Interviews Fiction 2008

The Poet's Poet

Mary Jo Salter talks about her new collection, Phone Call to the Future; editing The Norton Anthology of Poetry; and her early days as an assistant poetry editor at The Atlantic.

I’m always interested in the atmosphere in a writing workshop. Could you describe that a little bit? Did everyone talk, and were people critical of each other or more supportive?

Everyone did talk. They were surprisingly uncowed by the genius of the teacher in the room. I remember, for example, one of our assignments was to bring in the worst poem we’d ever read. I brought in a poem that was really, really bad—I was very proud of how bad this poem was. And then somebody else brought in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W. H. Auden, which is definitely not the worst poem—it’s a masterpiece. And you could just see Miss Bishop just sort of wanting to be somewhere else. I remember she sort of detoured the conversation so that she could talk about how everyone of her generation felt that they were following in Auden’s footsteps, or working against him, but in some way working in relation to him.

Can you talk a little bit about your time after college, working at The Atlantic?

It was a great time in my life. I was very lucky. The way I started working there is that the Atlantic’s poetry editor, Peter Davison, came to give a reading at the Harvard Advocate, maybe in 1974 or ’75. I wrote him a thank you letter, and eventually said to him that if there were ever a summer job I would love to have it. So I started to work for him in the summer. I was a first reader for Peter, and also for Mike Curtis and Dick Todd, who were editing both fiction and non-fiction.

Wow—that’s a lot of reading.

It was a lot of reading. They gave me a lot of work, but they also gave me a lot of trust. I was just a kid, but they let me write flap copy for the Atlantic Monthly press books, they let me take a look at children’s books, they included me (and this shows you how long ago this was) in the pass-around of something called the carbons, so that I was aware every day of what other people had accepted or rejected. My biggest sense of accomplishment was when I read some poems by Amy Clampitt, who was then hardly published—she’d just had a poem or two in The New Yorker. I passed them on to Peter, who accepted them, and started a friendship with Amy as a result. I then went to England, where I got my masters in English. The week I was to graduate, the job at The Atlantic became available full-time. I literally hopped on a plane and came home. I never even went to my graduation ceremony at Cambridge. I did that job for two years, and I realized that when you have to read that much that fast, it’s a crash course in developing your taste. It’s true that most of what you read is not publishable—that’s the nature of reading the slush pile. But most people who write something that’s not publishable in its present form have something. They have an idea—and that would give me ideas. I don’t mean that I ever stole an idea from anybody, but it just opened my eyes to different ways of writing which, for a person in her twenties, was very useful. It really was.

What was it like working with Peter Davison?

Also see:
Peter Davison (1928-2004)
"There is an indispensable kind of person who cuts a swath in the world not merely because of his own accomplishments, which may be considerable, but also because of what he has enabled others to accomplish..." By Cullen Murphy

A Life's Work
Remembering Peter Davison. By David Barber

Peter Davison in The Atlantic Monthly
A partial collection of Peter Davison's essays, reviews, travelogues, and poems.

Peter was avuncular and sweet towards me. I feel nothing but gratitude toward him. He was always a person of strong opinions—we didn’t always agree, but I always respected him. He really took me under his wing and he published my own poems when I was very young. I look back on it—how young I was when I was working for the Atlantic editors—and I can’t quite believe how much confidence they placed in me. And you know, being treated like a grown-up when you are barely one does help turn you into one. I’ve tried to use that philosophy in my own teaching—that people rise to the challenge.

When you became poetry editor of the New Republic, what was on your mind when you were making the selections of what to publish?

Well, unfortunately, we did have to think about length. That’s even more true today for poetry editors than it was then. So I did publish a couple of long poems, but usually they were shorter. What you discover from publishing relatively short poems, though, is that you find people who have the qualities of concision and economy and zippiness that are to be valued in all poetry. It’s generally true of my reading, whether I’m editing or not, that I want to feel that every line counts. I want to feel that if a poem has a slow beginning it has some justification for that—that the writer is deliberately pacing things that way so that, for example, there will be a greater surprise when a twist comes at the end. It matters to me that people get to the point; it matters to me that the tone somehow matches up with the ambitions of the poem. And I love playfulness in language. On the other hand, I was very conscious of my responsibility not to print only those poems that I would have been likely to try writing myself in terms of subject matter or method; I was trying to be more catholic in my taste.

Were there any differences in your choices because it was a general interest magazine rather than a literary journal?

No, I paid no attention to that. I just figured that poetry is poetry and that anybody who takes the time to read poetry is going to be interested in the same qualities whether it’s in The New Republic or Poetry magazine.

After the New Republic you became an editor of the Norton Anthology of poetry. How does the editing process work for the Norton? Does the whole volume get reconsidered for each edition?

Absolutely. And when I started, it had been a long time since they had a new edition. Several of the previous editors had died, so it was up to a new editor at Norton to rethink and choose her own team of editors. She chose Margaret Ferguson, who was at the University of Colorado, and Jon Stallworthy, who was at Oxford. She didn’t know when she chose us that Jon and I were old friends. That was very fortunate because we have similar taste and we like each other. And I quickly discovered when I met Margaret Ferguson that she was great and I just loved her. So it was a very happy accident that the three of us were put together.

When we started, one of us was out in Colorado, one of us was in Massachusetts, one of us was in England, and nobody had email. There was a lot of faxing. But we did have a quite mathematical way of going about it. I could go on for hours, but suffice it to say that we knew how many pages down to a decimal point each writer would have. So, for example, if Sylvia Plath had 13.8 pages in the previous edition, we also knew how many pages we were going to be allowed to add in the new edition, and that in order to add everything that we wanted to add, we were going to have to reselect the standard authors, sometimes allotting them less space. It was a friendly tug-of-war and sometimes we would have to concede to each other. There was some horse-trading: for example, Margie, who was in charge of Milton, would say, “I need more Milton pages” and I would think, “Well, you certainly do, I’m not going to stand my ground on that,” and I would give her a few of my pages. And finally when we were down to our decimal points and we had the right page numbers in the right proportions, then we went about the process of writing all the notes and bios.

In the fifth edition, which was published in ’05, it was a different world. Not only had I written many of the previous footnotes myself, I could also do my research on the Internet, which made it much, much faster. Still, the difficulties remained. You can get as efficient as you want, but you’ve still got hard choices. You’re leaving out poets you love because there’s no space. Or you’re leaving out specific poems—you’re trying to be representative of the breadth of a poet’s work, but in doing that you’re leaving out two or three examples of the same sort of thing that are equally good. And you’re setting yourself up for the disappointment of people who know and love those authors and wish that you had selected things differently. I think the hardest thing was when people would write and say, “How could you not include X?” with the implication that I didn’t like X. But of course I liked X, I just didn’t have room. We had a number of people write us and say “Why did you not include all of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman?” Well, have you looked at how many pages that is? No way could we do that! Though I would have been delighted if we could have carried around a 5,000 page book—that would have been great. So the selection is a very humbling process. You know that you haven’t gotten it right. You’ve just done the best that you, as that person, at that time, with those co-editors, could do. It was very humbling that way.

When I look at the book, it looks so authoritative—almost scientific. But in the end it sounds like the process is somewhat subjective?

Yes—the only science behind it was the kind of number crunching we were doing. Beyond that, it’s one hundred percent subjective. And I say that with great respect for the scholarship of the people I was working with—they were brilliant. But with poetry, how could it be otherwise than subjective? There is no authority out there who can convince me, for example, that Auden is not a great poet. I respect people who don’t happen to like him, but no one can convince me that he doesn’t belong in the Norton anthology. So there are things like that where you just have to dig in your heels and say that Yes, it may be that in 200 years people will generally value Auden less than I do, but I can’t be bothered about that. I’m only a human being living now and I think he’s great.

Is greatness the criteria for inclusion, rather than historical importance?

It was both. That’s a really good question—there were poets who mattered less to me, or poems that mattered less to me personally but that I recognized were historically very important and wouldn’t be taken out. It would have been presumptuous—it would have seemed to be rewriting history to take them out.

The Norton has always seemed to me like the physical embodiment of the idea of the English canon. Did working on it change your ideas about the canon and its importance?

Yes, it did. The biggest thing was that the work I did on it forced me to read some poets I might not otherwise have read and to broaden my taste. In the process, it also made the canon seem much more fluid and fungible than I had ever thought it was. I do think that there is such a thing as the canon, but I think it’s smaller than the Norton Anthology. I say that with respect for everybody who’s in it, but what I mean is that there are certainties, like Shakespeare, and then there are approximations at who might be in the canon later. That’s what I was doing by editing people born, for example, in 1960. How could I possibly say if they are in the canon? All I can say is that I find them interesting now. I anticipate their being of some interest to people in the future. And that’s the most you can say. So to say that the whole book is canonical I think puts too much of a burden on the book.

Did you feel responsible because this may be the only poetry book that many people ever own?

That was the big responsibility, right there. I used to say to my students when I assigned the Norton Anthology, long before I became an editor myself, that I know that the book is expensive, but you’re not buying it for my course, you’re buying it for your life. You’re not going to read all of it this semester—you’re going to go back and reread things many times, I hope. Even though there is no such thing as a fixed, static canon, there’s no denying that you have a responsibility to choose the best when you’re using a book that people perceive to be the canon. In the selection process, we all read more than two or three or four times as many pages as we put into the book. So a lot of what an anthology represents, doorstopper though it might be, is all the stuff that’s not there. It’s white space. It’s the stuff that’s not there that the editors have done for you.

Did working on the Norton change your own writing at all or influence the way you thought about your work?

Yes. It’s hard to say how, except that I know it did. That’s not a very good answer, but—back to the notion of self-imitation—it helped me believe that there were other ways than all the ways I’d already tried to approach writing a poem. Whitman is actually a good example of someone I liked better afterwards. I respected Whitman, of course, but I never really liked him that much before I started working on the book. And so it was interesting to have this very large responsibility to create an expanded selection from Leaves of Grass. We added some more of his poems, and the process of choosing which ones I thought were the best just woke me up to some things Whitman was doing that I had not fully appreciated before.

Do you think of your own work in the context of literary history? I would think it would be difficult not to after working on a project like this.

Working on a project like the Norton, you know very well what the odds are against your being even a footnote in literary history. In a way, that may be humbling, but in another way it isn’t at all. Reading so many great poets, you recognize what an accomplishment it would be if by some chance somebody were reading any poem of yours after you were dead. Just to put it that way, just to say “one poem after you’re dead”—that would be an immense accomplishment. You don’t have to be canonical in the big-deal sense of the word to have done something as a poet. So it’s a humbling process but it’s also in some way a very useful corrective to the less profitable forms of egotism. You have to have a little bit of egotism to be a writer—you have to believe that other people will at least today maybe want to read your poems. But if you think too hard about people reading your poems later, you may get into trouble.

I also wanted to ask about being married to another poet. Do you find yourself having to figure out ways to divide the “raw material” of the experiences that you share?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if we both spent a year in Iceland, as we did in 1989, inevitably the landscape and weather are going to enter into our poems. But I don’t think we have ever written about the same incident. For example, I have an old poem about our younger daughter, when she was 13, asking me if I would make a snowman with her. In the poem, I sort of realize that it’s the last time that she’s going to ask me something like that. And Brad may well have written a poem during the same snowstorm—a poem about the crystals on the windows, maybe—but he’s not writing about that snowman. I think this is true in general if you think about family life—you may all be having the same dinner, but if each were to tell the story of what happened at dinner it would be quite different. Also, Brad is much more of a nature poet than I am—he’s very observant about landscape and fauna and flora. And I’m probably a little bit more autobiographical than he is, at least in a literal way: I’m more likely to tell a story of something I observed or something that has happened to me. So it’s because of those different impulses that we haven’t overlapped more than we have. I think we’ve decided several times—we’ve said, “Why don’t we both write about X?” But then we never do it.

You and Brad have just started teaching at Johns Hopkins after many years at Mt. Holyoke. Has it been different teaching graduate students in an MFA program, versus teaching undergraduates in a college setting?

Also see:
Where Great Writers are Made
Assessing America's top graduate writing programs. By Edward J. Delaney

Interviews: Writers in Training
Edward J. Delaney discusses the country's best graduate writing programs and how to compare them.

Yes, it has been different. They may have the same amount of talent as younger students, but the grad students are just further along in their notions of themselves, of what they want out of their lives. It’s a pleasure to have graduate students who have decided, “I’m a writer. This is what I do. I want to be published, I want to get better, I want to read all the time in the way that writers read, which is toward the goal of being a better writer.” In my first year my graduate students were fabulous—may they always be this good! I love them all and got very close to them all. We live in a world that doesn’t value poetry very much, but if you were only sitting around in the Hopkins classroom you would think that poetry mattered. That’s a great thing, and it also sets the bar higher. If people value you and expect something out of you, you write better. And writing better means rejecting what you wrote this time and trying it again. It also fosters—there are negatives to be said about MFA programs, but one of the very good things about them is the lack of defensiveness they foster. If after a few years in an MFA program you’re still making excuses, then you really haven’t gotten out of it what you should. It pleases me that as long as a comment in class was not ad hominem—as long as it was about the poem—then all of my students were able to see that it was about the poem and not about them. And so—again, back to ego—it helps whittle down your ego a little bit. It’s good when you realize that what you are trying to serve here is the poem.

Sarah Cohen's poetry is published or forthcoming in The Paris Review, Indiana Review, and Pool. She received an MFA in poetry in 2006 from UC Irvine and is now working on a PhD at the University of Washington.
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