Eva Salzman Interview
Posted on 27 December 2006. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to poet Eva Salzman
Tell us something about your background.
I’ve got 3 ½ books if you count – and I’d like to, please – a chapbook illustrated by my partner, Van Howell (his portfolio can be found on our shared web-site http://www.writersartists.net). My latest book, Double Crossing: New & Selected (Bloodaxe), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, got me a Society of Authors Cholmondeley Award and an Arts Council Grant.
I thought myself young for a “Selected” (happy delusion!), although this isn’t quite as terminal-sounding as a “Collected”. In one of the more disgraceful recent episodes from England’s literary annals, Oxford University Press closed its hundred-year-old poetry list, stranding many poets. Eventually, I returned to my first publisher, who reprinted the earlier work too.
Some writers stick to one genre, but it doesn’t seem my style to keep it simple. I write fiction, non-fiction, lyrics, libretti - including for my composer father and singer Christine Tobin – and I collaborated with another UK-based American poet on an as-yet unproduced film script. My fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in anthologies in the US and UK. To say I’m “working on a novel” sounds so clichéd. Who the hell isn’t? The truth is: I should be working on my novel Broken Island… instead of writing this! Recently, I had a residency at Villa Mont Noir in France, but that period of uninterrupted and paid time, wasn’t long enough. I wonder if patrons still exist. I wonder too about that rich boy from high school. Although he was mean with money, which is presumably how the rich get rich.
Other work besides writing; ie.
Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works for/against your own
I can’t understand how genuinely self-supporting freelancers survive without sticking their fingers into different pies. Not knowing when the next job will come along, I find it hard to “no” to work. But if the paid gigs, taken on to support the writing, begin to replace it, then what’s the point? I get work precisely because I’m writer, so if I’m not writing, I feel a fraud. Peek behind some ostensibly self-employed writers who aren’t buried by a weight of teaching, and you’ll often discern a network of support: a partner’s income, a trust fund, domestic or secretarial help, or all of these.
I’ve taught all ages and levels – children to postgraduate level – and in every conceivable situation: for community projects, the disabled and in prisons. Middle-class and Jewish guilt are potent driving forces too. In some way, I think I want to be worthy of my fairy-grandparents who’d given me an enormous head-start. And I wanted to try to give something back to society, if that doesn’t sound too grand. If done well, teaching drains your life-blood, so the price to one’s own work can be high.
These days I do more private mentoring than formal teaching, although I did enjoy co-devising Start Writing Poetry for the Open University and always like editing work. During my prison residency, I edited a magazine (and made a few short films). For some years, I put my heart and soul into a magazine called “The (Printer’s) Devil”, which was a learning experience in ways I’d rather forget. Currently, I’m editing a collection of writings from Ruskin College, Oxford and Women’s Work (Seren), an anthology of poets from around the globe. These projects are so overdue, it’s not funny.
How did you start writing?
I can’t recall not writing. In junior high school, hiding at the back of the class, I wrote novels in notebooks. On weeks-long family car journeys, as a child, stuck in the back-seat with my evil twin, I’d dream cloud shapes into people and gaze into the distance, imagining the lives one might have led, even if I’d hardly begun mine. Escape is as good an inspiration as any. Writing may have saved my life, and be saving it now, which is not to say that its function is catharsis.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
Doesn’t every writer long to return to their first loves? I met mine via the 20,000-odd books which bowed the floors of my grandmother’s red-brick federal Brooklyn house, right around the corner. Its Miss Havisham-style fading grandeur included what was essentially my personal library, with a difference: I could keep the books I borrowed. My first passions included: Fielding, Thackeray, Austen, Eliot, Melville, Hawthorne, Dickens, the Brontes, the Russians, Wharton, Maugham, Mauppassant, Hardy, Lawrence, Dreiser, Mansfield, Mann…Slowly I moved into the 20th century.
Alongside “serious” reading, I devoured glossy magazines and the literary equivalent of junk food, indiscriminately and without guilt. As someone once said: hell, I’d read a cereal packet. I love travel books and memoir. Some people love to deplore the current cult of The Biography, but anyone who says they aren’t fascinated by people’s lives must be lying. I’d rather risk accusations of bad taste than not satisfy my curiosity.
Early poetry influences were Dickinson, Plath and Bishop. I’m drawn equally by the ideas and the language. I often whisper aloud, when reading, to taste words’ textures and flavours. Dickinson’s silences spoke to me too. At one point, embarrased by my adolescent ardour for death, I “outgrew” Plath, but latterly returned to this great writer who, even now, is often undervalued by the limited and limiting critical readings of her work.
Early influences included Auden and Frost but the Romantics came first. Some teenagers put up in their rooms rock-star posters. My pin-up was Keats. To die young is a good career move, especially for women. Part of my high school English teacher’s appeal was his weary, melancholy look. He didn’t seem long for this world. I moved to the front of his class. He tested on us student guinea pigs his tales about growing up poor in Ireland. He awarded grades of 96% to everyone, I think. Anyway, my instincts about Frank McCourt were off-based; he survived just fine. From him, I gathered that learning English was about learning stories, which I guess it is. I was lucky with teachers. They weren’t always nice, but they were damn interesting. At Bennington College and Columbia University, my teachers included: Derek Walcoot, Joseph Brodsky, Stanley Kunitz, C.K. Williams, Jorie Graham, Carolyn Kizer, Ben Belitt, Elizabeth Hardwick and Edmund White.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
My first poem published was in something called Yellow Silk. Boy, was I proud of my rich description of the natural world, of my archetypal Long Island landscape about which I’m writing now. When the package containing my first published poem arrived in the post, I excitedly tore it open. It was literary magazine….of the erotic kind. Re-reading my poem in this context – about an inlet where the ocean and the bay crash into each other - I blushed at my naivety. Poetry Review first published me in the UK.
Most poets are agent-less. The sums of money involved don’t warrant it usually. This reminds me of an Amis (?) essay which turns the world ass-backwards, so a screenwriter is rewarded for her efforts with a lousy five dollars, which makes her ecstatic, while a sonnet earns the poet a million-buck contract and movie-deal.
What's the worst thing about writing?
Getting started. Each time. Secretarial and domestic drudgery.
And the best?
Once started, and if inspired, the feeling is as close as I’ll probably ever get to a religious experience. As transcendent as that, or sex.
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
I feel little guilty to so crave the high from that drug of applause, but a lot of this is more about the writer’s constant fear of rejection. (I seem to have a small, exclusive fan-club, comprised mostly of middle-aged European men…for some reason.) Readers and audiences don’t influence the actual writing, but knowing they’re there certainly does. In order to be satisfied with a piece of writing, I must be convinced it’s universal in some way, relevant to others’ experience too.
What was your breakthrough moment?
Getting a poem in the New Yorker felt as good as getting my first book published.
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