An Interview with Anne Stevenson

An Interview with Anne Stevenson

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Anne Stevenson is a poet, critic and biographer (of Sylvia Plath, in Bitter Fame) A recent book is Poems 1955-2005, a remaking of her earlier Collected Poems, draws on over a dozen previous collections as well as new poems and emphasises the craft, coherence and architecture of her life’s work.

Readers Loft: Your first book (Elizabeth Bishop), and also one of your most recent books (Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop), discuss the work of Elizabeth Bishop. She has been an abiding interest and influence. Why EB, particularly?

Anne Stevenson: My little book on Elizabeth Bishop, published in 1965 or 6, was practically my first. I published a thin volume of my own work with the University of Michigan student press, Generation, at about the same time. It was Donald Hall, appointed today, I’m glad to see, as Poetry Laureate, who, knowing my enthusiasm for Bishop’s work, first put me in touch with the editor of the Twayne United States Authors Series.

At the time I was living in a slum of Watertown, Mass, with a young English husband, Mark Elvin (now a famous Sinologist), who made me aware of similarities between Bishop’s poems and Japanese Haiku — not in form but in outlook. At the time I was looking for ways of combining an objective view of nature with my own personal emotion, and when I found those Key West poems, such as The Fish, Cootchie and Little Exercise, I fell for them completely. Marianne Moore had swept the road before her, but Elizabeth was less spinsterish and fussy. Her letters to me showed me an entirely new way of thinking about poetry.

RL: You’ve written about many women writers, most famously, perhaps, on Sylvia Plath. Arguably, Plath’s life has obscured her poetry somewhat, but do you still rate and read her work?

AS: Yes, I do. Sylvia, two months older than I, was, as a poet, far ahead of me in the 60s, but we experienced the same confusions about marriage, children and ambition, and we both had terribly naive, idealistic expectations when we came to England. When Ariel appeared I recognized the world of Plath’s madness without actually going mad myself. It was a near miss, though. I suppose Ariel became a sort of substitute breakdown for lots of women at that time.

The book bowled us over, spoiled, highly educated, middle class wives that we were, weighted down by family guilt and hovering mothers. After Ariel appeared, I began to write a dramatic poem in letters called Correspondences in which I tried to explore the historical background to the panic that struck my generation after the war. The poem made no impact on the poetry world when Wesleyan published it in 1974 because, I imagine, it wasn’t mad enough. But I think it’s important, all the same. Writing it saved my sanity.

RL: Are you still hurt by all the fuss your Plath biography caused, or are you just glad that now, in Janet Malcolm’s words, the assessment is that Bitter Fame is “by far the most intelligent, and the only authentically satisfying” Plath biography?

AS: No, I was never that hurt. There are things wrong with the biography that I am attempting to put right now. I should have gone into the matter of Plath’s relationship with her psychotherapist, Ruth Beuscher, which now seems to me an important aspect of her tragedy. But on the whole, I think Bitter Fame put Sylvia’s determined yet vulnerable character in the right perspective. I have never felt that Ted Hughes was anything more than vulnerable and much hurt himself. I’ve always thought that ‘blame’ in such cases does no one any good, not even the blamer.

RL: You’ve said, “The women poets I favour, though feminists, have not put writing poetry at the service of their politics … For when a poet or novelist is “really writing”, as Sylvia Plath put it — slipping perhaps into sudden ease after a long struggle — then the whole labelling apparatus of criticism, ideology, competition and self-consciousness becomes irrelevant.” But isn’t the personal truth and the individual voice that an artist strives so hard for still apparrent only within a society and so still determined to some extent by that society? So, we might try to push out “politics” and “society”, but doesn’t it always come back and bite us!?

AS: Yes, of course. We none of us can escape the time and place into which we were born. As my son told me bluntly just the other morning, “I didn’t ask to be born!” However, it seems to me that an intelligent or a curious person who relishes the imagination, a person who reads a good deal of history, including the poetry and fiction of other times, and who keeps up with what is happening in the natural sciences (very easy to do these days without much technical knowledge) will discover sooner or later that he or she is not at all unique in the universe.

There are ways in which we are like the people all around us, and there are other ways in which we are like all people, everywhere, and there are a few ways in which we are only like ourselves. I don’t think it’s escapist to want to forget one’s self. What I like best about Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry is that in poems like The Moose she takes off from herself, from where she sits in that bus on a level with all the other passengers, into what she remembers and pictures of her own family, her own grandparent’s lives, and then, from there, into the mysterious otherworld of the moose in the New Brunswick forest.

You don’t need the consolation of another world in heaven if you have the curiosity and lack of egotism to look deeply into this one. And if you can articulate that unselfish insight in poetry, I mean in poetry that moves a lot of people, then you will have found your voice. Like most poets, I often depend on something outside myself to give me the lines I need — a muse, if you like, but a muse that inhabits the unconscious.

RL: Do you see your work, as Andrew Motion does, as placed within a lineage of puritan women poets from Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath!?

AS: How can I comment? Correspondences is certainly a poem about American puritans and how that deep New England strain come through to the present. But I have lived in England for over 40 years now, and most of my recent poems are set in Britain — in Wales, the Industrial north-east, even in Scotland.

RL: You’ve said that you’ve “cancelled all my subscriptions to poetry magazines” and “prefer to read the New Scientist”. Are there any new poets you’ve come across recently that you like?

AS: That remark was a petulant exaggeration! I subscribe to about 10 literary magazines, including the TLS and the London Review of Books, PN Review and Poetry Chicago. And there are many younger poets I admire, such as Don Paterson and the Welsh poet, Robert Minhinnick.

I also think highly of Clive Wilmer and Robert Wells. In general, though, I think it’s a bad idea for young poets to get a lot of uncritical attention before they know who they are. Julia Copus could be very good, I think. I like Andrew MacNeillie’s bird poems and some of Tim Kendall’s. and Alice Oswald’s …I’m sure there are more.

RL: What is your favourite novel, Anne? And — excepting EB and SP — who are your favourite writers and why?

AS: Every time I re-read War and Peace I think it’s my favorite novel, until I begin to read Emma or Persuasion or Middlemarch. But I enjoy many modern novels. I’m a novel addict.

RL: What is your favourite poem of your own?

AS: The last one written. Actually, Clutag Press, based in Oxford, and created by Andrew MacNeillie, is currently bringing out a limited edition of 200 copies of a 20-page poem called A Lament for the Makers in a series that includes Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill. I think the Lament is the best poem I have written …

RL: How do you write? Longhand or straight onto the screen? In one burst or with lots and lots of editing?

AS: I always write drafts in pencil on secretarial pads of lined paper, scribbling lines as they come to me. I don’t always know what they mean, but I revise them, try them out in different combinations of sound, until I have something I like. I often write in the car, while my husband drives, or on a pad beside me when I’m cooking supper (usually with a glass of wine).

Once I know a poem is coalescing, I try it out in longhand until I can’t read my own writing. Then, in desperation, I turn to the screen. But that’s always a danger, because if you put half a poem on the screen it kills it dead. The life drains out of its neat stanzas, and it’s the devil’s work to make it live again.

RL: Any tips for the aspiring writer?

AS: Read and read and read, particularly the major writings of dead authors! Learn another language; it will help you to understand your own. Patience. Stay open to experience, and, if you stay awake worrying about rivals, think about botany for a while, or the drought in Africa.

RL: What are you working on now?

AS: The libretto of a short opera called The Myth of Medea for which the Welsh composer Rhian Samuel is writing music. I’ve got three scenes that work, I think, but I’m stuck for an ending that will suit both the composer and myself. It’s not a tragic opera; Euripides has a major part, and most of it consists of his argument with Medea as to what really happened.

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