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.

book cover

A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems
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by Mary Jo Salter
240 pages

Most poets hope that their message might be conveyed to future generations—though perhaps not necessarily via the telephone. Mary Jo Salter’s A Phone Call to the Future, a new collection of recent and selected poems, gently ribs this poetic ambition even as it, in a sense, embodies it. Salter’s title poem, riffing on the social customs of various stages in the development of telephone technology, takes on the difficult task of describing the past to the present, and the present to the future. Imagining the way our own time will look from the vantage point of the future, she writes, “We were Martians,” with cell phones that made us appear “to be walking about like loonies / talking to ourselves.” The poem concludes: “All of it was so quaint. And I was there. / Poetry was there; we tried to write it.”

In light of her role as one of three editors of the influential Norton Anthology of Poetry, Salter is also keenly aware of the importance of looking to the poetry of previous generations as an instructive record of what was once thought and expressed. (She describes the process of sifting through thousands of poems to select just a few for inclusion as extremely humbling.) This editorial position, which she still holds, is one of several in which she has been engaged at the intersection of poetry and the wider culture; she is also a teacher who has worked with students at Mt. Holyoke College and now at Johns Hopkins University, and she has served as the poetry editor of The New Republic and an assistant poetry editor at The Atlantic.

In addition to A Phone Call to the Future, Salter is the author of five previous books of poetry, and The Moon Comes Home, a book for children. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, the poet Brad Leithauser.

—Sarah Cohen

Mary Jo Salter
Mary Jo Salter

It seems appropriate that this interview is appearing with The Atlantic’s summer fiction issue, because I noticed that many of your poems, especially the newer ones, are set in the summertime. Is there something about summer that you find conducive to poetry?

Well, the practical answer is that summer is when a teacher like me has more time to write. But actually, if I looked over my whole career I think that I would have more wintry scenes, and that, too, would have a practical explanation: I’ve spent a lot of time at the MacDowell colony—I’ve been there thirteen or fourteen times, and always in January. But yes, summer is my favorite season. I don’t believe in astrology, but I was born in August, and I’m a Leo, and I’m something of a sun worshipper. I love walking around feeling light as air, in light clothes, when my body is in harmony with the temperature outside. There’s something very freeing and happy about that.

Is that connected to the lightness that seems to be part of your style?

Lightness is something that I admire in a lot of writers. I was just thinking about that in terms of Elizabeth Bishop, whom I’m currently writing a little talk about. She has a way of talking about sad, heavy, difficult things with a kind of shrug—with a feeling of offhandedness. In other hands, that technique could seem shallow, but you never feel it’s shallow with her. A lot of the writers I admire either tell a few jokes or make a few shrugs along the way, though they don’t skirt the difficult aspects of life.

You’ve just released a collection of “new and selected” poems. Do you see your work changing over your career so far?

I think my interests have remained very much the same—almost alarmingly so. I do learn things as I go along; I get interested in American history for a while, and then I get interested in Alexander Graham Bell for a while, and so on. But in a larger sense I discover retrospectively—and I certainly discovered this looking over all my books and trying to come up with a Selected— that some themes come back over and over. The notion that things aren’t always what they seem, for example—that you look at something once and it appears one way and then you look at it again and it looks different.

One thing I would say is that although I remain fascinated by formal complexity and formal demand, my technique has gotten a little looser, by choice. I’m more interested in a somewhat more conversational tone than when I was younger. These are all broad generalizations, and I could find exceptions to what I’m saying, but I think that in my later poetry there’s a looser sense of what rhyme is, and more striving after off-rhyme rather than exact rhyme—more variation in rhyme scheme, things like that.

As you’re writing, do you consciously think about taking your work in new directions?

I worry, as I think most middle-aged writers do, about imitating myself unconsciously. Every once in a while I’ll realize that I really have written some version of that poem before. So I do want to try new things and new angles. I find that reading other writers who are unlike myself is one of the best ways to jump-start. A wonderful poet like Rick Kenney is one example. He’s just wackier than I am, and I love that wackiness and, apart from the delight I take from his poems in themselves, I find it helpful to read him from a purely selfish point of view. On the other hand, I don’t think that novelty for its own sake is worth very much. At the same time that you’re pushing the boundaries of who you are, you have to know who you are and not pretend to be somebody else.

It is hard to find that balance between variety and consistency, especially when one has to keep finding ways to get each new poem started.

Yes, getting started is so much of the game for me. It’s figuring out what tone of voice I want for this subject: What’s the angle? Am I writing in the first person? Am I rhyming this? What length are the lines? But mainly tone. I just think that tone is so much of what makes a poem, and until I’ve got the tone the way I want it, I can’t really proceed. A lot of being a more experienced writer is having the confidence in yourself to abandon your first five ways into a subject. For example, you might have a dark subject and want to go a little lighter with it, but if you go too light it’s going to look like comic verse, and that may not be what you want. The idea is not to assume that the way you started is really the way the poem ought to be.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about subject matter as the starting point for poems. Is that normally the first thing that comes to you?

It can be. I don’t sit down and say to myself, “I will now write a poem about winter,” but I might have some image that I’m going with. Just as often, though, I’m starting with an unusual rhyme or an unusual cluster of words that don’t rhyme but that belong together somehow. By investigating those words and what they can do together, just in terms of sound, I may, if I’m lucky, arrive at something I’ve always wanted to say—something that actually is a subject but that I didn’t know was a subject until I started playing with the words.

So there can be all sorts of prompts for starting a poem. It might be a stray remark that somebody makes, and you think, “Oh, they don’t even realize how poetic that is.” Or it can be just a purely visual simile—something you see in the world around you. Or some heartache that you’ve always been wanting to dare to approach and then one day you’re finally in the right frame of mind to approach it.

When you were just starting out, you studied with Elizabeth Bishop. Can you say a little bit about what that was like and about how it figured into your development as a writer?

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I studied with her in the fall of 1974, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard. I had just met my husband to be, Brad Leithauser, and he and I were in the workshop together. It was an amazing group of people: a lot of us went on to become professional writers, though not necessarily of poetry.

Miss Bishop was very mild-mannered and she didn’t require much. She had only five more years to live, I’m sad to say, and she was, by her own admission, not very interested in teaching. She had fairly standard assignments, like writing imitations, but also others that were more surprising. I remember that one of her assignments was to write a Christmas poem, and nobody did it. I didn’t either. The problem was that it was an optional assignment—the only one. I did write a poem about a Christmas tree three or four years later, and I sort of mentally dedicated it to Miss Bishop.

She didn’t require any reading at all except for the two-volume memoir by Nadezhda Mandelstam, the wife of Osip Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. She said that she wanted us to know that there are people who have died for poetry. I was very interested in that choice, given that Bishop was not a political poet. She encouraged us to read a lot of other things, but that was the only reading she required. She said it was very important to read Keats’s letters—that in some ways Keats’s letters were even better than his poems, and I remember that I did read Keats’s letters that year. Philip Larkin’s High Windows had just come out and I remember her reading some of that aloud to us, including some of the profanity, which was amazing from Miss Bishop’s mouth. She was modest and quiet and wry and very generous to me. My big regret was that when the class was over and she invited me to come visit her in her apartment in Boston I was just too shy to ever do it. I’m very sorry I never took her up on that.

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?

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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?

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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.