A Tough Call
By KEN GORDON
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
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
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
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
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.