Thanks to her fellowship from the Institute for the Humanities, Linda Gregerson has just completed her seventh book of poems, Canopy. In addition to six earlier volumes of poetry, she is also the author of two critical monographs and numerous essays on early modern English and contemporary American poetry. Among her honors are fellowships and awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Poetry Society of America, the Modern Poetry Association, the Institute for Advanced Study, the National Humanities Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim, Mellon, and Rockefeller Foundations. Gregerson is the Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, a Chancellor Emerita of the Academy of American Poets, and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

Linda Gregerson was interviewed by Nathan Liebetreu, a marketing and media intern at the Institute for the Humanities.

N.L.: Good morning Linda thank you so much for doing this interview. To start us off, what are you reading this week? 

L.G.: Hi, Nathan! As usual, I'm reading several books at once. I've just finished an extraordinary nonfiction book by Jozef Czapski. Born in 1896 to a family of Polish, German, Czech, and Austrian extraction, Czapski grew up in a multilingual household and was educated in French, German, Polish, and Russian. He was a student in St. Petersburg when the February Revolution broke out, served briefly in the Polish cavalry in 1917, studied art in Krakow after the war, and established himself as a painter in Paris and Warsaw for two decades. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Czapski was mobilized as a reserve officer, captured by the Germans, and handed over to the Soviets as a prisoner of war. Two years later, when Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded Soviet Russia, Czapski and other surviving Polish officers were released from the Gulag on the condition that they form a Polish army in Russia to fight the Nazis. Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia 1941-42 is the story of his efforts to locate and register fellow survivors, most of them suffering from illness, starvation, and inadequate protection from the cold. What the Soviets never acknowledged was that most of the men for whom he was searching had been put to death. Czapski's narrative is filled with searing details of suffering and deception, but there's also great compassion in his portraits of families and individuals caught up in the war. Occasional passages of great lyric beauty bear witness to the surviving powers of Czapski's peacetime vocation: landscape, even the most austere and encountered in the most difficult of circumstances, can startle the author into painterly description.

Simultaneously, I'm reading books of poetry and poetry-in-the-guise-of-prose. Some of them are new this year: Claudia Rankine's Just Us; Chris Wiman's Survival Is a Style; Jeffrey Harrison's Between Lakes; Keith Taylor's Let Them Be Left. Some are recent anthologies, prompted by the crisis of world events: Together in a Sudden Strangeness, edited by Alice Quinn; Staying Human, edited by Neil Astley. Some of them are books I'm returning to after months or years away: Kathleen Graber's Correspondence at the moment. Rereading poetry is an almost-devotional necessity for me. Poems that demand and reward rereading are the only ones that really count.

I'm also reading books of prose about poetry:  Jim Longenbach's The Lyric Now (2020) and Chris Wiman's Ambition and Survival (2007). 

I'm reading a beautiful new book, Dissimilar Similitudes, about devotional objects in late medieval Europe by the great historian Caroline Walker Bynum.

Finally, as a mixed gesture of homage and nostalgia, I'm rereading the novels of John Le Carre; just now it's The Looking Glass War.

N.L.: Are the books you mentioned somewhat related to your project?

L.G.: The great luxury of working on a book of poems is that everything, from the most remote to the near-at-hand, from the scholarly to the purely entertaining, from the transcendent to the frankly awful, can be food for poems. Czapski’s book is one of several about the Eastern Front in World War II that have been my constant, immersive companions during the pandemic. I’m not sure what has drawn me to them, apart from the happenstance of a special offer from the New York Review of Books, but I’ve found them singularly compelling. Perhaps I’ve simply needed to believe in history again: the power of human beings to survive it and the power of language to capture it. Akhmatova in Requiem: “Can you describe this?”  “Yes, I can.”

When I’m writing poems, as I have been this fall, I sometimes need to preserve a margin of silence and stay away from the poems of other people.  At other times, I very much need to fill my head with the music and pacing and logic of poetry I admire.  That’s why I’ve returned to Kathleen Graber – I wanted to be reminded of – to internalize really – the way she gets from one point to another: she’s a genius of poetic shaping.

I’ve turned to Jim Longenbach’s book because it’s hot off the press and I admire him.  I’ve meant to read Chris Wiman’s book of prose for some time. I didn’t expect it to have an immediate bearing on my own current projects but find, to my delight, that it has sparked new thoughts about structuring the collection of essays to which I’m turning for the second half of the year.

Bountiful gratitude to the Institute for the Humanities, which has given me the great gift of time. I haven’t read so much, or been so nurtured by books, in many years.

N.L.: I loved researching the above books you mentioned and I wonder if there is a common theme in your book selections. Do you gravitate to any book genre and if so what? And why?

L.G.: Books of poetry are my steady diet. Poetry is essential to life.

N.L.: What author or book has impacted you personally or professionally that you would love to share or recommend?

L.G.: Earlier in the pandemic, I read Vasily Grossman's magisterial Life and Fate, a novel about the Battle of Stalingrad, which he witnessed personally. I was authentically stunned by its scope and brilliance and its sheer humanity.

N.L.: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. It has been an honor to converse with you. As my departing and last question to end this interview, I wanted to ask a question we end our fellow interviews by.  If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would be the one book you would want to have with you and why?

L.G.: If I were allowed only one book, it would be the King James Bible. If I were allowed two books, they would be the King James Bible and the Collected Works of William Shakespeare.