portrait Alfred Corn

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 203 ~ April, 2014

Alfred Corn has published several collections of poetry over the years, including his first collection All Roads at Once (1976), A Call in the Midst of the Crowd: Poems (1978), The Various Light (1980), Notes from a Child of Paradise (1984), and Tables (Press 53, 2013). Other collections are The West Door: Poems (1988), Autobiographies: Poems (1992), Stake: Selected Poems, 1972-1992, and Contradictions: Poems (2002).

He has also published a collection of critical essays titled Metamorphoses of Metaphor (1988), Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007 (2008), Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament (2007), as well as a novel Part of His Story (1997), and also The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody (2008).

Corn graduated with a B.A. from Emory College, and went on to earn an M.A. in French from Columbia University. His degree work included spending a year in Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship, and teaching in the French Department at Columbia College.

Fellowships and prizes awarded for his poetry include a Guggenheim fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Award in Literature from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. He also held the Amy Clampitt residency in Lenox, Massachusetts for 2004-2005.

Alfred Corn

Alfred Corn

For many years, Corn taught in the Graduate Writing Program of the Columbia University School of the Arts, and has also taught courses and writing workshops at the City University of New York, the University of Cincinnati, Ohio State University, Oklahoma State University, UCLA, Sara Lawrence, and Yale University to name
a few.

In 2007, Corn directed a poetry-writing course at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire, and in 2008, he taught at the Almassera in Spain. A Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge in 2012, and was subsequently made a Life Fellow. His play, Lowell’s Bedlam opened at Pentameters Theatre in London in 2011.

Derek Alger: I see you continue to be a prolific writer

Alfred Corn: People often say that, and yet I don’t write every day, not even every week. Actually, there have been times when months would pass and not a line would be written. Between Contradictions  (2002) and the most recent book there was an interval of eleven years when I didn’t publish a book, except for a collection of essays that had been written mostly during the 1990s. I wasn’t publishing, no, but I was working, at my own pace.

DA: Your eighth poetry collection, Tables, edited by Pamela Uschuk, William Pitt Root, and Carolyn Forche, was published last year, and you have another collection, Unions. due out later this month.

AC: I’m glad you see it that way. Some of the reviewers described it as a super-sophisticate’s book, elegant and worldly. I guess they didn’t read the poem about how it feels to suffer bombardment, or the one describing my father’s war experience and the aftermath, or the poem about the destruction of the World Trade Towers.  I was especially pleased that the book was selected for publication by poets, and these poets in particular, because I’m fully in sympathy with what they stand for.

DA: You have a poetry collection, Unions, due out later this month.

AC: That, and my second novel, titled Miranda’s Book, which will appear in November of this year with Eyewear Publishing in London.

DA: You originally hail from Georgia.

AC: Yes, family origins begin in Virginia and Maryland in the 17th century and then trickle down over time through the Carolinas to Georgia. I haven’t lived in my home state since 1961, though. Just made family visits after that. Once I was invited to speak at a conference at the University in Athens, a conference about Georgia poets, but only once.  I’m not sure they want to claim me.

DA: Shortly after your birth, your father served in the Army Corps of Engineers in Philippines and then, in 1945, on your birthday, your mother died of complications following a burst appendix. Your father lived to age 81, and you have said you aren’t sure he ever fully recovered from your mother’s death.

AC: Those kinds of early events are foundational for consciousness. I’ve done a lot of private speculation about them, and a few poems deal with the subject.

DA: The scholastic world came easy to you.

AC: I put a lot of work into it because in the rather topsy-turvy world of my childhood, learning was something I could actually control, could actually master. Otherwise, I felt more or less powerless.  Some testing was done and it appears I had above-average intelligence, anyway, enough to recognize which people had more of it than I did.  When I met them, I listened carefully to what they said and tried to learn as much as I could from them.

DA: You learned French at an early age.

AC: I started French language classes in my third and fourth year of high school, after two years of Latin, which helped with French.  There was actually a French professor who had come to Valdosta to teach at the local college. Monsieur Jean Guitton, his name was. He made a visit to our class. So I got to hear a native speaker pronounce the language, which helped considerably.  He was personally charming and genial, and that added to the attraction of learning his language. Our family never did much traveling, so I felt the lure of other countries strongly, France in particular. I was determined to go there some day and practiced speaking as often as I could in preparation.

DA: You chose to go to Emory University.

AC: I had very high SAT scores and was accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Emory. I’d won a National Merit Scholarship, which was enough for tuition at Emory but not at the others.  It seemed prudent not to go into debt for undergraduate studies, and, besides, I was afraid I’d be too much of a small-town hick to make my way at an Ivy League university.  It was a mistake, but on the other hand I did get good instruction at Emory.  When time came to go to graduate school, I felt more confident. The same places accepted me, and I chose Columbia because it is located in New York, the cultural center of the U.S.

DA: You were a French major at Emory.

AC: I flattered myself that I would be able to master English literature on my own. But I knew I’d have to have help with French literature. Of course it’s not so simple as that, and I’m still trying to learn the English tradition (and making progress!).  But also it’s the thing I said earlier about hoping to travel and therefore needing to be able to speak another language when that finally happened.

DA: And then, as you already mentioned, on to Columbia University for graduate school.

AC: Yes, and several fellowships guaranteed that it wouldn’t cost me anything to attend, assuming I could keep living expenses down to subsistence level. I planned to get a doctorate, teach at a university, and do my own writing during free time.  I did all the work for the PhD. except the dissertation. But by then, I’d actually taught French at Columbia College and realized I didn’t enjoy teaching grammar and pronunciation to students who weren’t especially interested or proficient.  I only cared to teach literature, whereas, in a language discipline, you always have to do introductory language courses, even after tenure. Another factor was that around 1970, universities began dropping language requirements for the degree, which meant there were fewer positions available. So I’m not sure I could have had a university career even if I’d wanted one.

DA: Were there teachers you especially liked?

AC: I had the arrogance of most twenty-year-olds, and rather disdained most of my teachers, but I liked P.G. Peckham, who taught Old French, and Michael Riffaterre, who was a critical theorist.  He was the director of my M.A. thesis, a study of the poetry of Henri Michaux. The subject of my PhD. dissertation was to be the influence of Melville on Camus, and the twentieth-century specialist was Leon Roudiez. But as it happens I never finished the dissertation and abandoned my degree.  However, I don’t regret the work I did in French literature. Another bonus was the Fulbright Fellowship I was awarded, which allowed me to live in Paris for a year.  I certainly don’t regret that.  I knew that I hoped some day to write, but in those years my sights were set more on fiction than on poetry.  A few years later the priorities switched.

DA: Your first collection of poetry, All Roads at Once, received high praise from Harold Bloom.

AC: Yes, and he went that one better for my second collection, A Call in the Midst of the Crowd.  I was completely in sympathy with the high value he placed on the Romantic tradition in American poetry, which begins with Emerson and runs through Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Crane, and Bishop.  On the other hand, he didn’t have much use for Eliot, Williams, Moore, Auden, or Robert Lowell, and they were also important to me.

DA: What other writers and poets influenced you?

AC: I’ve just mentioned several American poets, but I should also speak of European writers, including novelists.  Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Stendhal, Baudelaire, George Eliot, Rimbaud, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Mallarmé, Hardy, Rilke, Yeats, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, and Woolf.  Among American novelists, Melville, James, Cather, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor.  Among Latin Americans, Borges, Neruda, and Octavio Paz.

DA: Tell us a bit about Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament.

AC: A friendly associate of mine David Rosenberg had edited a volume dealing with the Jewish Bible, with novelists, poets and non-fiction writers contributing essays about each book. I suggested he do the same for the New Testament.  He made the counter-suggestion that I should do it, and I agreed.  I knew that there were quite a few writers who were Christian, and so was I in my own unorthodox way. So it promised to be interesting, and was.  I thought it would be helpful if biblical writings were rescued from the ranting use that fundamentalists now make of them. Also, you can’t understand the Western tradition very well unless you have a good knowledge of its scriptural foundations.  It’s shocking how many well-educated people have never bothered to read the Bible, though I can understand why they might not want to, having heard it thumped on TV so often.

DA: You are among 23 writers commenting on all books of the New Testament and how it affected their lives and works.

AC: Yes I was. I wrote about Second Corinthians.

DA: What was gist of your essay if you can comment concisely?

AC: My point was this: modern believers find themselves in a position closer to Saint Paul’s than to the twelve apostles’. Paul (or Saul of Tarsus) never saw or heard Jesus. His knowledge was second hand. He didn’t even have the four gospels to read because they weren’t assembled till after his death.  What he did have was the vision on the road to Damascus. And that is what changed the course of his life. Vision replaced a direct, face-to-face encounter. Modern believers resemble him more than they resemble, say, John or Peter, who actually accompanied Jesus on his mission.

DA: In addition to Reynolds Price, who were some of the other writers?

AC: Very distinguished novelists and poets, including John Updike, Mary Gordon, John Hersey, Anthony Hecht, Grace Schulman, Robert Hass, and Rita Dove.

DA: In Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007, you were able to demonstrate your varied interests in language, theology, music, theater, and the graphic arts.

AC: I wouldn’t say “demonstrate.” I just record my thoughts. But of course those thoughts come from someone with a lot of education, institutional and self-administered. The American tradition is one based on the “Song of Myself.” If the self in question happens to have read extensively, traveled extensively, and attended concerts and theater, she or he will inevitably reveal that fact in any honest self-disclosure. I suppose I could try to “talk down” to the audience, but that would be sort of insulting, wouldn’t it?  When someone speaks to me, and I realize the level of knowledge being imparted is greater than mine, I don’t despise the speaker for that. The speaker has paid me the compliment of assuming I can absorb this new knowledge. And that is what I try to do. In the era of the Internet and Wikipedia, there’s really no excuse for me not to go and “look it up.”

DA: You call yourself “globocentric” and are definitely a polymath. Your essays range from a reminiscence of a journey to Elizabeth Bishops’s childhood home; to an exchange of letters you, as a college student, had with Flannery O’Connor, where she writes about the nature of faith; to fresh, as well as informed essays on The Canterbury Tales and a retrospective consideration of Wordsworth.

AC: I used the occasion of the bicentenary of Lyrical Ballads to comment on Wordsworth’s “retrospective” habits of mind—“emotion recollected in tranquillity” and comparable mental relexes. To some degree I am retrospective myself, often writing about moments from the proximate or distant past in my own life. I don’t know where that propensity comes from. As for being “globocentric,” it’s an attitude based on the idea that the day of nationalism (and of course chauvinism and nationalistic wars) is over.  We have just one world now, Spaceship Earth, and we’re all on it together.  Anything that happens in one part of the globe affects all other parts. The interconnectivity of the Web is the most convenient symbol of this new global unity, but the same applies to economics, environment, health issues, and artistic culture. In the last century Americans made a big issue out of creating an American aesthetic distinct from Europe’s. No doubt one motivation for that initiative was the sense that Europe’s achievement was unduplicatable and intimidating. But surely at this point no one doubts the greatness of American art, its achievements in film, music, visual art, dance, and literature. Europe looks to us for inspiration now, so there’s really no need to rant at great length about our important place in the scheme of things. So we can now afford to draw inspiration from Europe in turn, without the fear of contamination or loss of the democratic spirit.

DA: You received praise because your enthusiasm for Chaucer and Keats is as fresh and inquisitive as for Bishop, Thom Gunn, or Derek Mahon.

AC: Thank you.

DA: The title Atlas is apt in sense of travel, both physical and abstract.

AC: Yes, and I don’t even mind if someone wants to see it in terms of the figure in Greek mythology who stood on the Atlas mountains and held up Heaven until the gods gave him a break.

DA: You also published a novel, Part of His Story.

AC: I did. It’s a narrative of loss and regeneration in the midst of the AIDS crisis, with sectarian violence in Ireland as a secondary concern.  It’s not autobiographical, but like the narrator I am a writer who has spent a lot of time in London. I didn’t have a partner who died of HIV-related illness, but I did have many friends in that situation.  My narrator finds a new lover, whose sister is involved in the struggle to wrest Northern Ireland from British control.

DA: It was said that you write “with a sedate beauty that allows his character’s emotions and inner lives to unfold with dignity and intelligence.”

AC: The book did get a couple of praising reviews, including one very good one in The Nation by the film critic A.O. Scott.  But I’m fully aware that the readership is mistrustful when a poet writes fiction. They think we don’t really mean it. But actually I always loved fiction just as much as poetry. I wrote it early on but didn’t get very far with it, I mean, in terms of publishing. Anyway, when someone seems dubious about my novelistic projects, I cite Thomas Hardy and go on about my business.

DA: Your second novel is set to come out later this year..

AC: It will appear in November with a new outfit in London called Eyewear Publishing. The title is Miranda’s Book, and it is almost a historical novel, beginning in 1989 and continuing some time after that.  The opening chapters are set in Cincinnati at the moment when the Contemporary Art Center there was prosecuted for mounting an exhibition of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.  One unusual character is a semi-retired novelist who belongs to a class that hasn’t received much coverage in American fiction: that part of the African-American community that has been wealthy and upper crust for many generations.  I did a lot of research about that group, to add to what I knew from having met a few of them.

DA: You certainly have a lot of teaching experience.

AC: In a lot of different places: the City University of New York, Columbia, the University of Cincinnati, Yale, Connecticut College, and UCLA. But this was nearly always an adjunct position. I was only a full time professor for two years out of the twenty-odd I taught.

DA: What sort of courses did you teach — poetry workshops? Literature? French?

AC: As I said earlier I taught beginning French at Columbia for a couple of years, then abandoned that permanently.  After my first book of poems appeared, I taught creative writing, poetry almost entirely. There was one course in short story, I think. And in the Graduate Writing Division at Columbia, apart from writing workshops, I was also allowed to teach courses in literature. Not regular graduate-style courses, with required articles or essays following MLA form, but instead the literary equivalent of “Physics for Poets.” We looked at earlier literature with a view to plundering it for our own work. I also taught a course in prosody, you know, meter, rhyme, and verse form.



DA: Has teaching helped you as a writer and poet, staying connected with those trying to become writers?

AC: Yes it did, though I haven’t taught for a decade now.  It was my bizarre custom to stay in touch with students I regarded as promising, even after they were no longer students. And continue to offer assistance when I was asked for it.  Many of them went on to publish, and probably a dozen or so now teach writing themselves. One is a Pulitzer Prize winner and another is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Several of them are magazine or book editors. And so on. In a few instances I’ve acted as a sort of mentor for people who never took any of my classes.  Of course all this is time-consuming, but also rewarding in ways hard to describe.

DA: Your book, The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody was described by Publishers’ Weekly as “A provocative, definitive manual.”

AC: It’s my one “best-seller.”  I keep hoping that all its fans will turn to the books of poems themselves, but I won’t be the first to remark that books about poetry find more readers than books of poetry.  The book arose out of the prosody classes I taught at Columbia. I really had time over the years to hammer out ways of making the arcane subject of meter easier for the beginner to understand.  Many people have told me that meter was Greek to them until they read this book. So I think it accomplished what it set out to do.

DA: You also have written art criticism, as well as a book Aaron Rose: Photographs.

AC: Yes, I wrote an introduction to a collection of Rose’s photographs and did an interview for the book, one just as detailed as what we’re doing now.

DA: What interested you so much about Aaron Rose? .

AC: I’d been writing reviews for Art in America and ARTNews for about ten years. Visual art is one of my enthusiasms, and we don’t have so many skillful art critics just now.  I was assigned to cover a show of Rose’s photographs at a downtown gallery and wrote a praising review of it.  When Abrams Books decided to publish a collection of his work, they asked him who should write the intro, and he put forward my name, even though we hadn’t met. I was happy to do it because I truly and deeply admired his pictures. Many of them are cityscapes, and New York has always had a great fascination for me.

DA: It’s nice you recognize the work of others, specifically, writing an introduction to Micah Towey’s recent poetry collection Whale of Desire.

AC: It’s important for senior poets to call attention to the work of promising newcomers to the scene. Older poets did that for me. One day Micah will do that for poets younger than himself. That’s how it works.

DA: You spend part of every year in the United Kingdom.

AC: My first long-term stay was in 1986, when I had a Guggenheim Fellowship. I repeated the experiment a year later.  That’s when I began writing my first novel, and it is, as I said, set in London. But I didn’t return until late 1990s. There was another long-term stay in 2005, and since then I’ve spent a few months of every year either in London, or Cambridge, or in the North of England.

DA: I would guess you feel at home in London. You taught a course for the Poetry School there. And also one for the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton, Devon.

AC: Yes, but mostly I’m there just to live—to see people, to attend theatre performances, see art exhibitions, and to write.  My project at Clare Hall, Cambridge was to do a version of Rilke’s Duino Elegies.  It’s not completed yet, but in the meantime Clare Hall made me a Life Fellow, so I can return if I decide to.

DA: Your play, Lowell’s Bedlam opened in spring of 2011 at Pentameters Theatre in London.

AC: Apart from poetry, I’d written a novel, short stories, literary criticism, autobiography, travel writing, and essays.  So I thought why not a play?  Lowell’s Bedlam was the result. I met Robert Lowell on a couple of occasions and greatly admired him.  Partly because he managed, despite chronic mental illness, to be a major poet.  The public is interested in mental illness, and there have been plays about poets like Dickinson, Eliot, and Auden. Also, there was a film about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. So Lowell’s stay in a mental hospital struck me as a promising subject.  It was well received in London, but I haven’t found a place to stage it over here.  That doesn’t mean I’ve given up.

DA: I see you’ve entered the world of the electronic publishing. Your first ebook, Transatlantic Bridge: A Concise Guide to the Differences Between American and British English was published in 2012.

AC:  That’s right.  I took all of the notes I’d made over the years concerning the differences between British and American English and organized it into a book. The differences are many— not only vocabulary and pronunciation, but also grammar, spelling and punctuation. Also, the British have slang words we don’t use.  It’s a book useful for the traveler, for readers over there and over here trying to understand works written in the alternative English (or films spoken in it), for actors, and for teachers of British or American literature.  It addresses a problem no one seems to have focused on before. Of course we know that poetry in French has to be translated for an audience that doesn’t know the language. But an obstacle for British books being read here is that translations aren’t provided.  Also, in poetry sound has an overriding importance. If you don’t know how the poem sounded to the author, have you fully understood the poem? I don’t think so.

DA: Guess, poetry and writing, have come a long way since our college days, who would have imagined?

AC: They have, but I think it’s still recognizable. It must be poetry because what else on earth could it possibly be?