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“I’d Like to Give Him a Bear Hug!”: Getting to Know Emily Fragos

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Next week, Emily Fragos and Bobby C. Rogers will come to the Library of Congress as the 2015 Witter Bynner Fellowship recipients. In advance of their evening Fellowship reading, the Poetry and Literature Center conducted e-mail interviews with each.



Emily Fragos is the author of two books of poems, including Hostage: New & Selected Poems (2011) and Little Savage (2004). Her other honors include a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry and a 2014 American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award. Fragos is the editor of five poetry anthologies from Everyman’s Pocket Library/Knopf: Art and Artists, The Great Cat, The Dance, Music’s Spell and Letters: Emily Dickinson. She teaches in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.

1. On March 12th you will give a reading at the Library of Congress and be introduced by Poet Laureate Charles Wright. What has he meant to you and how does it feel to have him select you for the Witter Bynner Fellowship?

I have never had the pleasure of meeting Charles Wright. When I read at the Library of Congress, I will meet him for the very first time. I’d like to give him a bear hug! You can only imagine how thrilled I feel to have been chosen by Charles Wright for the Witter Bynner Fellowship. I read what he said about my work, in making his selection: “Her subjects are strong and deep and very close to the nerve ends. She writes as though she’s speaking only to me, because she knows what I want to know.” I found this to be incredibly moving and generous of him.

Of course, I have been reading Charles Wright’s brilliant poetry for many years. He has written so many wondrous books. I am in awe of this freedom of expression. It takes me so long to put together a new book. I have also read his interviews. I love his integrity. In spite of literary fame, honor, and every major award, he remains without arrogance. As another poet, Jose Emilio Pacheco, famously said, “It’s the poetry that matters, not the poets, nor the literary circus.” Charles Wright exemplifies this devotion to poetry. This is very important, inspiring, and spiritual for me.

2. As part of your fellowship you will also give a reading in your home state. What relationship does your work have with New York?

I’ve lived in New York City for most of my life, although I was born in the nearby suburb of Mt.Vernon, New York, and spent several years in Florence and Paris. Every year or so I tell myself that I should pack my bags and leave this aggressive, noisy place for the peace of somewhere else, but the feeling soon passes and I happily remain. I have learned so much from just being here. I have been exposed to the most wonderful arts: dance, music, poetry. I’ve soaked them all up and derived so much pleasure from them. It’s a privilege to have so much at your fingertips. The arts in their many forms have brought me solace and compassion for the lives of others.

I think I’ve only written one poem that is about New York City. I woke in the middle of the night to sirens and blaring horns and great, scary chaos in the street. This was the genesis for the line, “There was a great fire/in the city while you slept.” Some readers have said that this poem, While You Slept, is about the World Trade Towers. I suppose it is a poem about catastrophe and shocking, sudden tragedy.

3. What will the Witter Bynner Fellowship offer you?

The Witter Bynner offers that shot in the arm: support and confidence, the gratification that our Poet Laureate, Charles Wright, admires my work, the privilege of reading at the Library of Congress, financial assistance. This is exciting stuff. A few days ago, a journal decided not to publish the poems I had sent them. I thought they were really fine poems, too. Of course, rejection comes with the territory, and I know that, but it still stings a bit. Winning this award, you know, it stings a whole lot less.