Justin Jamail and Andrew McCarron
James Schuyler: Charles North Interview
from pataphysics magazine, publishing issue, 2005
Of Charles North's poetry, Schuyler himself once wrote, "His joy in words, and the things words adumbrate, is infectious: we catch a contagion of enlightenment. To me, he is the most stimulating poet of his generation." North met and befriended the psychologically troubled Schuyler in the early 1970s. Together they edited Broadway: A Poets and Painters Anthology in 1979 and Broadway II in 1989.
Surrounded by portraits of North and his friends (many painted by his wife Paula) and other memorabilia (including the original copy of "Light from Canada," a poem that Schuyler dedicated to North), we felt somewhat intimidated, but also certain that we had come to the right place. North, for his part, was all easiness, plying us with coffee and sweets as he welcomed us into a comfortable sitting room.
Charles North: My guess is that I didn't read him until I took Kenneth [Koch]'s New School Workshop in the winter of 1966 which is when I started writing poetry myself. He introduced us to all these poets I'd never heard of, and Jimmy was one of them. The books that I read first were May 24th or So and, later, Freely Espousing. Freely Espousing came out in '68 or '69. I'm pretty sure those were the only things available by him except for those limited edition collaborations (Tiber Press?) Jimmy, Kenneth, John Ashbery, and Frank O'Hara each did with a painter. So it was through Kenneth that I came to know of Jimmy. Really, everything I did with respect to poetry at the beginning was a result of Kenneth's teaching.
JJ: Did you already know of Koch at the time of taking the New School class or did you find him by chance?
CN: Neither, quite. I had taken a master's degree in English at Columbia and had kept in touch with my advisor, John Unterecker, who was himself a poet (and was also in the process of doing a biography of Hart Crane). I had just begun to be interested in poetry, and Unterecker recommended Kenneth, his colleague at Columbia, who moonlighted at the New School. I kept putting it off probably out of sheer insecurity but finally did enroll in Kenneth's poetry workshop, and it turned out to be the last time that he taught there.
Andrew McCarron: Did the poems you read of Schuyler's in that workshop make an impression?
CN: I'm not sure whether we actually read the poems or whether Kenneth just mentioned Schuyler as someone to read or whether I heard about him casually as a result of conversations with Kenneth or other people I then met. But I loved his work, and after discovering Freely Espousing, I read it until it was practically falling apart! I did the same with Tony Towle's book North (which had nothing to do with me). Somehow, those were the two books that first attracted me. Of course, I was soon fascinated by the poems of Ashbery, O'Hara and Koch as well, along with some younger poets Tibor de Nagy was publishing in chapbooks that was where I first came upon Joe Ceravolo, for example.
AM: Do you remember when you first met Schuyler?
CN: I do, partly because I was so nervous! The story's a little roundabout. In the spring of 1970, I showed up towards the end of a poetry workshop Tony Towle was giving at the Poetry Project (where, by the way, I also met Paul Violi). We hit it off, and Tony gave me a great deal of encouragement. Soon after, I showed him a poem I had dedicated to Schuyler called "Lights" it's in my first book, Elizabethan & Nova Scotian Music and Tony, who had known Jimmy for some years, sent it to him. I was very shy about it all. Anyway, a few months later, out of the blue, the wonderful poem "Light From Canada" (which I still think is one of Jimmy's best) came in the mail with a dedication to me, a gloss explaining an allusion to a line of O'Hara's, and a note saying "Let me return the compliment." Needless to say I was thrilled. About a year later, again via Tony, I met Schuyler at a party in Morris Golde's apartment in the West Village. Morris was a businessman who was very involved with contemporary music and the arts in general. I think, though I'm not positive, that this was the same party where I rubbed shoulders with Leonard Bernstein, and in addition had the experience of seeing him dancing lip to lip with some guy, which for me, innocent as I was then, was a shocker. I don't remember who actually introduced me to Jimmy, but I do remember that I was almost literally dumbfounded and very embarrassed about that afterwards. Later, I remembered that he had said practically nothing, either. (Did he say, tongue-in-cheek, "Finally," or did I make that up?) As I've said before, one of my lasting regrets is that I didn't know him when he was younger and healthier.
JJ: Did you know anything about him at the time? You knew his poetry, but did you know about his circumstances?
CN: Just in general terms. Actually, one spring, '71 or '72, Anne Waldman asked my wife, Paula, and me if we would be willing to spend the summer with Jimmy at 49 South Main Street (in Southampton, L.I.); Fairfield Porter and his family, with whom Jimmy lived, would be in Maine for the summer and Jimmy wasn't going with them. We had already heard about Jimmy's breakdowns and such, but, after some agonizing, we decided we couldn't not do it. As it happened, it fell through at the last minute, when Ruth Kligman, whom Anne described to us as "very resilient" (she was the girl friend of Jackson Pollock who survived the car crash) decided to do it.
AM: I wonder how that would have gone.
CN: God knows. Well, you know, Ron Padgett and his family had a famously bad experience living with Jimmy during one of his breakdowns. So I'm just as happy it didn't happen. I never saw him at his worst. When he used to come over for dinner here in the late '70s he was often silent and looked unwholesome, to put it mildly. He would play steadily with his false teeth with his tongue at least that's what it looked like. But he never acted crazy. Once after dinner I don't know whether he was especially tired or didn't feel well, or what he asked if he could sleep over. We were a little nervous about it, especially as Jill, my daughter, was very young at the time, but it was already late and of course we couldn't just turn him out. After a quiet night for him anyway he left in the morning. I do remember him requesting eggnog more than once when he was here for dinner in the winter, and my going downstairs in the snow to get him a quart, which he drank straight down.
JJ: How did the dinners first come about? Did you correspond with him?
CN: Not correspond, we lived too near each other, but I had gotten to know him by then. Paula and I just thought it was a nice idea. I had visited him regularly during the time he was at the Lincoln Square Home for Adults (where he was by far the youngest resident) on 74th Street and Broadway. Darragh Park and I were his main, if not his only, visitors there. Darragh was an extremely faithful friend. In fact, I recall once entering the place and being addressed as Mr. Park. Actually this isn't what you asked but it's related when I visited Jimmy during his time at the Payne Whitney Clinic, he would complain that so few came to see him. To tell the truth, it was sometimes exhausting to be with him, especially in these circumstances, and especially when he was next to silent. Visits were a mixed blessing in other ways too. I saw him at the Allerton "Hotel" before he moved into the Chelsea, and that was one of the most depressing places I have ever been in in my life.
JJ: There is a footnote in the diaries referencing Ann Dunne's remarks on the squalid conditions in that apartment.
CN: Oh, I didn't know she visited him there; I didn't think anybody did! It was pretty horrifying, the fleabag of fleabags. His room consisted of a bed, on which, at least the few times I saw him there, he lay surrounded by a sea of dirty laundry that reached just about to the height of the bed. And of course the smell was pretty bad. Moving to the Chelsea, with the help of his generous friends, I'm sure changed his life.
AM: There's a tradition of the crazy poet John Clare, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and so forth how do you think Schuyler relates to this tradition?
CN: Well, I don't like to think of him I don't think of him as a "crazy poet." I've never found his poetry crazy; he managed just about invariably to spot what shouldn't be published and kept it to himself. I saw an early manuscript of The Morning of the Poem, and I was very happy when the book came out to see that he had omitted a few poems that were really over the top. Of course like Clare and Cowper, he is exquisitely sensitive to things other poets don't write about. I guess you could call his attention to flowers obsessive, or even a displacement of feeling. But unlike, say, Plath and Lowell, he rarely refers openly to his mental disturbances, and when he does, it's always in a matter-of-fact way, nothing histrionic or exhibitionistic. That's what makes his Payne Whitney poems so admirable it's reporting about insanity, in a low-keyed way, not the insanity itself.
AM: It's always creeping in kind of the corners of Schuyler's poems. It's never central.
CN: Maybe you see more of it than I do. Or maybe I don't want to see it. That's possible too. I remember talking about Jimmy's poetry with my friends, like Tony, and marveling at the clarity, delicacy, brilliant contrariness, and other remarkable qualities of the writing of this person whose life and person (almost helpless dependency on others, overweight, etc.) were often the extreme opposites of those. I guess we all know about the flip side of obsessive and compulsive behavior, at least in artists. But again, I've never found the poems themselves "crazy." In fact, quite the opposite.
AM: There's not a smoking gun.
CN: No, but I don't really think the subject comes up via the poetry. On top of all this, and again apart from his life and whatever megalomaniacal behavior appeared in his breakdowns, as a poet he's so modest. He makes such a point of saying he just wants to "see and say." You know, he never published that "immodest" poem I quoted in my piece "No Other Way," where he says, in effect, that though people think he's modest, he's "a great poet. No other way." I'm pretty sure that was one of the poems he deleted from the Morning of the Poem manuscript. I don't think, by the way, giving way momentarily to the impulse to tout himself, privately or publicly, is in any way crazy. In my experience, we all feel the same way, at least in our heart of hearts, no matter how quiet we are about it.
JJ: Any thoughts on his prose?
CN: The prose I knew back then consisted of a few things that appeared in the Paris Review and were later collected in The Home Book, which Trevor Winkfield edited, and the novel Alfred and Guinevere, which I had heard about and found (and loved) at a used book store (inscribed to "Chester" Kallman, I'm sure). What's For Dinner came later. The only diary material I knew (and thought exquisite) was what was included in his books of poems, like the section in The Crystal Lithium. I had seen a few little art reviews in Art News, but I didn't really know his art writing or his letters which are about to come out, edited by Bill Corbett. And now we see that all along he was at the center of prose beauty! Imagine!
AM: Are there parallels between his fiction and poetry?
CN: Yes, but more so, I'd venture, with respect to the diaries, letters, art writing, where he's as brilliantly attentive and specific as he is in his poems. He's always seeing more than most others see, and saying in a better way than most others say. I have been struck by the childhood experiences and even dialogue that pop up unexpectedly in poems you know: "Put that down, dear" but apart from some connection to Alfred and Guinevere, which is about kids, I don't know that I have much to say about that.
JJ: Let's return to his visits. What would you speak about at dinner? Poetry?
CN: Never, as I recall. Actually, he was rarely talkative at those dinners more so when I met him for lunch in Chelsea. Sometimes with Trevor Winkfield too. Maybe he just relaxed when he was here, since it was, after all, a family atmosphere, and I think that was a big part of what he liked about coming. Of course Paula's a wonderful cook too, and Jimmy liked to eat. At the lunches there was almost no shoptalk, though we did gossip though nothing like the "dishing" that he and Darragh engaged in on a regular basis. I remember being astonished once at his telling me that not only did he intensely dislike the poetry of one of our most distinguished living (then) poets, who could be assumed to be a colleague if not necessarily a close friend, but that he intensely disliked the person! He could also be extremely nice, appreciative, and generous with his praise. He was, as I'm sure you've heard, extraordinarily witty, in conversation as well as on the page, and another regret I have is that I didn't receive more than a handful of his fabulous letters. Wait till everyone sees them. Oh, a tiny example of his wit. He wrote a blurb for my first big book, Leap Year, which I was very proud of, but which no one ever saw, since Kulchur Press, rather than printing the blurb on the books, printed them on a cheap insert, which of course always got lost. Anyway, when The Year of the Olive Oil was in production, I asked him if the blurb could be reprinted. He said of course, then proposed a slight reordering of what he had originally written, then wrote to me that I was free to use either the new or "the King James version."
AM: Why did you invite him to dinner?
CN: Well, partly because we knew it was important to him. He ate regularly at the homes of a few other people, too, Katie and George Schneeman's, for example. Certainly I wasn't a close friend. I don't really know how close he was with those friends who were closer to him than I was. But I know he liked families, and he liked comfortable situations, from sitting snugly in a taxi for a long ride uptown to simply being taken care of. And over the years a number of people cared for him in one way or another, from the Porters with whom he lived for so many years, to those who paid for his various apartments, to his various assistants. It's not that we weren't friends of a sort certainly we had a poetry connection and he did ask me, at one point, to be his literary executor along with Darragh Park (which, after agonizing about, I declined. At the time I was overwhelmed by everything to do with my father's Alzheimer's disease, and I couldn't see past that. Jimmy was very nice about it.) Nathan Kernan, in his exemplary biographical notes for his edition of Jimmy's diaries, included Paula and me among Jimmy's "good friends." I suppose it's possible that, for a time, we were, but it never really seemed like that. He wasn't so easy to be with. I'll tell you an anecdote: John Ashbery was having a party and Jimmy invited Paula and me to go with him. We were supposed to go down to the Chelsea, pick Jimmy up, and then walk over to Ashbery's. Well, either Jimmy had the time wrong, or he was too eager, because we got there an hour and a half early! I hardly knew John and had been very much looking forward to seeing his apartment, and I was very embarrassed when John said, rather bluntly, come back later. Another time, at a party at Barbara Guest's studio, Jimmy was drunk even though he was taking antabuse and as he was leaving he said he would write me a poem. He stood there at the elevator and wrote and wrote and wrote and finally handed me a piece of paper covered in wavy lines no words whatsoever. I guess I should have taken it in stride, but I remember feeling awful and embarrassed for Jimmy. So I wish I had seen him the way his old friends had, and as I think Tony Towle did in the early days and Larry Fagin and others too, when the wit and charm I've now seen in his writing were evident in person. When I met him he was already thick and medicated, and when he came over in the winter he'd wear this big sheepskin thing and had long, very matted hair. I know he attracted attention on the street. He described himself at this point as looking like Buffalo Bill's grandmother [laughs], which I think is absolutely wonderful, but not so far off.
AM: Like Oscar Wilde on a bad day.
JJ: Not a lot of people who knew him at his lowest also knew him in the '80s after things started to improve. Was there a sense at the time in the '70s that it was only a matter of time until he improved? Or did it come as a complete surprise?
CN: It was a surprise, at least to me. Again, I'm sure having someone to take care of his food staples, cash, laundry, as well as poetry business, on a daily basis must have helped immensely. He clearly loved having his "assistants," as he called them Eileen Myles, Helena Hughes, Tom Carey, etc. and grew very close to each of them.
JJ: How did Broadway come about?
CN: Let's see, he was at the Chelsea already right? Well no maybe we began talking about it when he was at the Lincoln Square Hotel For Adults? [CN leafs through chronology from diaries] Let's see, yes I think it was there. I'm pretty sure I was the one who brought it up. Back in the late '60s he had put together this one-shot mimeo magazine called 49 South (named for the Porters' address in Southampton) which I had a poem in, and which everyone had fond memories of. I think I said, why not do a second one. Possibly he suggested our doing it together, I don't really remember, but in any case, he wasn't in any condition to do much of the work. We decided to have one poem or one drawing from a number of poets and artists we both admired, and somehow the magazine became a quasi-anthology. We were both living on Broadway, and Paula's cover drawing is a Broadway scene out of our apartment window. Jimmy and I both got a kick I can still hear his slow chuckle out of the little invitation we composed, which read, "Send us your best unpublished poem (or drawing)."
AM: Do you see Schuyler's influence in younger poets these days?
CN: I do, but it isn't always a positive influence. As you know, any original artist is dangerous to imitate, Schuyler probably more than most. His poems can appear to be so plain, and of course plainness is not what most good poetry has going for it. As I've written before about the so-called New York School, imitating Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara, Denby, etc., comes each with its special pitfalls. Then again, I'm sure I've taken something from all the aforementioned!
JJ: People have compared Schuyler to Bishop. Do you think it's just a coincidence of sensibility or a direct influence of one upon the other?
CN: Both among the experts in poetic line. I'm not sure. She, of course, wasn't that much older than he was. I know he admired her work and she admired his. My guess is it was mostly a coincidence of sensibility. Actually, Jimmy was the one who suggested that I send her a copy of my first book, Elizabethan & Nova Scotian Music, because he knew I admired her poetry. One of the things she wrote back was how much she liked his poems, and how rare it was to find good love poems any more. That's interesting, isn't it. Though I admire them, Jimmy's love poems are not my favorite part of his oeuvre. Of course Bishop in general is so much tighter and more formal, but they do deserve to be spoken of in the same breath.
AM: Also, they both have fairly broad appeal.
CN: Well, I know Bishop's appeal transcends party lines, though interestingly, when I published a review of Geography II in the Poetry Project Newsletter the first or second critical piece I had ever done I remember people around the Project giving me strange looks. She was the Establishment back then, and for some that was that. Actually, that's probably still the case in certain circles. Schuyler's appeal, at least as I see it, is a lot narrower. Sad to say, it will probably remain so, as much as you and I and many of those we know would like to think otherwise. As I tried to point out in that piece I wrote on Vendler's NY Review piece on Jimmy, I don't think there's enough for the regular critic of poetry to sink enough teeth into. Critics aren't fond of just pointing and saying, "Isn't that remarkable!" which in the case of Jimmy's work and that of some others is the best service one can perform for readers.
AM: Then do you consider Jimmy underrated or under-appreciated? For example, his Collected is currently out of print.
CN: Both. Absolutely.
AM: Speaking of poetic recognition, let's talk about Schuyler's winning of the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Do you recollect how it affected him?
No, not really. Well, it certainly helped his reputation. And I
bet Helen Vendler wouldn't have written about him if he hadn't won.
Public recognition has a way of snowballing.
CN: I'm sure they both helped. How many do you imagine were even aware that The Home Book existed, let alone that it was published by Kenward Elmslie's tiny Z Press?
The reason we brought up the idea of Schuyler having broad appeal
is that eight years after the Pulitzer he gave that famous reading
at DIA art foundation. All those people showed up
wrapped around the block, etc. Ron Padgett said when he first knew
Jimmy he though he knew maybe 80 percent of the people who liked
his work, but at the reading (forty years later) he felt he knew
maybe 5 percent. Darragh, describing the same phenomenon, recently
referred to Jimmy's following as a "complicated cult following."
JJ: And yet, by the end they were all applauding and happy with the experience.
AM: How was his reading style?
CN: Straightforward. Unexceptional. I don't remember any patter. But exciting nonetheless, for Jimmy too. You know, after having declined for so long, he quickly, not surprisingly, developed a taste for giving readings. Who could have predicted that?
AM: How did his subsequent reading at the 92nd street Y compare with the DIA reading?
CN: I don't remember the Y reading very well.
JJ: We've talked about Bishop. Schuyler knew Auden personally. Do you detect a poetic influence?
CN: Not sure. They were so different. Jimmy does have that very nice poem about Auden, but that has more to do with the person than the poetry. Auden was such a formalist, and "social commentator," and Jimmy so immediate and even casual, seeing and jotting down. People don't mention it much, but Jimmy did do some subtle things with meter, for example, organizing some of his wonderful short poems in 3- and sometimes 4-beat lines, like "Salute" and "Buried at Springs." And of course no one else wrote, or writes, the sorts of "skinny" poems Jimmy did, with their expert lineation.
AM: Also, the juxtaposition of colloquial and formal language right?
CN: Good point although with Jimmy, more colloquial than formal.
JJ: You say you continue to read Jimmy's poetry. How has it changed for you over the years?
CN: Very interesting question, which when I reread his Collected last week set me to wondering about, myself. My favorite books are still Crystal Lithium and Freely Espousing, and I still think The Morning of the Poem is superior to A Few Days, both as books and as long poems. Are those minority or majority opinions?
JJ: A majority of those we've spoken with.
CN: One of the things that make me admire A Few Days less than The Morning of the Poem though I would give my eye tooth to have written either is what I see as an increased self-consciousness in the later poems. Less of the remarkable and seemingly effortless (which of course it wasn't) immediacy and natural flow that characterize the great earlier stuff.
AM: What are your feelings about the Payne Whitney poems?
CN: I'm all admiration though I've never felt they are Jimmy at his best. Still, their courage and straight talk is inspiring, as is his calling himself "Jim the jerk," and broaching the big question: "What is a poem, anyway?"
JJ: Can you tell us about some poems you've had change of heart about?
CN: It's not so much a change of heart about particular poems as an increased sense of overall strengths and weaknesses. Yes, there's a good bit of preciousness, and a good many slight (though often charming anyway) poems. Yes, like everyone else he repeats himself, but yes, the poems I used to think are wonderful are still wonderful, and there are so many of them. Freely Espousing alone has "February," "December," "A Man in Blue," the Dante sestina, "Hudson Ferry," "April and its Forsythia," "Salute," Buried at Springs, "Going" (one of the great neglected ones), "Earth's Holocaust," and others I'm forgetting at the moment. The Crystal Lithium has many more. All his books have wonderful things in them, including the miscellany of early stuff Trevor Winkfield put together, The Home Book. I've always felt that if O'Hara is an "I do this I do that" poet, Schuyler is "I see this I see that." In his great lyric poems, so many of which are quite short, it's as though one thing is happening after the other but they're not really. It's treating space as time. It's really very much like painting.
AM: Do you like "Empathy and New Year"?
CN: I like that poem very much.
JJ: What's Schuyler's most undeservedly neglected work?
CN: To me he is seriously neglected in general. I hope I'm wrong, but I believe we get fooled by the fact that everybody we know loves his work. It's not only that those we know are poets, but that the poets we know are the ones who happen to love his work! That's not the case out there in the poetry society of the U.S.A., any more than it's the case with Koch, O'Hara, Guest, or even Ashbery. I have a neighbor who is a poet, a very nice guy who was originally a protégé of Robert Lowell's and whose national reputation is a good deal bigger than Schuyler's. Fred Seidel. I don't know if you know his name this is where the poetry committees and "communities" (read: factions) come into play. He and Schuyler were nominated for was it the National Book Award? the same year. I remember talking to Fred in the elevator about it. He was hardly aware of Schuyler! One of the things maybe this is a way of getting to the heart of the matter I complained about in my response to Helen Vendler's piece (which was positive, by the way) was that I didn't think she gave any sense of why Jimmy is such an extraordinary poet, almost as though the fact that he is had never occurred to her. As though, yes, to go back to your earlier question, she was attending to him not because she really liked or truly admired the poetry, but because he had won a prize, had been nominated for another, and in addition had published a book-length poem. In that sort of climate of readers and critics, it's hard to imagine poets getting their due for the right reasons if at all except occasionally, when someone like Douglas Crase writes about Jimmy. But of course it's Vendler's opinions that get the attention.
On another note, you've said you don't think Schuyler will be considered
a major poet. I mean, it seems to me that if a poet like Schuyler
has any weakness it's a limited range not a limited emotional
range, but of subject matter and style.
AM: "Empathy and New Year" comes to mind. He's just observing what's going on, but by the end he has taken the reader into a profound meditation on the nature of time.
CN: Yes. A colloquial meditation.
AM: Do you teach Schuyler at Pace University?
CN: Not as much as I teach some other contemporary poets. Actually, I find he's very hard to teach, for the same reasons he's hard to write about. Maybe I also care too much about how he goes over. It depends on the class, of course. I have taught him in advanced courses. In my experience he doesn't wow beginning writers as much as the other New York poets or, for obvious reasons, Ginsberg or Sylvia Plath or, say, Mayakovsky. Again, I probably have too much invested in him. All of us who teach have had the experience of having our favorites fall on deaf ears but with Jimmy it's more likely to happen than with the others. It has to do with a lot of things, I think, his subject matter, his quietness, his subtlety, his preciousness, his falling through the conceptual cracks. Or maybe when all is said and done he's, dare I say it, a poet's poet. Many of the best poets are!
AM: What are some things people should know about Schuyler?
CN: The writing first and foremost, poems and prose. Really getting to know it. The only thing I can think of and remember that I didn't know him that well is how tough he could be when it came to the things he cared about, especially writing, as I witnessed first-hand in going over potential contributors to Broadway. Some of those I suggested, who I thought were naturals, he was derisive about! He eventually gave in on a few, but not all. Apparently he was a wonderful editor of his friends' poems, and they were lucky to have him. From reading his letters in manuscript, I learned that he helped Kenneth a good deal with at least one of his books on teaching kids to write poetry. Like Fairfield Porter, with whom he was so close for so long, he could be quite blunt. But he could also be charming. I tend to think that the Jimmy I knew was too often not himself, too often a heavy and heavily medicated lookalike, who miraculously managed to retain some of his marvelous abilities. Seeing photographs of him from the '40s and '50s in his published diaries gave me a very different feeling about what he was like at the time when I wish I had known him. I'm sure the literary biography Nathan Kernan has now signed on to write will give a much more balanced picture than many have at present.