An afternoon with Jerry Stern is nothing if not an adventure. During my visit to his home along the banks of the canal in Lambertville, New Jersey, our interview was punctuated by a police officer dropping by to investigate a local burglary ("I didn't do it," Jerry informed him, deadpan), a half-dozen quick, animated phone calls ("my assistant, my life partner, my travel agent, everyone's checking in on me" explained Jerry) and a self-guided tour of his house ("Just go upstairs and wander around and have a look!").
That was just the first half-hour.
In our time together, the conversation veered from Paris to Pennsylvania to Jewish gangsters, marriage, divorce, Sir Paul McCartney (an admirer of Stern's work), Velveeta cheese, and parallel universes.
And, yes, we talked about poetry, which has long been at the core of Stern's passionate, creative life. To illustrate a point, Stern would frequently recite one of his poems. As a longtime reader of his work, it was transfixing to hear the conciseness and concreteness of his written words conveyed through his richly expressive voice and face.
Born eighty-one years ago in Pittsburgh to Polish and Ukrainian Jewish parents, Gerald Stern's resumé includes fourteen published books and many of the major honors in the world of American poetry, including: a Guggenheim Fellowship, three National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships, the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts for the state of Pennsylvania, the Lamont Poetry Prize, a P.E.N. Award, the Patterson Poetry Prize, the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, the Ruth Lilly Prize and most recently the 2005 Wallace Stevens Award, given by the Academy of American Poets as a lifetime achievement award in poetry.
Pretty impressive for a self-described "late bloomer" who first began to publish his poetry in his middle to late forties.
The Boston Globe has said that Stern's poems "praise the foolishness and grace of our mortal dance." Read on to be moved by the ebullient spirit and eclectic vision of one of America's most notable poets, that irrepressible son of Pittsburgh, Gerald Stern.
A conversation with Gerald Stern
Q: Pittsburgh appears in many of your poems. How did that city shape you and your voice?
A: Pittsburgh was formative. I have a love/hate relationship with the place, as I've written about many times. For me, that city is the mother, my mother. I was born and spent my first five years or so in the Hill districts, a place where different immigrant groups came through, first German, then Scottish, then Syrian, then Jewish, Black and so on and so on. When I was born, it was the main Jewish neighborhood and was like a Polish shtetl transplanted. You could live in the Hill district for a whole lifetime and just speak Yiddish. Indeed, my father's mother did just that. She knew two words of English: "Call again." Then we moved to the suburbs which didn't work out too well, partly because of the extensive anti-Semitism. So we moved to a Jewish neighborhood called Squirrel Hill and that was the place I grew up.
It was a city of oppression and ethnic hatred where one group was pitted against another. It was also a dramatic and mysterious city, with its hills and its valleys, its rivers, its tunnels, its smoke and its bridges. And I responded to that aesthetically. I remember the woods. I remember the snow. I remember that we parked a car at the bottom of a hill and we had to walk up—it was so steep, we couldn't drive up to our house in the snow. Who knows? That may have happened once but one remembers it as a steady thing. Pittsburgh is very, very important to me—as a mythical place, a geographic place, a psychic place in my history.
Two books ago, I did a book of sonnets (American Sonnets) and most of them are actually about Pittsburgh and they all take place in the winter time. Let me just read one of them ("Winter Thirst") to you. I worked at the Railway Express all the time I went to college at Pitt, seven hour shifts, with all the dirt and the soot.
Q: Tell me about your family.
A: I didn't have a happy childhood and I didn't have a horrible childhood. I came from a classic first generation family. My parents spoke English without an accent but they argued in Yiddish. They fell in love with America, with Americana, with the latest gadgets, canned food, new cars...And they were successful. But there was always tension in
the house and arguments. And then, my sister's death...I had one sister. She was a year older than me. She died when she was nine. And they hid that loss—there were no pictures, no memories, we never even used her name!
It was my mother who was allowed to grieve...I wasn't allowed to do it, my father wasn't allowed to do it. It was her loss.
That was difficult, growing up in circumstances like that. But when I look back, I have affection for that world. My basic response to much of the past is not anger but affection...and pity. I don't know if that's good or bad.
Q: How did you develop faith in your talent when you first started writing?
A: I'm not sure. There were no artists or writers in my family. We had some big-time criminals though, like my cousin Lucky Berkin, a real Jewish gangster. He made millions and, in 1940, when Pitt went to the Rose Bowl, Lucky hired an entire car of a train and took about 30 people to California, paid for everything! He was about 35 years old and he was already, God knows, 300 pounds. He went to Florida in '41, lost 100 pounds and dropped dead. So Lucky wasn't very lucky.
Anyway, I could have easily become a criminal, but for being an artist, I had no role models. My father always referred to my poems as "articles"—and he never really read a poem of mine. But back then I didn't write much that was worth reading! I was an undergraduate at Pitt and I was filling little notebooks up with playful, rhymed sonnets, which I did for fun. In those days, we dressed with shined shoes, suits, white shirts, neck ties...We didn't have any models for bohemia. There was no
bohemia! But in spite of the fact that I had no guidance, I stubbornly felt that somewhere in my bones there lurked poetry. I knew that I was an artist...that it might not happen for a year, or 50 years, or ever, but what you do is you give yourself up, you give yourself over to IT, with the knowledge that you'll probably be a failure in this life, that you'll probably be poverty-ridden and forgotten. And that's kind of the risk you take.
Q: Do you identify with being Pennsylvanian?
A: Very much. Aside from Pittsburgh, I feel close to the whole state. There's not a city or county in Pennsylvania I haven't been in. I've lived and taught in Indiana, PA; I've taught at Bucknell; I've taught at Temple; and for three or four years I was the literary czar of Pennsylvania—I helped create the poetry in the schools program, hired 45 or 50 poets, trained them, and I visited all 67 counties, talking to superintendents and principals, organizing programs, giving grants, all that stuff. I even lived for awhile in Central PA, in Perry County, the one place in the state that had no red lights in the entire county. It's extremely rural—it could be in Alabama. In fact, in Pennsylvania, once you get
out of the cities, you are in Alabama. So I know Pennsylvania intimately and—although I have other places that are important to me, such as New York and Paris—I think of myself essentially as a Pennsylvanian. Which is ironic because I became the first poet laureate of New Jersey!
Q: Did you have memorable teachers or friends in college?
A: When I came of age—when I was 21 and trying to figure out what a poem was—I didn't know who to turn
to for information. When you live in a world that is somewhat culturally deprived, the issue is information. Nowadays, you get the information almost too quickly, in a nanosecond. But back then, I lived on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains, so we got information ten years too late! I didn't know what was happening in New York, because I was in Pittsburgh.
Jack Gilbert was a good friend. We were both poets in Pittsburgh and then went to Paris together. It's a funny story: We were going to go to Mexico in 1949. Jack's mother gave him a car, a '34 Nash, and I was teaching him to drive. I didn't have a license and he didn't have a learner's permit. Well, he
bumped into some woman's car and we fled the scene! At the time, there was an article in Life magazine about how cheap it was to live in Paris. So Jack went to Paris. And I had the G.I. Bill from World War II and I joined him in Paris, where I lived on a dollar a day. That was the instinct of a young artist, to go somewhere and live cheaply and write.
Q: When you look back, do you have any regrets?
A: I may have some regrets that I didn't do this or didn't do that. For instance, when Jack went to the West Coast after Paris, he encountered the San Francisco renaissance just when it was at its height. He lived in Haight Ashbury, roomed with Allen Ginsberg, studied with
Roethke and Kunitz, and so on. So, you know, I sometimes have regrets that I didn't do that. Where was I at that time? I was carrying on my life in my odd way. As you do. You live your life. You get married or you don't get married. You go to school
or you don't, sometimes you're lucky and you hear about a job and it changes your life...for good or ill. Should I have left Europe and moved to California, not gotten married, studied with Roethke? Yes. Should I not
have done that? Yes.
But, you know, I accept it, whatever it is.
Q: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...
A: Yeah, there are always alternate lives you could have led. When I was in Paris, I was offered a wonderful job teaching in a high school in the south of France. But I came home instead, so that's another parallel universe. To think of it now, if I had taken that job, I probably would have married into some dumb French bourgeois family, had three or four French children, translated French poetry...or run away and gone to Turkey! Or God knows what.
Jerry Stern poses with a photograph of his grandmother, Libby, in his New Jersey home.
Q: What are you working on lately? What is your writing process like?
A: My typewriter broke so I write everything out by hand. Then my assistant Stephanie puts it in the computer. As for my recent work, well, I'm still writing Pittsburgh poems. I just wrote a poem called Spaghetti. It's a poem about Saturday night dinners at my house. My father was a buyer for a small department store and he worked late on Saturday nights. At my house there were three women:
my mother Ida, her mother Libby—whose picture is hanging in the next room, my favorite person—and our Black maid, Thelma. Three women and me. And we'd sit together and eat spaghetti on Saturday nights. Or what I thought was spaghetti! It was the most horrible dish—you take Mueller's noodles, put in a can of tomato soup, then put Velveeta cheese on top...Oh my God, it was awful!
Q: Is there an era in your life you'd call your happiest time?
A: I always think of the present time as the happiest time. But I like all the times. It hasn't all been easy but I think back on everything and I daydream, not with pain but with a kind of curiosity and affection. There's nostalgia, there's...love, if you want to call it that. I guess there's love for everything I touch. And a longing for everything. And, always, a kind of hatred of letting it go.
By Gerald Stern
Across a space peopled with stars I amlaughing while my sides ache for existenceit turns out is profound though the profoundbecause of time it turns out is an illusionand all of this is infinitely improbablegiven the space, for which I gratefully liein three feet of snow making a shallow graveI would have called an angel otherwise andthink of my own rapturous escape fromliving only as dust and dirt, little sister.)
By Gerald Stern
Not infrequently destroyed as bits of paperof no value by the women in my family,namely Ida, Libby, and the maid Thelma,my drawings were gone by the time I was elevenand so I turned to music and led orchestraswalking through the woods, and Saturday nightswe feasted on macaroni, tomato soup and falsocheese cooked at three hundred fifty degreeswhich I called spaghetti until I was 21and loved our nights there, Thelma, Libby, and Ida,fat as I was then, fat and near-sightedand given over to art, such as I saw it,and loved by the three of them and smothered somewhat,and it would be five years of breaking loose,reading Kropotkin first, then reading Keats,and standing on my head and singing by whichI developed the longing though I neverturned against that spaghetti, I was alwaysloyal to one thing, you could almost measuremy stubbornness and my wildness by loyalty.