portrait Sven Birkerts

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 96 ~ May, 2005

Sven Birkerts, the editor of Agni, published by Boston University, is the author of six books, including a memoir, My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (2002, Viking), Readings (1999, Graywolf), and The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994 Ballantine Books). He is also the author of An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), and American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow).

Birkerts has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as being named a winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990.

He has regularly published reviews for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The Yale Review, and other publications, and edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf), as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).

Birkerts has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, and Amherst, and is a lecturer at Mt. Holoke College and a member of the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars.

Derek Alger: We might as well start at the beginning and ask about your relationship to language as a child?

Sven Birkerts: Well, I think about this a lot and each time I do it’s something different that strikes me. I grew up, as you know, in a Latvian- speaking family, and that was the first language, with English coming in when I was kindergarten age. Hard as it is to use language in order to theorize about language, I would say that there were several important effects from this.

One, and it has never gone away, never will, is the feeling of being an outsider to a dominant culture, internalizing an `us’ and `them’ awareness at a very young age, feeling it as a kind of missing out, always imagining real life was going on over there, in English, because there were so many of them and so few of us. Also, and this maybe came a bit later, was the light-switch epiphany, the idea I had that I could regard the world through the word screen of Latvian and it would feel one way; that I had only to flip to English and everything would be different.

Not Einsteinian relativity, but another kind. And an awareness of the fundamental power of words to construct a world, of the feeling tones that we channel into these words we’ve learned. Writing has always been about working with these tones, manipulating them through word sounds and rhythms to get them to add up to something persuasive.

DA: You’ve persuaded me.

SB: I think I knew fairly early on that it was not quite enough to express the content of a thought, that one needed to make it come alive, and that the best literature did that. Somehow I attribute this recognition to the fact that I was toggling between languages.

DA: Would you say your family acted as a literary influence on you?

SB: Very important. There was a real myth of creativity and the arts in our home and it was hugely formative. My father’s father had been a writer/intellectual back in Latvia, important enough to have been imprisoned for his anti-Czarist views. He was later a prominent figure in Riga, author of many books that looked to synthesize new ideas about psychology and sociology.

My grandmother was a folklorist and teacher. My father, who fled Latvia during the war, ended up in America as a well-known architect. On my mother’s side, her father was a painter, and I spent some time with him when I was a young boy, watching him work on his landscape paintings. There was much invocation of composers, artists, writers, architects in our house — they were heroes.

And I fell right into the trap, decided that I had to pick up something along that path. I was nudged along in this by my mother, who, while herself not a practitioner, was (and remains) a devoted reader. I understood that words were powerful, that they created spells that were like drug-like states, and I often thought that I would have really accomplished something that would so pull another person away from their daily surroundings, then I would have really accomplished something.

So, yes, I knew very early on in my boyhood that writing was a power and writers were wielders of power, and they were mysterious. I loved looking at their faces on the dust jackets of my mother’s books, imagining the lives they led, how they were somehow charmed and secret and free of the curse of boring dailyness. I looked at the pictures of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Isak Dinesen, Thomas Wolfe — they seemed completely out of human scale to me.

DA: When do you first recall thinking seriously about becoming a writer?

SB: I recall wanting to be a writer as early as grade school, but in this ignorant, fantasy-driven way. And the fantasy grew more potent when I started junior high. It mixed together with what I see now was a fairly profound depression, state of alienation, and became the place I went to. I read a lot, novels of all sorts, and I used that reading to stoke my imaginings, of the life I was going to live and how I was going to live it. In 7th grade I got a certain validation when a little sketch I’d written won a city-wide writing contest.

This somehow corroborated me — and from that point on I thought of myself as a writer. Even when years went by without my writing anything more than my school papers, I was a writer — I was a writer waiting for his big inspiration. I never doubted that it would come. I should add that the investment was in fiction, not in the kind of essayist writing I ended up doing. And it was one of the crises of my life to face the fact that I was not going to become a writer of novels. I took so long to shake off the feeling that nonfiction was a kind of consolation prize.

My first writings were dreamy and poetic, later they toughened up by adopting the Beat atmospheres and then grew lean on a diet of Hemingway, but deep down always, I have been partial to the musical possibilities of the sentence, the way that the sinuosities of a sentence can suggest the actual momentum of thought . . .

DA: You had an interesting apprenticeship in bookstores.

SB: For a very long time, from about 1973 until the mid-1980s, bookstores were right at the center of my life — my employment, my social life, and the mill for my reading and writing obsessions. I had bookstores instead of grad-school. They kept me a generalist when common sense was telling me to narrow my field and get a degree, something useful. But it was exactly the bookstore brand of uselessness I was after –pages turned for their own sakes and not as part of some other process. For me, it all goes back to the early 70s, my last two years of college, when the pressure of disaffection was becoming almost intolerable.

I was an English major at the University of Michigan, but like Eliot’s persona on Margate Strand, I could connect nothing with nothing, and I wanted out. I started skipping classes, wandering the streets of Ann Arbor, sniffing out the last compost smells of the 60s, utterly at a loss for what I would be doing next in my life — except that somehow whatever it was would get me to being a writer.

It was during this period I started haunting a particular used bookstore off-campus, going back day after day, finding it harder to peel myself away from the walls of old books. I became a habituĂ© there — the shop was called The Wooden Spoon — and started doing little chores, and going with the proprietress, Dee, to local flea markets and Salvation Army places. She taught me about first editions. And I just got hooked. Fast-forward a year or so, to 1973, and two brothers from Kentucky, Tom and Louis Borders, are setting up their first little hole-in-the-wall operation. Tremendous energy there. The stock seemed to double every week, used & rare, new books. . . They jumped from one location to another, and when the school year ended, when I was done, an official English major with a B.A., I answered the `what next?’ question by going to work there.

I won’t do the long story here. The short version is that at that moment, in Ann Arbor, in the culture, in my life, what the Borders brothers were doing was just the thing. It was books becoming sexy, books being news, interesting and experimental stuff, and all of the people I wanted to know and be around were working there, or browsing there. Let me use that over-used word `aura.’ The place had aura. And it made me crazy to know things in a way that my college classes never had, and it made becoming a writer seem the only possible thing.

But it was a long time before that fever crossed over into actual writing. There had to be a few very intense years of reading and reading and making long lists of what I had to know. And lots of frustration and failure, which I tried to write about in my memoir, My Sky Blue Trades. The hardest thing was facing the fact that fiction was not working for me, that I was not a writer of stories or novels. But that was exactly where the bookstore experience kicked in. I was not a maker of fiction, but I had become a reader, and there came the day when I realized that I could write in other ways, that I could draw on my feelings for books and my love of language. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? I just don’t know.

DA: The great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was a big influence on you.

SB: It’s hard for me to do justice to the extent of influence, which was only in part literary in a way that affects style or delivery. Brodsky’s effect went deeper — into the life itself. He was the first writer I’d ever met who took the vocation all the way. He was totally taken over by poetry, the language, the image-making power, the imperative to tell the deepest truths, and he created a very powerful force field around himself. I’m not the only one who felt this — his devotees included, over the years, Susan Sontag, Czeslaw Milosz, Mark Strand, Anthony Hecht, Seamus Heaney — pretty lofty company. Not that he was always right, or always great, or above making careerist moves or silly pronouncements, no.

But he carried the perspective of Poetry with him, the big picture idea of it, and refracted the whole world through it with great partisan energy. When you were around him you felt the excitement — and the moral necessity — of working with words. He was very competitive, very judgmental, and had a wicked sense of humor; or else he was tragic, depressed in a dramatic way that made you wonder why you should bother going on. He was generous to a crusading extent, and high-handed, and cruel when he wanted to be. There was no sorting him out.

DA: How did you first meet Brodsky?

SB: I met Brodsky in Ann Arbor in the mid-1970s, when I was at a wavering stage, looking for a reason to push all my chips over to writing — I was ready for this kind of influence. I had signed up for his contemporary international poetry seminar, and didn’t know what I was walking into. Over the course of a few months I was introduced to Akhmatova Mandelstein, Tsvetaeva, Milosz, Herbert, Cavafy, and a half dozen others. I heard the gospel of Auden, Eliot, Lowell, and Frost. He delivered these spirits to us with a crackling intensity. My mind was kicked out of post-grad numbness, and it was suddenly clear that there was nothing on earth more exalted than poetry, writing, writers . . .

DA:  Sounds like the beginning of a great friendship.

SB: I stayed in touch with Brodsky, eventually interviewed him for the Paris Review series. My highest aspiration once I started writing was to get him to notice me, to win his praise. Once or twice I did (I forget for what — an essay on Musil, one on Montale . . . ).

But what I remember most was the day he handed back papers in that seminar and I waited to see what he would say about mine. He paused before handing it back and said, “And here is your manuscript –” pause, wicked laugh, “or should I say `anus-script.’ I didn’t know then that he would do anything for a pun — I took him seriously, assumed that what I had given him was pure `shit.’

DA: How did your first publication come about?

SB: I feel like I’ve told it too often, the consolation prize story with the happy ending — how after all these years of writing fiction, of thinking that fiction was the only game in town, it was made painfully clear to me (I was in my late 20s) that it was not going to happen — the strange phenomenon of seeing yourself from the side, as through another’s eyes, not unlike looking in a window and thinking `wow, who is that blimp?’ and then realizing as you move your arm that the other person is moving too . . . I saw, finally, that I couldn’t do characters the way I wanted to, that everything was willed onto the page — I was in a real depression and I didn’t come out of it for a long time.

I could not see for the longest time that I might have either interest or ability at writing ABOUT literature, though when the connection did come, after I read Robert Musil, it seemed very obvious and right, and though I’ve taken other ill-fated swipes at fiction, I’ve never really changed my deep-down orientation, my self-identification as critic/essayist. I will sometimes — not often — get the covetous feeling. I want to have written John Banville’s novels, some of Ian McEwan’s, you know.

DA: Obviously, for you, there is a strong connection between reading and writing.

SB: It’s profound, and I want to say obvious, but probably it’s very subtle, too. I mean, you write in order to be read, it is the copulation of the act of writing. It’s the point of entry of your writerly subjectivity into the subjectivity of another, the infiltration by words. Words are the stuff of thought, invisible, intimate. I’ve always loved the idea that you could string a bunch of them together and make something that through imagery, word-sound, rhythm, and idea-content can invade another person’s mind, capture them.

Yes, you get the attention of the reader. But it’s more than that. In real, true, immersed reading, the words from the page are, in effect, replacing the words inside the reader’s head. And since words are the stuff of thought, almost the stuff of consciousness . . . Well, you can see that writing has a very powerful imperialist component. Conquest. On another front, reading is what gives you the essential material as a writer — not the experience of life, but choice.

And these are learned slowly, gradually, by osmosis, and there is very little significant writing that doesn’t depend on a deeply-schooled literary imagination. I am often shocked, I teach a lot of writers, would-be writers and they don’t read. They are not obsessed with the words of others. I don’t get it. If you’re not completely driven, get the hell away. To be completely driven is to be a reader, a deep reader.

DA: How did you end up teaching?

SB: I came to teaching like I seem to come to most things in my life — writing essays, marriage, fatherhood — in a counter-clockwise fashion. It was, in a sense, handed to me. I’d been to Cambridge for some years at this point, working at the Harvard Book Store in Harvard Square, really beginning to consider myself a lifer in the book business, though I was starting to do more and more reviewing by this point, living a split-screen life of sitting at my desk all morning hammering on my green Olivetti typewriter, and then working behind the counter at the store all through the evening (we closed at ten) . . .

Anyway, the writing and publishing must have made me more viable, because one day a new friend asked if I wanted to teach a writing class at Boston University, and I interviewed and got the gig. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I should be doing. I stood in the front of the room in my sports jacket talking high-mindedly about Flaubert and whomever else I was reading. They stared at me. I imagined I was wowing them with my brilliance. I learned from evaluations that not one had had a clue for the whole semester what was going on. I did get a bit better over time, as I continued, but I am not a natural teacher, not at that level. But it remains the cornerstone of my income now, and since Boston University, I’ve worked at Harvard, Emerson, Bennington, Mt. Holyoke and any number of one-semester gigs.

The Bennington thing, low-residency, has been a godsend — I love one-on-one teaching. I love it when I can work at the level of the sentence with a person who wants to write — that’s the best.