Philip Schultz Finding Success After ‘Failure’

BY Tom LeGro  June 17, 2010 at 10:49 AM EDT

Philip SchultzIn a new poem, ‘Attention,’ Philip Schultz writes: “Because/ I never really had one before, my career never/ used to ask for much.”

Thanks to a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his collection “Failure,” that career has begun to demand a great deal more attention in the years since. Schultz says he’s still “adjusting to a level of activity that never happened before.”

The accolades came later in life for the New York-based poet; he was 63 when he won the Pulitzer, already the author of five published books of poems, which never broke into the mainstream.

In the 1980s — following a piece of advice once offered to him by John Cheever (“Distance is everything”) — Schultz took an almost two-decade-long break from writing poetry. During that time, he tried his hand at fiction and wrote a novel (which he says was a failure).

Schultz’s poetry is often deeply personal, exploring the lives of his family and friends and what it’s like to live in the city. “In the beginning, everything is autobiographical,” he says. In his later poems, there is a pervasive honesty and humility. Reading through his latest book, “The God of Loneliness: Selected and New Poems,” it becomes clear that Schultz has labored to find his poetic voice, and that that task is not always easy.

“Failures are unforgettable,” he writes.

Schultz is also the founder and director of the Writers Studio in New York, where he teaches writing. He fiercely believes that anyone can be taught if they really want to make it happen.

Poet Tony Hoagland has said Schultz is “one of the least affected of American poets, and one of the fiercest.”

“The work is on the outside of any theory or trend or fashion or school during all this time,” Schultz says.

Listen to an interview with Philip Schultz:

A transcript is after the jump.

Listen to Schultz read two poems here and here.

MIKE MELIA: Philip Schultz won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his book of poetry, “Failure,” a collection of personal poems inspired initially by reflections on his father. He is the founder and the director of the Writers Studio in New York. Schultz has a new book out, “The God of Loneliness: Selected and New Poems.” He joins me now by phone from New York. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

PHILIP SCHULTZ: It’s great, Mike. Glad to be here.

MIKE MELIA: Well, you write in a new poem, ‘Attention,’ “Because / I never really had one before, my career never / used to ask for much.” I was struck — how have you been impacted by now by the success of “Failure”?

PHILIP SCHULTZ: It’s adjusting. It’s adjusting to a level of activity that never — I was 63 when I won the Pulitzer when “Failure” came out, 62 actually, when it came out, and this is all new. I’m sure that what I had before, I was lucky enough to have great editors and good publishers, but it never felt as if there was this thing called career that was a constant houseguest the way it does now.

MIKE MELIA: This latest book is a new and selected, as they say, and when we spoke after you won the Pulitzer you were telling me about advice John Cheever had given you on writing, and you said distance is everything. And going back over that conversation, I was wondering what have you noticed now, kind of going back over your older work for this book?

PHILIP SCHULTZ: Well, that’s a good question. Let me first say that, you know, the process of selecting work from older books is one thing. I mean, I did that, I had a friend or two offer advice on which poems, and my editor, and my wife and then I made a final selection. I didn’t actually read it as a book until I absolutely had to. I didn’t, wasn’t aware that I was resisting this temptation. Once I read it as a book it was unlike any experience I’ve had in writing. You know, there is a gap in my work from ’84 to 2002, 18 years where I stopped writing. I was working at fiction and other things and starting a school and getting married and starting a family, but I wasn’t writing poetry for the better part of 15 years. And I changed. I changed as a person, my poetry changed. Maybe I was reluctant to read it as a book or a piece, but it is an autobiography, one’s work. It is a history. And when I finally ready it, I was entranced and also I was amazed, like who is this guy. Is this someone I would want to share a long train ride with? And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t always sure.

MIKE MELIA: As you just mentioned, after a failed novel you stopped writing poetry for the better part of 18 years. Can you talk a bit about your evolving relationship with the craft?

PHILIP SCHULTZ: I think that maybe that quote from Cheever comes in to play here, that the fiction I wrote, never really successfully, was attempting to go at material that I just did not have the craft and the distance from, the perspective to turn it into art. I found during that time a style, a way of looking at writing that later became the method of the Writers Studio, the philosophy, the approach, and I did, you know, through failing, through endless trial and error that was mostly error. And in fiction I was trying to tell the story of my father’s failure and I never was able to do that in my fiction, the distance just wasn’t there and the art of learning, of teaching myself to do that, which was in the beginning everything is autobiographical, of course, and maybe there is 90 percent autobiography and 10 percent aesthetics, and if it’s any good, if it’s a finished poem, it then reversed, and I never was able to make that transfer, that transit in fiction, and bless those who can. It’s not easy, but in poetry necessity and other things actually showed me how to do it.

MIKE MELIA: Finally, one of your philosophies of teaching that you practice at the Writers Studio is that writers can be made. Can you explain that a little bit for us?

PHILIP SCHULTZ: You know, I don’t know if I would put it quite that way. I’m sure that maybe I even said it that way, but I think they can certainly be helped and encouraged and shown the way, and of course, the rest of it is up to them. But I do think that there is a profound reservoir of creativity and imagination in everyone I’ve ever met, and sometimes if someone is persistent and perversely obstinate enough to persevere then they want to be helped. There is a way to help them. I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone where I haven’t seen some progress. Now sometimes you can’t take someone where they want to go, not all the way and sometimes you stop and they do it or don’t do it on their own thereafter.

MIKE MELIA: Philip Schultz, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

PHILIP SCHULTZ: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure.