Grace Schulman: On the Edge of Her Seat

“Without a Claim,” due out in September, will be Ms. Schulman’s seventh collection of poems
Joanne Pilgrim

   During a recent visit with Grace Schulman, a poet, translator, and professor, she remarked that the phone lines at her house were full of static.
    But she hadn’t called for a repair, she said — her Springs house, and the beaches and all of the corners of the hamlet, are a refuge where she takes in the observations that later emerge in her poems.
    A former poetry editor at The Nation, where she revived a poetry contest, Ms. Schulman directed the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan for a decade.
    “At this point in my life,” she said, “I’m simply writing my poems. And I hope to do that the rest of my life.”
    Not quite true. Although she carves out quiet time for writing at her wooded refuge in Springs, she remains a distinguished professor of English at Baruch College in the city, where she still teaches several courses, as well as a poetry class at the Y. She also serves as a judge for writing contests, reading manuscripts and poems.
     “This place excites me very much,” she said on a weekend afternoon. “My earlier books had a lot to do with New York, and the buildings and the history. Coming out here, the place took hold of me. It got into my consciousness and into my poems.”
    “I’m on the edge of my seat, always,” she said of making constant observations of the world, which surface later, in new forms, in her work. “Every observation is marvelous. What was it Marianne Moore said? ‘Curiosity, observation, and a great deal of joy in the thing.’ And I’m glad to be alive.”
    The first poem in her forthcoming book “Without a Claim” is titled “Celebration,” and the book, Ms. Schulman said, “is a celebration in everything around me.”
    In New York City, she walks the streets and draws inspiration from theater, music, and the arts. Here, Gerard Park in Springs is a favorite. “I’m struck by the solitude of the place, of the clammers . . . of the sense of aloneness,” she said. “I feel that there’s a current going on and on and on, and I feel it here, and I feel it in art galleries, and I feel it in concert halls.”
    “I suppose the insights about the observations come from a deeper place,” Ms. Schulman said. “I’m very attached to the past, and to the poets who have nourished me.” She named, along with Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne.   “I feel humble; I do not create. They are creating through me, I feel — speaking through me.”
    Contemporary poets she admires include Derek Walcott, W.S. Merwin, Anne Carson, and Marilyn Hacker. Two East Hampton poets, Carol Muske-Dukes and Philip Schultz, are close friends who share her connection to the local environment and its influence on the work.
    Ms. Muske-Dukes’s poem “Green River Cemetery,” named for the Springs graveyard where numerous artists and writers are buried, is “about a concrete place,” Ms. Schulman said, “and yet it lifts itself off into spirit and life.” And “The Magic Kingdom” by Mr. Schultz, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, is, Ms. Schulman said, “a magical look at the beach here.”
    She’s also written about Louse Point, about Old Stone Highway —  “American Solitude” was written on a hike down Old Stone Highway, she said — and the Pussy’s Pond bridge, another Springs waypoint, which the poet called “the Monet footbridge.”
    “It’s difficult to know about obsessions in oneself,” Ms. Schulman said, “but there is a repeated theme I have worked on obsessively, and that has to do with borders and divisions. It occurs in all of my books; that I see the faces of people as one face; I see people without divisions, without borders. It’s in the poems.” She cited work that addresses “the borders between Israel and Jordan, the borders between people, the borders between ideas and things.”
    In a poem titled “Borders,” included in her collection “The Broken String,” she writes:

Soldiers were shot, and would be, ours, theirs,
and new borders, none deadlier than the mind’s.
Why was it then I had to cross, and why,
at that dizzying moment, fear disguised
as ignorance, I asked: “Where is the border?”
“Moved,” he answered. “Now it is where you stand.”

    Another “obsessive concern” that appears throughout her work, Ms. Schulman said, is the story of an aunt who, during World War II in Warsaw, leapt from  a tower with a Polish flag wrapped around her to protest the Poles having given her away to the Nazis.
    “Helen appears throughout my work,” she wrote in an e-mail following an interview. “Early on, during the Vietnam years, I couldn’t praise her kind of heroism. Later I saw it as an iconic act, one which drew the imagination to itself. In any case, it fired my poetry from the very beginning.”
    A job just after college as a newspaper journalist still shapes her writing, the poet said. “The art of using strong verbs and economy; all of that comes from newspaper work.”
    Before sitting down to work, she goes “into a very, very deep immersion . . . another world, really.  And when I’m there, I’m writing, and if I’m interrupted by anything, I completely lose what I have in the writing. I just shut myself in, really, to work, and I love it out here because it’s possible to do that.”
    “It feels wonderful to be writing in a time when so many poets are writing,” she added. “So many diverse poets with so many cultures.” But, she said, while there may be an effort to bring more readers to poetry, too much of it is being presented “because it’s easy . . . Marianne Moore said something I cherish: ‘It ought to be work to be reading something that took work to write.’ ”    
    A book about Moore and her work, “Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement,” was published by Ms. Schulman in 1988. She also edited the 2003 “Poems of Marianne Moore.”
    Ms. Moore was a friend of her parents, and at age 14, Ms. Schulman sent her her first poem. Ms. Moore’s reply referenced only her “flawless typing.”
    “Without a Claim,” due out in September, will be Ms. Schulman’s seventh collection of poems. She has received many honors, including the Aiken Taylor Award for Poetry, the Delmore Schwarz Memorial Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, New York University’s Distinguished Alumni Award, and a fellowship from the New York Council on the Arts, as well as three Pushcart Prizes.
    A poetry class this month at the Writers Conference at Stony Brook South­ampton will be a first for Ms. Schulman, who joins Billy Collins and Heather McHugh as the workshop’s poetry faculty this year.
    “I look forward to it,” she said. “I love to teach. I really get a charge out of my students. I’m very excited by student work and students’ growing apprehension of poetry and themselves. And I don’t even feel that I’m teaching; I’m joining them, creating something out of the past.”
    And what does she tell her classes? “Focus on language. Read, read, read, and read for language. And write for language. Develop a passion for language. Read Emily Dickinson; read Donne. Feel a part of that masterly tradition. Reading is as important as writing; they’re part of the same thing.”
    “In fact,” said Ms. Schulman, “I will advise the beginning student not to write at all, but to study the parts of speech and how they’re used. Fool around with a word salad, make up word games of various kinds, rather than go for ideas or themes. Those things come later.”