.
Greenbaum: In A Stranger’s Mirror your new poem “Headaches” is one of what I think of as your morning-after poems: “Wine again. The downside of any evening’s / bright exchanges…” and includes this extended metaphor for a second stanza:
Tortured syntax, thorned thoughts, vocabulary
like a forest littered with unexploded
cluster bombs, no exit except explosion
ripping the branches
You are writing in the ancient form of Sapphics [four-line stanzas: eleven syllables in the first three lines and five in the fourth, roughly] while the speaker invokes the work of Auden, Larkin, Yeats, Hopkins, and mentions Japanese netsuke, Tiger Balm, French wine, barbiturates, and other unlikely bedfellows. This authoritative magpie stretch and around-the-world thought seems echt Hacker to me—full of wit, irreverence, worldliness and the jones for connection that light up like touched wires. Can you describe the impulse of such reach? I think of it as a determination to make sense of the whole world, or depict how the whole world seems to inform our any given moment. How would you describe this salient characteristic of your work?
Hacker: —and I would add that the poem is a vexed meditation on aging, and a memory of the brilliant Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant, who was a close friend for years here in Paris where she lived from 1952 until her death in 2013 at ninety-one.
A problem I have in responding to some of your questions is that they are wonderful critical aperçus that I’d be delighted to see in an essay or a book review, but that I feel diffident in applying myself: it seems to be paying myself implicit compliments I may not merit.
A merit of modernism, for me more interesting than any debate about metered versus unmetered poetry, was its revalidating the idea that anything is a fit subject for poetry, that no object, fact, incident, occasion is intrinsically “unpoetic,” and that being “poetic” can be the death of poetry. I say revalidating because one sees a similar omnivorous appetite for things, events, factoids, narrative, satire, politics, in the poetry of John Donne as in that of T.S. Eliot or Marianne Moore—one reason, I think, for Eliot’s critical reevaluation of Donne and the metaphysical poets. This was in turn empowering for American poets like Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks who used the full panoply of poetic and unpoetic form and language to write about what most concerned them: African American contemporary life and history… and later for poets as disparate as Adrienne Rich and Anthony Hecht.
Poetry (for me) shares the paradox of Hillel’s aphorism: if it is not for itself (the poem as a poem, a construct of inventive, alert language, not polemic, propaganda or pamphlet) who will be for it? But if it is only for itself (art for art’s sake, language for language’s sake, the tragedies, comedies, ironies, conundrums of its world left out), what is it? And if not now, when?
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About the Interviewer
Jessica Greenbaum's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, Salamander, and elsewhere. Her first collection, Inventing Difficulty, was published by Silverfish Review Press in 2000, and her second book, The Two Yvonnes, by Princeton's Series of Contemporary Poets in 2012. She won an NEA creative writing fellowship for 2015, and the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for 2016.
Editor/Publisher: Vivian Dorsel
Fiction Editor: Joyce A. Griffin
Poetry Editor: Jessica Greenbaum
Creative Nonfiction Editor: Richard Farrell