Ada Limón and the Poetry of Rebellion

-

Ada Limón was always going to be an artist. “I love the idea of making things, creating things, performing things,” she says via Zoom from her home in Lexington, Ky., where she’s lived for the past decade with her husband, Lucas Marquardt, a horse racing reporter. Her office’s door is closed until the relentless pawing of their ancient cat (“I think we’ve figured out she’s 21”) forces her to hop up and let the animal in. “My undergraduate degree is in drama, and for a long time, I thought that my career would either be on the stage or behind the stage, in some way. I was also a dance minor. I was very much the person who was into all the performing arts. It wasn’t until my junior year, when I was not allowed to take any more performing arts electives, because I had taken them all, that I took my first poetry class. And from the minute I took it, I was like, I’m in love with this. This is exactly what I wanted to do.”
That class was providence, as Limón, 46, is now one of America’s preeminent poets, and her prominence is only growing—as is her prolificacy. Last September, Milkweed Editions, Limón’s longtime publisher, announced a three-book deal with her brokered by Rob McQuilkin at Massie & McQuilkin. The titles acquired include Beast: An Anthology of Animal Poems, which Limón will edit, and which is set to be released in 2024; a volume of new and selected poems due in 2025; and The Hurting Kind, her latest, which will hit shelves in May.

Previously, Limón had published five collections, the last three of them with Milkweed. Two of those titles attracted the attention of nearly all of the country’s major literary awards bodies. In 2015, her collection Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry, while her following book, The Carrying, won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award and was shortlisted for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award in 2019. Both of those books received widespread acclaim. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called The Carrying “gorgeous, thought-provoking,” and a “fearless collection.” And last year, Limón was tapped to host The Slowdown podcast, a collaboration between American Public Media and the Poetry Foundation, for its third season, succeeding U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith.
It’s not just the artistic establishment that has embraced Limón’s work. The two aforementioned collections have sold more than 55,000 print copies combined, according to NPD BookScan—a remarkable feat in a literary form long considered a commercial black hole. Perhaps Limón herself would ascribe her books’ success to a resurgence in appreciation for the form. “For all its faults, I think that social media has actually done one wonderful thing for poetry…and in many, many ways allow for poetry to become completely accessible to anyone,” she told CNN last October. “It is an amazing time to be alive in the world of poetry.”
But Daniel Slager, Limón’s editor and Milkweed’s publisher and CEO, sees Limón’s success as an extension of her particular gift. “In the poetry world, the whole notion of being approachable or readable can be a curse,” he says, “because it’s often thought to be antithetical to sophistication artistically—a stupid dichotomy, really, although at times there’s something to it. But she just transcends that, in such a beautiful way, with so much integrity. Poets’ poets love her, and people who don’t read that much poetry love her. I think that’s so remarkable.” Also remarkable, Slager notes, is that her next book is, to his mind, her best yet: “It’s not that common for writers that each book is better, but that’s been the case with Ada.”
The Hurting Kind exhibits all of the lyrical and thematic hallmarks of Limón’s poetry: deft narrative, elegant poetic structure, and attunement with and appreciation for the natural world. The book is separated into four sections, each named after one of the seasons of the year, and showcases its author’s deep understanding and questioning both of the nature of human interconnectedness, and of loss. Still, the book represents, in some sense, a break from Limón’s prior work—or at least the narrative around it.
“One of the things that happened with The Carrying, which is totally understandable, was that it had a lot of narrative around it—it had a tagline,” Limón says. While that book dealt plainly with her struggles with vertigo and with conceiving a child, she did not think that the pain those poems conveyed would dominate its critical reception so decidedly. “‘A woman struggling with infertility’—every review started with that,” she recalls. “I think that part of the joy of making this book was finding out what it is to push against some of that, to write with a kind of abandon, without pinpointing a specific narrative of a life that can be summed up.”
In that light, The Hurting Kind’s first poem, “Give Me This,” could be seen almost as a mission statement. Her recent work, she explains, is “urgently set on speaking from the me that is both the speaker and the author.” “Give Me This” does just that, with the speaker describing an experience of Limón’s watching a groundhog “waddle-thieving my tomatoes still/ green in the morning’s shade” and “taking such pleasure in the watery bites.” The poem asks, “Why am I not allowed delight?”—a question likely relatable to anyone reading poetry in a world enduring a global pandemic and facing heightened global strife and an ever-worsening climate disaster.
McQuilkin, Limón’s agent, found that sentiment particularly powerful when he first read the collection, in spring 2021. “I remember getting very excited about what role the book could play out there, in these times, that are in so many ways bleak,” he says. “Somehow, things feel a little less bleak when you’re reading Ada, because she finds the contours of what is real, and beautiful, even when things are not perfect or complete.”
In the end, the speaker of “Give Me This” allows herself that delight, becoming one, in a way, with the intruding rodent:

I watch the groundhog more closely and a sound escapes
me, a small spasm of joy I did not imagine
when I woke. She is a funny creature and earnest,
and she is doing what she can to survive.

The poem is “a little, tiny rebellion,” Limón explains. “It’s like, ‘I’m gonna watch this freakin’ groundhog and I’m not going to tell you my thoughts on suffering’—even though, of course, this book is full of joy and grief both, and life.”
It is a rebellion, too, against lyric poetry’s more lachrymose tendencies, which Limón admits are easy to lean into. “I always tell my students that one of the hardest poems to write is a happy poem,” she says. “Try to write a contented poem and see what happens. It’s really, really hard! But what is it to represent life as a whole thing, as opposed to an easy or fixed narrative?”
The book’s rebellions are multifold. Another is in its poems of family. “I remember sitting with some older poets in the summer of 2001, and they were telling me that I couldn’t write all these family poems—that I couldn’t have grandmother poems, and I couldn’t have grandfather poems, and brother poems,” Limón says. “‘It’s too juvenile,’ they said. ‘It’s too tender.’ So I denied myself that, because I was told that that wasn’t what you were supposed to do. But so much of who I am, as a person, is in honor and in service of my relationships. And with this book, I was like, You know what? I’m 45, and I get to write whatever poems I want. And what I want to write are poems that say the word grandmother 1,000 times.”
Here, they practically do. One section of the book’s title poem concludes: “…my grandmother,/ (yes, I said it, grandmother, grandmother) leans to me and says,/ ‘Now teach me poetry.’”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Shifting Faster and Faster: The Millions Interviews Julia May Jonas

-

In her debut novel, Vladimir, playwright Julia May Jonas turns her eye to shifting social mores and the tensions they cause between different social groups by employing a classic trope: the affair (both intermarital and intergenerational) on the college campus.
Publishers Weekly called Vladimir “a mordantly funny post-#MeToo campus story about a 50-something woman unhinged by desire for a younger man.” The book, released earlier this month from Avid Reader, finds its unnamed narrator attempting to come to grips with both her lust for a talented new colleague and increasing scrutiny on her own actions from colleagues and students alike, as her husband, who is also the head of their department, is under investigation after being accused of sexual predation by a number of former students.
The result is a page-turner blending romance with social observation that speaks to issues of consent, desire, and trauma in an era in which generational and political divides both on and off campus seem to be ever-widening.
The Millions spoke with Jonas about the campus novel as social novel, what romantic affairs and their aftermaths still have to teach us about human nature, and how she brought her experience as a playwright to bear on writing a first-person novel.
The Millions: What made you decide to center this narrative on affairs between colleagues, and between teachers and students?
Julia May Jonas: I think that affairs, and how we respond to sexuality, is still kind of a litmus test for where we are emotionally, and I think it’s shifted. It continues to shift. But no matter what structures we’re interacting with, I think love is still something that we’re all interacting with all the time. The book for me was a big question about desire inside of this woman, and her being torn about what she wants and what she’s allowed to want and can choose to want and how she is supposed to react to desire.
TM: The narrator seems to believe she’s weighing nearly every angle she could on a certain situation, and yet when she acts, it’s in line with her pre-existing biases. Academics tend to be very analytical in their assessment of things, as the narrator is, but even the very analytical miss things. How do you write a character like that?
JMJ: Partly what allowed for that was a sense, when I was writing, of something that came from being a playwright. The writing process really came out almost as an extremely long monologue. She’s working these things out for an audience, in a way. And whenever you’re working something out for an audience, you’re consistently making choices—about what you’re allowing and you’re admitting and what you’re not allowing and what you’re not admitting.
TM: Which the author is doing as much as the narrator is, right?
JMJ: Of course! And that’s when it helped for me to really situate myself inside of her voice. When I do that, and when I’m thinking through her voice, and I’m thinking about her talking to someone or telling someone, that I felt like I could work through what she would say, what she wouldn’t say, what she would see, what she didn’t see.
TM: Did the decision to go with first person narration come specifically from the theatrical tradition?
JMJ: I had actually started out the book with a couple chapters in first person, and then I switched perspective, and I had it in third person, focusing on Vladimir and his perspective. In the end, I felt like this was about someone’s fantasy, and their desire to make their fantasy a reality—and how that pushes the book itself into a fantasy. It became clear to me that the force was going to come from staying inside of her head for the for the entire time.
TM: Was that a more natural writing process for you as well?
JMJ: It was certainly the natural process for this book. I think there were, because this is my debut, things I was figuring out about writing prose as I was writing it. And I think there would have been a different set of things that I was figuring out about writing prose if I were writing in the third person.
TM: How did you bring your experience with a small liberal arts college and this particular generation of students’ perspective on social issues to bear on this novel in a way that informed it but left it open to interpretation?
JM: Well, for one, I am not tenured. I am not a professor. I am a teacher, and a guest artist and lecturer at a small liberal arts college. I am in, but not of, college life. And so I’ve been able to kind of sit to the side and see it, rather than be inside of it. I’m also 20 years younger than my protagonist. That’s kind of crucial, because what I was most interested in—what I’m always interested in—are people who, all of a sudden, find the ground shifted from beneath them. Here you have somebody who is a liberal woman; who has deemed herself to be, in her mind, on the right side of history; who has seen herself as being always an advocate for her students; who has not had to question what she feels about things; and who has had a particular relationship to sexual politics for both herself as a woman, and also in terms of her students. And now she is dealing with the ground shifting from underneath her. That is the thing that I found most interesting. That’s certainly something I observe, to greater and lesser extents with my professors around me at Skidmore College. (Disclosure: the writer of this piece is a graduate of Skidmore College.)
I love my students and have great relationships with them. And I think they’re right. I think what I was interested in is someone’s perspective of thinking, “Wait, I thought it was this way, and now it’s this way. I thought I was this kind of person, and now I’m this kind of person.” That, to me, is the most fascinating question about her. That’s what I’m always most interested in, is what these people do in these circumstances. And I think John, her husband, thinks he was one kind of person, and then finds that he’s another kind of person.
TM: Because what kind of person you are isn’t set in stone, it’s determined by social mores that are ever-shifting?
JMJ: Exactly. And I’m 20 years younger than my protagonist, but when I went to college, it was kind of a cool and sexy thing to date your professor. And it keeps shifting. I think it shifts even more now because of our ability to chart the shifts. It’s shifting faster and faster.
TM: Do you think it is possible, in 2022, for a campus novel to not also be a social novel?
JMJ: I don’t know when a campus novel was not a social novel. I think the idea of all campus novels are that colleges are kind of test tubes for life, constructed realities in which people who are transitioning from being children to adulthood are put in a small society.
TM: And yet there are campus novels so intensely focused on the interiority of their protagonist or subject that the social aspect is somewhat blurred by character. That didn’t strike me as being the case with this novel.
JMJ: It’s interesting that you bring up the idea of interiority, because I think the book is, in itself, about interiority, and the force of the narrator’s perspective and how it colors our perspective as we move through the book. Vladimir is, for her, this object, that becomes a kind of icon, in a way, that she can put her energy toward and build up fantasies around, and that she can filter through everything that she is processing at that moment, whether she is aware of it or not. In some cases, she is aware of it. And there are a lot of things she’s not aware of, in terms of why she’s feeling this pull toward this other person.
TM: There is one moment in the novel that really highlights this shifting of mores, in which the narrator notes how impressed she is by the students’ advocacy for themselves, because she and her generation, always assumed that there were certain things that would never change.
JMJ: I think it’s kind of an American phenomenon, in terms of how hard it is for someone to endure any hardship and not turn around and say to the next person, ‘And now you should endure hardship, too.’ I think that’s kind of endemic in so many issues that we have right now. It’s so challenging for people to go through something and then not say, “Well, why can’t you go through that too? I went through it!” Instead of wanting to shift the world in some way.
TM: Yet the students don’t seem to feel that way. John’s former students, who attempt to have him removed from his position as chair of the English department, are in effect saying, “I went through this, and I don’t want anybody to ever have to go through this again, which is why I want this this professor removed.” How do those two imperatives coexist in the book?
JMJ: I’m not sure they do. One time, my friend said to me, “It feels like there’s two camps right now. There’s the camp that says, ‘your trauma shouldn’t mean anything, get over it, keep moving.’ And then there’s another camp that says, ‘your trauma should mean everything, and anything can be categorized as trauma.'”
TM: Where does a campus culture, which eventually transports itself to culture at large, go with such disparate assessments of what an incredibly important word like trauma even means?
JMJ: Well, my hope is that the book doesn’t offer a take on that. I don’t have a take on that, necessarily. I have lots of questions about that. I hope that it’s more about describing what various factions and camps are feeling and putting forth and what the opinions are than it is about taking a stance on any of it.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Reading Tolstoy, Together: The Millions Interviews Yiyun Li

- | 2

When author Yiyun Li announced last year that she would lead a collective read-through of War and Peace, called #TolstoyTogether, on behalf of the literary magazine and publisher A Public Space, my first though was: perhaps I’ll finally read War and Peace. Then I didn’t. I had already fought my battles with the book and lost, which I later detailed in an essay on my complicated relationship with the book published in Literary Hub last fall. But when A Public Space announced that it would be publishing a companion volume to Tolstoy’s masterpiece as a sort of capstone to Li’s project, Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li, and that Li would hold another read-through this fall, I knew I had to speak with Li. (Li was awarded this year’s Deborah Pease Prize, which is given yearly at the A Public Space benefit, for “her leadership and generosity in leading us in two readings of War and Peace with Tolstoy Together.”) Perhaps I wanted to be convinced—or maybe I just wanted to hear someone who loves the book tell me all about why.

Li, it turned out, had read my piece, which she mentioned to me amid laughter during a phone conversation on Tolstoy’s book, her book, the read-through project, and more. And while I’m still not convinced I’ll ever read War and Peace, Li makes a compelling case for why you should do so. Here is her case, amid other insights. (This interview has been edited for clarity.)

The Millions: Leaving aside my vendetta against War and Peace, let’s talk about your love for War and Peace. The pandemic started to really set in early in 2020, and shortly thereafter, A Public Space announced that you would be doing a collective read-through of War and Peace. Tell me the backstory.

Yiyun Li: I think the lockdown started on March 13, and we started on March 18. Everybody was going into lockdown, and one day I was thinking, I’m sure everyone is going to have a little bit of a hard time just going into this uncertain moment. I myself felt very uncertain. Clearly, I’m such a nerd. I love War and Peace, and I read it all the time. I thought, maybe it’s good to invite people to read War and Peace because it’s such a long novel. It takes a long time to read. And by the time we were finished reading the novel, I thought, we’ll be done with the pandemic. That’s how I proposed the idea to A Public Space. I said, “Let’s invite people to read War and Peace with us.” We announced it like two days later, and then we started right after that. There’s really almost no backstory! 

TM: You said you expected that the pandemic would be over by the time you and your fellow readers finished reading War and Peace at the pace of 10 to 15 pages a day? And now you’ve finished an encore read-through just as a new variant has arrived on the scene. What is your relationship with this novel? Why read it twice in two years?

YL: We’re still in the middle of the pandemic. That seems very much like War and Peace, right? I read War and Peace once a year, but much more slowly. I usually take six months to read War and Peace. But I don’t ask people for a lot—just half an hour of their day. So I calculated that I think if we read 10 to 15 pages, it would take half an hour. At that pace, it takes about three months. At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought that by last June, for sure, we’d be done with it. 

TM: Why read War and Peace once a year, rather than, say, Moby-Dick, or Paradise Lost, or The Tale of Genji?

YL: It’s funny you mentioned Moby-Dick, because I also read Moby-Dick once a year. You’re talking to one of the nerdiest people ever. I do spend six months on War and Peace and six months or Moby-Dick, and for specific reasons. I think Moby-Dick is the epitome of metaphor, while War and Peace is almost at the other end of the spectrum, as it’s sort of the epitome of a realistic epic. So I alternate between the two novels every year, just to keep my life structured by two great books. When you reread, you start to have conversations with yourself over different readings, and on each reading, you annotate more. That’s why War and Peace. I also need a big book in my daily reading. It’s sort of like your daily bread, right? We can eat oysters and anything else, but the daily bread is War and Peace and Moby-Dick.

TM: Do you find that the structure of a big book informs your writing or your reading practice in a way that’s different from the structure of a much smaller novel?

YL: Yes. Reading War and Peace, to me, is like writing a novel. You cannot finish writing a novel in one sitting, and you cannot finish reading a novel like that in one sitting. It’s a steady pacing, to me. It’s both good for my reading and my writing as a habit, to spend the same amount of time, every day, on the same book, usually around the same time. Usually I read around 11:00 p.m., 11:30. It’s part of the scaffolding of my life at this moment.

TM: Clearly this read-through project was successful, because there is now a book about it. What was it like reading this novel with other people? How did you find the interactions with people engaging with you and your daily meditations on the novel? Which social media platforms did you find the most fruitful for conversation? Tell me about the experience of the read-through. 

YL: It blew my mind. For one, just the sheer number of people reading with me. I truly thought there would be five reliable friends who would read with me, and possibly five strangers. At the beginning, I had in my head that I thought 10 people would stay from the beginning to the end with me. And in the end of the first read-through, based on how many people followed our newsletters and participated in a Zoom at the end of the read-through, 700 people came to the Zoom session, and 3,000 readers signed up for the newsletters. We also got anecdotal letters and emails from strangers.

Then there are a lot of people on Twitter. Twitter is the main platform we used socially. A Public Space helped me. I’m not on Twitter, so I used the A Public Space Twitter account to post my daily meditation. But because it’s a big novel, even if we read 10 to 15 pages a day, I might have 200 thoughts about those 10 pages, but I didn’t really have to share 200 thoughts. I could just share three. Because the readers around the world shared their thoughts. Sometimes their thoughts overlapped with mine, and sometimes they saw things that I missed.

People from other parts of the world, for instance. Someone from Sweden was reading with us and actually found some sort of ancestor in that book, a Swedish general. Then someone else said she was looking at the map—her Jewish family came from Poland—and she said, “Oh, I found my great grandmother’s village in War and Peace.” It comes from War and Peace, but it’s also just life going on for all these people, and they come to share from their lives.

TM: Do you teach?

YL: I do.

TM: We live in an era of great division, which, one might argue, is spurred on by social media. Did this exercise, which was really enabled by social media and the Internet, feel to you…more wholesome? Almost like a mega-seminar about War and Peace with 3,000 people? It sounds like you got a lot out of, well, all these student insights.

YL: Right! Except I would say it’s the exact opposite of teaching War and Peace in a classroom. When you teach a book in the classroom, there are always themes to talk about. There’s a map when you teach, and you follow that map. This is really the opposite. Everybody has reactions. There’s no hierarchy and how to read War and Peace. Someone may just be looking at the finances of the Rostov family and say, “Wait a minute, they’re losing a lot of money just by keeping 200 hounds on their estate.” And some people may be looking at geometry. There are physicists who look at War and Peace through quantum physics. Doctors, historians. It’s a book that you can read from different points of view. All of them are legitimate, and all of them are interesting to me. We’re not reading to get a consensus. We’re actually reading just to get to…whatever. And the whatever is actually quite interesting to me.

TM: It does sound like it turns the process on its head, doesn’t it?

YL: I do appreciate what you said, that people tend to be divisive on social media. People tend to be judgmental. But I like that this reading process is reading inconclusively. Nobody has the final words, because we’re just following a bunch of characters. There’s no judgmental opinions. People can like a character. People can hate the character. Someone can say, “I don’t like Andre,” on one day, and someone else can say, “I like Andre,” on another day. I like that, because nobody has final words on War and Peace.

TM: This isn’t a book about which we get to say, okay, it’s done now. We’ve learned everything we can about it. Tell me about your book. How did the decision to turn your reader of War and Peace into a book come together?

YL: When we talk about using Twitter, I have to say, I don’t tweet. So using Twitter with the word limit to express my feelings or my thoughts, my observations about War and Peace, was such a good experience, to train myself to be precise and succinct. I think the idea of the proposal came from what I learned from when I was reading with the group. I know the book well, but when I read by myself, I also take a lot of shortcuts. I don’t think through things. By reading with people, by expressing my observations, by watching people react, I realized that I have been thinking through a lot of topics about War and Peace more thoroughly.

It’s interesting, because this book, Tolstoy Together, is not only my reading journal. There were 200 to 300 people actively tweeting. It’s all these people’s reading journal through a pandemic. It’s like an oral history of a group of people reading through a period of time. So I said to Brigid Hughes, “Let’s just make it into a book.” That’s how it started. So we started to look at people’s tweets. Sometimes people echo each other. The cacophony, when multiple people are talking about multiple topics. We were thinking that we could bring these multiple voices into a book. On one side is my observation, and on the other side are the readers’ observations.

TM: How would you recommend someone read Tolstoy Together? From front to back, or to flip through?

YL: There are different ways to read it. If someone is going to read War and Peace, it’s one of the best companion books. You can just follow the reading schedule, read 15 pages and see what characters said something on that day. I know a lot of people who participated in the latest readthrough read War and Peace with Tolstoy Together as a book. But even if you don’t want to read War and Peace, the book itself is just a very interesting book about people’s minds. And to me, people’s minds are not boring at all. Even if you don’t know War and Peace, you open the book and realize people start to talk about history or the pandemic or each other, sometimes. I love the contributors. I have not met many of the contributors. But by reading through their contributions, they sort of have become characters in my head. There are characters who just want to be contrary, and in War and Peace, there are jokers, characters who just like to tell a joke. Among the contributors, there are always people who tell a good joke and who makes good comments. In the end, even if someone doesn’t read War and Peace, this is a book about all these real-life characters being obsessed with something.

TM: And we’re all that way, right? That’s one of the beautiful things about this book that I will never finish reading: the sheer spectrum of character in it. I Do you remember when you first read War and Peace? When it was first introduced to you?

YL: I remember the first reading, because last year, sometimes people said, “I cannot remember the characters.” Then at one moment, I think maybe a quarter in, someone tweeted and said, “Remember the old days, when we could not figure out who was who in this book?” I realized then that, collectively, we crossed a line: we actually knew these characters so well that we didn’t have to go look up their names. But my first introduction to War and Peace was really late. I knew Tolstoy’s work well, but War and Peace I read when I was 30, I think. It was a little confusing.

TM: I have a lot of memories around War and Peace, as you know, having read my essay. But my first significant memory about the book was right around when the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation came out, and it was making quite a stir. And at the time, I was a teenager working as a cabana boy at a beach club on Long Island—another personal experience I’ve written about in relation to a book. One day, there was this extremely tall man—who looked quite like Paul Slovak from Viking, in fact—walking down the beach with a giant copy of War and Peace. Because this is a Long Island Beach Club, and I don’t expect anybody to be reading anything like War and Peace, I went over to ask him why he was reading it, and his response was, “You know, sometimes, you just gotta finish somethin’ big.” It’s stuck in my head forever. And as you mentioned, you kind of thought that this was a book that was going to last the whole pandemic. I wonder how many people went into this project with that exact attitude in mind.

YL: Yes! I think the pandemic was a very rare opportunity, because all of a sudden, we are all isolated, and we have all this time on our hands. I have to say, War and Peace is one of those books that sometimes people just wish they had read it. But I think the invitation went out at the right time. There was this momentum: if I do this thing, the pandemic will be over when I finished. I do think that, at the beginning of the pandemic, that was very much on everybody’s mind: let’s just do this one big thing, and the pandemic will be over. But it wasn’t over.

TM: Would have been nice, though, wouldn’t it?

YL: Personally, I know several families reading together. Mostly it’s older parents with grown-up children. Someone in New York emailed me and said that the pandemic has  been one moment when older parents are not visited by children, but they have to keep in touch. She said, “Really, I have nothing to talk about with my mother. But we started to read this together. So every day, we just talked about War and Peace. What a good thing to talk about!

TM: What a wonderful way to reconnect with family. Through literature, no less. Imagine, in the Year of Our Web 2021, they’re connecting through literature and not Netflix shows? Yiyun, did you just fix culture?

YL: [Laughs] I don’t know! But I know a lot of older parents reading with children. I know several families, and I have colleagues who are reading with their grown-up children. It’s something special, right? But I think that it’s one of those things that just happens. It’s a happy fluke.

TM: I would ask you if you would do it again, but since you are doing it again, clearly you would. So instead, I’m going to ask: Is Moby-Dick next?

YL: Someone did ask me! I would have said yes to Moby-Dick, but there’s one big hurdle. When I was in Iowa, Marilynne Robinson would take a whole semester reading Moby-Dick with the students. She would lecture on Moby-Dick every week. Since Marilynne Robinson has lectured about Moby-Dick for so long, I’m intimidated!

TM: Seems like A Public Space needs to give Marilynne a call then.

YL: I think that’d be good!

Guilt Is Fecund: The Millions Interviews Frank Bidart

-

At 82, Frank Bidart remains one of the preeminent voices in American letters, let alone American poetry. He has won nearly every major prize awarded to poets, among them the Griffin Poetry Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award. For more than half a century, his poems have investigated the dualities of body and soul and love and hate through the exploration of both self and others. His work, as poet Craig Morgan Teicher put it for NPR, with its “relentlessly intense voice,” has over the years been distilled “down to an essential expression of need and desire, of how art, if it can’t save us, can at least embody and preserve us.”

On Nov. 3, after months of delays due to issues with the supply chain, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Bidart’s eighth collection, Against Silence. Our conversation, however, was held four months earlier, over a phone call that spanned the better part of an hour and a half. Bidart—generously, modestly, and, most of all, passionately—spoke with me about the sociocultural circumstances that inspired his latest collection, the difference between poetry of identity and poetry of the personal, his relationship with that titan of 20th-century American poetics, Robert Lowell, and the power guilt and memory hold over his art.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Millions: In 2017, you finally won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of your life’s work, Half-Light: Poems 1965-2016. In the collection were some new poems, including the fourth of your Hours of the Night sequence. What brought you to a fifth poem in that sequence, and to this next book, Against Silence, besides the obvious urge as poet to never stop?

Frank Bidart: That’s very important, the urge to never stop. There are at least two patterns that happen after one finishes a book. Either the barrel is empty and one has to wait for it to fill back up, or, if one is lucky, one starts out in some new direction, and one knows one can’t fulfill it in the context of the time one has to publish a book, so one puts it off.

That happened to me here. There was a poem I published in The New Yorker called “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” and it appeared in the issue the week that Trump was inaugurated. It’s a poem that mattered to me tremendously, but I knew in my bones that it needed other poems around it. It needed to be fleshed out. It needed development. So I did not include it in my collected poems, which came out the following year. In other words, I had this poem that was the promise of other things, but was only that. It needed a world of experience and a lot of other writing to back it up, to provide an earth for it to settle on. In that sense, I was lucky, because I had then a beginning. I did not know if I could develop it, but I had a beginning. And that’s really what this book is; it very much proceeded from the attempt to provide the underpinnings for that poem.

TM: Your work has often interrogated the horrors of history happening in real time, while also undergirding them with historical precedents and instilling the writing with the personal as well. (I’m thinking specifically of your poetry about the AIDS crisis.) In this book, you’re looking at American failure, and human failure writ large, and the possibility of where that will go from where it is right now, and you’re looking at these subjects in a way that is both expansive and tied into the personal. How did you balance those things?

FB: You know Carolyn Forché’s work, and you know her anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. I agreed with her that it was important that poets witness what they knew, what they experienced—that they not think poetry was only lyric. But on the other hand, what had I witnessed? I was not in Vietnam. I had nothing new to say about Vietnam. It was easy to write an anti-Vietnam poem with a lot of secondhand opinions, but I had nothing to contribute in that way. But I was genuinely shocked when, with Trump, suddenly, white supremacy seemed something that had raised its head. You know, I really thought that was dead. And suddenly, I realized it wasn’t dead. As the poem reports, I felt things that I thought were over were not over. And on issues of race, as I thought about it, in fact, I had experienced things that were worth talking about.

In some ways, everything in the book proceeds from the experience, in the poem “The Fifth Hour of the Night,” of my grandmother refusing to let me, at the age of seven or eight, have dinner at the house of a Black friend. I can remember so vividly the rage I felt at her, at her racism—that it was not a question that I could even argue with her about. I was ashamed of the fact that, at the age of seven or eight, I gave in. I buckled under. My mother and I lived in my grandmother’s house, and I could not fight her at the age of seven or eight.

The book does not go into this, but later in my mother’s life, this was a very real issue. She worked in a doctor’s office and was very important in it. She ran it. She had very good relations with the doctors, and it was crucial to her sense of her own value. Dr. Zary was a Lebanese Christian, and my mother wanted to marry him. He was dark skinned, and my grandmother—the same woman who I had fought at the age of seven or eight—simply threw a fit. She could not stand the idea that her daughter was going to marry somebody with dark skin, though he was Christian. She talked my mother out of this. It was one of the central tragedies of my mother’s life. My mother gave in, and later, she married someone from Texas who was, unfortunately, a very stupid man, and it was a very unhappy marriage. She never should have given into my grandmother. These issues about race had been lived out in my family, and lived out in my own experience, and lived out in what happened to my mother, and in the shape of her life. 

TM: As they are reflected here, they take a look at something that a good deal of your poetry interrogates, which is the feeling of guilt over something over which you are powerless. As an eight-year-old, you have no power to tell your grandmother, “Stop being racist, my friend is coming over,” and as a survivor of the AIDS crisis, you had no ability to save the people you loved nor choice over whether you survived. So what has come of this interrogation, besides many books of beautiful poetry? Do you feel like there is any exorcism? Is exorcism possible? Do the poems assuage the guilt at all? 

FB: The guilt doesn’t go away. But on the other hand, it changes. The fact that one can feel guilt over something that one had no control over. There’s the survivor’s guilt of AIDS. Why on earth did I survive rather than someone else? There’s nothing that they did that I didn’t do.

TM: And with race, it’s a question of, “Why was I protected from this pain and this persecution when others were not?”

FB:  That’s right: why have I lived a very privileged life? And I know I’ve lived a privileged life—because my grandparents came here from the Pyrenees in 1905, because of things my father did in earning money. There are a million ways in which one is the recipient of privilege that one has done nothing to earn. That’s absolutely the nature of our experience. The fact is, one feels guilty for things that one cannot control. I feel guilt for the irreconcilable things in my relationship with my mother for which I was not altogether responsible. Nonetheless, I felt an anger toward her that I could never entirely get over. That was a source of division between us. That’s the nature of human experience.

TM: That parallel shows up in a lot of your work, the inextricable nature of hate and love and the inextricable nature of life and death.

FB:  The irony is, of course, that intellectually one knows these things. But in terms of experience, one discovers them over and over again. That’s partly one of the things this book is about: discovering, again, and again, the inextricable relation between love and hate, which I certainly knew about conceptually, but have had to experience over and over again.

TM: I think back often to words that you use frequently in your work—to your eye toward the balance between Latinate and Germanic diction, and in the way you use such words as “incommensurate” and “irreparable,” words that you come back to very often. I was thinking about those two words while I read this book, specifically, because it interrogates both of them as you define them, and because sometimes they can be one in the same. And I was thinking of how you come back to ideas and words again and again, to learn the same lesson from them in a slightly different way. It’s almost natural that we get a “Fifth Hour of the Night” here. That sequence of poems is one of the great through lines of your work. But here we are with one that, unlike a lot of the prior entries, isn’t centered on a historical figure—unless you consider yourself a historical figure. What brought you to write this poem? How did you decide to include it in the Hours of the Night sequence? 

FB: As in the poem, I started writing about that experience:
They love each other more than anything and their child knows that.

They love each other more than anything but the well is poisoned.

Thirst no well can satisfy.

The well of affection that bloods the house is poisoned.

Love that bloods the house is poisoned.

He was smart and good-looking and charmed everyone.

She was beautiful and smart and charmed everyone.

Deep wrongness between the two that somehow no fury can wipe clean.
That was one of my earliest experiences. That’s really what I felt as a child—that somehow, for this family that outwardly seemed happy, there was something deeply wrong that they could not cure, for which loving each other was not enough. Those lines sort of popped out, and in that sense, the trajectory of the poem grew from that. Each hour attempts to talk about some process that is fundamental. That was, in a way, the fundamental process that I experienced as a child. That had to be in the sequence.

TM: It’s a particularly powerful moment in the book because it crystallizes something you’ve been writing about for your entire life, which is this tension between love and hate and the irreconcilability of how humans care and hurt each other no matter how much they care. How has your perspective on that duality changed over the course of your career? Do you think that this book agrees with your Odi et Amo series, or do you think it takes a different tack?

FB: It takes it in a slightly different direction. The minute, as a graduate student, I read Odi et Amo, I felt that it was the quintessential thing I had ever read: that in two lines, Catullus crystallized this utterly fundamental thing, that we love and hate at the same time, that we love and hate the same thing at the same time. And in a way, I’ve spent my life trying to excavate that.

TM: Desire wants to both create and obliterate.

FB: Absolutely. These are two tercets in “Fifth Hour.” Let me read them:
Sleeping in a motel with my father, when he, in anguish and crying,
implored
me to try to get my mother to return to him,

I said I / would,–
…and knew I wouldn’t.
That I can remember as if I’m right there in the bed with my father at the age of five or six. I can remember feeling that. My mother was not going to go back to him. My mother didn’t want to go back to him. It was too painful. In that sense, I didn’t want him to go back to her either. It would have solved nothing. And at the same time, I wanted to give him some reassurance. I certainly didn’t want to say that my finger was on the scale. I said that I would, and I knew I wouldn’t. That’s like a knife cutting into me.

TM: It’s like the blood that spills from which soldiers spring, right? In “The Ghost,” you write, “guilt is fecund.” It sums up a lot of what your work is about: the agony of having to remember these things is not blotted out by the fact that the memory allows the work—which exists and, in its way, becomes a release in as much as it remains the bars by which the guilt is trapped.

FB:  There’s a history behind that title that I love. Sextus Propertius wrote a poem about Cynthia, whom he loved and who returned to him as a ghost after her death. She partly excoriates him for their relationship. Robert Lowell translated the poem under the title “The Ghost.” In my mind, the speaker of my poem “The Ghost” is the side of my mother that is ferocious, forever in a sense unreconciled, but which also can see, somehow, both sides of everything. I loved giving the title “The Ghost” to this poem in which she speaks, because it had the echoes of both Propertius and Lowell’s great translation. 

TM: When I was reading it, I wondered if it was your mother, and then I wondered if it was personified guilt.

FB:  In some sense it is. But it’s also my mother. Those are not the words my mother could actually have uttered, or would utter if she were alive, but in some sense it’s the quintessence of part of her. It’s the tough part of her, that part they could acknowledge guilt as fecund.

TM: Another word you love! Let’s go back to how you’ve made certain words your own. I’m thinking now of the poet and educator Richard Hugo’s collection of lectures and essays, The Triggering Town. In it, he writes that “your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary,” essentially arguing that poets must “take emotional ownership of…a word,” even if those words aren’t the most impressive or most important, in order for the poetry to be anything more than a finely wrought thing that belongs to no one. We’ve discussed “incommensurate” and “irreparable” and “fecund”—these are words that you’ve made yours, just as you’ve wrought the phrase “the absolute” into your own concept. What brought you to them, and what brings you back to them so often?

FB: They’re words that somehow carry within them more than their denotative meaning. They’re words that recur to one because they have a kind of weight and density that can’t be exhausted by any one utterance of them, or any one context. I think that Hugo sentiment is wonderful, because it’s true. They’re not always glamorous words, they’re not always the most superficially eloquent words. But these words have within them some density of feeling, and of desire, and of failure, that therefore become what we want to call poetic. Someone who was an absolute master of this was Robert Lowell. He found words and kept them and gave them a context in which they had the right density and resonance.

TM: Lowell is a good person to talk about in general because, although your verse shares very few surface-level similarities with his, as poets, you are preoccupied with many of the same things: agony, atonement, family, history, self-examination. And, of course, you had a personal relationship with him. 

FB: First of all, I loved him. I don’t at all mean sexually. Though I’m gay, I was certainly not attracted to him sexually. I knew his work way before I met him. Life Studies had meant a great deal to me before I met him. When I first was in a room with him, it was a classroom, and I couldn’t believe I was in his presence. I was also so shocked that this person whom I had read, who was from New England, had a slightly Southern accent. I had not anticipated that.

I loved the fact that I was useful to him. That I could understand the prosody from the inside. I didn’t want to imitate it, but I could make suggestions that were useful to him. He wanted someone to tell him the truth as they experienced his work. He did not want someone who was simply going to praise him. He did not find that useful. But I could make suggestions that he found useful. That this person I so admired valued me was a tremendous event in my life. It’s almost incomprehensible. That feeling that I was indeed an artist and could talk to another artist that I so admired in a way that was useful to him. I really can’t tell you enough how important that was for me. My relationship with my own father was very screwed up. In some ways, that Lowell could be an analogue to that, but that it could be a relationship that I did not screw up mattered to me tremendously. I was very, very, very lucky.

Lowell did not make suggestions about my own poems. He did not understand my prosody. And I did not expect him to, but he was not threatened by the fact that, in general, he often took suggestions I made about his work, and he did not make suggestions about my work that were useful to me. He was not threatened by that. He found it funny. He was really a very wise man, in many ways. He was someone who had terrible breakdowns and when he was ill, mentally, he was really ill. But in other ways, he was really very wise, very humane. And with me, incredibly generous. I adored him.

TM: Inspiration and influence, it seems, are often slant. That is, for instance, Lowell didn’t have to edit your poems or provide you with feedback for you to have been influenced not just by reading him, but by knowing him. When you were writing your first book, before Lowell died, how did his poetry change you without changing your prosody?

FB: The work was openly ambitious in terms of what it took on, in terms of subject matter, and I loved that. But when he took on something ambitious, he always connected it to his own experience. That seemed, to me, to be completely fundamental to why it worked.

TM: One of the most powerful parts of your work is its confessional aspect, and confessionalism has proven to be among the most influential strains of American poetry over the past 50 years. A good portion of the contemporary poetry being fêted in our time is a poetry of identity—poetry that explicitly interrogates personal and gender and racial and sexual identity. You are very openly and movingly a gay poet, but would you call yourself a poet of identity?

FB: No, I certainly wouldn’t!

TM: You are, however, a very personal poet. But your interest in identity and the personal is less central than your interest in art, death, love, hate, compulsion to write, curiosity even in taking on the identities of others.

FB: I was very much formed by Shakespeare as a kind of model of the artist. Shakespeare is the greatest writer—it really is Shakespeare. He was not an Egyptian, and he was not a Danish Prince, or any of these things, literally. And he could inhabit the minds, sensibilities, perspectives, and worlds of these characters. He never treats them as merely creatures of their circumstances. He always connects them to what one wants to call universal human experience. That’s what I think an artist does. And as one goes through one’s own experience, one wants to catch something from history or psychology, or one wants to be caught by something. There’s an illusion of freedom in that that is thrilling.

When I was an undergraduate, I received from the Reader’s Subscription a book called Existence, which included an essay by Dr. Ludwig Binswanger called “The Case of Ellen West.” I immediately identified with her. I immediately wanted to write a poem about her. I was not old enough. I did not know how to do that. But that lay in my mind for a long, long time, and finally, about 15 years later, I was able to write a poem in which she speaks. I felt very grateful to have known the Binswanger. And I was grateful that I couldn’t write my poem when I first read it.

TM: Did you think you needed to grow into the poem in some ways?

FB: At the time, all I knew was that I couldn’t possibly write the poem that would embody her. But I think that is indeed what happened, that I had to grow into that. I had to experience a lot of other things. I had to experience the singing of Maria Callas. I had to have my own battles with being overweight, and a desire not to be. Everything that went into making that poem I had to grow into. I do think you can’t have a narrow view of what an artist is. An artist is not someone who simply transcribes his or her experience. An artist is someone with a sympathetic imagination—sympathetic meaning identifying with ways of being that are not literally one’s own.

TM: And your work does that in both a personal, confessional manner, as you do in “Mourning What We Thought We Were” and “The Fifth Hour of the Night,” and by animating historical figures whose experiences move you, as you did with Ellen West, and Vaslav Nijinsky, and Herbert White and, in “Behind the Lion” in this collection, Sidney Bechet.

FB: All the words in that poem are Sidney Bechet’s! None of them are mine. But I think I was able to inhabit the sensibility that resulted in his writing at that time, or his speech at that time.

All this bears on my relationship to Lowell, because when I wrote “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” Lowell was alive. It’s a poem that for a long time was in manuscript, but I had not set it up on paper. I could not get the movement right on the page, in terms of punctuation and stanza breaks and all those things. I got stuck in a passage for about two years. I just could not get it right. I could not get the words on the page to embody the voice that I heard in my head, and the voice with which I read the poem.

I was worried because Nijinsky was someone who had mental breakdowns, and who did, in fact, violent things when he was ill. One night, at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge, Mass., I read the poem aloud, and Lowell was present. I was worried that he would think that I was writing about him—and I knew that I wasn’t. Whatever insights that poem has about mental illness and breakdowns did not in any way proceed from my experience of Lowell.

After I read the poem in public, we talked, and I told him that I was worried that he would think that I was writing about him. He said, “No, no, no, no. It’s about you.” Of course, he was completely right! All the extremities of emotion, all the imagination of how things are connected, have to do with my experience. Not literally, but psychologically and mentally and emotionally. I was so pleased that he could see that it was not him that was the subject of that poem, but me.

TM: It’s fascinating that you frame this this way, because I was going to ask if, when you inhabit another—in the way that you do with Nijinsky or West or White—does it feel freeing, or does it feel once again like being cursed to carry a mind and a body that you cannot escape from in another form?

FB: Well, it’s both freeing and cursing! One feels the curse of an identity. But at least it’s not one’s own identity. Identity can indeed feel like a curse. As it does to Nijinsky and Ellen West, in many ways. They are not free. And I have no illusion that I’m free, except insofar as I can inhabit them, and that only occurs in the writing.

TM: You can’t escape being Frank Bidart. And you cannot escape the society you are in—nor can your childhood friend, whose presence in your life your grandmother raged against as a child, escape being perceived as Black in a country that hates Blackness, even though that should not matter whatsoever as to how he is treated as a human being. A number of these poems are more explicitly political than even your poems on AIDS. What brought you to writing these poems in this way, and putting them in this context? The Trump election inspired you, of course, but what made you, say, write poems on racial relations and climate change in this fashion?

FB: Let me say, the poems did not feel different in kind to me from my earlier poems. Let me take the second poem, “At the Shore”:
Since childhood, you hated the illusion that this
green and pleasant land

inherently is green
or pleasant

or for human beings home. Whoever dreamed that had
not, you thought, experienced
the earth.
It felt like a relief to find the words that could say that, but I have felt that way for a very long time. Behind this is obviously the Blake poem about England being this green and pleasant land. That poem, of course, objects to what’s happened to England in Blake’s time. I admire and envy that poem on one hand, but my experience is not that something that was green, pleasant, and pristine has been defiled, which is Blake’s experience—it is that the Earth was never those things. I felt relief to find words that could state that feeling that the Earth is not our home. And of course, the Earth is our home. There’s a line in a later poem…”mind at war with ground.” The earth is our ground, but we are at war with our ground. In a million ways.

TM: Still, it is impossible for a reader in 2021 to read that poem and not think, “This is Frank Bidart’s climate change poem.” The same way that, when you read “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” you think, “This is Frank Bidart’s poem on race.”

FB: These are things that I had felt very deeply before, and never found the context in which to utter them.

TM: And so you had to put it into words, even knowing that what is past is past, that you cannot change anything about which you have written by feeling guilt, that you can only write the poems, and that even that solves nothing for you or them.

FB: Well, it’s something. It’s better than not having realized such things.

TM: This book is filled with such realizations, and ends with one. “On My Seventy-Eighth,” the final poem of the book, incorporates a number of the themes found in all of your other work, and deals explicitly with not just loss, but with the acknowledgement that even loss isn’t loss—that we carry with us even what is gone from us. 

FB: The last thing I did with the poem was to work in the reference to the end of Hamlet: “the rest is silence” is the last thing that Hamlet says, and I was writing a book called Against Silence, and I did not have that reference. This is a very good example of having worked with Lowell. He loved giving a poem a kind of density through illusion. The poem was published in Threepenny Review, without the lines:
Intolerable the fiction
the rest
is silence.
And I suddenly felt I could not publish a book called Against Silence without reference to Hamlet’s last words. Not only is it a very famous ending, it is something that the whole play, of course, contradicts. The rest is not silence after death. The first thing that happens in the play is that the father appears to the son, and the dead do speak in that play.

In my book—insofar as it’s against silence—in “The Ghost,” my mother speaks, and she’s dead. It’s not as simple as “the rest is silence.” That was the last thing I did not just to the poem, but to the book. It was a very Lowell-like thing to do.

TM: What do you hope readers will take away from this poem, and from this book?

FB: You know, I want the reader to say, “He’s not senile.”

Whiting Literary Magazine Prizes Name 2021 Winners

-

Three print magazines and two digital publications were named winners of the fourth annual Whiting Literary Magazine Prizes, taking home a combined total of $144,000 in funding. The prizes, which are administered by the Whiting Foundation, have been awarded since 2018 to a total of 18 literary magazines to honor their “excellence in publishing, advocacy for writers, and a unique contribution to the strength of the overall literary community.”

This year’s winners, with citations, are as follows:

The Massachusetts Review (Amherst, Mass.), a “trove of finely written and imaginative stories from around the globe, exemplary in its commitment to formal experiment and traditional literary excellence, and to enriching the scope of our literature through its translations.”

Medium-Budget Print Prize Winner ($150,000-$500,000 budget)
Total prize: $60,000

Bellevue Literary Review (New York, N.Y.), “a unique venue for exploring writing about medicine and the body in illness and health, which was the first literary journal to arise from a medical setting and is now a fast-growing hub for dialogues between the medical community and the arts.”

Small-Budget Print Prize Winner (under $150,000 budget)
Total prize: $30,000

The Arkansas International (Fayetteville, Ark.), “a bright new star in the literary firmament distinguished by its exceptional fiction, beautiful design, commitment to translation, and the oasis it provides for literary culture in the American heartland.”

Print Development Grantee (under $50,000 budget)
Total prize: $15,000

Latin American Literature Today (Norman, Okla.), “an essential literary bridge across the Americas distinguished by its fully multilingual issues featuring the greatest contemporary Latin American writing in Spanish and indigenous languages.”

Digital Prize Winner (under $500,000 budget)
Total prize: $30,000

Full Stop (New York, N.Y.), “a dynamic and richly eclectic platform for book criticism, untethered to the zeitgeist but fearlessly contemporary, which brings hundreds of books that might otherwise go unnoticed into larger literary conversations.”

Digital Development Grantee (under $15,000 budget)
Total prize: $9,000

The prize money is distributed to each winner over the course of three years; the awards in the second and third years are made as matching grants, with the Whiting Foundation doubling or tripling new gifts.

“Receiving the Whiting Literary Magazine Prize during this pandemic year is an incredible honor for Bellevue Literary Review, since BLR’s focus is on health, illness and healing,” said Danielle Ofri, editor-in-chief of the BLR in a statement. “The vulnerability of illness is now part of daily life in an unprecedented manner; support from the Whiting Foundation will invigorate our work at the intersection of healthcare and the arts.”

“The Whiting Award Literary Magazine Prize will grant us the resources to explore new territories, including expanding our readership, raising honorariums, and much more,” said Arkansas International director of publicity Lily Buday. “We’re also excited to grow both our local and international presence via in-person and virtual events.”

This year’s winners were chosen from an application pool of 100 applicants. The call for applications for the 2022 prizes is now open; the deadline is December 1.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Where Was God?: The Millions Interviews Véronique Tadjo

- | 1

In 2017, the French publisher Don Quichotte éditions published Véronique Tadjo’s In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes), a slim powerhouse of a novel telling the story of West Africa’s Ebola crisis from the perspectives of a wide variety of its survivors and victims: doctors and nurses and patients and family members, but also government officials and undertakers, bats and trees, and even the virus itself.
In late February, a little more than a year after the first case of Covid-19 in the United States was confirmed, Other Press published an English-language edition of Tadjo’s novel.
The Millions spoke with Tadjo about putting out this novel during a global pandemic, the storytelling traditions behind its structure, and more.
The Millions: This book was originally published only a year after the Ebola outbreak ended. Now, its English-language edition is out in the midst of another pandemic. Has your perspective on this book changed since its original publication? How?
Véronique Tadjo: When I first wrote the book in French in 2017, Covid-19 was not in anybody’s mind. The two situations are not comparable. However, while doing research at the time of the Ebola crisis, I came to realize that many aspects of our lives were connected: the degradation of the environment, climate change, and our health. Reading medical experts “reports,” it was easy to see that the threat of more epidemics to come was real unless structural changes were carried out in Africa and in the world in general. I am struck by how close to the bone some of the themes I develop in the book are to the situation we are in at the moment: the isolation and the loneliness; the tearing apart of family ties; the issue of trust in government; the violence and resistance at times; the heavy burden on the medical profession; the economic crisis; and so on.
The big issue today is vaccine equity. Because we are in a pandemic, a global solution needs to be found. Therefore a campaign for vaccines against Covid-19 needs to be put in place and recognized as a global public good. After a period during which vaccine nationalism took over and many governments from rich countries pre-ordered or ordered far too many vaccines for their populations, a system is gradually taking shape. The Covax international system aims to get coronavirus vaccines to low- and middle-income countries that have been cut out of the vaccine race. Let’s hope that it will be a successful attempt at redressing an imbalance that puts the whole world at risk.
TM: The novel is told from a multitude of voices. How did you come to realize that the novel required so many perspectives? Why did you choose this method of storytelling?

VT: In a way, I have always written in this style. Right from my first novel, As the Crow Flies (Heinemann, 2001), first published in French, I have adopted a non-linear approach. I find that it is closer to the way we live. We always have multiple stories in our minds. A soldier can be aiming at an enemy but at the same time wondering when he will ever go back home or if he will ever see his wife and children again. I also believe that we are what we are because of others. So you are never alone when you tell a story. Many voices interact.
TM: The novel, at times, almost reads as if it is made up of first-person, nonfiction accounts of experiencing the Ebola pandemic. What sort of research did you conduct in order to flesh out the details of each character’s experiences?
VT: I read a lot in French and in English. I also looked for testimonies of Ebola survivors and medical staff involved in the fight against the disease. I watched television documentaries. I also discussed with doctors as much as I could and went to conferences. I became more and more interested in the social dimension of the epidemic. People had been affected in many different ways and each time I researched one aspect, it led me to another one. It was important for me to get as close as possible to what had happened on the ground. But I had one restriction: it had to be done through the medium of literature.
TM: Some of your characters are not human—the Baobab tree most prominently, but also a bat and even the virus itself. Why did you choose to include these chapters? How did you need to think differently as an author when writing those sections? Were they challenging to get right?
VT: I have been raised in the oral African tradition in which the storyteller can call on many different genres, from poetry, historical narratives, songs, myths to political language. Animals and nature connect with human characters on an equal basis. In many folktales nature speaks. So you could say that it wasn’t that much out of the ordinary for me to make non humans speak. It also suited my purpose very well because I wanted to show human beings as part of nature and not above nature. This way of looking at the world has also appeared in the works of a number of Western authors who influenced me. Jean de La Fontaine, one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th century comes to my mind. I read his book of fables when I was young and I remember one in particular entitled “The Animals Stricken by the Plague” (les animaux frappés par la lèpre). I admit that in the case of the virus, it was a bit tricky because I did not want it to be the villain of the story. On the other hand, I wanted him to tell a few truths so I had to get the balance right. The bat attracted me because of its dual nature, mammal and bird. For me she is the symbol of complexity and the diversity of nature.
TM: This novel is very attentive to the intersections of human development and the natural world, and the way human encroachment on nature leads to viral outbreaks. What’s an example or two of something you learned while researching what humans can do to avoid, and be prepared for, pandemics that were particularly interesting or surprising for you?
VT: Through my research I learnt how important communication was. Science alone cannot work. People have to feel empowered to fight against diseases. They hold a big part of the solution in their hands. But for this to happen they need to have confidence in their leaders. They need to trust the system. If they feel marginalized or if they do not have a good grasp of what is happening, they may retreat in false beliefs. Without adequate communication there can be resistance and protest.
I was also surprised by the importance that traditional medicine still holds. In fact, the majority of the Africans in rural areas and in many popular areas in big cities still consult a healer. This is because conventional medicine has failed. Big dilapidated hospitals are considered as places where people die. Added to this, medicine is expensive so most of the time people can’t afford the prescriptions they are given. Once scientists observed habits, they were able to seek the collaboration of healers. They trained them so they could influence their patients. They became active actors in the fight to eradicate the disease.
TM: Which was the most difficult chapter for you to write from a technique perspective? From an emotional perspective?
VT: From a technical point of view, the difficulty was to condense information that spanned the three affected countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. I wanted to create a spaceless and timeless territory because viruses know no borders. Emotionally, it was the chapter on the dying mother because it was about religious faith in the face of death. Where was God? The other difficult chapter was the one about the lovers because I had the choice of “saving” the fiancée or not. After reflection I decided that a happy ending would not be appropriate. At times love cannot make miracles. But it certainly makes us more human.
TM: Science and anthropology both inform this book significantly, but so does myth and folklore and music. What do you hope readers take away from the inclusion of oral storytelling and songs in a novel about a contemporary crisis?
VT: Oral storytelling is ancestral and common to all the cultures of the world. This form of narration has the added advantage of touching several generations. For example, most folktales can be understood at different levels of complexity. A young person may grasp only one aspect of a tale whereas a more experienced person will be able to decipher the symbolism behind the story. It is very comforting for a writer to work from the premise of a universal genre. Tales are timeless therefore it is left to the storyteller to adapt them for a new audience. Also human beings’ survival on Earth remains a contemporary theme for literature.
TM: Did any of your own lived experience influence this book? Can you share how?
VT: I was born in Paris and raised in Abidjan. I am familiar with the West African region. It was a miracle that Ebola did not spread to Côte d’Ivoire as the country shares borders with Guinea and Liberia where I have travelled to many times. All the health restrictions were in place and everybody was on high alert. I have friends who are doctors and they were following events closely. We had long discussions. The health systems are more or less in the same dire state in the region. On one of my visits to Abidjan (I was based in Johannesburg at the time), I went to one of the Ebola centers that had been quickly built in the eventuality of an epidemic. It was located within the perimeter of a hospital in a popular area. There was a huge tree casting its shade over the building. I thought to myself, if Ebola had come to this city, what would the tree have witnessed? This is how the idea of Baobab was conceived.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Over the Brink of Disaster: The Millions Interviews Elisa Gabbert

- | 1

Elisa Gabbert didn’t know she would be living through a global pandemic when she sat down to write The Unreality of Memory, her latest essay collection, which takes great interest in how people live through disasters and process their experiences. But the book, which the poet and essayist began in 2016, could not be more timely.
Gabbert spoke with The Millions about what it was like to research some of the most harrowing moments in human history, what she’s learned about pandemics, how poetry leaks into her prose, and more.

The Millions: What is it like to have a book preoccupied with disasters and memory come out in the midst of numerous disasters across the world: rapidly worsening climate change, a flailing U.S. presidency, increasing fascist populism worldwide, flaring tensions between the world’s major powers, ongoing humanitarian crises in such countries as Yemen and Venezuela, the recent decimation of Beirut, and, of course, a global pandemic?
Elisa Gabbert: Well, I’m glad we still have books. Some days it’s hard for me to believe that anyone would want to read about disasters during a disaster, but multiple people have told me they found the book “oddly comforting”—which is exactly how I often felt when reading about the Black Death, or, even better, the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, a mysterious sudden global warming period 55 million years ago. Reading about history and especially deep geologic time can provide a kind of momentary psychic relief from all the suffering of the present. And my hope is that it somehow helps us think through the present into the future, though I wish I knew how to fix these problems. I wish I knew how to save the post office or end voter suppression.
TM: This collection deals with major historical moments and trends and massive collective reactions to them, but also examines very personal experiences and intimate responses from both you and your loved ones. How did you strike a balance between these two magnitudes, and how did you find a way to weave them all together?
EG: Though I wouldn’t call this a book of personal essays, the essay as a form is inherently personal—a record of how I’m processing time and material through my particular perspective, this singular, subjective consciousness. When I’m working on an essay I experience a heightened consciousness: I notice what I’m noticing, I think about how I’m thinking. My approach as a writer has always been to make this stuff explicit, like the essayist (me) is there in the essay, almost as a character, doing this research, changing her mind. But I also get sick of myself, so my essays are rarely strictly personal.
TM: Your essay “The Great Mortality” is about plagues and pandemics throughout the ages—it even quotes Anthony Fauci and mentions attempts to predict the next pandemic on the level of the flu of 1918. What kind of lessons did you learn from studying thousands of years of human attempts to cope with illnesses their doctors barely understood? How does it feel to return to that essay now?
EG: Here’s a fun fact: my last pass edits were due in April, after lockdown had started. There was some question of whether I should update that essay with a mention of Covid-19. But how could I, really? What could I say about a pandemic that was still just beginning to unfold? Instead, I decided to annotate each essay with the year of composition. I wrote “The Great Mortality” in 2018; I wanted it to be clear to readers why there was no mention of the current pandemic.
You might think I was more prepared for the coronavirus than the average person, but I can’t say I was! Back in January or February, I remember my friend Sarah sending me links about the outbreaks in China and asking if I was worried. I’m embarrassed to say I was pretty cavalier; I think I said “We’ve lived through flu panics before.” I did exactly what everyone always does: I told myself the big disaster wouldn’t (or couldn’t) actually happen to me.
TM: During the research process for this collection, did you have to balance researching these grim topics with lighter fare? What was your reading process like at the time?
EG: I really loved doing the research for this book, and the truth is that being surrounded by library books, even if the books were about Hiroshima and Chernobyl, made me happy—I was just so interested in learning more about these things, I would fall into flow. But once the book was done I absolutely needed a break. I went back to reading lots of novels and poetry and writing literary criticism. I think the only essay I wrote last year that was research-based was about hair metal.
TM: This is your second collection of essays. Around the occasion of your first, The Word Prettyyou told Read It Forward, “I didn’t really start off thinking about writing a book of essays at all.” What made you decide to write a second? And does it come from a creative impulse similar to the one that drives your poetry?
EG: I didn’t set out to write my first essay collection because I didn’t have a sense that anyone wanted to read my prose. But what I discovered was actually a lot more people wanted to read my prose than wanted to read my poetry. I don’t think this is because my poetry sucks (though who am I to say), I think it’s just that prose forms have a much wider audience. Mary Ruefle, a poet whose essays are really popular, has said that poetry is private but prose is public; prose is public language. So certain things that I had thought of as not really for me, as a writer—things like having an agent, writing a book proposal—suddenly seemed like maybe they could be for me. But I am still writing poems, and poetry is a very different way of communicating. In my nonfiction I really am trying to tell the truth, but poetry is closer to fiction; it’s more like creating a speculative reality that the ideas can live in.
TM: What are some ways writing poetry informs your essay writing that surprised you when you recognized them, and vice versa?
EG: I really care about the tiny details of language and punctuation in both prose and poetry, and I really care about the sound of my sentences, the rhythm of the paragraph—I love the paragraph in isolation, the way it can feel like a prose poem, self-contained. I also like to think about what can be left out—poetry depends more on gaps, but the essay can make use of gaps as well. There’s an essay in The Word Pretty where I write about what I call “invisible transitions,” a kind of maneuver where the leap between two paragraphs or ideas is a little opaque, where you kind of spontaneously appear at point B rather than seeing a clear path from point A.
TM: The morning after the 2016 presidential election, you tweeted: “Life goes on, but at greatly reduced quality and not for as long.” Relatedly, you end the collection’s second essay, “Doomsday Pattern,” with “I feel this way all the time now. Nothing is safe. Everything’s fine.” Nearly four years later, do you feel the same way?
EG: In 2016, it felt like we were on the brink of disaster; now I’d say we’re over the brink. Of course, things were already very bad then, but the devastation of the pandemic is just overwhelming. If you think about it too much you’ll never stop screaming. So I guess you could say I do feel the same: the only way to get through time alive is to spend a lot of it pretending that everything’s fine.

Bonus Links:
Elisa Gabbert Wants Interesting Thinking, No Matter the SubjectInside Elisa Gabbert’s Notebook
 

 
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Who’s Afraid of Poetry in America?

- | 1

Poetry and America have rarely been seen as the likeliest of bedfellows. In fact, the nature and stature  of poetry in the United States of America has been questioned pretty much since the latter first existed.
In his book Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville fired shots at the very concept. “I am not afraid that the poetry of democratic peoples will prove timid or that it will stay very close to the earth,” he wrote. “I fear that the works of democratic poets will often offer immense and incoherent images, overloaded depictions, and bizarre composites, and that the fantastic being issuing from their minds will sometimes make one long for the real world.” Within a decade or two, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman would prove him wrong.
The concerns over the form in this country continue today, in a very different way. Contemporary poets and poetry lovers often bemoan not the dizzying heights of the form but, rather, its marginalized status in modern times. Even the increase in poetry’s market share, thanks to Instagram poetry’s big sales numbers, isn’t seen entirely in a positive light. Instead, many poets feel that those sales are leaving the majority of poetic tradition behind.
And yet there’s another perspective on American poetry: that its history is rooted both in tradition and experiment; that it is for both the poets and the people; and that, contrary to popular belief, it still plays an important role in many lives—and could in even more, if given a chance. That’s where Poetry in America, the PBS television show created, directed, and hosted by Elisa New, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, comes into play.

The show, which has returned for its second season, appropriately, during National Poetry Month, has begun airing on PBS stations around the country and will air nationwide on the WORLD Channel. The show will continue airing through the spring, summer, and fall, and episodes will also be available to stream on pbs.org and on the show’s website. Each episode focuses on a single poem, with New discussing works by Marilyn Chin, Elizabeth Bishop, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marianne Moore, Mark Doty, Stephen Sondheim, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman, with guests including Katie Couric, Vice President Al Gore, Sheryl Sandberg, Bill T. Jones, Secretary of State John Kerry, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nas, John Hodgman, Tony Kushner, Justice Elena Kagan, Raúl Esparza, Maxine Hong Kingston, and more.
The concept for the show, New said, came out of a set of online courses she was creating at Harvard. “Just as they were going into online learning and they didn’t have many rules, I commandeered video crews and started making content that was more like documentary television,” she said. “In the beginning, it was really just going to Brooklyn and filming, say, the ‘A Song of Myself’ marathon and talking to people there.”
Soon, though, New’s access to great minds across the board gave her the opportunity to interview visitors ranging from Justice Kagan to hip hop artist Nas. After six months, she said, she had “filmed some extraordinary conversations with people not known as poetry experts,” and reached out to Boston’s PBS member television station, WGBH. And thus the show was born.
The hope, New said, was to help people get over their apprehension of poetry. “The show evolved out of my sense that people are afraid of poetry,” she said. “They don’t know how to navigate a poem. And I thought that bringing the resources of a group to bear would give them a glimpse into the joy that one can feel by discovering both what everyone has always seen in a line of this poem—how Bill Clinton and a kid in a Harlem schoolyard, upon reading a poem, see exactly the same thing—and the joy of seeing how our language is so plastic and so multivalent that we all keep seeing new things in it.”
The variety of guests on the show serves a number of purposes, including showing that all sorts of people read poetry and that each brings a very different understanding of the use of language to the work of reading. As examples, New pointed to Justice Kagan, trained in the art of legal writing, and Nas, trained in the art of the lyric. “Both of them brought to their conversations with me their own writing practices, and explained their writing practices to me, and those practices intersect, in many ways, with the practices of poets—and of course Nas is a poet, and an extraordinarily gifted one,” New said.
But even those who are not writers themselves, New said—such as Vice President Joe Biden and Shaquille O’Neil, who were guests in the show’s first season—bring their own different understanding of the power of language to reading poetry. New spoke of Biden using language “that is drenched in affect” as “a kind of emotional signaling system,” and of O’Neil being “so accustomed to the fast patter of basketball talk,” and bringing that understanding to bear on his reading of poetry. “Everybody brings their own theory of language, from the kind of precincts of language in which they most comfortably dwell,” she said. “And if you can sort of match that with the right kind of poem, they’re just experts at reading it.”
New’s objective is to help viewers feel comfortable in poetry’s arena. And by focusing on one poem in a half-hour of television, adapted to the screen visually and aurally, and accompanied by carefully-matched selections of music and images and historical context, she believes she can do just that—and not in the same way as, say, Instagram poetry.
“I think that for the inexperienced reader of poetry and viewer of the series, the idea is that the series will show that you can sit tight and have an experience that’s different from any you’ve had before, and that you might’ve been afraid of before, and that that experience will be rewarding for you,” New said.
The trick, of course, with creating a public access television series about such an art form as poetry, coveted and beloved intensely by its practitioners and students, and often considered arcane and unreachable by the masses, is pleasing both parties. And New knew that, too. But in the end, she knew where to draw the line.
“For the initiated reader of poetry, I of course want to enhance that, that reader’s experience as well—and I always have the voices of the experts in my ear, sitting on my shoulder, warning me: Don’t dumb it down, don’t cheapen it, don’t oversimplify it,” she said. “But I would like, actually, to restore to some of them, their original joy and wonder, and also help them think about poetry as a more common pleasure. Walt Whitman said, ‘I am what is easiest, cheapest, freest.’ And we in the poetry world can be a little bit precious. So, even as I want to be as rigorous as my most rigorous viewer, I want that viewer to bear in mind what Frank O’Hara told us, which is that poetry should be fun, right? It should be like having a cocktail. It should be fizzy and delightful—even when the subject is grave.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

How to Live the Writing Life

-

Mary Gannon and Kevin Larimer, the two most recent editors of Poets & Writers, want you to know how to be a writer. That means understanding every step of the process, not just when to pick up the pen (or put it down) or open up the laptop (or close it shut). Their new book, The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer, includes tips on finding and entering writing contests, applying for and taking writing retreats, navigating the seas of self-publishing, finding an agent and working with an editor, and building a sustainable career.
Larimer said that the duo “tried to balance practical, no-nonsense tips and insights from successful authors and publishing professionals with a decidedly more human, humane, and emotional approach to the writing life.” Their hope, Adler said, was that the book would “reflect the hearts and souls of the writers we’ve worked with and come to deeply admire over the past two decades as much as their boundless creativity and bright intellect.”
The effort, according to some of the biggest names in writing and publishing, paid off, with Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae calling the book a “teeming compendium” and Riverhead Books associate publisher and director of publicity Jynne Dilling Martin adding, in a blurb for a book published by a rival company, that she found the book “lucid, lively, [and] enormously helpful.”
To help distill some of their knowledge for the masses, The Millions asked Gannon and Latimer to round up six pieces of advice from the book they found both representative and particularly helpful. Here are six shortened selections they sent us:
1. Read literary magazines—and subscribe to them, too.
This seems like a no-brainer, but not all writers take the time to do it. Reading literary magazines not only demonstrates good literary citizenship, but it also provides essential information about the field and the chance to discover the work of writers you wouldn’t otherwise find. You can take note of where your favorite authors are publishing their work, hone in on particular magazines’ missions and aesthetics, and support the very magazines you hope to be published in one day. And as writer Yuka Igarashi says, “A literary magazine puts a writer in conversation with other writers and, depending on the magazine, with a community, with a lineage or tradition.” — chosen by Mary Gannon
2.Write a fan letter to an author.
All writers, even the most established, need a little love. And you’d be surprised to know how meaningful receiving a fan letter can be to a writer. Plus, carving out the time to think through and articulate why a book or piece of writing moves you, what you found important, and possibly even transformative, gives you a gift as well—the opportunity to understand what you value most and why. This clarity can inform your own writing practice in significant ways. —chosen by Mary Gannon
3.You don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer.
Pursuing a master of arts degree in creative writing has become a well-travelled path toward becoming a published writer, but it’s not the only path and it can be expensive. (If you do choose to pursue an MFA, we highly recommend researching programs that offer full funding.) What the MFA provides—the time and environment for refining your craft with like-minded people—can be achieved through other means. Think writing conferences, writing groups, and DIY retreats. Talk to any agent or editor, in New York City or elsewhere, and they’ll all say the same thing. If given a choice between a mediocre manuscript from a writer with an MFA and a remarkable one from a writer who never even went to college, they will always choose the best writing. —chosen by Mary Gannon
4.Don’t feel guilty if you’re not writing.
Too often we hear the advice that all writers really need to do is force themselves to sit there and write. As Mary Heaton Vorse purportedly said to Sinclair Lewis over a century ago: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat on the pants to the seat of the chair.” While it’s true that nothing was ever written without a significant amount of time spent, you know, writing, you shouldn’t feel a constant sense of guilt if you’re not in that chair writing at every available moment of every day. Some authors talk about how they’re able to plant themselves in the writing chair on a strict schedule, which can be inspiring, but it can also give beginning writers the impression that everyone works that way. Or that everyone should want to work that way. So, in the book we wanted to guard against the assumption that if you don’t keep a rigorous writing schedule you must not want it enough, that you must not be serious about writing if you aren’t dedicating a set number of hours to the act of writing. This is nonsense. It ignores the reality for many of us—the reality that is composed of varying levels, degrees, and amounts of responsibility, of inequality, of privilege, of access. Your level of passion and commitment to writing is not commensurate with the number of hours per day that you write. Being a writer is about more than just writing. There’s a reason we refer to it as “the writing life.” An important part of being a writer is living—and truly living is ensuring that you’re not chained to a desk staring at a computer at the expense of lived experience (which will, of course, inform and enliven your writing). —chosen by Kevin Larimer
5.Be proud of yourself.
Too often, especially for writers, pride can sound like a bad word. Many of us downplay our contributions and accomplishments, forgetting to take a moment to feel proud of what we’re doing on the page. Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest, in a family where modesty was held up as a kind of unspoken principle, I can find it difficult, even under the sheen of social media, to take time for the good, healthy, valuable feelings of accomplishment that come after a long writing or editing project is finally complete. We wanted to make sure that our book included some reminders to writers to take a moment and give yourself permission to brag a bit. Don’t automatically dismiss what you’re doing if someone brings up your writing over dinner or in casual conversation. You’re a writer; you’ve written something unique. And there are millions of people out there who cannot say that. It’s a special thing you’re doing, unique to you. Go ahead, be proud of yourself! —chosen by Kevin Larimer
6.Feel your post-publication feelings.
Honestly, this is something we were able to write about only after our own book was well on its way to being published, and we added it as the last chapter because the feelings we were writing about were so strong. Not a lot of writers talk about it, at least not publicly, because unless you’ve been through the process yourself, you likely wouldn’t know to ask an author about it. And so many writers hold publication as a top marker of success; it makes sense that authors wouldn’t want to be perceived as complaining about how emotionally difficult it can be. Plus, it’s kind of personal. It can be a little embarrassing when your eyes well up with tears when you hit send on the final manuscript to your editor. There are so many emotions—joy, relief, excitement, and happiness, yes, but also fear, sadness, exhaustion; heck, maybe you’re feeling a little let down after the rush leading up to deadline. All of these things are normal. So don’t be embarrassed of your feelings. You’re engaged in something really big. This work involves every part of you, and there are highs and lows at every step. We want to remind writers to feel it all, and use every piece of it to fuel and empower your next writing project. —chosen by Kevin Larimer
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Breathing New Life into Old Books

-

Books are constantly being made into movies, but rarely is a movie actually about books—let alone the people who sell them. Earlier this month, The Booksellers, a documentary on the antiquarian book trade and the buyers and sellers of rare books, hit theaters to overall acclaim, and while the film is very much about its characters, it’s also about the trade as a whole, and how it’s surviving in an era of dizzying technological advancement.
We spoke to the film’s director, D.W. Young, about how the movie came about and what the future of the rare book world looks like to him.
The Millions: How did this project come about?
D.W. Young: The very first idea for the project came from our producer Dan Wechsler, who is also a prominent rare book dealer. He has also done some film work, and he and Judith Mizrachy, our other producer and my partner and my wife, and we’ve worked together on lots of things over the years. She had worked with Dan on something, we’d all kind of worked together on some projects like eight or nine years ago and become friends. We were talking about future projects and he mentioned he’d always thought a documentary about the rare book world would be a great idea. It had never been done. And from his perspective from inside the book world, he had a lot of ideas. And Judith and I immediately agreed that it was a great idea. We each had some peripheral sense of the rare book world, we’re both people who love books. So we enthusiastically agreed. But we were all tied up in other projects at the time and we didn’t really get to it until about three years ago when we were actually working on something else which hit a standstill. So at that time I said, you know what, I think this would be a great moment to pursue the rare book idea. And so we did.
TM: How did the process of reporting it go?
DWY: Dan provided some shortcuts. He got us to some people sooner and easier and kinda got the ball rolling faster than it might’ve. I think we would’ve gotten to the same place in a lot of respects left to our own devices. But it would have been more work and taken longer. And in a few cases he helped get some people on board who might’ve been reluctant or taken a lot more cajoling. But in terms of the reporting, I think with something like this, it’s a kind of organic process where you have things in mind but you also need to be receptive to it being a learning experience and kind of discovering things as you go. I was doing research on my own and, and talking to people also, and that’s kind of how I was acquainting myself with this world. So first, I think we wanted to talk to a certain base of people and from there, certain connections started being made about what was possible and a sense of how many aspects of the trade we could fit into a movie started to clarify. Then it gets a little more interesting when you start to try and fit people in a more specific way. That became about thinking of a further set of dealers—certain collectors who would be complimentary to what we already had, and a few external voice, Fran Liebowitz being one and Susan Orlean being another. It’s a building process.
TM: What was one of the things that you learned along the way that surprised you or changed the way that you were looking at the rare book world, or even just how you would frame it in the film?

Rare book dealer Adam Weinberger appraises books at a residence in Manhattan in The Booksellers.
DWY: One thing that I really was not so aware was how much the trade handles material that’s not just books or paper, although that’s still the dominant component of what people in the rare book trade transact with. But I didn’t realize how much ephemera and other historically relevant material could fall under the umbrella of the rare book trade. We saw 19th-century board games from France and enigma machines from World War II, certain photography, and other material.
TM: Did you find the breadth of the trade surprising?
DWY: Absolutely. I was super enthusiastic when I realized that hip hop magazines and that kind of material was starting to become part of the rare book world. And I was very excited to bring it into the film, because hip hop is an enormously important cultural factor. But I think the very key point is that it’s not albums themselves as musical collectibles, as music, that it’s relevant to the rare book world. It’s historical significance. The magazines that Syreeta Gates collects, many of them haven’t even been digitized yet. You would think they would be, but even so, they haven’t. The understanding of the historical context of say the eighties and the nineties is important. To further enhance the context of our historical understanding of that period, there’s great value to collecting that stuff. I needed stuff like that for the film, the more recent stuff, the zines and stuff like that. It seems like it was just yesterday, but it’s kind of in the rear view mirror already. And it weirdly falls into the rare book trade.
TM: The rare book business is heavily white and male, even today. But the types of books being collected are obviously not just about the history of white culture, but about the history of everything. Knowing that, do you think there’s a possibility for more diversification in this side of the business?
DWY: I think so, and I think that’s really the position of a number the younger dealers, who are very smart, and they really advocate that belief, and I think it is expressed in the film. From what I’ve seen, I think it seems to have a lot of merit. The rare book trade is not an institution. No one’s in charge of it. It’s comprised of just a bunch of individuals. Most of them have a shop that’s just them or maybe one other person or a couple of helpers. So there’s no clear path to adding diversity to the trade at the higher end. We focused on established dealers who were generally fairly established in the higher echelons of the market. Adding more diversity there, it’s not like some of those dealers who are now older have not been at the forefront of providing access to a lot of interesting material that is diverse. They’ve helped bring new collectors and new institutional interest to all kinds of material. That said, I have to clarify that I feel like I’m still very much an outsider’s perspective on this. But I think that’s one of the things with Syreeta collecting hip hop magazines, or some of the stuff that Arthur Fournier collects in the film, that’s clearly speaking to a different generation than your traditional model collector from the past. I think that there’s good reason to believe that the more that material stretches out into encompassing more and more kinds of things that will hopefully lead to some more diversity in the trade. There’s a potential I think for a broadening of the trade—who engages in it—that could go hand in hand with a broadening of what’s collectible.
TM: What’s something you weren’t able to explore in the film that you wish you could have?
DWY: One thing I never got a satisfactory answer to, and I don’t think there is a right answer, but I kinda think is really interesting as far as institutions are concerned—and also collectors, but even more so institutions—is, to what degree do the dealers influence what’s considered new and interesting and collectible, by being at the forefront, and what degree are they responding to the institutions and the collectors and their own groundbreaking interests. I think, ultimately, it’s a two way street. Both things are happening simultaneously, and each instance is different of why and to what degree. The dealers of course probably feel a little more strongly about what they’re bringing to the table, and I’m sure the librarians feel the opposite. But I think it’s interesting that there’s a kind of dialogue that’s going on there. It’s kind of too complicated a thing to get into a documentary, but in other kinds of discourse, it would be interesting to delve into further.
In terms of a specific scene, one dealer who appeared in the film, Dave Bergman, showed me these amazing catalogs from the late 1800s, I’m guessing, of fittings—like, the brass and other fittings—for caskets and funeral materials. It’s just an entire catalog of brass fittings and stuff. There’s no comparison for today. That doesn’t exist anymore, a lot of what’s in this catalog. And no one 30 years ago likely thought that this was very interesting at all. But we’ve changed our appreciation for how that could speak to us historically, or be collectible. I looked at that and thought it was really interesting how something can go from being literally something someone would throw on the fire to having value. It’s just a question of people seeing it differently.
TM: At the end of The Booksellers, the rare book sellers weigh in on how they see the future of the trade—some are hopeful, some are not. How do you feel about the future of rare bookselling?
DWY: I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. That said, I choose to feel positive, insofar as it is a matter of choice. I think at the end of the day, having to go one direction or another, I would choose to take the positive approach. If your experts are that down the middle, sometimes I think just the act of believing is what tips the scales. What’s more interesting to me is how little anyone agree on this point in the book trade. You could get book dealers talking about this endlessly. The degree of uncertainty in the moment is kind of the most compelling factor in the end. We’re really in this moment where everyone is so uncertain about this. It’s reflective of the technological zeitgeist as well. Everything in our world is in flux at an increasingly rapid rate. The rare book trade is certainly not a mirror of society as a whole, but it’s undergoing many similar changes to those that are happening elsewhere. It’s interesting, I think, to compare that experience of this one very specific world to the larger world beyond. Where are they similar? Where do they diverge in their responses to some of these changes. Regarding diversity and the book trade, for instance, I think it’s interesting to see how that relates to questions and issues of diversity in society at large, and the push for that. For the younger dealers, there is a great sense of passion and importance placed upon that. One of the functions of a documentary is to exist as a historical record of the time and place in which it’s being made. Obviously that’s something we hope the film does.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.