An Interview with Will Schutt
Maya C. Popa and Jen Levitt, Issue 31
We’re all interested in the stories of how books, especially first books, come to be. It was exciting, then, to be able to interview Will Schutt, whose collection Westerly was the 2012 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. Will earned his BA from Oberlin College and his MFA from Hollins University and spent several years in between living in Italy. His poems and translations appear in AGNI, FIELD, the Harvard Review, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. Will spoke with us about his evolution as a poet; what aspects of his original MFA thesis made their way into the manuscript that would become Westerly; and how living in Italy and translating Italian poetry have influenced his own attention to subject matter.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: At what age did you first get serious about poetry?
WILL SCHUTT: I grew up in a literary household in New York City, so I was surrounded by poetry and literature from the get-go. When we weren’t going to the theater, my mother, brother, and I would pick up a couple copies of, say, The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream and act it out. That was our idea of fun. Not surprisingly, my brother went on to study theater and I turned to poetry. But I wasn’t really aware of what it meant or the long, intricate evolution of poetry. Nor was I aware that such an upbringing was/ is pretty rare. And perhaps because poetry has been a continuous presence in my life, my seriousness about it is fickle. I’ve had a lot of fallings-out with poetry. I remember, after what feels like a long hiatus (probably just a year or two), my interest in poetry being reawakened my junior year of high school after reading Whitman (aloud). Then the flame sputtered out again until I was halfway through college and began writing poetry under the tutelage of Pam Alexander and Martha Collins at Oberlin College. Martha in particular urged me to write rather than recite it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How was the MFA experience for you? How close was your MFA thesis to the manuscript that would become Westerly?
WILL SCHUTT: Prior to attending Hollins, I’d been living in Italy for several years and was really out of things vis-à-vis contemporary American poetry. So the time devoted to catching up, plus the good company, was a godsend. Of course, I’m glad I put off going to a program for a while, since I’m not sure I’d have had much to say had I gone straight from undergraduate to graduate school. In a way, Italy gave me something to write about, and Hollins gave me the time to actually write. One of the great things about my teachers at Hollins—R.H.W. Dillard, Cathryn Hankla, Thorpe Moeckel, Eric Trethewey— was that they encouraged students to write across genres, to read widely, to try out different styles. They didn’t push an aesthetic agenda. It’s to Hollins’ credit that the program has produced poets as different in style and subject matter as Mary Ruefle and Natasha Trethewey. My teachers’ capacious approach to literature is reflected in their bibliographies; the fact that nearly every one of them has written fiction, nonfiction, criticism, poetry, and—in two cases—screenplays, was very appealing to me. And, I believe, brave. As for my thesis, more than a handful of those poems—or versions of those poems—made it into Westerly. Like Westerly, my MFA thesis included a middle section—a bridge—of translations. That was the only structural aspect I was clearly committed to from early on. But the length, subject, tenor, title—all those things changed dramatically—or so I like to tell myself—in the three years between the thesis and the book.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Speaking of translation, when and how did you begin your work as a translator, and how has it impacted your own work?
WILL SCHUTT: I’m not sure I feel comfortable calling myself a translator at this stage in my career. I like to translate, but I’m not the most steadfast translator. Often I’ll be reading a poem in Italian and I’ll become curious about what it might sound like in English. I’ve been reading Ungaretti recently, and once in a while I’ll scribble some English equivalent in the margins. Occasionally that urge will prompt me to translate a whole poem. All of which is to say that translation is also a means of better understanding what you’re reading. Also, translation is a further reminder that you—the autobiographical you—don’t matter. That behind any individual poet’s work there are thousands of other people’s poems written over the many millennia poetry has existed. That we’re in this poetry thing together. As the Genoese poet Edoardo Sanguineti—whose poems I have translated most assiduously—writes, “[By] now we’re kind of trying / to write the complete works of humankind, all of us, together, deep down . . . ”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Have your travels served as a creative muse of sorts?
WILL SCHUTT: Sure, of course. The heightened attention traveling arouses is akin to the attention a poet pays his or her subject. But you have to be careful not to play dress-up, or see only the pretty parts of other countries, or toss together a few details from your holiday in Goa and call it poetry. There’s a short poem in Westerly that, I think, addresses this dilemma:
A Kind of Poetry
Sometimes you turn to poetry
the way you turn to another country.
Everything is better. More humane.
You notice things you wouldn’t
otherwise. You notice things.
Watching gardeners trim
branches for birds to fly through
reminds you of holes in your own country’s trees,
which only make room for wires.
The entire center perforated
like a dart board in a dive bar.
After awhile, however, you recall
those wires carry a language you know.
When I say Italy gave me something to write about, I don’t mean that my poetry takes the country as its subject, but rather that my time there— and my travels in general lent me perspective. To be fair, however, my travels have been limited to the West, so I haven’t strayed too far from my comfort zone. Mark Strand, in a recent interview, called New York an assaultive city. And I remember thinking his estimation of the city was harsh, yet to a large extent true. I certainly felt that way, sometimes, while growing up there. It’s like the opposite of saudade; whereas (traditionally) in Portugal looking at the sea causes the viewer to long for those who have left its shores, I used to look at the Hudson, at the tugboats and ferries and water taxis, and feel assaulted by the hustle, by the people clamoring to get in. The reactionary in me didn’t want to cling to a city that so many others—writers and artists foremost—clung to. So as soon as I could, I left, thinking I’d find inspiration elsewhere. (I can hear Frank O’Hara chortling in heaven.)
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Who are some past and contemporary poets who influenced your development?
WILL SCHUTT: Where I’ve been in the world has largely determined who I’m reading and who I’m interested in. Growing up in New York, I read and relished Whitman, e.e. cummings, Hart Crane, the Beats. I even began reading the New York School poets back then. In Italy, I read the major Italian poets—Dante, Petrarch, Leopardi, Montale—as well as non-native writers on Italy, from the Brownings to Brodsky. And when I was in Ohio, I read James Wright a gazillion times. Wright taught me how to make a sinuous free-verse line, how to fuse lyricism and narrative, how to enact a complicated emotional gesture in a poem. Westerly takes its epigraph from a late Wright poem, “A Reply to Matthew Arnold on my Fifth Day in Fano.” In the poem, the poet carries a bit of wild chive to the Adriatic, an offering to a sea that may not care or that “has its own way” of caring. This is the kind of complicated gesture—struggling to be “briefly in harmony” with the natural world while also being human, and thus removed from nature—which I find so poignant in Wright’s work. A wise fool’s having it both ways. It reminds me of something Elizabeth Bishop wrote in a letter to Robert Lowell, responding to Lowell’s conversion to the Episcopalian Church: “ . . . I believe now that complete agnosticism and straddling the fence on everything is my natural posture—although I wish it weren’t.” Bishop’s restraint and quiet skepticism have also been very important to me. She is, after all, one of our great poets on travel.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: We’re thrilled to hear that you’re this year’s recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. What has the trajectory been like to get to this point? Had you sent the manuscript around previously?
WILL SCHUTT: Thanks. I’m still a bit stunned myself. I sent the manuscript out, in various forms, for two years before receiving the award from Yale. I think I have had it pretty easy compared with most folks; fully supported in graduate school, I went on to spend two years as the Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University, which afforded me ample time to work on the book. Then I was invited to be the writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House, where I finished the manuscript. Now I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Have you revised the book at all since winning the prize?
WILL SCHUTT: I tried to. I almost ruined it. I thought the book was too thin and attempted to stuff it full of irrelevant, half-baked poems. Fortunately, Carl Phillips [judge of the Yale Series] stayed my hand. Carl was a wonderful mentor. He understood my book better than I did. In the end, only slight revisions were made.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Any advice for students finishing up their MFAs?
WILL SCHUTT: I hesitate to give advice to anyone. It assumes I have advice worth listening to or, God help us, worth taking.