“What I really cared about most, what drew me, was the relationship between lives and work, between how we live and what we do, and what we do with it. And that’s one of James Merrill’s major subjects.”
Langdon Hammer, Chair of the Yale English department, joins the show to talk about his new biography, James Merrill: Life and Art (Knopf) (and one of the best books I’ve read this year). We discuss Merrill’s allure as a poet and the alchemy that allowed him to turn base wealth into artistic gold. He also talks about learning the art of literary biography on the fly, the challenge of recreating Merrill’s life in Greece, Merrill’s silence over AIDS, how we can understand the Ouija board-derived poems of Merrill’s masterwork, and more! Give it a listen!
“Alchemy is a theme in Merrill’s writing. How is he going to make his own gold, how is he going to transform the lead of his father’s money into a higher value?”
We also learn about Langdon’s decades at Yale and how students have changed during his time there, what the globalization of English poetry means for the form, why he considers The Book of Ephraim to be James Merrill’s greatest poem, and the farthest he traveled to research the book.
About our Guest
Langdon Hammer is chair of the English Department at Yale and the poetry editor of The American Scholar. His books include Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism and, as editor for the Library of America, Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters and May Swenson: Collected Poems. His lectures on modern poetry are available free online at Yale Open Courses. There’s a more extensive bio at JamesMerrillWeb, if you’d like to check that out.
Credits: This episode’s music is Lust for Life by Iggy Pop. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Hammer’s office at Yale on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro.
“It’s said that the sources of writing are mysterious, but the sources of not writing are pathological.”
Ron Slate spent more than two decades in the corporate world before returning to poetry and writing an award-winning collection praised by the likes of Robert Pinsky. We talk about his roots in poetry, how those “lost” years weren’t so lost, what it’s like to be the guy who sees things late, and how his life was forever changed the day he saw Buddy Rich’s teeth.
“Poetry is always battling invention over assertion, over statement. That’s the tug-of-war. I love poets whose work suggests that tension. I look for that battle between ‘words can do so much’ and ‘words are ineffectual.'”
We also explore why he bailed on his Ph.D., how Ted Leonsis asked him the greatest job interview question ever, what it’s like to get poetry-stalked by Louise Glück, and why he’s trying his hand at fiction. Plus, he reads us a poem from his second book!
About our Guest
Ron Slate was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1950. He earned his Masters degree in creative writing from Stanford University in 1973 and did his doctoral work in American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He started a poetry magazine, The Chowder Review, in 1973 which was published through 1988. In 1978, he left academia and was hired as a corporate speechwriter, beginning his business career in communications and marketing. From 1994-2001 he was vice president of global communications for EMC Corporation. More recently he was chief operating officer of a biotech/life sciences start-up and co-founded a social network for family caregivers. Since 2007 he has been reviewing poetry and prose at his popular homepage called On the Seawall. He lives in Milton, MA.
His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Slate, and many other magazines and sites. The Incentive of the Maggot, his first book of poems, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. The collection was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize and the Lenore Marshall Prize of the Academy of American Poets. The collection won the Breadloaf Writers Conference Bakeless Poetry Prize and the Larry Levis Reading Prize of Virginia Commonwealth University. The Great Wave, his second book, was published by Houghton in April 2009.
Credits: This episode’s music is Poet by Sly and the Family Stone. The conversation was recorded in Mr. Slate’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Slate by me.