Take Five: Q & A with Michael Broder—Classicist, Publisher & Poet
Michael Broder’s six-week workshop at Poets House, Ontogeny, Phylogeny & Poetry, begins Thursday, February 21. Poets House asked him a few questions about teaching poetry and his own path to becoming a poet.
1) What’s your favorite aspect of teaching poetry?
To a degree, teaching poetry is my favorite aspect of teaching poetry. I’ve been teaching language, literature, and culture for over 30 years, in the context of both the classical (Greek and Roman) and Anglo-European traditions. In these settings, I have taught a great deal of poetry—from Homer and Virgil to Szymborska and Tranströmer. As a teacher of poetry as literature, I love introducing students to a poet or a poem they may not have been familiar with, or giving students new insights into something they have read before, or leading a room full of students in teaching each other something new about poems, poets, or poetry.
But while I have often taught poetry to readers, I have had far fewer opportunities to teach poetry writing workshops. I started writing poetry on the late side—when I was 30. I published my first book on the really late side—when I was 53. That book was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award for gay poetry. The year after it came out, I started Indolent Books, a small poetry press, with the aim of publishing poets over 50 without a first book. Since then, the mission of the press has expanded to focus on underrepresented poets regardless of age—queer, trans, nonbinary, and intersex people; women; people of color; people with HIV; people dealing with the aftermath of trauma, addiction, or mental illness; and other marginalized groups.
I love making a difference in individual lives. As a publisher, I get to make a difference by publishing a poet’s book. As a creative writing teacher, I get to make a difference by supporting poets in their writing. I would have to say that making a difference, whether in the life of a reader of poetry or a writer of poetry, is my favorite aspect of teaching poetry.
2) Who was your favorite writing teacher and why?
My favorite writing teacher was Anita Malta, my sixth-grade English teacher at George C. Tilyou Intermediate School (later Junior High) in 1972–73. She taught me the basics of writing, both creative writing and academic writing. She also taught me the basics of poetry. Ms. Malta taught us song lyrics as poems, from the traditional Scottish ballad “Barbara Allen,” to then-current pop songs including “The Sound of Silence” (Simon & Garfunkel) and “Eleanor Rigby” (Lennon & McCartney). People often disparage that approach, as they disparaged Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for literature. But I think Ms. Malta was visionary—or at least a very talented middle school English teacher. It was from her essay tests that I learned to write thesis-driven essays, although I don’t think Ms. Malta ever uttered the words “thesis-driven essay” in sixth-grade English class. She gave us the poetry anthology Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle (edited by Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith), in which I read my first “grownup” poems—and I fell in love with “Resumé,” by Dorothy Parker. I had two other great English teachers in those days, whose names I must mention: Judy Slater (may her memory be for a blessing) and Vera Fried. They both taught me a lot both as a reader and a writer. In Ms. Slater’s class, we read Antigone, and I wrote a Greek tragedy about Superman!
3) What was the first poem you read that made you want to become a poet? (Or, alternately, is there a particular book of poems that has been formative in your evolution as a poet? )
If you count that Superman Greek tragedy I wrote in middle school as my first poem, then you might have to say it was the Ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles, who wrote Antigone. Or Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé,” which I read in Ms. Malta’s sixth-grade English class. Rather than any one poem, I’d have to say it was my experience with Greek and Latin lyric poetry as a graduate student that most influenced my own early poetry. Sappho’s Fragment 31 (“That man seems to me equal to the gods”) and Fragment 16 (“Some say an army on horseback”) had a particularly strong impact on me—but I was a classicist then, not a poet. When I did start writing poetry, however, it was clearly very much influenced by Ancient Greek and Latin lyric poetry (Sappho, Catullus, and many others)—the personal nature of the content, the often erotic (indeed, homoerotic) nature of the content, the address to a second person (“you,” often a lover, requited or unrequited), the focus on love, loss, and the ever-present shadow of death.
4) What’s one piece of advice that you’ve been given as a poet that has really stuck with you?
The first poetry workshop I took was with Robert Polito at The New School, around 1994. At the end of the semester, he told me it was time to start taking all my little poems, and combining them into bigger poems. I’m not sure I think that was actually very good advice, but it certainly has stuck with me!
5) When you’re not writing and teaching poetry, what feeds your creativity/helps you stay sane?
Is it okay if I say, “Sex”? In particular, sex as ritual—for me as a gay man coming out in the 1980s, it was pretty standard behavior to seek out sex in bars, clubs, and public cruising grounds like parks, even just strips of brush along stretches of highway. The waiting, watching, circling, approaching, navigating, negotiating—it was very performative, not unlike poetry, and I’ve always been fascinated by the overlap between the performativity of poetry and that of sex. Why haven’t I proposed THAT as the focus of a workshop at Poets House? Maybe next fall. Stay tuned…
Michael Broder is the author of This Life Now, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, and the founding publisher of Indolent Books, a small nonprofit poetry press. He also leads the HIV Here & Now project, an online repository of new poems addressing more than 35 years of HIV/AIDS. He holds a BA in comparative literature from Columbia University, an MFA in creative writing from NYU, and a PhD in classics from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has taught language, literature, mythology, culture, and creative writing at NYU, the University of South Carolina, Montclair State University, Hunter College, Brooklyn College, Queens College, York College, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and the CUNY Graduate Center. Register here for his upcoming workshop, Ontogeny, Phylogeny & Poetry.