An Interview with Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro has published numerous books of poetry, most recently, Night of the Republic (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and just three days ago was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. A Professor of English and Creative Writing at UNC-Chapel Hill since 1995, he has received the Kingsley Tufts Award and a Los Angeles Times Book Award in poetry, and has been a finalist in both poetry and nonfiction for the National Books Critics Circle Award.

His poem “The Host,” which was the opening piece in The Courtesy (The University of Chicago Press, 1983), was first published in CQ 35.1 (Fall 1982). We decided it was time to catch up with him again to discuss 3 a.m. epiphanies, the wisdom of Stephen Wright, and the importance of vaccination. This interview was conducted via email during the month of February.

–Nathan Vail, Intern

Carolina Quarterly (CQ): In Night of the Republic, you seem very interested in private reactions to public spaces. How would you explain this preoccupation? What sparked it?

Alan Shapiro (AS): Several years ago I found myself in a supermarket at 3 a.m. The place was brightly lit and no one was there but a cashier who was half asleep, and I thought what a strange place this is, a place I go to nearly every day and yet never really look at or think about, and the absence of people made it possible for me to see how truly weird it is, as if I were an anthropologist from Mars and was trying to infer from the look of the place the nature of the creatures that had built it. From there it was a natural step to examine other public places at night to see what secrets they’d yield about our way of life.

CQ: Li-Young Li said that he wrote The City in Which I Love You in the mornings and Book of My Nights late at night after his family had gone to sleep. He argues that different times of day carry different energies which affect the writing produced during them. Do you have a preferred time of day to write? How does the night time speak to you?

AS: My preferred time of writing is whenever I have time to write. Raising children will do that to you. You write when there are no other claims on your time.

CQ: How do begin writing? Do you have routines, rituals, or prompts that prepare you to write?

AS: I begin with the first word and go from there. No rituals, no superstitions, no voodoo, apart from reading. I sit, I write.

CQ: Readers frequently assume that the poetic “I” is autobiographical. Do you approach the first-person pronoun differently in your poetry than in your memoirs? Is it fair for a reader to assume that the speaker in your poems is coterminous with you, the author?

AS: Simple difference between fiction or poetry and creative nonfiction (which I like to think of as creative non poetry) and it is this: in fiction you tell a story; in nonfiction you tell a story under oath.

CQ: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received (this doesn’t necessarily have to be writing advice)?

AS: Get the shingles vaccine.

CQ: When people ask writers what books have influenced them, they’re often looking for a literary genealogy. I want to know which books are always near at hand. Which books do you keep going back to as a reference, inspiration, or escape? What’s the most tattered and dog-eared book on your shelves?

AS: Robert Frost, Robert Pinsky, CK Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, David Ferry, Homer.

CQ: If you could steal one line, sentence, poem, or technique from a contemporary writer and make it your own, what would it be and why?

AS: My favorite sentence in the English language is by Stephen Wright: “I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” Pretty much does everything I try to do on and off the page.

CQ: Thinking about what young authors are publishing today, what aspects do you find interesting, worthwhile, or new? What trends or aspects of contemporary literature do you think are dead ends or wish would just go away?

AS: Well, I think there’s a lot of personality driven, tough-talking, jaded poems of loose association among younger poets that sometimes are charming but often rather flaccid. And they’re often very long. At the same time, the non-ideological bent of contemporary poetry, the inclusiveness with which poets view the formal choices a poet can make, the freedom from the exclusive good/bad dichotomies that dominated the literary world in the 60s and 70s when I was coming up, all that is very encouraging. And there are some wonderful young poets: Matthew Dickman, Peter Campion, Katie Peterson, Jamaal May, Terrence Hayes, Vievee Frances, Camille Dungy, Elizabeth Arnold, Josh Weiner, to name just a few.

CQ: Most writers have an origin story—what’s yours?

AS: In 1965, in a bookstore in my hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, in the late afternoon of an ordinary school day, in the middle of winter, I discovered my inner Beat poet. Anyone who might have seen me in the tiny poetry section, turning the pages of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, would have mistaken me for an unremarkable thirteen year old, in a winter coat, unbuckled galoshes, a book bag slung over his side. And up to that moment that’s exactly who I was, a typical lower middle class Jewish kid, whose parents worked long hours for little pay, with three kids and my mother’s mother to care for. Life in the household was always tense and sulky at the best of times, and now and then explosive. Terrified of blow-ups, I did my best to fit in. I tried to be the kind of person my parents expected me to be. I worked hard in school; I never got into trouble. More angster than gangster, the only tough guys I’d ever dreamed of being were the Jets and Sharks of West Side Story, which I had seen the year before with a few friends. When the movie let out, we went dancing down the street looking for Puerto Ricans to beat up. The gang dissolved later the same day when I picked a fight with Michael Lee, a bespectacled diminutive Chinese kid, the closest thing Brookline had to a Puerto Rican. Unfortunately, Mike Lee fought like Bruce Lee’s little brother, and I was crying uncle after the first punch landed.

But reading Ferlinghetti, I entered an alternative universe that turned on its head the world of my parents: its rank commercialism and status seeking, its sexual prudery. Longings I didn’t know I had suddenly sprang to life: mine was the heart Ferlinghetti described as a foolish fish cast up and gasping for love. I thrilled to his smart-alecky advocacy of contrarianism for its own sake, as if it were a badge of authenticity or the height of courage to walk out into an intersection when the sign says, Don’t walk. I wanted to be downwardly mobile like the dog trotting “freely in the street… touching and tasting and testing everything.” When I left the store, I was still the middle class kid I was, still fearful, still wanting to please. But now, in imagination, if nowhere else, I knew that I was free, or could be, reading Ferlinghetti and the other poets he would lead me to—Ginsburg, Patchen, and Corso. Lovelorn and hapless, I dreamed of Ferlinghetti’s “Isle of Manisfree,” his paradise of liberation, and even thought I’d found that blessed state a few years later when I arrived at Woodstock, not knowing that my parents too, alas, were waiting for me there in spirit, which is why I think I was the only person among the half a million people in attendance who was unable to procure either sex or drugs.

But that’s another story.