An interview with poet Troy Jollimore on “Syllabus of Errors”

Syllabus of Errors coverAfter being praised as “a new and exciting voice in American poetry,” by the New York Times for the publication of his first collection of poems, (a National Book Critics Circle Award winner), and receiving critical acclaim for his second compilation, Troy Jollimore returns to the world of contemporary poetry with his third collection, Syllabus of Errors. In his new book, Jollimore, a professor of philosophy, explores the notion of error in our daily lives. In an exclusive interview with PUP, Jollimore discusses the themes present in his poems, the significance of misunderstandings, and the relationship between philosophy and poetry.

Your new poetry collection is called Syllabus of Errors. Where does that title come from?

TJ: That evocative phrase names a Catholic church document that purports to list a number of popular and hazardous heresies, in order to help believers avoid them. Of course my poems don’t have any ambition at all, as far as I can see, to help people avoid errors, unless it’s the error of not paying enough attention to language or to beauty. But my own poems, especially the ones I like best, often start with an error: misunderstanding something, mis-hearing something, finding out that something you’ve believed for a long time is false. And rather than thinking of the process of revision as one of purging or eliminating the errors, these days I think of it more as exploring errors, finding out what’s interesting about them, what kind of power they have. Poems don’t have to be correct, they don’t have to be true; there’s great freedom in that. Years ago, when people would ask me to sign copies of my first book, I would often write, “For ___, this book of lies and bad advice.” That seemed appropriate, and it still does.

In your work as a philosopher, on the other hand, you must be more concerned with avoiding errors.

TJ: Yes, my day job is as a professional philosopher, and yes, in some sense what you say must be true. Although in philosophy, too, the errors themselves can be interesting; all the great philosophers—Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, you name it—were wrong about so much. Each of them offered a picture of the cosmos (more than one picture, in the case of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein) that was productive and profound, and that made possible certain insights that were not available before, but was also deeply wrong in some way.

Is there a tension between doing philosophy and writing poetry? Do they inform each other? Do you have to work hard to keep them separate?

TJ: My thinking on this continues to change. I always think of Randall Jarrell’s comment that “Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem.”

I resist this, of course, because it seems to me that any decent piece of philosophy will tell us something new and significant about the world, and so can’t help but be interesting. But let’s suppose that Jarrell meant something else, that the poet, unlike the philosopher, is allowed and even required to do anything to make a poem work—to make it interesting, to make it a good read. You can include falsehoods, questionable statements, stuff you don’t know, stuff that just sounds good, stuff you just make up. Whatever works. Just as the poet gets to twist and violate the rules of grammar and syntax, to stuff her poem full of non sequiturs and illogical swerves, etc.—it’s all part of the same package, the package that gets called ‘poetic license,’ I suppose.

Whereas when doing philosophy, while you may end up saying something interesting, something that gives pleasure or delight, something that is memorable or moving, you aren’t allowed to aim at being interesting, delightful, moving, etc. in the same way; you have to aim at understanding, at achieving an accurate and insightful picture of things, and you are bound by the rules and practices that govern that sort of inquiry. And then, once that is done, being interesting—or giving delight, or moving the reader, or what have you—is something that can happen, but only as, in essence, a kind of side-effect.

On that reading, Jarrell was saying something quite interesting. I’m still not entirely sure I think it’s true. I still meet idea that it is legitimate to do anything that improves the quality of a poem, the quality of the experience of reading the poem, with some resistance. I’m tempted to say that any truly valuable poem must to be true to the world, to get the world right, in some significant sense. That certainly seems true of many of the poems that I value most, or that have moved me most profoundly; and if it’s generally true then it perhaps suggests that truth, properly understood, is not only a fundamental goal in philosophy, but in poetry as well. But of course a lot is concealed, and needs to be excavated and analyzed, in that phrase “properly understood.” And of course there are poems that don’t seem to fit this model very well, for instance relatively abstract poems that don’t seem to be representational in nature and so can’t be assessed in any straightforward way as true or false, accurate or inaccurate, and so forth.

The poems in Syllabus of Errors seem to keep coming back to the same set of themes and images: birds and birdsong, death, beauty, the movies.

TJ: Authors say this a lot, but it turns out it’s true: you find out what a book is about by writing it. You can set out to write a poem, or an entire book, on a given set of themes, but the poems have ideas of their own: they will communicate with you by, among other things, refusing to work—refusing to be written—when you’re going in the wrong direction, focusing on the wrong themes, trying to write the poem that, at this moment, is not yours to write. I write the poems I can, and I don’t generally feel that I have much control over it—and in those rare moments when I do feel in control, I know I’m in trouble!

I’m always writing about beauty in one way or another, and death when I can manage it. As for the movies—they feel very alive to me, as an art form; despite the corrupting influence of money, the fact that movies, unlike poetry, can reasonably aspire to a mass audience, America has somehow produced an art form in which incredible talents—Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufmann, David Lynch, Joel and Ethan Coen —can produce powerful, astonishing, at times visionary works. (And of course those are only living American directors. The most “poetic” directors are people who have tended to work in places far away from the cultural codes and influence of Hollywood: Andrei Tarkovsky, Chris Marker, Wong Kar-wai…)

Yet at the same time the movies feel a bit like an endangered species; audiences are shrinking, the movie palaces of the golden age have all disappeared, film has been replaced by digital photography and projection, and fewer and fewer people care about seeing movies as they are meant to be seen—on a huge screen, in a theater, surrounded by other people. The movies used to be the place where we came together with our fellow citizens to share experiences, the place where you noticed that when you laughed, when you gasped, when your pulse raced, the same thing happened to the person in the chair next to yours. Where do we come together now? Online, I guess. And online isn’t a place. It’s nowhere. It doesn’t exist. If we’re only meeting in cyberspace, which is more and more the case, then we just aren’t meeting at all.

In a poem like “Vertigo,” the longest poem in the book, beauty, the movies, and death come together: the poem is an elegy for a lost friend, and tries to approach this loss, it seems, by engaging with Hitchcock’s film.

TJ: Right. There are things that cannot be approached directly. So maybe this is a strategy of avoidance or of indirection, or a way of making the unsayable sayable. Poetry, like the movies, like any art form, can be a lens through which to view something, like death (as if there’s anything that’s like death other than death itself) that can’t be comprehended in itself, that is too staggering and overwhelming, so that any statement we try to make about it ends up seeming like a falsification, an evasion. So art is like the camera obscura you use to look at a solar eclipse, which ends up being a way of really seeing; not a diminished way of seeing, or even ‘the only way of seeing that we have’—as if there could be something better—but true sight, true perception, a direct contact that only seems to be indirect. What does ‘direct’ mean, anyway, in the context of perception and understanding? That’s a philosophical question, but it’s one that poetry continually grapples with; one that poetry, being the art form it is, couldn’t avoid even if it wanted to.

Troy Jollimore is the author of two previous collections of poetry, At Lake Scugog (Princeton) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.

An interview with poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain on “The Ruined Elegance”

Sze-Lorrain, poet

© Dominique Nabokov, 2015, Paris

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. In her new collection—an intercultural journey that traces lives, encounters, exiles, and memories from France, America, and Asia—she offers a nuanced yet dynamic vision of humanity marked by perils, surprises, and transcendence. Recently she took the time to answer some questions about The Ruined Elegance.

Can you speak a little about your writing process or how these poems came about?

FS: Almost every poem in this collection behaved like a beast. I lost whenever I tried to fight it, until I realized how far I missed the mark. “To question the options of elegy, I’ve probably chosen the wrong epic.” [from the poem “Back from the Aegean Sea”] Several verses and their poetic narratives were deviating at the start, in part because I had tried to be clever about a “lyric/anti-lyric.” I wanted silence and music. What better paradox could there be?

It did feel like a crisis when I could only pick these poems up from their “ruins.” I censored words and images even before saying them out loud or putting them down on the page. Part of my illusion had to do with my folly of “writing to tame vulnerability and speechlessness” on the page. While finding ways to cope, I felt drawn to reading poems that were gentle yet could sustain a certain emotional rawness and moral jolt. To recenter myself, I walked — from one arrondissement to another.

The Ruined Elegance jacketWhat colors come to mind when you revisit the poems in The Ruined Elegance?

FS: Violet, vermillion, and shades of gray-green. No vintage “black and white.”

Why not?

FS: Because I hope to have the poems operate beyond witnessing, documenting or commenting about their socio-historical sources, even if some of the thematic concerns relate to specific political events — these poems believe in history, but they don’t live in the past.

Why poetry?  What would you like to be if you weren’t a poet, literary translator, or zheng harpist?

FS: I didn’t plan to “be a poet.”  Poems and Bach bring me as much joy as doubt, though sometimes not as much company as would horses and trees.

Why poetry — because it can still resist greed and social constructs.  Were I not a poet or musician, I would like to play bridge professionally or practice herbology and phytotherapy.

What are some of your poetic influences?

FS: Dickinson, Lowell, Rimbaud, Milosz, Lorca, Białoszewski, Montale… as well as translations of Buddhist scriptures and Latin texts.

 Please offer some reading recommendations for our readers.

FS: Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: it is my perennial “drug” or ritual.

I also recommend C.G. Jung’s The Red Book, Aesop’s Fables, photography catalogues of Tina Modotti, Susan Stewart’s On Longing, Pico Iyer’s The Open Road, Mark Strand’s Collected Poems, Simone de Beauvoir’s Une mort très douce [A Very Easy Death], and photographs of the Baudelairian Paris by Eugène Atget.

An excerpt from The Ruined Elegance. Note, the first line is after the last verse of her translation “Mirror,” by contemporary Chinese poet Zhang Zao, forthcoming from Zephyr Press:

Poem excerpt
Chapter one is available here.

An interview with Jesse Zuba, author of “The First Book”

Literary debuts both launch and define careers, and have a unique impact on the literary marketplace. In The First Book, Jesse Zuba has written a cultural history and literary analysis of “first books”, focusing on poetic debuts, that will intrigue writers and publishers alike. Recently, Zuba spoke to PUP about his first book, The First Book:

The First Book jacket“First books” hold such a special place in the public imagination. How did you come up with the idea of writing about first books?

I was interested in how poets came to see themselves as poets, and be recognized as such by others, before they had anything more than their unpublished writing to show for their efforts, and at a cultural moment when poetry generally didn’t count for a whole lot. I tried to write a research paper about this in college. I remember checking out Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium and John Ashbery’s Some Trees from the library, and re-reading Gary Snyder’s Riprap. But I didn’t follow through. I was fascinated by Stevens’s “Earthy Anecdote,” but I didn’t have any idea what it meant, let alone how to link it to other debut poems.

Eventually I saw that my questions about vocation were exactly what poets usually brooded on as they began their careers. I also noticed the improbable amount of fuss made over debuts in reviews, essays, advertisements, and elsewhere, and I got curious. Four dozen annual first book prizes? For poetry? I liked that the topic gave me a chance to discuss a wide range of poets handling vocational anxieties in different ways, and also to talk about the first book as a complex artifact that is more central to the poetry scene than you might expect.

What does “The First Book” have to do with “Twentieth-Century Poetic Careers in America”?

The first book anticipates others to come. I couldn’t discuss it without placing it in the context of the poetic career. But what was that? Was the classic sequence of pastoral, georgic, and epic still relevant, or was it just a series of books? How did jobs, relationships, and receptions get factored in? And what about the oppositional bent of modern poetry, with its ambivalent relation to the very forms of success that conventional careers aim to achieve?

By focusing on the representation of career, I followed the lead of the poets themselves, who obsessively address questions of self-fashioning in their debuts. That they talk so much about it, both obliquely and sometimes quite explicitly, suits the occasion, since the poetic career – always precarious, and especially so in twentieth-century America – is bound to be radically uncertain at the outset, when it’s all still to do.

What were some of the challenges you faced as you worked on the book?

One challenge was the complexity of the career notion I just mentioned. Most of the criticism dealing with it comes out of Renaissance studies, which has only an indirect relevance to my project. I gradually found my way to books like Edward Said’s Beginnings, and sociological studies of art and professionalism, which helped me to find the handles on the issue. But in the early going, it was sometimes tough to work with a concept that was at once so hazy and yet so pervasive in literary criticism.

In a similar way, the idea of the first book itself proved more difficult to pin down than I expected. If Stevens’s Harmonium, published in 1923, was his first book, was the expanded 1931 edition of Harmonium his second book, or the definitive edition of his first? Was Observations Marianne Moore’s debut, or was Poems, which was published three years earlier by her friends, without her say-so? What about early publications whose authors later destroyed them, like Lyn Hejinian’s The Grreat Adventure, or omitted them from collected editions, like Robert Hayden’s Heart-Shape in the Dust? It was a while before I learned to look at examples like these as evidence of the interest poets and publishers have taken in debuts, which are often staged and re-staged in tellingly energetic ways.

In the book you list lots of debut titles that deal with beginning, from James Merrill’s First Poems and Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note to Eleni Sikelianos’s Earliest Worlds and Ken Chen’s Juvenilia. Is this part of the secret formula for getting published? Do poets write for prizes?

I don’t see much evidence of any formula, though there are some interesting similarities among first books, and I’m sure many poets have considered current trends and judges’ tastes in the hopes of increasing their odds. There are too many constantly-changing variables involved for a formula to be more than minimally effective, and the checklists you sometimes see in prize advertisements with qualities like “willingness to take risks” and “formal virtuosity” not only raise more questions than they answer, but are much more easily said than done: they might as well say “write like W. B. Yeats” or “write like Frank O’Hara.”

Only Chen’s book won a prize out of the titles you mentioned, and plenty of debuts are published and win prizes without drawing on the theme of beginning in their titles or elsewhere. I see the emphasis on beginning that pervades post-1945 poetic debuts as part of a complex response to the increasingly institutionalized environment in which poetry is often written, published, and read these days, not as a subtle advertisement of a poet’s promise, designed to win over editors.

What are you reading?

I just finished recording a reading of Emerson’s Nature for Librivox – a great volunteer organization that makes audio versions of public domain texts available online for free. At the moment I’m in the middle of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, A Bernadette Mayer Reader, and Gillian White’s Lyric Shame. I’m looking forward to James Richardson’s During and the newly translated early novels of Haruki Murakami. I’m always re-reading Philip Roth.

What’s next for you?

A new project dealing with what I think of as “the scandal of authorship” has roots in reading Roth. Why is the author seen as a bad guy in a novel like The Counterlife? How is it that fiction elicits such harsh judgments? What does it mean that writers sometimes take pains to forestall such judgments – by judging themselves guilty in advance, for example, or through sheer tact? I’m casting a fairly wide net for now: Roth, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Junot Diaz, Vladimir Nabokov. I’d like to explore tensions between social responsibility and the autonomy of the aesthetic in the post-1945 period, think some more about literary careers, and hopefully tell some good stories along the way.

Jesse Zuba is assistant professor of English at Delaware State University.

Read the introduction to The First Book here.

Poetry by Heart

For the final entry in this year’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) series, we have a special piece by Catherine Robson, author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, on what changed her mind about the merits of poetry recitation.

Poetry By Heart
by Catherine Robson

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoLast month, the third annual final “Poetry By Heart”, a national recitation competition for British 14-18 year olds, was staged in Homerton College, Cambridge. Sitting there as one of the judges in the packed auditorium, I witnessed a series of magical transformations. Time and again, slightly awkward or diffident young people walked onto the stage, paused, and then became entirely different individuals altogether. When they started to speak the words they had committed to heart, they took possession not just of themselves and their poems, but of every other person in the room. I found it an exceptionally moving experience.Heart Beats

If you had told me ten years ago that I would volunteer to work on such a competition, I would have been very surprised. Back then, when I first began work on a book about the strange phenomenon of the memorized poem, I held few positive feelings about recitation. I knew that reciting poetry used to hold a privileged place in the elementary curricular programs of the past, but I didn’t know why or when the practice became mainstream, nor why and when we all stopped doing it. But I was sure that I was not a fan. Enforcing poetry on (or into) the unwilling brains and bodies of the young seemed to me a questionable activity at best. What happened, then, to change my mind?

For one thing, I discovered in the course of my researches that my negative opinion was entirely typical for one of my age and nationality. Born in Britain in 1962, I attended state primary and secondary schools that had no time for what was then regarded as an outmoded pedagogical endeavor, an endeavor likely to turn individuals against poetry for life. Today this is not the prevailing attitude in all quarters – for one thing, the British government, in addition to funding “Poetry By Heart,” now makes “reciting” a specified activity for the youngest children in state education – but the concept of compulsory mass recitation continues to make many of my countrymen uncomfortable. The idea of the memorized poem in Britain summons up thoughts of both a discredited instructional practice and a discredited educational formation – which is to say, learning by rote, and the Victorian elementary school, the institution which supposedly backed up that rote-learning with liberal applications of the rod.

Because I have now lived in the United States for over a quarter of a century, I know that Americans, by and large, are much more positive about poetry recitation. If the topic comes up in casual conversation or the media, it tends to generates not just polite interest, but passionate engagement. I’ve lost count of the number of times an octogenarian has launched into a performance of “Thanatopsis” or a bit of Longfellow for me, and I’ve heard individuals of a range of ages and from both sides of the political spectrum turn wistful, lamenting the passing of a time when all were seemingly united by a joint stock of poetic knowledge.

Digging into the rich and at times complicated story of the memorized poem’s progress in two sharply distinct public education systems has helped me to understand why it is that Britons and Americans today feel so differently about this pedagogical practice: the book I’ve written devotes its first half to this history, and its second to the recitational fortunes of three short poems that were once school classics on two sides of the Atlantic. Coming to terms with my own dismissive attitude towards the repetition of poetry has been another kind of project altogether.

It took me some time, but today I can draw a line between bad recitation and good.  I still think it’s important to notice that dismal experiences with poetry afflicted the lives of many children in less-than-ideal pedagogical environments in the past, but I no longer believe that this fact negates the value of the practice.  I now feel that in the right circumstances, and for certain kinds of people, the memorized poem carries an enormous potential charge.  Last month in Cambridge, its power took hold of us all.

National Poetry Month: Kathleen Graber

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoTo continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, we’ve chosen a poem by Kathleen Graber from her book The Eternal City: Poems, which was included in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and a finalist for the National Book Award. Graber grew up in Wildwood, NJ, and talks about coming late to poetry in the National Endowment of the Arts’ “Writers’ Corner”. Her collection offers eloquent testimony to the struggle to make sense of the present through conversation with the past. Of Eternal City: PoemsPublishers Weekly wrote, “Graber is one of the most interesting, slippery and philosophical new poets to come along in a while… [W]hat makes Graber’s poems so fresh and wild are the associative slips that happen between the distant past and the urgent present.”


The poem we have chosen is titled “Florum Principi.” Enjoy the following excerpt and be sure to pick up a copy of The Eternal City. 

Prince of Flowers, who set out to give an order to the multitudes, my collection is so different from your own,

which you filled with the carefully pressed

lectotypes of bear’s ear & foxglove & carpeted with the pink Borealis which blooms so briefly midsummer beneath the Lapland pines.

Mine holds two tarred boxes & boatless oars & the broken sonar equipment, which came with the house & goes on sleeping on a shelf in the garage,

despite the reviving of a neighbor’s Jet Ski – on a hitch in his driveway,

spewing exhaust one moment & stalling the next-

& the honk of a car alarm that sounds all afternoon without reason.

Who can say how the world made strange by our understanding of it

would seem to you, who went to ground before Darwin asked

whether a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created

parasitic wasps, or Charles Wilson Peale exhumed the hull of a mastodon

in a thunderstorm in Newburgh, New York, to prove beyond question

that a mighty species might cease to be. Among specimens of butterflies

you christened agamemnon & mnemosyne & the skin & bones

of the John Dory Zeus faber, a fish whose flank is said to bear the stain

of St. Peter’s thumb, what could have seemed more improbable than change?

The turf roof of your cottage in Hammarby still puts forth houseleek

& the narrow-leaved hawk’s beard. And the shoots sprung from the seeds

of the empress’s honey-sweet Corydalis nobilis still threaten to overtake

the yard.

 Read Chapter 1 and the rest of “Florum Principi,” here.

An interview with Jeff Nunokawa, author of “Note Book”

Note BookEach morning since 2007, Jeff Nunokawa, English professor at Princeton University, logs onto Facebook and writes something. But unlike most of us who take part in this simple exercise in connection, Nunokawa is both effortlessly lyrical and impressively well-read, drawing in references from Henry James to Joni Mitchell.  Note Book, which compiles the 250 most striking of the brief, daily essays Nunokawa has shared on his “notes” page, resembles an extensive multimedia project, but retains a remarkable sense of intimacy.  Laura Kipnis compares his posts to “witty billets-doux from an astonishingly literate secret admirer”, and if you take a look at the way he writes, you’ll see why. Recently, Jeff was kind enough to indulge us with some personal insights into his writing process, motivations, and obsession with revision on the social media platform. It’s fascinating stuff:

What are you doing when you write these essays for Facebook, and why are you doing it?

JN: Well, I write these brief essays every morning, or sometimes in the middle of the night because I’m alone a lot and lonely and very talkative but being alone, there’s no one to talk to. But actually, I’m not really alone, even when I’m by myself. I’ve read a lot of books and they’re all around me. Mostly literature although other things as well: a fair amount of philosophy, for example, and every Eleanor Roosevelt biography and memoir I can get my hands on. Also, a picture of my mother’s dog and various soccer players and my feeling of the presence of all kinds of spirits. And when I’m quiet enough for a while, these things all speak to me, if I let them. And after that, if they let me, I write a little essay which conveys as best it can the courage and clarity and good humor of the above spirits—some of the above spirits can be incredibly witty! (you should hear what Eleanor Roosevelt has to say about JFK!)—to others who might be able to use it.

I guess what I’m trying to do is to put to use what I’ve learned over the course of a long, strange life reading and teaching and telling stories. I’m trying to make it useful to other people.


JN: Well, I think most people are like me, in at least one respect. I think everyone feels deeply in the dark, sometimes—sometimes, just lying in bed, wondering how they’re going to make it through the day. Sometimes it takes the best voices you’ve ever heard in your life just to get from horizontal to vertical. That’s where a lot of what I write tries to come in and give people a lift.

How has your writing changed over the course of the time you have been engaged in this project?

JN: Well, I think I used to be much more concerned with showing off when I started—showing off what I knew and how “knowing” I was. I think I’m less concerned now with showing off than I am with *showing*. I’ll put it this way: when I started out, my model was Walter Benjamin—a crazy beautiful German Philosopher-Mystic, who wrote these astonishing often very mysterious, fragmentary aphorisms. Now, I think, I’m a little more taken with example of the Reverend Paul Osumi.


JN: The Reverend Paul Osumi had a daily column in the Honolulu Advertiser when I was a kid. Actually, it wasn’t so much a column—it was one those “thought for the day” kind of deals: just these little daily inspirations to get through the day with as much light in your soul and your step as you could. I don’t remember a single thing he said, but I remember how important that column was for half of Honolulu. When I was a kid (like till about last year), I used to think he was some kind of shallow smiley-faced fool. Now he’s pretty much my role model.

Well aside from the Reverend Paul Osumi, do you have other role models that influence your writing?

JN: Sure: let’s see: lots of the big essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries—Hume, Johnson and Lamb and Pater, writers like that who were so concerned with using what they knew to try to help live better.

What about prose models—stylists whom you model yourself on? As you must know, your writing can be a little “quirky” as your editor calls it.

JN: Yeah, I know. Well, I’m really trying to be a little more mainstream and accessible—less Gerard Manley Hopkins and more E.B. White—but I’m always going to hear the call of “Pied Beauty” and all that gorgeous jazz that makes you cry and see the world more clearly through all the tears, all the Tears of this Beautiful Broken World. I don’t mean to sound all precious. Heck, I hear E. B. White wept whenever he read out loud and the passage in Charlotte’s Web where the spider dies.

The writing that you do on Facebook, you revise compulsively.  It’s ironic that the writing you do on Facebook, on a virtual platform of ephemerality, should be the site where you are most concerned with revising, so that you might produce something polished for the ages. What’s that about, I wonder?

JN: Good question. It may be that the answer would only be interesting to my therapist. Oh wait. I forgot. I don’t have a therapist. The writing itself is my only therapy, now. It used to be that I needed Therapy to write. Now writing is therapy. Funny how life turns out.

Anyway, to return to the question. I don’t know, except that the irony you’re touching on here informs the spirit and style of some of the greatest essayists and I’m happy to follow their lead: the impulse to put the realms of conversation—and what is the internet, if not a place where the live sense of ephemeral conversation crackles like an electric wire into contact with the realms of solid learning (“for the ages”). Hume says, on his essay on essay writing,

I cannot but consider myself as a Kind of Resident or Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation

and by gum, what’s good enough for Hume is good enough for me.

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop


Author photo by Phoebe

Author photo by Phoebe Ling

In the first entry in this month’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) blog series, we are proud to feature Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, the latest title in the Writers on Writers series. Irish novelist, critic, and playwright Tóibín is both a fan of and known as a master of subtle language (as evidenced by his selection of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl as current host of The Wall Street Journal Book Club), so it is apt that he considers the famously enigmatic American poet Bishop among one of his lasting literary influences.

Tóibín discovered Bishop in his teens and brought her Selected Poems in his suitcase to Barcelona (the setting of his first novels The South and Homage to Barcelona). He offers a personal and incisive introduction to Bishop’s life and work. Spanning her poetry, biography, letters, and prose works, Tóibín creates a beautiful and complex picture of Bishop while also revealing how her work has shaped his sensibility as a writer and how her experiences of loss and exile resonate with his own relationships to place, memory, and language.

Tampa Bay TiToibin_OnElizabethBishopmes book editor Colette Bancroft recently selected On Elizabeth Bishop as one of her notable prose books on poetry. Kirkus Reviews writes that Tóibín’s book is “[a]n admiring critical portrait of a great American poet and a master of subtlety….An inspiring appreciation from one writer to another.” A Starred Review in Publishers Weekly reads, “Novelist Tóibín gives an intimate and engaging look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and its influence on his own work. . . . Whether one is familiar with Bishop’s life and work or is looking to Tóibín to learn more, this book will appeal to many readers.” At the Arts Fuse, Lloyd Schwartz calls it “a particularly welcome addition to the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series. . . . [F]ew critics have dealt more revealingly than Tóibin with Bishop’s habitual illusion of ‘spontaneous’ self-correction, her process of thinking aloud on the page.” Across the pond, poet Eavan Boland writes in the Irish Times:

[C]ritical method at its best….Unorthodox, original and deeply effective….The close mesh between Tóibín’s growth as a writer and Bishop’s journey as a poet, the eloquent mirroring of place and displacement, and above all the openness to a poet’s language, a poet’s truth put this among the best books on poetry I have read in years. I have no doubt it will become an essential text on her work.

Read the first chapter of On Elizabeth Bishop on the PUP site. You can also read eleven of Bishop’s poems, including “One Art” and “The Fish,” at the Academy of American Poets site.

Don’t forget that this year’s Poem in Your Pocket Day is coming up at the end of the month (April 30; #pocketpoem). Which of Bishop’s poems would you want to carry around in your pocket to share with friends and family?

PUP celebrates National Poetry Month

Princeton University Press will be kicking off National Poetry Month by featuring a new poetry-related title each week on the blog, starting with Colm Tóibín’s deeply personal introduction to the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop. The first National Poetry Month was held in 1996, inspired in part by the success of Black History Month. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, this month-long April holiday has become a widespread way to bolster the appreciation of poetry. offers a wealth of free educational resources and information on local poetry events, from PoemCity in Montpelier, VT, to Poetry & the Creative Mind in New York City.

In addition to retrospectives like Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop from our Writers on Writers series, and cultural histories like Catherine Robson’s on poetry recitation, Princeton University Press has long published the best of emerging and established poets in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently under the editorship of Princeton professor and former MacArthur Fellow Susan Stewart. Here are some poetry-related choices to enjoy this April:


On Elizabeth Bishop What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume V The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume VI
Heart Beats The Eternal City: Poems

Anthony Carelli – Carnations: Poems, Winner of a 2015 Whiting Award

Anthony Carelli, author of Carnations: Poems, is a winner of a 2015 Whiting Award. “Since 1985, the Whiting Foundation has supported creative writing through the Whiting Awards, which remain one of the most prestigious and largest monetary gifts to writers (each winner receives $50,000), and are based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come.”

Comments from the Whiting Award judges: “These are poems that manage to strike a balance between the expansive impulse and meticulous precision, between the meditative mode and ecstatic proclamation. And in straddling those divides, they enact, in line after line, small miracles.”

To learn more about the awards click, here.

Congratulations to Anthony Carelli!



Anthony Carelli

A few words on the “Bullshit Centenary”

k7929[1]We are all familiar with Princeton University Press’s famous publication On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, winner of the 2005 Bestseller Award in Philosophy. Well, the history of the word “bullshit” goes far back in time, but perhaps not as far as one might think…

One hundred years ago a young immigrant poet submitted his poem “The Triumph of Bullshit” for publication in a London avant‑garde magazine. The editor’s letter explaining his rejection of the work makes clear he decided to “stick to my naif determination to have no ‘Words ending in -Uck, -Unt and –Ugger’.” Probably the word “bullshit” was imported from the poet’s native US; but so far no one has found “bullshit” in print as a single word before 1915.

Source: The Guardian, “TS Eliot: the poet who conquered the world, 50 years on,”

How do we reconcile this young subversive poet with the “po-faced ‘Pope of Russell Square’ (as the older Eliot came to be nicknamed)” who is widely respected as one of the finest poet of the 20th century? What else do we owe to TS Eliot? Read more here:

Princeton University Press Europe at the Oxford Literary Festival 2014


By Hannah Dummett, Princeton University Press Europe intern

McCall SmithLast Sunday marked the end of the 2014 Oxford Literary Festival: “bigger, better and more ambitious than ever”. A whirlwind nine days of authors, talks, photographers, book signings and  lunches, and amongst all of it the Princeton authors met with full auditoriums and avid audiences, often followed by a glass of Prosecco in the green room.

The Soul of the World author Roger Scruton had the audience in stitches of laughter (perhaps not what you’d expect from a talk by a philosopher) as he shed light on his idea of the sacred, at the same time as shamelessly, and hilariously, plugging his new books. Meanwhile, David Edmonds entered a lively discussion with Nigel Warburton. The audience were eager to join in and soon the topic of moral dilemma had led to a debate on the fate of flight MH370.

As one of the festival’s better-known authors, Alexander McCall Smith was hounded by the ‘literary paparazzi’, and one of our publicists was even coerced into being used as a photographer’s assistant (read: prop-holder). Over at Christ Church, Averil Cameron took us back more than 2500 years in time and explained why Byzantium is key to our understanding of other historical periods. Michael Scott argued his own case for the Greek city of Delphi – and gave us all a reason to visit this summer.

His book may be over 800 pages long, but Robert Bartlett kept things succinct and made sure that his audience were keen to discover what the other 700 pages hold in store. He was even awarded a printed apology from the Oxford Mail’s Jeremy Smith after he commented on Bartlett’s “modest attire” while introducing the talk. Husband and wife astronomer/authors Jacqueline and Simon Mitton, both struck down with a virus picked up on a recent cruise, put on a brave face despite their illness and managed to plunge their audience into the depths of the history of the universe, visiting far-away galaxies via new-born stars and black holes.

The increasingly relevant topic of narcissism and self-love was examined by Simon Blackburn, discussing his new book Mirror, Mirror, and political journalist Edmund Fawcett kept the audience listening with an absorbing talk on differing forms of liberalism. To top it off, the “charming, charismatic” Ian Goldin gave an excellent lecture on how the recent financial crash could have an extreme effect on a wide range of factors in our everyday lives. We’ve been out of the office again this week, this time for London Book Fair – the fun is non-stop this month!


Princeton authors speaking at Oxford Literary Festival 2014

We are delighted that the following Princeton authors will be speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival in Oxford, UK, in the last week of March. Details of all events can be found at the links below:images5L8V7T97

Jacqueline and Simon Mitton, husband and wife popular astronomy writers and authors of From Dust to Life: The Origin and Evolution of Our Solar System and Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe respectively, will be speaking  on Monday 24 March at 4:00pm

David Edmonds, author of Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us  about Right and Wrong will be speaking on Monday 24 March at 6:00pm

Robert Bartlett, author of Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation will be speaking on Tuesday 25 March at 2:00pm

Michael Scott, author of Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World will be speaking on Wednesday 26 March at 10:00am

Simon Blackburn, author of Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love will be speaking on Wednesday 26 March at 4:00pm

Roger Scruton author of the forthcoming The Soul of the World will be speaking Thursday 27 March 12:00pm

Alexander McCall Smith, author of What W. H. Auden Can Do for You will be speaking about how this poet has enriched his life and can enrich yours too on Friday 28 March at 12:00pm

Averil Cameron, author of Byzantine Matters will be speaking on Friday 28 March at 2:00pm

Edmund Fawcett, author of Liberalism: The Life of an Idea will be speaking on Saturday 29 March at 10:00am

In addition, Ian Goldin will be giving the inaugural “Princeton Lecture” at The Oxford Literary Festival, on the themes within his forthcoming book, The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to Do about It on Thursday 27 March at 6:00pm