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THE ROMANCE OF LIFE AND ART:
An Interview with WILLIAM CORBETT
by Tom Devaney
On April 10, 1989 James Schuyler wrote a letter to a young poet named Peter Gizzi. Gizzi had solicited poems from Schuyler for Gizzi's magazine O-Blek. In his previous letter to Schuyler, Gizzi must have asked "What have you been reading?" Schuyler's reply included Frank O'Hara, John Weiners, Philip Whalen and this item: "I've been enjoying Wm Corbett's books. He sent me a collected which is full of wonderful things: Que pense-tu, beau Sphinx?" Which is a line from the movie Les Enfants du Paradis. The letter is included in the new collection Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler 1951-1991 (Turtle Point Press, $21.95), which Corbett has worked on for the past 13 years.
The connections Corbett draws, cultivates, and has with individual poems and poets, as well as individual paintings and painters past and present, are direct and personal and fully active in his person and work. He not only edited Schuyler's letters, but there is a feeling that he takes each one personally, as if each lost Schuyler letter is also somehow a missing piece of himself. Corbett's identification with the painter Franz Kline comes to him through his own his memories of the "thick black forms" of the Pennsylvania landscape and the coal towns where they both grew up. A marvelous raconteur, Corbett can recount all-nighters with the painter Philip Guston, wistfully remarking that "Guston would arrive for dinner at seven and leave at seven," which speaks volumes of the volumes Corbett has to tell.
Keeping the romance of art and life alive, which Corbett does with a graceful defiance, is not the same thing as being a Romantic. He is seasoned and unsentimental about the marginal status of poetry and the art he likes best--his own work included. In tune with a younger generation of poets, as well as many from his own, for the past six years Corbett has also been a small-press publisher, releasing books, chapbooks, and a literary magazine through the intrepid Pressed Wafer Press, which is housed in the basement of Corbett's house in Boston.
Corbett's own books include several works of poetry including Don't Think: Look and New & Selected Poems; All Prose, which collects his writings on art; and an honest and artful book about his father and family called Furthering My Education, among many other titles. Asked about his work as a poet, his art writing, his editing and publishing projects, and teaching at MIT, Corbett replied: "My work is all of these things."
Tom Devaney: When was the first time you saw Schuyler's letter to Peter Gizzi mentioning you in a list of poets he was currently reading? Did you know that he liked your poems so much?
William Corbett: I knew that he liked my poems because he had written to me about them as well, but I thought it was wrong to put in letters that Jimmy had written me. He wrote me about twelve, and in one of them he was very generous in his words of praise. I didn't see the letter to Peter until Peter sent me his correspondence from Jimmy and I went back and forth about whether I'd print it. I thought: "Who wants to read a letter in which the editor is extolled?" On the other hand, he says things about John Wieners in the letter which might surprise people. And the letter seemed to be interesting from the point of view of what he was reading and responding to at that point, so I said the hell with it, and published it.
TD: So you have twelve letters Schuyler wrote to you?
WC: Yes, I met Jimmy first through letters. I admired him so intensely for so long that I had not wanted to meet him. I figured he's fine without me. And then we finally met at a reading he did for Michael Gizzi in the barn behind Melville's house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He read the poem he dedicated to me, and afterwards we went to dinner with a lot of people. It was a totally enjoyable evening for me.
TD: Why do you think you were asked to edit the letters?
WC: This is my guess. When Jimmy died, which was in April 1991, I wanted to have a memorial service for him in Boston, where he had, as I well knew, almost no audience at all, but I wanted to do it because I really loved his work. I got in touch with the poet Ed Barrett, who was at MIT--it was before I taught at MIT--and he said, sure I can get a room. And then I got in touch with Geoff Young, and said if I do this, do you want to go in and make a memorial booklet. Geoff said fine. Over the summer, we built the booklet. We got Trevor Winkfield to make a beautiful drawing for the poster. We had an all-star lineup. From New York, John Ashbery, Harry Matthews, Joe Brainard, Trevor, and Darragh Park. It was a fairly odd evening, because I was teaching at Harvard then, and I could not be home for dinner, which Beverly, my wife, served to thirteen people. I knew Darragh, Schuyler's executor, only slightly at that point, and so did not prepare her for the man--he is a stunning looking man, and he showed up at the front door dressed totally in leather because he had ridden his motorcycle up from South Hampton. She was sort of, "Well, William didn't tell me about this!"
So we put together this memorial service, and it was a wonderful reading. Peter was there, Michael Gizzi, Eileen Myles, Frank Bidart... and then back at the house, had one hell of a party. Which, as somebody pointed out to me, was perhaps because everybody feels New Yorkers always see each other, and they don't. They were in Boston together, and they had a great time. But anyway, Darragh actually asked me to become the editor at Jimmy's memorial service at the Poetry Project. I think it was spontaneous. He knew I loved the work, and that I knew the people involved. He wanted, obviously, to work with somebody who was not a professional editor; academic qualifications meant nothing to him, so he went with his instincts.
TD: Is there any one Schuyler letter, or a handful of letters in the book, that are your favorites?
WC: There's a love letter to John Button very early that seems to me to epitomize Jimmy--it's funny, it's smart, it's sad, it's just remarkable communication. The Miss Batie letter, which I use in classes a lot, the letter he wrote about his poem "February" to her--I don't even know if he sent it, because it has no signature at the bottom. Then there are short stories in the book; one of them deals with his breakdowns in 1972. There are about forty pages that I think will be powerful to any reader. Certainly the letters to Anne Dunn in which he gives an account of his first public reading, the one at the DIA Foundation. These stand out to me.
TD: With over a decade working on this project, it seems you should have been able to track down most of the correspondence. Were there any letters that you knew about that you couldn't lay your hands on?
WC: Jimmy's letters to Frank O'Hara. They were promised--Maureen O'Hara was standing there when Darragh asked me to edit the book, and she promised the letters then--but for reasons that she has not told me, she did not send me the letters until after the book appeared. In October 2004, the book arrived, like on a Tuesday morning; on Thursday, the letters arrived, Fed-Exed with a note. I emailed and said, thanks for the letters, Maureen, but you knew what the deadline was... what else could I say? Since I've had a chance to read them, I would say that about twenty pages of the letters would have been in the book. What I expected to happen has also happened: letters have come up because the book has been published by people that I didn't get in touch with, or people would simply find letters. A friend of Fizdale and Gold's, the piano duo--Arthur Gold was Jimmy's lover in the early '50s, and Jimmy traveled with them on a tour of Europe--discovered in a trunk a number of letters to both Fizdale and Gold. Some of them are love letters, but they are also filled with talk about music and many of these would have gotten in. I ought to add that these letters emphasize how significant classical music was to the first generation New York School. O'Hara played piano, and he along with Ashbery and Schuyler were constant concertgoers.
TD: You have an appendix in the book to discuss Schuyler's post cards, which are not included in the volume. To do it right, it seems like publishing a book of postcards would require featuring the front and backs of the cards, because you write that the image is almost always part of Schuyler's message or reason for sending the card in the first place.
WC: I'd love it if somebody would do it, but it would be expensive. He sent many postcards, and it would be a funny book, adding another dimension to Just the Thing. I doubt anybody will take on the project unless they want to sink a lot of money into something with very little possibility of return. I put the note in the back because Jimmy wrote a sufficient number of postcards, so I wanted them recognized as a major form of communication for him. The most I know of were the ones to Raymond Foye, who lived in the Hotel Chelsea, and is one of Jimmy's executors. Jimmy slipped between two and three hundred of those postcards into Raymond's mailbox. My god, say four to a page, image and message, we're talking about a huge book. Won't happen.
TD: Yesterday, when you were reading at Writers House, you said, "I write about what I see and hear." There are a number of poems in your New and Selected Poems, which, if they're not elegies, are at least elegiac, but those same poems also have a sense of wonderment. Is this a point of contact between Schuyler's poems and your own?
WC: That's a connection between our work, no question about it. The first poem I ever wrote--when I was twelve--was an elegy for the town Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania; the first line: "The gray sky sets on the gray hills." I'm twelve, walking through a town that I spent a lot of my youth in and knew I was leaving. All that you say about my work, about friendship, about family, the elegiac nature of it, is true. I wrote that way before Schuyler's work became so important to me. There are many other poets who I love with whom the connection is not so obvious, but to him the connection is that obvious and there's no way I could hide it even if I wanted to, which I don't. It's influence I guess, but more than that, it's a profound empathy.
TD: You also read some poems about Franz Kline that stood out to me as particularly charged and expressive.
WC: I wrote them two years ago, but I think it took all the years I've been looking at Kline for me to write those poems. They were set off by a show of drawings, at David McKee Gallery, on Saint Patrick's Day, and they go back to my childhood. Franz Kline grew up in Lehighton, which is the big town over from Jim Thorpe. One of the first times I saw his pictures, I absolutely recognized his thick black forms as coming from a landscape I knew. It charmed me that there's a picture of a small red house, an early picture of his, that I used to pass every year; I recognized it right away so there was an immediate I've been there connection. I've read and picked up information about him all over the place. There are seven poems forming a documentary poem. I think they're among the best poems I've ever written. Again, it's a question of empathy, of a close connection that finally evolved into poems. There's another poem like it to DeKooning, called "DeKooning"--again, a passionate enthusiasm. I tried to connect the same way with a number of other painters because I thought I was on a roll, but I wasn't. Or at least I dropped the thread and haven't been able to pick it up again.
TD: In the New and Selected there are some poems that seem to be directly addressed to a specific person, and those are some of my favorite poems. There's a certain intimacy there.
WC: I love the letter as a form of address, the letter poem. One of the most important poems in my life as a poet is Ezra Pound's translation "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter." That's the poem that made me want to be a poet when I read it at age fifteen; I said if somebody can do something like this with words, that's what I want to do. So that has been in me a long time. I like the idea of using poetry in a public way. The reason why you publish a letter-poem rather than simply leave it as a letter to somebody is that you're aware the intimacy in that address is also a way of addressing others. The intimacy will get across and that the content is communicable, precisely because it comes as a letter.
TD: Your poem "Tu Fu in English" shows another connection you have with the Asian tradition.
WC: I'd never use a phrase like Asian tradition. I'm in love with a few Chinese poets, and have been, as I said, since I was a teenager. Their clarity, what they draw from nature, the strong image, at least in Pound and others--Gary Snyder, David Hinton, Arthur Waley, Kwock and McHugh--there is a music I do not hear in other poetry. I'm not somebody who studied Asian religions; it's purely the poetry that struck a nerve early on. It's poetry that, often, when I feel the need to refuel, I go back and read. My eyes are clear because of it, my hearing is more acute, and I'm back in the world, and then sometimes poems occur.
TD: Yesterday you also spoke about Albert York, the painter. Do you see a relationship between your work and York's? I think you at least share what you called York's "becoming modesty."
WC: Well, thank you. I hope it's not the false aw shucks modesty of a Gary Cooper. I think that we both have an interest in what is called the ordinary and the everyday; so did Schuyler. I think we work the side of the street that values clarity and lucidity, and we hope that beneath clarity and lucidity of surface, there is mystery. I think we both make things easy. I couldn't love those paintings so much without there being something involved between me and them. As I'm sure is true with you, Tom, and your deepest enthusiasms.
TD: Yes, it is; in fact yesterday there were a few moments for me when it was simply beautiful to watch you up there next to the giant screen talking about these "small and strong" paintings you love. A few times a slide would come up and you would glow with admiration; at one point you said, "I just want to look at it, no great thoughts, I have great pleasure."
WC: This is the way I often feel about painting. Philip Guston liked to quote Leonardo's "painting is a thing of the mind." I guess one way to interpret that is that you're always thinking when looking, but I'm not aware of thinking; it does not feel like a state of thought, it feels like a state of absorption. And what I've learned in several slide lectures that I've given about Albert York is there are paintings about which I have nothing to say except, I really love looking at this one. I'm not saying it's profound, but it's very much directly what I feel. In a slide show I'm not interested in the art criticism that I do, the side work of translating Albert York for an audience. I'm interested in saying, here are the pictures, and the words that you're going to get are the words of somebody who feels this way about these pictures. Imagine it as a voice over. Imagine it as a crawl underneath the image. But do not imagine it as an attempt to explain what's up there--it's operating in parallel.
Beyond that, I've always liked to look. When I was a boy I had to be cuffed in the head by my grandmother or my mother. "Billy, what's wrong with you?" I could be lost in looking, and sometimes it would be embarrassing to people that I'd be looking so hard at them. One of the pleasures of painting is that you can look hard at pictures and they don't mind--though sometimes they look back hard at you, and you're very aware of that.
TD: It's not a formal concept in aesthetics.
WC: No, it isn't, no.
TD: Still, when you say the word "look," I think there's a way to talk about your own poetry in connection to activity, which you've certainly cultivated and I feel has numerous meanings for you, more than merely looking.
WC: Oh yeah, but I can simplify it. I'm a poet of consciousness, of consciousness in the world, as it goes by. I'm a poet of attention to that world, attention by ear, attention by eye. I write what I see and what I hear. That comes in the context of my feeling that I've never had an enormous amount of imagination. My poetry has often felt like anybody could do it; I happen to do it in my own way. I like to think of myself as somebody--and this can be a pain in the ass to other people--on whom nothing is lost. I could also say, and no sympathy is required, that when you look, you often see too much. And when you don't, when you miss something, you feel your powers of attention are not as great, and so, like anything, there's an element of a trap to it. But for people who value those virtues in poetry, I think they may find them in my poems. They're not the only virtues that poetry is capable of by any means. Of course, like everybody, I write the poems that I can write.
TD: Could you say a little about what Philip Guston meant to you?
WC: I seem to have talked about his importance to me until I'm sick of hearing myself, but in this context... well, I might have come to write art criticism had I not known him and sat at his feet, but I doubt it. My art writing continues for me my conversations with him, some of them all night conversations at our kitchen table, so that in my mind I often think when I'm writing about painting I'm writing to him and what would he say. And, of course, now that I'm the age he was when we met, I can talk back to him.
TD: You're a poet, you write art criticism, you edited this book of letters, and you're a small press publisher. Last night you said you used to think that your real work is the poetry, but through experience and time, you're seeing it now as all of a piece.
WC: Yes. I was wrong, I was making some hierarchical value. I was saying, well, the prose, the memoirs, they are all something else. No, no, it's not something else. It comes out of the same head, the same concerns. I value poetry enormously, so much so that I don't feel it's necessary to rate it above anything else. It's so present in my life, how could it be otherwise? But so are the movies. I wouldn't mind someday writing a movie script. I'd love to write a biography. This is partly an understanding that the here and now is what I have. Whatever the future does with it, I have no idea. Earlier you were talking about Joe Brainerd's I Remember and about teaching Edwin Denby's essay "Dancers, Buildings and People in the Street," and of course about Jimmy's book of letters. These texts are thought of as somehow secondary, but they're not to me; my imagination and my memory tell me otherwise. I'm not going to rate them below novels and poetry and plays. I'd love to write a detective novel, I just can never seem to come up with a plot. The fact is that all writing interests me, and I've drawn inspiration and pleasure from a wide variety of books. And that's begun, slow learner, to teach me that the poetry is the poetry. That it takes care of itself. When I sit down to write, I'm not saying to myself well, this book review is just a book review; it doesn't demand the same thing from me that poem does. No, I want to get the book review right too, am I saying the book review is faultless? No, but I'm not sure that the poems are either. It's not my call.
TD: How did you come to name your collection of Schuyler's letters Just the Thing?
WC: For many years, I didn't have a title. And then when we signed a contract with Jonathan Rabinowitz, the publisher of Turtle Point Press in New York, he took to calling the book Love, Jimmy, because Jimmy invariably signed himself that way. I knew that wasn't going to be the title. Every January, I teach a course in letters at MIT in which people write letters, we talk about letters, and I usually devote part of it to letter poems. I was teaching Jimmy's poem "A Stone Knife," and I was reading aloud this section: "it is just the thing / to do what with? To / open letters? No, it / is just the thing, an / object dark, fierce / and beautiful in which / the surprise is that / the surprise once / past is always there: / which to enjoy is / not to consume"--and I knew I had the title, "Just the Thing." I liked the bareness of those words, I liked the fact that he's asking a question here and answering it. It's a letter poem about getting a letter opener, a public poem in that it's a thank you note--again saying, poetry has practical value and this is what it can be used for--but don't be fooled into thinking that the intimacy of expression is only between two people. That intimacy of expression is the best possible language lined up in the best possible way. Also, it is a poem to Kenward Elmslie, and I already knew that the introduction of the book was going to start off with something that Kenward had said to me about Jimmy's letters, so it simply seemed perfect, and I enjoy the way it sounds still.
TD: I do not remember the title of the poem you read last night, but you have a line, which is just so straightforward and so wonderful: "Is it the romance of life and art that has me hooked?"
WC: Yeah, it's an ongoing wonder to me. When I was a boy I would make things up and embellish and tell stories, and my grandmother would say, "Oh you're fibbing, don't do that." I think a lot of kids had this experience where what we come to see as imaginative, taking whatever had happened in the day and juicing it up, souping it up like a car, was part of the pleasure we were getting out of language, the pleasure we were getting out of being alive in the world. I still have that, but of course, I took to my heart my grandmother's admonition, and I wonder sometimes if my passions about things are not just carrying me away into some romance of life and art. I believe the imagination is a real thing, as real as any other thing but sometimes I wonder whether I'm just fibbing, and maybe I am. It is a question, which perhaps the poem answers only by its existence, and it's an ongoing question I feel I will always ask.
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