Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Don’t get comfortable

 On lessons learned from a long friendship with Louise Glück

My friend Mark texted me at 6:18 A.M. yesterday: Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize! All morning, I found myself doing something I hadn’t done much, since the pandemic hit this horrid election year: joyscrolling.


Such recognition for a life in art! That life had changed mine, too: the minute, twenty-two years ago, that Louise plucked my first book manuscript from the submission pile for the APR/Honickman Prize.


One year after that, in 1999, I met her for the first time at a reading in Santa Fe. I tapped her shoulder and introduced myself. She enveloped me in the warmest, beariest hug—it seemed improbable that such a hug could come from so petite a person. Grasping my arms, she leaned back and took me in: “You are not at all what I expected—who would have thought such a sunny personality could write such devastating poems!”


It was a compliment of a high order, and one that troubled me for days. Was there some split between my self in the world and my self on the page? Louise seemed to me to be exactly herself, everywhere: in life and in art. Confounding, difficult task! So few truly accomplish it.


LOUISE GLÜCK © KATHERINE WOLKOFF


Louise had a mysterious capacity to change her aesthetic approach and still create poems that were unmistakably hers. I asked her about it once, and she said she would give herself little assignments, when she started writing again, after long silence. With Vita Nova, she thought: I never use repetition or questions; thus, every poem has to include one of each. She might not keep them all in every poem as a book developed, but such assignments—simple and formal in nature—propelled her into a new way of sounding exactly like herself.


After this, I looked for the tells in each book as it debuted: the humor and recorded speech of Meadowlands; the use of fragment and long sequences in Averno; the uncanny and disturbing prose poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night.


In Averno I saw the influence of her work with emerging poets, in her capacity as judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, as it was known then. I was a screener for her during these years. I learned that she wanted what was raw and wild, even if it seemed half-baked. She was put off by the obviously, even exquisitely polished: so often such manuscripts felt inert to her. “Send it to me if it feels alive,” she instructed, “even if you think it needs work.” And indeed, each year she would work on such books with the year’s winner and one or two finalists, flying each poet out to Cambridge at her own expense, spending an intensive weekend with the book and the author under her exacting eye. And always, the explicit caveat to the finalists: such work was no guarantee of winning next year—let’s see what you do with the book.


Doing this screening work with her, I once asked what made her pick my manuscript all those years ago. “I didn’t like your book,” she said, without hesitation. I started laughing—her famous candor often had this effect on me, even if it was at my expense. “Why did you pick it, then?” I replied, incredulous. Her eyes widened: “Because I couldn’t quit thinking about it.”


She said that she decided that if she couldn’t quit thinking about a book, even if it disturbed her own sense of aesthetics, it meant that book should win. And that often, her initial reservations would transform into admiration.


Such an approach involves generosity of mind and great self-reflective capacity; it requires patience, and a willingness to sit with aversion: these are great acts of devotion to art. I imagine now that this is the same eye she brings to her own work, the eye necessary to writing books that are wholly new and wholly Glück.


She models vigilance against self-complacency. She has taught me to sense when a signature of style is simply serving as a crutch; to recognize when the familiar is inhibiting the potentially extraordinary. She has taught me: Don’t get comfortable.


(Source: The Paris Review)

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