On April 13th, a writer's prize called the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award will go to Adam Haslett for his short-story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Ernest Hemingway's son Patrick will present the award in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky will deliver the keynote address. And among this year's finalists for the Winship award is Don Share, for his first book of poems, Union (Zoo Press).
Share was born in Ohio, attended Columbia University, then Brown University, where he got his B.A. in 1978 in religious studies. An M.A. from Brown in English and creative writing followed in 1988.
In 1997, Share's translation of the work of Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez appeared in a book titled I Have Lots of Heart, the same year Share became poetry editor of Partisan Review. In 1999, his Hernandez poems won the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize in England, the same year Share's book Seneca in English was published by Penguin Classics. The following year, he became curator of the George Edward Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, where he oversees not only books and memorabilia but more than 4,000 recordings of poets on tape, acetate, metal discs, and long-playing records, a collection that equals (some say rivals) the poetry holdings of the Library of Congress. Not a bad career background, then, for a guy who says he was "reborn," age 11, in Memphis.
Memphis: where Share's father Leonard (born in Detroit and a professor of physiology at UT) and where Share's mother Carol (born in Brooklyn and for years a librarian at the White Station branch public library) moved the family in the 1960s.
Memphis: where Share joined his friend Randy Chertow in a protopunk band in the 1970s.
Memphis: where Share met his first wife, who went on to become a pediatric radiologist, currently on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.
But Memphis: "one of the dole-fullest spots of ground on the whole earth," according to Share's poem "Dilemma," a city whose geography and history, music and manners inspired many of the poems that make up Union. (Surely, this is the first time that the McDonald's on Union opposite UT has inspired an ode.)
In anticipation of the eighth annual celebration of National Poetry Month in April, the Flyer recently spoke to Don Share by phone. He was at home in Dedham, Massachusetts, with his daughter and his wife, Jacquelyn Pope, a freelance editor and poet in her own right. Here's what he had to say on his first book of poems and on the city he still calls home.
Flyer: Union is, finally, your own collection of poetry. Why the wait?
Don Share: I'd been publishing poems in magazines for a long time. But I wanted to pay some dues to the art form. You know, do things like translating, editing. Afterward, I knew it was time to collect what I'd been doing myself.
This is fairly recent work?
The writing goes back eight years or so. But the heart of them is quite a bit older. Someone living in Memphis now might question what I think of as these "visions." But this is the way Memphis was when I grew up there. Basically the '70s. A time when the city was on the cusp of change. That interim period between 1968 and its terrible events and the death of Elvis. There was a Memphis in that slice of time that still retained its old character. It's still got it, but it's more deeply hidden away. It was always hidden.
You yourself aren't hidden here at all.
Again, to me it's a kind of "vision." Yet there's real-enough stuff in the poems, it's not fiction. But Publishers Weekly just wrote about Union, and they talk about it being the "new Southern narrative." I had to laugh, because I didn't know what that meant. When people think of Southern writers, they think of Faulkner, which is appropriate, logical. But I'm not a Southerner the way my first wife was a Southerner, someone born and raised in Memphis with family in Arkansas and Mississippi.
But it really IS where I'm from, where I go back to. While it's fair to say almost all my friends in Memphis stayed, there were some of us who went off to college, floated around. But that doesn't take away where you're from. It's where your heart and soul are. It's funny to say, but it's as if I was "born again" the moment my family moved to Memphis. I feel like I came alive there.
In the poems, your use of "union" takes on any number of meanings.
For me, it's the union of North and South, uneasy as it may be, or the union of men and women or people in any kind of relationship, uneasy as that may be. Union Avenue cuts Memphis right in half, and when you're at its western end, you're at the Mississippi River, which cuts the country in half. I've always loved Union. It used to have those X's and O's, and I'd think, This road tells you which way's right or not. That's what I liked about it. It could get tricky.
Your book's been out since late last year, and yet you haven't done a reading here at home.
I suppose I could, but I'll tell you: I'm a little afraid that people are going to feel that some guy went off to Boston and wrote this book about their city and ...
I don't blame them. I don't want anything to be misrepresented or taken out of context. But Memphis had to be in it, because Memphis means everything to me. I don't pretend to speak for anything or anybody. And yet I'm worried, coming down, people will say what the heck is this guy up to?
But having a book and trying to figure out what to do ... my own stuff ... part of it is reticence on my part. I've never wanted to sell myself as some kind of, you know, big poetry person. We've already got big-shots at Harvard -- Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham -- and I've done some readings up here. But I'm not aggressively marketing this book. I've fulfilled my obligation by writing it.
I don't even know if the book's good or bad. When I worked on these poems, I didn't think of them as going anywhere. It shocks me sometimes to think of people reading them, knowing about them. I thought the manuscript was just maybe a jumbled-up thing. But I tried to order the poems very carefully, and David Baker, poetry editor at The Kenyon Review, saw it and saw all these things that I wanted to come together. He told Zoo Press they should publish it. So now, I guess, in the true mythologized Southern tradition, I'm relying on the kindness of strangers.