Interview from Narrative Magazine with Lacy Crawford
Adobe Acrobat Document 208.5 KB



ALAN ZIEGLERS OFFICE, reached through the

busy headquarters of Columbia University’s legendary

graduate programs in writing, opens via

enormous two-story windows onto a scene of

university grandeur: the central plaza of the main

campus, with the halls of art

history and philosophy across the

way, and the long procession of

steps up to Low Memorial Library glowing granite

and cold. On the November afternoon I met

him, the formality of the view suggested a certain

gravitas, a hush.

But inside Ziegler’s office, every surface is

covered with stuff. The space houses several

collections: fountain pens in special stands, a row

of tiny model typewriters, photographs Ziegler took

on holiday in Tuscany, various figurines, the silver

clerk’s bell that belonged to his father when he

worked in a motel, books. It is a tinkerer’s space,

a workshop in the craftsman’s sense. Often, as he

spoke, Ziegler got up from his chair and rummaged

around the room, looking for objects related to his

stories, pulling books from the shelves, ringing the

clerk’s bell.

The office wall opposite the high windows is

covered top to bottom in framed photographs, with

Alan Ziegler


by Lacy Crawford

Alan Ziegler was born

in 1947 in Brooklyn and

began his writing career

working on his high

school newspaper. After

graduating from Union

College in Schenectady

in 1969, he worked as a

journalist and a

machine operator

before pursuing an MA

in poetry at CUNY. In

1974 he accepted an

offer to teach in a

public school, and so

began a career that

led to fourteen years

teaching grade-school

children with the

Teachers & Writers

Collaborative and

twenty-three years

working with undergraduates

and graduate

students at Columbia

University, where since

2001 he has been chair

of the Writing Division in

the School of the Arts.

Ziegler is the author of

two books on teaching

writing, The Writer’s

Workshop, volumes 1

and 2; two collections of

poetry, Planning Escape

and So Much to Do; a

collection of short

stories, The Green Grass

of Flatbush; and a

collection of prose

poems, The Swan Song

of Vaudeville. He is at

work on a book about

writing—which will be

published by Soft Skull

Press in 2007—as

well as a memoir, 99

Stories, an excerpt of

which appears in

Narrative. Ziegler lives

in Manhattan with his

wife, Erin Langston.

the notable exception of one small tacked-up print, placed high and to the left, at

the heart of the display: Courbet’s 1848 portrait of Baudelaire. The young poet is

bent over an open book, one hand braced on cushions in the foreground, the quill in

its well. It is a rich and solemn image. Ziegler has surrounded the print on all sides

with a wide array of elegantly matted and framed, vivid portraits of a small dachshund.

This is his dog, Latte, and she is well loved. Ziegler has pictures of Latte the way

other people have pictures of animals on safari: Latte running across an open field,

ears aloft, sun streaming; Latte in close-up, sniffing the wind; Latte in repose. The

author of Les Fleurs du Mal is almost, but not quite, lost in the display.

As a writer, Ziegler has published journalism, profiles, poems, and short stories,

but across genres his work turns on the whimsical, the much-loved, the observer’s

eye at play. In his introduction to Ziegler’s collection of prose poems, The Swan

Song of Vaudeville, Richard Howard writes, “One reason I know that Ziegler’s

performances are poems is that the language, the voice has been altogether honed

to memorable speech, Auden’s working title for modern poetry.” Ziegler has recently

settled on short prose poems—which in their brevity and novelty can be, as Howard

suggests, thought of as performances—as his ideal form.

Ziegler’s career as a writer, however, has been somewhat secondary to his

career as a teacher of writers. One year out of graduate school, when he was first

publishing his own poems, Ziegler began teaching elementary-school children with

the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. He has been in the classroom at one level or

another ever since. His current post could not, in some senses, be farther from the

PS classroom. For the last five years, he has been chair of the Writing Division in

the School of the Arts at Columbia, overseeing the MFA programs in writing. It is a

powerhouse division with perhaps the most illustrious stable of instructors of any

writing program in the world.

When Ziegler steps down this summer, he will assume the title of Director of

Pedagogy and Teacher Training, a position that has grown out of his contributions

to the program during his years at Columbia. Part of his goal has been to train writers

as teachers. Ziegler has provided MFA students with bankable skills, never a bad

thing for an artist to possess. He has done so in spite of the mythology surrounding

MFA programs: the idea that writing is an inscrutable mystery, that one has talent

or not, and that the knowledge that permits good writing is nontransferable.

As an administrator and teacher, Ziegler has a light touch, borne out in his writing

about teaching. Writing is accessible to every student: “There is perhaps no art for

which the normal person is better equipped.” With children, he is acknowledged as

an especially gifted teacher, and he draws from them sophisticated poetry. He is

willing to encounter the world with them, to observe, describe, reflect, imagine, as

much as he does with older writers. A graduate fiction-writing student at Columbia

smiled to think of him. “Ziegler?” she said. “He’s like sugar.”





He speaks of his own experience of writing as if it were play. He tips back in his chair

when he talks. He digresses. He laughs. He has clear, mischievous blue eyes. Whereas many

teachers approach writing workshops with the belief that students are in the service of

literature, Ziegler gives the sense that literature is in the service of students. There is only

this life, he seems to say, and writing is one thing that people do, and isn’t that fantastic?


You were first introduced to writing by an elementary-school teacher who assigned you to

the school newspaper because you didn’t have the voice for chorus. Do you remember

learning to write, what appealed to you then?


Going back to high school, Crime and Punishment, Moby-Dick, and, of course, Shakespeare,

went simultaneously to my head and my gut (much like Picasso’s Guernica, which I visited

frequently at the Museum of Modern Art). But I was transformed into someone who wanted

to write through the lyrics of singer-songwriters—early Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric

Andersen, Richard Fariña, Leonard Cohen. They were a half-generation older than I was,

playing gigs in Greenwich Village, making albums, and my dream was to follow in their

footsteps. As you noted, the problem was that I couldn’t sing. But I collaborated on songs

with a folksinger in college, and I played backup guitar for him until he moved to the

Village, when I was replaced by a real musician; I did get to hear my lyrics performed

around the Village, including at the Gaslight (one of Dylan’s early places). My partner didn’t

get a recording contract, so my career as a lyricist was the equivalent of a poet doing readings

but never getting a book. But the writing totally captivated me. And there was journalism,

too—I was editor of the high-school newspaper and in college was features editor and a

columnist for the school paper, and I also co-edited an underground magazine called

The Paper Highway. This was a tumultuous time; I began Union College in staid 1965, and

by 1970 (when I graduated), the antiwar movement was in full bloom, and my political

journalism was inseparable from my role as a campus activist. I was reading the likes of

Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, and I also wrote about social issues. As a “big” social

step forward, Union—an all-male school—decided to let us have females in our rooms, but

only until 2 a.m. So I wrote a piece for the newspaper saying that the school was not only

tolerating “screw ’em and leave ’em,” but enforcing it; I made my points through vignettes

rather than polemics. (My lead was sophomoric but attention getting: “Insensitivity at

Union stood out last night like an erection in the gym shower.”) I was shocked by the reaction

to the piece. The All-College Council censured the newspaper for publishing it, and the

newspaper was besieged with letters to the editor, the shortest being: “Ziegler: Just who do

you think you are?” (a question I’ve never stopped asking myself ). An English professor,

Sam Ullman, defended me by writing that if I had used “the embalming fluid of journalism,”



no one would have noticed the article, adding, sarcastically, that “metaphor menaces and

must be shunned.” So I got a taste of the power of figurative language. Though I was writing

songs, I was really intimidated by poetry. I considered poetry to be at the top of the pantheon

of literature, and I just wasn’t ready to reach for it yet. I was comfortable on the

lower perches of journalism and songwriting.


A particularly nasty comment about your poems was made by an editor of the college

literary magazine when you were a sophomore—“I don’t like word games.” The comment

caused you to stop writing for two years.


Yeah. Looking back, it was probably a good thing, because I didn’t stop writing, I just

stopped writing poetry. I put everything into the journalism and songs. Songwriting

allowed me to explore imagery and emotions and narrative with a boost from the music.

By working within the confines of rhyme and meter—which none of the campus poets were

doing in those days—I had to pay very careful attention to each word. You go to the coffee

house, you perform your songs, they applaud; they don’t sit around a table and pick you

apart. You publish something in the newspaper, maybe someone writes an angry letter,

but no one is going to analyze your writing. I needed that room: I needed to be reading,

and I needed to be earning my chops. In my senior year I took a class in modern poetry

with Jocelyn Harvey, who introduced (or reintroduced) me to William Carlos Williams,

Ezra Pound, H. D., Amy Lowell—and I was fortunate to read them under the guidance of

someone who truly loved poetry and who knew what she was talking about. I got very

excited about their work. I did a paper comparing such songwriters as Joni Mitchell to the

imagist poets. So, when I started writing poetry again, in my last semester in college, I was

more confident, and I had a better sense of what I wanted to work toward. By then I needed

to break free of the formal confines of the song. I loved that a poem could be just a couple

of lines, like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.”


Was it completely different work from the poems you had been writing earlier?


Yes, it was. I wasn’t trying to impress anybody. I wasn’t trying to be literary. I had given up

on being the Campus Poet (I already had the title of Campus Activist). And I didn’t feel I

needed “word games.” I felt simply there were things I wanted to write, and I had role models

for writing them. The key moment came when I took my new poems to a young, hip

English professor, who had offered to read them. He said some nice things to me, and then,

as I was walking out the door of his office, he said, “I just want you to know that they’re not



good poems. Not these. But you can become a good poet.” That was the most invigorating

thing anyone ever said to me about my work. He was confirming that I

could be a poet and, implicitly, giving me permission to carry on. That’s the kind of

comment which, as a teacher, you hope to make for your students, a comment to

move them forward without negating where they are; to push, but not so hard

that they stumble. Another example is something that was said to me in graduate

school. I had majored in psychology in college, so I didn’t have a strong literature

background. Leo Hamalian, the chair of the writing program, said something

about Yeats, and I confessed that I hadn’t really read Yeats, except for the stuff in

anthologies. And he said, “I envy you.” It’s like the experience of seeing people walk

into a wonderful restaurant that you are leaving, and you think: I envy you for the

meal you have in front of you. And there I was, starving for literature, and he said,

in effect, Try the Yeats!


How did you spend the time between college and the MA program at City College of

New York?


It was three years. I started out working for a newspaper, and then I became a

machine operator, and I started taking poetry workshops.


Machine operator?


In the early days of computers, these big reports would be printed on huge rolls of

paper in five carbons, with these crazy, flimsy holes on the sides, and the copies had

to be separated and the carbons thrown away. I worked a mean machine called a

decollator that separated the copies into piles; my job was to feed the reports into

the machine and control the speed. Too slow, and it took forever to complete; too

quick, and the machine would jam, and it would take an hour to rethread it and sort

out the frazzled copies. I kept pushing the envelope and regretting it. My shift was

generally 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday was the big shift: I’d come in Sunday night and

leave in the late afternoon on Monday.


Did you write in your head during those nights?


Oh, yes. Some of my earliest poems were written that way. Usually I had a workshop

on Tuesday night (I studied with David Ignatow and Michael Goldman at the 92nd

Street Y), so all Sunday night I’d be thinking about what I wanted to turn in. I

remember one: The office was on the west side of Manhattan, and it had windows

on three sides. I tried to watch the sunrise at each of the exposures, and I wrote a

poem about it. I remember the joy of writing it in my head simultaneously with the

actual experience of running from room to room, knowing that I had a workshop to

bring it to.


How did you find your way to the MA program at City?


After I retired from decollating, I took a job as an editor at a place called the

Environment Information Center, which published a magazine called Access. It

wasn’t real journalism. Though I did some reviews of films about environmental

issues, mostly I wrote abstracts of articles on the environment that I didn’t fully

understand. By that time I had begun publishing my poems in little magazines,

including one called Connections. The editor invited me to dinner, and her husband

was the deputy chair of the English Department at Bronx Community College

(which, like City College, is part of the City University of New York). He liked my

work, and he said, Why don’t you come teach for me? You have a master’s, don’t

you? I said that I didn’t. He said, Get one. So that brings me back to the confidence

issue, my need for permission in those days. I was spurred to keep writing poems by

that professor in college, and my decision to apply to graduate school was jumpstarted

by this offer of a teaching job.

I applied to Columbia and to City College (narrowing my choices to schools

between 116th and 137th Streets). Columbia was way too expensive, and City

College offered me full tuition and some additional money. Still, I was undecided

until my father called me and said that he had heard on the radio that Kurt

Vonnegut was going to be at City College. I withdrew my application to Columbia

and went to City. The chairman at Columbia wrote me a note lamenting that

Columbia was losing good writers because of money; I’ve written that same note

many times in the last few years. When I got to City College, I learned that I wouldn’t

be able to study with Vonnegut because I’d been accepted as a poet. So I did what

students here at Columbia try to do all the time—and I’m the one who has to say no,

they can’t—I went to the head of the program and asked to take Vonnegut’s fiction

workshop. And he said that as long as my thesis was poetry, he would let me do it.

I also did an independent study with William Burroughs, who came for a semester.






What was it like to study with Vonnegut?


The class met once on campus, and then he said, Let’s meet at my place. So we met

there—a townhouse on the East Side—but the class wasn’t going well for him, and

around the middle of the term he disbanded the workshop and kept some of us on

as tutorials.


The workshop wasn’t going well?


I think he was just too kind. He mentioned to me how one woman kept introducing

new characters in her novel, which Kurt described as: “So, you’ve met all my friends,

now let me introduce you to some more.” I went to his house every week or two, and

we talked about my work. When the term ended, I called him to arrange a meeting

about some new work. His wife answered and she said, The term is over. I told her

he’d said that I could call. Kurt picked up, and she said, It’s one of your students.

He asked which one. And when I said my name, he said, “Oh, it’s OK.” I had the

sense, in that moment, that he wasn’t just doing his job, but that what we were doing

together was part of his literary life. I felt like we had gone beyond the contractual

relationship, and that felt good. Many years later I sent him the galleys for a collection

of stories (The Green Grass of Flatbush) and asked for a blurb. He prefaced his

blurb with “I am honored to have known you.” As I said, he is a very kind man.


What were you working on, leaving graduate school? I know you and some friends

published a literary magazine, among other things.


Right. Larry Zirlin and Harry Greenberg were two poets I had met in David

Ignatow’s workshop. We started a magazine together, Some, and a press, Release

Press. We published ten issues of the magazine and fifteen books, over a period of

eleven years. You know the joke, that literary magazines’ lives are measured in dog

years, so Some/Release Press had a relatively long and fruitful life.


Why was the magazine called Some?


We were very young. One of my coeditors was still in college, and the other one had

just gotten out when we started. We were beginning to publish our own work, and

the precursor to the magazine was an informal publication of a few people in our

workshop. We wanted the least pretentious title, and we came up with Some Poetry.

Later, when we decided to launch it as a real magazine, the night before we went to

press we thought (correctly) that we might someday want to publish works other

than poetry, so we decided to call it just Some. And the press name is a pun on press

release, of course.


It was during this time that you published Sleeping Obsessions, a collection of

poems written collaboratively, under the nom de plume “Mercy Bona.” How did

that come about?


Quite organically. Larry and Harry and I would get together, as editors do, to read

manuscripts and make decisions and talk about layout and things like that. We were

also friends, and we would see each other socially, and sometimes it was hard to

distinguish between a working session and a social evening. We usually met in my

apartment, and I had an IBM Selectric typewriter. Occasionally, one of us would

drift away from the conversation and type a couple of lines and then return, and

then someone else would go and sit down and add some lines, and so on until one

of us declared the poem finished. The only rule was that when you finished your

segment you’d tap the typewriter case and get up and walk away.


Were there bottles of wine involved in all this?


No, we weren’t big drinkers, nor were there drugs. We just wrote the poems. And

when we’d finished a bunch of them, we decided we wanted to send them out, and

at that point it felt awkward to send out our own work since we knew so many other

magazine editors. So we came up with a pen name for the collaborations. Harry had

written a poem called “Ode to Mercy Bona” (someone he had gone to high school

with), and we three became one Mercy.


Did you clear it with her before you started publishing?






No—we were naive not to think anyone would actually notice the book. We heard

she was not happy when the book came out, and we regretted appropriating her

name. Those who blurbed the book—Russell Edson, James Tate, and Terry Stokes—

were in on the joke: “Where has Mercy Bona been all this time?”


Were you in some way thumbing your noses at some of the dynamics of publishing,

particularly of publishing poetry?


No, we were just having a ball. We liked “Mercy’s” poetry, and any sting of rejection

was spread among three of us. We even did a few readings of Mercy’s work, at which

we would come out and say that Mercy Bona couldn’t be present but that we were

Mercy’s literary executors. We did one reading where Jerry Leichtling (now a

screenwriter) read an excerpt from his “dissertation” on Mercy Bona, and the line

I remember is: “Her work is in the tradition of Malraux, Mallarmé, and Malanga.”

So it was fun. A few years ago I saw a catalog of rare books, and it had a listing for

Sleeping Obsessions with a note that “rumor has it that Mercy Bona was three men

from Brooklyn.” Not true, but close.


I think when a workshop is really working best, it comes close to a collaborative.

Not in the sense that anyone is writing anyone else’s work, although a terrific editor

might add a line or two here or there. In the sense that there is a real collaborative

spirit about the work.


Absolutely. You invite others to pitch in during the revising and editing phases of

the work. But you remain the writer of first resort and the editor of last resort.


And it was about that time—right out of graduate school, 1974—that you began to



I had a brief writers-in-the-schools experience while I was still in graduate school.

And when I came out of the program at City, the professor at Bronx Community

College who had suggested I pursue the MA followed through and did hire me to

teach composition and literature. Teaching was an extension of my editing as much

as it was of my writing—another opportunity to be engaged in someone else’s work,

but without the pressure of public display as the payoff.


How did you come to teach children?


At that time, in the early ’70s, the poet and teacher Kenneth Koch was doing wonderful

work with children for, among other places, the Teachers & Writers

Collaborative, which began in 1967. By 1973 he had published two books about this

work—Wishes, Lies, and Dreams and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Others at

Teachers & Writers included Ron Padgett (who had worked with Koch), Bill

Zavatsky, and Phillip Lopate, and Teachers & Writers was putting out publications

that carried their work far beyond the classroom walls. Many writers I admired

were teaching in the schools. I was extremely intimidated by this. I mean, it had

never occurred to me that I could go into a school and get kids to write—adults,

sure, but children? That was a scary prospect. Stuart Millstein was a classmate in

graduate school who ran a poets-in-the-schools program in Brooklyn; another poet

in that program had signed on to teach six sessions and then quit after two, so he

needed someone to finish. I don’t know why Stuart chose me. Maybe he liked the

way I talked in workshop. It was four sessions, fifty bucks a shot, which was decent

money. I said to myself, Okay, if I don’t do this, I’m really a coward.


I don’t think many writers in that position would say, If I don’t take this job teaching

poetry in an elementary school, I’m a coward.


Well, I wanted to do it, someone asked me to do it, they were going to pay me to do

it, and I felt it took courage to do it—for me that added up to being cowardly not to

do it. So I went and observed a class of Stuart’s (a wonderful teacher who tragically

died a few years later), and I read a lot of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative stuff

to prepare, and I did it.


Do you remember that first class?


The experience was chaotic—I couldn’t quite distinguish whether the kids were

excited about poetry or running amuck because they looked at me and thought, this


1 0


1 1

guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. I remember feeling a bit shaken and disappointed

in myself when I got home. After a nap, I read what the kids had written and I was

practically giggling with joy. I remember thinking, Wouldn’t it be something if I

could make a living and a life out of this kind of work? The next week, when I

walked in, the kids applauded. They were like, “The poet’s back!” I was hooked.

After that, my mother helped me get a residency as a poet-in-the-school at the

elementary school where I had gone and where my much younger brother was a

student. She mentioned to a teacher what I was doing, and it just so happened

they were looking to bring in a poet. I wound up starting a program for the whole

school district. Also, I was hired by Teachers & Writers, and I worked with them

for fourteen years.


How did you learn to teach?


I started using some exercises other people had done, but this was unsatisfying

for me. Teaching was almost as much of my creative life as writing, and teaching

someone else’s exercises felt like using someone’s ideas for poems. So I developed

exercises and methods of my own, building on the influence of my colleagues. For

me, teaching was not only close to writing, it was writing: I’d think of assignments,

write first drafts, rethink, revise, try them out, change them and, eventually, publish

them with Teachers & Writers.


That strikes me as unique. Other writers have spoken about having to split their

minds, their lives, in order to write and to teach successfully; it’s often said that

teaching takes away from the writing.


The energy fed my poetry and, when I wasn’t working on a poem, I wrote about

teaching, and I had an audience: Other writers and classroom teachers were trying my

exercises and approaches in their classes. Yes, sometimes having to teach wrenched

me away from my writing, but don’t all jobs? What does driving a cab do for your

writing? What does selling stocks do? If you’re rich, OK, that’s fine: stay home and

write. Anything one has to do to make a living affects the writing. For me, having a

schedule less oppressive than nine-to-five, and being paid to be in a room talking

about poetry and stories, was a good fit for my writing. It was much more invigorating

than the job I’d had abstracting those environmental articles—after pounding out so

many words each day, it was hard to sit down in front of the typewriter.


I think you approached teaching from a creative, imaginative, and generative place,

rather than an editorial one.


Yes, the editorial part of it came later, when I started teaching college workshops.

But for writers-in-the-school work that’s the key word: generative. I was constantly

thinking about generating words—my own and those of my students.


Some writers grow frustrated reading large amounts of student writing, because it

makes it more difficult to advance their own voice, to reach the quality of work in

their own writing that they are hoping to achieve.


Of course, great writers can inspire, but they can also intimidate. Yes, some of your

students’ pieces will be enervating, and there are times when you throw up your

hands in surrender—but, again, if you’re the writer who drives a taxi by day, there

are days when the traffic is bad, the radiator doesn’t work, and your passengers

keep bending your ears with less-than-inspiring language.


In addition to the potential frustration of having to read piles of student work,

there’s a sense among some writing teachers that having to extrovert the process of

writing in order to teach it jeopardizes their own process. There’s a resistance to an

analytical approach to writing, and there’s a sometimes ferocious need to defend

the gates of the mystery.


I do think it is a danger to teach writing as a procedure rather than a process. You

can demystify the process quite a bit and still have plenty of mystery left over. All

who wish to join me at the gates of the mystery are welcome. That word, gates,

makes me think of a hugely discouraging thing I heard in college. John Malcolm

Brinnin, the poet and biographer who was famous for bringing Dylan Thomas to

America, and who was teaching in the writing program at Boston University at

the time, gave a lecture, and some of us had lunch with him. One of the Union

professors asked him, How’s your class at Boston? And Brinnin replied, “Well, you

know, out of the twelve, there’s maybe one with real talent.” And I think that kind of

attitude is just . . . well, for me, talent is not the only relevant question. If there are

twelve students in my classroom, my job is to help twelve people do the best work


1 2


1 3

they can. Now, to be fair to Brinnin, maybe this attitude did not seep into his teaching,

but I don’t stop to divide students in such a binary fashion—talent/no talent.

I work with them as students, as people, and I work with their work, and in that

room I am not the guardian of Literature. It’s not going to be the worst thing in the

world if someone gets through a writing program and goes out there without having

the kind of talent that I think someone might need in order to make a life as a writer.

I don’t look at it that way, for a number of reasons, one of which is that I could very

well be wrong. Some writers grow in unexpected leaps and bounds (sometimes after

they’ve left the program). If a student isn’t working at a high level, maybe we can

help something change. We’re teachers. Maybe we can tap into something, perhaps

the student has just been looking in the wrong direction, hasn’t found a voice.

When you’re dealing with an MFA program—as I do now—we do have to make

our best judgments on talent and potential when we read applications. We get

hundreds and hundreds of applications, and we make decisions, and yes, we decide

who gets to walk through Columbia’s gates; we don’t choose students by lottery.

But when students do come into our program, we have determined that they are

going to be our colleagues for two years, and the idea that I as a teacher would do

anything other than help those colleagues become as strong and interesting as

writers as they can be is irresponsible. In some ways, the best teaching you can do is

with those students who aren’t as obviously talented. There’s a winnowing process

in the marketplace out there—agents, editors, publishers—I don’t have to separate

anyone from the pack in my classroom.

I’m not saying that you have to love everyone in the classroom, but you have

to teach as if you do. You don’t coddle—you have to give more than just praise—

but you want them to feel at least a modicum of safety in what is a very unsafe

endeavor. There are all sorts of dangers in writing. You’re dealing with constant

judgment and the ever-present possibility of failure, you’re dealing with indifference,

you’re dealing with rejection, so we in the classroom should risk erring on the

side of opening arms rather than closing gates. The most crucial thing you want

your students to leave you with is momentum—maybe they’ll be able to run right

through those gates.


You’ve written about talent in The Writing Workshop: “No one knows exactly what

talent is. . . . The writing teacher should nurture spirit as well as develop skills. Like

muscles, imagination and emotional capacity develop with use.” I think talent is a

word and a concept often used as a means to handle the mystery of success and

failure in writing; it’s an easy thing to point to, more often than not in hindsight,

to explain the progress of people over time. And when the mystery so often takes

the shape of defeat, especially for students, lack of talent is an easy, and perhaps the

least painful, explanation for failure. But the way you approach teaching writing

isn’t on the talent-based model; you work with a much more democratic spirit.

That’s unusual.


When they put talent into a pill, then the teacher can just double the dosage if a

student is lagging. Meanwhile, encouragement can do wonders. A totally off-thewall

comparison: I wasn’t the greatest athlete in the world as a kid, but I was picked

as the cocaptain of a team, and the coach had us do pull-ups. Everyone was watching

me, and I did three times more than I had ever done; being named cocaptain had

led to a visit by the muscle muse. There’s a wonderful James Tate poem called

“Teaching the Ape to Write Poems.” They strap the ape into a chair with a pencil

tied around his hand, and they whisper into his ear: “You look like a god sitting

there. Why don’t you try writing something?”


The idea that creativity is intrinsic to everyone, and that it can be drawn out, and

that talent is largely irrelevant, has become a popular, new age fascination.


I don’t think talent is irrelevant; it’s just that I may see it differently. There are

people who have more innate ability, and there are people who can do more with

less. Some writers grind it out, and others make sparks right away. My point is

that in the classroom the focus isn’t on getting your books published and winning

awards. We’re talking about doing it. Writing. The main impediment to writing is

simply not doing it. The evidence I have is from many years working in the

schools, where a high percentage of kids were writing things that I found extraordinary.

I remember one poem by a high-school student with the line “You and I

make a triangle with the moon.” If I hadn’t gone into her class and done what I

did that day, that line might not have been written. Whenever I’d show professional

writers the anthologies that I put together of my Teachers & Writers

students, they were knocked out. I had one student, Gerry Pearlberg, who has

gone on to be a publishing poet; she started in my after-school poetry class in the

eighth grade. She showed her English teacher some of the work she had done

with me, and the teacher replied, “You’re not this talented.” I don’t think I

“taught” Gerry to write, but I did create a felicitous environment (including

comments, readings, and so on), and she wrote these incredible, imaginative

poems, and people realized this was one very talented writer.


1 4


1 5


Some of the exercises you’ve designed are meant to get children simply putting

words on the page. A fair number of them are almost goofy. But the utility of these

exercises might not be limited to children. In an essay about teaching writing at the

graduate level, Lynn Freed commented that a writer must have not only a story to

tell but also a story that must be told. In other words, if you’re not burning to tell

your story, you should give it up; if you set the alarm, get up at 5 a.m., sit there, and

find you have nothing to write, then that’s your answer.


Sometimes we write because there are these stories we must tell and sometimes

because we must tell stories. Or both. Students say to me, I don’t have a story, and I

say, Yes, you do, and we can find it if you want to tell a story.


Maybe that speaks to the phony distinction you’ve noted between writing and being

a writer. And also to Hayden Carruth’s statement that “writing is a way of being in

the world.”


I love that quote. Why do we dream when we’re asleep? Our minds need to make

images, process experience, tell stories. If the mind can do that on its own, think

how much better it can be when we’re awake and we set our mind to do it. I’ve been

thinking a lot about memory lately because I’m working on this book-length

sequence, 99 Stories Based on a True Life. There were years in my life when I kept

journals, and many more years when I didn’t, and for the years I did, I have access

now to all sorts of things, because I took the time to put them into language. But in

some ways I am more interested in times for which there is no documentation—

when language meets memory without an intermediary. Writing is not only a way of

“being in the world,” it’s a way of extending our opportunity to process—or create—


And I say somewhat flippantly, but not completely so, that I had a girlfriendmuse

many years ago. We saw each other for about two years. For six months it was

great, for another year and a half it was misery and heartbreak and betrayal, and in

that time I wrote some of the best poems of my life to that point. When we were

breaking up, she said, I make you unhappy and I don’t want to do that anymore. And

I said, Please don’t go, I’m writing this incredible stuff! I was not only able to ease the

pain, but I could turn it into something satisfying and career-advancing to boot—

a way of being successful in the world. There’s a poem by Bill Knott that I think sums

it up in a way that cannot be put into words except by the poem itself:

The only response

To a child’s grave is

To lie down before it and play dead

That is Knott’s only response—not necessarily to do that, but to do it with language.

To be able to write that poem—and for us to be able to read it—is a way of being in

the world.


Many writers talk about the horrible uncertainty of writing, the proverbial blank

page, whereas you describe uncertainty as luscious.


The poet Gerald Stern once made me happy when, after reading a book of my poetry,

he said there was one he particularly liked because “I got the idea you didn’t know

what the hell you were doing.” I remembered writing the poem and, indeed, I didn’t

know what I was doing—but I loved doing it. Even in a lost state, you can write

something decent. Even if you don’t know where you’re headed you may wind up

someplace readers will want to visit.


In your books about teaching, you write about how inventive poetry allows the

students freedom from meaning-making. And meaningfulness is where the reader’s

desires are taken into account. One thing that students often have to learn is that

there is someone else in the transaction whose desires must be considered, so very

often the job of teaching writing is to bring to light the needs and wants of the reader.

But you validate the first half of that stretch, the sheer pleasure of writing for the

writer. Not even for the writer as reader; just as writer. That must be a gift to

students, particularly children.


There’s that book, How Does a Poem Mean? The flip answer is, If I could tell you,

I wouldn’t have written the damn poem. But poems and stories do have meaning,

and the irony is that a lot of times students come up with something meaningful

when they stop worrying about making meaning. Because often what they’ve

thought of as meaning—you know, the way “the three causes of the civil war” has

meaning—is about really just trying to mean something for the teacher. Many of

the exercises I’ve developed are devices to allow students to arrive at meaning in

a different way. And for them to appreciate that the sheer beauty—or terror—of

language has meaning, in the way a Rothko painting has meaning.


1 6


1 7


Meaningfulness perhaps takes a backseat to something like truth. You’ve written

that “a major concern in teaching is the marriage of language to emotional, experiential,

and imaginative impulses. There can be no illegitimate offspring.” That there

can be no illegitimate offspring: Is that a wish, or is that a fact?


Well, there are no illegitimate offspring, but some kids are better than others!

There’s the attitude of teachers who say, This is not a poem, this is not a story, you

can’t do this or that. But I think that everything that everyone writes has its own

legitimacy. That doesn’t necessarily mean that just because a piece is strange or

different it’s going to be good. Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast, refers to paintings

that he “did not understand but they did not have any mystery.” Part of what

writers discover in workshops is how their work connects with others. But we get

back to the point that responding to or judging individual pieces of writing against

an absolute aesthetic scale is not the best kind of teaching. Teachers often make the

mistake of evaluating students on the basis of an unmoving set of standards. A

writer may have to produce many legitimate but not very interesting offspring

before the work starts to shine.


There may be a fair amount of overlap, but I have to guess that teaching children in

an elementary-school classroom is very different from running a graduate workshop

at Columbia. First of all, how did you come into the post of chair?


First, I was director of Columbia’s undergraduate program for twelve years. I started

teaching undergraduates at Columbia as an adjunct in 1982. There were two fulltime

lines in the undergraduate program, and one of them belonged to the director,

Dick Humphreys—a legendary teacher. In 1988 Dick was about to retire, and he

asked me to have lunch. Dick tended to be enigmatic, and he was asking me a lot of

questions; halfway through the lunch at Faculty House, it occurred to me that this

might be Dick’s version of a job interview, and that I should think carefully about

my answers. I was right. At the end of the meal he said, You know, I’m retiring. I said

that I’d heard. He asked me, Who do you think ought to take my place? I said I didn’t

know. He asked if I would do it, and I said, Of course, I’d love to. And a few weeks

later the dean called me in and offered me the job.


Do you think it was based on your teaching?


Yes, and I was able to make things happen in the program. I was brought in to teach

a class on literary editing and publishing because the literary magazine was in a lot

of trouble. I designed a two-semester course; it was popular, and the magazine

started thriving. Then I started teaching other courses as well. Also, from an administrative

standpoint, while I can be very stubborn and I can complain with the best

of them, I’m also good at figuring out how we can ultimately make something work

as best as possible.


At that time the undergraduate program was completely separate from the graduate

school. You presided over a lot of change en route to your current position as

chair of the graduate program.


The undergraduate Writing Program was part of the School of General Studies,

which took a backseat to Columbia College. Over the course of several years and

three different committees, the future of undergraduate writing was kicked around.

If Columbia College was going to buy into it—Columbia College students could

cross-register for our classes, but they didn’t have a formal program—it was clear

that all undergraduate creative writing would have to merge with the MFA program

in the School of the Arts. The question was whether we would move over intact, or

if the School of the Arts would replace us with a much smaller, more elite program.

One proposal called for the program being available only to English majors who

would have to apply for admission into the program their junior year. The existing

program was larger and more egalitarian—no applications were required for the

introductory classes, and satisfactory progress almost always resulted into moving

up through intermediate and advanced levels (as it does in other departments).

I fought hard because I cherished the program I had inherited from Dick (which

went back to 1918). Fortunately, our approach prevailed, with the addition of

honors options for the senior year (which was entirely appropriate). The programs

merged in 1996, and we now have hundreds of Columbia College students participating.

But it was an extremely difficult period for several years. After I was named

chair of the MFA program, I ran into one of the deans of Columbia College at lunch,

and she said, I remember when you were hanging by a thread.


1 8


1 9


You have said that putting creative writers in the English Department is akin to

putting painters in the Art History Department. What is the argument for housing

creative writing in the English Department? It occurs to me that a school might

want young writers to have a sense of the tradition in which they’re working, and as

English majors, presumably they’re more likely to have developed an awareness.


It’s probably tradition as much as anything else: Writing goes into the English

Department, and English Department professors teach writing. But if a university

does have a School of the Arts or an Arts Department—for actors, painters, filmmakers,

and the like—then I think it should include the literary arts. The study

of literature is vital for writers, and in our graduate program we teach our own

literature seminars (“by writers for writers”). There’s a story I heard—it might be

apocryphal, but the person who told it to me swears it’s not: During the Reagan

years, as part of sweeping budget cuts, Congress was considering the elimination of

the whole literature program of the National Endowment of the Arts. The proponents

of the cut said, “We have a literature program in the National Endowment

for the Humanities, why do we need one for the arts? Literature is not an art.” In a

caucus room, one of the senators from Mississippi stood up and said, You go back to

my state and you tell Miss Eudora Welty that she’s not an artist. And that saved the

program. Here’s a smaller story from my own experience: At a school in Brooklyn

where I was working for Teachers & Writers, I came across one of my third-grade

students involved in a heated argument with another kid. He looked at me and he

said, You tell her, Alan, ain’t I an artist?

So Columbia’s is one of the few writing programs in a School of the Arts. And it

just makes sense to me that creative writing classes should be in the same academic

home as painting classes.


Does the fact that the creative writing program is housed in the School of the Arts

help to explain some of the budget battles over fellowships?


Yes. Columbia PhD students are funded in the Graduate School of Arts and

Sciences, but MFA students are outside that structure and receive very little

funding, and they go into enormous amounts of debt. We keep pointing out that

the MFA is the terminal degree in our field.


Columbia has an excellent reputation, of course, but tuition is also impressive:

$35,000 a year. Which raises the question about MFA degrees: Why do one?


It’s a decision that each student should consider carefully. The MFA is by no means

the only route to being a writer. I’m often in the position of talking to writers who

are thinking of applying or who have applied and are deciding whether or not to

come, and I tell them: I’m not going to try to sell you on spending the money. You

should talk to other students, both those who came and those who went elsewhere,

and determine if it’s worth it to you. All I can tell you—and I spend a long time

doing so—is what can be gained by spending two years here (plus up to three years

to complete the thesis). As for an assurance that there is a concrete benefit from

investing (and I mean time as well as money) in Columbia’s program, I can guarantee

that you will leave with a thesis that will be the makings of a book (if not a

completed book), and I can virtually guarantee that, coming out of this program,

your submissions will be read by agents, magazine editors, and book publishers.

So that’s a nice thing to have in the back of your mind, as a student of writing.


Perhaps at a program like Columbia, where the faculty and the students are top

rate, the question of the value of an MFA is not as pronounced as it might be at a

school with a less stellar reputation.


All I can say is how fortunate I am to be where I am and not to have to deal with

that. I feel guilty and enraged at what our students are spending, but I believe in the

program—the value of the courses and what goes on outside the classroom. I don’t

think I could work someplace where people are paying a lot of money for a program

I don’t believe in.


If this were medical school, and students came along who weren’t going to be

successful doctors, you’d have an obligation to say, this isn’t working out. But that

isn’t how it works in an MFA program, even though it too is preprofessional. It

would be lovely to think that people spend two years here just to become better

poets, but with the amount of money and the ambition involved, that’s just not the

case. So maybe it’s a question of understanding the relationship of MFA programs

to tuition and a college’s need for funding, on the one hand, and on the other hand,

to the industry, and how many people can reasonably find work.




2 1


Sometimes a colleague might say about a student at the end of his or her first year,

You know, I don’t think we should be taking this person’s money. And my answer

is, Well, did you fail the student? Are you communicating something within the

academic structure? No? Well then, at this point, it’s the student’s decision about

the money. I have seen many students make remarkable progress in their second

year (or beyond). Of course, you shouldn’t pump up students, give them false hopes,

in order to keep them in the program. That would be a scam. But if you’re giving

honest, helpful, and challenging criticism, and the student wants to stick it out and

is meeting requirements and actively engaged in the work, then that student should

stay. This approach is also better for the overall health of the program; it’s hard

enough without students feeling like the assassin’s knife is hovering behind them.

This doesn’t mean that students will never leave a workshop feeling kicked around,

but everyone should receive the same level of editorial support. A student recently

came to me, upset because she had received a harsh critique and was concerned

about losing her fellowship. I told her we don’t do that here.

I say to incoming students during orientation: You don’t have to raise your

hands on this, but how many of you think you’re the mistake? The nervous laughter

indicates that many of them fear that they may be The One. I tell them that we

don’t make mistakes, and that if we do, we fix them. And the students laugh. But

they have to stay engaged with the work. Extremely rarely, we have students for

whom this is not the right thing to be doing, and usually they know it; they realize

that for the time and money it is just not worth it for them—at least not at this point

in their lives, and they leave on their own.

The MFA credential is not like a medical degree. You’re not credentialing someone

to cut people open (at least not physically). No one is going to hire you to teach,

and no one is going to publish you, simply because you have the MFA.


How are applications handled?


The Admissions Committee is the faculty. Every application is read at least twice

before the final round. The finalists are read by more faculty. At the end of the

process, we might take another look at applications that came close, to see if

anything might have slipped between the cracks.


And what, as a committee, are you looking for? Can you articulate an ethos?


Something that gets us excited in some way, that makes us feel that the writer is

doing something distinctive and/or distinguished. It’s a good sign when we lose

sight of the fact that we are reading an application and are just reading. The mythical,

cold workshop story, the story that’s been stripped of all imagination and made to

be perfect and clean and uninteresting—that story is not going to be admitted here.

There have been applications in which there were one or two passages that were so

electrifying that we accepted the author—on potential—despite other weaknesses.

This doesn’t mean the work has to contain pyrotechnics to gain our attention. The

work can be very simple. I tell potential applicants, Take risks with your writing

sample, but don’t forget the risk of simplicity. If you write without fireworks, then

that’s who you are. We’re not predisposed to any school or kind of writing. Just send

in what you have the strongest feelings for—and if it grabs you, it might very well

grab us.


The profusion of MFA programs around the country has coincided with arguably

large changes in the publishing industry, in which increasingly more money and

attention are devoted to marketing and selling books rather than to developing

writers. Do you see a correlation between these two trends?


There have been a lot of changes in the book industry, most lamentably the lack of

value placed on literary, mid-list books. Editors in the big houses often have to deal

with marketing projections based, in part, on sales figures of the author’s previous

books. Oddly enough, this may be providing more opportunities for recent MFA

graduates—they don’t have track records that will work against them. And it may

even help short story collections to get published—many MFA theses consist of

short stories—because publishers sometimes take them on in exchange for rights to

the novel-to-follow. What’s sad is how much work might be languishing, unpublished,

by previously published writers whose careers, instead of being nurtured,

are hampered by the bottom line. But even here, there is good news. Independent

publishers are doing wonderful work, dedicated to publishing good books.

And technology is counteracting some of what’s going on in publishing; online

publishing is thriving in large part due to the enormous improvements in computer

displays that now make it feasible to read on the screen (and, for those who hate

that, the printers are better, too). The Internet allows readers to meet writers—

that’s the basic transaction, isn’t it?—and editors can make decisions on factors

other than economics. Plus, books stay alive online. Amazon is a huge company, but,

through them, I can look for an out-of-print book and hook up with someone in


2 2



Montana who has a copy. There was probably a lost generation, when publishing

took the turn it did and the Internet was not yet ready for prime time. But students

today are in a place where they can publish their work online in well-designed

settings. Yes, I love books and magazines I can hold in my hands, and the idea of a

paperless society is frightening to me and must be resisted, but it is comforting for a

writer to know that one can get the work out there online and, if you should publish

a book that doesn’t get good distribution or goes out of print, people will still be

able to find it.

The MFA program plays a part by creating communities of writers who read

each other. Maybe this is a stretch, but one of the things we say around here is that

it’s like Paris in the ’20s: a place writers can go to be with other writers to serve

their apprenticeships, amid the other artists in the school. Students here not only

develop friendships, but they also become each others’ extended editors. I notice

this all the time, when books by former students acknowledge the editorial support

of their classmates here. That phenomenon helps counteract the dearth of Maxwell

Perkins figures in the publishing industry.

What it comes down to is that the MFA is one way to guarantee yourself that for

two years you will live as a writer, whatever that brings. Some graduates may never

publish, but they can look back and say, well, my education included two years

spent studying writing rather than history or math, and that’s just part of who I am

as an educated person.


In an elite program, there must exist a fair amount of competitiveness, and the

possibility of burnout. How do you handle this as a teacher, and an administrator?


I do everything I can to make this a program where jockeying for position and

wasted energy are the exceptions rather than the rule. Many of us on the faculty

talk to students about this early and often, starting with orientation, when I jokingly

(but with underlying seriousness) say: Backbiting leaves marks, and we have access

to your dental records; instead, we go in for a certain amount of back-scratching,

even a little back-kissing once in a while. But if you think this is a backbiting,

my-success-is-your-failure-and-vice-versa type program, then you’ve come to the

wrong place. I tell students not to try to be the alpha writer or the alpha critic in the

workshop; it doesn’t work. Writers who bond together often help each other for

years to come, recommending agents and editors. The only way you can feel safe

enough to write and to respond to others’ writing is to feel you’re in a collaborative

community. I love how so many of our students attend student readings and

respond so warmly to one another.


Friendship improves the level of aesthetic achievement?


I think so. I think it provides the foundation from which students can challenge

themselves and each other to produce better work. Which isn’t to say one can’t be

spurred on by harsh or insensitive treatment, but there’s plenty of that out there in

the world if you need it.


Do you still teach children?


No. There’s no place I could fit it in right now. Maybe when I step down as chair,

I could do it. But I still train people to teach children.


You’ve designed a course about the teaching of writing for grad students. Are you

training them to teach undergrads?


In “The Writer as Teacher,” we cover the whole age/talent gamut: working with

children as a visiting writer, as well as teaching undergraduate and graduate

students and community workshops. We cover all aspects of teaching, but I basically

divide it between, in broad strokes, “stand-up teaching”—the song and dance of

entertaining a class of twenty-five fourth graders while getting them to write on

the spot—and “table teaching,” which is the basic workshop model of sitting around

the table discussing each other’s work. The art and the joy of teaching involves

synthesizing those two modes as appropriate—I’ve done workshops with ten-yearolds

and stood up in front of graduate students and presented in-class writing

exercises. I give my writer-as-teacher students lots of readings, including theoretical

pieces and testimonies by writing teachers. We divide into small groups and replicate

classroom situations. I have several writing teachers visit class, including some of

my old Teachers & Writers cohorts—Phillip Lopate, Bill Zavatsky, Dale Worsley.


Do you think your ability to teach writing so well is somehow related to your experience

of writing as a wonderful process?






It’s not always wonderful. When I’m writing about teaching, it’s very painful in the

way that running or lifting weights is painful. It’s really hard. I have to be so careful

not to say what I don’t mean. Teachers are going to use the things I say with their

students. And it’s difficult not to be concerned about repeating what’s already been

said. It’s like that line from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, when the

painter, who has not been painting, laments, “There’s nothing that hasn’t been

said,” and his companion responds, “Said by you?” That’s something I tell students

all the time—it’s a great mantra.

But when I’m writing a prose poem, for example, once I get inside of it, it’s just a

glorious experience. When I get inside of the work, I want to be there more than

anywhere else. It only gets painful when I start wondering whether it’s any good;

I fear something being just OK more than I fear it being bad. That’s painful.


Are you more comfortable with the uncertainty of the creative process than some

other writers are, or are you just disciplined at holding off the critical eye for a

certain period of time?


Pete Seeger, introducing a song at the Bitter End many years ago, talked about

learning a banjo technique by following the advice he had written in one of his

own books. Likewise, I try to pay attention when I drum into students’ heads

that they should have faith in the process and not pass judgment on a piece

until all the testimony is in and the jury has had a chance to deliberate. With

the demands of teaching and administrating, I don’t always have the luxury to

linger in front of the blank page, because there’s always something else useful

and productive that I can be doing. If it’s not happening, I have other tasks I can

do. So, if I were to have a patron, with the condition that I quit my job, I would

probably struggle more with the blank page. As it is, I scribble notes at odd

times in various media (notebooks, index cards, on the backs of folders), so

when I sit down to write there’s always something to reach for if I am not in the

middle of a project.


Columbia has what might be the most illustrious roster of professors and adjuncts

of any writing program in the world. I would think it might be somewhat crippling

to be a writer who is also an administrator among so many great artists.


Theoretically, yes, but, thankfully, not an issue in practice. Before I had acclimated

myself to the graduate program—after being an undergrad for so long—the first

time I was in a meeting with Richard Howard—we happened to be sitting right next

to each other in those two chairs over there—I had no idea whether he had any

sense of my work. And he leaned over and said, I have to tell you how much I

admire . . . your tie. Luckily there wasn’t a long pause between “admire” and “tie”

because my heart would have skipped more than one beat. I told Richard recently,

now that I know him in all his sartorial splendor, that I realize what an incredible

compliment that was. I mentioned this to a writer who seemed crestfallen and said,

“Richard never admired one of my ties.” Once Richard had affirmed my taste in ties,

it was important for me to have his respect as a writer, and that came when he

wrote the introduction to The Swan Song of Vaudeville. Lucie Brock-Broido had

given him the manuscript, and Richard told me, over dinner, that he would write

the introduction. That was one of the most fulfilling moments in my life as a writer,

because when I was coming of age, Richard Howard’s introductions and editing

shaped some of the books I most admired, including Charles Simic’s first full-length

collection, Dismantling the Silence. I always wanted Richard Howard to write an

introduction for me. When it happened, it was great. But the period of time

between his admiring my tie and his writing the introduction to Swan Song was



Other writers who have taught, and in particular who have been department chairs,

have spoken of not producing as much work over the course of a career as they had

wished, or perhaps as people had hoped they might. Do you feel an obligation to

have written more, or published more widely?


Yes and yes, but on balance it’s been worth it. I have not pursued publication and

public profile as tenaciously as I should have, and I have switched directions too

many times to have carved out a focused career as a poet or fiction writer or

pedagogue. After publishing a collection of poetry (So Much to Do), and the two

Writing Workshop books, I did the collection of short stories (The Green Grass of

Flatbush), which won a national award judged by George Plimpton, and then I

stopped doing stories for a long time.






2 7


Good question. I had just done the story collection, and I had an agent. I met with

Roger Angell, who had published one of my short shorts in The New Yorker, and he

was interested in seeing more of the form from me, saying what I do is so difficult.

And I had just been hired to direct the undergraduate program at Columbia in

addition to teaching a full load. So, what did I decide to do? Write a novel. Which

was the one thing I had no experience in and no time to do. I loved writing it, and I

thought it was publishable, but none of the editors my agent sent it to agreed.

Eventually, I settled on short prose—prose poems, short short stories—which I had

previously written as side trips; I realized that for me this was the main road.


Because you’re drawn to them, or because it’s a market niche?


Because I’m very drawn to them. (I wish it were more of a market niche.) I think it’s

my natural form.


How much time do you have to write in a given week?


This is a very demanding job. The course load for a professor is four courses, and

I teach three, as well as administrate and do independent studies and serve on

committees, and so on. There are tons of emails, a lot that goes on outside my office.

But I can always grab some time either early in the morning or late at night. I feel

that for the kind of writing I do, time is not an insurmountable issue. It’s not like a

novel, or a collection of stories, in which there is a great deal of physical labor

involved. Much of my writing can go on in my head, and in short bursts. And I’ve

always been fortunate in that, if I get a start, I can work with it in what for some

may be less than conducive circumstances, perhaps a benefit from my newspaper

experience. As an example: I gave two readings recently within a week of each

other, and I opened both of them with a piece I had written just that day. For the

first reading, I got an idea on the bus on the way to school. I had to teach, and then

hold office hours, and then go straight to the reading. So I wrote the first draft on

the bus, and during a break in class I changed a few words, and then I thought, this

is nuts, that room is going to be full, I can’t just wing it . . . and then I thought, the

hell with it, I’m going to read it. And I did. And then a week later I did it again. On

two of busiest days of the year I wrote a poem. It can happen—not all that often,

but it can happen.


You’re quite comfortable with spontaneity and having your work in the world when

it’s not final. You sent me 99 Stories in working form. Most writers have grilles over

the windows until the work is in galleys.


It’s probably from being around workshops for so many years, when finished pieces

are the exception rather than the rule. I haven’t been a student in a workshop for a

very long time, but perhaps sending out unfinished pieces to you was, for me, like my

students passing their manuscripts around the table. Being comfortable and open

about the process makes me think of Vonnegut. One of the most striking memories

I have is of him showing up for workshop looking awful—he wasn’t totally present in

the room with us. He revealed that he was having a really hard time trying to write

about hell. He couldn’t figure out how to do it. So he canceled class for the following

week. And the week after that, he looked great, and I asked him how the writing was

going, and he stuck his thumb up and said, A-one. That was a real inspiration to me—

that he shared his struggle with the process. I’m careful not to do that too much—

because it’s not about me—but, in its place, it’s a valuable part of teaching.

You know, John Berrryman said that he refused to read his reviews until he was

thirty-five years old because he “had no skin on.” I think I’ve reached a point where

my skin is thick enough, and I do what I do, and no one can stop me. On the other

hand, I was solicited recently by an editor at a nice, high-profile magazine who

loved Swan Songs, so I sent some work. And they held on to one piece, but ended up

rejecting it because they had published something similar recently. It was like

2 a.m. when I got the email, and I thought, fine, I’m giving up. But in the morning I

was better. So, it never completely goes away. (And they wound up publishing

something else of mine.)

I think the way I try to handle exposure and rejection is best expressed by a

story about my red socks. I had these red socks, which my wife hated. That’s why I

don’t have them anymore. I would only wear them around the house, usually when

she wasn’t home. One day I was wearing my red socks, and I went to get the mail

without putting my shoes on. And once I got in the elevator, I looked down and

realized, I’m standing here in my red socks. A woman got on the elevator. I had seen

her enough to say hello. She looked down and she said, “Now there’s a man with

confidence.” And I thought, Yeah, I guess so. So, when I write the literary equivalent

of red socks, and I like it, I’m going to wear it.


You’ve settled on prose poems as your chosen genre, and you mentioned students

here who want to jump from one program to the other, from poetry to fiction or





vice versa, as you did in order to study with Kurt Vonnegut. Obviously we consider

poetry and fiction two different genres, and publishing is structured in that way.

You’re working at the intersection of the two, if such a place exists. Does it say

something about readers, or about the marketplace, or about the form itself, that

the genres are held to be so distinct?


I think it’s getting more and more accepted that the distinctions are less than

discrete, but categories are needed for marketing purposes. There are books

marketed as “novels” that don’t resemble most novels. There’s the phenomenon of

the “novel in stories”—I can’t quite figure out what that is, but it’s alright by me. I

know of one book that is blurbed as a novel on the back cover but called “stories” on

the front. I subtitled The Swan Song of Vaudeville “Tales and Takes,” and it’s usually

categorized as poetry, which is fine with me. A book has to go on the shelf somewhere.

I do believe that there are distinctions between a prose poem and a short

short story—if nothing else, you can take advantage of the fact that readers tend to

approach them differently. If you call it a prose poem, the reader is likely to go into

it with fewer preconceived expectations and be more open to discovering what the

piece is doing and not doing. The prose poem is about as wide-open a form as there

is. I particularly like that prose poems—like all poems—are never categorized as

being fiction or nonfiction; it’s not that the boundaries are blurred, the question is

never asked (except perhaps by a close friend or a nosy reader). Anything else in

prose has to be declared as fiction or nonfiction—short story or personal essay,

novel or memoir. With prose poems, if you’re willing to give up the line breaks, then

you can have everything else.


In prose poems, such as “Love Potions and Bitter Pills,” and also in 99 Stories, one

element that emerges is the use of juxtaposition in the placement and accumulation

of short pieces; the works have dramatic movements similar to those of a short

story or a novel but rely on poetic juxtapositions to do work that might otherwise

be done in short scenes, movement across time, or in thematic or descriptive



Can I use that as a blurb? That’s exactly what I am trying to do. I’ve always written

short pieces, but writing sequences is what I am most excited about now. The

sections in “Love Potions and Bitter Pills” were written over a long period of time.

I was able to revise them to fill holes, to move things around. The pieces in 99

Stories—while most can stand alone—really do need to be near each other for the

fullest effect. For the first time, I feel like I am not writing pieces—I am writing

a book.


Several of your pieces read almost like koans.


I like that.


I was trying to understand why. I wondered if you could help me think that



[Smiles.] If I start to tell you what it all means, hit me over the head.


Exactly. In my brief, very limited experience of koans, I have come to think that

they are not illustrative stories so much as parables of a sort. What they provide is

an entirely different narrative logic, such that something resonates, but also something

doesn’t quite work; there’s a riddle, and in the riddle is the source of the real

feeling. We’re left thinking that we want to pick the lock. There’s one turn of vision,

not only for the character, but for the reader; a change in meaning that happens to

me, rather than to the characters alone. I think some of your pieces ask that.


I can’t be any more flattered than when someone not only appreciates and enjoys

something I have written, but also gets involved in the inner life of the writing and

vice versa. The true response to a koan is not to know the answer, but to melt into

the story. One of the works that has influenced me is by John Cage. It’s called

Indeterminacy. The music is very modern, dissonant, and frankly I wish it would

go away and just leave us with the spoken text, which is John Cage telling stories:

anecdotes from his life, Zen stories. My favorite is about two monks who are traveling

on foot. They come upon a woman who needs help crossing a stream. They are not

permitted to touch women, but the first monk picks her up, carries her across, and

puts her down on the other side. The two monks continue walking, and finally the

second monk scolds the one who picked up the woman, and he replies, “Put her

down. I did two hours ago.”

I love the dimensions of that story, I love the proportions, I love the turn it

seems to take but that is not really a turn at all.




3 1


I’m reminded of your piece “Love at First Sight”:

It was a novelty store and he went in just for the novelty of it. She was in front of

the counter, listening to the old proprietor say: “I have here one of those illusion

paintings, a rare one. You either see a beautiful couple making love, or a skull.

They say this one was used by Freud himself on his patients—if at first sight you

see the couple, then you are a lover of life and love. But if you focus on the skull

first, you’re closely involved with death, and there’s not much hope for you.”

With that, the proprietor unwrapped the painting. They both hesitated,

looked at the picture, then at each other. They both saw the skull. And have

been together ever since.

That kind of reversal, the riddle, the turn that makes you smile. You get the joke.


That piece came fairly naturally and easily. But if I can point to any specific growth

in my work over the course of my career, it’s that in the early work I relied too much

on that turn you talk about and, when it was less successful, it didn’t transcend

being a punch line. I was prone to that. I think that now I’m better able to get to the

turn, and then keep going.


Many of the pieces in The Swan Song of Vaudeville bear that out. Your collections,

the body of your work, have something vaudevillesque to them; a variety show, a

collection of short acts, but in the classy old sense of vaudeville. Not shtick so much

as a great night out. How did you come to title the collection? And the piece, “Swan

Song,” itself?


When I was working as a newspaper reporter just out of college, I covered a county

fair, which had a small circus. Really, really small. The star animal was a tiny “bear”

named Bimbo (it was like being proud of a particularly large bonsai tree). And I interviewed

the fire-eater. About a week later, I got a call from the hospital. The fire-eater

had scorched his throat. He had done something really stupid, he had used the wrong

torch or something. And there he was in the hospital, with his career as a fire-eater

over, and he didn’t know if he would ever talk normally again. He didn’t know anybody

in town whom he could call, and he felt he had made some connection with me,

so he called me just to tell me what had happened. That experience has stayed with

me, and I started with the image of a distraught fire-eater.

And as for vaudeville, my parents took me to the famous Palace Theater on

Broadway when the Palace was trying to revive vaudeville. I was transfixed by the

power and brevity of the acts—someone makes you laugh, then someone sings, then

three guys do impossible things with dinner plates. So, when I was kid I did indeed

witness a chorus of the swan song of vaudeville.


We haven’t talked much about your family; you’re writing some about them,

especially your father, in 99 Stories. Your father worked as a clerk in a motel, among

other jobs; your mother was a waitress at Woolworth’s. How did they take to your

announcement that you wanted to be a poet?


They always liked that I wrote, especially for newspapers—they both enjoyed reading

newspapers. And, as I mentioned, my mother helped me get one of my first poetsin-

the-schools jobs. She sat in on one of my workshops at a local library. I showed

my father the profile I did in the Village Voice of the relationship between Allen

Ginsberg and his father, Louis, when Louis was dying. I was proud of the piece.

I asked my father what he thought, and he said, I didn’t like it. Why not? He said,

Because he’s dying! It had reached him emotionally. The human aspect is what got

to him, not the writing.

With my father, there were a lot of secrets. His father had been a bank robber,

and he played a lot of things close to the vest. For many years my father worked

seven days a week, and my mother was pretty much the only person he really talked

to. After she died in the early ’80s, he started talking to me more than he had my

entire life. I think it was easier for him because I was a writer—there was a reason to

tell me things; he used to say, You’ll put this in your book. It was almost like, I don’t

have any money to leave you, but here are these stories. There’s a piece in 99 Stories

about a turning point, where he really started opening up. We were together on the

observation deck of the Empire State Building. My father was claustrophobic, and

the elevator ride up was terrible for him. He was stalling, avoiding the ride back

down. And he began to tell me stories.

But when I first knew that my father got it about my switch from journalism to

poetry—when I felt warm approval—was in 1974. I was finishing graduate school as

a poet, giving readings, and we had started Some magazine. Phoebe Snow had a hit

song called “Poetry Man.” My father bought the single, and when I came over for

dinner, he had it playing.


You’re soon stepping down as chair of the division. What’s next for you?






My term as chair ends in July—it’s a five-year nonrenewable term. I’ll move into a

smaller office, teach one additional course, and have the title Director of Pedagogy

and Teacher Training. I’ll continue to work on 99 Stories. I’ve also been working for

several years on another writing workshop book, tentatively titled The Writing

Workshop Note-Book. This one is aimed at students of writing rather than teachers,

and—using small sections, or “notes”—I am attempting to distill as much as I can

that I feel is important for a young writer to hear, especially those who are toggling

between the private act of creation and the public arena of the workshop. The book

will be published in 2007.

And then, we’ll see. nN

November 2005


Lacy Crawford is senior editor of Narrative.