2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Night of the Republic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Interview by Katie Peterson
Katie Peterson: How did you react when you found out you had been named a finalist for the National Book Award?
Alan Shapiro: Truman Capote once said, “It’s a long walk between drinks.” So when I found out that I’d been nominated for this incredible award, I poured my wife and me a glass a wine and we drank to the great good luck of it all. Whether I win or not at this point is beside the point. Either way, I plan to nurse this drink for a good while.
KP: Could you talk about the meaning, and the origin, of the book’s title?
AS: Several years ago I found myself in a supermarket at 3 A.M. The place was brightly lit and no one was there but a cashier who was half asleep, and I thought what a strange place this is, a place I go to nearly every day and yet never really look at or think about, and the absence of people made it possible for me to see how truly weird it is, as if I were an anthropologist from Mars and was trying to infer from the look of the place the nature of the creatures that had built it. From there it was a natural step to examine other public places at night to see what secrets they’d yield about our way of life.
The poems in Night of the Republic are set on the fluid, ever shifting border between public and private life. The poems in the book’s title section take place in public places at night when no people are in them. The public places and structures themselves range all over the social, commercial, and political spectrum, everywhere from a gas station rest room or shoe store to a race track or convention hall. In imagery that’s as surreal and dreamlike as it is ordinary and familiar, the poems evoke the private desires and obsessions implicit in the public structures that comprise our social lives. They explore the strangeness of the public sphere, a sphere that’s weirdly everywhere and nowhere, empty and crowded. The last section of the book, on the other hand, is set in the house the poet grew up in during the 1950’s and 60’s, and while the setting is private, the house and the family who lives there are haunted by the public anxieties of the time, stemming from events like the Cuban missile crisis, or the assassination of JFK. And between the first and third sections there is a suite of poems about individuals who have in one way or another been displaced from a stable place within society and find themselves vulnerable and exposed. The book is an exploration of public life and all its rational, civic structures under the aspect of the private irrational desires those structures both accommodate and disguise.
KP: Everywhere in America, once “ordinary” places like post offices and bookstores are becoming exceptional holdouts. Many of your poems try to conjure a mood or atmosphere associated with these locations. What, if anything, are you trying to preserve?
AS: I’m trying to cultivate in myself (and I guess in my readers) habits of wonder. I’m trying to strip the world of its everyday veneer, its illusion of permanence and inevitability, so we can we how profoundly strange and evanescent even the most ordinary and routine features of our normal lives actually are. I’m trying to see everything as if for the first time, in a state of astonishment. To be at one and the same time at home in these places and astonished by them—to me that’s a definition of a happy (alive, alert) way of being. I’m not trying to preserve anything except that feeling of wonder.
KP: Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “things need us and strangely concern us.” The poems in the last section of your book are structured around memory, but tend to be haunted by things rather than people. Why do you think this is?
AS: I think things and places are mnemonic devices; they’re my Proustian Madeleine. It’s easier to write about a thing than a person, or about a place or structure than a relationship. I guess this is another way of saying that I’m looking for objective correlatives to internal states, something to make the shadowy memories concretely visible.
KP: Are there special challenges, do you think, to being an American poet?
AS: Sure, because like most Americans my identity resides in the hyphen between Jewish and American. My identity is quintessentially American because of its impurity, its mongrel status, its jerry-built construction, pieced together as it is from a wide variety of histories which are in turn informed by even wider and more heterogeneous histories. My identity is what it is because I read the Torah as a kid, because Yiddish idioms and intonations permeated the American English that my parents and grandparents spoke; because my grandfather on my father's side had been conscripted into the Czar's army and ran away to the New World where he became a big shot meat dealer—Phillip Shapiro, M.D., is how he'd introduce himself; because I grew up hearing stories like this on both sides of my family, stories of immigration, success and failure in the New World, stories that reiterated the biblical stories of exodus and desert wandering. My identity is what it is because of Adolf Hitler, whose evil I grew up hearing about at every dinner conversation; because so many of my neighbors were Holocaust survivors who warned me if I didn't learn Hebrew and get Bar Mitzvahed and live a good Jewish life I'd be finishing the work that Hitler started; my identity is what it is because, despite these admonitions, I hated Hebrew school, hated being stuck in a classroom learning a language no one I knew spoke while all my gentile friends were out in the playground playing basketball, and so in protest I refused to learn a word of it, and, much to my parents' embarrassment, stayed back three years in a row and nearly failed to get Bar Mitzvahed ("no better than a Nazi," my Hebrew teachers used say of me). My identity is what it is because during the Cuban missile crisis I was certain I and everyone on the planet was going to die in a nuclear holocaust; it's what it is because of Vietnam, because of The Six Day War, because of Woodstock, and because while my parents and their friends were singing "If I were a rich man, a baba biba biba baba biba biba biba bum," I and my friends were singing "Who put the bob in the bob shebob shebop, who put the bam in the bamalama ding dong." My identity is also what it is because I write in English and was schooled in the Classical and Christian literary traditions of English literature, traditions which are themselves edgy amalgams of different languages, different conquered and conquering cultures, city-states, empires—because the language I speak and write in is itself the effect of dispossession and displacement, murder, rape, and interbreeding. How to make room for all of that, to bring the whole messy soul into activity, is the challenge that American poets face, each in his or her own particular way.
KP: What were you trying to do differently in this book than in your other
AS: All of my other books are highly narrative. The lyricism is usually subordinated to the story the poems embody. They are generally personal, generally autobiographical. But in this book the narrative elements are subordinated to lyric evocation, and instead of being focused on people and relationships they’re focused on structures and things. I wanted to write a book grounded in personal experience while avoiding any mention of “the self,” of the pronoun I.
Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2006), and two forthcoming collections, The Accounts (University of Chicago, 2013) and Permission (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2014). The recipient of fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, she is Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University.