Mark Statman Derek Alger One on One

portrait Mark Statman

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 201 ~ February, 2014

Mark Statman’s most recent books are the poetry collection, A Map of the Winds (Lavender Ink, 2013), and Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of Jose Maria Hinojosa (University of New Orleans Press, 2012). He is also the author of the poetry collection, Tourist at a Miracle (Hanging Loose, 2010), as well as a translation, with Pedro Medina, of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York (Grove, 2008).

His other books include Listener in the Snow (Teachers & Writers, 2000) and, with Christian McEwen, The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing (Teachers & Writers, 2000).

Mark Statman

Mark Statman

His poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in such publications as The Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, South Dakota Review, Tin House, Washington Square, and American Poetry Review, to name some of his numerous publications.

Statman is an Associate Professor of Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College of The New School in Manhattan. He is a recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Writers Project.


Derek Alger: Your most recent poetry collection was prompted by a question asked by your son.

Mark Statman: Yes, this happened when Jesse was a toddler, barely able to look out our kitchen window which looked out into the backyards of our block in Brooklyn.  He turned to me and said, Dada, write me a poem called “A Map of the Winds.” The poem that appears in the book is actually the second version of the poem. The first coincides with a sense of my own idea of futility — that I couldn’t.
The second, I think is much more positive. Instead of thinking that it wasn’t my poem to write, I thought about how happy I was that this was something he thought I could do. So it became a poem about father and son and a little bit about life in Brooklyn. It was also kind of extraordinary to me in the sense that he already knew I was a poet, that there was such a thing as poetry.

Jesse, and my wife Katherine, and the life we live, whether we are in Brooklyn or upstate or Mexico or wherever, have always inspired me to write. Though Jesse, now that he is twenty, doesn’t really travel with us much anymore. He’s a musician, has a lot of his own work to do. Still, memory speaks into the poems as present.

DA: Poet John Yamrus described your poems in A Map of the Winds as delivering “Just good, solid poetry that keeps getting better.”

MS: John Yamrus is a poet for whom I have a great deal of respect. I just wrote the introduction for his book of poems, Alchemy, which is coming out in March with Epic Rites Press. I was pleased when he suggested that my work keeps getting better.

I do think A Map of the Winds is my best work to date and I am grateful to Bill Lavender at Lavender Press for publishing it. Bill is a terrific publisher. When he was director of the University of New Orleans Press, he accepted my translation collection Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of Jose Maria Hinojosa in 2012 as part of their Engaged Writers Series. This was the first English language translation of this significant and lost poet of Spain’s Generation of 27, which included Garcia Lorca (whose Poet in New York I had translated with Pablo Medina a few years earlier).

A Map of the Winds took me about three years to write. I had published Tourist at a Miracle and that is a very coherent and cohesive book. Donna Brook was a terrific editor on it. But there were a lot of poems that were left out. I was also so inspired by the process of working with her that I kept writing new poems, and these seemed to be going in a different direction. They seemed both more domestic and yet more about being someplace else. They were also personal, despite a kind of other quality. I think the idea of the map is a central idea. I’m reminded of Dick Gallup’s wonderful book of poems Wherever I Hang My Hat is Home.

DA: A lot of work seems to have gone into your poetry.

MS: I am a tireless reviser, every poem gets six or seven drafts. I am still not sure any poem is really done.

DA: I can relate to that.

MS: For A Map of the Winds, I am also indebted to Pablo Medina, John Yarmus, and Joseph Lease for giving the manuscript close readings. Joseph Lease, in particular, was a great editor for me. He went through the manuscript, suggested major cuts (of some 60 pages) and that I change the opening poem from “window box” to “promised” (so “window box” becomes the second poem). I think it was a great move because it sets the tone for the rest of the collection. I think “window box” would have suggested a whole different book.

DA: Tell us a bit more about Jose Maria Hinojosa.

MS: Black Tulips is the first English translation of Jose Maria Hinojosa. He’s a poet I discovered while working on the Lorca book. His name kept appearing in narratives but I couldn’t find any of his work. Then I found a small website in Spain that had some of his poems and I thought these are pretty good. I showed them to Pablo (Medina), who I first met when we were both teaching at Lang — he is now at Emerson — and he said, I think you have your next book. But the work was hard to find. Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with the family in Spain who put me in touch with Alfonso Sanchez Rodriguez, the editor of Hinojosa’s Obra Completa in Spain. He was a great guide.

One of the reasons Hinojosa has not been known in the English-speaking world is that he was barely known in Spain for many years. He was very much a part of the Generation of 27 but he did a curious thing. Andre Breton, in his second Surrealist Manifesto, suggests that if you are not a communist, you can’t be a surrealist. So Hinojosa goes and visits Stalin’s Soviet Union. He is so horrified when he comes back that while all his friends are going left, he goes right. In fact, after that visit in 1928, he writes one more book ( his sixth), published in 1931, and then devotes himself to working against the Republic. He wasn’t a fascist, more of a Catholic and monarchist. He is murdered in 1936, by forces on the left, three days after Lorca is murdered by forces on the right. There isn’t any known connection, but it shows how strange and terrible those times could be.

DA: Why were you drawn to Hinojosa’s poetry?

MS: I should start by saying Hinojosa and I have nothing in common politically, but his work is hardly political (save for his final poems). He is a wonderful poet, one of the country, and one of the imagination. He has a great sense of the strange and unusual, poems of place and time. He is a fine love poet and he has a sly sense of humor. As his work develops, he becomes, as did many of the poets of his generation, a voice that was willing to forego the “I” in order to describe the world in ways that were creative and prophetic.

DA: You learned Spanish while growing up.

MS: It’s hard for me to describe how I learned Spanish. I heard it a lot growing up. My family on my father’s side came from Eastern Europe to Cuba and then the United States, In fact, my great grandparents are buried in Havana. So on that side of my family, the first language was Spanish, second language was Yiddish, and third was English.

I think I have a  good ear for languages in general, so though I never actually studied Spanish formerly, it seemed natural to me to understand it.

DA: Looks like Brooklyn is your true home.

MS: I was raised in Queens and on Long Island, and then left Long Island when I was 18 to go to Columbia. Other than some time traveling and several years living in the Virginia piedmont, I have been a New Yorker. When Katherine and I left Virginia in 1985 to return to New York, we decided to live in Brooklyn. It seemed like there was a lot of creative energy there. And it was cheaper! Over the years, I’ve also found it has a spirit that comes out of Walt Whitman, inspiring and rich. I learned a number of years ago that the land that my home on Long Island had originally been owned by the Whitman family. Maybe there’s a connection there?

A thing I love about Brooklyn is its diversity —  racial, ethnic, cultural. I love its architecture, its sprawl. I love Manhattan but it doesn’t have the same feel, at least, not for me, and not, I think, anymore. After almost thirty years here, I would say it is home.

DA: Did you have an early interest in writing?

MS: Yes. The first poem I ever wrote was “call me Ishmael said the crab/call me fishmeal said Ahab.”

But seriously, in high school, I became interested in writing, only my first poems were terrible. I had no idea what I was doing. I showed them to a close friend who was considered the “school poet.” This was just before an open reading at my high school. They were so bad that out of kindness she said she had lost them!.

I think I became a little more thoughtful about poetry after that, though it wasn’t until I got to college that I thought that poetry might be something that would be a major part of my life.

DA: You graduated from Columbia University?

MS: Yes, in 1980. I was very lucky, Columbia was my first choice for college but I didn’t have the money to go. Still I showed up, hoping something might happen. The first week I was there I learned I had received a Joseph Murphy Fellowship, which would cover my tuition for my full four years and allow me to keep other outside scholarships I had received. I majored in Comparative Religions even though I knew literature was where I was going. But I wanted to study something outside of what was comfortable. Interestingly enough, this gave me the chance to study with two of our best translators from eastern religions, Burton Watson and Barbara Stoler Miller.

I did take some courses in the English Department. One was with David Shapiro, who first published at the age of 13 and has written some 20 volumes of poetry. This was a course that was supposed to be about John Keats, and we did read a lot of Keats, but David is so brilliant, everything was fair game. His mind moves faster than anyone I have ever met.

I also studied writing with Kenneth Koch, taking several classes with him. Kenneth was a huge influence on my poetry, and he still is. The funny thing is when I was a senior in college, I introduced Kenneth and Ron Padgett at a reading they were giving at Columbia. There was a young woman with Kenneth and he said, “This is my daughter Katherine.” I had a girlfriend at the time and thought nothing of it except, great, he has a daughter. Two years later, Katherine and I were married. And thirty one years later, we still are. Over the course of time, my relationship with Kenneth went from being student, to younger poet, to son-in-law, to close friend. I still think about him almost every day.

DA: You decided not to follow the MFA path.

MS: There was talk of going for an MA/PhD. I mean, I considered becoming an academic but I’m not sure I knew then what that actually meant.

Pablo Medina and I were once reading from Lorca together and I said something like, “Let me get academic here for a second.” And Pablo looked at me and said, “Are you an academic?” I answered, “No, I’m a poet.” The funny thing is that I’ve been teaching in academia for decades, as has Pablo.

DA: Seems like a good moment to ask about how your collaboration with Pablo Medina on a translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s work from his time in New York came about.

MS: Pablo and I decided to translate Lorca’s Poet in New York shortly after the attacks of September 11. Pablo was still teaching at Lang — we were good friends — and it turned out that independently, as part of an attempt to make sense of what had happened, both of us were reading Poet in New York. For some crazy reason we decided to translate a few of the poems. Tin House published some of those, as did American Poetry Review. Grove decided to give us a contract to do the whole book, which we learned was unusual. Translators don’t usually get advances on books that haven’t been translated! But this was Lorca, after all.

Interestingly enough, though Poet in New York is considered in Spain to be one of the greatest works ever written by a Spaniard, it had only been translated into English in its entirety two times before. We soon found out why. If we had known how difficult it was going to be, I’m not sure we’d have accepted the contract:! But that we were two friends, two poets, working closely, made it a lot easier. John Ashbery, very kindly, called it “the definitive version of Lorca’s masterpiece.”

DA: You’ve been fortunate to travel extensively.

MS: When I was growing up, my family would travel a lot, mainly along the east coast of the United States and in Canada. So I always loved travel.

Katherine and I went to Europe on our honeymoon, spending time mainly in Paris and Rome (where Katherine, who is a painter and currently working on a memoir of her youth living among the writers and artists of the New York School, was born). It was my first time in Europe and I was stunned. I remember being in the Luxemburg Gardens at twilight in November and I started to cry. It was so beautiful and I thought, here I am 24 years old, why have I had to wait until now to see this? I’ve been back to Europe several times, most recently to England, where Pablo Medina and I gave a reading tour from the Lorca book and our own books of poetry.

I’ve also spent a lot of time in Mexico, in Central America and South America. One of the most interesting times was my first time in Nicaragua, the largest country in the Central American Isthmus, bordered to the north by Honduras and Costa Rica to the south, This was in 1987/1988. It was during the time that the United States was waging a less than covert war against the Sandinista-led Nicaraguan government by funding the contras.

DA: Whatever compelled you to go to Nicaragua?

MS: I was down there as part of the Ruben Dario International Poetry Festival. Anne Waldman was there. Thomas McGrath was there. We felt like rock stars because we were taken around in buses, giving readings in stadiums, at the National Library. I was lucky in that I spoke Spanish and could sometimes go off on my own and wander around. It was amazing to me how many people knew poetry. I soon learned it was because poetry was a central part of the literary program that had been instituted by Ernesto Cardenal and Mayra Jimenez. So everyone, from kids to older people to military, were learning to read and write by reading and writing poetry.

DA: You did find a spot teaching, which you actually enjoy.

MS: When we moved back to New York, to Brooklyn, in 1985, I started as a part-time faculty member at Eugene Lang College. I taught everything, journalism, creative writing, pedagogy. Eventually I became full-time and I’m currently an Associate Professor in Literary Studies.

I think teaching helps me as a poet, in a certain way, because I am constantly rereading and rethinking the poets I teach, and I am always trying to create new classes. The work is time consuming but I love to interact with students who are thinking poetry and literature. They are always giving me a fresh perspective on work I think I already know.

I’m also fortunate to meet other writers and scholars who teach at Lang as well as other institutions. Lang has a particularly strong Literary Studies/Writing program. We have terrific faculty.


DA: Listener in the Snow: the Practice And Teaching of Poetry has proven to be a valuable book

Listener in the Snow

Listener in the Snow

MS: I think what makes Listener an unusual book is that my plan was not to write a book about teaching; a book with lessons and student examples, though those do figure into the book.

What interested me more was to write a collection of theme based inter-locking essays which included my poetry and fiction, the work of poets who have influenced me, and then show how those turned into lessons. I included a lot of the poems written by the students that came out of lessons. I think the key here is that I wanted it to be about the practice of poetry, how poetry happens. I didn’t want it to be tricks or prompts but something deeper. I wanted it to show why poetry could be an exciting and integral part of anyone’s life.

DA: You also co-edited an anthology, The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing.

MS: Yes, I did that with Christian McEwen. It came out in 2000, the same year as Listener in the Snow and was published by Teachers & Writers.

It has some wonderful contributors: Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, Kim Stafford, to name some of the better known writers. Our idea then, as it remains now, was to provide readers with a chance to think about how to look at, think about, write, draw, experience nature in all possible ways. It is about the natural world in all ways, from the rural to the urban. The idea, in a sense, was, by exposing people to writing about nature, and providing some lessons, too, about how to be part of nature, people might begin to think of nature as something other than “the other.” It seems to me, in this time when climate change is such an urgent issue, that this kind of work is more important now than ever.

DA: What are you working on now?

MS: I have several projects going. Because of my contract with Lavender Ink, next on the list is a new collection of poems, which I hope to have ready for 2015. I have also been working on a more long-term project, which is another translation, a substantial selection of poems of Mario Benedetti, Uruguayan journalist, novelist, and poet who was an integral member of the Generacion del 43.

My interest in Benedetti, who published more than 80 books and was published in 20 languages, as, I think, with my interest in Hinojosa, is that he is not well known, particularly for his poetry, in the English-speaking world. In the Spanish-speaking world he is considered one of Latin America’s most important writers from the latter half of the 20th century.

Short term, I am also working on the poems of a young Uruguayan poet Martin Barrea Mattos. His work is profoundly good, though very difficult to translate since much of his poetry, which is both very serious and very funny, uses a lot of word play and puns, so he is forcing me to work in ways I haven’t before.

But that’s one of the points of poetry, right? To think and work in ways one hasn’t before.