Nicholas Christopher

Nicholas Christopher is the author of fifteen books: six novels, including The Soloist, Veronica, A Trip to the Stars, and The Bestiary; eight books of poems, among them On Tour with Rita, In the Year of the Comet, and Crossing the Equator: New & Selected Poems, 1972-2004; and one work of nonfiction, entitled Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City. He has also translated the poems of Martial and Catullus as well as the work of several modern Greek poets, including George Seferis and Yannis Ritsos. His own work has been translated widely. Christopher’s writing has also been published in numerous anthologies and has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, Granta, Esquire, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and The Paris Review.

He has won awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Christopher earned a B.A. from Harvard, where he studied with the poets Robert Lowell and Anthony Hecht. He taught at Yale University, New York University, and Barnard College before joining the permanent faculty in the writing program at Columbia University.

Christopher gleefully embodies the idea of the buccaneer writer, having crammed his early years with adventures that he is now – wise with age but no less witty – willing to bestow upon eager ears. This is what we’re talking about when we talk about a Yore.

You studied with Robert Lowell as an undergrad at Harvard. Were you already identifying as a poet at that point?

Yes. Though I thought I might study anthropology or Italian, all my focus was on poetry. As the first freshman ever admitted to Lowell’s advanced poetry class, I felt validated in what I was doing as a poet, though the fact is that I was just beginning my journey, just beginning to learn my craft.

What was Lowell like as a teacher?

Lowell’s idea of a workshop was one in which we discussed poems from a terrific anthology – 6 Centuries of Great Poetry, edited by Robert Penn Warren – and then went over some poems by workshop members. So if you liked presenting one of your novice poems after a discussion of, say, Marvell, Yeats, and Browning, it was just the place for you. It was perfect for me. Listening to Lowell talk about Yeats was far more useful to me at the time, age eighteen, than hearing him dissect poems of mine or my classmates. Though I believe I’m a good teacher, and I enjoy teaching, I was not one for workshops as a student. It was a different world then – at least for me. There was so much I had to read in order to make myself into a writer. That was all I had time for. That and my social life and traveling as much as I could.

Harvard was a good place for me because I could dip into things – Japanese history, nascent computer studies, Scandinavian drama – and be left alone by the administration. Once you got into Harvard, they didn’t care much what you did. I majored in English because I was reading English and American literature. It was convenient. The other departments were much more interesting to me. I didn’t go to graduate school. College was plenty for me. I got very restless. I went abroad and wrote my first book of poems.

Getting back to Lowell…

Getting back to Lowell: I believe it was his last class at Harvard. There were ten students. We had a premium seminar room, a long oval table. In those days, everyone in class smoked, it seemed. Lowell had a ton of auditors, something most writers would never permit in a workshop. About two dozen people would sit around the perimeter of the room, listening to Lowell intone in his low voice. There was a Boston poet, a blind man with his seeing-eye dog who would sit beside Lowell and put his pack of Marlboros on the table, and Lowell would chain smoke them throughout the workshop.

Lowell introduced me to Raleigh and Marlowe, among others; it was a joy to hear him work through a poem he loved. He was commuting to England at the time, seeing both his second wife in America and his third wife in London. Pretty hectic. He was institutionalized the following year.

I took another workshop the next year with a poet who had us come to his house in Cambridge, smoke joints, and eat pasta while workshopping our poems. I thought the class was a waste of time; I could get high and read and eat out with my friends. I dropped out of the class. Skip to my senior year: Harvard would not let me take Anthony Hecht’s workshop because it had the same course number as Lowell’s. That is, because I had taken the advanced class as a freshman, I was not permitted to repeat it as a senior. It was the best thing that happened to me. Anthony Hecht invited me to come to his Cambridge apartment once a week to go over my poems with him privately. In short, I had him as a tutor, which was invaluable. He was a great poet and an amazing teacher. I learned a great deal from him in both respects.

After college, I fell out of touch with him, but when Knopf published On Tour With Rita, they sent him a galley and he wrote a wonderful blurb. We had dinner soon afterwards, and Tony Hecht became a lifelong friend. I loved him dearly and I miss him a great deal. He believed in my work from the first, which was important to me as a poet. Near the very end of his life, he traveled to New York from Washington to introduce me at a reading at the 92nd St. Y. It meant the world to me.

You seem as though you were very focused. Had you always known you wanted to be a writer? When you were very young, did you have some idea of what that would mean?

No. Not until I was about fourteen. I had no idea what that would mean, though I was a voracious reader. I loved books. I found a copy of Robinson Crusoe that my father gave me on my seventh birthday, which I remember reading immediately. But I didn’t think much about writers – at least, not that I remember. I didn’t think about what I wanted to be in my adult life – again, if I did, I have no memories of it, just ideas I might impose now: as in, centerfielder for the New York Yankees, a pilot, an archaeologist, and the like.

Being a writer, and certainly a poet, isn’t exactly a practical life pursuit. Did your family put any pressure on you to do other things?

My father wanted me to be a Wall Street lawyer or investment banker. He grew up poor during the Depression and was a self-made man; he wanted to make sure I made plenty of money. I had no interest in those professions. My parents were supportive of what I did; they sent me to fine schools, they bought me books, I was never poor like my father; but I never really discussed my choices with them. I knew I was going to be a poet, and a novelist, and set out to do it. There was no pressure; just the sense of their fears for me. Ending up destitute, whatever. My parents had no idea what a poet’s life would be like – but, then, neither did I, except what I read in the journals and biographies of famous poets.

I had to write, so I did. I had a lot of confidence. I had good luck. I published in magazines when I was still at Harvard. I published a lot of poems in The New Yorker when I was just starting out. Howard Moss, the poetry editor, who also became my friend, was incredibly supportive of my work. In those days, The New Yorker published more poetry. When, in my twenties, I had a two-page spread of five poems in the magazine, it did good things for me. Knopf took my first book of poems soon afterward, which I had submitted nowhere else. And my father saw the magazine at his dentist’s office, and his dentist had read the poems and offered his comments about them. I think my father had a better idea then, from his perspective, that what I had been doing had a place in the real world, and not just in my fantasies. I began writing novels at that time, and when I sold my first, to Viking, that too seemed to augur that I wouldn’t end up in the poorhouse.

Slow down! What was your first step after graduating from college?

Starting to write every day, no matter what. That is what I learned from Tony Hecht. That is what I knew every serious writer did. I wrote and continued to read all I could and to learn. Period. I was done with school. The only jobs I took were part-time, meaningless to me except to support my writing. I never took a job where I had to write anything. No journalism, no free-lance work. I wrote some book reviews on occasion, for money. That was it.

Back then, money meant time to write and to travel and to enjoy what I wanted to in life. It still does. Except there is more for me to enjoy. And I have more responsibilities, of my own choosing. And more people I care deeply about. When I started out, my only responsibility was to my work. Everything else grew out of that.

You said that you only took part-time work, and no work that was writing-related. What kinds of jobs did you have?

Bricklayer in Crete, very briefly; manager of a nightclub in Rhodes, almost as briefly; movie house projectionist; film researcher – I watched lots of films, far more than the job required, and suggested which ones might be played on a couple of movie cable channels. I was a fair bricklayer, and a terrible nightclub manager.

You traveled and lived in Europe for quite some time – where? Who did you spend time with?

I traveled all over Europe with my closest friend in college, David Fichter, who is a painter and also a famous muralist today, an incredible artist. I learned a lot about painting from him, as I would later on from my wife Constance. He and I bought a car in Paris for two hundred bucks and drove everywhere with it – Spain, Yugoslavia, all of France, Italy, Greece. When the car could go no further, we sold it.

Later, I would live in Greece for a while.

What brought you there?

I had a great deal of fun. What brought me there was curiosity, adventure – what you would expect of a twenty-two year old who had read A Moveable Feast and wanted to find that Europe. And much of it was still there, albeit the 1970s version. Tear gas in the streets of Paris, fascist and communist dictatorships, intense politics, yes. But also incredible natural beauty and amazing artistic energy. Watching a Fellini film at a little movie house in Ravenna. Or visiting the Ligurian coast where Montale had drawn his inspiration. Or seeing the Barcelona where Picasso had learned to paint.

What did you eat, do for fun? When you had money, what did you spend it on? The life, the grit, and all that jazz.

You could eat a great meal in the Greek islands for three dollars, with a bottle of wine. You could rent an apartment for thirty dollars a month. Find a cove in Crete where you could swim all day with maybe two other people. Very romantic. Greece and Spain and Italy were, to an American with a great exchange rate, great places to live. I spent my money on books, good food, and girls – not necessarily in that order.

I loved living abroad. Walking through Genoa and Reykjavik and Dubrovnik, exploring the Cyclades, and Provence, picking up foreign languages, meeting people of all sorts, and all the while writing – that was my equivalent of graduate school. I would not have traded it for anything.

Your travels sound incredible. I bet you have a lot of good stories from your time as a twenty-something roaming around Europe.

Oh, a lot of stories. For example, that car we bought in Paris for $200, we had to sell in Athens for $17. The Greek government at the time, the fascist military dictatorship in its last throes, had a law that said if you entered Greece by car, you either had to leave the country with the car or sell it in Greece. The catch was that the government bought it, for whatever price it liked. One’s passport was stamped as a “car importer,” so you couldn’t escape the country without the car. A small nightmare for someone, until then, leading a footloose existence. Seventeen dollars seemed like a bargain.

I camped out on various Greek islands, including the cave “headquarters” of a Pythagorean cult – a true story – that subsisted on vegetables, melons, wine, and what they called free love, all of which visitors could share in. This was 1974.

Near death, twice, on the Dalmatian coast, where the cliff-side road had no barriers. Staying for a time in a farmhouse in the Pyrenees with a guy I knew from Harvard and his friend from Oxford, a very erudite pair, who were making a living smuggling Moroccan hashish from Malaga to Paris. They bought the farm with their profits. All sorts of friends and friends of friends would pass through and stay there, and prepare lavish meals, drink good wine, sleep together, fall in and out of love with other visitors, and of course smoke a good deal of the hosts’ hashish. It was near Andorra, on a beautiful mountain. I couldn’t find the place now, if I tried. It is frozen in my memory, along with its various guests, as it was back then.

In Barcelona, listening to musicians on the Ramblas, writing a long poem for twelve straight hours, sober. Hitchhikers from all over Europe we picked up in our car, who told their stories, ate and drank with us, and then disappeared. Visiting Dante’s house in Florence. Seeing Venice for the first time, beginning a lifelong love for that city. Trying to get into Albania – at that time run by a truly psychotic dictator, Enver Hoxha – and being kept from doing so, thankfully, by Yugoslav border guards who told us that, as Americans, we would almost certainly end up in prison.

Going to a rodeo in Iceland where there were miniature ponies. Going to a party in an empty indoor swimming pool in Iceland. Meeting a CIA agent in Reykjavik whose job it was to spy on NATO airmen at the base in Keflavik – which was surely illegal for him to do. Drank a bottle of Johnny Walker with him and two other guys and listened to his Cold War stories, which seemed to be true. He had been in and out of East Berlin.

Too many stories… Only a few of which have made their way into my novels. But many of which can be found in the series of poems, actually a long poem entitled “1972” consisting of many 13-line poems, in my book Atomic Field, published by Harcourt. Those poems are all factually based. I wrote them a couple of decades after the fact, and remembered things so clearly as I wrote. You might enjoy them…

Anyway, that’s enough stories for one evening.

When did you move back to the United States? What did you do for work at that point?

I moved back late in 1974. After which I would work as a film researcher and before that, again briefly, as a librarian, and before that I taught children poetry in a public school in a pretty tough neighborhood in the Bronx.

You were publishing a great deal early on. Do you remember what it felt like to hold the magazine that had your first published poem in it?

It felt great. I was nineteen. When I first published in The New Yorker, I was twenty-four. That felt really great.

Can you tell me about any early challenge you experienced, whether writing related or otherwise?

Learning how to write every day without fail. That was the challenge. And believing in myself completely. Not much you have going for you if you don’t do that.

How about an early triumph?

Publication triumphs: first published New Yorker poems, nine of them in just a few years; first book of poems bought by Knopf when I was in my twenties. Personal triumph: meeting the woman who would become my wife.

How did you begin teaching writing? What was that experience like?

When my first book received a rave review in the New York Times Book Review, I was invited to teach at New York University. It was that simple. I was quite young, just a few years older than my students, so I often wore a tie to class to differentiate myself as the professor. Absurd. Soon enough, I discarded the tie.

I liked teaching. I spent so much time alone writing that I found it a relief to talk to people who wanted to write – most of them, that is – about what I loved, which was literature.

As a teacher, you work with young writers all the time. What do you look for in their work?

I look for a voice, a strength with language and imagery, powerful subject matter that can be mined…what you would expect. I have been fortunate to have students who went on to be successful writers, which is gratifying. I feel I passed something along in some small way, just as things were passed on to me.

Do you have any advice for young writers?

My advice: be true to yourself, work harder than you think you can, make your own luck, and never be satisfied. If you really attempt the latter, you will, eventually, find satisfaction. That is my one and only Zen koan about writing!

Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Photo courtesy of the artist

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