Writing About Writers

Conversations With Poets

Conversations from a renowned poetry workshop.

Book Cover Pearl London was a beloved teacher and writer at the New School. In 1970, she started to invite guests to her seminar that over 25 years became called “Works in Progress.” Guests included Maxine Kumin, Robert Hass, June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Simic, Ann Carson, Paul Muldoon, Robert Pinsky, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Robert Creeley, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, Derek Walcott, Frank Bidart, Amy Clampitt, Lucille Clifton, Edward Hirsch, Li-Young Lee, Philip Levine, James Merrill, and more.

Apparently, London unobtrusively recorded these sessions, and the tapes were recovered after her death in 2003 and edited by fellow New School mentor Alexander Neubauer, and 23 of these chats are now available in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets (Knopf).

Explains Neubauer:
Of the hundred or so newly discovered recordings, I had to winnow down to the following twenty-three for this book. They appear for the first time. Some tapes, such as Creeley’s and Ashbery’s, had gone missing entirely. For others, the choice was extremely difficult…

…My primary goal was to capture the poets’ voices and habits of thought as faithfully as possible, whether they spoke in complete paragraphs, like Walcott and Matthews, or sounded like telegrams. In short, poets not only spoke for themselves, they were also allowed to sound like themselves. Since cuts had to be made, much more of Pearl London’s voice was lost in favor of space for the poets.

Which is as it should be, of course. London would never have stepped in front of her guests. Nevertheless, if a book like this somehow retrieves lost slices of time in art, it may also catch in its net, by luck, a voice no one would otherwise come to know. During the course of his 1993 appearance, Edward Hirsch repeats a line from Robert Frost to the effect that if a book of poetry holds twenty-nine poems, the book itself becomes the thirtieth poem. Nearing the end of her career at the time of Hirsch’s visit, Pearl London loved that thought, and I think I know why. There was a narrative drive behind the rhythm of her questions, and it was energized by a deep love of poetry—and poets. Her classroom became the thirtieth poem and, one hopes, some of that energy and love will be present in this book.
I am struck by the notion that even if one finds some poetry and some poets inaccessible that these conversations are sufficiently lively and engaging to warrant serious and devoted attention. One never know, do one?
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