The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Yale’

The Uncanny I: An Interview with Kristin Dombek

October 11, 2016 | by

Photo: Amy Touchett.

Readers of The Paris Review will remember Kristin Dombek’s essay “Letter from Williamsburg,” one of our perennial favorites. In August, Dombek published her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a diagnosis of our attention-starved culture and its fixation on self-absorption. The book covers everything from Bram Stoker to My Super Sweet 16; the New York Times calls it “sharply argued, knottily intelligent, darkly funny cultural criticism.” Dombek spoke to Robert Polito, the poet, biographer, and critic, about “the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust who we do, in life and in writing.” The Editors


When I talk to fellow nonfiction writers, I’m always interested in how they locate themselves along the prose or argument continuum. When you sit down to write an essay, are you primarily thinking prose—sentences, words, tone—or are you thinking argument, what you might wish to say about a subject? And are you the sort of nonfiction writer who plans, or even outlines, or is the writing more improvisatory and about discovery for you ?



Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.

But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. Read More »

Henry Doesn’t Have Any Bats, and Other News

June 26, 2015 | by


John Berryman

  • In Moscow, a new exhibition remembers Soviet Photo, the USSR’s premier photography magazine. Among its many treasures: gymnasts, factories, eggs … and a picture of Khrushchev and Castro drinking ebulliently from horns.
  • Whither the aphorism? It’s a more popular form than ever—insert obligatory Twitter reference here—but are we using it to its fullest potential? “An aphorism is not a truth but a kind of test (an assay), a statement you are meant to run up against to decide if you agree. If you don’t agree, that is not necessarily a failure of the aphorism. The best aphorisms are not the most true but the most undecidable, those worth endlessly testing.”
  • For that matter, whither the NYPL? It, too, doesn’t seem to live up to its full potential: “The New York Public Library has been under intermittent financial pressure for most of its history, but in the last few years it has been enveloped by a controversy that has exposed the institution to unprecedented public scrutiny. What stands revealed is a library that is abandoning its core mission of research and is losing its way in the digital age.”
  • “Though psychoanalysis didn’t help Berryman’s alcoholism or state of mind, it did serve to open him up to his inner self, and it was amid the rubble of that excavation that he found his alter-ego: messy Henry, destructive Henry, hateful Henry, devious Henry, pathetic, sozzled, recidivist Henry, self-loathing Henry, song and dance Henry, peccant Henry, grab-ass Henry, stricken-with-guilt Henry, Henry the enduring ruin … ‘Henry does resemble me,’ Berryman told an interviewer, ‘and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax. Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and stall in my hair—and fuck them, I’m not Henry; Henry doesn’t have any bats.’” August Kleinzahler on John Berryman.
  • At the Beinecke Library, the Yale Collection of American Literature houses innumerable rarities and treasures. It also has those insipid “Cultivating Thought” cups and bags from Chipotle. “As much as it sounds like a joke, it fits into a tradition of American writers trying to reach unusual audiences through unusual (if brief) work—and of libraries collecting their labor.”

Good World to Be In: An Interview with Lisa Yuskavage

April 29, 2015 | by


Lisa Yuskavage in her studio, Brooklyn, New York. Photo by EJ Camp, courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London

Since her arrival on the art scene some twenty-five years ago, Lisa Yuskavage has made a name for herself with paintings that use classical techniques to depict unabashedly taboo subjects. Her creations—awash in radiant, hallucinatory colors and featuring hedonistic heroines unlike anything else in art today—are instantly identifiable. Her latest show, which opened last week at David Zwirner in New York, explores the idea of the incubus and succubus, and includes images of men—Dude Looks Like Jesus, for instance—a first for the artist. “I was thinking a lot about Dürer,” she says. “There’s this obsession with a certain look, which has to do with a revolutionary kind of guy.”

I met Yuskavage, who is fifty-two, at her spacious Brooklyn studio earlier this month, where our talk touched on a variety of subjects, including her process, her past, and her experimentation with Grindr, the gay dating app. We’d intended to take a trip to her favorite bookstore, Ursus Books, afterward, but we stayed at her studio instead, conversing as pale yellow light crept along the floor.

When critics discuss your work, they talk a lot about gaze—whether the figures depicted are inviting us to look or whether we’re intruding upon something private.

It’s interesting because in order to make some of these paintings of men, I did something a few years ago—I didn’t realize why I was doing it at the time. I joined Grindr. I had a Grindr persona. You didn’t think I was going to say that today, did you?

Do you remember your username?

I don’t remember, but I eventually took it down when I almost hooked up with someone. I met someone by accident. My husband has a very nice body, and I took a picture of his torso. He had pants on. I didn’t want to be that vulgar, because I didn’t want to present myself as being just interested in sex.

So I was at Le Pain Quotidien on Bleecker Street having my stupid vegan soup. I was looking at Grindr and imagining the Dionysian possibilities of life. It seemed like the air was full of sex. Not just sex, but hopefulness. Then I see that there’s someone who, whatever you call it, poked me or tapped me. He was ten feet away. I was like looking around and then I saw someone looking around. He was looking for me, and he couldn’t find me because I didn’t exist! Read More »

To Learn Something

September 10, 2014 | by

This remembrance of our founding editor, Peter Matthiessen, originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine; we’re grateful to the staff and to Lewis Lapham for allowing us to publish it.

Matthiessen 1945 (1) copy

Peter Matthiessen in the 1945 Misch, the Hotchkiss School’s yearbook.

I first encountered Peter Matthiessen in the summer of 1949, on a beach at Fishers Island where he soon was pointing out the sights to be seen if one had the wit to see them—seven or eight species of seabird inshore and offshore, the likely change in the weather inferred by the wind veering around to the south, the Latin name for a nearby snake or crab, the probable catch in the hold of a trawler bearing east by north on the far horizon.

The meeting had been called by my godmother and Peter’s father, long-abiding friends whose houses on the island were a short distance from one another; by both parties it was thought that Peter could tell me what to look out for at the Hotchkiss School, from which Peter had graduated in 1945 and at which I was a member of the class embarking upon its lower middle year. I was fourteen, Peter seven years older, a senior at Yale tormenting himself with the ambition to become a writer of important books. Literature in those days was understood to be a noble calling, the high and not easily traveled road to light and truth.

The first question put to Peter about Hotchkiss proved to be the last. He didn’t wish to discuss what he deemed to be an ornamental pillar of the bourgeois status quo, and so as the afternoon went on (many fish to be seen and named, further sightings of sandpipers and gulls) I was surprised by the likeness of his interests and turns of mind to those of Mr. George Van Santvoord, the headmaster of the school with whom Peter seemed to share not only a love of words and nature but also the courage to lead an examined and examining life. Before the day was done I’d compounded the likeness of Mr. Van Santvoord with that of the druid, Merlyn, in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, one of the books on the school’s list of suggested summer reading. By the time I returned to the lamps being lit on my godmother’s sundeck, it had occurred to me that Peter’s teachings on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean not only resembled those of Mr. Van Santvoord’s to the Hotchkiss woods squad but also those that under the walls of Camelot Merlyn had vouchsafed to the young King Arthur: Read More »


French in Action

June 5, 2014 | by

Mourning Pierre Capretz.


“Robert,” in his ubiquitous Yale T-shirt, with the fetching “Mireille” in a still from French in Action.

I carry vivid memories of a boy named Robert, who insisted on wearing his horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere—to Chartres, to La Closerie des Lilas, to that seedy little rental-car hub on the Boulevard Périphérique, even (sacré bleu!) under a white blazer. What tone-deaf Ivy League foolishness, I remember thinking. The corollary bummer was that Robert wasn’t a caricature of the average American exchange student; he was more or less the ideal version thereof. He bopped through France, always encountering the lovely Mireille, who seemed to appear—without explanation or apology, and often without a bra—around the country’s every corner. And most important, he took every conceivable opportunity to improve his French. Robert was in Paris not to chase tail but to learn the language, to become a citoyen du monde. And yet he insisted on wearing that horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere

Such were my first high school impressions, in 1999 and 2000, of the video pedagogy of French in Action, the language course cum TV series that taught me (and millions of other Americans) the rudiments of the Francophone lifestyle.


Pierre Capretz

French’s wild-haired emcee, Pierre Capretz, died earlier this year, in Aix-en-Provence, at eighty-nine. Capretz’s eyes always brimmed with mischievous possibility. He struck me as Henry Kissinger’s magnanimous French cousin, a man whom the world had weathered in the best possible way, imbuing him with wisdom and a philosophical cheer without which no one who teaches French in America can stay sane.

As I learned more about Capretz, I started to get the jokes, which, of course, included the Yale T-shirt that Robert seemed never to wash. My teacher-guru, Madame Demaray—a sanitization of de marais, “from the swamp”—had helped Capretz beta-test the program at Hotchkiss, a very swish prep school that had taken me in; it wasn’t terribly far from Yale, for which Hotchkiss’s founders hoped to groom their young men and eventually (thank God) their young women. Relations between the two schools were still cozy in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and Mme. Demaray worked closely with Capretz as he developed his legendary regimen for the oral and aural teaching of French, imparting knowledge through a long-form video narrative that moved with the rhythms of a mystery novel. My teacher, with whom I was in half in love as one is with a glamorous great-aunt, told me in private about the million-plus dollars Capretz had gambled in making French in Action: about securing funding from the CPB and from WGBH in 1985, about the multiple heart attacks he suffered during the scripting, filming, and editing of part two. I saw my hispanoparlantes classmates toting Destinos and realized that the workbook/video/language-lab triad owed its current pedagogical vogue to Capretz, who believed, correctly, that the musical tools of language might succeed where 501 French Verbs had failed. Read More »


Called Back

October 30, 2013 | by


Emily Dickinson published only ten poems. Printed in various newspapers, her verses all appeared anonymously. It was not some failure of contemporary taste but her own decision that kept the rest of her poetry private. Dickinson wrote in one poem that “Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man—” and indeed she seems to have felt there was something crass, even violative about fixing one’s words in a particular arrangement of type, surrendering them for a price.

And yet, I am grateful to have been able to pay small sums of money for her poetry. A few complete editions, two selected volumes, and one pocket collection: new and used, hardback and paperback, her poetry has always been something for which I was willing to pay. I dreamed of sitting by the fire with my Emily Dickinson while someone I loved sat reading Robert Frost. I collected all these copies of her poetry so that no matter where I went, I would be ready for those dangling conversations.

But the books I gathered have gotten to rest these last few days as I’ve spent hours clicking away in the Emily Dickinson Archive. For the first time since her death, almost all of her poetry, published and unpublished, finished and unfinished, appears together in high-resolution scans, just waiting for readers and scholars to page through it electronically.

The first poem I ever received by e-mail was one by Emily Dickinson. Ten years ago, on what would be one of my last true snow days, when school was cancelled and all the world was covered in possibility, a teacher sent me an e-mail: “Don’t forget to put down the books and enjoy some of this winter wonderland,” she wrote, and then beneath her signature included the text of Emily Dickinson’s “It sifts from Leaden Sieves.” Read More »