Joan Z. Shore – An American Writer in Paris

An American Writer in Paris
An Interview with Joan Z. Shore
by Bryan R. Monte

On 4 January 2013, Joan Z. Shore was interviewed in her Left Bank Paris flat about her work as a journalist, feminist and creative writer. Shore, a Vassar College graduate (BA art and architecture), worked for nearly a decade as the Paris CBS News correspondent. During that time she interviewed such people as the Ayatollah Khomeini, three French presidents—François Mitterrand, Valéry d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac—and former US first lady, Nancy Reagan. Shore has written for The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, several Condé-Nast publications, and Boomer Times (Florida). For the last six years she has been a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post. Shore is the author of Saging–How to Grow Older and Wiser (2000) and a novel, Red Burgundy (2011). Her current work, Collage, an “auto-fiction” about her life in Europe since the 1970s, will be published this year.

BM: You’ve had a very interesting, 30+ year career as a journalist and more recently, as a creative writer. Could you fill my readers in a little bit about the chronology of your life — for example, when and why you moved to Europe — and what you did in the first years after you moved here?

JZS: My husband had a job offer to transfer to Brussels for a six-month assignment and—lo and behold—we stayed on there permanently!

BM: And what happened in your life in Brussels that made you the independent woman that you are today. How did you go from being a married…

[Laughter]

JZS: …housewife….

BM: … housewife in Brussels who followed her husband for six months?

JZS: I should say I was a corporate captive, a corporate camp follower! Actually I urged my husband to take the assignment when the possibility came up. He wasn’t certain. I said: “Let’s go!” We gave up our New York apartment and moved to Brussels and I put my three young sons into a French-language, progressive, private school so they could learn French. And that was where I started working as an art critic and journalist—just freelance, part-time, against my husband’s wishes. It was truly a major turning point in my life. I have no regrets about coming over here.

BM: And it was completely serendipitous? You didn’t know ahead of time that this was going to happen? You had no plans of living in Europe then?

JZS: No. I had always wanted to go to Europe. My parents gave me a trip to Europe as a college graduation gift. But because I was engaged to be married, many people said, “You can’t leave your fiancé for a whole summer and go traipsing through Europe!,” so I gave that up. And I always felt, “He owes me a trip to Europe!” But I never thought it would end up this way.

BM: So then, you lived in Belgium for how many years?

JZS: Close to ten.

BM: And what did you do during those years?

JZS: I started working as a journalist because I couldn’t go to architecture school in Belgium. I had been working in interior design in New York, but the easiest, most accessible thing for me to do was to join an English-language publication, The Brussels Times, where I worked as the art critic until it folded. And then I worked as Features Editor for The Bulletin, a weekly magazine, for many years. So I moved from art criticism into straight journalism. And that was how I also got a weekly news program in English for BRT (Belgian radio).

BM: Did you do anything else while in Brussels?

JZS: Knowing so many artists, I started an art rental business and organized a number of exhibitions. And I founded a group for English-speaking women called Women Overseas for Equality (WOE!). And that was a very interesting period because we coordinated a lot with Belgian, Dutch and French feminists,

BM: And what were some of the things you did with this group?

JZS: Ten of us—all English-speaking but from different countries and different ages—formed a “consciousness-raising” group, meeting every week for about a year. We supported each other as we went through life changes—marriage, pregnancy, divorce, continued education, career changes, illness, widowhood….We marched with Belgian and French feminists who were demanding the right to abortion, and we organized a Women’s Weekend with special guests such as Germaine Greer.

BM: And why did you decide to move from Brussels to Paris?

JZS: Because my husband and I were divorcing. I had gone as far as I could go in journalism as an American journalist in Belgium. My Belgian radio programme gave me the experience I needed to apply to a major broadcasting company. CBS, NBC and ABC were all in Paris at the time, not in Brussels. So I applied to all three and it was CBS that came through first with an offer. That first year, I wasn’t sure if I would like CBS or Paris, so I commuted every week down to Paris from Brussels and then back to Brussels on Friday night until I decided I liked Paris and the job!

BM: And then you moved there?

JZS: Yes. After the CBS bureau in Paris was closed, I worked for Voice of America and CNN as a free-lance correspondent, and I wrote a lot for the International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and several Condé-Naste publications.

BM: When were you Paris correspondent for the CBS News?

JZS: That was at the end of the ’70s into the ’80s.

BM: And do you have any idea of the number of stories that you wrote or filed that were eventually broadcast during that period?

JZS: I had, on average, one radio story every day and several in a day if there was something big happening. For major events, we would file a television report for the Evening News with Walter Cronkite. And I must have had about a dozen of those television stories over the years.

BM: So what were some of the things that you reported about as a CBS News correspondent?

JZS: Oh, everything!—economic issues, political issues, occasionally cultural issues and interviews with people. You know, people asked me what I specialized in and I said I didn’t specialize; I was a generalist journalist! You know, whatever was happening, whatever seemed newsworthy, I would report on it.

BM: Can you remember some of the newsworthy articles that you wrote about?

JZS: There was the Amoco-Cadiz disaster, there was the Baron Empain kidnapping, there was a balloon crossing of the English Channel that didn’t quite make it. There was the visit of the pope to Lourdes. There were several summits with Carter and Reagan. There were OPEC meetings in Geneva. There were a few scary, frightening events too, like hostage-takings and a bomb at Orly Airport. This was all breaking news that required on-the-spot reporting.

BM: So then you were really talking to people who influenced world opinion or politics. Do you remember maybe two or three of these people whom you interviewed, the more interesting ones, the types of interviews that you had?

JZS: Well, I guess my most extraordinary interview was with the Ayatollah Khomeini. He was in exile in France for a few months and one of his followers, his right-hand bodyguard, drove me out to Neaufle-le-Chateau to interview him. And I went with a camera crew and we did the interview. Of course, I had to cover my head completely. His Farsi was translated into French for me, and I filed the story –- in English, of course — but CBS never aired it!

BM: Why not?

JZS: Because in October of 1978 they didn’t believe there was going to be a revolution in Iran and they simply cancelled the story. It’s still in their archives somewhere, I suppose.

BM: Who were some the other “high profile” people you met to get a story?

JZS: There was Nancy Reagan, Leonard Bernstein, a few French presidents….

BM: What were some of these high-profile people like, close up?

JZS: The Ayatollah was intimidating. I didn’t expect him to be quite that severe. I met Bernstein several times and he was charming and wonderful. Mitterrand was very formal, but friendly. Chirac was delightful while he was mayor of Paris, but became rather rigid once he was president.

There was an interesting incident with Giscard d’Estaing because he came back from a big summit meeting in Venice and it was at a time when American and French relations were at a real low. And he held a press conference at the Elysée Palace and three hundred of us—journalists and cameramen—were there; it was broadcast live that afternoon. And I was dying to ask him a question about Franco-American relations. He used to take questions in groups—the economy, national affairs, international affairs, etc. At international affairs, I raised my hand and he called on me. He said, “Oui, Mademoiselle, je vous écoute.” And I heard “Mademoiselle” and I kind of froze. I thought he should have been calling me Madame. So I corrected him! I said “Madame.” He was taken aback and the whole room laughed. And then he took a few other questions and he came back to me and said: “Bon, je vais répondre à la question de Madame”—emphasizing Madame! Everybody laughed again. Back in my office, everyone had watched the press conference and they were shocked and amused. They said, “Joan, how did you dare contradict him?”

A few weeks later I got this big envelope from the Elysée addressed to Madame Shore and it was an invitation to the 14th of July party (Bastille/French Independence Day) at the presidential palace! It was all very funny. A lot of papers picked it up and said: “The President should have known better. He should have called her Madame and not Mademoiselle.”

BM: Then from being purely a journalist, you changed your career in the last decade or so to concentrate also on creative writing -– becoming an essayist, memoirist and a novelist. Lets talk about this more recent work and what brought about this change. For example, you published Saging – How to Grow Older and Wiser in 2000. What inspired this book?

JZS: At some point, probably twelve years ago, my parents were growing old and I was growing older and I just sat down and somehow this book came to me, this whole concept of growing older and wiser. So I devised the term “saging” — a mixture of sage and age — and I thought of nine different qualities, or characteristics, that I thought were important throughout life, especially as we grow older. It starts with simplicity and humor, and goes up through honesty and tolerance and dignity.

The book kind of wrote itself. It was amazing. It had been bubbling up in me all those years, I suppose. I published it quickly and have been giving a lot of talks on the subject, especially in Florida where there are many older, retired people. I want to republish it, design a new cover, and perhaps add a new chapter or two. But basically, it’s still valid. I’ve asked people I’ve lectured to: “Can you add anything else? Can you think of anything that I’ve missed?” And they can’t!

BM: So would you see it in the genre as, for example, books where people write about passages in their life in their thirties or forties?

JZS: I know there are a lot of books like that. This one isn’t—it’s not medical, it’s not spiritual. I guess you would say it’s psychological—how we look at life and how we feel about ourselves. I don’t even want to call it a self-help book. It’s not that. It’s a compendium of attitudes that are helpful and positive for us.

BM: Well, that’s interesting, but how did you get from Saging to Red Burgundy, (2011) which is a novel set in Burgundy in the 1980s. How did that come about? It sounds like you went through another gear change.

JZS: Right!

BM: And Red Burgundy was written in 2011, was it?

JZS: No. I wrote Red Burgundy before I wrote Saging and then put it aside. For some reason, I just didn’t do anything with it, although some French editor was interested in publishing it. I just forgot about it for a while. I wish I had published it earlier. The idea for it came to me after a visit to a cooking school in Burgundy run by an English food writer and her husband. She was the founder and director of La Varenne cooking school in Paris, and during the summer she gave courses at their château in Burgundy. She invited me there one week and I was just thrilled. First of all, I love cooking. But also, the place was so beautiful. There was a group of mixed nationalities attending the class and I thought instantly what a wonderful story this would make. I wrote this story using different names and details. That was around 1988. And I just put the manuscript aside and didn’t do anything with it until I pulled it out two or three years ago, read it again, and realized it was still good.

BM: Well, that’s interesting because it means it was a contemporaneous novel, not a retrospective view of what life was like in the Burgundy region twenty-five years ago.

JZS: It was just before the euro came in, just at the beginning of the whole European community taking shape. And this is why, in the book, I have a map of the Burgundy region and it very specifically says “1988”. Most of these people would not be alive today. The political scene has changed so much now with the euro and new EU members.

BM: Well, that is interesting. Because when I first read it, I thought it was a sort of nostalgic look back, sort of like some former East German reminiscences of life before reunification. What’s also interesting is that in the book there are World War II partisans still evening the score in the 1980s, especially after a collaborator is discovered living under a new identity. The partisans, sort of take care of things à la Casablanca where Bogart’s at the airport….

JZS: [Laughter] … definitely.

BM: And then they round up the usual suspects.

JZS: Right.

BM: So it’s based partially on a real situation….

JZS: An actual place….

BM: But the characters in general…

JZS: …are fictional. Although, I got in touch with the woman who had the cooking school. I told her about the book and sent her a copy, and she was quite thrilled and ordered a dozen copies for her friends. I said: “I hope you don’t mind if I turned you into a different type of character. You are seduced in the book by the Italian.” And she was kind of amused.

BM: Well, let’s talk more about Red Burgundy. It’s not only a novel; it’s being developed into something else…

JZS: …a film, hopefully, yes. Compared to the films that are being produced today, it’s rather mild. There won’t be any need for special effects or monsters or weird things happening. It’s a kind of nice, old-fashioned story with a twist. Somebody in England now is writing a screenplay for it. I wouldn’t dare try to write a screenplay—it’s another form entirely! But it would make a wonderful film, and I’ve thought about people who could act in it. Making a film is a long and complicated process, you know. You need a producer, a director, actors, backers. But I think it would be a really fun film.

BM: And you’re currently working on Collage, a memoir, about the Women’s movement in Europe in the 1970s and ’80s?

JZS: …no, no, no, No, NO!

BM: OK, well tell me what your current project is then.

JZS: [Laughter]. Well, Collage, the book that I just finished, is about my life but written, more or less, in the third person. It covers my adult years in Europe—and that means Brussels and Paris basically—and the women’s movement was simply a part of that during the ’70’s. But it was extremely important to me at the time.

Collage is what the French call an auto-fiction. I don’t want to call it a memoir. I don’t want to call it fiction, either. It’s somewhere in between. It’s about my life, but it’s written with almost a third person voice—I’m the main character, but with a different name. It sticks rather closely to the facts of my life, but I’ve changed the names of most of the people I talk about. It’s a series of fairly short chapters, almost jumping from one subject to another, and some of it is interspersed with essay-type chapters reflecting on something—Paris, love, politics. It’s a hybrid kind of book. And because of that, because it doesn’t fit into a specific category, I think it will be difficult to get it published.

BM: Are you currently working on or considering any other projects?

JZS: I would like to pull together all my all my articles, the essays, the 110 for the Florida publication and nearly 90 for Huffington, and make a selection of the best and put them in a collection and publish it. The title would be Hungry Women, Fat Men. That’s one of my funniest pieces.

BM: Well, now that we’ve talked about your writing’s historical and thematic concerns, what’s the relationship between journalism and creative writing in relation to your writing style? How has being a journalist helped and shaped your writing in other genres—essays, memoirs, and novels?

JZS: It has helped me with the structure of writing, I believe. When you are writing a 60-second spot for radio or a minute and half for television, you have to be very clear, concise, and correct about what you’re saying. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from an old radioman at CBS who said: “Joan, remember that you’re writing for a guy who’s in the bathroom in the morning, shaving, or he’s driving to work listening to the radio. And you’ve got to get it clear and simple and correct. And that was the best advice I ever got. And maybe I just had the natural inclination to write in that way.

Certainly those years writing for radio and television honed my capability, and I think it’s carried over into my other writing because I don’t use a lot of unnecessary words. I don’t use a lot of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. I don’t go into flowery descriptions. Maybe you could compare it to Hemingway. It’s clear, simple prose and it’s the idea behind it that counts, not the affected way it’s said. I don’t like a lot of embroidery in writing, but I do like the rhythm of words. So that’s how writing for radio and television really helped me a lot. It gave me a certain sense of clarity and speed in my writing, and the rhythm seems to follow naturally.

BM: So, a minimum of adjectives, as short as possible to fit it into the time space, but powerful and effective and informative at the same time.

JZS: Yes. But also, for essay writing and novels, you want to use some imagination and add some humour. You know, things you do not get in news writing.

BM: Now where does that come in then? Where do the imagination and the elaboration come from?

JZS: I don’t know. I think probably I just have an off-kilter view of things and of the world. ’m not cynical really, but critical. And sometimes the critical is mixed with humour. I think that is what my writing and certainly my essay writing are about. You know, seeing things from a different angle and expressing it clearly and vigorously. That’s what I enjoy most.

BM: What is your writing discipline like? Do have a certain time that you get up in the morning that you sit down at your desk? Every few days or so, you think it’s time to write again?

JZS: [Laughter] No, no, no, no! Writing now, freelance, on my own, I write when the spirit moves me. Obviously, when I was at CBS or Voice of America I was under time pressure and the events had to be written about quickly. But now I’m just possibly too free. I don’t have any disciplined programme. I don’t tie myself down to a certain number of hours a day. I’m just not that kind of writer. I rely more on my inspiration.

BM: And how often are you inspired to sit down and write?

JZS: One could say not often enough, but for The Huffington Post, I’ve been inspired every couple of weeks. I’ve written close to 100 articles for them. Before that, for 10 years, I was writing a monthly column for a Florida publication, Boomer Times and Senior Life, and every month I was turning in an article about any subject I wanted . It could be about the holidays. It could be about traffic in Florida. It could be about politics in Paris. I had a total freedom. I produced over 100 articles for them over those ten years.

BM: To change the subject a little bit, this issue of Amsterdam Quarterly (AQ6) is about ekphrasis and writing about art and architecture, music and dance. How have some of these things affected your writing? How has living in Paris sort of changed you or helped form you as a writer?

JZS: It’s hard to say, because when I was living in America, growing up in America, I didn’t write very much, only for school papers. I was actually a winner in Vogue’s Prix de Paris (for creative writing), but it was only as a journalist that writing became a full-time activity. And coming to Paris, I don’t think really changed me. Certainly not in the early years because I was writing for an American network and it was news and it wasn’t creative writing and I was simply a reporter. So there were no real changes there.

These days, I go through periods where I get jaded about Paris. I am really fed up with all the books people are writing about Paris—How to be a Chic French Woman and Why French Women Don’t Get Fat and The Parisian Diet. Or someone comes to Paris for a few weeks and meets the love of her life in a restaurant! There’s a plethora of books about Paris and I’m fed up with it, and I’m really tempted to write a negative book about Paris!—all the things that are ordinary or wrong with it. Paris is not just the Champs-Elysées and the Eiffel Tower and the Left Bank. It’s also those little neighbourhoods where you have Africans or Asians or Arabs living, which are very run down. You do have slums in Paris — Paris is not just glamour. Paris is a living, breathing city and I’d like to show that side of it, if I ever do write something about it. I would be more critical and more realistic, I think.

BM: Well, I think I’ve seen a little bit about that in the pieces that you have written for AQ, especially in AQ5 with your “Stay Home! A Tirade Against Tourism:”

Listen folks. Paris is not a playground. Nor is it a quaint leftover from your history books. It’s a place where you can write, paint, philosophize, dream, stroll, eat, drink or simply lose yourself. If you wake up early, it’s sunrise on the Seine. If you get lucky, it’s love in the afternoon. I’m sorry, but your presence here in droves distracts me, drives me fou.

JZS: Yes, I definitely write about the tourists because there are more and more coming every year. It used to be just spring and summer and now the season is year round. And it’s interesting to see the change in the nationalities because at one point, it was people coming from the Middle East, and then Japan. After that it was tourists from the newly liberated Eastern European countries, and then the Chinese. The Chinese are now coming in very strongly. But the problem is that it is year-round. They are certainly helping the economy, but they are not helping me! There are tourist buses, most half empty, that fill the streets, and people who are looking for bargain restaurants, or simply making a quick visit to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. I don’t want Paris to become an artificial city like Venice, for example. And yet it’s becoming harder and more expensive for native Parisians to live here. They’re being squeezed out in terms of the real estate, in terms of the prices, in terms of the availability of restaurants and so on. I understand that economically it’s great for the city to have all this tourism, but its not much fun if you’re living here.

BM: OK. But what’s it like to be able to look out your dining room window and see Notre Dame…

[Laughter]

BM: …across the Seine…

JZS: … and the boats going down the river?

BM: How does that affect you as a writer?

JZS: It calms me down. I love living near water, whatever city I’m living in. Brussels had no body of water, unfortunately. In New York, I lived near the Hudson River, and luckily in Paris I’m near the Seine. That’s very important to me. It’s an aesthetic thing. What is it like? It’s pleasurable. I can put up with a lot of nonsense—like plumbers who don’t show up or mail that doesn’t get delivered—because I do have something to look out on and contemplate!

I also lived in the South of France for eight years at Cap d’Antibes. And that was a rather privileged period even though it was rather desolate because there isn’t much you can do down there in terms of journalism. I think it was probably too lazy, too easy a life. I need stimulation. I need the cultural advantages of a big city, and I’ve got that here in Paris.

BM: So in other words, there is an influence that a city has on you as a person. I know you talked to me yesterday also about writers in New York. To paraphrase you, you said: ‘I don’t know if could run around and go to all those events if I had to be a writer in NY. I like to live in Paris, because Paris is…’

JZS: …easier. It’s slower. Sure, not as much happens in Paris as happens in New York, but whatever there is, it’s accessible. If you want tickets to the opera or the theatre, it’s not a big hassle, so I appreciate that. I go to New York from time to time, because at heart I guess I’m a New Yorker and I still have many friends there, but I don’t know if could live there again because it’s too frantic, it’s too hectic. Paris seems to be the right pace, the right dimension for me.

BM: I noticed last night coming in from the Gare du Nord metro station and transferring at Odéon, riding the subway wasn’t as big a deal as in Manhattan. Yes, it was rush hour, but people just got on and off without bouncing into each other too much and someone even gave me their seat because I had a cane.

JZS: Yes, there’s definitely that side. But it’s changing, of course. The younger generation, with their iPhones and iPads, are certainly changing the rhythm of the city to a certain degree. But it’s still a comfortable place to live. It’s a place where I can take it easy or I can work very hard. Of course, that’s where I am in my life right now, because I’m not holding down a full-time job. But I feel that I have a lot of freedom here, whereas, in a city like New York, I would feel very pressured.

BM: What are the things you read most often for “inspiration?”

JZS: Well, I guess I’m still a journalist; I’m still a newsperson because I look at The New York Times every day on the Internet. I also read the French news, and whenever I’m home, I watch the eight o’clock French news. You see, I’m still a news junkie! I’ll never get over that. I also read my horoscope every day! I’m very busy corresponding with people, with friends, and a lot of websites come to me that I’m not interested in, and I’m trying to eliminate some of them—particularly about American politics. I get many e-mails from groups that are trying to save animals or trying to save historic sites or trying to save the world. I’ve just gone through a process of eliminating a lot of these because you just can’t respond to all of them. You can’t spread yourself that thin. And the political ones this past year have been very annoying.

BM: Is there any architecture in Paris that has inspired you to write a piece or an article?

JZS: Well, of course, when the Pompidou Centre opened, I wrote about that. I interviewed the director for CBS television. The newest museum, the Musée de Branly, I don’t like at all. The architecture is terrible.

Nor do I like the Arab Centre, the Institut du Monde Arabe. Both are by the same architect, Jean Nouvel. They’re badly designed in terms of their façades and the way they exhibit their products.

BM: Could you compare the Pompidou to these two buildings? Just mention why you like the Pompidou?

JZS: The Pompidou was extraordinarily conceived. And it’s still extraordinary. It’s a building that’s literally turned inside out!—all of the plumbing and the stairs on the outside. It’s expensive to maintain, but it’s extremely adaptable and spacious. People hated it when it was built. They called it a factory. And it’s now the most visited museum in the city, even more so than the Louvre. And it’s stood up well over the years, whereas the Branly Museum and the Arab Institute are so badly built that I think they’re falling apart. So, that’s one that I like and two that I don’t like.

The pyramid at the Louvre was also a big deal. Everybody was against it. Frankly, I was negative about it, but I went to a press conference with I.M. Pei, the architect, and the way he explained it, he completely won me over. He said it was the most difficult project he had ever undertaken because he was dealing with something sacred to the French. But he said it was a bastardized building, destroyed by fire and rebuilt, and he decided to do the pyramid because it was the most neutral shape that would not interfere with anything. It didn’t relate to any particular French period, and it had to be as transparent as possible. Anyway, it was a brilliant press conference and I left totally convinced that this was a good thing to do.

BM: So he won you over then?

JZS: Totally.

BM: So if I were to describe you, you would say that you have a journalist’s cynical attitude towards the world, but you have an open mind.

JZS: [Laughter] Should we say cynical or skeptical? I may be cynical about politics, but for the rest, I’m skeptical. But I have a great deal of curiosity. For example, I’m interested in physics—it fascinates me. The Large Hadron Collider fascinates me. Maybe I’m an intellectual dilettante—I can’t limit myself to one subject or any one field. I’m interested in a lot of things. And people may say, “You’re spreading yourself too thin,” but that’s how I am—a thinly-spread intellectual!

BM: Well, Joan Z. Shore, thank you for your time and your hospitality.

JZS: You’re welcome!

Kate Foley – Love is Not the Only Truth We Know

Love is Not the Only Truth We Know (From her poem “Heavy Water”)
An Interview with Kate Foley
by Bryan R. Monte

On 27 April 2012, Amsterdam poet, Kate Foley, was interviewed in her Oud Zuid flat about her body of work. Foley is the author of four full poetry collections: Soft Engineering (Onlywomen Press, 1994), A Year Without Apricots (Blackwater Press, 1999), Laughter from the Hive, (Shoestring Press, 2004) and The Silver Rembrandt, (Shoestring, 2008), and two pamphlets, Night and Other Animals (Green Lantern Press 2002) and A Fox Assisted Cure, (Shoestring, 2012). Foley leads workshops in the Netherlands and the UK, she is a Versal magazine editor, and she was a David Reid Translation Prize poetry judge. Her first poetry collection was short-listed for the Aldeburgh Festival best first collection prize. Her next collection, One Window North, is due out from Shoestring Press in December 2012.

Bryan Monte: You had a very interesting childhood, didn’t you? You were raised by adoptive parents in London and some of your earliest memories, according to your poems, are of air raid shelters, isn’t that true?

Kate Foley: Oh, yes, air raid shelters definitely figured quite large because the Second World War started soon after I was born and we spent an awful lot of nights sleeping in them.

BM: So, you spent your early childhood in London during the Blitz?

KF: Yes, I did.

BM: I believe you’ve got one poem in Night and Other Animals, where you went down the street to play next to the “inside out” house, which was actually a bombsite. So that was part of your childhood?

KF: Yes, bombsites were our playgrounds and they were covered with a wonderful rash of purple from Rosebay Willow herb—its folk name is Fireweed. We used to roam all over the bombsites. And they were very dangerous and nobody cared, you know. They didn’t in those days.

BM: That’s very interesting as a child to have those sorts of early memories. You’ve also had a very colourful career with many different occupations. You were a nurse, a midwife, an archaeological conservator and also an administrator. Did I miss any other occupations or callings?

KF: Well, yes. I was a teacher also. I helped develop a conservation course, of which I was the head, at Lincoln College of Art. I was an administrator, but that job was as head of English Heritage’s Ancient Monuments Laboratory. I had a team of 60 scientists working in my department on all aspects of archaeological science and conservation. So, the main thrust of the job was both servicing archaeological excavations and building technology for ancient buildings, and doing research in that field. My scientists did a lot of research and it was very exciting.

BM: Well, that’s a very interesting pedigree for a poet. And your first book, Soft Engineering, was published when you were 56. Was there any reason that you waited so long to publish? Are you shy, do you consider yourself a late bloomer, or did you have other things to do?

KF: Well, very evidently I had other things to do. But I’ve written poetry since I was 11. I was at convent school and I had a very large, leonine, frightening English teacher called Miss Brennan. She had an absolute mane of hair and she got us to write a poem. And she read mine and said (in an Irish accent): “Do you realize, that’s poetry?” So after that, yes, I wrote sporadically but persistently. I wrote all the way through my nursing and my midwifery careers. But I never took myself seriously. I never thought I could be published, which was rather a mistake because the first poems I sent anywhere were to Socialist Commentary and Sean Day Lewis wrote very enthusiastically about these poems and published them. But I didn’t follow it up. Because I left school early—I was short of my sixteenth birthday—and I was in hospital almost immediately with TB—and because I didn’t go to university until I was in my early 30s, I’ve always felt that the education that I acquired has been piecemeal, pragmatic and certainly not “literary.”

BM: So in other words, you’re not, as I mentioned, the typical type of poet who read English at university, teaches there and produces a few books of poetry in between classes and corrections or on sabbatical.

KF: No.

BM: You just mentioned that you started writing poetry when Miss Brennan asked you to write a poem, but why did you continue on your own? What was your motivation to keep going all those years before you published your first book?

KF: Because I loved poetry. I loved reading it. I learnt screeds of it by heart at school. I can probably still recite the whole of “Ode to a Nightingale.” I was in love with words and also with what they could do, what they could express.

BM: Who were the people you aspired to be as a writer when you read their work? For example, who were you reading?

KF: Gerald Manley Hopkins who was a great influence on me when I was young, and Eliot, of course. We all read Eliot, even those of us who didn’t do much at school. And of course, before that there were the Romantics and the Georgians, though I think I’ve always been interested in what a modern idiom can do in poetry, and Hopkins was the first liberating influence. You could see there; you could do what you liked with words and you didn’t have to be grandiose or romantic.

BM: Well, that’s one thing I would say about your writing. It tends to be organic. It’s not formalist. It doesn’t generally fit within a standard poetic form like a sonnet or a ballad.

KF: No.

BM: You have a very keen sense of what to zoom in on. It’s almost photographic and cinematic. You zoom in on specific images and then cut quickly to others—definitely in the 20th century imagistic tradition. I think that in one of your other interviews you mentioned that you read a lot of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) at one time.

KF: Yes, but not at that time, though. Much later. Lots of modern, English and in particular, American poets later. I am very keen on Adrienne Rich. And what she writes about poetry is fantastic. She writes better and more passionately about the meaning of poetry, the use of poetry, the bread of poetry in one’s life than anyone else I can think of.

BM: So in other words, in your poems we’re not going to find a lot of rhyme schemes unless they come up on their own.

KF: I started by writing rhyming poetry. Not everything I wrote by any means was rhymed. Much of it was a precursor of what I write now. I think there’s a kind of continuity. My mother, who was working in a Christmas card factory, could never understand why I wouldn’t write rhymes for cards—and cash—because I used to write rhymes for her on demand for colleagues’ or workmates’ birthdays. I used to write scurrilous rhymes when I was a student nurse about ward sisters, matrons, etc.

BM: Well, that’s very interesting that you mention your mother because your parents, nursing and illness, delivering babies, and young, new and mature love—are themes that run from your first book, Soft Engineering, to your last—A Fox Assisted Cure. For example, let’s start with the title poem, “Soft Engineering” where you start with the image of the sea licking the coastline and a mother cat licking her new-born kittens and use this to describe something very human at the same time: “Ceaselessly licking the coast/the sea is engaged in soft engineering./She tongues up heaped trickling spits/ of shingle, as a mother cat/ pridefully peaks up the wet fur of kittens.”

KF:…and soft engineering is a branch of engineering designed to sculpt the shoreline to avoid floods…

BM: You do write poems with different types of themes, but you also clearly write as a lesbian. You talked earlier about writing political poems. From what I’ve read of your body of work so far, I haven’t really encountered anything that is political in the sense that someone is holding up a big sign and you’re telling people what to think and what to do.

KF: Oh, I hope not! I devoutly hope not! Because I think that if your politics aren’t integral and ingrained, you turn people off. I would turn myself off if I wrote like that. One of my more recent poems, “A Short History in the Chapter of Stone,” is inspired by a woman under sentence of death by stoning for alleged adultery. I do write from my own life, but I also write from others’ lives as well.

BM: Well let’s start with your own life first. There’s a couple poems in your second collection, A Year Without Apricots, (Blackwater Press, 1999), where you write about a woman delivering a still-born child, “The French for Midwife,” and then at the end the babe is still-born and you talk about the grief the parents share related to that and how they express it differently. “Blue Glass Empty Pram” I think is another poem along those lines.

U. A. Fanthorpe commented on your eye for detail in her comments on A Year Without Apricots. She said: It shares the same qualities as Soft Engineering but runs deeper, darker, stronger. A light and exact way with words. A whole basket full of unexpected perspectives. (Foley) writes with Hughes type of visual accuracy. So you zoom in. You have one poem, “The Only Ghost,” where you write: “Breath finds you out/ when you hide/Hung in its swung moment of poise/ like the tide,/it waits /till you plunge.// You can’t fool breath,/ it searches out/your flaccid veins/ forcing them wide, like mussels in the pan.” That’s the attention to detail that she’s talking about.

Now the title poem of this collection, “A Year Without Apricots,” was that about someone with AIDS? Was it an elegy? You talk about apricots that fall from a tree before they’d had a chance to ripen in contrast to the wonderful fruit the tree produced the year before.

KF: Not everybody in that poem had AIDS. One indeed died of breast cancer. But yes, it was the years of AIDS and the AIDS deaths. And we lost two, my then partner and I, lost two people, very close friends, from it. I guess we were lucky and only lost two.

BM: So you were involved a bit in the AIDS crisis also. I lived in San Francisco at ground zero in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s and lost an ex-partner and about a dozen other friends and acquaintances. I’m still trying to write about these people all these years later. They’re long gone, but they’re still with me at the same time.

KF: That conversation goes on, the conversation with people who have died and the resolution that can come in a conversation after death. And of course I don’t mean that literally, but I think I’ve got a few poems, a clutch of poems, about the difficult relationship with my adoptive mother and I think that through writing those poems, a resolution begins to appear.

BM: Yes, that is an interesting observation because I can see you working through things in your pamphlet, Night and Other Animals (Green Lantern Press, 2002). The first long poem, “The Don’t Touch Garden,” is about your adoptive childhood, right?

KF: Yes.

BM: And the second one, “Night and Other Animals,” is about the break-up of your relationship?

KF: Yes.

BM: So these are two very powerful series on how you went through two transitions. So how did writing “The Don’t Touch Garden” help you related to being adopted and how did “Night and Other Animals” help you relate and work through the material of divorcing?

KF: Writing a poem is an organic process of sometimes constellating images round memories. “The Don’t Touch Garden” more or less built itself. But I felt as well as being a poem about me and from my perspective it was also very much from the perspective of my parents. They didn’t have the emotional equipment or the resources to deal with this small stranger that they acquired. And you will find, in that poem, “The Don’t Touch Garden,” a lot about my mother’s dilemma of having lost seven babies and my father’s inarticulate, but basically loving nature. Although I respect poets who are loosely called “confessional,” I don’t want myself to write deliberately confessional poetry. I want to write about the more accidental aspects of the process of becoming who I am. Does that make any sense?

BM: Yes, it does, and you’ve not only done it in “Night and Other Animals,” but also in the “The Silver Rembrandt” when you go through your ontology, the history of how you became the person that you are.

KF: Except that it’s not me. Seriously, “The Silver Rembrandt,” although it draws on my own experience, and every poet draws on their own experience, she, Lily, was a fictional character. She is not me.

BM: That is an important difference. But the chapbook, Night and Other Animals, that is (auto)biographical?

KF: Yes. Both those poems are biographical. And I think the purgative effect of “Night and Other Animals” is because it is a lyric poem. It’s not about blame; it’s about loss and about accommodation to loss. It’s about parting and I guess that’s how I made sense of the fact that I left my partner of 33 years and came to Holland to live with Tonnie.

BM: Did you know Tonnie at the time you came to live in the Netherlands?

KF: Oh, yes, of course. I came after I knew Tonnie. We met in Washington DC in 1993.

BM: So you came to Amsterdam in 1997?

KF: Yes.

BM: And there’s a little bit of your biography in “The Silver Rembrandt,” because you moved here and the main character, Lily, moves here and has her bag stolen at the main train station.

KF: None of what happened to Lily happened to me. The only thing that I share with Lily—apart from Amsterdam—is that she, in her way, was dedicated to her art although she was a failed painter.

BM: I don’t think you’re anywhere near failure.

[Laughter].

KF: And also she had a failed relationship as many people do and so did I. No, I haven’t stood on a soapbox, painted silver outside the Rijksmuseum. I only wish I had the courage.

BM: Well, you seemed to know Amsterdam, or at least the art in Amsterdam fairly well before you even got here because that is intertwined in your own work. Did that come as a result of working for English Heritage?

KF: No. English Heritage and archaeological conservation obviously fed my work, but I was an archaeological conservator and I handled ancient objects, bits of crud and lumps of rust, and x-rayed them and that sort of thing. But I did have painting conservators working for me and I know quite a bit about the science behind painting conservation. And, of course, I met Tonnie—who at that point was teaching science to painting conservators at Maastricht—at an international conference.

BM: Well, you write a lot about painting. You mentioned angels and Rembrandt in your earlier poems. Isn’t it strange that you came to live within walking distance of the Rijksmuseum and all those wonderful Rembrandts? [Laughter]

KF: Yeah.

BM: Did you think in the back of your mind that someday I’m going to end up in Amsterdam?

KF: No. I didn’t—ever. Amsterdam is the absolute last place I ever thought I’d live. I don’t think I gave Holland a second thought.

BM: I do want to talk to you about what influence living abroad and living in Amsterdam has had on your writing. We did mention those times where Rembrandt comes up. But now that you’re here, how has living in Amsterdam changed your work?

KF: Well obviously, at a very basic level, there is a whole suite of different images. But I think it’s more that, yeah, it’s also about language. I mean my Dutch is not yet good. I don’t know whether it ever will be. Sometimes it seems to be going achteruit (translation: getting worse). But, grappling with living in a different culture and using a different language and becoming intimate with people with a different mother tongue is wonderfully expanding and your horizons stretch to accommodate. You realize that there is a world that is your world, but it’s seen through different eyes. And it helps you to somehow recognize that people carry their own worlds formed by their own culture and history.

BM: I like what you do in the poem, “Shokat Dancing.” “She’s humming, the heart/of a brown flower./Pixels blaze erratically/ off, on, pick up the DNA/of music, scribbled in the air.” You talk about this woman, who has some years and some experience, but she still does this beautiful dance and she’s a part of it, arthritic and enthralling at the same time. And you write about how she dances and you’re taken up in that. That’s one of many things I like about Laughter from the Hive. You have mature, domestic love where you talk about moving in together. You have portraits of older women, your lover, yourself, and street people.

KF: Adrienne Rich says something about “naming.” In fact, I have one poem in A Year Without Apricots for Adrienne Rich, called “The great blue heron.” It was inspired by her talking about a heron and writing about it and realizing it just isn’t about an artifact or a thing that you write about. It has it’s own existence, it’s own mysterious self. A part of your task as a poet is naming in that sense. In other words bringing to the page and to the reader the quiddity of people, animals and events. I don’t think I’ve got anything as pretentious as a poetic creed. If I did however, I think that would be it. It’s about the task of faithfully naming.

BM: I think you do a very good job about being specific with your poetry, focusing in on things. Are there any other poems that you’ve written about Amsterdam that you feel are very evocative?

KF: “Elm Trees Amsterdam” or “A Gift of Rivers”—that’s a bird’s-eye-view of coming in by plane to Schiphol. And I have poems about the dogs of Amsterdam, “Where are my bones?” The Dutch and their dogs—they’re dog maniacs, aren’t they? You go to the Vondelpark and there are all these dogs absolutely laying down the law to their owners who are going about scooping up the balls and throwing them to them.

[Laughter].

BM: They have their owners well trained. I’ve noticed that too. It’s kind of a role reversal compared to what I’m accustomed to.

KF: I think it’s the liberality of Amsterdam that has done quite a lot of unlocking for me, just being in a culture where people don’t wear bicycle helmets and put their lights on, although it drives me mad when they do that.

BM: OK. On to “The Silver Rembrandt,” which we have established, is not autobiographical.

KF: It’s really not. Except in the sense that, like most poets, I mine my own experience for images. Lily actually goes from the East Midlands, which I suppose is an autobiographical element because I worked for about 15 years in Lincolnshire. Nevertheless, I say, and nobody ever believes this, but it is absolutely true, that this is not an autobiographical poem. It sort of makes me a bit sad that nobody will believe that I’m capable of creating a work of fiction. Well, I am!

BM: It’s lovely. It’s a long, sustained poem with 21 different parts and then you’ve got some of Rembrandt’s paintings that are interwoven with the text of the poem. So tell me, why did you pick certain paintings to use as illustrations? Mention two or three paintings that you remember and why you used them.

KF: OK. I used them in a way as a technique as a spacer and a change of tone between chapters if you like of Lily’s life. But they became a kind of meditative pause. Very quickly, looking at the first one, “Old Woman Reading,” you can image a child at primary school seeing that postcard and correlating it with her old grandmother. So that was the resonance with Lily’s life. But I realized when I was writing these poems that I was actually very much getting what it was Rembrandt was trying to do in the paintings. The small bit about technique. If I hadn’t had my own career in archaeological science, I wouldn’t have known about oolites and coccolites and burnt bone and rust and all of those things and the way they contribute to pigments. I’m very interested in process both in poetry and art. So yes, that came from a part of my life, but it is also at a point in the poem where it is relevant to Lily’s life. The painting about Titus, Rembrandt’s son, whom he lost, is at that point where Lily has lost a child. I hope that these poems, which have very utilitarian roles as spacers, resonate with the life in the paintings because that is what the painter and the poet try to do, to create resonances between his or her work and the reader or viewer.

BM: Well that brings us to an interesting concept also. I always like to ask writers how they write. How do things come to you? How do you record them?

[KF indicates her 3X5-inch pocket notebook]

BM: What do you write in this little book?

KF: I write a word. I write a phrase. I very rarely write a whole poem. And then I work in a layout pad, (10X14 inches) by hand.

BM: So once again, art comes into your writing. So it’s not lined; it’s just blank sheets of paper.

KF: Yes. I’m very fussy about what gets onto a page. I love the look of writing, or I used to when I had better handwriting than I have now. And I draw continuously too. Writing is a very visual thing for me. So it starts somewhere in here [points to her intestines]….

BM: ….In your gut….

KF: …or it may be something that I thought or I felt, but it’s most likely to be an image.

BM: So you start with the feeling or an image. How do you go from a few words to the completed poem? What happens in between?

KF: I work out of my [small] notebook and into my big pad and I juggle and I write things that chime with what I began writing. That’s it mostly. But sometimes I will sit down at a computer and I will just follow a thread and I will write the poem line-by-line and it’s more of a deliberative process then. And it’s got a kind of internal logic. If you’re going to ask me which poems came out of which process, don’t, because I can’t remember.

BM: Are your poems more related to accretion or subtraction or both?

KF: Well, they accrete first, but they quite rapidly then go into diminution. I’m a slasher and burner. I’m not, I think, on the whole, in love with what I write to the extent that I can’t throw it away.

BM: Give me an example of a poem that you’ve revised extensively.

KF: Well, yes, A Fox Assisted Cure.

BM: So, how many drafts did you go through with Fox?

KF: Twenty, maybe.

BM: So that was your most recent chapbook, released just a month or so ago. Could you comment on this long poem? It has almost 21 different parts, where basically you have a disabled young girl, about eight to ten years old, and she’s got some sort of malady. Do you know what the diagnosis is?

KF: Yes, I do because I did actually consult a doctor about this. Initially she had a virus, you know, one of these rogue viruses that takes a toll and gives you the equivalent of ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy). And, as a result of that, her thyroid began to malfunction. So that by the time the poem begins, she is immensely fat, virtually speechless and imprisoned in her chair. As you know, Fox was a type of designer accessory picked up by this ersatz healer that her mother had gone to in desperation.

BM: He’s an unconventional, holistic type.

KF: Sort of—with an eye to the cash register. It’s a poem about finding a kind of liberation and about risk, I think. And it’s a poem that a lot of people would say should have never been written because one thing you can’t do these days, because the Cliché Police will have you, is write about foxes and children because it’s been done. But I thought: ‘Stuff it.’

BM: Now that’s your most recent published work. What are you working on as your next book or project?

KF: Yes, I have another book due from Shoestring this year.

BM: What are some of the poems about? Can you divulge any of that information yet?

KF: Well, it isn’t a question of “divulge,” it’s a question of life, death, the meaning of the universe….

KF and BM: ….and the number 42!

[Laughter]

KF: ….as Deep Thought once said. It’s a mixture as always. There are a few more overtly political/ecological poems. There are poems about aging because I am knocking on a bit, so it’s a state that interests me. There are poems about death because the older you get, the closer it gets—should you be so lucky. And I hesitate to say that there are poems that are “spiritual” because I think that’s very suspect—especially for me as an atheist—and I only speak for myself but there are poems about the possibility of growing a “soul.” Not that I believe anything persists of it, but I think it’s an essential task—for anybody—especially for poets.

BM: That’s very interesting. We’ll be looking forward to this book. Thank you very much for your time.

KF: Thank you.

Megan M. Garr, Boudewijn Richel and Nina Siegal – The Good, the Bad and the Future

The Good, the Bad and the Future
A Publishers’/Editors’ Roundtable About Writing and Publishing in Amsterdam
with Megan M. Garr, Boudewijn Richel and Nina Siegal
by Bryan R. Monte

On 11 February 2012, Amsterdam Quarterly publisher/editor, Bryan Monte, convened a publishers’ and editors’ roundtable in an apartment overlooking the River IJ and the rigging of a three-masted ship, flying a pirate flag, moored on Java Island. Sitting around the table were Nina Siegal, editor-in-chief of Time Out Amsterdam; Megan M. Garr, editor of Versal,and Boudewijn Richel, director of Ulysses Reizen. With their combined 35+ years of publishing and editing experience in Amsterdam and fueled by coffee, tea and börek, a Turkish casserole served by hostess, Iclal Akcay, the quartet discussed Amsterdam’s current writing markets, bookshops, reading spaces and workshops, along with their views of the future. (Note: On 22 March 2012, Selexyz, one of the biggest Dutch bookstore chains, filed for protection from its creditors).

For readers’ background information:

Time Out Amsterdam is a monthly, English-language, cultural magazine that features articles and listings about Amsterdam’s music, film, theatre, art, restaurant and bar scene. Nina Siegal described its readership as being: “college-educated people between 18 to 40 who consider themselves to be culturally in tune.” Its total print run is 30,000 copies with approximately 75,000 readers, a third of each being tourists, expats and local residents.

Versal is an annual, international, English-language, literary and art magazine founded in Amsterdam in 2002. Megan M. Garr said: “we do a lot of experimental writing and art so our writers are more interested in innovative work.” Versal’s readership, is anywhere: “from teenage writers to older writers.” It has a print run of 750 and is sold in North America, Europe and Australia.

Uitgeverij Ulysses, (Berlin 1991 – Amsterdam 2006), published “more non-fiction than fiction,” according to Boudewijn Richel. Richel currently organizes tours through Ulysses Reizen to places such as Tibet, Mongolia and Burma for Ulysses Reizen and travel fairs, such as the one at the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam in January 2012. He also publishes exclusive tour “readers … by the hundred” which are bundled with Ulysses’ tours.

Bryan Monte: I’d like to start off the conversation this afternoon by asking you what your markets are like at the moment in Amsterdam. Do you see your markets expanding or, with the rise of digital media and bookstores’ reluctance to carry much stock, do you see them contracting?

Nina Siegal: These are really two different questions. The first question is what is the market and how does it grow and the other is what kind of media. First, I would say that Time Out did try to launch an edition here in the ’90s. However, they really felt at that time that there really wasn’t enough of an English-speaking audience. And so they moved on to New York and didn’t come back for another ten years. But this time, I think it’s just a different landscape. There are more internationals, and Amsterdam has become a more international city. The city is on its own campaign to get more international companies based here, so you’ve got huge groups of new expats arriving all the time. Plus, there’s a really different focus in terms of the kind of people the city is trying to attract as visitors, who are not so much the drug/sex tourists, but the museum/cultural types. That is our target audience, but I think what you’ll see over the next ten years is that the internationalism of the city is going to be growing rapidly. So I think our market is only going to expand in terms of readership—that’s my prediction.

As far as the market for people who pick up magazines and read them, [Laughter] well, people have been guessing about this a lot.  I think we have to go digital—there’s no question.  It’s just a matter of how. There’s not any argument about whether that’s a necessity, but what kind of digital. A lot of magazines actually skipped over doing the website and now are just focusing on hand-held tablets because if you’re a tourist or a visitor and you want to go out at night or you want to find out what a good restaurant is, you may not be sitting down in front of your computer to look it up. You’ll be looking at your hand-held device.

BM: So in other words, the handheld will have your location (via GPS) and know that you like Chinese restaurants, so when you go by one, it will go PING and say: “This might be a good place to eat.” That’s really amazing. It sends you information without you having to ask for it.

NS: And not only that, it’s customer/client specific. At some point your Time Out subscription is going to know that you love to go clubbing at hip-hop clubs, and you love Japanese food and you love dogs.

Boudewijn Richel: Dogs? We don’t have dog restaurants in Amsterdam, do we?

[Laughter]

NS: There might be a dog shop you might want to know about. And so if you live here, it will be programmed to tell you what you might be interested in. But if you don’t live here, you might fly from Paris to here and it will tell you, “You’ve arrived in Amsterdam,” and it will suggest things you might want to do; the sort of things that are in the neighbourhood. That’s sort of a while down the road.

BM: I agree that handhelds will become more important, but I don’t think that it’s that far down the road, actually. I think it will arrive in about the next year or three. I predict that soon people are going to be exploring cities using routes and information their hand-held devices provide them based on their owners’ past purchasing behaviour and Internet website visits. What about the digital future for Versal? I see that Versal has a website. How long have you had a website?

Megan M. Garr: We’ve had a website since 2002 (Editor’s note: the year Versal was founded).

BM: How long have you had your Versal blog?

MG: We’ve been blogging for about two and half years.

BM: Could you fill me in a bit about what Versal is doing with print and digital media?

MG: Well, we’re not really worried about the digital world encroaching on the literary magazine world, because the literary magazine world is about the object and it’s becoming more and more so. When Versal started in 2002, a literary magazine wasn’t something that was necessarily beautiful, it was just something that had poetry in it and it was on paper. So we were really radical by making it really beautiful. Nowadays, thank God, that’s become more normal. Literary magazines are redesigning or the new ones that are starting up are doing beautiful things. They’ve got designers on board. They’re doing hard-bound editions, they’re doing offset printing, letterpress; people are going back to some of the origins of printing rather than trying to make it worse or go entirely digital. Of course you have literary journals online, but poets, storywriters and artists like to have something to hold, so the literary journals will continue to be in print. I have no doubt of that.

Versal’s movement into the digital world really has to do with being a presence online, so making sure we have the necessary social media that is frequently updated with interesting things so right now, it’s Facebook. Five years from now, it could be something else. Making sure we have a Twitter feed. Making sure we have an interesting blog reel so the editors give you more insight into what we’re doing and making sure we have an online personality. And in the future, if we do anything, it will probably be an annex to the print edition. So you can go online and read a different kind of content online. For example, right now it’s really hip to do video poems. I don’t know if this will continue because most of them are pretty bad, but the online place would be a place where we could publish videos that the poets make, sound art, interviews with our poets online or, better yet, have them read their work that they have published in Versal (print version) on our website. A lot of journals in North America are already doing things like that, so we’re just taking it slow. I think we’re in a really good position, that no one expects Versal to go online anytime soon because people like the object, that’s the journal, so we’ll keep doing that.

BM: Well, thank you very much for that insight. That’s very interesting because Amsterdam Quarterly is always considering different things too. One of the things you mentioned about the video poem, we’re going to start doing that with this issue. Another is a button to see a text in its original language since we’ll be including more literature in translation. I try to add a new feature with every issue. That’s the good thing about having a website. You can always add a new button or feature with every issue to pique people’s interest and to continue developing the website. Boudewijn, what is your vision of the market and how it’s changing?

BR: You can still use paper for some markets, but for the book industry, it means difficult distribution, because it’s not only having the right books, but also the right PR. You can have whole pages in Der Spiegel, and your bookshop may say, “May I have two more copies. I just sold two copies, but I certainly won’t sell a third one.” That’s the mentality of a bookshop, so it’s always this line between very big going in and very small-minded people who you have to go through. And this needs an enormous apparatus that is too expensive now. So therefore, I would like to go around that, and the Internet is one way of going around it. It also has many disadvantages, of course. The Internet is getting more and more expensive. Still, in some ways, it’s still approachable and I am still working with authors.

I’ve put together now ten very special tours: Tibet, Mongolia, Burma, Romania, etc. This is with very famous Dutch authors. They have written books on these countries and they make special readers for the tours. A reader is a kind of tour book with articles to give a better insight, but only used for these particular tours. You cannot buy it in the bookshop. You cannot buy it over the Internet. It is only connected with this particular tour to get another side of what you see. The idea behind it is not only looking at Tibet, but also finding very special places. This morning I had a visitor, and he’s going to do the Mongolian tour. He’s a very famous Dutch author, Erik Bruijn, and he has written a terrific book on Mongolia. He says he went into all sorts of places where they found manuscripts out of the 8th or the 9th centuries. He can read Mongolian and all the languages. He is a specialist. Fantastic new ideas on history are also coming in, also on meditation from lamas, but also from ritual material. There is still so much, which was hidden away from the Soviet Union.

BM: So you’re using an old-style, publishing technique as a new tool. Very interesting.

NS: And how many readers do you print for each tour?

BR: When necessary, by the hundred. It depends on how many are on the tour. They always ask over the Internet or via e-mail: “Can we buy one reader for ourselves?” because there are sometimes famous authors in the reader, in the one about Mongolia certainly, and everyone wants to buy one. But the answer is: “No. It comes only with the tour.” The idea is the combination of the tour with the book.

NS: This is in English or in Dutch?

BR: Some are in English and some are in Dutch. Sometimes these articles are not available in Dutch. Half of the articles are in Dutch. Then, we have to print an English edition. Usually the people who do that are supposed to read English. Not all the Germans do, actually. I have lots of German customers, so that’s how it is.

BM: That’s very interesting. You’ve got the exclusivity of a book that’s bundled only with a tour. Well, we’ve talked about what’s happening in the market, or rather, how your presses have responded to it. What about the literary bookstores here in Amsterdam that support people for readings, for people who like to do really good, serious writing. Which ones are they and where are they? For example, I know The English Bookshop (Lauriergracht 71) has readings and I know the American Book Center (Spui 12) also does….

MG: … the American Book Center is a bit more populous. The English Bookshop is doing a bit of everything. They’re doing a lot of work with children’s book writers and we (Versal) do the occasional poetry reading there, and I have just heard that a short story writer is coming, so The English Bookshop is a great catch all. Perdu (Kloveniersburgwal 86) is a great place for international poetry and also local, Dutch writers. The Athenaeum (Spui 14-16) does something occasionally, but not very often.

BM: And is that in conjunction with the University of Amsterdam, Spui 25? I’m a UvA alumnus and sometimes when people come to read there, it’s in conjunction with the Athenaeum and people go across the street to buy a book with their UvA Alumni discount card or there’s someone with a cash register from the Athenaeum sitting at the back of the hall at Spui 25.

MG: Well, Versal sells the best at Athenaeum. In fact, we’re on one of the university’s current class (reading) lists in English. We’ve sold 30 issues of Versal 9 there alone. Athenaeum is a big supporter of local, international literature because they are interested in it and not just the Dutch literary magazines so they will carry just about anything that is interesting. They carry American and British literary magazines.

NS: I’ve also seen some readings at Selexyz/Scheltema, (Koningsplein 20) but not in English. They have Dutch readings for new books.

MG: And De Balie (Kleine Gartmanplantsoen 10) brings a lot of people through their cultural programmes. They’re not always about literature, but sometimes there are some nice crossovers. And sometimes you have John Adams (Herenmarkt 97) doing events all over.

NS: Yeah, the biggest literary ones are at John Adams.

BM: And Boudewijn do you know any bookstores that are good about supporting new authors — authors with books that don’t come from major publishers?

BR: Waterstones (Kalverstraat 152).

MG: Yeah, Waterstones is starting to do more events in the last couple years. They did a book launch for two, local writers, one poet and one fiction writer.

BM: So if we were to map the literary landscape for writers who are getting established, we would say that the area around the Spui would be ground zero with the Athenaeum and the American Book Center across the street from each other, Waterstones being just to the north of that, Selexyz and De Balie being to the south and then of course, The English Bookshop and John Adams being major players also, still in the centre of town or what’s referred to in Amsterdam as the grachtengordel, (canal belt), but about a kilometre or two further to the south and west respectively.

MG: I would still put Perdu (Kloveniersburgwal 86) on your list. It’s poetry-focused, but their bookstore is fantastic. It’s curated very well. They have books not just by Dutch publishers, but also by international publishers and writers. In addition, they have one of the best spaces in Amsterdam as far as I’m concerned—their black-box theatre in the back.

BR: What did you say?

MG: It’s a black-box theatre, a black space….

BM: …they’ve got bleachers for seating and it’s a nice space to do performances; it’s neutral because it’s all painted black.

MG: And they have a press themselves, but they work with small presses here in Holland that do translation work. So, for example, two years ago I saw Peter Gizzi. He was brought over from America. He’s a really big name. A Dutch publisher had made this incredibly beautiful book of translations of his work across the range of his books. And it was 40 euros. It was the most expensive book of poetry I’ve ever seen and it was very small.

BM: Well great. Now from bookshops, I’d like to move on to discuss organizations in Amsterdam that offer writers’ workshops. For example, wordsinhere had a series of workshops that they were doing for a while, and then there’s another organization that’s working out of the English Bookshop. I’m trying to remember their name….

MG: …the Writers’ Studio.

BM: Are there any other organizations? Well, actually you (Nina Siegal/ Time Out Amsterdam) offer some writing courses. Nina teaches her own course, Cultural Journalism 101. Could you tell us a little bit about that course?

NS: Sure. Time Out Amsterdam actually teaches three different courses a year. Mine is an eight-week course on journalistic writing for people who are interested in culture. We also have a class in film criticism.

BM: Yes, I saw that when I was looking at Time Out Amsterdam’s website.

NS: We were also teaching a fiction writing class. The teacher we were using for that, however, has moved back to the US. And also, there are other places teaching fiction writing, so we thought it makes more sense for us to focus on journalism.

MG: It’s funny because when we started doing workshops, we didn’t have any “competition.” And four years later, there were four other organizations doing similar things, which was great. It was a very good sign for everyone in Amsterdam. This sounds a bit dramatic, but people were being entrepreneurial starting up some of their own stuff, whether it was part of their eenmanszaak (one person business) or whether it was building some sort of cultural community enterprise. So actually the reason we pulled back our workshops after this last year has been because we are not interested in competing with our fellow writers for workshop attendees because there’s so much going on around town. So we’re doing some things that Time Out is doing. When we give workshops now, they will be in things that we are specifically interested in and good at, which is publishing, being a writer and trying to publish in the international publishing community and, depending on who’s in town, very specific poetry workshops, which are still quite under-represented.

NS: Since I’ve been here, the people who I’ve met who are very serious about writing have been wordsinhere students. They had so many writing workshops and people who met each other in those workshops who went off to form their own writing groups.

MG: There are probably seven or eight writing groups that I know of meeting now.

BM: We’re (Amsterdam Quarterly’s writers’ group) one of them.

[Laughter]

We’re former wordsinhere students, Iclal and I. We went off and formed our own group.

MG: OK. So there’s probably nine or ten.

NS: I’m in a group from mostly wordsinhere people.

BM: OK. Great. Let’s see. We’ve talked a little about markets and places to give readings and workshops. The last topic I wanted to discuss is how you feel about digital media—the good, the bad and the future.  What is your vision? Is it apocalyptical where there are no more bookshops and we’re all running around with our handhelds and people are not reading physical books anymore as I mentioned in the beginning of this interview when I said how I thought tourists would soon be exploring Amsterdam digitally? Will everyone connect with each other via the Internet to write, workshop and publish their work? What do you see as the future?

NS: I’m a really bad person to ask about this because I started my career in San Francisco in the ’90s at the very beginning of the Silicon Valley boom. Everybody I knew at that time was migrating to online media and saying: “There won’t be print publications anymore. You’d better get into online media.” Even at that time I was a bit resistant to it, because I just wanted to work in print journalism. I love reading newspapers and magazines and I like the way they feel. I have written for online magazines like Salon since the beginning of my career, but I’ve managed to have 20 years of a career so far without going into digital media and I am so happy about it. Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is incredible as a resource and as a tool, and there are amazing advances in social media that help us in the journalistic trade. I just haven’t seen that much real journalism that is that great that is written exclusively for the Net, yet. It’s surprising. The amount of energy, capital, entrepreneurship that goes into that endeavour, compared to the actual amount of work that you actually see that is readable, reliable and professional is really low. Ultimately things are going in that direction, but I’m also surprised to see how many of those magazines that started up online have folded or have cut back to the point where they barely exist. The really successful ones also….

BR: …on the Internet and on paper?

NS: No, the ones that only exist online are largely – of course you have things like The Huffington Post and Gawker that do really well. I think it would be foolish to say, though, that it was not going to be the primary way that people will relate words in the future. I think it’s just a matter of interface and not a matter of craft, so maybe we will be holding holograms in the future. The thing you have to learn to do as a journalist or as a writer is going to be the same exact thing you had to learn in the past. I hope that the mediums, the interfaces, get to the point where they are enjoyable to hold, like they’re starting to be with the tablets, but I don’t think we have to change fundamentally what we’re writing. It’ll be more about formatting and word count. If we still want to write good things, the same standards will apply.

BM: Megan, what do you see as the future in regards to Versal, with digital media?

MG: I have to say I really agree with the distinction between the medium itself and the physical act of writing. These things need to be discussed in different places—the same standard of aesthetic and the moving target of aesthetic—that conversation still needs to be had. I think when we had our initial boost of Internet journalism and Internet writing in general and the blogosphere, typos just became the status quo. I think that those of us who are in the publishing world should continue to hold up those high standards of, for example, grammar.

[Laughter]

In terms of Versal, this is a time as poet, when I am in a unique position. As I said earlier, the digital world is not necessarily encroaching dramatically over my head. It is important for the literary world to be present online, for poets to maybe have a website or a Twitter feed, but I don’t necessarily think that I should be publishing my poetry exclusively online, or that Versal, literary journals, chapbook publishers or collection publishers should necessarily worry too much about digital media because the niche is so specific. There was a moment, about four years ago, when the literary world, in North America specifically, was freaking out about what you said, Bryan, an apocalypse that would kill all small press publishers and bookstores. Four years later, the story is very different and everyone has calmed down, which is very nice to see. In fact, what I’m seeing from a lot of small press publishers in North American—I think I mentioned this in an interview with Hazel & Wren—that people are owning up to a kind of fetish about paper. Let’s admit it. We like paper. We like the smell of ink. We like things being tangible or physical in our hands. And so a lot of publishers are taking advantage of that and making even more beautiful books—going back to hard-bound and to letterpress and doing all these really beautiful things with paper again. I think this is a really exciting time to be a small press publisher.

BM: So, it’s sort of our Arts and Crafts Movement for publishing?  That’s why Amsterdam Quarterly decided to print a yearly anthology of its tri-quarterly work online using the American Book Center’s print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine. This way AQ can print a limited number of high-quality, bound copies as souvenirs for contributors and reading attendees.

MG: Yes. DIY publishing is back in. A large majority of the community is interested in the small, the handheld, the tangible form of the art, and so it’s really exciting to see even big names in American poetry, publish with small houses because they want to see their work in that beautiful form. But if you are a publisher and you are putting out novels, you should no doubt also have an e-book version, no doubt. Should Versal have an e-book version? No, I don’t think so at this point because people buy it for the object.

BM: Boudewijn, would you like to have the last word about the last question about the digital future, or if there is one for literature and writing here in Amsterdam? How will it affect your press and publications?

BR: Basically I agree with what Megan said about Internet growth. It certainly will grow for mainly digital publications and authors. Publishers will try to find a mass market via the Internet. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a niche for people still interested in buying paper books. Not all authors are fit for a mass market. Many publishers still think: ‘We need to sell 100,000 copies.’ Many authors are not fit for that, so as long as people can order books via the Internet, I think it will go two different ways. We had the invention of the pocket book by Penguin and they sold ten times more books, so it will be very nice over the Internet, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the printed book. There will always be an interest in narrative fiction and poetry and where there is this interest, there will always be books available in one way or another.

BM: OK. Publishers and editors, thank you so much for participating in this roundtable today.

Moira Egan – Politics Can’t Interfere with Love or Border Crossings

Politics Can’t Interfere with Love or Border Crossings
An Interview with Moira Egan
by Bryan R. Monte

Moira Egan (b. 1962) is the author of three books of poetry, Cleave (2004), La Seta della Cravatta/The Silk of the Tie (2009)and Spin (2010)and the co-editor of the Hot Sonnets (2011). In 2009, theSpecial Prize from the Premio Napoliwas given to Un mondo che non può essere migliore: Poesie scelte 1956-2007, a selection of poems by John Ashbery, which she worked on with her partner, Damiano Abeni, and Joseph Harrison. Egan has been a Mid Atlantic Arts Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; Writer in Residence at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, Malta; a Writing Fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Center; and a Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. Most recently, she was awarded (along with Damiano Abeni) the Premio di Poesia “La Torre dell’ Orologio” for the vol-ume, L’uomo che cammina un passo avanti al buio, (Oscar Mondadori 2011), a major selection of the poems of Mark Strand.On 14 August 2011 she was interviewed in Assisi, Italy where she answered questions about her educational background, favourite poetic themes and forms, issues related to translation, writing discipline and future projects. Ms Egan is an adjunct assistant professor of English, creative writing and translation at John Cabot University in Rome.

Bryan Monte: I understand that you’re the daughter of a poet and academic and you grew up in Baltimore and attended Bryn Mawr College. Tell me, what was that like?

Moira Egan: Growing up with a father who was a poet was probably the most formative thing for me as a poet, because there was always the sense that there was both a lot of joy and a lot of work involved in writing poetry. One of the things that we three kids, (I am the oldest of three), knew was that, when daddy was down in the basement working, we had to be quiet.

BM: So it was serious work down there.  He went downstairs to his study where he wrote poetry. It was as if he had a workshop down there and he was making all sorts of things.

ME: Yes. That’s exactly what it was like. So I grew up with the idea that there were books on the shelves that needed to be read because that was the raw material that you made your poems from. These books would influence what you wrote and that was a serious process—maybe too much so, but that’s a different question.

BM: And why did you decide to study at Bryn Mawr?

ME: I went to Bryn Mawr for many reasons. I fell in love with the “collegiate gothic” campus, and I was happy that there were no sororities there at all, not even Phi Beta Kappa! I might have gone to Columbia, but it was (believe it or not) not yet co-ed in the undergraduate College, though I did end up going to graduate school at Columbia. I didn’t study classics at Bryn Mawr, although, if I could go back and redo things, that might be one of the things I’d do differently. I was a German literature major, but that also had its advantages. I can read Goethe, Rilke, Hesse – those writers – without having to bother with translations.

BM: And when did you first discover that you wanted to write?

ME: When I was about three, I guess. I started making rhymes and people would write them down. It’s a little embarrassing, in some basement in Catonsville, Maryland, there’s some little archive of my rhymes with drawings alongside them. I wrote poems and stories through high school and then I took a break from writing altogether in college because it just seemed I met too many poets who were following the path of Dylan Thomas. I thought: ‘I don’t want this for my life,’ so I stopped. I did other things. That was one of the reasons I was a German literature major, when I was an undergraduate, not an English major. I just wanted to stay away from it. But then a few years after college I thought: ‘I’m stuck. This is my fate.’ And since my name in Greek (Moira) really does mean fate, it seemed to make sense. But maybe that’s just a coincidence.

BM: You have certainly established yourself as a poet. You received the 2009 Special Prize from the Premio Napoli for your John Ashbery poetry translations….

ME: I share that with Damiano Abeni, my husband,and Joe Harrison. I had never really translated before, though I had studied other languages. I married a guy who is an extremely well-respected translator of American poetry into Italian and now I work with him on translations. It’s been a very interesting process – and one way that I started to learn Italian was reading my own poems that Damiano had translated into Italian.

BM: And you were a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellow, a Writer in Residence at St. James in Malta, a writing fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Centre…

ME: Yes, Civitella is right down the road….

BM: …And a resident of the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.

ME: Yes.

BM: That’s quite an impressive list for someone in her early 40s.

ME: Well, thank you, but you’ve misdiagnosed me by almost a decade.

BM: My apologies. May I ask, why do you write so often about classical themes and characters? I mean with all the things in the world to write about – automobiles, airplanes and computers in the 21st century, why is it in Cleave, that you’re writing “To My Muse” and “Sappho’s Grapefruit” and then in Spin about Circe, Penelope and your Muse again. Why do you choose these classical subjects and characters?

ME: I think that those ancient Greeks had it all figured out. There’s a lot of basic, human, psychological wisdom in Greek mythology. There’s a lot of wisdom in mythology, full stop. I guess it was the Bryn Mawr influence, among other things, but I’ve always loved Greek mythology. It’s beautifully dysfunctional, with all of its strange family and love relations. I have always been attracted to it. I lived in Greece for three years and a lot of the poems that you are referring to from Cleave were written in Greece or just after my time in Greece. I was going out to the country house of a friend of mine on the Pelion peninsula and she said: “Well, you know that’s where the centaurs were.” And there was a certain metaphorical truth to that, ‘Well, yes, OK. That’s where the centaurs lived.’

BM: Proximity, in other words?

ME: No, that’s the area where the centaurs came from. In the modern world, we don’t really believe in centaurs, but you often hear statements of that sort in Greece. The stories about centaurs came from that area. And when I lived in Greece, I could actually see Mt. Olympus from my apartment balcony on clear days. So you can’t help but think about where all those myths came from and their importance and human archetypes and an understanding of how people work. It’s all expressed in the myths.

BM: Well, I can understand your focus on classical themes then, but why did you choose classical modes for expression also – the sonnet, the sestina, the tercet, etc.? Why this emphasis on formalism in your poetry?

ME: A very good question. It partly comes from my father, who was a pretty formal poet, though he did not write in as many received and invented forms as I do. I enjoy the sense of control and containment. I always say to my students, for example: “A novelist might become a best-selling novelist and make a movie out of the book and become well off enough to buy a house, but we poets have line breaks and we have rhyme to play with.” To me that’s the challenge and also a lot of fun. I also think that writing in form is a way of avoiding the total anxiety of looking at the blank page or the blank screen because you know that, once the poem figures out what it wants to be – it’s going to be a sonnet or a sestina, for example — that much of the blankness is gone. I know where it needs to go and then I can play with it, almost like a puzzle. That actually allows for a lot of freedom and creativity because working with form often causes you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do, which to me is a lot of fun. It stretches you.

BM: What’s you favourite poetic form?

ME: The sonnet.

BM: Hands down. Right away you know that.

ME: Hands down.

BM: Could you explain to me why?

ME: Obviously it’s this beautiful, compact form that’s been around for quite a few centuries. Its historical position is that it was traditionally written in a male voice, addressed to an unobtainable, beautiful, fabulous woman. Women have also been writing sonnets for centuries, but one of the interesting things of the last century or so is that women have been having great fun subverting this tradition. As you have read, and you’re going to ask me some questions about the really naughty sonnets, part of the fun of that is subverting the trope of, say, Petrarch talking to Laura. “You, beautiful blonde creature, whose footsteps cause tulips to sprout up in them” and Dante to Beatrice, the unattainable. So a lot of women poets have been flipping that tradition on its head and writing good, strict sonnets about the other thing. They write about earthly issues rather than an ephemeral and unobtainable love. Shakespeare is a good model for this kind of subversion when he writes: “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.”

BM: Do you write in any other genres besides poetry?

ME: Yes, sometimes I write essays, and some of them have been published here and there. They’re mostly about writing and teaching. And I have written a novel — I still have to figure out what to do with it — and some short stories. But mostly I’m a poet, which is sad, but true.

BM: So that’s where you live as far as being a writer is concerned.

ME: Yes.

BM: Good. I was going to ask you a question before we go into all those poems where you flip the traditional paradigm on its head. Why, for example, do you have two books with one-word titles – Cleave and Spin? Then, why have you organized these books around all the definitions of those words and their permutations? What possessed you to use that as an organizing principle?

ME: A terrible demon possessed me.

BM: Most people would come up with different things to maybe give a varied palette, but you kept homing in on different aspects of the same word. So why did you do that?

ME: Well, with Cleave, it is one of the best words in the English language, and untranslatable in every language that I know of anyway. This was my first book as you said, and, like many first books, it has several very disparate threads. So how do you bring these disparate threads together? Having fallen in love with the word “cleave,” an auto-antonym which means both to stick to, to adhere to something, the way you cleave unto another, while it also means to separate, to cut something apart drastically, violently. This book comes in five sections….

BM: ….for the same word, by the way, for people who don’t understand that….

ME: ….for the same word, yes. It also has these more subtle meanings than those. The poems that I had been writing over years – some of those poems are now nearly two decades old – are about different things. But the word cleave brought them all together.

One of the things that I write about a lot is the creative process – the ars poetica poems. How does this mysterious, painful thing happen and why in the world do I think I can do something like this? One of the minor definitions of cleave is “to make one’s way through cutting as through underbrush; to penetrate; pass.” That definition embodied poems in which I was figuring out and I’m making my way as a poet. Then there’s this “falling in and out of love at the same time” set of poems, which is not too surprising, given what I write about. (Egan reads). “From the 14th century on, the inflective forms of cleave, to part or divide, have tended to run together with those of cleave, 2. To stick; adhere. The two verbs having thus become identical in the present stem were now actually confused in the other inflections.”  The persona and it’s not always me here, although she is part of me of course, doesn’t really understand the difference between falling in love and falling out of love. This conflation of sticking to and breaking away very violently, that worked very well. And then there’s another section of Greek mythology poems in here as you noted whose narratives really interest me, though they’re not about me. One of the definitions of cleave is “to intersect or fissure in position.” So there’s that whole section. And then there’s a section of elegies for my father, who was a poet. “Cleave, to part or divide with a cutting blow; to hew asunder; to split.” That pretty much sums that one up. And last but not least, “In a wider sense, to cling or hold fast to a principle practice; to remain attached or faithful to,” the poems that contain the possible hope of actually holding fast to something, or someone. So, these are the five major themes of the book. How else do you put together elegies for your father, falling in and out of love, mythological themes, and figuring out that you’re a poet and how to deal with that — happy love, dysfunctional love, all of those things. When I realized that I could bring it all together under the “umbrella” of Cleave, it became a book.

BM: Everything fell into place.

ME: Yes, and with Spin, I think this will be the last time I do this. Again, in Spin, there are lots of different kinds of spin. But Spin is a much naughtier book than Cleave. There’s a lot…., well the Bar Napkin Sonnets are in Spin. That’s all I need to say in terms of its naughtiness.

BM: Yes, Kim Addonizio said those poems were: “about looking for love in all the wrong places” according to the book’s back cover blurb. We’ll get to that in a moment. I would like to go on to my next question about one of the most common themes in your poems — sex and whether you have still got it. “Who will I be when I’m no longer pretty?” is one of the lines from your poems. In these poems you describe your transformation from an awkward bookworm in her twenties, to a beautiful, self-aware woman in her forties.

ME: I never said “beautiful, self-aware woman in her forties.” I never said that, but thanks.

[Laughter].

BM: Well, that was my impression from reading the poems. And you’ve got these tag lines like: “I leave my bad girl signature behind,” “Things happen when you drink too much Mescal,” “beast/and beauty, lime and salt — sweet Bacchus’s pards — .” The rhythm in that line really brings the action of the poem across. How much of this is your persona, how much of this is you, and how much do you want to reveal?

ME: I can’t tell you.

[Laughter].

BM: Nothing? Not even a little bit?

ME: Well, persona means mask.

BM: Right.

ME: Personare means “to sound through; to speak through something,” so the thing with the Bar Napkin Sonnets, and all of the lines you just quoted are from the Bar Napkin Sonnets, was that I was having a rip-roaring good time for about a year writing these sonnets that were loosely based on things that had really happened to me and on things that might have happened to me. They also embodied a kind of stance, a kind of not macho, because I’m not a man, but macha stance of “What the F**k!” I had been working with a group of women on collaborative crowns of sonnets and I got very strongly into this sonnet mindset. It was a fun, lovely group of dirty-minded women, who were writing about these things. We were having such a good time that I then thought: ‘So many stupid things happened to me in bars and in life, that why don’t I just celebrate crazy adventures of my life thus far and the fact that I managed to get through them?’ That’s the kind of weird macha stance that is in there. It’s not necessarily me. Some of that stuff is true and some of it is completely fictional. A lot of it is bent or completely made up to meet the requirements of the rhyme and the meter. I have an entire fiction in there about the English guy, which I think is a really funny poem. That incident never happened. The amusingly terrible statistical thing is that I met my husband-to-be when I was 43. I had started dating, more or less, when I was 13. Doing that math, that indeed gives me three full decades (yikes) of silly things and poignant things, thirty years of the whole dating adventure to write about – so I did.  It all got wrapped up in the Bar Napkin Sonnets.

BM: But even in addition to the Bar Napkin Sonnets, you’ve got that one poem, the anti-Jane Austen poem, “Letter to a Young Friend.”  Could you please talk about that one for a moment?

ME: I think one of the joys and one of the responsibilities of being a writer is reading carefully the people who have come before you and who’ve done work that is touching and interesting and funny or meaningful. Jane Austen, I think, is one of the funniest writers ever. I just love her and Helen Fielding had a field day (so to speak) with Pride and Prejudice. That poem comes out of an experience I had with a very young woman, just post-breakup, who was saying: “I’m never going to meet my Darcy.” And I said: “No. You’re probably not.” What is it called? Letter to a Young….

BM: It’s called Letter to a Young Friend….

ME: And more. The title is so long that it had to be printed with the subsequent lines looking like an epigraph, but the entire title is: Letter to Young Friend, Recently Overdosed on Bridget Jones & the Novels & the Movies Based on the Novels of Jane Austen.  And when you start to examine how things can work out in fairy tales or Jane Austen tales or whatever, although Bridget Jones is a lot more….

BM: It’s sort of anti-tradition….

ME: …anti-tradition although the plot ends up being the same because that’s the plot line people want.

BM: She gets the man in the end.

ME: You get the person you want in the end. That’s the plot line we all want. When I wrote that poem, before I was 43, I truly did not believe in that plot line. I believed it was something they fed you, Hallmark Holidays and Cinderella. You know, like a drug.

BM: OK. How did you find this type of writing liberating, the kind of bad girl writing about “I’m going to go out there and have some fun?” In what ways did it open up perspectives or viewpoints that you hadn’t previously thought about? For example, when you started the Bar Napkin Sonnets you knew one thing, when you finished them you knew something else.

ME: Yes.

BM: What happened? What did you discover along the way writing those?

ME: I’m trying to think of how to say this. I discovered at the end: “OK, Basta!” as we say in Italy.

BM: Which means?

ME: Which means “enough.” I don’t want to do this anymore. And seriously, writing the Bar Napkin Sonnets was an important part of this learning experience. I have a friend who can attest to this — one of the sonnet girls I was collaborating with. “OK. This is enough. I think I don’t want to do this anymore and certainly don’t want to be doing this when I’m 57 as opposed to in my early forties.”

BM: So would that be your answer also as to how you found it limiting writing these sonnets.

ME: Oh, no. I didn’t find it limiting at all. I mean the writing of the sonnets was like a funny little novel in verse, seriously, because a lot of it is fiction.

BM: Oh, so they’re not autobiographical!

ME: I thought I already said that. A lot of it is fiction.

BM: What about the one about the Englishman?

ME: The Englishman, right. That never happened. No, there are many parts of the Bar Napkin Sonnets that are not true, or that I bent, or I broke. The funny thing is (that is in the one that I can’t find right now), she’s sitting at the bar, she’s doesn’t mind eating bar food. Notice that I say “she” not me, because she’s “she,” not me.

BM: Not the I, so you’re using the third person.

ME: The funny thing is that she sits there and she’s listening to the music and this guy comes up and here, this is a great thing about writing in meter and form. I knew this was going to happen because the last line of the poem before it, which is how a crown works of course, says: “I wasn’t sure which worm he meant, the one I ate? the one that eats at me alone.”  OK, so the first line of the next sonnet is: “I don’t mind bar food, sit and eat alone.” And I’m not going to read all of this, but anyway, she’s sitting there listening to all the stuff, smelling the smoke and the men in bad cologne and then the guy walks in he says: “Though you look comfortable alone, I’ll sit here, if you have no objection, Love.” And because I wanted it to be as iambically pure as it could be, he comes out with: “I’ll sit here, if you’ve no objection, Love.” An American wouldn’t say it that way, so he became an Englishman because an Englishman would more likely say it. And so then the poem goes on to say: “Were Irish granny here, she’d first go numb/Then tell this handsome Englishman ‘Go home.’” And then it goes on to say: “I got her temper, hot, and her beliefs/But politics can’t interfere with love / or border crossings of this sort. These wings / you’re eating love, how are they? Extra heat / and spice, I warn him. He’s oblivious./Delicious sauce. He licks it from my fingers.” This is complete fiction based on truth. I mean I had an Irish grandmother, who, if I told her how many Englishmen I had “been friendly with,” would have been very upset. So, I never told her. But because I have to make the meter of this poem, he becomes an Englishman, and then that brings up my grandmother and then I invented this story that ends up that “Politics can’t interfere with love or border crossings of this sort,” but the story is completely made up. Not to say, however, that the bad girl persona who’s in here would have been unfamiliar with making compromises, like that, let’s just say.

BM: OK. Now I have a better perspective on the poems as far as biography versus fiction is concerned.

ME: Fiction, there’s a lot of fiction. It’s not just fiction, but it’s also stance. It’s OK for boys to be bad boys and to write about doing this and doing that. I don’t think it’s fair that only boys get to do that and maybe I have been a bad girl and gone out and done whatever, but also I think it’s just fun to write about that stuff and flip these Petrarchan tropes, to make it as utterly anti-Petrarchan as I can because there have been too many centuries of men doing stupid things and women just letting it happen to them. So this voice, and she’s not always me, is saying, and sometimes ironically, I should add: “I’m going to do the same stuff. Yo.”

BM: OK. Now that we’ve talked about your two books of poetry, I would like to talk a little bit about living in Italy and the influence this has had on your poetry and writing because this is something very interesting to my readers who can speak two and possibly three or more languages. What influence has living in Rome, abroad, in a different country, had on your writing and its subject matter?

ME: Well, I can’t really write Bar Napkin Sonnets anymore because I’m a happily married woman. That’s first and foremost. I mean I could, but I wouldn’t feel right doing it. Although my husband translates them and, God bless him for being such a good translator of poems. And that was something he was doing long before he came into my life. Linguistically it’s very interesting to live in another country and be a writer. This has happened to me before. I lived in Greece for three years. I went in 1998 and what I began to internalize then is that English is this wonderful, promiscuous language that just takes in everything. Our English-language words come from everywhere. I noticed, living in Greece and now living in Italy, that I really think about the source of the words. Latinate words are a completely different ball game than Anglo-Saxon words and sometimes you want to keep a stream of purity there and sometimes you want to mix it up. So, who am I to say that Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowolf annoyed me, but it annoyed me because he popped in this word, “anathema.” Now, that is a super-Greek word in an Anglo-Saxon epic and I just thought: ‘No, no, no, no.’ I don’t think I would have been as sensitive to that until after I had lived in Greece and was surrounded by Greek words. It makes me more conscious of the source of every word I use. But the other thing about living in a language that you don’t write in is how it affects communication. I would say that living in this language affects my interpersonal communication more than it affects my writing.

BM: So, could you be more specific about the interpersonal aspect?

ME: I could be more specific. One of the most frustrating things about being a person in her mid-to-late forties and moving to a new country and learning the language – I never took Italian lessons and I’m not going to take Italian lessons so I’ll just have to learn the complicated verb tenses on my own — but I’m a reasonably funny person in English. I can go into a store and make somebody laugh by saying something goofy. But in Italy, when I go into a store and I say something that I think is funny and kind of goofy, they just look at me as if I’m a lunatic or a criminal. So the fact that you used to be a witty, verbal person and you could go out into the public and charm people and like “Oh, ha ha ha, isn’t she funny!” — to lose that completely in the middle of the journey of your life is not a fun thing. So that’s really the biggest and worst thing about moving to a new land and a new language later on. What do you think about that?

BM: Yes. I’m usually translating literally in Dutch so I miss some of the jokes, although I am getting better at it. I’ve been in the Netherlands now for about 18 years, so it gets better with time. The first five years, you’re just learning the territory. And between five to ten years, you begin to understand the word play in jokes. And after 10 to 15 years, you understand where the jokes come from, the traditions and the stories they belong to. It just takes time.

ME: No, no, no, they don’t get my jokes. I’ll try to make a joke here and sometimes it’s just not funny. In America, it might have been a bad joke, but if it was a bad joke, I meant it to be a bad joke.

BM: I tell my students that jokes are the most difficult part of language cross-culturally and that humour in one language is different in another. I know that my students have advanced from B2 to C1 level when they start laughing at the jokes I make in class. So when they start laughing and tossing their heads back, I think: ‘Congratulations, you’ve arrived,’ because that’s one of the most difficult and advanced aspects of language. But you know, you get there eventually. You just have to learn to make jokes in the local language where you’re living. Tell me, what about your bilingual book of poetry, La Seta della Cravatta /The Silk of the Tie. How did that come about?

ME: La Seta della Cravatta is a collection of poems from Cleave and Spin with one exception, which belongs to a book that hasn’t been published yet. These are the poems that Damiano had, up to that point, translated. At that time, I didn’t know enough Italian to be part of the translation, so those are his translations, although a couple of them — actually the last couple that went in there, I can tell you which ones they are – we worked on them together. That was the first time that we really collaborated on a translation. But those are all fairly old poems, I mean, the oldest poem in that book was written in 1991. They were the poems he felt good about translating because some poems aren’t so translatable, you really can’t do a good job with them. Poets don’t write with the idea of translation in mind. With my poems, it’s sometimes hard because there are so many specifically formal poems, which are difficult to translate. If you’re translating a sonnet, you have to think about a reasonable line length and a rhyme scheme, for example, not to mention to make sure that the volta is in the right place and that sort of thing. Those are aspects that aren’t so easy. If you’re translating free verse, of course, you want to get the music of the free verse, but it’s not like there are these specific, form-based constraints on you. Then, when you’re translating someone like John Ashbery in Italian, the running joke is something like: “Does this sentence mean this, or this or this?” And the answer is: “Yes.” But when you’re turning it into Italian, you have to make a choice. You can’t usually say, “Yes” to all three of the possibilities in English.

BM: OK. So the multiple layers are sometimes lost in translation then.

ME: Although, there are other things that are sometimes found in translation. There are some things that change in translation that are possibilities that you didn’t have in the original language. If you are sensitive to both of the languages, you can play with that and that’s very rewarding.

BM: Well, that was one of my next questions. What did you learn about poetry related to translation? What did you find doing it? What did you discover from translating your poetry?

ME: From translating my poetry?

BM: Or anyone’s poetry?

ME: Anyone’s poetry? Damiano and I teach a class on the art of literary translation at John Cabot University in Rome.  To me, the most important aspect is a very close reading of the poem in its original. Then you have to figure out the closest way to approximate the poem’s effect in the target language. You have to make reading choices when you’re reading for translation. You can never reproduce, you can’t reproduce anything in another language, let alone poetry, but you can try to reproduce the effect and that’s what we try to do. I should tell you a good anecdote from a poet whose work we have translated – Charles Simic, who left Serbia for the US in the ‘50s. Obviously, he still speaks Serbian, but he only writes in English. And when people ask him why he doesn’t write in Serbian anymore, he says: “Because I don’t know the effect anymore of the words that I would say in Serbian on a Serbian audience.” So he writes in English because he lives in English and he knows the effect of words on his English language audience and I think that is a really important thing to think about.

BM: So in other words, it’s not always possible to reproduce the meter or the sounds….

ME: Well, no….

BM: ….But you can create the emotive effect, the emotion that is created.

ME: That’s correct. That’s a way to put it. I mean you can almost never reproduce the metrical effect because you can’t really do iambic pentameter in Italian. Italian just doesn’t work that way. You have an equivalent line that Dante and Petrarch used for their sonnets, for example – hendecasyllabics – but that’s not iambic pentameter.

BM: Right, well let’s move on then to your writing discipline. Do you have a schedule?

ME: No, I don’t.

BM: No schedule at all? But if you were to estimate how often you sit down and write during the week, how often would that be?

ME: It’s seasonal. It gets harder and harder for me to write when I’m teaching, unless there’s a poem that’s so strongly welling up inside of me that it has to come out, that will be written no matter what I have to do. But that happens less and less. So I write a lot in the summer and during the holidays. I teach a lot and my brain is very much occupied by that because I take my teaching very seriously. I need this little tiny still walnut of a place in the back of brain for a poem to happen. It’s very hard for me to get there when I have any given number of students in a semester needing me and I want to be there for them, so I am, and I don’t write. But in the summer, I am quite disciplined.

BM: During the summer then, how many hours per day do you think that you write?

ME: Per day, somewhere between two and five.

BM: And what types of things do you need to do before you are ready to write, before you are ready to sit down and start connecting with the page?

ME: Again, when I’m writing, I just need to have a poem in my head and then I go there. I mean I go to my desk and I write it.

BM: How often do you send work out?

ME: That also varies a lot.

BM: Could you give an estimate? Once a month? Once a quarter? Once every six months?

ME: It varies year by year. Sometimes it’s once a week. I sit there and I do what I need to do, which, by the way, is my least favourite part of being a writer. When I was living in the States, I used to do that on Saturday mornings. I’d sit there and put stuff together and send it out. It’s been very sporadic this past year; slightly less sporadic than the year before. But this year, I vow, I’m going to sit down and do it.

BM: How did you happen to create the Hot Sonnets series, the collection of 20th century American sonnets you co-edited with Clarinda Harriss?

ME: We decided that contemporary sonnets embodied a lot of hotness and we kept finding a lot of hot sonnets that we liked. We decided there needed to be a book called Hot Sonnets so we should do it because no one else, as far as I know, has done this before. We sent out calls to various places saying: “Send us your hot sonnets,” and we figured out which sonnets by dead people we wanted. So we got Edna St. Vincent Millay and e. e. cummings and Hayden Carruth and Thom Gunn and John Berryman and lots of hot sonnets from the very hot living.

BM: What are you working on now? What are your new projects for the near future?

ME: I have four manuscripts in search of a unifying theme. They’re four very disparate things. There’s no way I can cleave them together.

BM: And what are these four manuscripts about?

ME: One of them is a series of syllabic poems, each of whose central metaphor is a Mediterranean plant. I live here now so that’s one way that living here has affected me. And another is a series of ekphrastic poems based on the life and work of the painter, Suzanne Valadon. Another is what I call the Kitchen Napkin Sonnets after Bar Napkin Sonnets.

[Laughter].

BM: So you move from the bar….

ME: ….to a life of domesticity. And then I’m writing Hot Flash Sonnets.

BM: Do you happen to have any of those that you remember off the top of your head?

ME: Do you mean the titles?

BM: Yes, or anything else.

ME: There are at least three mood swing sonnets, there’s one called a Hot Flash Sonnet, there’s one called Insomnia Sonnet, one called What the Flesh is Heir To Sonnet, a Clarity Sonnet and a Confused Complexion Sonnet. There are about 14 of them now. I can’t write all of them yet, because I haven’t begun to exhibit all the symptoms of the wonderful horrible things that happen. The poems are meant to be humorous but also serious meditations on: “Oh, I’m getting old now. I don’t really believe I am, but I am.”

BM: So that’s what you’re working on at the moment, then?

ME: Yes, all four of those things.

BM: So, memento mori is knocking at the door then?

ME: I wouldn’t say that. I would say memento menopause.

[Laughter].

BM: So Moira Egan, thank you so much for your time today and I wish you all the best with your future projects.

ME: Likewise.

Philibert Schogt – Writing Across Two Cultures

Writing Across Two Cultures
An Interview with Philibert Schogt
by Bryan R. Monte

Philibert Schogt (b. 1960) is the author of four novels – De wilde getallen/The Wild Numbers, 1998/2000, Daalder/Daalder’s Chocolates 2002/2005, De vrouw van de filosoof (The Philosopher’s Wife), 2005, and Beste reiziger, (Dear Traveller), 2009. On 24 April 2011, he was interviewed in his Amsterdam flat where he answered questions about his background, his novels, and his craft as a writer. Schogt was born in the Netherlands, raised in Canada from the age of four by his émigré parents, and returned to the Netherlands when he was 18 to study philosophy and mathematics at the University of Amsterdam.

Bryan Monte: I’d like to discuss your novels today especially the first two, The Wild Numbers and Daalder’s Chocolates in more depth because they are available in English, and some of their relevant biographical, historical and thematic aspects. I’ve noticed that all of your novels seem to have quirky protagonists such as Isaac Swift, the middle-aged mathematician struggling to make a breakthrough and Joop Daadler, a Dutch émigré chocolatier, struggling to make a business out of his passion in a run-down shop on Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue. Both of these characters and the other protagonists seem unique and a bit socially disconnected. My first question is: Where do your characters come from? Are they from your own experience or do you manufacture them?

Philibert Schogt: I manufacture them mostly. Some people think they recognize themselves in my characters, but I think they are flattering themselves. I leave friends alone, although I’ll sometimes isolate some of their traits, jumble them up and paste them together again to form new figures.  Along with my own character traits, of course. People in the periphery of my life have sometimes reappeared in my books — people I feel I really wouldn’t be offending or people who I don’t mind offending. For instance, I was once treated rather badly by a medical specialist, so I introduced a thoroughly disagreeable figure with the same specialization in one of my novels. A sweet but relatively harmless form of revenge.

BM: So in other words, Vera Samson (the protagonist in De vrouw van de filosoof), is someone you created. Max Vermeer (the protagonist in Beste reiziger), is someone you’ve never met.

PS: That’s right. You mentioned Vera Samson from De vrouw van de filosoof.  Of course I studied philosophy, so a lot of our friends thought: “Oh, no, that must be Astrid, Philibert’s wife. He’s writing about her.” But we kept telling everyone that the character of Vera resembled me more than Astrid.

BM: So staying with this question about where your characters come from, your characters, Isaac Swift, the mathematician, in The Wild Numbers, the chocolatier, Joop Daalder, in Daalder’s Chocolates seem to live more into their own little worlds than that they interact socially with other people.  Did you consciously set out to discuss the theme of social disconnection in these novels?

PS: Yes, both Isaac Swift’s passion for numbers and Joop Daalder’s passion for chocolate come at a price. It alienates them from their surroundings.

BM: And would you say that as a writer, you are more interested in individuals and their pursuits than relationships?

PS: Yes, that’s a good point. I think I’m primarily interested in individuals and how they cope with life. Of course, their dealings with other people form a part of that. But I don’t think a love affair or some other relationship will ever be the main focus.

BM: Moving on to the protagonists in your last two novels, in De vrouw van de filosoof, Vera Samson finds that her ex-boyfriend, whom she has supported financially and emotionally for many years, has written a philosophical tome in which he ridicules her as the “siren of mediocrity.” Then, there is Max Vermeer, the narrator in Beste reiziger, a happy-go-lucky travel writer who is constantly tricking his readers by stealing his information from other guides, but whose outlook on life changes when he falls in love with a co-worker, only to end up getting a taste of his own medicine. Betrayal seems to be a central theme in both novels.

PS: Betrayal certainly plays a prominent role in De vrouw van de filosoof. But in Beste reiziger…. Yes, you’re right. That never occurred to me before.

BM: Why did you choose betrayal as a theme?

PS: Things are not what they seem, people are not who they say they are or who we expect them to be, and, on top of everything else, our mind is constantly playing tricks on itself. These are all aspects of a kind of irony that permeates our existence, and for me as a writer, an endless source of inspiration. I think betrayal is one of the most hurtful ways of being confronted with this irony, but at the same time, from a literary point of view, one of the most interesting and dramatic.

BM: Let’s continue with an overview of your writing career, what other works – short stories, poems, essays, and plays — have you written?

PS: Before starting my first novel, I spent years writing short stories. I was hoping to get them published at some point, but just didn’t know who to send them to, so they ended up lying on my desk and disappearing into a drawer after a while. I didn’t write them for nothing, though. In retrospect, they helped me to develop my style.

BM: What period would that be then?

PS: Back in the ‘80s, even in high school in the ‘70s. That’s when I first considered that maybe I wanted to be a writer.

BM: So we know when you began writing, but how or what motivated you to write? What was your initial catalyst?

PS: As soon as I was able to write, when I was six, one of the first things I started to do was to write stories. I always had fantasy worlds as a child. When I was eight I began this huge sprawling – you could almost call it a novel – about monsters and werewolves and two boys getting into all sorts of adventures and trouble. My interest in writing began to fade away when I was about ten. I think you can compare it to the way young children are great at drawing pictures. Their style is very spontaneous and full of energy until at around ten their drawings seem to freeze, becoming more realistic and static. Sadly, the next step is that they stop drawing altogether. Something similar seemed to be happening to my writing. I simply lost interest and normal schoolwork took up most of my time.

BM: Is that when you started attending high school?

PS: Yes. But then, when I was 16 and going through a particularly rough period of teenage angst and Weltschmerz, our English teacher asked us to write a short story. It was like a return to a lost love. I was amazed at how much I could express through writing. And it was comforting as well.

BM: What were your literary and philosophical influences later on when you continued to write? How did your university studies provide inspiration for your novels because there’s a lot of discussion of different philosophical theories in your novels?

PS: Actually, philosophy was something that I tried to avoid at first. I felt there was a lot to be said for the adage – Show, don’t tell – and philosophy does quite the opposite, starting from the general whereas fiction starts from the specific. If there are any ideas or deeper messages to be conveyed in fiction, it’s usually better to let them shine through the narrative rather than overtly mentioning them. I’m often annoyed by philosophical passages in novels. They detract from the story, and more often than not, the reasoning is fuzzy or even nonsensical. Why doesn’t the writer leave the philosophy to the philosophers and get on with the story? Of course, it wasn’t quite as black and white as I was making it out to be. Bit by bit, philosophy has crept back into my writing – obviously I didn’t study it for nothing. But I always try to present it in a form that doesn’t weigh down the story and that readers will hopefully find enjoyable.

BM: So who were your favourite philosophers?

PS: I liked Plato, not only because of his ideas, but also because of the beautiful form in which he presented them: the Socratic dialogue. A lot of philosophers are awful writers, even though some of their ideas might be worthwhile. There are some notable exceptions. Nietzsche was a brilliant philosopher as well as a wonderful writer. He really inspired me – as did Wittgenstein, for his pursuit of clarity in language.

BM: How much did growing up in Canada as the son of Dutch immigrants influence your writing?

PS: Why I’d almost consider it to be the story of my life, being an immigrant in a faraway country and then returning to the home country again as another kind of immigrant. It’s a recurring theme in my writing as well. Joop Daalder is a European emigrating to North America and being confronted with a difference in culture. And Johan Butler, the main character in the novel I’m currently working on, is a Dutch-Canadian who moved from North America to Holland.

BM: So do you see yourself as a person writing about and living in two different cultures then?

PS: Well, in some of my books, certainly. But in my first novel, The Wild Numbers, it was an issue that I tried to circumvent. The story is situated in an unnamed town….

BM: …that looks like Toronto from the description of the flashing lights on the television mast….

PS: ….which was inspired by Toronto’s famous CN Tower, yes. But the size of the math department in my novel suggests a smaller university town, perhaps somewhere in the US. Because mathematical truths are eternal, transcending time and place, I felt that the location of the story was irrelevant. I wanted it to be as unspecified and neutral as possible.

BM: Well, I know when you wrote: “We receive funding for each student who comes here from the government,” that’s definitely Canada not the US.

[Laughter].

PS: Well, I’ll have to leave that out in a later edition.

[Laughter].

BM: Being an educator here in the Netherlands and knowing that my college receives money for every student sitting in my class, I’m sensitive to that. But I don’t think most of your readers….

PS: ….would pick that up. No.

BM: But as an academic, I do enjoy many of the things you write about in academia. So, to go back to the question about living in two cultures, has the North American/Canadian influence diminished as you have become re-acculturated in The Netherlands? Your last two novels are set in Northern Europe and have only been published in Dutch.

PS: That’s an interesting point. There are various answers to that question, I suppose. It’s true that The Philosopher’s Wife has a very, very Dutch setting, which might have been a problem when my agent tried to get it translated, although the theme itself, I feel, is trans-cultural.  But certainly I’ve become more and more Dutch the longer I’ve lived here. My English has become a bit rusty. When I hear myself on tape, I wince at the Dutch accent that I’ve developed. But usually it takes only a week or two back in Canada to get my English back into shape.

BM: Are you a Dutch or a Canadian citizen or both?

PS: I only have a Dutch passport. My sisters managed to get dual citizenship, but the rules keep changing and somehow I was unlucky or I wasn’t alert enough when a window of opportunity presented itself. It would have been nice. I certainly feel like a dual citizen, without officially being one.

BM: But this duality must give you an advantage, a unique perspective, since you’re able to live in two different cultures and speak the language and understand what’s going on.

PS: I try to nurture my Canadian background to keep a little distance from Dutch society. Keeping distance is a good thing for a writer to do. So it’s definitely been an advantage.

BM: Tell me, how did your first novel, The Wild Numbers, come to be published?

PS: Well, that’s a long story. I started out writing it in English, though I already was living here in Amsterdam. But then I was faced with the problem: whom do I send this to? I didn’t know anybody in the Dutch literary scene who could help me, and I didn’t have any connections in North American or in England. So the finished manuscript ended up lying in a drawer for quite some time. Until I heard that a friend of mine from high school, Douglas Cooper, had published a first novel, Amnesia. The next time I was in Toronto I contacted him. He was more than willing to read my manuscript and really liked it, so he showed it to his agent in New York. I spent months waiting for a reply, and when it did come, it was: “Great story, but it needs a subplot.” More human interest was what he meant, fearing that the main theme of the novel, mathematics, would scare off too many readers. Obediently, I set about trying to weave more human interest into the story, only to find I was weakening rather than strengthening it. After a number of attempts, I boldly decided that the literary agent was wrong and that the story was fine the way it was. Unfortunately, this meant that my manuscript went back to lying in my drawer.

Meanwhile, my ex-girlfriend here in Amsterdam invited me to a launch of her first book of poetry. How painful. Here was my ex, about to celebrate her first literary success, while my unpublished manuscript was rotting away in a drawer. At first I didn’t even want to go. But I decided to be strong and went to her launch at the Arbeiderspers. My ex and her family were genuinely happy to see me, and I was genuinely happy for her success. Then, out of the blue, an attractive young woman came up to me and started a conversation. What brought me here, and did I do any writing of my own? Well, actually I did. I ended up telling her the whole story of my manuscript, my writer friend in Canada and his agent in New York. As it turned out, she was one of the Arbeiderspers’s editors, and the next thing I knew, she was asking me to submit my manuscript.  There I was, in the middle of my ex-girlfriend’s launch, with no expectations whatsoever, and here was this beautiful woman inviting me to submit my manuscript. It’s a kind of Cinderella story with me in the role of Cinderella.

Anyway, a few weeks later, the editor called me to say that she liked the story and that the Arbeiderspers was prepared to publish it. There was only one hitch: I had to translate it into Dutch first.

BM: So it first appeared in Dutch as De wilde getallen?

PS: Yes. So although I had already finished the English version by the end of 1993, because I left it lying around for so long and then had to translate it into Dutch, it wasn’t published until 1998. But the good thing was, I still had the English manuscript as well, which the Arbeiderspers and their foreign rights agent could show to other literary publishers. What usually happens is that they only have a sample translation of a Dutch novel, just the first chapter and a plot synopsis, and most foreign publishers don’t want to buy a book on that basis. But here was a complete manuscript, in English. That really helped to sell The Wild Numbers to various other countries.

BM: That takes us back to living in two different cultures at the same time, too, because you were fully able to write a novel in two different languages without having to use a translator. You did it yourself.

PS: Did I ever. It was a gruelling, three-months work. One of the problems when translating your own work is that you have to keep stopping yourself from editing at the same time.

[Laughter].

BM: And making it better in the next edition.

PS: I did sneak in a few changes, I must admit, and omitted a few of the editorial changes the Arbeiderspers wanted me to make when I translated the novel from English to Dutch.

BM: So the book was very fluid then, from its inception in English to how it was translated into Dutch and finally to how it became another manuscript in English again. So, it wasn’t static; it changed.

PS: Yes.

BM: Now, there was something else related to The Wild Numbers which I found very interesting.  What was going on in the math world at the time of the publication of The Wild Numbers that paralleled the plot? What was the situation and how was that similar to the situation in your book?

PS: That is a funny story. My original plan was to write a novel about a mathematician struggling with his midlife crisis, who then comes up with a solution to the most famous, unsolved mathematical problem of the time: Fermat’s Last Theorem. A friend of mine, who is a mathematician, thought it was a bad idea. Only the very brightest minds would ever dare tackle that problem, making my main character appear like a crackpot. At first, I was devastated. ‘There goes my idea for a novel,’ I thought. But then I remembered I was a fiction writer, and that I was free to make up a math problem of my own. This would help me get around my friend’s objection as well as save me from doing a lot of painstaking research on an existing math problem.

As it turned out, there was one further reason that my friend deserves my eternal gratitude. While I was working on The Wild Numbers, out in the real world, a mathematician managed to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem; an incredible coincidence. If I had stuck to my original plan, my novel would have become dated even before being published.

BM: So his advice was very helpful then, and that’s the parallel. It tells me that you were really tapping into the Zeitgeist if you’re able think of something for your novel that was actually being proved during the time you were writing. Do you think that maybe there was something subconscious on your part, having studied mathematics in the past, that some part of your brain knew this might happen?

PS: Possibly. Still it’s a pretty uncanny coincidence. It could easily have taken another 10, 50 or even 100 years for Fermat’s Last Theorem to be proved, given the complexity of the reasoning involved.

BM: Moving on to another topic, how would you describe your writing style in general? Do you have one style you’ve used for all four novels or do you have different styles?

PS: Of course the style varies depending on the theme and the main character and on whether it’s first person or third person, but I do think there are a number of features common to all my novels. Clarity is one thing I always strive for. I like to be clear and concise – to keep things simple and to avoid literary frills. I also strive for a certain light-footedness, even when dealing with serious topics. I don’t want to appear heavy-handed. That’s what I don’t like about a lot of philosophical passages in novels: they are too heavy and serious.

BM: Now one thing I observed in Daalder’s Chocolates is what I would call a type of commuter chapter that I think (E. M.) Forster used in his novel, Maurice.  A chapter that you can read in 20 or 25 minutes before it’s time to disembark at the next station. Now, did you consciously write these chapters that way?

PS: Oh, yes, definitely. Joop Daalder is a chocolate maker, so I wanted to make the chapters bite-sized, like little chocolates. That was the idea.

BM: Because that’s very different than how you wrote about things in The Wild Numbers. And then when you look at De vrouw van de filosoof, you alternate your narration from chapter to chapter from present to past tense. So was that also conscious, the alternation of the narrative tenses each chapter?

PS: Yes, now that you mention it. It was.
BM: And your use of the five senses – especially the gustatory – I felt was very well done in Daalder’s Chocolates. Did you work at that consciously also?

PS: In Daalder’s Chocolates the senses play a prominent role, in sharp contrast to The Wild Numbers. I kept the style in that novel as stark and as austere as possible because of the theme. Mathematics is a pure and abstract world, so I kept the sensory details to an absolute minimum. And when they do occur, they really jump out at you. Maybe I wrote Daalder’s Chocolates in response to The Wild Numbers. After the abstract world of mathematics, it was time for the sensory world of chocolate making. It was almost like opening a door and letting all the senses back in.

BM: How would you describe your writing process, your ritual or your scheme? When do you write, how often do you write, and for how long?

PS: Painful questions.

[Laughter].

I try to write every day, at least five days a week. I like to start early in the morning when I’ve made everybody’s sandwiches and the kids are off to school. Mornings are my best time to work. Usually, after about four hours, I’ll begin to go around in circles in my head. A few hours later, I’ll decide that whatever I have achieved that day isn’t really worth much and that maybe the whole idea for the novel is pure garbage: a sure sign it’s time to do the groceries and prepare dinner. The next morning, when I’ve reread what I did the previous day, I’ll think: ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad after all,’ and I’ll pick up the thread again. That’s basically the rhythm of my daily writing.

BM: So basically, you’ve got about four good hours in the morning.

PS: If I’m lucky. As for the remaining hours, I might as well be doing something else.

BM: How difficult is it to begin something new? For example, how long did it take you to start any one of these novels, to get the main idea?

PS: People often say that the second novel is the most difficult one to write, and this certainly applied to me. The period following the publication of The Wild Numbers was like an emotional rollercoaster: good reviews, bad reviews, and excruciating silences in between, along with various potential foreign rights deals that either did or didn’t materialize. I couldn’t find the peace of mind needed to come up with a new plan. Since then I’ve made it a point to work on at least some sort of an idea, no matter how rudimentary, during the quiet months between the final editing of a manuscript and the publication of the novel, so that when all hell breaks loose (or not enough hell breaks loose), I’ll have something to fall back on.

BM: And how do you start then?

PS: I start out by taking notes, endless notes, of all the miscellaneous images, half-baked themes and ideas for characters that are floating around in my brain. Most of them are completely useless. But there will always be a few that refuse to be silenced and keep nagging at me for attention. These surviving bits and pieces form the basis for the next novel. It might be a character, or a location, perhaps. The idea for Daalder’s Chocolates, for instance, started out with an image of a Canadian lake. That had to be in the book for some reason.

BM: And funnily enough, it comes in towards the end.

PS: While many of the other elements that I started out with disappeared completely. Originally the main character was an art conservator with two sons, and there was going to be a fight over the inheritance.

BM: So you don’t plot everything out in your novels ahead of time – Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc.

PS: Well, I do make a framework. And I spend a lot of time on that. It often takes me about a year of arranging and rearranging all the components before the framework is strong enough to allow me to start on page one and to know what I’m doing.

BM: How much do you need to revise once you’ve written a chapter?

PS: Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.

[Laughter].

BM: So there’s never a time when you’re feeling directly connected one day and you write a chapter down and then you just say: “Oh, I’ll just take a comma out or put one in here” and that’s it.

PS: No, no, no, no. If only.

BM: So what you start with as a first draft is very different than what your final draft looks like?

PS: Yes.

BM: And what do revise the most?

PS: Right down to the minutest details; words especially. The plot line … well, of course it’s all interrelated, but the plotline is usually OK after a while.

BM: But what are some of these minutest details you’re talking about? What would be a good example of that?

PS: I don’t know if I can come up with a concrete example. But writers are always talking about getting the voice of a novel right, and that can depend on such tiny, tiny details. Such and such a character will never say such and such a thing in such and such a way. To get the character, the shape of the character just right, and get his use of language just right, takes me forever. And there are a lot of darlings to kill along the way.

BM: What are some of these darlings that you kill then?

PS: Often they’re metaphors. When I spend hours refining an image, but it still won’t fit into the narrative, that’s usually a sign that I’m dealing with a darling.

BM: Changing the topic a bit, why have your last two novels only been published in Dutch?

PS: Actually, The Philosopher’s Wife was translated into Italian. But apart from that, my last two novels have not been picked up by the international market. It’s a good question. The financial crisis is one reason. Publishers are not as willing to buy foreign authors as they were about ten years ago. The German market for Dutch literature fell apart even before that, which was too bad, because Daalder’s Chocolates had done really well there. In North America, on the other hand, Daalder didn’t do nearly as well as The Wild Numbers, so that made it difficult to sell my third novel there. Also, as I think you mentioned, the setting of De vrouw van de filosoof might be too typically Amsterdam.

BM: Actually I think you mentioned that, but yes, it is very Amsterdam and very Dutch also, with the characters going out to the dunes by Zandvoort or Bloemendaal.

PS: Then again, that need not be an issue – a distinctly local flavour can also spark the interest of foreign readers, so it’s hard to tell. As for Beste reiziger, my agent was saying that the book is not the problem, but the times. Publishers are looking for spectacle, blood, gore, that sort of stuff. There’s not enough of that in Beste reiziger.

BM: So you’re in the typical dilemma of not enough car crashes and homicides in your novels then?

PS: Actually, the main characters in Beste reiziger drive past a pretty good car crash. But I guess that wasn’t enough.

BM: What are you working on at this moment?

PS: A pretty ambitious project. I am writing two novels, one in English and one in Dutch, featuring the same theme, the same problems, the same characters, but viewed from a slightly different perspective.

BM: And how far along are you with this new project?

PS: That’s hard to say. In my head, quite far, I’d like to think. But on paper I have yet to produce a satisfactory first chapter, in both the English and the Dutch versions. It’s taking me forever, as usual.

BM: Could you tell me a little bit about the theme or the setting of this new novel?

PS: The main character is a literary translator, English to Dutch. He’s 67 years old and quietly settling into a happy retirement when he gets one final assignment: the translation of a highly controversial American novel. Of course, this is when the trouble begins.

BM: It’s sound like a very interesting project, especially if it’s written in two different languages and from two different perspectives. It sounds like something my readers would definitely be interested in reading, people who are able to read books in Dutch and in English and who are aware of Dutch and English cultures.

PS: Yes, people who can read both languages will be at an advantage. But who knows, maybe some day both versions might be translated into the other language.

BM: So there would be four texts instead of two. That’s sounds very interesting and unique. I’m looking forward to reading it. Thank you for your time and good luck.