Creative Writing

Where I Write: With Robert Polito

Where I Write, a series of short interviews with current students, faculty, and alumni of the Creative Writing Program. It is a discussion of place in writing. What our writing spaces look like can be as varied as the physical spaces that exist (or don’t!) in New York and beyond, and as varied as the mental and psychic spaces we occupy while we write. Look, think, and drift with the founding director of the New School Graduate Writing Program Robert Polito.

Where do you write?

The laptop — the typing — aspect of my writing I mostly do upstairs in our house, inside a tiny study, crowded with books, notebooks, and files. The room’s all stacks and piles, except for the desk, which I struggle to keep plausible. That’s not necessarily easy, since a lot of what I write involves research, and  often I need multiple folders and pads open at the same time. Actual folders and pads, not just on a screen, though that’s inevitably crucial, too. But I write a lot in notebooks — to figure stuff out, or draft and revise sentences and lines, and I do that sometimes at the kitchen table, early in the morning. I love going to coffee shops to read and make notes. That’s always with a pen and a succession of different sized notebooks. Love notebooks, stationery, paper.

Stand, sit or other?

I always sit, but walking is a vital aspect of my work day. In the city I try to walk anywhere I need to go, building in time to get there. Upstate there are so many casually overwhelming beautiful places to lose yourself in the fields, trees, rocks, rivers, and hills. I’ll have a notebook in my pocket, but never pull it out. Instead — thinking, drifting, or looking.

What is your writing practice?

I’ve always had what I guess you’d call “demanding” day jobs. When I was younger, I wrote mostly at night, at the end of my official work, starting often around 10 or 11 and going until I couldn’t anymore. Sometimes the sun would be rising over the buildings and I’d shudder, suddenly remembering an important New School meeting in a few hours. Lately it’s mostly the inverse of that. I get up around 6 AM, make coffee, read and write notes, and try to be sitting upstairs by 8 or so. Mornings strangely are my most productive time right now, with classes, meetings, calls, and other tasks, generally later. I start by reading over what I did the day before, and then do what I can to fix it. 

What are your favorite procrastinations?

What isn’t a favorite procrastination? I can procrastinate over pretty much anything. My iPad probably is the worst — how many more good hours would there be in the day without it? 

We live in interesting times, which book/author keeps you sane/grounded?

Interesting? Nightmarish. Apocalyptic. This might sound strange, at least counter-intuitive, yet what I increasingly feel grounds me at this fraught moment are my classes and students. Despite the total mess far and near — the world, America, New York, schools and universities — over the past year I’ve experienced astonishing classes:  a poetry workshop and a multi-genre literature seminar in the fall; and right now a nonfiction workshop, along with thesis students and a Zoom honors class in the undergraduate Writing & Democracy Program. So many gifted writers, so many essential, far-reaching, and powerful projects. In the fall seminar for the last assignment we read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, one of the original “hybrid” books, and everyone did a final lockdown work. Each writer rose to this challenge in singular and extraordinary ways, whether folios of poems, essays, fiction, music, or films! Individually bold, resourceful, often devastating, and collectively stunning. For all of our public and personal predicaments, this is a particularly thrilling moment for poetry and nonfiction. Through much of my writing life, experimental writing, confessional writing, and socially engaged writing each tended to dwell in discrete, often hostile camps. Now the most exciting books focus all of those approaches to writing at once, so that the most formally innovative new work is also the most politically urgent new work, as well as the most intensively personal new work. 

What is your new skill learned during the shutdowns of the Pandemic

I don’t know. I’d like to say masked facial recognition, except a week ago I started to introduce myself to an old friend, little realizing who they were. So probably not even that. Empathy is an important skill for the Pandemic, and after, if and when there is an after — also kindness. 

What is your dream writing space?

When I was an undergrad at Boston College, I edited the campus literary magazine. A lot of work, and a lot of fun, but maybe the only perk was that the editor for reasons still unknown to me received a one-year reading membership at the Boston Atheneum, a private library on Beacon Hill. So every Saturday I wrote in a high alcove there overlooking the Fifth Floor Reading Room. Back then the place was rundown, seedy even, and with only the rare weekend reader other than me, although that didn’t stop various staff from asking for my affiliation card — sometimes two or three times a visit — to determine whether this obviously working class kid was supposed to be there. Now the Boston Atheneum looks all renovated, pristine and sorta white elephant, and apparently charges $40 a day for the reading experience I somehow received for free. But in some dream world I’m still twenty and writing in that Fifth Floor alcove. 

Reading Room fifth floor, Boston Athenaeum, Boston, MA

Robert Polito is the founding director of the New School Graduate Writing Program and of the Riggio Honors Program: Writing & Democracy, and he served as President of the Poetry Foundation (2013-2015). His books include Savage Art, a biography of Jim Thompson, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and  the poetry collections Hollywood & God and Doubles. He edited Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, for the Library of America, and in collaboration with filmmaker Michael Almereyda and novelist Jonathan Lethem edited Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings. His writing is anthologized in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, and Best American Film Writing. Current projects include a book about Bob Dylan, and a book of poems focused on director and actress Barbara Loden, poet John Wieners, and artist Mike Kelley.

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