Saturday, December 5, 2009

Harvey Shapiro

Harvey Shapiro’s many books include The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems (2006), How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems (2001) and National Cold Storage Company (1998), all published by Wesleyan. A veteran of World War II, he published his first book in 1953, and has taught at Cornell University, Bard College, Columbia University, and Yale University. In his career as a journalist, he has served as editor of the New York Times Book Review and senior editor of the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


He had a gig
but he was hurting.
His doctor said, play the date,
then check into the hospital.
That night, when the party ended
and the band packed up,
Charlie started to give stuff away—
his watch, his rings—to the women
in the room. Then
he circled the room with his horn
playing: “For all I know we may never meet again.”
At this point, the man who was telling the story
in the locker room at the Manhattan Plaza gym
and who had sung the line slowly, with
a pause between each word, began to cry.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

In 2000, I think. I can't remember the season or month. It began with a line overheard at the Manhattan Plaza Gym: locker room.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

The poem took shape over several months. I didn't try to get it on the page until I knew how to set it up.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Yes, I believe in inspiration. But I also believe in reporting. Wallace Stevens called the poetry of William Carlos Williams "rubbings of reality." That's what this poem means to be.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

The poem arrived at its final form when I figured out how to get into it--begin with a voice and then set the scene at the end.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I can't remember.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

Usually I let a poem sit in my notebook for some weeks before I go to the computer. Then I print it out and let it sit some more.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

Writing during World War II, Stevens said that, in the face of an overwhelming event, consciousness takes the place of the imagination. I think that sometimes the event doesn't have to be overwhelming.

Is this a narrative poem?


Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?


Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?


Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?


How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

More anecdote, less language.

What is American about this poem?


Was this poem finished or abandoned?



  1. I love Harvey Shapiro poems, especially a poem called Definitions of Poetry. Sometimes when I'm feeling a bit low, I tend to lie down on the sofa and read some of his poetry to myself and, most of the time, it always brings a smile to my face. Must be great to be able to do that by writing a "simple" poem. Thank you, Mr. Shapiro for your wonderful works.

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