The Country Dog Review

William Logan

                          Brandy Barents interviews William Logan

                                       September 29, 2008


Brandy Barents: What is the first poem you ever wrote? What precipitated it?


William Logan: I was sixteen.  I wrote a poem after a noisy argument with my parents, the subject now long forgotten.  No doubt the issue was trivial, but the events behind poems are often of a minor sort (when cities fall, you’d better be writing an epic).  Perhaps ever since I have been trying to recapture the intensity of that first brush with literature, however unliterary the outcome.


BB: When did you know you were a poet?


WL: When putting down any other profession on my passport seemed a lie.


BB:  Can you talk about your time in Iowa?  What did you take from Donald Justice?


WL: What Donald brought to a poem was supreme attention.  He saw the weight and balance of words, and knew where to push at the language and say, “Just there, it doesn’t seem quite right.”  He’d leave it to you to correct it.


I didn’t fit very well with the fashionable concerns of my peers, who were heavily influenced by Merwin, Kinnell, Bly, Hugo, and James Wright.  These poets were of little interest to me, though I confess that an overabundance of moons made their way into my poems.  I have disliked moonlit poems, at least for myself, ever since.  I found myself drawn to poetry then out of favor.  There were very talented students in the workshop through those years—Tess Gallagher, David St. John, Laura Jensen, Denis Johnson (then a poet), Chase Twitchell, Brenda Hillman, Mark Jarman, Elizabeth Spires, Sherod Santos, all of these the year before or the year after me.  Perhaps not all made good on their early promise; but there were others, perhaps then indistinguishable, who made nothing at all.  My class was a deep rift between two hills of talent.


I recall one of the poets saying, very seriously, that she thought Iowa too academic.  I didn’t think it was academic enough, but in those years someone who had come from the Ivies was felt to be a bit much, even though—or was it because?—I had shoulder-length hair and wore a decrepit wardrobe consisting, in the main, of tie-dyed T-shirts.  Not fitting in is often a very good thing for a young poet.  I spent time in a course on Dante (unfortunately not in Italian) and took my second year to learn Old English and read Beowulf.  After that, I felt I was done with academic education, though some years later I took ancient Greek in Harvard night school.


BB: You’ve said that envy is the best motivator for a poet.  Who do you envy?


WL: Whom.


BB: Would you describe your reading habits— what’s on your desk, your nightstand, the coffee table?


WL: On the library table next to my desk, the usual suspects—Auden, Bishop, Donne, Lowell, Hill, Schnackenberg, Heaney, Hecht, Walcott, Justice—as well as a thesaurus, a dictionary, a book on Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and the two volumes of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (which has not reached past the letter “O”).  On the floor beside my daybed, Moby-Dick, a volume collecting oral testimony by the Earp brothers, a book on maps of the Little Big Horn massacre, De Vere’s Americanisms, and a stack of recent poetry three feet high, or higher.


I find that a good portion of my reading now is done while walking.  If you know a route intimately, and feel there is little left to discover, reading is a productive way to pass the miles.


BB: Are you the only artist in your family?


WL: My maternal grandmother was a newspaper reporter who gave up deadlines for a family and Little Theater.  In her sixties, she returned as a stringer for the Boston Herald-Traveler.  She covered murders on the South Shore.  She wanted to write a novel, and I wrote a recommendation for her application to Yaddo.  Unfortunately, she was turned down.  She had adapted a number of children’s books for the stage, and into her late eighties still received small royalties from Samuel French for her version of “Treasure Island.”  Her father was a barrow boy in Boston and became an executive for Quaker Oats.  I have his gold watch, though he died when I was too small to remember him.  Her grandfathers were a failed village-grocer and the owner of a livery stable, both in Marshfield Hills, Massachusetts.  My father’s grandfathers were an engine driver for the Pennsylvania Railroad and a river rat who became chief engineer on the Boaz, one of the last of the Ohio River steamboats.


The short answer is that, apart from my grandmother, the family was devoted to commerce.  Ah, but I have forgotten my great-great uncle, who was a cowboy actor in the silents and on the English stage.  He was known as Young Buffalo.  In 1929, months before the Crash, he was accused of murdering a tobacconist, but was soon acquitted in the coroner’s court.  The case is still one of the great unsolved British murders.  I think it half likely that he was guilty.  His career was ruined, whether or no; but late in life he took up with—their engagement was announced in Time—a famous, fading model known as Dolores, once called the most beautiful woman in England.  Jacob Epstein did her bust.  And now I recollect that Young Buffalo’s oldest brother was some sort of orchestra leader in Maine.  So there was a little art, of a lurid or peculiar kind.  Except for poor Young Buffalo, that branch of the family almost all hit ninety years old running.


BB: What would you be doing now if you hadn’t become a poet?


WL: A suicidal lawyer.


BB: Which poets do you think are particularly neglected?


WL: I wrote an essay last spring about the poet John Townsend Trowbridge, who wrote what I consider a neglected American masterpiece called Guy Vernon.  The poem has flaws, major flaws; but it’s as close to Don Juan as any American ever wrote.  Surely to be second to Byron is not the worst epitaph.


BB: What are some of the things teaching has taught you about the writing of poetry?


WL: Let me turn the question partly on its head.  Anything I have taught has been derived from some mistake I’ve made as a writer. 


BB: What’s the ideal education for a poet?


WL: Being locked in a tower with a modest library and all the electrical comforts except for devices of communication.  A typewriter would be allowed.  Every afternoon the poet would take tea with, and receive a tutorial from, seriatim, Montaigne, Cervantes, Donne, Pope, Byron, and Melville—with Shakespeare visiting on public holidays, for fun.  That’s six, not counting the Bard, so Coleridge would visit on Sundays and give a sermon.  Donne’s conversation would be restricted to poetry—I don’t think he would mind.


That seems quite a dry curriculum, even so.  Every evening you would dine with a minor actress—Kim Novak, say, or Miriam Hopkins.  Who knows more about faking sincerity than a minor actress?  Sundays would always be reserved for Barbara Stanwyck.


 BB: Do you write every day?


WL: Only when I’m ill and can’t help it.


BB: You’re a New England-born poet who has spent the majority of his adult life split between Florida and England.  To which geographies does your poetry principally belong?


WL: All of them, and Venice.  Macbeth in Venice takes place entirely in Venice, for better or worse.  Strange Flesh has four geographies: Homes, Abroads, Elsewheres, and Englands.  I think honestly I no longer have a home.  The closest I ever came to a hometown was Westport Point, Massachusetts, a village near New Bedford.  My parents lived there from 1956-1960, and we returned for a few summers afterward.  When I think of home, I think of there.  I returned a few years ago and stayed the night.  The town was almost eerily unchanged, but it no longer felt like home—it was just the place I happened to grow up.


Wherever I am in the world, however, I have only to walk into a fish market (like the astonishing one in Venice across from the Ca’ d’Oro) to find myself, one breath later, transported back to the Westport River, circa 1957, and to the shingled wharf building that held the catch of the fishing boats back from the Georges Banks.


BB: Who is your ideal reader?  Is it the same for every poem?


WL: I don’t think I’d want the Ideal Reader to read my work.  He would know it all already, intuitively.  I’d prefer those crippled, partial readers who are not afraid of poetry—or who, once bitten, are not twice shy.


BB: Do you share your work with anyone before it is published?


WL: Debora Greger has been reading my poetry since I was a baby.  I’ve never met anyone fiercer.


BB: Talk a little about the titles of your books. Where do they come from?


WL: From, I fear, a misplaced application of seriousness.  In the main, they come from some phrase that haunts me, even if it haunts me only for a few minutes, or if I have made up the phrase myself.


BB: I know you love films.  What are some of your favorites?  Does film influence your poetry?


WL: I would like to think that film is one of those private passions that rarely shadows—or overshadows—the page.  I love Kurosawa, Ozu, Sturges (has anyone every made more masterpieces in a shorter span, at least after the silent era?), Lubitsch, Hawks, Welles, Ford, Renoir, and half a dozen other directors.  It is curious, at least to me, that I loved Bergman when I was young but now find him nearly unwatchable. 


I wrote a piece last year, still unpublished, about an almost forgotten minor screwball comedy called The Mating Season.  I was not the first to re-discover it, but when I first saw it I felt like Herschel.  It was written by Charles Brackett, who wrote Ninotchka and Sunset Blvd.


BB: What would you like to see less of in American poetry right now?


WL: Screwball comedy.


BB: It has been said that you “distrust narrative.”  Is this true?


WL: No.  I distrust the distrust of narrative in equal measure.


BB: How does fiction inform your poetry?


WL: Not every truth I tell is a lie; not every lie I tell is true.


BB: Do you feel that your reputation as a critic influences the way you're perceived as a poet? 


WL: “To ask the hard question is simple,” said Auden.  I’m sure that those readers who come first to my criticism, or who have been wounded by it, would prefer not to think me a poet at all.  Perhaps I should be grateful for that.


BB: What are you interested in that might surprise some readers?


WL: Why, the sorts of things everyone is interested in—sumo wrestling, lockpicking, and poker.

William Logan
is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Strange Flesh (Penguin, 2008), and five books of criticism, including Our Savage Art (Columbia University Press, 2009).  He has twice been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in criticism, which was awarded to The Undiscovered Country.  His selected poems will be published next year, and he is working on an edition of the forgotten poem Guy Vernon, by John Townsend Trowbridge, to be published in the fall of 2011.

Brandy Barents was born and raised in Virginia and currently lives with her husband Kevin in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She teaches classes on Living Irish Poets at Boston University and English as a Second Language at UMass, Boston.  Her poetry was most recently published in Barrow Street.