Interviews May 2002

An Aesthetics of Inadequacy

An Aesthetics of Inadequacy

Alan Shapiro, the author of Song and Dance, talks about poetry as an expression of mourning
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Song and Dance: Poems
by Alan Shapiro
Houghton Mifflin
80 pages, $22.00

When, as a college freshman, Alan Shapiro decided to become a poet, he failed to keep it from his family. Soon his Uncle Burt was grabbing him by the arm at gatherings and announcing, "You gotta watch what you say around this guy, it's liable to end up in a little odey."

It's an event so common in the early lives of writers—first efforts publicly trivialized by older family members—that there ought to be a literary term for it: kinning, maybe. Shapiro gets even by telling the story of his uncle's teasing in the title essay of his 1996 collection The Last Happy Occasion, and it's satisfying to see him get a laugh at the expense of a man who got so many at his.

But perhaps the last laugh belongs to Burt after all. His wisecrack—a casual remark about casual remarks ending up in his nephew's writing—did end up in his nephew's writing. And Shapiro did go on to produce book after book of autobiographical poems, many of them odes.

Selected Poems by Alan Shapiro from Song and Dance:

"The Accident"

"Joy"

In the same essay, written in 1994, Shapiro shares a darker story. One morning he dashed out his front door to a terrifying scene. Della, his wife at the time, was on her hands and knees in the street, helplessly screaming as a neighbor's dog savagely attacked their golden retriever, Birdy. Della was nine-months pregnant—due, in fact, that very day—and had fallen on her stomach while trying to intervene. The other dog's owner finally appeared and separated the pair, but showed no contrition or even concern. Thankfully, everyone was all right, but the fury Shapiro felt toward his neighbor got him thinking about deeper and less-mutable angers, grievances so spirit-consuming they make sympathy impossible: "What if Della had been injured and we'd lost the baby? What if Birdy had been killed? These questions, morbid as they are, make me wonder about ... experiences so devastating in their effects that they permanently destroy the victim's desire to understand the victimizer. Does the empathic power of imagination in which I place such faith have any power over Serbs and Muslims, Palestinians and Jews? ... How often have I told my students that to write or read poetry you have to have sympathy even for the devil. Yet now I wonder if such sympathy is only possible for those whom the devil hasn't really touched."

Since then, the devil has touched Shapiro's life profoundly and repeatedly. In 1995, his sister, Beth, died of breast cancer. Three years later, brain cancer took his brother, David. Both illnesses were protracted and painful, and during the same period, his parents' health began to fail and his marriage of sixteen years fell apart.

Shapiro continued writing throughout. He chronicled his sister's decline and death in Vigil, a book of essays that concludes with a series of lyric poems. And in March of this year he published Song and Dance, a collection of poems lamenting and celebrating his brother.

But proving that poetry is still possible after devastating loss has been a cold comfort. The poems he's written since the deaths of his siblings aren't sources of solace, he says, because nothing is. Elegaic poetry is merely an expression of grief—utterly necessary and utterly inadequate.

Shapiro's other books include After the Digging (1981), The Courtesy (1984), Happy Hour (1987), Covenant (1991), Mixed Company (1996), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Selected Poems, 1974-1996, and The Dead Alive and Busy (2000), which won the Kingsley Tufts Award. He teaches at the University of North Carolina and lives in Chapel Hill. He spoke with me recently from his home.

—Eric McHenry


Alan Shapiro
Alan Shapiro   

It's occurred to me that the writing of Vigil and Song and Dance must have been doubly and perhaps triply painful for you. Not only were you dealing with devastating events, you were dealing with the family problems and conflicts they provoked. And, on top of that, you were in many cases writing about people who were eventually going to read the work—portraits that are often unflattering, that show a whole range of human emotion and behavior. Were there stories you chose to withhold, even though they would have strengthened the essays or poems?

To me, it's a question of spirit and intention. If I'm writing something with the intention of hurting somebody, if I have an axe to grind or a hidden agenda, then I'm going to suppress that, I'm not going to publish it. To the best of my knowledge, everything I've written has been written in a spirit of understanding and sympathy, in an attempt to gain some kind of clarity about a very confusing and painful situation. I do feel that it is my obligation as a writer to tell the truth. And I do want to present the people who are closest to me as fully rounded characters. That said, I also need to remind myself when I'm writing that nobody wants to give up narrative control over their own experience, and no matter what you say about somebody, whether it's critical or laudatory, they might not like it.

I found that out the hard way when I wrote The Last Happy Occasion. There are portraits in that book that are not negative, or that I didn't think were negative, but which apparently caused feelings of outrage, embarrassment, and betrayal in the people depicted. I lost friendships over that book and was very surprised. In fact, my first wife, when she read the book, wrote me threatening to sue, because she thought I'd diminished the humanity of her family and misrepresented the nature of our marriage. When I told my mother about this—"Carol Ann is threatening to sue me, Mom"—my mother said, "That's outrageous. The only person who should want to sue you over this book is me!"

People have a right not to be represented, and I have violated that right. It's different in poetry, because people assume that poems don't mean what they say. Moreover, it doesn't have as large an audience, and people don't feel as transparently revealed in a poem as they would in an essay. But with the nonfiction that I've written, I was surprised to find out how upset certain people were, and in retrospect I've realized that it was naive of me to be surprised. I should have expected it. And I probably, in some cases, should have respected people's desire for privacy more than I did.

Is that one of the reasons that you chose to treat the subject of your brother David's death in poetry? You've written prose about David and poetry about your sister, Beth, but Beth's book is the book of prose and David's book is the book of poetry, and I wonder what informed that choice.

It was desperation that informed that choice. By the time my brother died my family had been through so much pain and trauma—there was my sister's death, the disintegration of my parents' bodies, and the breakup of my own marriage of sixteen years under very difficult circumstances, circumstances coinciding with my brother's illness. The arc of his illness followed the same timeline as the disintegration of my marriage. In fact my wife and I split up a month or so before my brother died. And so I had just moved out of the house and into an apartment in Chapel Hill—a basement apartment in a house whose owner was an eighty-some-year-old woman who had Alzheimer's disease, and who every few days was knocking on my door to introduce herself. I needed poetry then. I didn't need prose. I needed song. I needed art at its most elevated—as elevated as I could make it, anyway. There was too much pain there for prose. That's why I wrote about David's death in a book of poems. I wrote Vigil as a book of prose because I wanted to have readers for it, frankly. I knew that if I wrote it as a book of poems, it would have the usual five or six readers. And I wanted a wider audience. But by the time my brother got sick and died, I didn't care about audience anymore. I was just trying to write to hold myself together.

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Eric McHenry has written about books for Slate, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times Book Review.

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