(New York City, March 2, 2000, with corrections December 2007.)


PS: The first stage for students at The Writers Studio: people realize that it is a form of communication, and that they are writing for others. If they are not, then they are not writers: they are keeping a journal, or a diary, and that's fine. Many people create a fantasy that they are communicating, but they are really writing for themselves. The second stage is to act on it, to start... what comes out is that people realize that there is such a thing as a persona, there is such a thing as craft. But the main thing is that what they are writing should be for others... fiction writers have to learn a trade, like carpenters. Second stage, then: struggle with the fact that there is craft. The ones who leave can't accept that. They want to take writing as an escape, not as work. But at the second stage you don't attempt to teach them about persona. Level three is a deepening or heightening of the process, where persona is for the first time taken seriously.

RN: Reminds me of what Rimbaud wrote: "Je est un autre."

RN: Your first book of poetry, Like Wings, in 1978, was a big success. How did that success influence your work?

PS: It was exciting. I had no idea. It put pressure on me to bring out a second book. I put that off for 6 years, and the second one was successful. Now I've managed to put it off for 14 years! (N.B. this was said in 2000.)

RN: But did success make the writing easier?

PS: I don't think so. I always wanted to be a fiction writer. I went to Iowa as a fiction writer. In my early 20s I was lucky: stories, whatever I sent out, was published. I got an agent, and I thought I'd be a novelist. Poetry is something I did with my left hand. But all that I wanted to achieve in fiction was happening naturally in poetry. The poet was supporting the fiction writer; usually it's the other way around. But in fiction I was absolutely obsessed with writing "agenda" material, talking about material I couldn't distance myself from to write a story. I went to poetry as a relief from that. The more frustrated I became in one, the more successful I became in the other. I was lucky I had agents who were waiting for my best-selling novel, and who meanwhile helped me sell my poetry. It was in trying to figure all this out that I came up with The Writers Studio methodology.

RN: Sometimes writers write a first novel to get that entire agenda material out of their system.

PS: But great writers get the distance from the beginning. The Sun Also Rises is such a work of art. Even Mosquitoes by Faulkner, which is not one of his best books. But it's so well written. No: I was so tied up in fiction that I couldn't see the forest for the trees. See, what Rimbaud wrote was to get away from his conflicts; what he wrote came out of a dreamworld. I could create an esthetic object in poetry; I could not do it in fiction. If I couldn't do it, I had to know why. It took me fifteen years to figure it out. And I did.

RN: And what was the answer?

PS: Agenda.

RN: How come that agenda doesn't ruin your poetry at all?

PS: Because the focus for me was fiction. Poetry was an escape from what I was doing in fiction, so I could write something that was successful.

RN: You obviously have a musical ear. Maybe the music was more powerful than the agenda.

PS: No, there's music in prose too. The same ear in both. For me it was the subject matter. In fiction I was always writing about how awful my father was. In poetry, I did a poem about my father: it took me 15 years to write.

RN: The last poem in Like Wings.

PS: I remember the editor at The New Yorker, who was publishing a number of poems of mine, turned that poem down. He once told me: "You're never going to finish this poem. It's kind of OK, but it's not as good as the others. Why don't you just let it go?" I went home, I finished the poem. People liked it, but he was right: it was the one thing I insisted on writing but which I couldn't write. And it was the only subject I had in my fiction. That's how I finally understood: I saw other people doing the same thing. When I work with people I try to figure it out: what is their agenda? And I try to get them free of it.

RN: Who is this Stein, who appears in Like Wings as your guardian angel? And then you have another long poem, My Guardian Angel Stein. He sounds like some kind of father figure.

PS: He made a cameo appearance in the first poem of Like Wings. There were so many people who wanted to know about Stein, so he made a reappearance. In my new book there's a poem, Stein Goodbye. I finally got rid of him. After he gave advice about courtship that didn't work for 20 years... I got rid of him. Esthetically, I introduced him because I thought it's funny that Jews don't have a guardian angel. I felt I should make up one. That book, My Guardian Angel Stein , is dedicated to my great friend, Yehuda Amichai. He is probably Stein. At some level he's my good father. But there are other reasons I created him. I know that Deep Within the Ravine is a dark poem, about a lot of unhappiness, and I needed a comic character. So basically he was comic relief. He would say, for example, "What you need is not therapy, you need to read Spinoza." I hope I don't need him in my third book.

RN: I read some of the material on The Writers Studio, and it seems to me that your main thrust is psychological: to get people to come out of their egos. In a way, that's similar to certain spiritual disciplines, Zen Buddhism for example.

PS: Right. And another way of saying it is that egos are extremely powerful, and unless you can distance yourself from yours, you cannot fashion an esthetic object that will interest others. The need for attention and acclaim is healthy; there is a good narcissism and a bad one. The latter is the urge to write something that's private and of no interest to others, a private deal. A pact with the Devil.

RN: You mentioned Kafka as the great master of the creation of a persona in writing. Of writing, as it were, pseudonymously.

PS: Kafka is the best example there is.

RN: One of two: the other is Kierkegaard, except he usually doesn't write fiction.

PS: So he claims. There's a line by Kierkegaard, that you despair when you don't know you're despairing, when you can't distance yourself from it. But Kafka... you know, that Letter to my Father. The shadow of Kafka's father covered the whole map of Prague, so Kafka felt he could live only inside the crannies. Literature was one thing he felt he could do because his father wasn't into it, and yet, he couldn't publish because to be successful would have been to be like his father. There are millions of people who have that kind of problem with their fathers or mothers, but they are not able to create those perfect metaphors.

RN: When I was an adolescent I brought Letter to my Father home. My father found it, read it, and was deeply hurt.

PS: Of course. I think Kafka entrusted his writing to the one person he knew would not burn it. With Brod it was safe.>

RN: I read in the brochures of The Writers Studio that if the strong desire is there, anyone can write successfully. Do you believe that? Yet, obviously some people are more talented than others.

PS: The proviso in that statement is that anyone can learn to express themselves; now, how good they're going to be, that's up to them. What I mean is: enough so as to write. As far as talent goes, I think every child is talented and imaginative. I don't know anything about DNA, but I don't think God anoints one child over another and says, this one is going to be talented and this one isn't. Proust is all desire. How many people could totally isolate themselves for half their lives, and be that focused. I think it's too easy to say some people are born with talent. If you have a burning desire to communicate and to be well known, and you're intelligent enough to find your style, and able enough to arrange your life so as to do so much work, and selfish enough to put it first, then the talent is there. Talent is created. So if students continue to work seriously, no matter how long it takes, I won't give up on them. I have so many cases of people who apparently didn't have any talent at all, were told that, and five years later they are totally different writers.

RN: Speaking of that, tell me something about that "shitbird," perched on one's shoulder, who tells you that no matter how hard you try, you'll never succeed.

PS: People are conflicted. The most successful writers are conflicted. They make a pact with the Devil. In order to write, Kafka had to be miserable and unhappy. And the "shitbird" is a term from a friend of mine who killed himself. He was the most talented poet. He was translating Celan. Dickey. I was his guardian angel. And he wrote me a letter saying that he could hear my encouragement, but that there was also a shitbird on his shoulder, whispering that he couldn't write. Maybe that shitbird is the Superego. Overly cautious.

RN: It whispers, "What d'you think you are?"

PS: Right. So, I'm tenacious. I wanted to understand what held me back in a certain area, and the only way to understand it was to help others. My favorite American book has always been The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, but I only understood it recently, when I was teaching it: in saving his cousins he saves himself. And I think that's the impulse behind what I do. My first novel, which I started writing when I was eighteen, was called, "Amen, the Redeemers." It wasn't biblical; I had no idea where the title came from. I think the impulse behind redeeming is to redeem oneself.

RN: Still, there seems to be something else behind what you do, a passion for teaching.

PS: It's so satisfying to help others. After a while it became my living, but it also helped me with my work.

RN: It seems to be a passion that couldn't be satisfied in an academic setting.

PS: I tried. I helped develop the graduate writing program at NYU, but in the end, no, it didn't satisfy me.

RN: Well, we already talked about the first and second stages; tell me a little more about the third.

PS: At the third stage, students are allowed to take the Craft class. They read not as before, but as writers. So they are leading their lives the way writers lead their lives. Reading becomes a form of writing. You teach them how to behave as writers.

RN: Is there a danger that this apprenticeship might go on and on for ten, twelve years, as it used to happen with Freudian psychoanalysis?

PS: Most people, when they are confronted with the amount of work, they quit. The ones who continue, I become responsible for them. There's a lot of turnover. We have a lot of successful people, who quit after becoming successful. Of the people who stay, 50% never reach the second level. 25% of the second level move on. Most people never stay for more than 2 years.

RN: Do you ask people who want to join to show you a piece of writing?

PS: No. Some people start at the second level, if they have something like the equivalent of an MFA in writing. We have a lot of them. Otherwise, everybody has to start at the beginning. At the first level we don't have to see work. They take two ten-week sessions, and what they do at the end of those sessions is so different from anything they were doing before. Of the people who make phone inquiries about the Studio, one in ten joins. But when it comes to leaving, there are certain people to whom I gently suggest it is time to leave. If I think I can't help them anymore.



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