a conversation with Cynthia Zarin      


Bold Type: Can you discuss your experience as artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine?

CZ: There's a group of us—Philippe Petit is one, and Paul Winter is another—who for one reason or another have been involved with the Cathedral for many years. There's no formal definition of the position, but Cathedrals, historically, have had room for the arts. Over the last years I've organized a series of Evensongs that honor various writers: George Herbert and John Donne, but also Dorothy Sayers, and Flannery O' Connor. We also celebrated the centennial of C.S. Lewis and paid homage to Madeleine L'Engle's books for children. In those instances, the readers were children from the Cathedral school.

BT: Has your current environment, the largest gothic cathedral in the world, had a notable influence on the poems you've written during your time here?

CZ: Oh, I'm sure it has. It whittles you down to size!

BT: The sequence 'Port Imperial' makes up the middle third of the book. Can you talk about Port Imperial the place and the ways in which it became 'Port Imperial' the poem?

CZ: The Port Imperial ferry runs between lower Manhattan and New Jersey. I found myself on it once, years ago, and of course, fell in love with the name. A ferry lends itself to metaphor: implicit in the trip out is the journey back.

BT: The title of the book, your first book of poetry in eight years, is The Watercourse. Can you explain why you chose "Watercourse" as the title?

CZ: The title is from Psalm 126, the line "Restore our fortunes, O Lord / Like the watercourses of the Negev."

BT: Your poems tend toward the symmetrical: orderly stanzaic patterns, metrical figures, and regular rhymes. Formalism of any sort remains very unpopular in some quarters, for ideological and aesthetic, even political reasons. Others in the past decade have embraced "traditional" forms again and even described this loosely-defined trend as a movement, New Formalism. European poets were, for the most part, a bit baffled by this, since they have always written, at least partially, in fixed or invented forms. Can you comment on your decision to write as you do?

CZ: I share the bafflement. I think order gives rise to invention.

BT: Richard Wilbur has remarked that your poems resemble Elizabeth Bishop's in some ways. Do you believe this comment is accurate? Do you feel you owe any particular debt to Bishop's style? To Wilbur's style for that matter?

CZ: It's a flattering remark. Readers of Bishop learn the value of discretion, economy, and precision. I'm a great admirer of Mr. Wilbur's. He is our Robert Frost.

BT: What younger poets—let us say under the age of 35—do you admire?

CZ: A number of very talented young poets have come through my class at the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y. Leslie Change and Ciaran Carson come to mind.

BT: What are you working on at the moment?

CZ: I've just finished the manuscript of a book of stories about Saints and Animals, which should come out in 2004. And new poems.

Interview by Ernest Hilbert

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