Published earlier this week, Poets at Work is the latest release from Paris Review Editions, the book imprint of The Paris Review. The anthology gathers thirteen Art of Poetry interviews from the magazine’s nearly seven decades of history. In the book’s preface, which appears below, The Paris Review’s poetry editor, Vijay Seshadri, explains the process by which he selected this baker’s dozen, as well as the particular pleasures of the magazine’s Writers at Work interview series.
The Paris Review’s first Art of Poetry interview was with T. S. Eliot, and was published in issue no. 21, Spring–Summer 1959. As the magazine had been publishing interviews since its inception, in 1953, transforming in the process a commonplace American journalistic feature into something like an art form, it isn’t unreasonable to ask why it took so long to get around to a poet. (Robert Penn Warren had been interviewed, but about his fiction, and an early attempt to corral Robert Frost had failed.) Poets sensitive about the prerogatives of their art should be reassured, though, just by the nature of the Paris Review interview itself—a natural-seeming object that is actually delicate and labor intensive and involves the intersection of many serendipitous elements, not the least of which is the rare sympathy between interviewer and subject that brings a conversation to life. Also, along with the usual chances and mischances of publishing, when it came to a magazine that saw itself as canonical (in an era when there was such a thing as the canonical) and at the same time improvisational, secular, hip, casual, and cosmopolitan, editorial choices must have been made under multiplying, contradictory pressures.
Whatever the reasons, once the interviews of poets got going, they sprinted along, energized perhaps by the editors’ coming to recognize that poets are very good at talking about themselves. The resulting hundred-plus conversations from which this selection was made are rich and various, and so satisfying across the board that choosing just a baker’s dozen was an excruciating job. Even limiting the set to poets born before the historical watershed of World War II left over sixty to choose from—interviews with fathers of civilizations (Frost, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, W. H. Auden), poets unfairly neglected or forgotten (Conrad Aiken, Charles Tomlinson, May Sarton, Amy Clampitt, John Hall Wheelock, Karl Shapiro), masters outside the anglophone tradition (George Seferis, Yevgeny Yevtushenko), and several of the most celebrated poets of the Silent Generation (Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, Charles Wright). Read More