Stephanie Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, most recently After Callimachus (Princeton UP, 2020); Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems (Basic, 2019); and Advice from the Lights (Graywolf, 2017), an NEA Big Read Selection. Ask her about the X-Men.
David Blair: Stephanie, it’s hard to believe, but we’ve known each other twelve years now, so it is like we have gone through grades one through twelve now—or your kids and my kids are practically in high school now—and we’re finally ready to go to college, and we have done all sorts of readings and class visits and talks together over the years, particularly in the summer when we have less work going on, so I am happy to get to have this conversation with you. Thanks for sitting down with my questions.
Stephanie Burt: Thank you! I’ve been happy to support your work.
DB: I feel that even though this is a book of versions, or translations, updates, and expansions on the remaining poems, hymns and fragments of a Greek poet from time when Greek poetry became something that travelled away from Greece, when it was becoming something like the portable high culture of the classical world, you have come up with a Callimachus who expresses more of your selves, that your Callimachus is the most Stephanie-like poetry we have met yet. For instance, when your Callimachus says, “Choose me, Athena, defender/ of crafts and order,/ and of the just/ city-state,/ where no one gets lost,” I feel that is really personal, about you as a teacher, and also as a poet who has written about politics, at least since Parallel Play. But there is so much more to say. So that’s one thing I would like to hear you talk about, the many aspects of your identity or sensibility in the book.
SB: Thank you again. The book’s definitely got lots of me in it: if I didn’t feel, let’s say, the ability to align many parts of my life with many parts of a partly-made-up, partly researched, sometimes historically inaccurate Callimachus, I would not have written the book. Honestly I did not realize how much Callimachus I had in me until Rosanna Warren, Mark Payne and others suggested to Princeton University Press that I should write the book!
Exploring more of his work meant realizing just how many versions of Callimachus himself I could adapt, or adopt, or translate, or transform. There’s the scholar of previous poetry adapting it for his work, claiming a gentle, belated expertise rather than a transformative originality. There’s the often rueful, sometimes generous writer of erotic poetry, making room for many kinds of erotic relations. There’s the allusive fangirl, bringing in and reworking lesser-known modern myths. There’s the traveler, accounting for local differences. There’s the political writer trying to figure out how to depict injustice, and how to imagine a just state. And the eulogist, and the Popean verbal duelist . . .
And of course there’s Callimachus as the perpetual student, perpetual child, unfixed and unwilling to speak for power, uncomfortable pinned down in adult roles (including sex and gender roles). Mark Payne wrote a terrific article on that Callimachus, who compared himself to a child—it’s the first poem in my book, and the first part of Callimachus’s own (fragmentary) Aetia. Mark’s article helped me see why Callimachus became the poet for me.
It’s funny to me that you quoted a poem to Athena, the patron of existing institutions, authoritative wisdom, just war, and good governance, because when I started translating Callimachus, way back when, I felt myself to be a follower of Athena. There’s even a poem about that feeling (not a Callimachus poem) in Belmont (2013), the last book I finished when I was still trying to be a guy (and a dad). Athena is all about building, learning, getting A’s, following everybody’s direction, and steering—rather than rocking—the boat.
I’m not against that, but I’m no longer her devotee. I’m a lot more interested, at the moment, in Artemis, who appears all over After Callimachus, especially in the poems that I wrote or finished near the end of the project. Athena is the girl who wants to prove she’s as good as the boys, by wearing their armor and using their weapons. There’s room for both. Artemis is a goddess of liberation, of running around at night with your friends, of being a girl who doesn’t care what most boys think. (There’s room in both cults for nonbinary people, of course. Or at least in my very much modernized, partly fictionalized versions).
Two other aspects of who I am get free rein in this book. First, the girl who has fun with meter and rhyme. Most of the shorter poems in here (the hymns are another matter) either incorporate, or depend on, rhyme, and most of them dip in and out of meters. They’re not the strict meters that most 19th century poets would recognize, not the same kind that, let’s say Alicia Stallings, Melissa Range, Marilyn Nelson, Caki Wilkinson use today (those are all poets I like, by the way). But they are meters, often with cartfuls and sackfuls of triple feet.
Second, the member of fan communities. There’s no way to talk about my coming out as trans and finding new communities without talking about the poetry world, and no way to do it fully without talking about the few people who remain my closest allies, friends and loved ones. But there’s no way to talk about it fully, either, without mentioning fan communities, and in particular X-Men fandom. I’m not the only trans person in 2020 who came out in part through a company-owned mutant comic book (or rather through hundreds or thousands of those comic books, and through the community created by their readers). I won’t itemize here, but I will say that if you are familiar with X-Men comics going into After Callimachus, you will find allusions just for you, including my OTP. And if you’re not, that is absolutely OK. I tried very hard not to leave anybody behind.
DB: Another thing I think would be good to know is what do you think we should know about Callimachus, and why he is important to know about now, and what sort of world was he writing about. For instance, there is a lot of talk in this book about how to treat people from other places, an issue we are facing in this country right now, and which you address passionately at the end of Don’t Read Poetry. There are a lot of moments where you suggest that the way this classical poet refracted his world is relevant to how we should be conscious of our world, one of my favorite being the one about the airport in Washington, DC, where you grew up, and how it is such a drag that is named for Ronald Reagan, though you don’t name him.
SB: Mark does a better job explaining Callimachus’s world than I do, of course—his foreword to the book is just amazing—but I can say a little bit: Callimachus spent most or all of his adult life in a rapidly changing and cosmopolitan place, ancient Alexandria when it was a port city on the way up, culturally Greek but also Egyptian (like the Ptolemaic rulers under whom he lived). He saw himself as a synthetic writer, a researcher, learning before he wrote– one of his fragments says “I make nothing without a source,” or “nothing that is not attested.” He did his homework, and he never claimed to be the only one, or the first one, to any literary party. He listened and he did not always center himself.
That doesn’t mean he’d make the same policy choices as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, or Elizabeth Warren, or me. Some of my/his political poems reflect the spirit of the originals in their resistance to tyrants and bad rulers and in their attention to the norms required for legitimate, benevolent government, even for what we now call the consent of the governed. Some of my poems (the Hymn to Zeus, for example) include kinds of hedging, and kinds of sarcasm, that may or may not be “there” in the originals. And some reverse the politics of the originals, when the originals– very wittily, in Greek!– defend existing hierarchies. The poem about the airport has its origins in an epigram attacking mothers-in-law.
DB: If you check out The Oxford Book of Classical Book in Translation, one of my favorites of their anthologies, there are translations of the same poems by different poets in time. But in the twenty-five years or so since that book came out, there have been a lot of great translations–the David Ferry version of Virgil are in beautiful blank verse, which makes sense because he was a Wordsworth scholar, I have heard. Earlier in this century, it started to seem that poets would include a translation or two in their books in a somewhat stodgy way, like smoking a pipe or something. It’s a huge subject, translation, and we’ve had a lot of good ones to read for the past few decades—maybe a golden age for it, for global consciousness in poets. Do you have any thoughts on this subject after working on this book for a few years, and do you see your work related to any trends in translation or to any specific examples?
SB: This is a massive topic! And a good one. If I’m related to a trend in translation, it’s a trend that goes back for centuries: take a work in another language and use it to make a new poem, by you. Like 16th century English poets did over and over with Petrarch. Not that I’m their equal in any way. Modern poets have done it now and again– consider Auden adapting Cavafy’s Atlantis, or the several adaptations of Vallejo’s “I will die in Paris . . . ” (I’ve done one such version myself).
All this has to do with the composition of verse in the target language: it’s a very different matter from producing something faithful to the original, or in the spirit of the original, or loyal to the foreignness, the weirdness, the un-English-ness of the original, a worthy goal that’s not my own. My friend and sometimes sparring partner Johannes Goransson is always going after me and lots of others for not reading enough poetry in translation, for not considering the foreignness or the awkwardness or the unidiomatic aspects of foreign poems on an equal basis with the idiomatic fluency of poems composed in English for Anglophone readers. I have some problems with that argument– it’s like saying out-of-tune orchestra music deserves as much attention as in-tune performance– but it’s certainly worth considering.
DB: A few years ago, Michael Schmidt published a very entertaining book, The First Poets: the Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets, and he comes to Callimachus towards the end of his story that begins with basically mythical figures, and he moves through poets who emerge from oral traditions to these Alexandrian poets who are literary and write for readers. He finds some elitism in them, and even says that they are “defensive, separated and aloof” from a colonized and more popular culture. His version of Callimachus sounds as un-Burt-like as can be: “I hate everything public,” and Schmidt’s poet even disses the “common.” I think this must be a different reading of Epigram 30, where your Callimachus “is tired” of what a lot of us would consider fatiguing and artsy, The Cantos, or being at some really long opera, far from an elitist, and far from a hater.
SB: That’s correct. Many critics have seen him as a snob. That’s not a bad translation of that epigram, but neither is my version, in which he hates people who yell and toot their own loud horns. As for the separation from popular culture, that is an odd and almost John Carey-ish stance for Michael Schmidt (who has published me, and whom I consider a friend) to take about any poet anywhere, as if standing aloof from things you don’t enjoy is necessarily a demerit. But Callimachus seems to me alert to weird local traditions, to the ways in which the Greek and not only Greek diaspora chose to live, even to Egyptian elements (there’s a good deal of scholarship on that last one) in Ptolemaic Alexandria. He’s less snobby eagle, more mockingbird, bowerbird, magpie.
DB: On the other hand, Schmidt sees Callimachus who is like a good eighteenth century poet, and that seems a bit closer to you and your sense of rational play for an audience of friends, and he follows some other Callimachus critic in seeing in the “Hymn to Artemis” a poet who plays with “contrasting language registers, now high, now colloquial.” There is a lot of affection in you for language as people use it when they mean well, and also affection for somewhat unimaginative language somehow graced by intentionality. One of my favorite lines in your book is “What the,” but there are also some righteous statements that are platitudinous, and shouldn’t work, but do work. “Child-care workers deserve to retire with pensions.” A-men. Another good one like this is “Crete has problems with stalkers. It starts at the top.” I’m curious about how you hear these super colloquial lines? Do you hear them in italics or as something like a suppressed system, a good one, asserting itself against the forces of elitism, which you might also love? What’s going on here, Stephanie? More Songs about Buildings and Food? Preservation? Solidarity? Callimachus?
SB: That sounds like my Callimachus. And like my Alexander Pope, another writer who claimed to pursue “the strong antipathy of good to bad,” who sought success but had mixed feelings about exposure, who didn’t mind seeming learned and professional, who either incorporated, or coined, what now seem like tag lines, even cliches . . .
I’m glad you like “What the—” which is a joke about superhero comics but also a perfectly useful opening exclamatory phrase. Like “Hwaet!”
I like your description of the double register in those rhetorical one-line bits. I mean them all. Especially the line about child care workers! I didn’t invent this kind of tonal balancing—you can find it in post-1910 Yeats!—but I hope I’ve learned how to do it effectively.
I hadn’t seen my Callimachus as David Byrne, but you’re not wrong. I prefer to see him as Stuart Murdoch, with a touch of Stuart Moxham and a slice of Carole King, though I think he’d also love to be Prince. Or Sondheim.
DB: What’s a question you would want to be asked about your new book, and how would you answer it?
SB: “How can you help other white people see white supremacy, de-center whiteness, and assist—or at least get out of the way for—the struggles of Black and other people of color?”
Those are projects that all of us lucky enough to be involved—professionally or otherwise—with poetry today, and with the study of Mediterranean antiquity, need to investigate. They’re mostly projects in daily life, rather than projects in particular works of creative writing; they’re projects in teaching for those of us who teach; and mostly their resources come from writers of color, including poets: Terrance Hayes, Jericho Brown, Patricia Smith, the late Lucille Clifton, Danez Smith, Brandon Som, and also J. F. Herrera, John Yau, Patience Agbabi, and more. Go read them please! My work will be here, if you want it, when you’ve read them.
That said, there’s a long and dishonorable history in which bad actors use “the classics” to perpetuate white supremacy, and another one in which white poets overlook whiteness. I hope these very free versions of Callimachus—who was neither white nor Black in our sense; who certainly had more melanin than me—can do a little bit to counter those histories, as well as to instruct and entertain.
DB: This is some good advice from a solid sender. There is so much good poetry out there to help us live, and this is a good time to be reading poetry. Thank you so much for the clarity of your answers and the generosity of your perceptions, Stephanie. It’s great to spend some time thinking of your work and ideas.
Find Stephanie Burt’s After Callimachus here.