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Anthologizing Yourself

Mary Jo Salter keeps her own (and others') poetry alive.

July-August 2008

After squeezing nearly 1,000 years of creativity into the Norton Anthology of Poetry, Mary Jo Salter ’76 began the smaller but still consuming task of anthologizing her own verse. The result, A Phone Call to the Future, revives selected poems from her previous books and introduces a handful of new ones. Her editing for W.W. Norton, where she sometimes had to whittle entire careers down to no more than a poem or two, helped her take a long view. “Anytime I was beginning to feel sorry for myself,” she remembers, “I thought, ‘You know, if you’re lucky and you do get into posterity, you won’t have nearly this many poems in front of readers.’”

A Phone Call to the Future begins with her newest poems. Two appeared in The Best American Poetry series: the title work and “Costanza Bonarelli,” an unnerving but expertly crafted meditation on a sculpture by Gianlorenzo Bernini. (After chiseling a bust of his mistress, Bernini sent a razor-wielding servant to do much the same to her face; rumor had it she was sleeping with the artist’s brother, too.) Salter then guides her readers from her first book, Henry Purcell in Japan (1985), to her most recent, Open Shutters (2003). Along the way she visits a Kyoto hospital, rides in a hot-air balloon that she likens to a fire-breathing dragon, and winds up accidentally seated across the aisle from her former psychiatrist at a family restaurant. “Inevitably, with poetry, older books go out of print,” she says. A Phone Call to the Future “was a way of resuscitating some poems I was still fond of.”

With her own poetry, Salter could pick and choose as she pleased, though she did take advice from her long-time editor at Knopf, Ann Close, and her husband, the poet and novelist Brad Leithauser ’75, J.D. ’79 (himself the editor of the Norton Book of Ghost Stories). But when Norton hired her in 1992 as an editor for its anthology, she had to balance her own preferences agains t poets’ historical import. “Just because I’m not a huge Ezra Pound fan,” she points out, “doesn’t mean I can presume to take him out of the Norton.” But she did take the chance to speak up for writers whose work she felt had been unduly neglected—Marianne Moore, for example. “There is something wonderfully shaped and new and strange about how she wrote,” Salter says. Moore had just four poems in the third Norton; in the fourth, published in 1996, she had nine.

For the fifth edition, which appeared in 2005, Salter had to add more authors without adding more pages. Cuts, whether of poems or poets, were inevitable. “In the case of dead writers, they don’t protest,” she says. “In the case of living ones, that was a little more stressful.” Still, she relished the opportunity to reconsider which threads best represented the whole tapestry of a poet’s life. Salter dropped one of Moore’s later poems and added two earlier ones that showcased her tendency to fit each poem into a brand-new verse form. “I didn’t particularly like Moore myself when I was younger,” Salter admits. “But I’ve become a big fan of hers in the last 10 to 15 years.”

As A Phone Call to the Future demonstrates, Salter, too, invents new forms. The nine stanzas in “Costanza Bonarelli” are all seven lines long, and each line has three stressed syllables. Another poem, “Poetry Slalom,” tries to look like someone flying down a hill on skis. Salter enjoys language games and favors words with double meanings. The first line of “Costanza Bonarelli” describes the sculpture literally as a “bust,” but the word, in one of its more colloquial uses, hints at the awful violence ahead. She also likes words she can use in a variety of ways, in both verbal and adjectival forms, for example. In “Please Forward,” she finds a postcard in a used book that she and the writer of the card, Salter surmises, thought equally unreadable: “So Gert/…had failed, like me, and stuck/the postcard in the early/scene where she got stuck.”

Poetic form is also something Salter knows how to teach, along with the history of meter and the many uses of rhyme. At Harvard she took classes with Elizabeth Bishop (herself a Moore protégée) and Robert Fitzgerald, and was poetry editor of the Advocate, the undergraduate literary magazine. After graduation, she taught English in Japan for three years and, beginning in 1984, poetry at Mount Holyoke. What started as a part-time, annual contract lasted until last year, when she and her husband both accepted positions at Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars. They took the jobs to move closer to family—her father lives in Maryland and her husband’s mother and two brothers live near Washington, D.C.—and for the chance to teach graduate students. Salter says she enjoys teaching, even though “there’s always a conflict in terms of time. There are inevitable periods when you feel resentful that you’re helping other people write their poems when you want to be writing yours.”

“But,” she adds, “I don’t think that most poets could only write poetry all day, every day. I certainly couldn’t. You need interaction with other people.” Her M.F.A. students at Johns Hopkins, in particular, seem more like peers than students to her: “It seems like we’re all in this enterprise together, trying to keep poetry alive.”

Not that it’s in any danger of disappearing, she says, but it’s certainly under pressure from the many other, flashier ways to spend an evening. She likes movies and TV, but their pleasures aren’t quite the same. “It’s hard to keep alive that excitement some of us feel when you see someone using a verb as an adjective. There just aren’t as many people out there who love to see that happen,” she says. “And I’d like to find those people and encourage them.

~P.G.