Thanks to the cooperation of the NBCC and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of their students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Interview With NBCC Criticism Finalist Colm Tóibín
Catherine S. Bloomer, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Colm Tóibín about his book On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Catherine S. Bloomer: Your process of critique is fascinating. At times, the structure mirrors that of Bishop’s poetry—a scrupulous observation that expands to yield a larger commentary. Your close textual analysis of Bishop’s poetry, especially of her rhymes, is balanced with your personal connections to the poetry and an analysis of the context of Bishop’s work. (Especially in the Key West section where you do the work of recalling Bishop’s poem before you cite or even mention Roosters.) How did you come to this approach for critique?
Colm Tóibín: I wrote the book over a long period of time, and followed my instinct. It was almost like keeping a diary. And then if something worked, I left it in. But I didn't put too much thought into the theory of it. I missed it when it was finished.
CSB: You speak of Bishop’s experience living in Key West, in particular, as preparation for her later writing. What early writing experiences prepared you for your own later work?
CT: I wrote poetry between the ages of 12 and 20. At age 18, I began to revise the poems, producing draft after draft and doing nothing else much. (I was a student and didn't care what sort of degree I got.) It was a very intense time. And then I didn't write again for another five or six years.
Interview With NBCC Criticism Finalist Ta-Nehisi Coates
Yahdon Israel, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates about his book Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Yahdon Israel: There was an interview conducted by your friend, Neil Drumming, for This American Lifepodcast, and he seemed to be a bit worried by how fame and celebrity was changing you and his relationship. Interesting about it: in all the ways he worried about how fame was possibly changing the dynamics between y’all, he hadn’t thought to ask, until the end, if you were ok. You said you weren’t.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I couldn’t have seen this coming. Over the past few years I have received a lot of accolades. The truly bizarre thing is how unimportant that is to me compared to the work. Do you know what I mean? But in some ways you physically lose yourself. You become an image to other people, which really has nothing to do with what you’ve written.
YI: It’s eerie to hear this because so much of Between the World and Me is rooted in this idea of the black body and its necessity to struggle versus the Dreamers’ need to plunder the black body for the preservation of the dream and it sounds like your body is being plundered in that same way.
TC: I think a strong part of that is so much of our dialogue is obsessed with what white people say about what we [black people] do. So when a bunch of white people start looking at what one black person does, that becomes the conversation. It’s not always said like that but effectively it’s: ‘a lot of white people are looking, that’s why we’re talking about this.’ I know this because for most of my career there were not a lot of white people. I’ve been writing for twenty years so this is a relatively recent development. The change with how people interact with your work—or stop interacting with your work—is fascinating.
Interview With NBCC Criticism Finalist Leo Damrosch
Ava Mailloux, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Leo Damrosch about his book Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake (Yale University Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Ava Mailloux: Blake’s influence is seen in mainstream culture, counterculture, and pop culture alike. He influenced James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg, his work is a crucial plot element in Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels, and he’s even name-checked in The Hold Steady’s album Separation Sunday. Yet he was unknown during his lifetime. I’m wondering what helped his work gain traction. What changes had to happen in the world before humanity was ready to recognize Blake’s genius?
Leo Damrosch: There have been many instances, in all of the arts, in which names that were celebrated during a given historical period have faded badly in the eyes of posterity, while once-obscure figures are recognized later as truly major. Van Gogh could barely sell a single painting in his lifetime; John Donne was regarded as a minor and eccentric poet for three centuries, until T. S. Eliot and others brought him back; Emily Dickinson, whom many regard as the greatest of all American poets, was essentially unknown during her lifetime. Even Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were much more mainstream poets then Blake when he was writing, were regarded by their contemporaries as inferior to Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Robert Southey, Samuel Rogers, and Thomas Moore. In my book I quote a wonderful saying by Schopenhauer that applies perfectly to Blake: talent hits a target no one else can hit, while genius hits a target no one else can see.
In Blake’s case there are the further obstacles of his brilliantly original but deeply unconventional artistic style, and his challengingly symbolic myth. The Pre-Raphaelite painters began his rehabilitation as a visual artist; real appreciation of the poems didn’t come until the 1890s, when another great poet, William Butler Yeats, co-edited the first important edition.
In my own lifetime, I’ve seen Blake’s star rise highest in the 1960s, when he was hailed as a counter-culture guru (Jim Morrison got the name of The Doors from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell). Since then I’m afraid he has started to become somewhat marginal again, though he still has generous admirers, notably Patti Smith.
Interview With NBCC Criticism Finalist Maggie Nelson
MFA student Randy Brown Winston, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Maggie Nelson about her book The Argonauts, which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Randy Brown Winston: In your passage about Judith Butler, you mention that “the simple fact that she’s lesbian” was “so blinding for some.” This led me to think about the responsibilities of a label, whether we identify with one or one's being thrown our way. For example, an artist’s work is discounted because it doesn’t fit a specific label. How do you deal with the responsibilities of labels cast upon you, as well as the ones with which you identify?
Maggie Nelson: Generally speaking, I think it healthy to turn a blind eye to labels, especially those that are cast upon one; personally I haven’t found that feeling responsible to any label is good for the anarchic, unknowable, exploratory tasks of thinking and writing. In my experience, if one’s writing ends up being of service to particular tribes or ideas, it’s due to its fidelity to those aforementioned tasks, not to a predetermined sense of identification or obligation. I know that others work differently. But for me, protecting whatever sense of freedom makes writing possible for me is critical, and that often involves blurring out much of the chatter you describe above.