An Interview with Janet Lewis
First published in Tundra #1, July 1999, pages 16–46, Michael Dylan Welch, editor. Interview conducted by Catherine J. Kordich and Michael Dylan Welch in April of 1997 and April of 1998 at the Los Altos, California home of Janet Lewis and her late husband, Yvor Winters. Introduction by Catherine J. Kordich. At the time of the interview, Catherine was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her dissertation examined the nostalgias expressed in Southern California literatures from the 1860s to the 1940s. Kordich had recently finished a book about novelist John Fante for Twayne Publishers, and has since written books about John Steinbeck and Jane Austen, both introduced by Harold Bloom. For assistance in transcribing the recorded interview, of which the following is an almost complete but edited transcription, Catherine and Michael thank Emily Klein, Randy Cudd, and Anouchka Mari. See Dick Davis’s obituary of Janet Lewis in The Independent. See also a Stanford University press release, which discusses a 1933 Palo Alto murder trial that influenced Janet’s writing of her most famous book, The Wife of Martin Guerre, published in 1941. First photograph by Brigitte Carnochan. + + + +
by Catherine J. Kordich and Michael Dylan Welch
A true woman of letters, Janet Lewis (1899–1998) braved and handily mastered five literary genres. Primarily a poet, she also wrote novels, short stories, children’s stories, and opera libretti. It was a testament to her intellectual vivacity that the subjects of her work were able to artfully carry the preoccupations of her heart and mind: Trained by her English professor father in classic British literature, Lewis found her own way to Native American arts, European legal histories, Japanese literature, and U.S. literatures. For all the interest she maintained in different literary genres, her poetry was most important to her. As Lewis tells us in the following interview, she felt that “poetry itself is better than prose.” That her most lasting investment was in poetry is shown by the fact that the first and last books she published, in 1922 and 1994, were collections of poetry.
Lewis was twenty-three, a University of Chicago graduate, and recently returned from a year working in Paris when Monroe Wheeler published Lewis’s first book. The Indians in the Woods (1922) strikes one as in keeping with the Imagist poetry movement with which Lewis is often associated. Ezra Pound distinguished Imagist poetry as unfettered by superfluous words and providing clear, significant imagery. Imagism’s rhythms have been assessed as musical or like that of common speech patterns, but in any case, more natural than that of some of the late nineteenth century’s stagey, rhetorical poetry. Lewis’s poems in this first collection are spare, finely-built structures reminiscent of H.D.’s compositions. Set in the Michigan wilderness (where Lewis, as a child and young woman, spent many formative summers), The Indians in the Woods sequences short poems that evoke the Ojibway culture. Here is a selection, entitled “The Village”:
Among grey cones
Odor of sweet grass
And warm bodies;
Burnt fish, about
The lukewarm stones,
And the night, like ice,
Cuts color and odor
Like flowers under a sickle.
These bodies, so still
In the deluge
Of fine air.
In this poem vitality (village, sweet grass, warm bodies) coexists with deadening forces (night, ice, sickle). Nature here is in the process of cooling—stones near a once-hot fire are in this moment lukewarm, and the bodies warm at the poem’s inception are simply “bodies” by the poem’s end. Like much of Lewis’s poetry, “The Village” offers sensual connections: vision manifested in color and concrete object (grey cones, fish, stone, ash), the combined smelled and tasted presences of sweet grass and burnt fish. The third stanza’s arresting simile, “And the night, like ice, / Cuts color and odor / Like flowers under a sickle,” broaches an abstraction (scarce in Imagism) that associatively remarks on the experience of the Ojibway under European settlers, a theme that reappears in Lewis’s historical novel The Invasion (1932).
Like much of Lewis’s work and certainly like the Japanese poetics she had studied, this poem boils down to the essence of the thing. Adjectives are kept trim. Nouns stand firm, almost shorn of the connections that verbs provide. The absence of hyperbole in her art lends it an atmosphere of graceful veracity—a quality that Lewis herself possessed. In this interview she answered questions with consideration and her lively speech moved via well-chosen nouns and few adjectives.
While her poetry was her first, last, and most significant literary love, it was her three historical novels set in Europe, all centered on philosophical conflicts of ethics and conscience, honesty and deception, that brought Lewis her largest audience. Set in sixteenth-century Gascony, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) tells the story of a good woman happily deceived by a better man than the long-lost husband he purports to be. When the real husband reappears years later, the woman is ruined. It is a credit to Lewis’s philosophical narrative that she deftly convinces us that the tragedy lies not in the destruction of her heroine’s happiness, but in her error. Her best-known novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre, is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece of American literature. The novel so impressed composer William Bergsma that he asked Lewis to write the libretto for his opera The Wife. She went on to write libretti for an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans as well as other pieces.
Over seventy-odd years, in her twenty books, Lewis’s poetry and prose have maintained their finely-crafted character. As long and as much as she wrote, Lewis’s was not a famous name, and while this hardly distressed her, her insufficient recognition has annoyed many of her admirers who frequently comment that Lewis’s is a very significant contribution to American letters. One of those admirers, Larry McMurtry, praises Lewis in his recent appreciation of her novels in the New York Review of Books. McMurtry describes her as “a striking example of a quiet talent working quietly through almost the entirety of a noisy, celebrity-heavy century” (“The Return of Janet Lewis.” New York Review of Books 45:10 [June 11, 1998]: 21–25).
She had indeed been working quietly, but she had not been working alone. In Lewis’s creative and personal life, the bounty of friendships she forged and maintained is nothing short of remarkable. Janet Lewis was born outside Chicago in the last August of the nineteenth century. The arts, both literary and graphic, sustained equally the professional and personal interests of the Lewis family. Her father Edwin was a college professor of English. Her mother Elizabeth was connected to the arts and supportive of her creative family, though, according to Lewis, she did not herself have professional aspirations. Her brother, Herbert, was an artist; he drew the cover illustration of Lewis’s first novel, The Invasion. Her parents counted among their friends Poetry magazine founder and editor Harriet Monroe. The circle of artistic individuals surrounding the Lewis family in the early part of this century marked the first literary group with which Janet Lewis was connected.
The Lewises spent their summers on a Michigan island in the St. Mary’s River where Janet Lewis met the Johnstons, an Ojibway family with whom she became very close. The stories the Johnstons told her of their family and culture’s mythology enchanted Lewis and sparked in her a lifelong admiration for and fascination with Native American cultures. The Johnstons’s stories are the subject of Lewis’s The Invasion.
Her membership in the select Poetry Club at the University of Chicago (1918–1920) initiated another set of strong relationships for Lewis. The people in that group, among them Glenway Wescott and Elizabeth Madox Roberts, would prove to be life-long friends as well as influences on her creative work. And it was through the Poetry Club that Lewis initiated her profound relationship with A.[rthur] Yvor Winters, her future collaborator and husband.
A serious bout with tuberculosis kept her in a Santa Fe sanitarium for four years—the same sanitarium in which Winters himself had earlier recovered from tuberculosis. When Lewis was well enough, she and Winters married. In 1927 they settled in Los Altos, California, near Stanford University where Winters would teach until 1966. Lewis herself occasionally taught at Stanford. Together she and her husband wrote and raised children Joanna and Daniel and tended to Winters’ Airedales, Lewis’s goats, and the fruit trees in the backyard. Best known as a New Critic of the absolutist variety, Winters was also a writer and a committed mentor to generations of young poets. Alongside Winters, Lewis encouraged the growth of a bumper crop of poets including J. V. Cunningham, Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Thom Gunn, Ann Stanford, and Robert Hass. After Winters’ death in 1968, Lewis wrote on and maintained her close friendships with her fellow and novice authors.
Friends and relations perpetually found their way to Lewis’s front door and any given visit always meant finding someone interesting to chat with. The afternoon Michael and I spent there, the phone trilled merrily and often. As in any inviting household, the kitchen is the room that saw the most activity and it was there especially that one felt the presence of the accomplished individuals who made themselves at home there. In her meeting with Larry McMurtry, Lewis mentioned the evening when dinner guest Nabokov grabbed a towel and dried the dishes. Photographs of Lewis’s large extended family and numerous friends found full expression on the kitchen’s refrigerator. Though of course never an animate Los Altos visitor, Emily Dickinson’s quiet countenance appeared in a print hanging next to the kitchen sink.
The following interview was conducted on two occasions. The first time, I talked with Lewis at her kitchen table over a couple of mugs of tea. Her honey-colored cat Lolly (Lollius, after Chaucer’s fabricated philosopher) made his way onto the table where he busied himself with watching the tea’s steam and inspecting the flowers on the table. On the day of the second interview Lewis’s cousin Audrey shared her visit with Michael and me. Herself an artist, Audrey also makes excellent sandwiches that we happily ate during an interview break with her and Lewis in the bright, tidy kitchen.
The second interview was conducted in the modestly proportioned, book-lined living room. The very tall eucalyptus trees around the house dappled the daylight that softly illuminated the living room. The wet winter lingered and on this overcast March day the front garden’s calla lilies, freesias, and snowdrops were white variations on the green foliage of ivy and lawn. Lewis, in corduroy chinos and a hand-knit sweater, smiled and held the front door open for us as we came up the walkway. She invited us to sit down in comfortable chairs across from the sofa where she sat. During the interview, as we asked her about Chicago, Japanese poetry, Native American poetry, her prose, and her views on poets she’d known, we saw a woman—and it must be noted that she was ninety-eight—who spoke with invigorating intellectual energy. Lewis’s responses to our questions frequently jested and her opinions were sure-footed. The beatific and ubiquitous Lolly this time ambled across coffee and library tables and spent a long time listening to our conversation from the warm perch that was the VCR. For much of the interview, Lolly’s favorite place was on the sofa within the range of Janet’s attentive hands.
Janet Lewis was in her Los Altos home among a few friends and family members when she quietly passed away on Tuesday morning, December 1, 1998. The substantial obituaries published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The San Francisco Chronicle testify to Lewis’s significance as an author and an influence. In this interview, which we understand to be her last one, she shares stories of her affair with literature.
—Catherine J. Kordich, Santa Cruz, California
Partial List of Janet Lewis’s Works in Chronological Order
The Indians in the Woods. Bonn, Germany: Monroe Wheeler, 1922; republished with an introduction by Lewis. Palo Alto, California: Matrix Press, 1980.
Poems Old and New, 1918–1978. Chicago: Swallow Press/Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981.
The Dear Past and Other Poems 1919–1994. Edgewood, Kentucky: Robert L. Barth, 1994.
The Invasion: A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St. Mary’s. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932; Chicago: Swallow Press, 1960.
The Wife of Martin Guerre. San Francisco: Colt Press, 1941; Denver: Alan Swallow, 1963.
The Trial of Sören Qvist. Garden City: Doubleday, 1947; London: Gollancz, 1967.
The Wife of Martin Guerre: An Opera. Music by William Bergsma. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1958; Santa Barbara, California: J. Daniel, 1988.
The Last of the Mohicans: An American Opera Freely Adapted from the Novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Music by Alva Henderson. Wilmington, Delaware: Wilmington Opera Society, 1978.
~ ~ ~
On Imagism, Early Years,
and the University of Chicago’s Poetry Club
and the University of Chicago’s Poetry Club
Q: Tell us a little about the Imagist movement with which your poetry is associated. How do you define Imagism?
A: It was a mode or fashion for a while. It was poetry written primarily with images and not bothering as much about the metrical form. The feeling was that the image could carry enough meaning. It looked easier—easier than straight verse. We were being very imagistic at the university: it was new, it had a name, and it was not being taught in classes yet.
Q: Did you at that time consider yourself an Imagist?
A: No, I don’t think so. By the time I began publishing, much of my poetry was very short and I was very much influenced by translations from the Indians, which were short and pretty heavily Imagist.
Q: Were you comfortable being called an Imagist?
A: Oh sure. Why not? What does it matter?
Q: What role do you think Imagism played in American poetry?
A: It was very popular and that was good. And for many people, it’s an easier approach. And Imagists do seem to make better poetry. Of course, there is poetry that is written entirely in conceptual words, and sometimes it is very beautiful. But in general, people really do like images. And good poetry is full of them.
Q: Are there some things that Imagist poetry cannot do? Are there limitations?
A: Limitations of the individual, I suppose.
Q: Speaking about Imagist poetry . . . T. S. Eliot spoke of the “objective correlative”—that for an emotion you want to convey in poetry, there can be an object that represents that emotion and that by using the concept of the objective correlative you can bring the emotions about by referring to objects and relying on the natural reaction people have to certain things. It enables you to focus on nouns and things and to me that connects with Imagism.
A: Of course. That is what Imagism is, isn’t it? I’d agree with Eliot, but that is kind of a fancy phrase.
Q: It’s the naming of things, often. But this maintains that it is an objective rather than a subjective thing.
A: Yes, but frequently [in poetry] you are giving a list of things that are emotionally powerful, which is why you’re talking about them.
Q: Is part of what makes Imagism work a similar naming of things?
A: I suppose. There have been incantations since time began. Out of a wish to make something appear, we invoke things.
Q: Connecting that with haiku poetry, do you think it is the image that makes a haiku poem work, or something else?
A: Well, if it’s not an image, then it’s an idea, which can be as firm as an image, I guess.
Q: Does that belong in haiku . . . an idea?
A: I should think so. They should have ideas, or carry them. I’m no specialist in haiku. I just know it’s a very short form. And people think it’s therefore very easy, but in Japanese, of course, it’s different. You have to remember your longs and your shorts [vowels].
Q: I’m interested in the Poetry Club at the University of Chicago. What was the group like?
A: I think I was invited to apply. It was a very small group. The first autumn I was there they had a poetry prize so I sent in some poems for that. Robert Morss Lovett was in charge of [the competition]. I submitted a group of poems, but I didn’t get the prize. In fact, nobody I knew got the prize. The Poetry Club was given all the rejects . . . that is, all the rejected manuscripts. And through that I got into the club. The president of the club at that time  was Glenway Wescott. It was a very small group: the poems were good and the criticism was fierce. We would meet once a week, on campus, and we would throw our poems unsigned on the table and the president read them all and we would comment. In the beginning, I didn’t know who the other writers were, but pretty soon it was clear.
Q: What kind of criticism might one receive in the Poetry Club?
A: Well, your poetry could be torn apart . . . lack of rhythm or too much rhythm or vocabulary or just not being interesting. We took our poetry very seriously—anybody who submitted poetry could be raked over the coals. Once I remember when Wescott was in charge, he looked at the (group’s) poetry first and decided not to read any of it: he felt it wasn’t any good.
Q: It seems to me that fierce criticism, even if hurts sometimes, is good for you as a poet. Do you think that’s true?
A: Of course. The wonderful thing about the group was when somebody cared about it . . . and we were perfectly honest too. The honesty was a great blessing, otherwise it [the endeavor] would’ve been dead on its feet. The group was small: from five to eight people usually. Glenway Wescott was the president when I was invited to join. Maurice Lesemann was in the group; he went on to become a businessman, but one who loved art and music. Elizabeth Madox Roberts was in the group; she was one of my very best friends. She and I shared each other’s work.
Q: Where did the Poetry Club meet?
A: At the University of Chicago there’s a hall that had sitting rooms for small groups. We were in 2-C. It was very pleasant indeed. We [the members of the club] also got together informally and did a lot of walking the streets—which is one of the best times to visit.
Q: How long did you meet with the group?
A: For the two years I was at the university and then, with many of them, off and on for the rest of their lives.
Q: You mentioned once that Maurice Lesemann [the president of the Poetry Club after Glenway Wescott] had encouraged the group to read poetry by poets not taught at the university. Can you remember who they were?
A: Adelaide Crapsey wasn’t taught so far as I remember.
Q: What kind of reputation did Crapsey have at that time?
A: A very small and sort of secret one. We knew her work through Harriet Monroe.
Q: Did you ever try to write cinquains?
A: I think I must have.
Q: I read that she based her cinquains on some of her studies of haiku.
Q: What did you learn from the poetry group about writing?
A: For one thing, I branched out and experimented more. You wanted to make sure you had poems, something to read, every week—even if they were going to tear them apart. So I stopped being an entirely personal poet, just writing what was in my heart—things that were just crying out to be expressed.
Q: Did the Poetry Club admire Carl Sandburg’s work?
A: Yes, but I don’t think they thought he was Keats.
Q: What other poets were admired by the club?
A: Robinson. And everybody knew Frost.
Q: How would you get new poetry? Were there magazines that were important?
A: The magazine that was most important for us was Poetry magazine in Chicago, which was edited by Harriet Monroe. I worked there for a couple of weeks once. As a matter of fact, I knew Miss Monroe as a child because she was a friend of my father’s.
Q: Your father was a teacher?
A: He taught at a place called the Lewis Institute (no relation). He taught English literature.
Q: Who was an important influence to you growing up?
A: Shakespeare. Matthew Arnold. Blake. Thomas Hardy, though I didn’t grow up with Hardy; I was at least twenty before I discovered him. My father happened not to have bothered with Hardy yet and they weren’t teaching him in schools. Hildegarde Flanner, later perhaps she influenced me. She was an interesting poet and novelist. Ultimately, I don’t know who was influential or not. I enjoyed a lot of Robinson’s poems because they had substance and music. We loved Stevens, especially “Sunday Morning.” That poem’s still the best I think, but he can get a little self-indulgent, but you just take it for what it is and enjoy it and don’t expect every poem to be a great poem.
Q: Are there any poets you grew to love that you didn’t particularly love the first time you read them?
A: I don’t know, I warmed up to poetry pretty fast. I’m still learning to appreciate poetry. Walt Whitman. I never really caught up with Walt Whitman. Maybe someday I’ll read more of him.
Q: Can you think of some poets you loved to watch read?
A: People in the Poetry Club. Sandburg was a good performer and his records are beautiful.
Q: Do you remember your first published poem?
A: It was probably “I Know What Little Cabins the Passing Freighters See” [“The Freighters”]. It must’ve been published in Forge, which was from the university. And there was something in the east—Cambridge or somewhere—that somebody was taking poems for—and I remember I submitted a couple of poems that they accepted there. It was something about Ojibway sails . . . not much of a poem, but it got me into the running, so to speak.
Q: Did you ever publish in The Dial?
A: Sure, I published a translation of Valéry in The Dial, but I don’t think I ever published anything of my own there. I did send them many short stories, but they kept sending them back.
Q: I had a question about The Little Review—did you know Margaret Anderson and Jane Heath?
A: I never met Margaret Anderson. Jane Heath was at the Lewis Institute while my father taught and she was there before I was . . . so I followed on her heels. She belonged to a sorority, oddly enough. By the time I got to the Lewis Institute she had gone, probably to Paris. I never met Jane Heath. She was just a familiar name, and then of course [I knew who she was] from The Little Review.
Q: Did you have any connections with The Little Review?
A: No, I really didn’t except to get it when I could; it was rather elusive.
Q: What about the Dill Pickle Club?
A: Well, I went there once. A lot of people were talking, I was rather disappointed. It was supposed to be a bohemian and artistic club of Chicago.
Q: Was it Leftist?
A: It was rather confused. It was Bohemian with a capital “B.” I think I only went once. I think Maurice Lesemann took me and I don’t know who hung out . . . early Chicago people. You know, it was not a working outfit, not serious.
Q: Do you know why it was named that?
A: For fun, I’m sure.
Q: Tell us how you met Carl Sandburg.
A: He lived in Elmhurst, which is not far from Chicago and Oak Park. I think the first time I met him, he came into the Poetry Club, which was very nice of him because we were a small bunch and not that important. [We invited him back] but he said: “You know, it’s a long trip and I have to go on the rattlers [the elevated trains].” I met him so many times after that . . . but certainly it was first through the Poetry Club. When I was in Santa Fe some time later he came through on his way west and he stayed in Santa Fe with a girl—Lucy Sturges—who was a friend of mine. I went down to her house to visit with him a couple of times and on that trip—either coming or going—he got word that his mother had died and I remember him saying that that was a “real body blow,” which was typical Sandburgian rhetoric, and he was sincere, of course. So then, when he was out here lecturing at Stanford I met him, of course, and we spent the evening together because by then we were old friends.
Q: When you got together would you talk about writing?
A: Yes, we talked about writing, because he’d read The Invasion and was very kind, and talked to me about it, and was quite enthusiastic.
Q: Did you ever meet Robert Frost?
A: Yes, I had lunch with Robert Frost and his wife once at a place called the Petit Gourmet, which is a restaurant on the near North Side of Chicago. It was run by Mrs. Harriet Vaughn Moody, the widow of the poet.
Q: How did that lunch meeting come about?
A: Actually, I think Mrs. Frost was a friend of a friend of my mother’s. I went with my mother and the friend. See, all these women and then Frost—it was very nice, very quiet and then I heard him read there once about the same time, one of the Sunday evening things. That would have been in the early twenties.
Q: Was your mother very interested in the literary scene?
A: She was just a wonderful reader and audience and did things with me a great deal.
Q: Did she herself write?
A: No, she didn’t except letters, tons of letters, which I mean to read someday. I’ve been keeping them. She really had a gift for language, but she did not do anything with it. I think she felt there were too many writers in the family already.
Q: Another question I had—getting back to Chicago and Oak Park in particular—did you have any connection with Frank Lloyd Wright?
A: Well, not personally. I met him when I went to hear him lecture when he was at Stanford. My brother lived in a house that had [in it] Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio. I knew his sister and my mother knew his sister very well and she went to a party at the house. You know, he was around and I met Mrs. Wright, his much-divorced wife.
Q: When you were in Chicago did you meet Edgar Rice Burroughs?
A: I think my brother met him. I think he was part of a little squad of men who rehearsed military formations in Oak Park. Yeah. My brother was amused by that, that Burroughs was a writer as well as a squad man.
Q: When were you at the University of Chicago?
A: It would have been 1918 to 1920. I got my B.A. in 1920.
Q: And then you went to Paris?
A: And then I went to Paris. It was a wonderful opportunity to go to France. . . . I didn’t want to stay home, I just simply wanted to go somewhere, I guess, and French was important to me.
Q: You were a French major?
Q: Was the literary scene part of the draw?
A: The literary scene was mostly Cocteau and of course, I didn’t go near him . . . I didn’t even try. I was busy enough keeping up with the language and with a number of not-famous artists whom I met in studios. When I went over later with my son, we had introductions. Stewart Gilbert—he introduced us to French writers. Afterwards, we [she and her son Daniel] went to London and they were playing Gilbert and Sullivan, but by that time Danny was saying “Jil-bere” and Sullivan.
Q: What groups were you involved with in California?
A: Well, when my husband and I moved out here, he was a graduate student at Stanford and we decided to start a journal called Gyroscope . It was mimeographed and not on very good paper. I think we did four issues: we made it through a year. We met a good many people that way including Howard Baker and other poets. There was a very charming Japanese man that we met during those years, Ben’ichi Kagawa.
Q: Did you and your husband share each others’ work?
A: Oh yes. I met him entirely though the poems. I read his, he read mine. Yvor Winters was also in the Poetry Club. Elizabeth and Glenway were in correspondence with Winters, who was in Santa Fe recover-ing from tuberculosis in a sanitarium. We sent our poems down to Winters and wrote long letters. A couple of years after that—I think I’d been to France and come back—Winters was well and he came to see Elizabeth on campus and I met him there. After that we corresponded. Then I went to Santa Fe and tutored a child at the sanitarium. I went to many Indian dances and met many people in town. And then I went back to Michigan at the end of the summer and got a terrible cold that developed very rapidly into TB and all of a sudden I was sicker than I’d ever been before and they simply shipped me back to the sanitarium as a patient and I spent the next few years there getting well. My earlier job there turned out to be very handy since I was well-known there. It was like going home. I love Santa Fe. The opera there is lovely, even if it rains. Once I was there and the seats filled up with water. We stood there and stuck it out while the thunder roared.
On Important Places and Native American Poetry
Q: It seems that the location of your poems and prose is important to the entirety of the piece.
A: Yes, very important. The world I live in is very important to me. I don’t write about people in empty spaces. Or people on a theoretical level. I don’t think I’ve ever written a story about people who were not closely related to the world in which they were living. Some of the places that have been very important to me are Santa Fe and Paris, Michigan, where I grew up, and Illinois, where I went to high school and college. I would love to see Michigan again, but I’ve no great desire to see Illinois. I went to high school there in Oak Park with that guy, what is his name . . . Hemingway. I knew vaguely who Ernie was there, but I knew his sister better.
Q: Does California feel like home now?
A: Yes, I hope so. New Mexico felt like home indeed—I fell in love with it immediately. I thought I’d never leave it. I felt very close to the Indians in New Mexico. There was no particular reason I felt such a close affinity with them. I’ve known Indians in a way since I was a little girl in the summers in Michigan. It was no great problem to shift from the Ojibway to the Pueblo. I love the Navajo poetry. In translation, of course.
Q: How do certain places show up in your imagination? When I say Michigan, what do you think of?
A: I think of a place called Neebish Island, which is south of the Sault Ste. Marie, in north Mackinaw. A very big island there is called St. Joseph’s; on the other side is Neebish. In fact, the river is full of islands and we spent our summers out there. My father discovered the place when I was a year old and except for the three summers that we went to Rhode Island because of my grandparents, we spent most of the rest of our time on Ib-ish, and had a cabin on the American side; later, when I was in France, my father bought a place on the Canadian side, just across the channel.
Q: That’s where you came in contact with Ojibway culture?
A: Yes. It’s Ojibway territory. When we first got there, my father had met the Johnston family and Grandmother Johnston was pure Ojibway. Their son was, I think, French with a touch of Irish, but mostly Ojibway—that was Howard Johnston, who I knew very well, of course, and then the other Johnston family: Miss Molly, Miss Charlotte, and so on. [This is the family that Lewis writes about in her novel, The Invasion.] John Johnston came to that area in 1792 and wound up at the Soo and later at a place called Chegoimegon and met an Ojibway woman there and married.
Q: He was a trader?
Q: How about some other places, such as New Mexico . . . what comes to mind?
A: Santa Fe. Unfortunately I spent most of my time in Santa Fe in bed, but not all.
Q: When recovering from TB?
Q: The Santa Fe air is good for that?
A: Yes, it’s wonderful. I had gone to Santa Fe first as a tutor for a kid who had a tubercular knee and was getting sun treatment for it, which was perhaps new at the time. I don’t know what they use for it now . . . at that time, sun was the cure [there was a doctor there who] was an expert at it. So either you went to Switzerland and got the sun there or went to New Mexico and got the sun there.
Q: Did you go to the pueblos? To Taos?
A: Oh yes, for celebrations often. I spent most of one Christmas Eve and one Christmas night [in the pueblo]. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant and some other people from Sunmount [the sanitarium] had rented a car and stuck around San Felipe until [the residents] danced. And they danced very late—they waited until midnight [to begin]. Then we went down to Santo Domingo and they danced some more. I remember sleeping in a pueblo, on the floor, on a pile of other people’s coats, and waking now and then to see the owner of the house, I think, putting bits of wood in the fireplace to keep the fire going that night.
Q: Did the Pueblo Indians seem like kindred people to the Ojibway?
A: I felt very comfortable with the Pueblos, but so does everybody. They’re very hospitable people. The Ojibway I didn’t know in quantity; I knew them just as a few individuals and their traditions.
Q: What about Illinois as a place, how does that show up in your imagination?
A: Well, Oak Park, I guess. It doesn’t show up much.
Q: What about California? It certainly shows up in your work often.
A: I think probably the landscape shows up because I was pleased with the landscape.
Q: There’s talk now and then of the idea of regional poetry and the value of that or the limitations of it. How would you think the regional concept applies to your work?
A: I don’t think of my work as regional. God help me, no.
Q: Do you not like the idea of regional?
A: Well, I do like it when ideas come out of the landscape. I mean, you probably choose your images from something you’ve grown up with and know and so forth, but we all move around so much. You could say well, Robert Frost, he must be regional if anybody. Or Carl Sandburg and cornhuskers, if you want to call them regional. So, it flavors the poetry, but the important thing is beyond that.
Q: Do you write consciously to try to be beyond that limited . . .
A: No, I don’t think about it. If I’m writing, I’m writing about the subject, I’m not trying to be anywhere in particular.
Q: What about Navaho poetry? Are there some poems you recall as favorites?
A: Yes, “The Magpie” [Lewis recites from memory]:
You’re underneath the white of his wings
at the footsteps of the morning
it dawns, it dawns.
I think it’s a great little poem, but maybe it’s over too fast. I forget who translated it. I have a very nice book of translations from Indian languages, mostly the Navaho . . . maybe this is because the researcher found more poems there. The translations of the Ojibway poems were never very fascinating; I don’t remember trying to memorize any of them.
Q: What do you think makes the Navaho poem work for you? Is it its connection to nature, or something else?
A: Hmmm. What makes any poem work? They’re probably pretty good in the Navaho and the translation is good too. If the kernel of a poem can come through in another language . . .
Q: Can you recall a poem of your own that has the same kind of Navaho spirit?
A: I don’t know, I haven’t been thinking about my own poetry for a long time. I think I’ll leave that one for you.
Q: How would you characterize Navaho poetry?
A: All that I’ve known has been ritual . . . chants.
Q: What similarities do you see between Native American poetry and Japanese poems?
A: I should think [they are] probably fairly close. The image can carry through [the translations of those poems]: it’s very hard to carry the music through another language, another feeling of rhythm and song.
On Haiku and Tanka
Q: When did you first encounter haiku?
A: Early, about when I was at the university [1918–1920]. Haiku was not being used a lot at the time. In fact, haiku poems were so short that to some people they looked like a cop-out. I began to learn enough about Japanese to realize the differences in how it worked. I knew the symbols and what each one meant. I don’t think haiku really goes so well in English. I think seventeen syllables are not enough. With seventeen syllables you have to be careful. It works out better in Japanese and we need our natural rhythms, I think. Haiku has been very popular here, I think partly for the wrong reasons. It looks so simple and, in English, of course, it does become simple, but it loses so much of the resonance that goes with the words in Japanese. Sometimes, one thinks, it’s what you can’t translate from another language that makes poetry special or fine.
Q: Haiku is taught in schools . . .
A: It gives the kids a notion that they are really writing. It’s good for them. It’s less boring than doing quatrains or just couplets, which sometimes comes so easy for English speakers. It doesn’t take them very far.
Q: Do you think Japanese poetic forms have been important to you all along?
A: Yes, ever since I first ran into them. They’re small but precious.
Q: You studied Japanese?
A: A little bit, enough to translate it with a dictionary. I took a couple of courses in beginning Japanese at Stanford, which did help a little. I have had many Japanese friends who were literary people. [My Japanese friends often] worked as gardeners, but they really knew Japanese literature. Harry Nakamura and I used to consult on translations. All my translations I did with Harry. The Nakamuras were old friends and neighbors and after the war, when they came back from the internment camps, I was very happy to find them as neighbors. They were elegant and very distinguished people. He was a gardener and a reader of poetry in Japanese. And so I was taking a course at Stanford—Japanese 1—or maybe something lower than that, maybe Beginning Japanese. I used to check in with Harry. I never did learn the calligraphy. Nellie Nakamura is still living. She’s ninety-three and has published a little book of poems. I think I gave up on haiku quite a while ago. Maybe because of the language.
Q: Why did you give it up?
A: English is essentially an iambic pentameter language—that’s the way we talk—and the haiku is not a natural for our language. One can start making brush drawings for it or something like that; it seems to exist in images. But you [must] know the Japanese well enough, to get the music of the Japanese, which changes tones. . . . That’s my feeling [on haiku]. It’s perfect for Japanese. The English language is not built for such small things. English depends on the sound and the music of it; it’s in the rhythm. And in seventeen syllables you really don’t get going. It’s a line or two. People go around thinking, “Oh great, short poem, easy to write, no rhythms, no problems.” And people are very happy doing this sort of thing.
Q: Can the haiku form change in its adaptation to English? Can we apply our own rhythms to haiku?
A: Well, [then] it wouldn’t be exactly like haiku.
Q: What about a free-form approach?
A: That’s what haiku is right now.
Q: But you feel that’s not haiku?
A: Why bother? I mean you can call it a haiku or anything you want to, something approximating a Japanese form, but you can’t translate it completely. So, if you’re translating haiku, you have to be pretty free-wheeling with them, I think. [You go for] the equivalent feeling in English, if that makes sense. In other words, it’s another poem.
Q: Some writers take the approach to haiku of trying to imitate the Japanese and obviously, if you take that approach, some things will fail and some things won’t, but they may still just remain imitations.
A: Well, it’s a good game.
Q: Other approaches people have taken in the last thirty years are free-form, maybe three lines. They contain a seasonal reference, like traditional haiku, but not always, and they’re objective. So haiku, I think, has become an American form.
A: It has become an American form, yes. Something approaching a haiku. Cinquains were popular for awhile too, but then people concluded that free verse was going to be free and they did what they wanted to.
Q: So the metrics of cinquains were kind of avoided?
A: Yes, it just went out the window. We took to writing more and more free verse, more and more freely. Not at all like the original French idea.
Q: Tell me more about Ben’ichi Kagawa.
A: Well, he died about ten years ago. His sister still lives near me and has kept in touch with me, which is kind of nice. Ben’ichi was born in Japan, but his father had come over here some years before, nearly twelve years before, I think, and Ben’ichi had been left with his grandfather in Japan, grew up there, speaking Japanese as the natural language, and when his father sent for him, he came here. His father had a job at a big place in Los Altos, I mean a steady job as a gardener. So, Ben’ichi came over in his early teens to live in Los Altos and was working as a houseboy at a rooming house on the Stanford campus, and began reading the things that Dr. [Marjorie] Bailey had lying around—English poetry, stuff like that. Somewhere or other he picked up the name of my husband. One day, he took his courage in hand and marched up . . . turned up at the door, introduced himself, and became a lifelong friend.
Q: What was he interested in?
A: Poetry. He came as a poet. He didn’t bring his poems, but he was very much interested in trying to translate. He’d been writing in Japanese, but with his English he was in trouble—it didn’t come naturally. He did write a number of books in English, one of which was published. [Hidden Flame, with a foreword by Yvor Winters; Stanford: Half Moon Press, 1930.]
Q: He wrote long poetry or Japanese poems?
A: Neither. Not as short as the Japanese, but not long poems.
Q: He never published haiku or tanka?
A: Well, in English he did. And he was very well known by the Japanese on the coast and in Japanese publications in which he was very often [published]. I couldn’t read it; I couldn’t begin to know what the script was.
Q: You’ve said that haiku doesn’t go so well in English. When haiku was first published by American writers in the 1960s and perhaps a little bit before that—there were translations going on before that, but it was formative—I don’t think it was until the 1950s and 1960s that haiku was written and published in English. Haiku back then was perhaps very tentative. Do you think that haiku then didn’t go so well in English, or even more recent haiku?
A: I haven’t thought about it. The haiku form was very strict in Japanese. We can’t really get too close to it. But we could make good translations of Japanese haiku, I guess. So we should be able to write original haiku in English, except I don’t think we think that way.
Q: Do we have to think a certain way to write haiku?
A: In a way, we do. It’s largely Imagist, but the images are just loaded with context of every sort from Japan, and we do think in images, of course, which has all kinds of implications. And probably we use that. But English poetry has always been longer and looser in line. It’s not so much static, I mean not so close to just painting, whereas the Japanese poetry is very close to establishing an image, and the image has great power and then it has its own music, which is in the Japanese and it is very hard to translate the different tones.
Q: Did you have favorite translators of haiku or tanka poetry?
A: Yes, I did, and I’m sorry to say I can’t remember their names.
Q: Have you visited Japan?
A: Yes. Just once, it seems to me. I went over with my friend. I think I was urged to go on a tour and I did. This was many years ago—1968. I’m glad I went.
Q: You knew Lucille Nixon. Tell me about her.
A: She taught sixth grade and worked on curriculum for all the schools [in Palo Alto]. Tomoe Tana, Lucy’s cleaning woman, was also a poet, and had insisted that Lucy try for the prize and so she did, and Lucy’s poems were read before the emperor. [In January 1957, she became the first non-Japanese person to be honored with the Japanese emperor’s annual tanka poetry prize.] She was given a beautiful scroll, which I think she gave to Stanford. Tomoe Tana also had her poems read before the emperor. So how did I happen to meet her [Lucille Nixon]? We had a mutual friend and she read some of my poems and we had lunch together one day and after that we were fast friends for life. She was killed in an automobile accident—simply drove her car in front of the Daylight [a train that ran between San Francisco and Los Angeles]. The engineer said she seemed to be in deep thought and she just hadn’t looked. It was instant. It was a great shock to me and her friends. At the time we were doing a book of translations [Sounds from the Unknown: A Collection of Japanese-American Tanka, translated by Lucille M. Nixon and Tomoe Tana; Denver: A. Swallow, 1963].
Q: As far as I know, that book was the first anthology of contemporary tanka published in English—those tanka really were sounds from the unknown. I know you were involved in the publication.
A: I figured that I knew Alan Swallow and I thought we could get it published if she could get the book together.
Q: You also did tanka translations for the magazine Nichi-Bei Tanka. Here’s a selection, which you translated from the original Japanese by Hideko Furuichi:
Amid the green
Of the high meadow
One clump of pampas grass
Shows tawny red
Above the wave that runs through the grass-tops
Tanka are often imagistic like haiku, as this example shows. Did you translate tanka for any other publications?
A: I don’t think so.
Q: Other than the length, what do you think differentiates a haiku from a tanka?
A: The length I think, and the size of the poem, the idea that you can get into it. It’s just a matter of syllables, isn’t it?
Q: There’s something else, though, I think. So often I’ll see a definition of tanka, by some poet or some academic, and you can read the definition, take out the word “tanka,” and put “haiku” in there, and except for the number of lines, the definitions are identical.
A: Maybe that’s the essence of it. What’s the difference between a pentameter line and a two-pentameter line?
Q: Earlier, you called haiku “small and precious.” I wonder if “precious” can be negative?
A: It wasn’t in my mind. I wouldn’t be using it in a negative sense, not at all.
On Poetry and Prose, Her Own and Others’
Q: In recent years many poets have returned to formalism and it has been ventured that this has been a delayed reaction to experimentation. What are your thoughts?
A: It is very hard to make a very good poem—to have music and quality and tension, and, after all, the old English majors do love their form. That’s why [the forms] have been around so long.
Q: Speaking of excellent writing, I once read an appreciation of your work by Evan S. Connell who said: “I cannot think of another writer whose stature so far exceeds her public recognition.” And Mary Jane Moffat said about you: “She has produced a body of work—poetry, criticism, children’s books, short story, libretti—that reveals her as surely one of the most distinguished women of letters of our times.” How do you feel about such statements?
A: That’s very nice of Connell and Mary Jane [laughter].
Q: Are there different genres of which you are most proud? In which genre do you think you shine?
A: Probably my poetry was better than my prose because poetry itself is better than prose, usually. I’ve enjoyed working on libretti. That’s because the music would give my words a lift and make it better than it was. Also, it is very nice to work with somebody. Novel writing is a very solitary thing. Poetry is not quite so solitary—you’re more likely to share it.
Q: The Wife of Martin Guerre is probably the work for which you are most well-known. Are you happy that that’s your most renowned book?
A: Well, Martin Guerre has a terrific plot. Sometimes I think it is kind of too bad that The Invasion gets ignored. But of course the Martin Guerre is so extraordinary and so unquenchable and has been going on for so long it is just naturally the one that people know and remember.
Q: Can you tell us how you came across the story of Martin Guerre?
A: Somebody had lent my husband a book called Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence (1873) and my husband said to me, “you might want to look at it and see if there are any good plots” and there was the story of Martin Guerre and I took notes on it. That’s all—it started from there. It was a very limited account of the story; I found better accounts later.
Q: How well has the book sold over the years?
A: It’s kept selling over the years. Right now there’s an opera in London, not based on my Martin Guerre, but on the original.
Q: Did they consult you on it?
A: No, they didn’t even tell me.
Q: Is there a play version?
A: Let’s see, there’s the William Bergsma opera [The Wife]. I wrote a libretto for it in the 1950s.
Q: Did you ever see the 1993 movie Sommersby [starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere]?
A: I’ve heard of it. It’s the Martin Guerre story, but set in the South [post-Civil War Tennessee]. I’m not particularly interested in seeing it.
Q: There is a credit to you and your book at the end of the movie.
A: Really? That’s news to me.
Q: You’ve said before that The Invasion was the book you were the most proud of. Why? Is it because it’s your tightest novel, or most lyrical, or most evocative of your childhood in Michigan?
A: Well, it’s the most factual. I still think it’s the best book, the most useful one. It’s as much history as I could manage, but it’s written like fiction. It’s my country.
Q: What about The Trial of Sören Qvist [Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 1947]?
A: I liked that one; I think it’s my best-written book.
Q: Is there anything you wish you had written?
A: I’d like to write some memoirs except I’m too lazy.
Q: Is it too daunting a task, do you think, to write memoirs?
A: Yes, of course. I wouldn’t attempt to write anything complete.
Q: Anything else you’d like to write?
A: I don’t know. I haven’t really felt like pulling myself together and writing for a long time.
Q: What happens to put you in a writing mood?
A: Anytime I just pull myself together, and take a pen in hand, and write something. I used to use the typewriter, but I haven’t gone out to the typewriter in some time [there is a small studio in the backyard in which both Lewis and Winters wrote]. I have to have a practical reason for writing. I could start writing memoirs, but I don’t.
Q: It doesn’t bother you that you’re not writing?
A: It doesn’t bother me too much, because I feel that I’ve left enough for people to read, if they want to. And why should I load the scene?
Q: How does your writing process usually go?
A: One has times when one does a lot of writing and other times when you have to take a vacation from it. I haven’t been doing any writing for a long time. I’ll go in batches where I do eight or nine poems and then not do any for a while. But if you are doing a prose thing, you stay with it. With prose, the shape of the thing is longer and you just have to work with it. I tend to work in the morning, but never more than two or two and a half hours. I can’t write at night because I get too keyed up.
Q: In your poetry, has there been a sight or a feeling you tried to write about but couldn’t capture?
A: There have been many things I’ve tried to write about and could not. Things too serious, too painful, and that’s not the purpose of writing a poem. The point of poetry is to make something beautiful—something in itself. I’m not trying to pour my sorrows down on the page.
Q: So, it is not cathartic for the writer?
A: Not for me. That’s exactly what I don’t write.
Q: Was there ever anything so beautiful that you couldn’t capture it?
A: Of course. That reminds me of a Japanese poem. The poem is the name of an island and that’s it. That’s the poem.
Q: Was it Bashō’s poem:
ah Matsushima ya
A: Yes. I know it’s a beautiful island covered in pine trees.
Q: The Matsushima poem depends on the reader knowing the place and empathizing with the writer’s speechlessness. It’s a risky poem in a way, but a good one.
A: It also gives one an idea of other possibilities: “Hiroshima, ah Hiroshima.”
Q: I’ve also heard of “Niagara, ah Niagara.” But it doesn’t work for all places: “Fresno, ah Fresno.” What are the properties that make a great poem?
A: That’s a question of whether it is great for the whole world or great for the person—whether it speaks to the person, the person’s whole problems, sympathies, and the person’s own tradition. There are some [poems] in English poetry that I think are great that would not be important to anybody else. It is cultural and experiential too. We have great poems that go from generation to generation and most people know them and they are simple for the most part, sorrows and griefs, and I suppose those are the great poems. Shakespeare’s sonnets, “Dover Beach”—they mean a great deal to many people.
Q: Do you have a favorite poem of your own?
A: I don’t know if I have one.
Q: Do you have a couple?
A: Hmmm. Skip the question.
Q: What kind of audience do you like to connect with?
A: I don’t think about the audience. If I’m telling a story, I’m telling a story and I hope eventually, someone will want to listen to it. If I was writing a children’s story, I would be conscious of something that would amuse the child. I wrote a book called The Friendly Adventures of Ollie the Ostrich [Doubleday, 1928, illustrated by Fay Turpin] and I heard John Updike being interviewed on the radio today and somebody quoted it to him as a joke. A friend of mine invented Ollie the Ostrich. He was wooden ostrich and she was going to make lots of them and sell them and I thought I’d write lots of stories about them and advertise them. So I did write a story about Ollie the Ostrich but I don’t know what happened to him. So this got as far as Updike and I’m sure he doesn’t know where it came from. I think I gave my last copy to Stanford.
Q: Can you think of collections of your poetry that you are particularly proud of?
A: The last one, The Dear Past. My daughter-in-law [Nancy Winters] published it [Edgewood, Kentucky: Robert L. Barth, 1994]. It was an anthology put together for my ninety-fifth birthday.
Q: Why are you most proud of that collection?
A: I don’t know. It’s the last and therefore, one hopes, the best.
Q: Let me read one of my favorites to you from that book. I would be pleased if you would comment on this poem or tell me how it was written. This is “October Morning”:
The pump froze, the trees
Were hoar with mist.
In the plumed branch
Of white pine
Near the woodshed door
Were dozens of honey bees.
A: I think I wrote it out here, being amused by the bees in the pine trees. It was just amusing that there was so much honey being taken from a pine tree.
Q: Here’s another morning poem, “Early Morning”:
The spider makes through the air,
Until the light touches it.
The light takes through the air,
Until it finds the spider’s web.
A: I like that poem.
A: Well, it has some real ideas in it. Also, it was an actual experience, the thinking went straight into the poem. I was watching the light hit the spider web, and so forth, but I had nothing more to say on the poem, so I stopped.
Q: It’s brave like Bashō’s frog haiku:
old pond . . .
a frog jumps in
Do you think that’s an act of courage, to know when to stop the poem?
A: It’s common sense.
Q: Are there any other favorites from this book?
A: I don’t really have favorites; I don’t think about it much. I wish I’d write some more poems.
On Writers Met and Known—Or Not Met
Q: Over the years you’ve met or corresponded with people with various connections to poetry and fiction, and I was curious to ask you about a number of names and to have you tell me your impressions or memories or reactions to them. To start with, Hart Crane—did he visit here?
A: He didn’t visit here, but he did visit Pasadena, and my husband’s family was in Pasadena. We went down at Christmastime largely hoping to see Hart. We saw a lot of him—he came over to the house. At the time I was getting over tuberculosis and I was supposed to rest in the afternoons. So, I was resting in bed upstairs in the guestroom and Hart and my husband came up and sat beside the bed and we had tea and a very nice visit. I think he stayed for dinner that night. He was working as a secretary for a very rich man in Pasadena. We went over there to pick up Hart to take him for a drive, but before we left we were loitering in the living room of this very rich guy and I remember looking at this beautiful crystal ball—I don’t remember much else about that time. I also remember that Crane and my husband sat in the back seat. I was in the front seat with my father-in-law, who was driving. After a while, Hart began reciting his poem “The Hurricane,” which was new. He was enjoying the excitement very much, the roaring away. It was fun.
Q: T. S. Eliot?
A: I never met him. He overshadowed the scene very much. I never corresponded with him, no.
Q: Ezra Pound?
A: Never met him, no. Would’ve been fun. We all had the feeling that he broke a lot of ground and stirred up a lot of interest in things. And he was enormously helpful. We all felt very grateful to Pound, my generation.
Q: It would’ve been fun to meet Ezra Pound?
A: Yes, it would, don’t you think? He occasionally exchanged postcards with my husband. I think my husband sent him a letter and Pound sent back a postcard, which was very amusing and casual, and Arthur [Yvor Winters] walked around showing it to people.
Q: How about James Joyce? It was Margaret Anderson and Jane Heath who were found guilty of obscenity for publishing parts of Ulysses.
A: I remember someone reading [parts of Ulysses] to me from The Little Review, which had just come out.
Q: E. E. Cummings?
A: Oh, we loved his poetry. I never met him. It’s the most enjoyable poetry. I just think of him as delightful and refreshing. He’s maybe not a great poet, but we’re glad he was there.
Q: I guess he broke ground in different ways from Ezra Pound, with the typography.
A: The typography is just for fun.
Q: William Carlos Williams?
A: He came to Chicago and lectured. The Poetry Club engaged him and he lectured downtown, in the city. We all went down and talked to him afterwards and found him quite helpful and open and easy.
Q: What do you remember most about him?
A: I suppose his presence. He was young and good-looking and friendly, sitting on a table and swinging a leg, after the lecture, you know. Very approachable.
Q: Katherine Anne Porter?
A: I knew her—she was at Stanford for a while. Quite a problem. She depended a great deal on help from her friends, and sometimes they could manage and sometimes they couldn’t. The first problem was to find her a place to live and I thought I found a place [on a bus line near] Stanford. She wound up in a falling-down house on top of the mountain, which meant that somebody had to go and rescue her from time to time. The roof leaked and she wrote very funny letters from there. She was delightful, but also . . .
Q: Langston Hughes, did you meet him in Chicago?
A: No, at least I don’t remember having met him. I think his influence was huge, but not on me.
Q: What about other people you met in Paris?
A: I didn’t meet many authors. I met some French people.
Q: Robinson Jeffers?
A: He was always down in Carmel. I saw him walking on the beach once. He was looking out to sea and not saying hello to people who came by. His wife was with him, and they had a little dog on a leash; his wife got tangled up [in the leash] and the dog ran around her two or three times and she fell down. I went to help her get up. Meanwhile, Jeffers looked out to sea. . . . I didn’t try to meet him.
Q: Marianne Moore?
A: She was a lovely person. She was out here, sitting in the chair where you are, as a matter of fact, and lectured at Stanford and stayed with us. Just a delightful person.
Q: Do you have memories of John Steinbeck?
A: No, not a memory. Never crossed paths with him.
Q: Wallace Stevens?
A: He was on the horizon and was wonderful. He came to Chicago, to the Poetry offices on the condition that he wouldn’t have to meet anybody and Miss Monroe duly told people this. Glenway Wescott, who was working at Poetry magazine at the time, was dying to meet Stevens, but he stayed away, and walked the streets.
Q: Wallace Stegner?
A: A very nice person. He was a good writer. I was friends with both him and his wife.
A: Remains kind of a myth. Eventually we found out she had a name other than H.D. Arthur and I very much enjoyed her work.
Q: I’m thinking of more local writers who you might have run across. Henry Miller?
A: I saw him once at a distance. We were eating in the same restaurant in San Francisco, but I didn’t have the courage to speak to him. I remember we exchanged smiles.
Q: What would you have said to him, if you’d had the courage?
A: Besides “hello”? “I’ve enjoyed reading your books”—something like that.
Q: What about some of the Beat poets? Jack Kerouac? Gary Snyder? Allen Ginsberg?
A: No. I think I might have heard Ginsberg lecture. We might’ve both been at a big dinner once.
Q: Adelaide Crapsey?
A: We certainly knew of her work [cinquains]. It was as close to the Japanese as one could get at the time.
Q: How about William Jay Smith?
A: I think I met him once at a writer’s conference.
Q: Dana Gioia?
A: Yes, he and Alva Henderson [a good friend, opera composer, and collaborator] work together a great deal. Dana’s a good friend.
Q: Gioia’s written a lot about the poetry of the last few decades and asks the question “Can Poetry Matter?” What are your thoughts on that?
A: I’m sure [poetry can matter]; otherwise I have no thoughts.
Q: Seamus Heaney?
A: Yes, he was here. He’s a delightful Irish poet. I love his poetry. He came to the Davie’s for dinner. Donald was at Stanford at the time. There were about six of us and we found Seamus very enjoyable. We were later going to meet him in London, but that never happened.
Q: I know Winters was an important critic and writer to you. How do you want him to be remembered by others?
A: He made an enormous contribution. It’s all in his books. It’s solid; you can pick it up and throw it across the room. Of course, he did work with his students and that had a lot to do with his influence [his students included Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, Philip Levine, and Robert Pinsky]. He’d been writing critically for a long time, and people paid attention. Maybe they didn’t agree with him, but he stirred things up. I think he was important.
Q: How about students of your husband’s who have gone on to become important?
A: Well, James [J. V.] Cunningham, of course. He went to Chicago and then Brandeis, and he was a distinguished poet. But he never wanted to admit he’d been influenced by anyone.
On and On: Lasting Words
Q: Do you have any advice for beginning poets?
A: I suppose I’ve been giving advice to students all along.
Q: How does one become a poet?
A: By writing and also by reading poetry. Getting a lot of it in your head, and getting a feel for the form. I’m thinking more of the musical, lyrical form that is easier for most people. I’d say to read English poetry, lots of it. English poetry is the best of all poetry—the language is wonderful for poetry.
Q: Do you have any favorite observations people have made about your work?
A: I’m very happy that some was set to music. Alva Henderson has done some of those—some other people have done some. It’s nice to know that someone’s singing my words. The English poet Donald Davie—he died recently—was a nice admirer of mine. I think he put one [of my poems] in a hymn book in England; I was very happy about that. I don’t remember which poem that was. He had some difficulty finding something significantly Christian enough.
Q: What matters to you most these days?
A: I’m not writing at all, to tell the truth. Seeing my friends, my children, and my grandchildren. And just being alive. Especially seeing the young ones growing up.
Q: Any ideas on what poetry means today?
A: It means the best that anyone can bring to it. What do you think about that, Lolly?
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