Monday, April 19, 2010

Kathleen Spivack: A friend to Robert Lowell and a Ping Pong companion to Elizabeth Bishop.

Kathleen Spivack: A friend to Robert Lowell and a Ping Pong companion to Elizabeth Bishop.

Kathleen Spivack was a close friend of Robert Lowell, played Ping Pong on a regular basis with Elizabeth Bishop, and attended workshops with Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Still, she is one of the most accessible poets I know. She goes out her way to help people, she has a slew of adoring students, and has an abundance of energy that seems to have not abated over the years. Spivak is the author of The Break Up Variations; The Beds We Lie In, Robert Lowell, A Personal Memoir; among other works. Spivack directs the Advanced Writers Workshop, an intensive coaching program for advanced writers. She is a permanent Visiting Professor of Creative Writing/American Literature at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: You wrote a memoir about your time with the poet Robert Lowell.

Kathleen Spivack: I was very close to Lowell. I have also know Plath, Sexton and poets from what are now called the "Middle Generation." I came to the Boston area on a fellowship when I was seventeen to study with Robert Lowell. Lowell forgot that I was completely green and he pawned me off on these other women who happened to be Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. He had me sit on that early workshop at Boston University with George Starbuck. So I became his close friend and sort of teaching assistant for 20 years of his life to his death. One of the things he did was ask me to come to his house ( on Marlborough Street in Boston) for tutorials two or three times a week. I thought he asked me because he thought I was just so stupid in comparison to the other students. I thought he going to teach me so I could catch up.

I chose Lowell because nobody understood his poetry, and his stuff was sufficiently obscure, that nobody would mind me studying with him, as opposed to the highly visible and controversial Allen Ginsberg. When I came to Boston Lowell was sufficiently obscure. So I went to his house . Eventually I moved into the Lowell household. His wife was Elizabeth Hardwick. Lowell was a complete advocate for me in every way. He took my work to publishers, etc.... He took my poetry to The New Yorker...that was my first publication. I don't know if he liked my work or not. But he was such a loyal friend. He wrote me these wonderful letters.

D H: You teach in France part of the year. Tell me how you got this gig. Are the French more receptive to your poetry than here in the States?

KS: I have taught all over the world. The way I got this steady gig in France was interesting. I was pregnant, and my husband had left me. I was living in Somerville in one room. One day I picked up a couple of hitchhikers. They were some kids on the street my age. They were trying to find a youth hostel. I was living in one room in Somerville, it was hot; and I was very pregnant. I told them they could come back to my place for a night or two. One night ended up becoming their entire vacation. And twenty years later I got a letter from them inviting me to become a professor at the University of Paris. So they were students that fell in love with American Literature. They went back and became directors of American Literature at the University, that wasn't even a "filed" at this point. America was still considered a savage tribe; and nobody was interested. But this young group was interested and they headed the selection committee some twenty years later. The original appointment was for 6 months, but now it has been twenty years. The French don't believe that creative writing can be taught, That is starting to change though.

DH: You have collaborated with musicians and composers. Does poetry enhance the music or does music enhance the poetry?

KS: Poetry naturally goes with music. I went to Oberlin and I had a double major in music and literature. I wrote a poetry book titled "The Jane Poems" that was based on American music history. The words and music came together--it was an anti-war book. I performed with those with the jazz saxophonist Stan Getz all over the place. Then a composer put something together and we performed it in the American Place Theater. I also performed in France. I have had other works set to music as well. I worked with a young composer Eva Kendrick.

DH: What is your poetry teaching philosophy?

KS: I don't only teach poetry. Right now I am working with the Huntington Theater Fellows in Boston, and the A.R.T. Fellows, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.

I think people hold back when they write poetry. They save the best for last. I say start with your best--and write upward. I always push for that. I create a sense of process and keep outside of the product until I feel they are ready. But when they are ready I know they are going to win prizes. If you are on your path, in your process, I will protect that.

DH: You have written about the different approaches Plath and Sexton took to their poetry.

KS: I got to see their first drafts. I also saw Lowell's response. I think Sexton was the more natural poet. Slyvia was more controlled. Sylvia was very self-protected. Lowell couldn't access her work as well as Sexton. Sexton was a natural; it just flowed out of here.

Lowell wrote how surprised he was that Plath wrote "Ariel," because he could not have predicted it from the very staid, and perfect poems of her past.

I would like to see the mature work of both, but they both died young. Stanley Kunitz for instance, had a whole second flowering after he was 70.

DH: You were a regular Ping Pong partner with the poet Elizabeth Bishop.

KS: Lowell introduced me to Bishop when she first came to Harvard. She had arthritis. I went to her place three times a week to play ping pong with her. Believe it or not I was good in racket sports then. We talked about her problems, we had lunch, and at times she would read to me.

DH: Do you have a new book in the process of coming out?

KS: Yes. "A History of Yearning." It concerns my new way of seeing things when I got back from Europe. I am a child of European refugees. It is about history, art. It should be out in May 2010.


  1. Thank you for this interview. I had the honor of publishing a lovely sestina by Kathleen in the January issue of Autumn Sky Poetry. The subject? Ping pong with Elizabeth Bishop!

  2. It's cheering to hear Kathleen's voice!

  3. Great interview; but it doesn't mention another wonderful book of Kathleen's poems--"Moments of Past Happiness." It's at the Grolier bookstore in Cambridge--read this work, everyone!

    Elena Harap