Frank Bidart, at Eighty
It has never taken me so long to hit the send button. I write five drafts of the email, asking to meet him in July when we’re both in Saratoga Springs. I stare at the screen of my laptop for over forty minutes. Eventually, I work up the courage to send the version that I find least embarrassing. “I wanted to let you know,” I write, “how life-changing your words have been for me.”
The response arrives after one hour and twenty minutes. My heart’s aflutter; “I’d love to do an interview.” He gives me his number and warns me that he’s “a night person,” so breakfast and lunch are off the table.
Two weeks later, I pick him up from his hotel with an Uber. The driver doesn’t know him, so I give her a quick brief of his oeuvre. When he enters the car, she asks if she could have his autograph. He chuckles. “Well of course,” he says, “but I’m not sure who you think I am.” She smiles. “What do you mean? You’re Frank Bidart. You’re very famous. I just Googled you.”
He is, indeed; one of America’s most celebrated poets, recently turned eighty. Born in 1939 in Bakersfield, California, he fell in love with poetry as an undergrad at UC Riverside. After his graduation, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study literature at Harvard, where he became a student and a close friend of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. In 1972, he started teaching at Wellesley College, where he still works; a year later, he published Golden State, his first book.
Bidart’s range is immense—from intensely personal poems about his family and homosexuality to dramatic monologues of characters like the necrophiliac murderer Herbert White, the anorexic woman Ellen West, and the tortured ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. He has received some of the most prestigious literary honors, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—both for Half-Light, his most recent collection.
We drive to his favorite bakery in town. After repeated insistence on his part, I concede to break my veganism and eat a vanilla macaron with him. We sit at a corner table. Every once in a while, he pauses and takes on the part of the interviewer. He poses thoughtful questions about my life and looks at me with wide eyes that beam with care, compassion, and attentiveness—three long-standing trademarks of his poetry.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
“For each gay kid whose adolescence
was America in the forties or fifties the primary, the crucial
forever is coming out—
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.”
(Excerpt from “Queer,” 2012)
I grew up in Tel Aviv, which was a pretty good place for gay kids, very different from Bakersfield, California in the ‘40s. Yet, when you write “or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not,” I feel like it reflects precisely my experience. Does that make sense?
Of course it does. Absolute sense. But I'm sure every person’s experience is also different. I only really know what I and my friends have experienced. I don't know anyone for whom coming out was easy. Or if it was, no one has ever said that. Sometimes we live under the impression in this country that a lot of the conflict about these things is over, but I think it's not. One thing that's great about the internet is that there are all these short videos of people talking about coming out. And they are usually stories about how difficult it is. Extremely difficult. Even if their parents turn out to be very supportive.
Surely. Growing up, I was surrounded by gay people, including some of my friends and teachers. And yet, “the crucial scenario…”
I certainly had teachers that I thought were gay, but none of them would talk about it.
And you didn’t feel like you could talk to them?
Surely not in high school. Absolutely not. And even in college, none of my professors were openly gay. It was really only one who I thought might have been. But he was never candid about that. And in fact, to this day I still don't know if he was or wasn't gay. But, you know, I'm talking about the ‘50s, and it was a different world.
What part of it?
I think teachers are open about it now. I'm definitely open about it with my students, and other teachers at Wellesley are. I'm not sure exactly when that changed. I don't think it happened even in the 60s, it probably changed in the late ‘60s, mid-’70s. I remember very vividly the first time I stayed with Robert Lowell and his wife in England. I’d been there for about a week and a half, two weeks. I liked them very much, we got along very well. And I said, “I have to be candid with you about something, and that something may affect our friendship and the way you think of me. And that is, I'm gay.” And they said, “Oh, we just assumed you were.” But I didn't know that.
Were you surprised?
I was. This was in England, and the English were using the word “queer” to designate people way before it became acceptable in America. And it had more edge. You really couldn’t tell how much negativity there was in it. And I just did not know if Lowell and his wife would want a gay friend. It turned out that it was not an issue at all. Lowell once said to me, “I don't assume that what I want to do in bed with a woman is more moral than what you want to do in bed with a man.” This explicitness was very rare. It also meant that Lowell had thought about this. Even though he had been a Catholic, he clearly decided that making it a moral issue was stupid. But I didn't know that before I told him.
And it was unclear in his own work too. The reference in “Skunk Hour” to “our fairy decorator,” for example. You can't quite tell what the tone of that is. You probably know that “fairy” means gay there, but you don't know how negative it is. It's the part of the poem in which he speaks as if he’s unaffectedly part of that small Maine town. Then, describing his actions, he suddenly says that that he can’t trust his own mind. “My mind’s not right.” But that's a late break in the poem. Before that, he’s part of the community and its attitudes. It turns out that there's desperation behind that. He recognizes that he is so much not part of the community. He’s like the skunks.
And what was it like, coming out to Elizabeth Bishop?
Well, she was lesbian, so I think it became part of the ground of our friendship. Because I was someone that she could be candid with, and she liked that.
Was that clear from the outset?
It was very clear from the first moment, I'm not sure how. I was certainly not hiding it. But she, in general, was not candid about being gay. So it actually became some kind of ground for communication. And it was still a world in which she absolutely was not open with people. I have no idea what would have happened had she lived much longer. I doubt that she would have become much more candid because she had a very deep distrust of the straight world. When I was straightforward about being gay at Wellesley, she thought it was very dangerous. She said, “I believe in closets, closets, and more closets.”
She knew it was the new fashion to be very accepting. But she felt that even if they accepted for a while, it wouldn't last, and people who came out would be punished eventually. And my own attitude was, “Well, if this candor is going to turn on me, then so be it, because I can’t be hidden anymore.” But I think I was always wary of that happening. And it has not happened. But I also think one must not be categorical about the future. You know, I never thought Trump would get as far as he has gotten, and I was astonished that white supremacists were no longer afraid to announce to the world that they were white supremacists. But there’s no alternative, I mean, you can't go back to the closet. I can't. And I'm incredibly lucky to have lived in a period in which these things have opened up. When the AIDS epidemic started, one might have thought that straight America would turn against the gay world and think of it as the source of AIDS. There are people who tried to do that. I saw Pat Robertson on TV trying to do that. But he didn't succeed.
What about people like Roy Cohn?
Well, he was Trump's teacher. But it didn't happen. And if anything, I think it humanized gay people to the straight world. They saw people suffering, they saw people whom they had not known before were gay, were gay, and the effect was not isolation but acceptance. I could not have predicted that'd be the effect. I think one still has to keep some degree of skepticism about the future and about what will be. Things constantly surprise me.
“Once I have the voice
of the line
is a hook
is the soul”
(Excerpt from “Poem Ending with a Sentence by Heath Ledger,” 2013)
I remember when I first read your poems, I almost felt like they were written about my life, which was a wonderful, confounding experience. And at first I thought it was because you write about queer life, which is something that I’m very interested in. But the more I read your work, the more I realize that it’s not just that. There’s something very cinematic in the way your poems operate.
I think that’s very true.
Is that a deliberate choice?
It’s certainly deliberate. I mean, I accepted it as a model in some ways, because I think that’s the way to handle transitions. The fluidity of transition in films, I think, corresponds to something very real. And that fluidity is already in Shakespeare. Moving between scenes, the shifts of action… I think I first absorbed it while watching films, and it’s very much affected by my whole experience of films. No question.
Was that something you were conscious of?
Yes. I mean, I love films. I wanted to be a film director for a long time. And I think I yearned for transitions in art and in writing to have the kind of directness, fluidity, and abruptness (at times) of film transitions. So that was very conscious. I think it also became part of how I see the world. I think that the way I understand the world is very colored by my experience of films.
Have you ever thought about making a movie?
Sure. But I've never had anything that felt as if it had to be a movie. In fact, when I discovered the story of Myrrha, which became the center of my poem “The Second Hour of the Night,” I knew it was going to be something long and ambitious. That certainly would be a potential movie. But I've never had the apparatus to make a movie. And, more than that, I felt that what I had to give it was not what I could do on film. It’s not one of the greatest poems of Ovid. Ovid is scared to death of Myrrha; he relentlessly refuses to give her interiority until the very end when she becomes a tree. Outside of that, he's rather ironic and distanced about her. And I felt that what I had to give to that narrative was interiority. I think that the best vehicle of interiority, at least as I’ve experienced it, is words. And that's why I don't feel that being a director was my real calling. There's a kind of intimacy of the inner voice that one can do in a poem better than in any other medium. And that's the real work I have to do.
But it's also true that I don't know. If I were a film director, maybe I would know how to embody things in images. It's not as if a great Antonioni film really wants to be a poem. I mean, it is a poem. It completely works by being an eloquent series of images. But I think that’s not the way my mind works.
Do you have any favorite directors who are working now?
Not in the way that I love Antonioni. I discovered La Notte when I first went to Paris in 1961. It was a tremendous discovery for me. I like Tarantino very much. I like Ari Aster's film, Hereditary. I think it's a masterpiece. Of the young directors, he’s the one I'm most astonished by. But it's also true that as I’ve gotten older, I stopped going to theaters. I wait until the films come out as disks. I'm drowning in disks.
I think you might be the only one.
Well, I gather people don’t buy disks anymore. But I’m very possessive. I grew up in a world in which I was constantly reading about things I could not see. I was not living in LA; we did not have repertory film theaters. I could see the newest films, but not the history of Hollywood. Then videotapes came and you were able to actually buy a copy of Bringing Up Baby, which was thrilling. But it means that today I don't trust that the people who own these films are going to make them available. They didn't when I was growing up. What if some estate somewhere decides that I can no longer see Bringing Up Baby? I am damned if I allow that to happen.
You can live with a film the way you can live with a poem, when you own a copy of it. You can see it again and again at your own pace and look at sequences. I don't trust the conglomerates. Disney withdraws films for five or ten years, some even permanently. And I don't want someone to be able to do that to me. You can't think about something if you can't see it and touch it and hold it. And so I continue to be a hoarder. Absolutely.
Of books and records too, I assume?
Yes, books and records and performances of any kind and poems. But my apartment has become increasingly unlivable because I can’t store all these things. So everything is just stacked up and becomes inaccessible. It's very self-defeating.
“I love sweets,—
would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream
But my true self
is thin, all profile
and effortless gestures, the sort of blond
elegant girl whose
body is the image of her soul.”
(Excerpt from “Ellen West,” 1977)
Do you read contemporary poetry?
Sure, and I like discovering things online very much. But very seldom you can experience a whole book online, so what you get is a taste of an author. Some authors I’m impressed with and think they're very good. And if I really want to experience the author, I end up having to buy the book.
What's your impression of American poetry today?
I think we're going through an incredibly vital time. I've been nominated for the National Book Award many times. I always lost until the last time. And very often, when I've been a finalist in the past, I thought that at least one or two of the books weren't good at all. Sometimes I thought the books that won weren’t very good. This last time I was a finalist, I thought all the books were incredibly interesting and various and adventuresome and bold in many ways. I think we're going through an extremely strong period for whatever reason. I don’t feel I understand why, but there’s a lot of experimentation and bold, adventuresome choices. Some of it probably has something to do with people being so inflamed about politics, but I don't think it's all that. I think there's also been a real opening out of people’s sense of aesthetic possibilities. I don't mean that the poets now are better than the poets twenty years ago. But I think the level, in general, is higher. There have always been great poets, but I think that there is probably more extraordinary work being done now, or that at least achieves some audience, than in the past.
A big question today is who has the right to tell what story. I was reading your poem “Ellen West” the other day and thought, “Well, I don't know if a male poet can write something like that today.”
Is that a concern for you?
Of course. You don't think anybody was saying to Shakespeare, “You can't write about these Italians kids. You don't know anything about Verona.” I think that all that kind of identity politics in poetry is stupid and wrong. It’s just wrong. The whole idea of appropriation is ridiculous. Artists have always taken on things that were not their own identity. Art is not just autobiography. So I think that's just kind of stupid contemporary prejudice, really pushed by people who are not interested in art. They're interested in politics or perhaps social justice. Anna Karenina was written by a man. And so I think all that is just nonsense. It contradicts what artists have always done, that is to say, they have felt their way into narratives that were not literally their own. That's always been the case, and the notion that that's somehow forbidden is anti-art. It's stupid and anti-art.
That's something that always strikes me in your poems: the great empathy you have for basically everyone, whether it's your parents, a necrophiliac murderer, or an anorexic woman in the ‘20s.
I hope so. The idea that it’s possible is fundamental in art. So I think that's a bad aspect of this contemporary moment. But one must resist it.
“When I tell you that all the years we were
undergraduates I was madly in love with you
you say you
knew. I say I knew you
knew. You say
There was no place in nature we could meet.”
(Excerpt from “Half-Light,” 2016)
Last month was the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. When the police raid happened in New York you were probably writing Golden State, your first book, in Cambridge. Did the riots influence your writing process?
When Stonewall happened, I was not aware of it. I've never been part of the New York gay scene and I just wasn't paying attention. On the other hand, I was extremely aware of the results of Stonewall. Gay liberation suddenly became a term. And after that I came out. I’d been out to my friends, but after Stonewall certainly was more open. There's nothing explicit in my first book about being gay, but in my second book I say I'm gay. Stonewall was immensely important. A few years ago the whole nation engaged in a big discussion around the question of gays getting married. In 1960 I did not believe that such a discussion could happen. It's incredible. The change in my lifetime is astonishing and I don’t know anybody who predicted it. The world had resisted candor, had resisted acceptance of these things for a very long time.
On the other hand, we do hear people of that generation saying today, “This is not what we fought for.”
Absolutely, and I was very aware of that too. I have a very good friend who was straightforward about being gay. When the whole gay marriage thing happened, he thought it was ridiculous. That was not what he’d been hoping for, because it looked so much like simply mimicking the straight world. But I sensed immediately that if it was accepted, it would make a real difference in the straight world’s idea of what it meant to be gay. There are so many images in our culture in which to be gay simply means disorder and flouting convention. But the gay people I knew were far from that. Maybe they flouted convention in one way, but in many other ways they didn't. And they also yearned for stability. People in general do. I never lived with anyone, but most of my gay friends, maybe all of them, have either lived with somebody or have been in a committed relationship for many years. I'm actually very unusual in that respect.
In any case, I saw it as a sign of some importance that people could marry. And I think it has been important and very good. I think it's important that gay people can live any way they want to. If they want to be married, if they want to be committed, if they want to raise a family—fine. Who am I to say how others should live? I know gay people who’ve lived together for twenty years and don't get married. The condition of their relationship is that they don't make it formal. That's how they live with each other.
Was that something you were interested in?
Well, I've fallen in love plenty of times, and I was always a little blurry in my mind in terms of what I wanted after falling in love. But I always managed to choose someone who would not respond. And I think that's because part of me did not want it. I think that was my protection. I am very, very, very wary of what happens to people when they have a single relationship. Many of the marriages I know have, in some way, been corrosive and I don't want that. And the ones that are good I don't really know from the inside. My own parents’ marriages were terrible—great arenas of revenge, anger, resentment, and torturing. And I don't want to be part of that.
“He made him wake. He ordered him to eat
my heart. He ate my burning heart. He ate it
submissively, as if afraid, as LOVE wept.”
(Excerpt from “Love Incarnate,” 1997)
“Love Incarnate” is one of my favorite poems. You based it on Dante’s La Vita Nuova. What made you want to revisit an old Italian sonnet?
First of all, I was astonished when I discovered the sonnet. It’s not at all the conventional view of love. And I was astonished because I had read it in translation and did not understand what happened, what the action of the poem was. I think that the earlier translations I knew (probably only Rossetti’s) blunted what the poem was about. One day Tom Sleigh casually mentioned Dante’s sonnet in which Love eats the speaker’s heart. Suddenly I had a job. I wanted, then, to do a version which made manifest the central action, which had been bowdlerized. There was something I could do to make clear this complicated thing that Dante had seen, and that had been obscured in the translations. I had not realized what the poem was about until Sleigh’s statement—until I then read the sonnet in Italian, and saw that it was a vision of love that most people did not understand as Dante’s.
Why do you think it was obscured?
People are unbelievably sentimental about love. You know, we live in a culture in which an incredible amount of crap is said about love. Anything really complicated about love, people may recognize for a moment, but then they want to look the other way. People tend to soften everything and make it all more palatable. And the essential complication at the center, they tend to not face. And the reason for that says something about human beings. And literary culture.
You have that beautiful quote in which you say that our culture has essentially replaced its obsession with god with an obsession with love.
I think that's true.