Interview with Doug Holder

Bob Clawson, Kathleen Spivack, and Doug Holder
Bob Clawson, Kathleen Spivack, and Doug Holder

Kathleen Spivack was a close friend of Robert Lowell, played Ping Pong on a regular basis with Elizabeth Bishop, and attended workshops with Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Still, she is one of the most accessible poets I know. She goes out her way to help people, she has a slew of adoring students, and has an abundance of energy that seems to have not abated over the years. Spivack is the author of The Break Up Variations; The Beds We Lie In, Robert Lowell, A Personal Memoir; among other works. Spivack directs the Advanced Writers Workshop, an intensive coaching program for advanced writers. She is a permanent Visiting Professor of Creative Writing/American Literature at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show ” Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Q.   Doug Holder:
You wrote a memoir about your time with the poet Robert Lowell.

A.    Kathleen Spivack:
I was very close to Lowell. I have also known Plath, Sexton and poets from what are now called the “Middle Generation.” I came to the Boston area on a fellowship when I was seventeen to study with Robert Lowell. Lowell realized that I was completely green and he pawned me off on these other women who happened to be Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. He had me sit on that early workshop at Boston University with George Starbuck. Over the years became his close friend and sort of teaching assistant for 20 years of his life until his death. One of the things he did was ask me to come to his house (on Marlborough Street in Boston) for tutorials two or three times a week. I thought he asked me because he thought I was just so stupid in comparison to the other students. I thought he going to teach me so I could catch up. I chose Lowell because nobody understood his poetry, and his stuff was sufficiently obscure, that nobody would mind me studying with him, as opposed to the highly visible and controversial Allen Ginsberg. Eventually I stayed at the Lowell household. His wife was Elizabeth Hardwick. Lowell was a complete advocate for me in every way. He took my work to publishers, etc. He took my poetry to The New Yorker; that was my first publication. I don’t know if he liked my work or not. But he was such a loyal friend. He wrote me these wonderful letters; well, they were quite domestic really, not too literary, I wasn’t at that level.

DH:

You teach in France part of the year. Tell me how you got this gig. Are the French more receptive to your poetry than here in the States?

KS:

I have taught all over the world. The way I got this steady gig in France was interesting. I was pregnant, and I was living in Somerville in one room. One day I picked up a couple of hitchhikers. They were some kids on the street my age. They were trying to find a youth hostel. I was living in one room in Somerville, it was hot; and I was very pregnant. I told them they could come back to my place for a night or two. One night ended up becoming their entire vacation. And twenty years later I got a letter from them inviting me to become a professor at the University of Paris. They had become directors of American Literature at the University of Paris, though when I met them American Lit. that wasn’t even a “subject” at this point. America was still considered a savage tribe; and nobody was interested. But this young group was interested and they headed the selection committee some twenty years later. The original appointment was for 6 months, but now it has been twenty years. I’ve loved every minute of it. I admire France for its cultural and educational commitment.  I’ve taught every level of grammar, remedial English, Advanced classsses for the aggregation, Expository Writing, and American Literature, all levels. ” Creative Writing, ”in English, so called, is just a motivator.
The French are skeptical; they don’t believe that creative writing can be taught
. They have Baudelaire!

DH:

You have collaborated with musicians and composers. Does poetry enhance the music or does music enhance the poetry?

KS:

Poetry naturally goes with music. I went to Oberlin and studied music along with literature. I wrote a poetry book titled “The Jane Poems” that was based on American music history. The words and music came together–it was an anti-war book. I performed them with the music of jazz saxophonist Stan Getz . Then a composer, Eliot Balaban, put something together and we performed it at the A.R.T. and in New York. I have also performed in France. I have had other works set to music as well. I worked with a young composer Eva Kendrick in the U.S.as well as musicians Lawrence Fosse, Colin Dixon, and Arnaud Gilbert.

DH:

What is your poetry teaching philosophy?


KS:

I teach poetry but also all kinds of writing,all genres, short stories and essays, nonfiction books etc. Right now I am working with a Huntington Theater Fellow in Boston and playwrights in Boston and New York,and also with novelists and nonfiction writers. As to philosophy, I work individually with every writer and project. I think people hold back when they start writing. They save the best for last. My recommendation is to start with your best–and write upward from there. I always push for that. I create a sense of process and keep away from the idea of the writing as “product” until I feel the work is ready to be shown.But when it is ready I know my writers are going to publish and win the prizes. If you are on your path, in your process, I will protect that.

DH:

You have written about the different approaches Plath and Sexton took to their poetry.


KS:

I got to see their first drafts. I also saw Lowell’s response. I think Sexton was the more natural poet. Sylvia was more controlled. Sylvia was very self-protective. Lowell couldn’t access her work as well as that of Sexton. Sexton was a natural; it just flowed out of her.
Poet Lois Ames also observed both of them. Lowell wrote how surprised he was that Plath wrote “Ariel,” because he could not have predicted it from the very staid, and perfect poems of her past. I would have liked to see the mature work of both, but they both died young. Stanley Kunitz for instance, had a whole second flowering after he was 70.

DH:

You were a regular Ping Pong partner with the poet Elizabeth Bishop.

KS:

Lowell introduced me to Bishop when she first came to Harvard. She had arthritis. I went to her place three times a week to play ping pong with her. Believe it or not I was good in racket sports then. We talked about her problems, we had lunch, and at times she would read to me.

DH:

Do you have a new book in the process of coming out?

KS:

Yes. “A History of Yearning.” It concerns my new way of seeing things when I got back from Europe. I am a child of European refugees. It is about history, art. It should be out in the fall 2010.

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