A Poetic Life: Harvey Shapiro, in Conversation with Galen Williams
from The Brooklyn Rail, July/August 2001
Galen Williams (Rail): It’s the 1st of May, May Day, and I’m sitting in a nice sunny kitchen with Harvey Shapiro in Brooklyn Heights, an area of Brooklyn he has lived in for the last 50 years. Harvey, how did you get to Brooklyn in the first place?
Harvey Shapiro: I came to Brooklyn through happenstance 43 years ago, and I can say that I’ve lived most of my adult life in one corner of that borough. Poetry has a local habitation and a name, and I guess for me, that’s been Brooklyn. I came over from Patchin Place in the West Village in the early ’50s. In those days the West Village to Brooklyn was a migration route for expanding families; young couples expecting children either went out to the suburbs or they moved over to Brooklyn Heights. In fact, when I landed in Brooklyn Heights, the only people I knew were ex-Villagers. Before that, going to Brooklyn for me posed the same question it still does for most Manhattanites: How do you get there? You had to cross the water, and that seemed kind of odd. But every New Year’s Day I used to go to visit friends of mine, the sociologist Dan Bell and his then wife Elaine. They had a great annual party at their apartment on Willow Street. They had a terrific apartment with a view of the harbor and I always enjoyed going there. When we had to get out of Patchin Place because my wife was expecting our first son, we looked at ads for the very same apartment at 28 Willow Street that Dan and Elaine had lived in. It turns out they were now split and leading separate lives in different parts of the country so we took their apartment, and there I was.
It was difficult leaving the Village because in those days the Village, for us, was like Paris. That is, everybody I knew was doing something interesting in the arts. We lived a very kind of neighborly life. We never went above 14th Street, and the idea was to get a job that didn’t take you across 14th Street. In Patchin Place I lived across from E. E. Cummings and Djuna Barnes lived directly below me. In fact, she used to come up and complain about the noise sometimes. She had a big broom or a cane—I think she in fact walked with a cane—and she would rap on the ceiling if we were making too much noise.
Rail: Tell us about Cummings and some of the other leading local poets of the day.
Shapiro: Cummings was one of the first poets to read at the universities. He was very popular at the women’s colleges. On spring nights in Patchin Place, girls from Smith and Vassar would come into the alleyway and would chant up to his window: “How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?” referring to that marvelous Buffalo Bill poem of his, hoping to lure him out, which they never could.
I knew lots of poets. I used to go to parties at May Swenson’s. Jean Garrigue was a friend, and the major poet in the Village in those days. Ruth Herschberger was there, as were Jane Mayhall and Leslie Katz. Although it was hard to leave the Village, Brooklyn in fact had poetry associations for me from the start and accreted more as I lived there. This is the area where Walt Whitman lived and where he went to work, just a couple of blocks from me at the Brooklyn Eagle down by the bridge. I would walk up Middagh Street to take the Eighth Avenue subway. I’d pass this little, Spanish eatery that had a plaque on it which said: “This is where Walt Whitman printed his first edition of Leaves of Grass.” There were two palms or hands facing up—like pushing the spirits—and underneath was written “Passage to India,” one of Whitman’s poems. So it was Whitman country.
It was also Hart Crane country and Hart Crane was very important to me. I had done my Master’s thesis at Columbia on Crane’s White Buildings, the book that preceded his lone epic The Bridge. He lived in Columbia Heights, so I knew I was walking in his steps and the steps of Whitman. Louis Zukofsky owned the house next door to me, and then a couple of blocks across Atlantic Avenue from me lived George Oppen. I met Louis first, but Oppen became a major influence on my work. He was a father figure to me. There wasn’t all that much difference in age, but there was certainly enough difference in terms of where we were in our craft that he became a mentor and a father figure…