Issue 229, Summer 2019
For more than forty-five years, the poet Frank Bidart has lived in a third-floor apartment on a quiet street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from Harvard Square. An avid collector of culture, he has slowly relinquished more and more of his living space to piles of books, CDs, and DVDs, which now stand chest-high nearly everywhere in the apartment; only a narrow path leading from room to room remains clear. These piles are monuments to enthusiasms: they’re layered with complete works and exhaustive catalogues, and are evidence of a taste that encompasses everything from Sam Cooke to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, from Looney Tunes to Carl Theodor Dreyer. The impression one has, surrounded by his collections, is of being inside a curious, refined, voracious sensibility, a sensation at once disconcerting and thrilling.
Bidart’s poems have always drawn inspiration from the other arts. His narrative poems explore the lives of Nijinsky and Cellini and Callas, and his lyrics often address particular artists he loves, from the Ritz Brothers to Desmond Dekker to the American Idol contestant Sanjaya. He first became known for long, often tortured dramatic monologues, like “Herbert White” and “Ellen West,” as well as for autobiographical poems about his childhood and the lives and relationship of his parents, who divorced when Bidart was five. With the publication of In the Western Night in 1990, Bidart began a new sequence, “The Hours of the Night”: long, multisection poems that constellate narrative and lyric around thematic “territories”—concerns that he sees as fundamental to human life, among them desire, the urge to make, and the will to power.
A fastidious reviser, Bidart produces dozens of drafts that he circulates among a small circle of fellow poets. Numbered, printed-out copies of these drafts, which frequently differ only in details of punctuation and line breaks, are stacked in high piles in the small room where he keeps a desktop computer. Occasionally, he continues to alter details of poems even after publication: his second collected volume, Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016 (2017), contains slightly revised versions of some of his early major poems, as well as notes that document the changes.
Bidart was born in Bakersfield, California, in 1939. After a Catholic education, he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Riverside. He pursued graduate studies at Harvard University, and since 1972 has taught at Wellesley College, where he continues to work full time. His work has been recognized with the Bobbitt National Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award; Half-Light received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. While Bidart has published only a handful of essays, important statements of his poetics have been preserved in interviews over the decades; three of these interviews are reprinted as an appendix to Half-Light.
This interview was conducted over four days in October 2017. Bidart is nocturnal, and our meetings began with dinner at a restaurant in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. The conversation continued at his apartment, where we sat in armchairs positioned next to each other in front of a large-screen television. As Bidart explained, this was the only place in the apartment with enough free space for two people to sit and talk. I have known Bidart for twenty years, and was his student for several summers at the New York State Summer Writers Institute in the early 2000s. Now eighty, Bidart is a candid and generous conversationalist, eager to share his enthusiasms. Our conversation was frequently punctuated by excerpts of music and film drawn from the piles of CDs and DVDs that surrounded us.
I finally get to see the legendary apartment!
The one room I will not allow you to see is my bedroom because that’s too much chaos. There’s chaos everywhere, but it’s not quite as bad in the rest of the apartment.
So tell me, is there a method to the madness of all of your stuff?
It’s the graveyard of technology. In the living room there are a lot of videotapes, which I can’t even play anymore. There are many DVDs, which I later bought Blu-rays of, and subsequently remastered Blu-rays that are better than the first Blu-rays. Now, 4K Blu-rays. I’ve let it all stack up. But I keep discovering new things that I like—not only individual films but artists. I had never really paid attention to Barbara Cook. Once she died, I started looking at her on YouTube, and I just fell in love. I had to acquire everything I could find.
You’ve said your ideal was to have an apartment from which Western civilization could be re-created if it were lost.
I’ve learned that’s impossible but impossibility does not erase desire, so this is what you get. I contend with it, and not in a good way. It’s the cocoon that’s also a tomb. I mostly don’t feel it is a tomb, but it is. What will be sad, in my eyes, is that someone going through these things will not really know why I loved them. The parts of them that spoke to me.
I know film was your introduction to art, but you’ve said that in Bakersfield you couldn’t see art films. How did you become interested in serious movies?
My mother took me to the Olivier Hamlet when I was nine. In a town like Bakersfield it was a big deal: it was only shown for one or two days, you had reserved seats, and most people wouldn’t go. There were cracks in the failure to show art films—a Buñuel film, Los olvidados, made a huge impression on me at thirteen. There’s a dream sequence with a mother where her sons are desperately hungry, and she is handling an enormous piece of meat, and she will not let them have the meat. It’s unforgettable. And there were wonderful Hollywood films. A Streetcar Named Desire. At the same time, I got very interested in classical music.
Did that also come through your mother?
Yes. She liked light classics. I remember the two of us playing a brilliant 78 conducted by Thomas Beecham, “España”—being very charmed, taken with it. But then, inevitably, I got interested in Mozart and Beethoven, which she found depressing. I would be in my room playing a Beethoven symphony very loud, with the door closed. We could no longer share this thing that we had shared. It was a crucial event when my taste in art became radically more serious than my mother’s, because she had been the source. It was sad, but there was no stopping it. I couldn’t go back, and I couldn’t carry her forward.