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Adrienne Rich on ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’

March 2, 2011 | by

Photograph by Robert Giard.

Adrienne Rich needs no introduction. One of the twentieth century’s most exhaustively celebrated poets and essayists, she counts among her many honors a National Book Award, a Book Critics Circle Award, and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. Robert Hass has ascribed to her work the qualities of salt and darkness, praising its “relentless need to confront difficulty.” But Rich’s latest collection, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, ranges from dismay to joy, the outraged to the erotic. Over e-mail, Rich shared her thoughts on poetry and power, the search for a more nuanced wartime aesthetic, and the meaning of the “woman citizen.”

Let’s start with the title, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.

The book has an epigraph from Webster’s Dictionary: definitions of the verb “to serve.” It’s an interesting range of meanings, from the idea of obedient servitude to the authoritative (from law, the military, a prison sentence), to the meeting of another’s needs, to being of use. The title poem begins with an erotic moment registered in a world of torture and violence. It turns, midway, from the sensual and “poetic” to an official grammar, parsing violent policies as you might diagram a sentence in a classroom.

The poem was inflected, you could say, by interviews I was hearing on Amy Goodman’s program, Democracy Now!—about Guantánamo, waterboarding, official U.S. denials of torture, the “renditioning” of presumed terrorists to countries where they would inevitably be tortured. The line “Tonight I think no poetry will serve” suggests that no poetry can serve to mitigate such acts, they nullify language itself. One begins to write of the sensual body, but other bodies “elsewhere” are terribly present.

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Andrew O’Hagan on Maf the Dog

January 24, 2011 | by

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe is Andrew O’Hagan’s fourth novel. It details the star’s final years in New York and L.A. as seen through the eyes of her frighteningly learned Maltese terrier, who was born on a Scottish tenant farm. Reporting from the intellectual, artistic, and political epicenters of America in the ’60s, Maf is uniquely positioned to chaperone us not only through Monroe’s private decline but also through the romance and turmoil of her era. On the phone, O’Hagan is soft-spoken and gallant, his Glasgow lilt similar (one imagines) to Maf’s.

You were born in Scotland and spent much of your life in London. What drew you to Marilyn Monroe and this particular scene in America?

I grew up on the West Coast of Scotland. We looked across the sea to Ireland, where my ancestors had come from, and beyond that, to the bigger-seeming civilization that was America. We always felt that we somehow had a strong relationship with the United States. We were very ready to accept American culture. There was, for instance, a great love of movies in my family. And the women all sang songs, not folk songs or Scottish ballads, but the songs of Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. You might not immediately think of Glasgow as a world propagation center for glamour, but it is, and it was, and I feel the benefit.

Photograph by Eric Skipsey.

I realized a few years ago that I wanted to write about some of the less obvious ghosts of my childhood. I knew Marilyn Monroe had been given a dog by Frank Sinatra, and I started to look for evidence of this dog, feeling that, if I found him, he would prove a very reliable and possibly diverting witness to a culture that had influenced our lives. When I went to New York in 1999, I attended a sale of Marilyn Monroe’s personal belongings at Christie’s. I was writing a piece at the time for The London Review of Books and intended a second piece for Barbara Epstein at The New York Review of Books, so I went to the auction and waited and waited and then my waiting was rewarded when six little Polaroids of Maf the dog were auctioned for $222,000. As I was watching all the people frantically waving their paddles and trying to get a hold of this seemingly crucial piece of art from the twentieth century—that’s how they behaved—I felt I could hear the dog’s voice. I went back to my hotel that night thinking, If I can capture this dog, I’ll have accessed something special, something that really matters to me—and, hopefully, to my readers.

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Fifteen Minutes with Ann Beattie

November 23, 2010 | by

It’s been a long book tour for Ann Beattie’s collected New Yorker stories, and the tour hasn’t even begun yet. “Is this my first stop?” she asks, pressing a hand to her forehead. “I don’t remember.” We are sitting downstairs at McNally Jackson Books, about an hour before her reading is scheduled to start. Her publisher approaches with an update about the Miami Book Fair on Saturday (destination number two on the tour): Beattie can arrive at 10:45, not a problem, but could she make sure to drop by the hospitality tent? Also, in fifteen minutes, her friend will be upstairs, ready to meet her for tea.

“I’ll have to change into my high heels at some point,” the author sighs. She’s spent the day on her feet, but she looks poised and fresh in a floral-patterned skirt, deep green blouse, and pale green sweater. Cabled gold glitters at her wrists and neck. Like Ellen, the protagonist in “A Platonic Relationship”—the first story in the collection, from which she will read tonight—she wears her hair loose, “falling free.” When I admire her nails, which are long, tapered, and crimson, she smiles almost apologetically. “I have insomnia,” she explains. Applying nail polish is one of the few ways she can occupy herself at night without waking her husband. She adds that the age of the word processor has been kinder to her hands than that of the typewriter: Returning the carriage while at work on a story, she once snapped off four-fifths of her manicure.

Most readers would consider the sacrifice worthwhile. Over four decades, fiction by Beattie has appeared forty-eight times in The New Yorker’s pages, making the D.C.- born author something of an institution. Her blend of acuity and flattened affect now defines a genre, with its own adjective: Beattiesque. Beattie herself sees more similarities between her stories than differences. She calls them permutations of a single voice, though reviewers tend to emphasize evolutions in her style. An older Beattie, goes the conventional wisdom, has mellowed into lyricism. Her sentences have filled out and deepened; a sense of mastery stands in for the original sense of discovery. But Beattie denies that more than the surface has changed. Continuity and consistency are words that keep coming up, along with the descriptor “tongue in cheek.” Also: dogs. In her stories, the dogs often seem as complex as the human characters. Is Beattie herself a dog person?

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My Werewolf Fantasy

October 29, 2010 | by

The airbrushed immortals of the Twilight saga don’t do it for me.

When I was in second grade, I wanted to be a werewolf. I’d been raised to think that most of my goals were within reach, if I only applied myself. Also, a good friend had just upped and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, so I had time on my hands. I practiced my snarl for half an hour after school each day, baring my teeth in the bedroom mirror. At recess, I crawled under the shed, convinced I was allergic to sunlight (I’d gotten my horror myths confused). I’m not sure where my werewolf fascination came from—maybe I felt social cliques tightening around me, and monsters suggested the blurring of boundaries: between humans and animals, for instance, or earth and the underworld. More likely, though, it was about power. I longed for the thrill of being feared, of commanding fear. Not all the time, of course. Once I attained shape-shifter status, I knew I would spend the majority of my day undercover. The secret would be part of the fun: Who would suspect that, beneath my quiet facade, a supernatural fury waited to erupt? Lycanthropy was an insecure girl’s backup plan, for use as needed.

As I got older, the fantasies took a new form. I started to imagine dating werewolves. They were, unfailingly, cute guys who turned into dangerous beasts when I needed protection. One, who showed up during my Ben Folds Five phase, played rock piano and hated the suburbs. Another, an ice-hockey player, memorialized a very short-lived interest in the Washington Capitals. They melted in and out of my high-school existence at odd intervals. Feeling lonely or undesirable, I would retreat to my inner woods, where they waited: strong, loving, but also ineffably menacing. I was deliciously aware that any one of these soul mates could hurt me if he wanted to. Apparently, it was intoxicating to be scary, but being scared was even better.

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