Robert Polito is a poet, essayist, editor, and biographer. Recent books include the poetry collection Hollywood & God and Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. He received a National Book Critics Circle Award for Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, and is also the author of the poetry collection Doubles, as well as A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, and a study of Byron's poetry. His poems and reviews, criticism, and essays on literature, film, and popular music have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, Artforum, Harpers, The Believer, Bookforum, The Poetry Foundation website, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, and Best American Film Writing. The founding director of the Graduate Writing Program and the Riggio Honors Program at the New School, he also served as President of the Poetry Foundation (2013-15).
Who is your favorite villain, and who is your favorite protagonist in literature?
For me so much is voice, and subversions of voice. So probably my favorite protagonist in literature is Molloy, from the Beckett novel of the same name. But I’m tempted to name some nonfiction and poetry voices, too, as favorite and essential — the voices of Baldwin’s essays, and his film book, The Devil Finds Work; Bishop’s Geography III; Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim”; Bidart’s Desire; Baraka’s The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones; Nelson’s The Argonauts; and (currently) the voices in some mixed photography and prose excursions by Moyra Davey and Sophie Calle. Antagonists? Subversions of voice — the novels of Patricia Highsmith, David Goodis, Clarence Cooper, and Jim Thompson.
When did you know you were a writer?
Do we ever know? Freshman year of high school transformed my life. My father worked in the Post Office, and while he and my mother obviously valued education, they weren’t always sure what education was for or even involved. Freshman year at BC High — then a Jesuit prep school for the Boston working-class — Bill Collins taught us to read and think, introducing us to Eliot, Brooks, Wordsworth, Ellison, Wharton, and eventually Chinese and Japanese poetry. On alternate weekends he also insisted we write critical essays and short stories. I wrote my first published piece for him — a school magazine essay on Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver.
What are you currently working on?
Lots of things. Perhaps too many. My main project is a book about Bob Dylan — Dylan since the early 1990s, a book about his self-reinvention via continual touring, writing a memoir, a film, and a new collaged way of writing songs. With Michael Almereyda and Jonathan Lethem, I just finished a catalog of Manny Farber’s paintings, which will be out later this fall, and I also have an essay on Farber in the catalog Helen Molesworth created for the MOCA show, “Manny Farber and Termite Art,” opening in Los Angeles on October 13. Along with new poems, I have some hybrid projects on Barbara Loden’s Wanda, poet John Wieners, high school yearbooks, and tintypes of people reading and writing.
How has your writing process changed over the years?
Less formal, at least the circumstances where and when I can write — more now inevitably starting as notes “on the fly,” as occasions allow, rather than only sitting at a desk. Once I worked late at night, and that isn’t always possible.
Describe your writing style in one sentence.
An autobiographical tone, if not necessarily personal subject matter — that, plus lots of ghosts.