Q&A Part 1: Poetry Foundation President Robert Polito on First Year

Robert Polito, the Poetry Foundation's second president. Photo courtesy of Poetry Foundation.
Robert Polito, the Poetry Foundation's second president. Photo courtesy of Poetry Foundation.

Robert Polito's brain shares much in common with Google. Like the search engine, it's exhaustive, expansive, and quick to make connections, especially when it comes to his great love: literature. That passion, erudition, and appreciation for the slightest nuance are what distinguishes Polito as poet, scholar, and educator. In July 2013, he was named president of the Poetry Foundation – a role that seems inevitable given the Harvard PhD, his two decades as director of The New School's Creative Writing program (where he was my teacher), and his handle on classic and contemporary poetry. Now at his post in the middle of the country, it all comes together. From his home in Chicago, he joined me by phone to share exciting news about the future of poetry in this country and around the world.

Editor's Note: For the second part of this interview, visit Signature on Monday for a conversation about Polito's writing of the hybrid memoir-fiction-poetry collection Hollywood & God and Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, for which he received the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Signature: You just celebrated your first anniversary as president of the Poetry Foundation. How does it feel to look back on the past year?

ROBERT POLITO: From my obviously slanted vantage, it's been an exhilarating year. That was mostly because there already was in place such an extraordinary staff, across all facets of the Poetry Foundation. It's a relatively small group, particularly given all that is created here – about twenty-five total. But whether it's Poetry magazine, the website, the curators of public events, the library, or the administrative staff, everybody not only is supremely gifted at what they do they're all also conspicuously nice people, and were very welcoming to me. As President, I'm advancing various new ideas and initiatives, along with pursuing different approaches, emphases, and tones from the past, but my day-to-day aspirations build on the prior activities of this great staff.

The opportunities to do important work for poets, poetry, and poetry audiences are what attracted me to the job. We are a working foundation, so we can spend just a small percentage of the endowment. Still, our resources and geographical position in the middle of the country uniquely situate the Poetry Foundation as a local, national, and international poetry organization. A lot of the past year was spent reaching out and listening to poetry and arts groups in Chicago, across America, and in other countries. I feel lucky to work at a place where the tradition is innovation and experimentation. At most arts organizations the tradition is, well, tradition. The Poetry Foundation evolved from Poetry magazine, the great experiment that Harriet Monroe launched just over 100 years ago. Our legacy is synonymous with Modernism in America: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, or closer to Chicago, Carl Sandburg, Edward Arlington Robinson, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

I often think about what they would do – Harriet Monroe, and those writers who were there at the start – what they might do if confronted by the inevitably new circumstances we're facing.

SIG: Like technology?

RP: New technology, sure, and a very different poetry world. One of the remarkable aspects of Poetry magazine is that it wasn't created because 1912 was such a dazzling year for American poetry. Just the contrary. Ezra Pound had published a few small books, the same for Robert Frost but primarily poetry in English was a genial, dull scene about to explode. In a strange, almost "Field of Dreams" ritual, Harriet Monroe intuited that if there was a monthly journal devoted to poetry exclusively as opposed to general interest magazines, which published the occasional, random poem she could will into existence great poetry, as well as a great poetry audience. And that's pretty much what happened. Within a few years, you would see in Poetry "Eros Turannos" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." So Monroe accomplished what she proposed. For those of us who work there now, that's a powerful and daunting spirit to try to stay in touch with on any given day.

Speaking practically, one of the first – and most crucial – opportunities I had when I started at the Poetry Foundation was the chance to select Don Share as the editor of Poetry. He's doing a thrilling job. Don was Senior Editor at the magazine prior to that, but we did a national search, and Don's openness to different forms of poetry – his tone of inclusiveness, his literary expansiveness, his interests in visual art, and his grounding in tradition and innovation coincided with the larger vision I wished for the Foundation as a whole. I couldn't be happier with the issues that he's put out over the last year. And let me stress that the magazine is totally autonomous within the Foundation. I read Don's issues and see Poetry as offering a canny and capacious sense of what's possible right now in American poetry. Personally, I think this is a strong moment for American poetry. This summer and fall, I'm also one of the judges for the National Book Award in poetry, and it's very exciting to realize how many remarkable books are being written and published.

SIG: And more than ever, people seem to be asking, "Does poetry matter?"

RP: I know. Overall, I'm ultimately interested in trying to shift the public conversation about poetry in America, and perhaps more generally, conversation about the arts. Poetry often is viewed merely as enriching or enhancing a life, and I think anyone who reads and writes poetry knows that's true. But I think there are essential skills that a person can learn from reading and writing poetry. Those skills are fundamentally involved in close reading, close attention to language, and close habits of attention. I believe those habits of attention are endlessly re-applicable. If you can read a poem, you can read a movie. You can read a painting, a photograph, a building. You know the questions you must ask to approach another work of art. But those close habits of attention turn out also to be vital preparation for almost any future occupation a person could head toward, including the ostensibly "tough-minded" professions, where you're a lawyer, in business, or government.

These habits of close attention are also profoundly wrapped up in notions of citizenship. The skills you develop reading a short poem in grammar school by Gwendolyn Brooks or Robert Frost are eventually the skills that are going to allow you to listen to a political speech, read a newspaper, or follow our twenty-four-hour news cycles as fully engaged, critical, and aware citizens.

Sometimes poetry, and often the arts generally, are presented defended, even in surprisingly sentimental terms. I would love to alter the conversation to these crucial skills. Those skills are transformative, and they certainly were in my own life. I come from a working-class family, and there was a tremendous emphasis at home on education, but not at all on culture. It wasn't until I was a freshman at Boston College High School and encountered a teacher there named Bill Collins that I was exposed to any of the activities I've just been discussing. His sly system spanned alternate weekends – one weekend he'd have us write a short story or a poem, and the next weekend, a close-reading paper about a short story or a poem. His literary range surprises me to this day – Wordsworth, Chinese poetry, Faulkner, Hawthorne, Eliot, even Ian Fleming. By the end of that year nearly all the working-class kids in his classroom could write what at least looked like a poem or a short story, and we could also shape a close reading of a complicated piece of language. He transformed our cultural lives, and also prepared everybody for the work we'd go into later.

In my new job, I often sit next to smart, frustrated people at dinner who run companies in Chicago. They always say that they're looking for employees who can think and write that they're able to teach the business and finance elements to people, but what they can't teach at that stage are the skills involved in expression and critical thinking. I approach poetry as a form of thinking, comprehension, and probing the world: society, history, nature, capital, love, family, the self.

I have a friend who teaches literature at a military academy, and she often receives letters from officers in the field – Afghanistan and Iraq – who say that it was her class that actually prepared them for the complex, ambiguous situations they face. Everything else at the academy was presented to them as rote, black-and-white, but it was her class that immersed them in situations where there was no right answer, only multiple interpretations that needed to be supported by the best evidence. The skills that you learn reading poetry are great preparation for life circumstances across a diversity of worlds.

SIG: That reminds me of the ritual of Japanese tea ceremony. It's about paying attention, really.

RP: Exactly. It's about learning to pay attention, learning how to listen and ask questions, learning the relationship between parts and wholes, and being able to interpret something in such a way that doesn't erase the complexity of the situation, but instead reflects, even embodies that complexity. So that's one thing I'm totally interested in at the Poetry Foundation – education at all levels, whether it's preschool, K through twelve, college, grad school, or lifelong learning. We are now supporting, for instance, Young Chicago Authors, the group in the Chicago schools behind Louder Than a Bomb, and will be running an institute for teachers next summer. A new reading series, the Open Door, features students and faculty of Chicagoland writing programs. We have lots of other education plans, too.

SIG: Incorporating new technologies?

RP: Both as education and pleasure, I'm fascinated by the connections between technology and poetry. One of the larger projects I'm pursuing out of something here called the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, a kind of think tank within the Foundation, will result in enhanced digital publications of some important poetry books, primarily from the second half of the twentieth century. You'll get an authoritative text of a book, and a lot of exciting materials around it – drafts, sources, author audio and video, journals, notebooks, letters, and focused commentary and annotation.

This project is in part about democratizing archives. If you're interested in the process of a poet, usually you have to fly to the library where the papers are maintained, don white gloves, and make your notes with a light pencil. Our project will allow you to have all that and more in your digital device. The ultimate focus is on how art gets made, and I think that's very compelling, even to people who don't necessarily think of themselves as steeped in poetry. The success of the Criterion Collection, which basically allows you to go to film school with a great movie via the supplements and enhancements – outtakes, director commentary, documentariesthat's the kind of thing we're thinking about. Some of the work will be done by our terrific web team, but we also have a core group of poets, scholars, and digital designers. I'm working alongside Karin Roffman, Tom Healy, Adam Fitzgerald, and Irwin Chen.

SIG: Wow, that sounds revolutionary. I've definitely experienced those barriers to entry in terms of access to archives.

RP: With this project, the hope is to diminish those barriers, and what we are proposing fortunately coincides with a new impulse inside libraries and archives to be more forthcoming and generous with materials. When I was researching the [Jim] Thompson biography, libraries tended to be proprietary about their holdings. Now they're seriously looking for methods of moving the archive out to anyone who is interested, not just a few scholars. This Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute initiative is an example of a movement away from hoarding our cultural past.

When I was in Italy recently, I was talking to someone who runs a poetry festival in Rome. When I described this new Poetry Foundation project over dinner, he said, "This is the future of poetry. You'll have to bring your team over and talk about this for our audience." Our goal is to create templates that others like him can follow. We can probably only do something between six and twelve books ourselves over the next couple of years, but the intention is to set up models that publishing companies, libraries, or even an individual author could pursue. You can readily imagine a poet might want to include audio and video along with her poems, and perhaps some prose writing or interviews that they've done. This series is intended to show various paths for that.

Fourteen years into the twenty-first century, I think people can now be thinking from inside, through, and with these no longer "new" technologies. Our situation reminds me a lot of where the culture was 100 years ago. Remember all the inventions of the 1890s: electricity, the telephone, movies, the car. Yet it wasn't really until the teens or early 1920s that people were able to take artistic note of those inventions with sophistication. Think how long it took film directors to learn how to move the camera.

Part 2 of this interview will post to Signature on Monday, August 4.