An Interview with A.M. Juster

A.M. Juster is an esteemed poet, translator, and editor whose work has appeared in POETRYThe Paris ReviewThe Hudson ReviewThe New CriterionArionNorth American Review, Rattle, Southwest Review, Barrow StreetHopkins Review and many other publications. He has won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award three times, the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and many other awards. He is currently Poetry Editor at Plough Quarterly. His newest poetry collection is Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books, 2020).

We had the delight to publish the poem “Vertigo” from his newest collection and to interview him for our Michaelmas 2020 issue.

Trinity House Review

Not many people can claim to have spent lockdown translating Petrarch. How’s that going? What are you up to otherwise? 

A.M. Juster

(laughter) Well, trying to translate Petrarch’s Canzoniere into enjoyable and accurate meter and rhyme is a grind, but has gone well so far. I rebooted last December after a twenty-year break by editing the twenty-five poems I included in Longing for Laura (Birch Brook Press 2001), then started in on the remaining three hundred and forty-one poems.

I try to translate at least fourteen lines every day, and have taken just one day off for translator’s fatigue and, more recently, five days off to visit our children and first grandchild. As of this mid-September day, I have translated almost two hundred poems—not just sonnets, but also ballatecanzoni, madrigals, sestinas and a double sestina. My goal is to have a complete draft by late 2021, and then work on edits, notes, and the introduction for about a year.

A major commercial publisher has expressed some interest in the project, and if close the deal we will be aiming for a 2023 launch.

I have thinned out my activities, particularly my policy writing and literary reviewing, to focus on Petrarch translation, but I have also been busy with the launch this month of Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books 2020) as well as my new duties as poetry editor for Plough Quarterly. In addition, I overtweet at @amjuster, which has for many years been Twitter’s most active place for formal poetry.

I have dropped off all my corporate and non-profit boards except for the National Alliance for Hispanic Health.

THR

After having worked so long in the White House, and initially compelled to write pseudonymously, how do you relate to the idea of ‘public poetry’?  

AMJ

I am not a big fan of poetry about the partisan politics of the moment, such as Calvin Trillin’s epigrams in The Nation. Such poems tend to be painfully predictable and become rapidly less interesting as the election cycle tumbles along. 

The greatest political poetry from Horace to Yeats, Auden, Walcott, Szymborska and Zagajewski ignores the specific disputes of the time and focuses on our successes and failures as political beings. Important political poetry also comes from poets, such as Adrienne Rich, Wendell Berry, and Terrance Hayes, whose pervasive ideologies provide new lenses for viewing the world.

THR

What are the poet’s obligations to the community, and more generally to the language?

AMJ

A poet’s obligation to the community is like a preacher’s obligation to the congregation—to speak honestly, incisively, and memorably to those whose are willing to listen. Most contemporary poetry fails that standard—it has become a Wittgensteinian language game for the literary establishment. The vacuous poetry of Ben Lerner, the author of The Hatred of Poetry, is a good example of this phenomenon—he is like an atheist trying to preach a sermon.

As for language, since today’s poets are only rarely trained in traditional prosody, they tend to believe that their first words on the page are their most genuine expressions of thought, and thus editing reduces the genuineness of their art. I often see claims by people on the Internet who claim to write eight or more poems in a day, but I believe it is impossible to write even mediocre poetry at that pace. I also see many well-known literary journals publishing sloppy, prosy work that doesn’t try to do more than describe a routine event in a poet’s life (which is also in part the legacy of people misreading Frank O’Hara’s I-did-this-I-did-that poems).

Of course, there are some notable exceptions, such as Carl Phillips, from whom I have learned a lot about the uses of complex syntax, and Kay Ryan, from whom I have learned a lot about unconventional uses of rhyme.

THR

I read “After Scattering David Berman’s Ashes” as kind of an answer to the Marlowe poem you translated. Marlowe’s is an elegantly cosmopolitan treatment of a corrupt judge, while yours is an honest, homespun tribute to a “love of lines and mercy in law”. Did you have Marlowe in mind at all when you wrote this poem?  

I don’t remember consciously thinking of the Marlowe elegy, but it probably was lurking in my subconscious because the poems are more similar than they appear at first. Ambiguity in the Marlowe elegy comes entirely from extrinsic evidence–if you didn’t know about his trial for murder from other sources, the poem would still seem skilled–but less puzzling and interesting. It’s the poem’s ambiguity that makes it resonate–did Marlowe believe his verdict was fair based on the facts and the law or was he chortling because he and the corrupt judge (and relative by marriage) who presided over the trial had undermined the legal system?

My David Berman poem also relies on ambiguities in his life that are not explicit in his poetry. This David Berman (not the rock musician/poet of the same name who also died recently) was an upbeat and kind lawyer who was a member of my writing group, the Powow River Poets. He was a throwback in terms of personal and literary tastes, and insistent on proper grammar, spelling and punctuation.

When David died, his widow asked Rhina Espaillat, Bruce Bennett and me to be his informal literary executors., As we plowed through his voluminous but disorganized papers, we discovered that we didn’t really know David at all–that he had been raised for many years in a Florida orphanage, that he had married briefly and unhappily as a young man, and that there was a darkness in his unshared work that was very different from what we saw each month at the Powow meetings.

A student of both Robert Lowell and Archibald MacLeish, David’s first book of poetry will be published next year by Able Muse Press.

THR

How has translation affected your original verse?

AMJ

Perhaps most importantly, translation helps to make a poet less parochial. Most English-speaking poets cannot even name a contemporary poet writing in a language other than English, which means that they are missing a lot.

Translation also forces poets to write about topics they would never write about on their own and to use techniques they might not use in their own work, so it is an effective way to expand a poet’s toolbox. Tying yourself down to another poet’s ideas also has a tendency to bring poems that you would like to be writing instead to the surface—at least it does for me.

I tried in Wonder and Wrath to juxtapose many of the translations with the original poems they stimulated. I felt strongly about that aspect of the book, and turned down an informal publication offer from a fine press because the editor wanted to strip out the translations. I said no, and fortunately found Paul Dry Books not much later.

THR

It’s been 17 years since your last book of original ‘serious’ poetry came out. Tell me about how Wonder & Wrath came together.

AMJ

Wonder and Wrath isn’t a “concept book,” but because I tend to write in a streaky way with three or four poems in a row on similar themes or using similar formal techniques, I think the reader will sense brief periods of focus within the book.

It took a long time for many reasons—the most important being I have never been that prolific, which is OK because Larkin and Bishop and other wonderful poets were not prolific either. Translation certainly has distracted me from original poetry to some extent. I had more family responsibilities and professional responsibilities, including running one of the first publicly traded companies that focused on rare diseases of children and then later I ran one of the most complex organizations in the world, the Social Security Administration. 

The biggest problem, though, has been my health. I took early retirement at fifty-six because I was struggling with an unusual form of rheumatoid arthritis. The treatments, including six years of low-dose chemotherapy, have been as punishing as the disease, and either the disease or the treatments caused hearing loss, vertigo, tinnitus, colitis and other issues. I write about my faltering flesh a bit in Wonder and Wrath, but the inspirations caused by my autoimmune disease don’t outweigh the lost productivity caused by fatigue.

THR

What do you make of the trend toward “concept books”? Also, at 48 poems counting the translations, Wonder & Wrath is comparatively brief. Did you leave many poems behind?

I like the idea of “concept verse,” although these days it runs the risk of becoming a political diatribe. If done well, a book focused on a central concept tends to challenge the poet to be less self-absorbed and more focused on broader ideas, both of which are good things. A good concept book or a verse novel can bring new readers to poetry, which is also a good thing.

I have a very brief start on what I would consider a “concept book” of poems languishing in the purgatory of my notebooks, but others might not think my vision satisfies their definition of a concept book. In any case, it’s high on my list after I finish my white whale project of Petrarch.

THR

You’ve said before that you compose very few poems a year. What’s your process like? 

AMJ

I don’t have much of a “process.” When I first started writing poetry seriously, a line—usually an opening line—would pop into my head and I would immediately write it down and then just try to follow where it seemed to want to go.

About twenty years ago that all changed abruptly and for no apparent reason. Since then I usually don’t start with a line or phrase, but have a more general sense of what I want the poem to be and perhaps the shape it wants to take. I now usually let that idea simmer for weeks or months before writing it down.

THR

 A lot of the collection seems preoccupied with the proper use of language, particularly with regards to the cliché, the easy poeticism. I’m thinking of ‘No’ where you write “When you compose/ a line, it is a message, not just art” and of course the poem “Proposed Clichés

AMJ

That’s exactly right—for the creation of worthwhile poetry requires a fascination with words and their textures, their histories, and their connotations. I search long and hard for that perfect word that says far more than a blander phrase that means something similar.

I found it surprising, and frustrating, when I tried getting out of my literary shell for a while and started mingling with poets who thought that my fascination with words was a little bit weird. 

THR

Even your serious verse has a streak of humor. Is humor a risk in poetry?  

Humor is a huge risk in poetry–not because readers don’t love it, but because editors won’t publish it. Newspapers, the New Yorker, and the so-called “women’s magazines” of the mid-twentieth century supported a huge audience for funny poetry, but when the gatekeepers eventually all became modernists, and modernism realized that it had to be relentlessly grim, humor started dying in poetry.

THR

Michael Donaghy, writing from London in the 1990s, lamented that it is “a crime to rhyme in the USA.” Has the situation improved at all since then? 

AMJ

I had the great pleasure of watching Michael Donaghy perform at the old West Chester Conference, and I chatted briefly with him once. He was so talented and charismatic that it made me wonder if I was wasting my time with poetry. He also contributed the phrase “my people” to my marital inside jokes.

As with most things, Michael was right. Poetry editors started softening on formal poetry a bit in the next decade, and there were such editors as Christian Wiman at Poetry, J.D. McClatchy at Yale Review, Willard Spiegelman at Southwest Review, Richard Howard at Paris Review and George Core at Sewanee Review who appreciated and would publish well-crafted formal poems. Their successors have not shared that appreciation, so it is harder at the most prestigious journals. It is also harder at other major journals that now use MFA students as “screeners”; most of these students will automatically reject formal verse because their professors have taught them it no longer has value.

THR

What new books of poetry have you enjoyed this year? 

AMJ

I was thrilled to see the new book, And After All (Able Muse Press) by my brilliant friend and mentor Rhina Espaillat, who is eighty-eight. I also got a special kick out of Jane Greer’s Love like a Conflagration (Lambing Press). Jane was almost the first editor to accept one of my poems, but her Plains Poetry Journal folded shortly thereafter and I lost touch with her for almost a quarter century— until some of her poems showed up in my First Things inbox, which I accepted. It’s a special collection.

I also published Amit Majmudar at First Things, and have enjoyed his inventive new book What He Did in Solitary (Knopf). I have just started a fine book by Ned Balbo, The Clyburn Touch-Me-Nots (Criterion Books), that won the New Criterion Prize, and I have a stack of lonely books whispering my name.