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3811 words
SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

Writing Through the Night: Stanley Kunitz
[Greenwich Village, 2005]

An Interview by Michael Lee

LEE: I was struck by the story that despite graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, you were discouraged from teaching there because of the resentment of having someone Jewish on the English faculty. At that early point in your life, it must have been devastating.

KUNITZ: Oh, it was catastrophic. I was such an innocent about those matters, and it wrecked all my dreams of the sort of life I would lead. On the other hand, it served me a good term because I didn’t become an academic. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a creative person.

LEE: And so you avoided academia?

KUNITZ: Yes, I avoided academia for 20 years and I had given up all hope for it and all desire for it. It seemed to be out of my world. And when I was drafted into World War II—though I was a pacifist, and that was a terrible struggle because you’re not supposed to be a pacifist and be in the Army. In the minds of the FBI, who trailed me, I was a dirty Red. So I was treated that way in the Army.

LEE: You know, we’re not talking all that long ago.

KUNITZ: (laughs) If you live long enough you experience everything.

LEE: Stanley, your first book of poems, Intellectual Things, was published in 1930 and your second book, Passport to War, in 1944. Why the gap of 14 years, and did you learn something about poetry in that span of time?

KUNITZ: Well, the war had a lot to do with it. Just the ferment in that time and the difficulty I had in surviving. I had to work to survive in that period and then I spent almost four years in the Army. It was not a good time for me.

LEE: You’ve also written critical essays and translated some of the great Russian poets. Does this in some way inform your own work?

KUNITZ: Oh yes, I think so. Especially the poems of Akhmatova—a gray, heroic soul. Translating her poems taught me a lot. All the great writers of the modern world have been heroic in certain ways and I learned from them how to cope with conflicts and disasters. I learned how to deal with them without self pity or rage.

LEE: Do you speak Russian?

KUNITZ: No. I never heard a word of Russian spoken in our household.

LEE: Then how does a translation by you work?

KUNITZ: Well, first of all you have to feel from just what you know about the poet in question; you have to feel compatible. Then, what I did in my case, which is what has been done traditionally through the centuries, is to work together with a scholar who is an expert in the language, so if you have any questions you turn to your collaborator and you solve it. I have a rudimentary knowledge of Russian, but certainly not enough to cope with the delicacies of meaning. And in my case, my collaborator was Max Hayward, now gone, who was a great Slavic scholar at Oxford University. We worked very closely together.

LEE: Let’s talk a bit about the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, beginning with its history. Some people might have forgotten just how bad things were economically for all of Provincetown in the late 60’s. Did you and the other founders start the Works Center because of the economy or in spite of it?

KUNITZ: Because of the economy, yes. That was the least provocation. The stores in town were in bad shape, suffering, closing one by one. The artists were leaving. I’ve told this story before, but when I was living on the beach there in the mid-town, in the next shack there was a whole group of artists living and I think the most prominent of that group told me one day that he was leaving P-Town. And I asked him why because he seemed so happy here—everybody seems so happy to be living here—and he said, “Well, if you want to be a success, you go to where the successful artists live.” So he moved to East Hampton.

LEE: You obviously didn’t agree.

KUNITZ: But also, what happened was that a group of citizens, not necessarily artists, organized and they held a succession of public meetings. We met on the upper floor of the tennis club and the question was how do we salvage this town? There was a group of, I’d say, between 20 to 30 involved. They had fabulous and some of them absolutely impossible ideas of how we were going to save the town. I think it was about the third or fourth meeting and the group dwindled when they saw how difficult the issue was to solve. The discussion finally began to revolve around the scheme of something to do with the arts and there were some in that group who had the fantasy that we could start a post-graduate school of the arts. That’s a pipe dream, of course. Then another group wanted an organization to help local artists, dole money out to them. But that wasn’t going to do much for the town. And I had the vision of the Work Center. It was difficult, but I had this vision exactly the way its turned out and run finally. But practically over my dead body. (laughs)

LEE: Do you think Provincetown would be the haven for artists that it is today if it hadn’t been for the Works Center?

KUNITZ: I certainly do not, no. I think the Works Center was the salvation of Provincetown and in its slow way, it brought in artists and some of them settled into town and didn’t leave when their term was over. The dealers began to come into town again and others survived who were on the verge of bankruptcy. It’s changed with the help of other organizations too; the Art Association has been very important. But generally speaking, I think the momentum came from the Works Center.

LEE: I’ve spoken to Hunter O’Hanian [former director of the FAWC] about the economic impact the Fine Arts Work Center has on Provincetown’s economy and it’s astounding. He’s got some facts and figures to back him up, so it’s not just trumpeting.

KUNITZ: We are astonished, truly. It has had a tremendous impact. And I think the word is getting around. In the beginning we were thought of as an elitist little group and, in a way, disconnected with the townspeople. But we’ve never thought in that way. We know the arts are more than a self indulgence; we know they are a passion from within and, at the same time, very socially connected.

LEE: To me, that is no better underscored than this past summer, during that weekend that you and Robert Pinsky read one night and then Mary Oliver the next night—you would have thought international rock stars had jetted in to give a concert considering the crowds that showed up.

KUNITZ: (laughs) Well, I think the word is spreading round that the arts are essential if life is not to be dominated by the quest for money, power, and the rest of it. The American system has been based on those concepts, those are the myths that have driven it. This is one of the reasons why the rest of the world, in so many aspects, especially in the impoverished states, fears and hates us. We have the opportunity, really, to spread another kind of language around the world which has nothing to do with the materialistic motivations that drive most of the sources of power in this country.

LEE: With the proliferation of all the graduate writing programs in the past twenty years, there seems to me a danger of rubber-stamping all artists and having them follow the same rules and patterns. I’m wondering if the non-academic atmosphere at the Fine Arts Work Center is somewhat of a response to that.

KUNITZ: Oh yes, Michael, definitely. This was one of the primary concepts at the very beginning. When I was a young man there were no teaching programs in poetry, for example, and if one had any aspirations to be a poet, the only way you could learn the rudiments of the art was by turning to the masters and reading them, devouring them. And the result was that poets who emerged were not encouraged by the milieu and it was necessary to struggle for any kind of recognition. The consequence was that each poet was an individual and was, in a way, self-taught and not simply practicing a craft, but exploring the life within and the connection with the world outside. What happened gradually was that the colleges began, one by one, to open up graduate writing programs and the young persons in those classrooms were all taught to write the same way. And the poems that began to flow out of the academies all sounded alike. My feeling was what the we should have a program that would prevent the academization of poetry that would take them at their most vulnerable time, when they were committed to writing, and in a non-academic atmosphere, but in the company of their peers and with as little instruction as possible. All this in a friendly atmosphere and company that in itself would be as a motivation and a source of inspiration. So that was the concept behind the Work Center.

LEE: And yet the summer programs bring in a great deal of money to the Fine Arts Work Center and certainly an academic structure and atmosphere.

KUNITZ: Well, the summer programs are different. They are a means of survival for the Works Center.

LEE: There have been some interesting choices to run the day-to-day operations of Fine Arts Work Center over its history, including that great idea of selling birdhouses to finance the place.

KUNITZ: (laughing) Oh yeah. That was one of the mad ideas that was doomed from the start. That was crazy. But it was a period of desperation; we were so poor, really, and no foundation money. Nothing. The local community had no money to give and we were unknown nationally.

LEE: How is the relationship between the Fine Arts Work Center and the Provincetown Art Association been over the years?

KUNITZ: Well, in the beginning it was difficult. I think there was a bit of resentment on the part of the members of the Art Association.

LEE: Did they feel threatened?

KUNITZ: I think there was that sense. And there was no confidence that we would amount to anything. We were in a different state, we wanted to have a close association with them, but they didn’t want us. But those days are long gone and I think it’s a happy relationship right now. We need each other now and then we complement each other.

LEE: Did you ever envision the Fine Arts Work Center would arrive at this point with such a bright future?

KUNITZ: A poet has to have imagination and in my imagination I thought it would come to that. (laughs)

LEE: As a boy growing up in Worcester, you must have been aware of Provincetown, but what are your earliest memories of actually going there?

KUNITZ: Well, I’ll tell you exactly. In the 30’s, I was living in Connecticut in Mansfield Center. This was during the Great Depression and I had come to New York after working at the local newspaper there, and found a farm for $500 down and $3000 was the price for a hundred acres. I wrote a prose poem about that you should look up called, “The Old Darned Man.” I had read about the writers who had emerged from Provincetown earlier in the century, so I drove in my Model A Ford to Provincetown because I wanted to see the place. It was a sleepy, depressed fishing village—charming, of course, and beautiful in so many ways—and I’ll never forget my first impression of walking on the beach in the mid-town area. And there was Charles Hawthorne conducting a class. There were a lot of women, mainly, with bonnets and long dresses at their easels. It was such a lovely picture that it seemed to me to be an ideal place. Like every poet that I know, I’ve been in search of a community. That’s part of the life of a poet, to find a community in which one feels welcomed, first of all, and secondly, in which one has companionship. What happens is the presence of artists brings in more and more artistic folk and eventually it brings in wealthy persons who like the presence of artists but are not really artists themselves. Finally the real estate market becomes inflated and the artists have to leave because they can’t afford to stay.

LEE: It’s the biggest threat to Provincetown.

KUNITZ: That is the threat. And we are well aware of it and at the Works Center very much involved with the concept of affordable housing for artists. We’ll do what we can and then we’ll do more.

LEE: Here in Greenwich Village and in Provincetown, it seems you have the best of possible worlds.

KUNITZ: When I came to Manhattan in 1928, I came here because I thought of it as the cultural capital of the United States, which it is. And I felt it was actually essential for me to test myself with the best there was. Of course, I knew about Greenwich Village and that fascinated me. The first place I lived in—it was a question of what I could afford—and that was a basement apartment on West 9th Street, the same block between 5th and 6th Avenue and it was in the back with no light. (laughs) I could rent it for $25 a month and there was a speakeasy in front. Of course, the story that I think is amusing, is that after almost 75 years, I’ve advanced three blocks north. (laughs) Obviously, I felt at home.

LEE: At this rate, you’ll never make it to Chelsea.

KUNITZ: Yeah. But Provincetown, to me, is the answering of a seaside country place.

LEE: Let’s talk a bit about your work and your career. You’ve won every conceivable award and honor possible, so I won’t list them here, but the economics of awards aside, how personally gratifying are these honors?

KUNITZ: Well, I keep telling myself not to let them go to my head. The prizes mean more to the world than they do to the recipient, and in fact, they can be dangerous. They can inflate your ego to a point where you’re unable to work with the materials of the life. You have to be humble to explore those areas and you have to forget that your name was in the paper the day before or on the air. In the end, it’s an art where you are all alone with the self most of the time and the self is groping to find some meaning to your existence and to explore your relationship with the world around you. You cannot do that out of pride or arrogance.

LEE: Perhaps these awards are a way for us to give back to the men and women who help us discover that sense of self worth in your poetry.

KUNITZ: One thought that is important that I have tried to define over the years is that if you want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in history it is to poetry you must turn.

LEE: What is your typical work day like now?

KUNITZ: Well, I’m a night worker. Always have been. I love the secrecy of the night and the silence of it. I often work right through the night until dawn. Fortunately, I get along with little sleep. That’s something I trained myself to do. But I started that in childhood because I used to go to bed with a book and I would be up most of the night reading my book which I hid under the mattress so my mother couldn’t find it.

LEE: Were your parents readers?

KUNITZ: Yes, we were one of the few families in Worcester at that time who had a real library.

LEE: Could you possibly walk us through the stages of creation for a poem? Does each poem dictate a different approach to you?

KUNITZ: I don’t think there is a different strategy about writing different poems. Each poet develops a process and it can differ radically. In my case a poem has basically, at its start, not much more than a phrase and the phrase has a rhythm and you have to open yourself mainly to it as song. You keep playing with language until the poem begins to evolve, and you’re writing on that rhythm. It’s almost like an incantation. At a certain point, I start writing by scribbling on a pad or a piece of notebook paper in pencil so you can correct easily. I go as far as I can go and then I throw that piece of paper on the floor and start again and go a little further. Then I throw that piece of paper on the floor and start always at the beginning because you want to sustain the song. And eventually, there you are. You come to a point where you can’t go any further. Whatever issues have been raised, you have, if you’re lucky, resolved. And then comes the final tuning of the poem and that may take as long as the original writing.

LEE: In your prelude, “Reflections,” to your latest, The Collected Poems, you write, “To put it simply, conservation of energy is the function of form.” What strikes me is that many of your poems resonate with a kind of sustainable energy. I’m thinking specifically of two poems that are diametrically opposed in theme: one is the delightful “The Waltzer in the House,” about the scuttling white mouse, that bursts with a great energy. The other is a heart-wrenching poem called, “The Unquiet Ones,” in which your “Father and mother lie in their neglected cribs, obscure as moles, unvisited.” There is a darker energy packed in this poem where your parents are roaming the halls of your memory. Exactly how is the conservation of energy the function of form?

KUNITZ: Well, the object in writing the poem is to write something that will sustain its energy. Out of a poem that is badly organized, that wanders off, that disperses its energies through too many words, or too many lines, the energy leaks. The whole art of poetry is attached to the issue of preserving that energy so that any new reader at any new time can pick it up and the energy is all there.

LEE: Your poem “The Last Picnic,” from your second book of poetry, The Passport to War, was written following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and you exhort the reader to “come let’s pick the bones and feathers of our fun.”

KUNITZ: This was in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which was a community that I settled in after my Connecticut days. I was farming on a more modest scale. But we were picnicking on the canal.

LEE: At the end of that poem, you write, “yesterday we had a world to lose.” That’s a poem that’s so relevant now as it was then, and my question is, do these poems that are written in reaction to a specific incident present any different predicaments for the poet?

KUNITZ: I don’t think so. All of it in the end is filtered through the complex organism of your memory and desires. So what you put into it in the beginning, is in the end, a product of what you have within you, rather than the issue that inspired it.

LEE: You make the process sound so simple.

KUNITZ: It’s not. (laughs)

LEE: Stanley, you’ve written unflinchingly about death your entire life. A line from “Single Vision” in your first collection reads, “I shall have risen to disown the good mortality I won.” And then 65 years later, from “Touch Me,” you write, “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire. The longing for the dance stirs in the buried life.” There is a certain remarkable consistency there considering six and a half decades separate those lines. As you’ve grown older, do you think of death differently?

KUNITZ: Oh, yes. In my early years I was terrified at the thought of death. That was largely because I lived in a household where the death of my father dominated. I haven’t gone into this often, but my mother eventually remarried when I was eight; and he was a beautiful man who gave me the kind of attention and had a gentleness of spirit that really saved me in many respects. And he died six years later when I was 14. I couldn’t sleep at night, so that’s why I read, because I attached the condition of sleep with the condition of death, you see. So it was a terribly difficult time for me and at this age, although I don’t welcome the thought, I completely understand mortality, largely through my involvement with the natural world. I understand mortality as the absolutely essential condition of life on this planet. Humanity requires a limited population that can occupy the planet without destroying it. Knowing that helps me at least meet this issue with understanding and without panic.

LEE: Is there a bittersweet quality to living as long as you have?

KUNITZ: Yes, very much so. But if one had the choice of not living at all, would one take it? No.

LEE: What has been the impact of Provincetown on your work?

KUNITZ: Well, all I can say about that is that it’s a place I cherish and that I’m happy being there. I have the kind of feeling not only about the world outside me, what is fresh and beautiful about Provincetown, but I have the opportunity of solitude and the friendship and comradeship that I require, or that any artist requires.

LEE: Let me finish up by staying with that poem, “Touch Me.” In the final lines you write, “Darling, do you remember the man you married? Touch me, remind me who I am.” Again there is that bittersweet quality to this, and it seems to be applicable not only to your wife Elise, but to all life well lived. Was that your intent?

KUNITZ: Of course, one never examines one’s motivation in writing a poem, but I like what you say and I’ll buy it. (laughs)


SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

Michael Lee

is a Cape Codder who served for seven years as literary editor for the biweekly newsmagazine, The Cape Cod Voice. His numerous short stories and articles appear in such publications as The Yale Review, New Letters, and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

A short story from Lee’s collection, Paradise Dance (Leapfrog Press, 2002), won an honorable mention for a Pushcart Prize. His collection of humor essays, In an Elevator with Brigitte Bardot, was published by Wordcraft of Oregon in 2007.

Lee is a member of PEN International, the Author’s Guild, the Norman Mailer Society, and the National Book Critics Circle. He is currently working on two novels: Dancing Man, and a novel based on his immanent return to Khe Sanh, Vietnam, where he wrote dispatches for Stars and Stripes while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury