Hugh Seidman: Poet

Hugh Seidman’s first book of poetry, the prizewinning volume Collecting Evidence, was published in 1970—the same year that Hugh moved into Westbeth. His other book titles include Blood Lord; Throne / Falcon / Eye; People Live, They Have Lives; Selected Poems: 1965–1995; and Somebody Stand Up and Sing. He has also edited poetry anthologies and taught writing, and is a subject of more than one critical study.

Poet Hugh Seidman, Westbeth roof, 2013.

Terry Stoller spoke with Hugh Seidman in July 2013 about the community of writers at Westbeth in the seventies, his education in physics and in poetry, his work as a poet and his compulsion to keep writing—along with his thoughts about Facebook and karate.

Terry Stoller: Were you one of the first tenants of Westbeth?

Hugh Seidman: I was one of the last original Westbeth tenants. I moved in in March 1970. What happened was, they still had a few apartments left, and I moved into G225, which was directly across the street from a truck loading dock, where the West Village Houses are now. And they would start at 5:30 in the morning, and I was being driven insane, obviously. So the office said they had one apartment left, and José Quintero, the director, was supposed to get it, but he didn’t want it. I looked at it. It faces north on the tenth floor, and it is very small, but it was quiet. I said, “OK, I’ll take it.” I was there about eight years. I was happy there. I bought a loft bed from Ree Dragonette, the poet, and I put it up in the apartment.

You edited the collection titled Westbeth Poets [1971]. It says in the back of the book that it “commemorates” the first series of poetry readings at Westbeth. How did those come about?

We had a spring poetry-reading series and a fall poetry-workshop series in 1971. When the building first opened, there were many well-known artists here, not only well-known poets. The sculptor Carl Andre used to live here. Diane Arbus, the photographer, lived here. Anyway, Muriel Rukeyser lived here, and she got a grant of $2,000 for the Westbeth poets. I coordinated the grant. We decided we would have seven readings involving thirteen poets and eleven poets teaching eleven workshops open to the public.

I have a list of the poets in the book.

Well, almost all the poets in the book were in the reading series. Joel Oppenheimer was one of the poets in both series. He lived here then. Gilbert Sorrentino and David Ignatow lived here—though they did not read or lead any workshops under the grant. And Jean Garrigue lived here. Jean Garrigue was a very fine poet, and in her day, she was a classic Village bohemian. She was pretty famous. She died in 1972, but people are still interested in her work. So we got this grant and, including myself, I chose the thirteen readers and the eleven people to run the workshops. I guess we advertised, and for the workshops, people came to our apartments. Each week they went to the apartment of a different poet. The group liked Joel Oppenheimer a lot, and after the series of workshops was over, they asked him if he would continue with them, and they would pay him—and he did do this. There was a poet Richard Zarro who lived in the building, who’s now deceased. He and I solicited the poems, and we put together the Westbeth anthology.

I remember very clearly, there was a writer who lived in Westbeth named Harry Roskolenko. Harry Roskolenko, in his time, was a known writer and a poet. He was very angry at me for years that I passed over him for the anthology. But I did it without any intention. I had just never heard of him, and I didn’t know he was a poet. I used to run into him later on. The poet Isabella Gardner lived in the Chelsea Hotel, and she had poets’ parties that I often went to, and this fellow Harry Roskolenko was a friend of hers. Finally, one time at a party, he came over to me, and he stuck out his hand, and he said, “Zei gezunt.” After that we made up. He wasn’t mad at me anymore.

It sounds as though you had a large community of poets in the early days of Westbeth.

There was definitely a larger community than there is now. People like Helen Duberstein, who’s also a playwright—Helen is still here. Who else was here? Ruth Herschberger. She was a very well-known poet in her day. Spencer Holst. Spencer was not a poet, per se; he was a brilliant short story writer. Allen Katzman, who was one of the editors of the East Village Other. Ed Sanders and Allen Planz. And, as I said before, Joel Oppenheimer, who was a well-known figure in the Village. He wrote for the Village Voice, and he’s read still as a poet. And all of these people were in the anthology. I should also mention Frances Whyatt. She lived at Westbeth for several years. Frances was a poet and a novelist, and she was a very good and close friend of mine for a long time. Frances and I did a magazine anthology. It only lasted for one issue, but it was called Equal Time. We just solicited all the poets that we knew, and we printed up this very nice looking magazine, financed basically by Frances, although she didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have any money.

You came to poetry a bit “late” because you started in math and physics. Is that right?

I actually started writing poetry and being interested in math when I was about 13. So I did both. But I always thought that I would be a mathematician or something like that. I read poetry and I wrote poetry because I had this emotional need to do so. I didn’t really think about it as something that I would do in my adult life. That wasn’t my relationship to it. It was more out of love that I did it. And then I was trained in mathematics and theoretical physics. I was doing a doctorate in theoretical physics at the University of Minnesota. I did all the coursework. I never wrote a thesis. I was in graduate school for three years, and I got my master’s degree. And then I worked for half a year for my thesis adviser as a programmer. I came back to New York in February 1965 and started working as a programmer in the Columbia University computer center. And in 1967, I got into the MFA program at Columbia in poetry.

What made you want to do that?

I was really tired of being a programmer. I thought, I’ll go back to school because that’s fun. So I applied to the English department at Columbia. I had absolutely no academic background to get into it, and I didn’t get in. The computer center was in the basement in the business school. And one day I went out for lunch, and I saw this sign in the business school that said a new MFA program was starting in the fall of 1967 in creative writing, poetry. I applied for this. Adrienne Rich and Stanley Kunitz were the two people who were teaching. And Adrienne read my manuscript. She told me later, “I read your manuscript, and I said, We have to have you in this program.” I entered there in 1967 and graduated in 1969. And that’s how I got into Westbeth—because Stanley Kunitz was on the advisory committee for Westbeth. Stanley picked my first book as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. And after that happened, somehow or other he asked if I wanted to get into Westbeth. And I said, “That would be great.” So I got into Westbeth because he said they were trying to get good people in there. I guess I was a good person.

Could you talk about the influence of your background in math and physics in terms of constructing your poems and the material you use in the poetry?

It’s actually a little bit of a complicated issue. I have a formal head. I like form, and I like sound. I like the sound of words. My first teacher in poetry was Louis Zukofsky at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. He’s now become a world-famous poet, although in his day, he was essentially ignored by the poetry establishment. He was probably the most radical avant-garde poet that America has ever produced—I can’t think of anyone more radical, and yet he was totally grounded in the tradition of poetry. I had started out as a college freshman at MIT because I thought I wanted to be a scientist, but I only stayed there for one semester, and I came back to New York to live at home. My father had gone to night school at the Polytechnic Institute in the twenties. Unbeknownst to me, he went up there and got me in. So I became a student at the Polytechnic Institute and had the terrific good fortune that Louis Zukofsky was there teaching English and technical writing. If I hadn’t met Zukofsky, I don’t know that I would have been a poet. Through Zukofsky, I learned firsthand about contemporary poetry and poets.

The reason I brought Zukofsky up—Zukofsky has an interview where he talks about words being very visceral for him. And I always had that feeling about words. I felt words very viscerally. They were physical things for me. So I gravitated toward poetry. Simplemindedly speaking—although there’s a lot of psychology behind it—my father was the tech stuff and my mother was poetry. But it was not that she wrote poetry or cared about poetry, because she didn’t. She never read poetry to me. There was one poetry book in the house that was edited by Mark Van Doren in 1928 called An Anthology of World Poetry—I still have it—and I used to read through this when I was a young person. It seems to me now that one of the things poetry was for me was a way to connect to my mother, who was not very available in certain ways. That’s the origin of all that.

I often think that I write poems the way I used to do mathematical proofs, in the sense that they’re very concise. They’re very worked. They’re very honed down. Mathematicians say that mathematical proofs are more beautiful the shorter they are, as opposed to more long-winded proofs. I have that sense of things. I’ve written a few longer poems, but I’m mostly a short-poem guy.

From what I understand, math and music are connected. If you’re writing verse, there’s a musicality to that. And you said you like the sound of words.

Except I’m very unmusical. But the words—I like to listen Irish, Scottish, English folk music because of the inventiveness of the verbal play. Nowadays, one of the ways poetry has gone is that it’s become highly theoretical. And this is very different from the kind of poetry that means something to me. I had been a theorist. I had been a mathematician. If I were going to spend my time on theory, I would have remained a mathematician. When I became a poet, I certainly wasn’t going to go back to being a mathematician because I left all that behind.

People talk about Zukofsky as an objectivist poet. People call you an objectivist poet. Do you agree with that characterization?

This is an old thing. Zukofsky was asked by the editor Harriet Monroe to edit an issue of Poetry, which appeared in February 1931. He picked several poets that he felt were congenial, and some were friends of his. But Monroe wanted the poets to have a name. So Zukofsky wrote an essay, “Sincerity and Objectification,” which he included in the issue. And when it came out, the front cover said, “ ‘Objectivists’ 1931,” though Louis was forever saying that no such group existed.

But does it mean anything to you?

It does, and it doesn’t. I love the idea of making the poem like a physical object, like a piece of sculpture. As I said, I’m interested in condensing things down, conciseness, concision—which was the way Zukofsky was. When I showed him my poetry as a student, he would always cut, cut, cut, cut, take this out, take this out. And that seemed right to me. I could never figure out, was that because of what he said or because that’s the way I felt, or somehow the two of them meshed up. There are parts of me that are what you might call a contemporary objectivist. I’m in the modernist tradition. Ezra Pound was a god to me. He still is. And Pound was Louis Zukofsky’s friend. Pound famously printed the 24-year-old Zukofsky’s poem called “Poem Beginning ‘The’ ” in 1928.

In an essay about Adrienne Rich [“Will, Change, and Power in the Poetry of Adrienne Rich”], you wrote that there are poets who “accept the world as it is” and poets who “push back,” and you described her as a poet who pushes back. What kind of poet would you describe yourself as?

I’m not like Adrienne. No one can be like Adrienne. I’m a poet who takes the world as I find it. I’ve written what I might think of as political poems, and a lot of my work is infected by the political, although I’m not a political person, necessarily.

One of the things I’ve noticed about your poems is that you talk about modes of transport: trains, bus, elevators. I read a couple of poems in which you’re observing what goes on in the elevator.

I’m an observer. In his foreword to my book Collecting Evidence, Stanley Kunitz compares me to the “poet as detective.”

You titled a poem “The Great Ego of the Words,” and in other poems, you write about feeling that words don’t carry weight—and yet you’re using them. Do you really feel that words can’t express what you want to say?

The essay you mentioned about Adrienne Rich was for the Virginia Quarterly Review. In 2006, Virginia Quarterly did a feature on her, and one of the things they posed was, Do you feel that poetry changes anything? And there’s a W.H. Auden line that says, “For poetry makes nothing happen.” That was part of the whole thing. But for me, there’s a whole psychological subtext going on. It’s a built-in futility. I have a couple of lines in a new poem I’ve written that say, “No reason for the poem but the absence of Mother. / No refuge from the absence of Mother but the poem.” There’s a built-in psychological futility because the poem wants to re-establish contact with the mother, but the mother is long dead, so there is no way you can ever contact her again.

On some deep level, that’s the way poetry is for me. It’s a thing I’m compelled to do, but at the same time, it’s futile because it can’t achieve what I want. That washes into all kinds of other philosophical things—that is, non-psychological things—because certainly I’m not the only person in the world who raises this question of the futility of language. One of the wonderful things about Adrienne was that she was not like this at all. For her, poetry was the force that changed the world, and there was no doubt in her mind that this was true.

Your mother and father are characters in your poems, as are other members of your family and former romantic partners. Have you come up against any problems because of doing that?

Not so far, that I can remember. I don’t have a lot of readers, I don’t think. Maybe if I had more readers.

Did your parents read the poems you wrote about them?

I think they did. They never said much one way or the other.

Did you think beforehand, Do I want them to read this?

No, I never thought that way because I remember a remark that Allen Ginsberg once made. He said, “What is there that you can hide in life? What don’t you want the FBI to know? That’s the thing you should write about.” He didn’t say that exactly, but he said something like that. I always felt, that’s the way I want to be—to write about whatever. We fortunately live in a country where you can do that. Although these days, it’s getting harder to do.

You said you don’t think you have a wide readership, but you have many poems on the Internet. Does the new technology help you survive and thrive as a poet?

In my own case, I’m kind of a private person. I’m on Facebook, for example, but I don’t actively pursue it. There are some poets I know of on Facebook who have five thousand friends, or however many friends. Right now, I have 187 friends. I practice karate, which I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years, so part of my friends circle is from karate.

In my head, I still have a very old paradigm of how you get published. I’m not overjoyed to publish on the Web. If I get published on the Web, I usually recycle poems that I’ve published in hard copy first. Although if you get published on the Web, suddenly ten thousand people might see it. Whereas if you publish a book, a hundred people will see it. I started programming computers in 1964. Computers have been a part of my life since that time. That’s almost fifty years. There are not many poets around who can say something like that. But I didn’t want to advertise it then. Now it’s very hip to be a geek.

Something like Facebook is strange. Someone emailed me—we were supposed to get together. She asked if I knew a certain poet. She said there was a whole brouhaha going on on his Facebook page about fame. So I posted a poem on Facebook by an Englishwoman named Charlotte Mew, who died in the early part of the twentieth century.

You reference her in your poem “After the Ear Inn After the Snow.”

I discovered her poems around 1975. She was in an anthology of women poets, and I fell in love with her work. I sent away for her collected poems, which was a very thin volume. She killed herself. She wasn’t that prolific a writer. She wrote this poem called “Fame,” which I think is a great poem, and I posted it. Some of the people who are my Facebook friends saw the poem, and there’s this button you can click that says, I like this. But this one guy said, “It makes sense that you would spot a magnificent poem. I read your books over and over. You are quite magnificent too.” That was astounding. If not for Facebook, I wouldn’t know this person was out there.

I’ve had a few experiences like this on Facebook, which have surprised me because my image of myself is of a person who’s unknown and not read. And also what happened was a guy who friended me posted on his blog the whole text of my first book, Collecting Evidence, which is out of print. And he wrote on the blog: “No copyright infringement intended. Reproduction here only because the book is out of print.” And again, I was floored. And I thought about it in the sense, do I want to write him a letter and say, Hey, you can’t put that up there. Then I thought, Leave it up there. What do I care? I’m never going to make any money from poetry anyway. What does it matter?

You’ve been writing professionally for more than forty years. And you have this idea of not being widely read. How do you carry on?

In very practical terms, it’s a matter of what you’re able to do. You get up in the morning, and what are you going to do for the rest of the day if you don’t have to go to your money job? What are you going to do for the rest of the day? For me, it comes down to that. It’s what I have been able to do. For whatever reason, I needed to create something, and poetry seems to be what I can do. I wrote Gilbert Sorrentino a fan letter once in 1969. I had never met him before. I still lived uptown. He wrote back to me, and he said, “My own art is a small one, a fragile one, if that is the word. But what I say I know. It is mine.” And I feel like that. Whatever my own art is, it is mine. And I need to keep doing it—so far.

The other thing is, I like karate because it suits me temperamentally, but one of the good things about karate is that it’s the only thing in my life that totally takes me out of myself. And while you’re there, you’re living in a very different kind of reality than I usually live in. It’s the reality of the world. Karate is itself a small portion of the world, but it brings to bear, very directly, various things that everybody in the world must face. For instance, I don’t fight anymore, but I used to fight. And when you’re fighting, you’re being challenged in a way that’s inescapable. Karate is a large part of my life, and I’ve written a couple of karate poems, but it’s very different from the contemplative poetry part of my life. Yet it’s called a martial art, and it’s an art too, which you will have a sense of when you see someone who can really do it. Someone told me that in the old days in China, you were not considered an artist unless you also practiced a martial art. After I do a class and I come out on the street, I sometimes feel if I never wrote another poem in my life, I wouldn’t care. But that goes away.

Is there something I haven’t asked that you’d like to say either about your work or about Westbeth?

Obviously, Westbeth enabled me to live in New York because the rents were so reasonable. Westbeth is an amazing place, and I’m very grateful to Westbeth. It was exciting to live here as a young person. I moved in when I was 30. And now it’s also a great gift to be able to live in such a beautiful neighborhood. Aside from the crazy stuff that goes on in the Meatpacking District, it’s like paradise here. Otherwise, Jayne and I would probably have to go back to Ottawa, Illinois, and move in with her mother. My wife, Jayne Holsinger, is a painter, and she has exhibited at Westbeth. I’m currently on the literature committee. And since we’ve been talking about Westbeth poetry readings, I perhaps should say that I’ll be reading in the Westbeth Community Room this fall on October 9 with two other poets, Michael Heller—whom I first met more than fifty years ago—and Norman Finkelstein.

Sources cited:

Auden, W.H. “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” In W.H. Auden: Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, rev. ed., 245–47. London: Faber and Faber, 2007. See page 246.

Kunitz, Stanley. Foreword to Collecting Evidence by Hugh Seidman, ix–xiii. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970. See page ix.

Seidman, Hugh. “Will, Change, and Power in the Poetry of Adrienne Rich.” Virginia Quarterly Review 82, no. 2 (Spring 2006): 224–29. Biography Reference Bank, EBSCOhost (accessed June 18, 2013).

Photograph by Jayne Holsinger. Courtesy of Hugh Seidman.

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2013 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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