back toJacket2
   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage
Two nibs


Hugh Seidman

in epistolary conversation
with Molly Nason, 2006

This interview about 5 printed pages long

The Romantic Objectivist

As a teenager in Brooklyn Hugh Seidman was lucky enough to find two passions he wanted to pursue. One of these was mathematics (and theoretical physics) and, luckily for his fans, the other was poetry. As an undergraduate in mathematics at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Seidman studied with the great Objectivist poet Louis Zufoksky. It wasn’t, however, until some years after grad school in math and physics that he came to realize that he might be able to put his passion for poetry to more serious use. He went back to graduate school again, at Columbia, where he was working as a computer programmer, and received an MFA in poetry from Columbia’s School of the Arts. Now, almost 40 years later, when he is not working on his poetry, he works as a technical writer in New York City.

Not long after Seidman turned his attention to poetry, he published his first book, Collecting Evidence (Yale, 1970). This was followed by Blood Lord (Doubleday, 1974); Throne/Falcon/Eye (Random House, 1982); People Live, They Have Lives (Miami University Press, 1992); Selected Poems: 1965-1995 (Miami University Press, 1995); and Somebody Stand Up and Sing (New Issues Press, 2005). For this interview, during spring 2006 I sent an e-mail to Seidman in hopes that he would respond and want to collaborate on the project. He obliged, and I sent him a list of questions. Seidman promptly replied. The entire process was carried out over the Internet, and I received all of his responses without having any chance to alter my game plan based on his reactions as the interview progressed. While I came up with questions for Seidman, I felt confident I could guess his answers. Nevertheless, he continued to surprise me with each and every one. I was certain I knew him as a part of the Objectivist Movement I had read about, but he found a way to disarm my presumption. I also expected him to go off about how abominable it was of Alice Quinn to publish the book, Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, a collection of the late Elizabeth Bishop’s unpublished work. In fact, Seidman responded in the exact opposite way, shedding some unexpected light on the situation.

Although Hugh Seidman has enjoyed a long career, I found him surprising and fresh. Though I have not yet met him face to face, I have been fortunate enough to glimpse through a window into his life. It became apparent why his following has continued to grow over the years. The wit and creativity that make his work unique were evident in his answers. This interview was an eye-opening experience for me. I can only hope it will open other peoples’ eyes as well.

          Molly Nason
          Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
You went from mathematics and theoretical physics to writing poetry. What caused that shift?

I started writing poems and also became a lover of mathematics at around the same time, at about the age of 14 — i.e., the age of puberty. Before that I had been a kid growing up on the streets of Brooklyn. After that I entered, for good or bad, into the life of the mind. And, I did not give up one (math/physics) and start the other (poetry), but rather I had been doing both all along.

What did happen, speaking somewhat abstractly, is that I no longer felt myself to be a possible mathematician. I left graduate school after three years and went to work as a programmer, first for the physics department at the University of Minnesota and then for the Computer Center at Columbia University. And, very gradually, by the time of my late twenties, I came to see myself as a possible POET — though I was very naïve about what “poet” might mean against the necessities of a real world.

Beyond this, it would take some pages at the least to articulate more precisely the relevant internal and external factors of this particular journey.

How do you feel about your earlier poetry, such as those published in your book Collecting Evidence versus your more recent publications? Are there any poems that you would like to give the same treatment as W.H. Auden did with “September 1, 1939,” or do you appreciate the growth and change you’ve experienced over the years?

I love all my poems, so to speak. On the other hand, like everyone, I hope that I get better with age. Everyone’s first book is like first love. Never again so pure. It is not the kind of book that I would write at the age of 65, but its music and its gesture are very pure, very lyric. And in a poem like the “Modes of Vallejo Street” I probably went farther out that I’ve ever gone again.

However, when James Reiss published my Selected Poems in 1995, I made some effort to correct  “errors” of earlier work — and this relates, too, to your question about Bishop (below). And surely good arguments can be made pro and con such correction, though in the years afterwards I thought that it might have been better to leave things as they were — since, as the philosopher says, no man/woman can step into the same stream twice. Not sure what I will do if the situation comes up again.

What poets have influenced you the most? How and why?

The simple answer is: every poet that I have ever read, as well as every poet that I have not read, in so far as such unread poets are manifested through those that I have read.

However, here are a few quick takes:
Louis Zukofsky . My teacher at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and my poetic father. He taught me to be tough about poems and to cut, cut, cut. And he exemplified to the utmost his dictum that the poet is learned, sensitive, and interested in everything.
Ezra Pound. The great 20th century master. And though he made serious and obvious errors as a man, his linguistic energy in the Cantos, for instance, never fails to be like a blast of wind that blows one across the room. And he seems to me to possess one of the greatest “ears” that ever existed in English.
Harvey Shapiro. In 1966 as a programmer at Columbia, I got to take two free courses in the School of General Studies. Harvey’s poetry workshop was one of them, and it meant much to me that he said that he thought I could be a poet. Harvey’s poems have always been a model in the use of cadenced “conversational” speech to render irony and emotion.
Adrienne Rich. My teacher at Columbia’s School of the Arts. She has been hovering at my shoulder like an angel for close to 40 years — pushing me to push myself toward what it might mean to be a moral poet in an immoral world.
César Vallejo. Although I do not read Spanish, Clayton Eshleman’s magical translation of Vallejo’s work (1923–1938) reveals the staggering largeness of this world-class genius. Vallejo’s transcendent metaphorical intelligence is absolutely grounded in physical reality and he manifests an empathy that is almost beyond belief.
Zbigniew Herbert. Again, a poet that I know only in translation — but I am not lying when I say that even in translation he continually redeems for me, as almost no one else, the vision that the writing of poetry is worthwhile. Simply stated, he manifests a sheer and dazzling intelligence in the service of the human that is off the charts, and very few can even come close to his “nobility” (to borrow A. Alvarez’s term).

I noticed that your poem “Autobiography” in Somebody Stand Up and Sing does not use the word “I”. Does this have to do with your work with the “Objectivists”? Why or why not?

Actually, “I” is used four times in the poem (Lines 9, 30, 33, 36). And I have nothing against “I,” as it is rather an old friend. However, I do sometimes consciously drop “I”s to steer the poem toward a more oracular (if that is the right word) or impersonal tone. Christ said something like “No one comes to the Father but by me.” I suppose he could have said, “No one comes to the father but by the son.” Perhaps it might be worthwhile to ponder the differences of these two phrasings.

And to answer your question none of this has anything to do with Objectivism (which Zukofsky denied was a movement at all) or with any so-called Objectivists.

And speaking of “I”s, here is the first part of a Zukofsky poem called “I’s (pronounced eyes )”:

Hi, Kuh,

those gold’n bees
are I’s,



Note: “Kuh” = cow (in German). A play on “haiku” — Japanese 17-syllable poem (5,7,5 in English). As LZ told us, he’s watching the sun’s reflection in building windows at dusk, which “looks” to him, as it were, like many “gold’n bees.” And, no doubt, he associates the cow (=kuh) to the sun, as in Egyptian mythology, the goddess Hathor was often shown as a golden cow (sometimes covered in stars), with the titles Cow of Gold, and The one who shines like gold, or as a woman with the ears of a cow and a headdress of horns holding the sun-disc . (In one of her incarnations she is married to Ra, the sun god.)

Is there a connection between your being an “Objectivist” and also being a member of a group at Brooklyn Polytechnic with Louis Zukofsky?

Here’s an anecdote. A well-known translator of Zukofsky into French, knowing that I had once been Louis’ student, asked me for work. I sent him some examples, but much time passed and I heard nothing more from him. When we next met, I “casually” inquired if he had, in fact, translated any of my poems into French. He had not — and then, as if in explanation, blurted: “You’re not an objectivist, you’re a ROMANTIC!”

I’m sure you are very aware of Alice Quinn’s new book, Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, a publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s unpublished work. Do you think this is a good idea on Quinn’s part? Would you like your unpublished (and, dare I say, cast-off) work published for the world to see?

This whole tornado swirling around Quinn’s resurrection of Bishop’s less-than-whole children  interests me virtually not at all and seems beside the point. After all, the only person who might really be affected one way or the other is long gone and mercifully out of it.

I suppose that if you subscribe to the “masterpiece theatre” view of art, then it is a sin against nature to publish the “inferior” or “unfinished” work of a dead poet (or of anyone). On the other hand if you believe that art is an ongoing and ever-evolving process of engagement with the universe at large, then certainly there will be highs and lows in that process, and one polarity is not necessarily to be favored over the other. Or, perhaps one falls somewhere in between these two views? And didn’t Valery say that a poem is never done but only abandoned? — that is, who knows what Bishop might have accomplished if she had only worked on that fish poem for just a few more years, for example.

Aside from this, Bishop has lots of fans. And fans probably don’t care about the niceties of poetic distinctions; they just want to take home a piece of the star. And if my heirs were “lucky” enough to be the beneficiaries of a posthumous fame like Bishop’s, I’d say: let the presses roll.

Do you think romantic love is a good subject for modern poetry?

No offense, but this is such an odd question to ask in the 21st Century. The simplest answer is, of course, YES! The easiest and often the best thing for a poet to do is to use whatever is at hand and go on from there.

In this vein, here’s another anecdote. One day, Christ is walking with his disciples and gets hit with a stone. Instead of manifesting anger, he forgives the stone thrower. His upset disciples ask: Master, how can you bless he who hates you with the same passion that you use to bless we who love you? Christ answers: I can only give what I have in my pockets.

In your mind, do you think your best poetry comes out in a confessional or a fabricated approach?

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by fabricated (invented? made up?), but if I were playing devil’s advocate and were speaking purely literally I would say: is there a difference? That is, who can confess without fabrication? and who can fabricate without confessing?

From another point of view, I have always intensely disliked the term “confessional” as applied to poets and poetry. As I understand it, the confessional tag was applied to certain poets whose poems appeared to be disclosing “secrets” of their lives that were, in those days, not normally discussed in public. Obviously, another falsification of the real, like the falsifications inherent in the Bishop brou-ha-ha.

And as I have confessed: one uses what is at hand.