Five Questions: An Interview with James Longenbach

James Longenbach is an American published poet, critic, and professor of English at the University of Rochester. Longenbach teaches a variety of classes, including modern and contemporary American poetry, British and American modernism, James Joyce, Shakespeare, and creative writing. Longenbach grew up in New Jersey and attended Princeton University and Trinity College. He has received numerous awards over the years for his contribution to poetry as a whole as well his influence as a professor. These awards include, Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Guggenheim Fellowship, Mellon Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellowship, Visiting Fellow, Worcester College, Oxford University, Bain-Swiggett Professor of Poetry, Princeton University, Nation/Discovery Award, Goergen Award for Distinguished Achievement and Artistry in Teaching, Student Association Professor of the Year, University of Rochester, and the Student Association Teaching Award, University of Rochester.

His poetry collections include Threshold (1998), Fleet River (2003), Draft of a Letter (2007), The Iron Key (2010) and Earthling (2017), and he is also the author of several works of literary criticism, including Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism (1988), Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (1991), Modern Poetry After Modernism (1997), The Resistance to Poetry (2004), The Art of the Poetic Line (2008), The Virtues of Poetry (2013), and How Poems Get Made (2018), where he primarily writes about contemporary poetry.  Longenbach’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and several editions of The Best American Poetry; his essays and reviews of contemporary poetry have been published in the Boston Review, the Nation, and the New York Times. He is married to the novelist Joanna Scott. His poem, “Snow,” was a very intriguing poem to me and I wanted to find out the deeper meaning behind the poem which influenced me into picking Longenbach as my poet to interview further.

Nick Green: Did the Northeastern weather influence/ assist you in writing the poem, “Snow?”

James Longenbach: Yup, absolutely.  But the thing is, snow is always around, the way that lots of things are always around–sorrow, happiness, a beautiful sunset.  What’s difficult, in my experience as a poet, is to figure out how to take these essential feelings and observations and actually make a poem out of them.  For if you think about it, everybody who has ever lived has experienced the most intense emotions; but very few people are able to write lasting poems that convey those feelings.  So what ultimately makes the poem is the discovery of some kind of energy in the language you’re using–the way certain words, through their rhythm, their syntax, suddenly capture or explode how you feel when you wake up to yet another blanket of snow.  The snow is easy to come by; the words are hard. For me, then, the trigger that led me to write “Snow” was the Italian poet Umberto Saba’s poem “Neve” (or “Snow”); the first line of my poem is a loose translation of a line from his. What Saba inspired me to do was to speak to the snow, which I guess seems to me the core of my entire poem–the way it keeps commanding the snow to do what really it’s going to do anyway, no matter what; I felt a poignancy in that–“cover the fields, cover the trees, cover the house where I grew up in New Jersey, cover the suffering of which I wasn’t aware . . .”  That act of covering feels to me simultaneously like a blessing and a dismissal, a way simultaneously of treasuring and letting go of my past.

NG: How has your family inspired or helped you along the journey of writing multiple published work?

JL: There are many ways to answer this question, since one inevitably has different kinds of relationships with different members of one’s family.  So let me concentrate on one aspect of my immediate family. In the spring of 1981, when I was a student studying abroad in Rome, I met Joanna Scott (who, in a lovely coincidence, attended Darien High School–class of 1978).  Now, thirty-seven years later, we have two grown daughters, and, together, we’ve published many books; Joanna is the author of twelve works of fiction. But before we embarked on daughters and books, we began reading each other’s writing–stories, poems, essays for class.  So by the time I was 21, I had a reader whom I could trust to tell me the absolute truth about anything I wrote, a reader who could hear the strengths and weaknesses of my sentences better than anyone. And more importantly, really, I had another writer to whom I could bring the same intensity of attention.  Joanna has read, reread, and read again every sentence I’ve ever written, and I’ve done the same for her, and I cannot imagine my life as a writer without this exchange; neither can I imagine my life as a person. It’s been an immense gift.

NG: What other experiences in your life have influenced your writing most meaningfully?

JL: As my answers to your first two questions may suggest, I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy over the last thirty years; we lived for several years in Florence, and over the years we’ve probably spent even more time in Venice.  People think of Venice as overwhelmed by tourists, and in some ways it is, but if you really sink into a particular neighborhood there, frequent the shops, the markets, it’s like living in a small Italian village fifty years ago–no cars, everyone walks, everyone knows one another, and any aspect of ordinary life feels simultaneously ordinary and deeply strange.  Buying vegetables off the side of the boat that pulls up on your canal; kids with backpacks getting on the boat to school. I feel in Venice what I feel whenever I read a truly great poem: that the most familiar things seem quietly wondrous, a little otherworldly. I’m always trying to capture that quality in my own poems, even when I’m not writing about Venice. Or maybe, in a way, I’m always writing about Venice even when I’m not.

NG: In your poem, “Snow,” the lines, “there was a fireplace so we learned to build fires. We had a baby so we walked in the rain,” really intrigued me. Can you explain the meaning and influence behind these lines? Furthermore, are aspects in your life reflected in these lines?

JL: In those lines I was thinking not of living in Venice but of living in Oxford, England, where I taught for a semester in the 90s.  Our first daughter was a baby then, and, though we lived in what ought to have been (and in a sense was) a gorgeous little cottage called the Garden House, it was a long, cold, rainy spring.  So while I have achingly beautiful memories of that time, long walks in the meadows, candlelit dinners in 16th-century halls, it also wasn’t easy; England can be a cold, rainy place with cold, rainy people, and it was a matter of keeping warm, both physically and emotionally.  Looking back, I think I was trying to capture that doubleness in the syntax of the line “We had a baby so we walked in the rain”: the logic seems backwards here, as if having a baby makes you walk in the rain; but that’s in a sense how it felt–you’re thrown into the world in all its wonder, rain and shine.

NG: What advice would you give to a student who is attending Trinity College from a fellow alum, and how did Trinity impact your writing career?

JL: The teacher at Trinity who was most probably most important to both me and Joanna was Milla Riggio, who just retired this year; I wish I could tell an incoming freshman to take a course with her!  More generally, I would tell that student what I also tell my students at the University of Rochester: take courses that really interest you; let yourself be swept away by the wonder of learning. Who’s to say what course will have seemed most “useful” or “important” decades from now–the one in macroeconomics or the one in sixteenth-century poetry where you learned a little poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt that you’ve never been able to get out of your head?  There’s so much pressure on young people nowadays to look ahead, to be practical, to get the best internship, get the right job, and that’s not all bad; macroeconomics is important. But the beauty of the American liberal arts education (of which Trinity offers a superb version) is that it affords young people an opportunity to become fascinated by learning and thinking in a way that need not necessarily be utilitarian, or obviously so. Looking back on my own experience at Trinity, I had teachers who came to know me very well–better, perhaps, than I knew myself; and because of the charismatic intensity they brought to the material they treasured (Sir Thomas Wyatt, Freud, Beethoven, whatever), I was empowered to feel some version of that intensity myself–to feel that school and pleasure could be the same thing, to sink into the learning experience at hand without worrying about where it was going to get me.  Trinity impacted me as a writer because it impacted me as a person, liberating me to imagine myself beyond the little world I already knew: I think that’s what education ought to do, and it’s what I try to do for students of my own. Maybe that sounds a little idealistic. Ok, I stand convicted.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/james-longenbach

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/james-longenbach

http://www.sas.rochester.edu/eng/people/faculty/longenbach_james/index.html

http://www.bkmag.com/2018/03/09/2018-nbcc-award-james-longenbach/

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