Whitman? Socrates? Magis? “Garage Publishing?” Sacred mornings? Ruffians? Exactly how does one go about interviewing Edward Hirsch, the President of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation?
KW: Marty, you recently sent me your terrific interview, “Poetry, Service to Others and Service to Poetry, and More Poetry: An Interview with Edward Hirsch.” Besides being an award-winning poet and poetry advocate, Ed Hirsch has been the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for the last eighteen years. And Ed has had life-time friendships with many of our most influential contemporary poets like Philip Levine, Gerald Stern, Richard Howard, and C.K. Williams. I know through your own writing, advocacy, and teaching of poetry that you have your own presence in the literary community, but how in the world did you arrange this interview with Ed Hirsch, and why?
MM: Ed directed my dissertation back in 1986 at the University of Houston. We became “buds,” often playing noontime basketball together. Ed would sometimes ask me to take over his undergrad workshops when he had book tours. We have been friends ever since.
I started thinking about an interview with Ed because, honestly, I wanted a chance to talk with him again. It had been awhile since we had a sustained conversation. I also saw a piece by Ed about C.K. Williams, who had just passed away. And I know Ed and poet Richard Howard are dear friends, and Richard is getting up there. Ed turned 70 himself on Monday (January 20th), and I hadn’t seen an interview with Ed for a while.
Ed’s new poetry book, Stranger By Night (Knopf) is coming out in February. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to visit Ed in his Guggenheim office in NYC. I really wanted to create a good interview with him that I could “shop around” to a solid publication that appreciates Ed as much as I do—his poetry and writing and his long-time devotion to the poetry community. I was hoping to get this interview out before or around his birthday, to celebrate him. Unfortunately, I’m a little late.
KW: Your interview with Ed is pretty breath-taking in its scope. You start the interview by asking a deceptively simple question: What do you tell a poetry student who wants to stop writing poetry?
You and Ed then begin what feels like a free-wheeling and delicious odyssey through the Ed Hirsch world of poetry (and more!)— dramatic impersonation in the personal lyric, the Catholic Jesuit value of magis (that was a surprise!) and Ed’s lifelong giving to other poets and non-poets through, among many other endeavors, his wonderful book, “How to Read a Poem and Fall In Love with Poetry,” his well-regarded column, Poet’s Choice, for the Washington Post Book World, and, of course, his current work as the president of the Guggenheim Foundation.
But I’m just picking at the proverbial iceberg. There is so much more you cover, like “garage” publishing and “night mind” and sacred mornings and, of course, Ed’s upcoming poetry collection, Stranger by Night.
Whew! How did you pull this off?
MM: Well, I suppose I did, as Ed put it, a somewhat “eccentric” interview because I combined talking about “leadership” in life and poetry with what he was thinking and doing at the very moment concerning poetry. I wanted to chat with him as a friend, chat with him about his movement from “just poet” to teacher to writer ABOUT poetry and writer of poetry, of course.
So . . . I met with Ed with a big agenda for the interview. It’s pretty hard to stay “academically” focused with someone you’ve known, loved, and admired for years. My interview was, initially, a little scatter-shot. Ed and I worked on this a lot AFTER the interview.
KW: Okay, so I’ve known you, Marty, longer than you’ve known Ed, I think. I could see your “personal” stake in the interview. For instance, you stopped writing poetry for a while and became a pretty darn successful playwright and producer here in Denver. And you’ve been full-time faculty for the College of Contemporary Liberal Studies, an arm of Regis University, a Jesuit Catholic college here in Denver, for some time now, which does require of its students service to the community. What did you learn from Ed that surprised you?
MM: We’ve stayed in touch long enough over the years that I don’t know if I myself learned a whole lot new about him. It was interesting to hear him working out his newest problem: if Walt Whitman the poet was himself a “persona of a ruffian” and really just a quiet librarian or was Whitman really the “ruffian” he presents?
On the more personal side, though, I learned how in the title poem of his new book, Stranger by Night, darkness is as literal for Ed as it is metaphorical. Ed has vision issues now. When he walks in Manhattan, he finds himself bumping into other people and getting disorientated, especially when he goes home in the evening, catching the train. The title poem in the book, one recently published by Poetry Daily, addresses this new unfolding in Ed’s life. That was hard for me to hear. I am looking forward to his book. Publisher Weekly calls this collection, “tender and unflinching.”
KW: I know your interview with Ed is so fresh that you are just starting the process of shopping around for a publisher. But I think a lot of us could learn from your experiences with conducting and writing and editing this interview. What suggestions do you have for someone who has never done an interview, but really wants to? (Beyond the fact that it’s always good to start out, if you can, with someone you might have some kind of connection to.)
MM: First, make sure your recording equipment works the way you want BEFORE you go into the interview. Mine was . . . well, it could have been better. Then, make sure your subject is good with being recorded (rather than having you write down the interview). Find out, too, if you have an available electric transcription machine (luckily, I did) since transcribing is tedious.
If you know the subject has some “delicate” areas that might be addressed, don’t be scared to ask the subject, “Do you want to talk about . . .?” For example, as so many know, the adopted son of Ed and his former wife passed away a few years ago, so I asked Ed if we should include him. Ed’s delicate answer was, “If we just talk about the elegy, the book, [Gabriel: A Poem].
I would also recommend making the questions concise but open-ended. Know how long each session will be and keep your subject and yourself on subject. If you are friends, cut the chit chat short or at least make it clear when you are chitchatting and when you are interviewing. Even though you may be recording the interview, be prepared for your subject to want to “work” on the transcribed answers. Ed and I did a lot of back and forth, but, I think, finally, the interview was much better for that.
If your subject is well known, like Ed, be prepared to accommodate their schedule. I emailed Ed in a September; we did the interview the following May because he was 1.) traveling; 2.) hosting the Guggenheim judges; 3.) spending a couple of months at the American Academy in Rome; 4.) then traveling a little more.
Ultimately, be smart. About what you’re doing before, during, and after.
Edward Hirsch is currently the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has received innumerable awards and honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Pablo Neruda Presidential Medal of Honor, the Prix de Rome, and an Academy of Arts and Letters Award. He has published eight books of poetry, winning among other awards, a National Book Critics Award. He has written five prose books, including “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry,” a national bestseller. Besides serving as the president of the Guggenheim, Ed was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Edward Hirsch homepage https://www.edwardhirsch.com/bio/ Edward Hirsh on Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edward-hirsch
A native Coloradan, Martin McGovern earned his MA in philosophy at Stanford University and his PhD in Creative Writing at the esteemed Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The New Republic, Poetry, Hotel Amerika, The Denver Quarterly and other journals. His 2015 poetry collection, Bad Fame, was a Colorado Book Award Finalist. McGovern cofounded The Urban Theater Company in Houston and was Assistant Director of Ad Hoc Theater and Artistic Direct of Tir Na nOg: An Irish Theater in Denver. Marty’s play “Joseph K” earned the 2009 Denver Post Ovation Award for Best New Work. Having taught for Regis University’s College of Contemporary Liberal Studies since 2007 and creating its MA in Literature and Creative Writing. McGovern also cofounded and codirected that university’s Mile-High MFA in Creative Writing.
Martin McGovern website: https://www.martin-mcgovern.com/