Liam Rector
September 2004

 

Like so many others in their generation after World War II, my parents moved to the city from the country, where their parents had formerly all been farmers. I was born in 1949 in Washington, D.C., 70 or so miles north from the family homesteads in Warrenton, Virginia, in Fauquier County. I was close with my grandfather, Carl Gray, and I’ve made my way through life with the feeling of being a grandson and all that being a grandson contains and portends of time and generation.

I must have been around 14 when I first seriously took up with poetry, when as part of a school assignment I put together an anthology of poems about death, an anthology I memorized.

My next serious engagement with words came when I was 16 and lead singer for a rock band pretentiously called Zeitgeist. Zeitgeist covered songs by the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, the Beatles, and others of the so-called "British invasion" of that time, and I developed then a life-long love for the ballad as it was then being interpreted across the pond, with American Motown. Mississippi blues and rock thrown in for good measure.

I have since found not only a life but a living in literature and the book trade. Having passed in two generations from an agrarian life to the urban middle class, I’ve been a rapt student of class and that which most defines class in America: money. I’ve also been a student of music and film, and I think of life as that tragic and embarrassing thing that takes place between the poems, films, and the songs I inhabit.

The American penchant for going—as opposed, say, to staying—ate up most of my early years. I went to ten public schools before I finished high school, I’ve been to six colleges, and I’ve lived in 48 different residences. After settling for eleven years in Boston, I recently moved to Manhattan, where many people like me end up. I like it here.

I’ve been married three times: first to the poet and playwright Elizabeth Wray, then to the ice-skater Mary Cunningham, and now to Tree Swenson, the co-founder of Copper Canyon Press who presently works as the director of the Academy of American Poets. During my second marriage, I had a daughter, Virginia Rector, who is now in college in Virginia, studying theatre.

Along the way I’ve done the hundred lumpen jobs, taught, worked in bookstores, and administered literary programs at the Associated Writing Programs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and now as the founder and director of the graduate Writing Seminars at Bennington College. I’ve recently moonlighted teaching poetry and the culture wars at Columbia University and The New School.

For a long while I wanted only to teach and largely backed into the administrative posts I took up, but somewhere along the line the idea of administration came into my very soul—put there, I think, by Thomas Jefferson’s dictum, "Govern or be governed"—and administering things has defined my middle years.

I studied poetry at the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and administration at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

I don’t much like talking about my own writing, and I’m mostly content to have it speak for itself on the page. My books of poems are American Prodigal and The Sorrow of Architecture. I recently completed The Executive Director of the Fallen World.

My main mentor and tormenter in poetry, one who has been both a consoling and a countervailing spirit, has been T.S. Eliot.

I edited a book on the work of Donald Hall and with my wife I recently finished editing a book on the poetry of Frank Bidart. I’ve tried my hand at essays and book reviewing—not because I’m so good at it but because others are so bad, and someone, I feel, has to do it.

For me, again, poetry has been not only a life but a living, and I’m deeply grateful, most of the time, for that.

I’ve attempted to write a poem that is somewhere between Byron’s "So We’ll Go No More a Roving" and Eliot’s "Four Quartets." I have tried never to stray too far from the ballad, and I have often deployed the tactics of what I think of as a highly stylized realism. To echo Dylan Thomas, I’m from "The up & at ‘em Rimbaud School of Poetry."

 

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