Magazine article The Antioch Review

The Education of the Poet: A Colloquy with Richard Howard and Marilyn Hacker

Magazine article The Antioch Review

The Education of the Poet: A Colloquy with Richard Howard and Marilyn Hacker

Article excerpt

The following conversation between Marilyn Hacker and Richard Howard occurred in August 1998, in Mr. Howard's office at Columbia University. Mr. Howard is the author of eleven volumes of poetry, most recently Trappings (1999), and over 150 translations from the French. In 1983 he received the American Book Award for his translation of the complete Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire. In 1970 he received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and in 1984 he was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre National du M[acute{e}]rite by the French government. He is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters and serves as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and as poetry editor of the Paris Review.

Ms. Hacker is the author of nine books, including Presentation Piece, which received the National Book Award in 1975, and Winter Numbers (1995), which received a Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Award from The Nation magazine and the Academy of American Poets. She has served as editor of 13th Moon and the Kenyon Review and was recently (that is, since this conversation) appointed the director of the M.A. program in English literature and creative writing at the City College of New York. Her most recent book, Squares and Courtyards, was published in January.

Their conversation, which focused on the education of the poet, began when they remembered admiring each other's poems, years ago, before they met. Judith Hall, poetry editor of the Antioch Review, added a few moderating questions.

Richard Howard: I can remember a letter from you, when you were editing a magazine, asking for work. That was before I knew you or had seen your poems.

Marilyn Hacker: Quark, I remember, with Chip [Samuel] Delany. I wanted to integrate poetry into a magazine of what I call "Speculative Fiction," a.k.a. science fiction and its spin-offs.

Howard: That's right, Quark. The point was that Marilyn was there, early on, before me, even though she is vastly younger. Marilyn was showing me the way to edit a magazine that would have a lot of life in it, that would have a range of poetry in it that would be of interest to more than four readers or five.

Hacker: I was first acquainted with you through your own first two books, which I read in my late teens, and also through your work as poetry editor of the New American Review. One reason I dared to send poems to the New American Review was the catholicity of your taste.

Howard: I remember reading those with delight, your sestina "Nimue to Merlin," knowing right away that we were on the right track together, and we have been ever since. It's been a remarkable poetic congruence, although we've never edited together the same issue of a magazine, and that would be fun--

Hacker: That would be great fun to argue about--

Howard: --although there would not be many arguments. We have fallen together upon the same writer more than once, and that has been a great treat. In the case of Rafael Campo, I found a tiny poem of his over the transom around the time you discovered him. He didn't mention that to me, but it became clear that this was the kind of writer we both were most interested in.

Hacker: Yes, the discovery of a writer like Rafael Campo is one of the great joys of being an editor: to get a letter over the transom from someone you have never heard of before, who comes from an unexpected background. I remember Raphael's letter said, approximately, "I am a Cuban-American student at Harvard Medical School and I write poems. I've admired your poems. Would you look at mine?" To my delight, they were marvelous.

Howard: Yes, they were marvelous from the beginning. Sometimes it isn't right from the beginning. Sometimes it takes a while for the poet to move in on one's taste. But if the poet is pertinacious, then there is usually a way the poet overcomes resistances.

Hacker: And sometimes it takes a certain pertinacity on the part of the editor as well, to dare to put muddy feet into someone else's poem--to say, "Yes, everything but the last stanza," or "The poem begins at line twelve. …

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