A Tough Call


On April 22, at 10 a.m., I sat through one of the most wrenching phone conversations I've ever had, journalistic or otherwise. On the other line was Philip Schultz, the poet who, on April 7, snagged the Pulitzer Prize. Schultz's excellence was news to a lot of people, but not JBooks. We'd been paying attention to Schultz for some time: we reviewed his Living in the Past and recently looked at Failure.

The conversation began typically enough, but then we lurched into the subject of Jewish identity. Schultz had mentioned in an email that "It was quite a Passover" this year, so I asked what this meant exactly. What part did Jewishness play in the drama if his life and work? How did his father’s lack of religious tradition (in Failure he was identified as "a man who didn't belong to/or believe in anything") affect him?

This Pesach was a time of recognition, and of reckoning, for Schultz. First and foremost, he, a talented-but-not-front-page-famous poet, had been given an epic jolt of fame. It was such news that even his rabbi had written and wanted to honor him. Each summer, you see, his congregation would always "import [literary] people; they never invited me before, [but] now they are doing something."

The congregation wasn't alone. The night before, Schultz had attended an event for poet Michael S. Harper given by Alice Quinn, Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America. Quinn told the crowd that the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner was here, said Schultz, "and I looked around. I am not joking with you. I really did a double take, it took me a moment."

"Phil, are you in the room?" asked Quinn. "Phil, please put your hand down."

Confusion wasn't the only emotion coursing through our April-morning conversation. Schultz and his wife and their two sons threw a seder this year. This was in direct contrast to Schultz's childhood. "We never had Passover in our house [when he was a kid] because my uncle wouldn't allow it."

Schultz started to explain that his oldest boy was nearly 12, and that he was "old enough to begin to get it, what Passover is about." He said, "In the car going to school, the oldest boy asked my wife why there's so—"

And here came a long pause. A very long pause. Probably the longest pause I've ever sat through in any phone conversation with anyone. Not quite sure how to relate this exactly. For moment or two, I thought that perhaps we'd been cut off and I nearly said, "Phil, are you there?" but then I realized that there was something real and deep and emotional happening in the silence and that such an idiotic question would have been totally out of place. So I waited and waited until Schultz said, "God. I had no idea that's… I've opened up something like this in me… A lot of different things coming…"

I remained as quiet a shrink.

"My wife," said the Pulitzer Prizewinner, "for the first time ever tried to explain about the Holocaust… I, my family is gone and whatever, and her family has been greatly reduced and the whole story about Passover was not just something we were reading in a book but were deeply feeling."

His son asked where all their cousins were. And why was the seder was so small, so modest? "I'm an only child, so there's no one left in my family," he told me, in answer. "I'm a child of the Diaspora. I'm it."

Now don't—please don't—think that Schultz is a depressive guy. His conversation, like his poetry, contained numerous contrasting emotions, some light and some dark. Somehow we were able to ease back into sunnier territory, and there were even moments of great levity.

He told me about his friend, the late great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, who has something in common with George Costanza. "If you did the opposite of everything [Amichai] said, you did well." Schultz offered up two examples. When he left teaching at the New York University creative writing program to start up his own school, The Writers Studio, Amichai told him that he wasn't starting a business, "he was freelancing," adding that "in Israel, if you're freelancing, you're dead."

Schultz said that he and Amichai were like "an old married couple." He was always trying to watch his cholesterol and Amichai didn't believe in any of that. "I ordered a salad with goat cheese," he said, and Amichai yelled: "That goat cheese is fat! I can hear it clogging up your arteries now!" Old-couple-style bickering ensued.

And we talked about craft. He did some reporting for Failure, particularly "The Wandering Wingless," which he told me was his "most ambitious work and probably won me the prize." (When's the last time you heard about a poet using reportorial techniques in his work?) There are indeed a lot of dog and dog walkers in "The Wandering Wingless." "I spend a lot of time in dog runs," he said. "Made friends with dog walkers, went around with them, and made notes."

He also did a batch of historical research, to help him put "Wanering Wings"'s 9/11 theme into context. "All these books about 9/11," he said. "What is, what did it mean?" he asked. "I wanted something historical." That historical element was the revolutions of 1848. "The more I read about it, the more I realized it was the perfect topic. It was all about failure. 51 revolutions all trying to force their ideas down someone else's throat, sound familiar? Terrible arrogance and destruction of it."

Schultz was careful to talk about the role fiction, and character creation, worked in a poem like "The Wandering Wingless."" In some way the voice is based on the fiction writer in me," he said talking about how the narrator of the poem isn't exactly the author named Schultz. In referring to his failed attempts to become a fiction writer, and mentioned, with admiration, the "created 'I'," of Roth and Bellow"—before concluding that "The most powerful of all is Bellow's 'I.'"

I wanted to know about his sons. He dedicated Failure to his son Augie, and pronounced him "a success story." In an interview, he said that failure was  in his DNA." Was he worried that he might have passed this down to his kids?

It seems he worked so hard not to be his father… and yet, there are the boys, in "Dance Performance" and "something's astir, appetite/or rage against the great republic/of fatherhood"? Does the slow dawn of Oedipal competition haunt him?

"I don't. I do have a concern, but it's not that," he said, adding, "My concern is as a Jew." Throughout time, he explained, Jews thought they found paradise in various host countries "and we know historically that turned out not to be the case."

The case, however, is ongoing, as is the interesting life and career of Philip Schultz. As is the history of my people and his. And yours.