Saturday, September 4, 2021

Q&A with Rachel Hadas



Photo by James Kriegsmann


Rachel Hadas is the author of the new book Piece by Piece: Selected Prose. Her many other books include Poems for Camilla. A poet, essayist, and translator, she is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. She lives in New York City.


Q: In Piece by Piece's foreword, you write, "This selection from my recent and not-so-recent prose pieces...has gone through several iterations." How did you decide on the form the book eventually took, and how did you decide on the order in which the essays would appear in the book?


A: The book's successive iterations involved pruning out too many book reviews and a few other pieces, and clarifying and reordering the various sections to cohere thematically. 


For some time the book was under consideration at a university press, so some suggestions came from them. Then, when Paul Dry accepted the manuscript, he strongly felt that there should be five sections, with the interview the centerpiece. I hadn't thought of this, and it works well! 


As a whole, the book was relatively slow to come together, and I had to omit more than I would ideally have liked...but I am very happy to see these various pieces gathered together and accessible.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title “piece by piece” refers, of course, to the various pieces of prose that comprise the book; and also to the way a life is composed of various sections/chapters/phases. 


The poem “Piece by Piece,” which serves as a kind of overture  to the book, is about deaccessioning, one thing at a time; and at least two of the essays in the book (“White Polka Dots”; “Translated Objects”)  also touch upon this theme of keeping or giving away.


Q: Author David Mikics said of the book, “Rachel Hadas, one of our best poets, has once again proved herself a lively, indispensable essayist. She has spent a lifetime falling in love with books, and it shows.” What do you think of that description?


A: I am absolutely delighted by David Mikics's description of me. What's not to like? 


I think it took me at least into my late 30s to begin to realize how saturated in books I had always been. Now that I'm almost 73 and still teaching, that saturation seems more and more rare and endangered. 


Back to Mikics's blurb: I couldn't write fiction to save my life. A poet is what I've always been, and in recent years I've felt more like an essayist as well. So it's very satisfying to feel I have earned those titles from as perceptive and learned a critic as David.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I've just finished assembling a group of poems I call “Pandemic Almanac,” which with luck will appear in the fall of 2022, when it will of course already be out of date. I also have pre-pandemic poems I'd like to assemble into a book, and a New and Selected is always also a possibility...


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: What else? Well, my translation of one of the 48 books of the epic “Dionysiaca” by the very late Greek poet Nonnus (5th c CE) will be published next spring by University of Michigan Press; each book has been translated by a different scholar/poet, each of whom made their own stylistic choices. 


I chose rhymed fourteeners, inspired by Kenneth Koch's Ovid and Alicia Stallings's Lucretius.   


Also, I am honored to be on the advisory committee of the Cornerstone Initiative, a joint  venture of the Teagle Foundation and the NEH, whose goal is to encourage the teaching of the humanities in universities, colleges, and community colleges. Bringing back the great books - or did they ever go away?


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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