Grace Schulman received the 2016 Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in American Poetry, awarded by the Poetry Society of America. Her seventh collection of poems is Without a Claim (Mariner Books, 2013). Her forthcoming memoir is Strange Paradise: Portrait of a Marriage (Turtle Point Press, 2018), and her collection of essays is First Loves and Other Adventures (U of Michigan Press, 2010).
Among her honors are the Aiken Taylor Award for poetry, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, New York University's Distinguished Alumni Award, and a Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has won five Pushcart Prizes and has been featured seven times on Poetry Daily.
Editor of The Poems of Marianne Moore (Viking, 2003), she is Distinguished Professor of English at Baruch College, C.U.N.Y. Schulman is former director of the Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, 1974-84, and former poetry editor of The Nation, 1971-2006. Her poems, essays, and translations have been published widely, here and abroad. She lives in New York City and East Hampton, N. Y.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was Burn Down the Icons: Poems (Princeton), the first of seven books of poems. It did change my life. I went from being a poet writing in obscurity to an author praised in the New York Times Book Review by a critic I didn't know. I received letters from poets in other countries. As to my recent work, it feels the same. I tell my students that if you're dedicated, you're as much of a writer now as you'll ever be.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or nonfiction?
Poetry is fiction. I haven't written prose novels. I have written essays about poetry or about my life as a writer. How did I come to poetry first? I was nurtured by my mother, a poet, and mentored by Marianne Moore, a family friend I first met when I was fourteen.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It takes forever, and it is "never finished, only abandoned." I do take notes, but seldom look at them. I write every day for 3-5 hours.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love to read, just as I love to teach. I love to see the audience I imagine as I write.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I write to engage the soul. And to praise. As Auden wrote, "a poem must praise all it can for being and for happening.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
As Shelley wrote, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." I believe that.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I enjoy the feedback, especially if the editor has a light hand.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In a letter to me, Marianne Moore wrote: "If what you write asserts itself,please disregard anything I say." I've held that to my heart over the years. Another, more recent statement, was made (not to me directly) by the late J.D.McClatchy: "Poetry was made to complicate our sense of things, not pamper them." That one is over my desk.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
This is answered fully in my own Q & A. It's the subject I think most about these days. Very briefly, in a poem experience is transformed by the imagination. What you write does not have to have happened to you. In a prose memoir, it does. But the writer can shape a narrator that changes and learns and grows. Thus the story, though true, can be transformed in that it's seen through her eyes.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I rise at 5 or 6 and write for 3-5 hours. Every day. I've done that for years. Among other reasons, I'm a professor at Baruch College, C.U.N.Y. and have to face students after a day's work writing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Jazz. Music at Lincoln Center. Paintings at the Met Museum, especially Netherlandish.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Answered in #12.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Catullus, Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wyatt, Emily Dickinson, Borges, Kafka. For my new memoir, Nabokov, Orwell, Edmund Gosse.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish my eighth book of poems, "The Sand Dancers."
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
See question #2
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
My eighth book of poems, The Sand Dancers.