Exclusive: Q&A with Bernard Schwartz, Captain of the 92Y’s Good Ship Poetry

Bernard Schwartz directs the 92Y Poetry Center, and chief among his vocational duties is putting together 92Y‘s legendary lineup of literary readings and events each year. Just as diehard Harry Potter fans lined up for midnight showings of Half-Blood Prince earlier this summer, 92Y tickets are coveted and eagerly awaited among lit nerds. This year’s agenda includes poet Charles Simic, novelist A.S. Byatt, Sam Shepard, John Irving, and other assorted writerly heavy-hitters.  Tickets go on sale today, August 3, and cost $10 for those age 35 and younger. After the jump, Bernard Schwartz recalls some of the center’s highlights, invokes a maritime metaphor, and tells us what we can expect this season.

Flavorpill: Last year 92Y celebrated its 70th birthday. Do you have a favorite septuagenarian memory?

Bernard Schwartz: Though I’ve only been affiliated with the Poetry Center a few years now, there are tales from our very colorful history which are probably worth sharing again and again.

-Dylan Thomas’s drunken, febrile, last-minute revising of “Under Milk Wood” before the plays’ premiere here at the Poetry Center in 1953. The cast of the reading included employees of the 92nd Street Y and Thomas himself.

-When, in 1954, Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams read excerpts from McCullers’ work and McCullers was so nervous she insisted that Williams stay out on stage while she read

-When the curtain was dropped down on Norman Mailer, in 1961, for his reading of some “obscene” poems

-When, in 1964, Vladimir Nabokov made his one and only appearance at the Poetry Center — reading poetry and an excerpt from Pale Fire. He was introduced, on very short notice, by Susan Sontag.

-When, in 1964, Truman Capote debuted In Cold Blood here at the Y.

-When Isaac Bashevis Singer, requested that there be a bottle of Chivas Regal waiting for him in the Green Room — initiating a tradition we honor to this day.

-When, in October of 2001, the now dearly departed Susan Sontag and W.G. Sebald served as our first readers since 9/11.

Here is Cynthia Ozick on the subject — her memory is far longer than my own.

“In my twenties, at a cost of $20 for the season, I sat electrified by the dazzling roster of literary eminences of the age: there, on the great lit stage, time after time, were Marianne Moore in her tricornered hat, W. H. Auden in (as I now imagine it) his carpet slippers, Dylan Thomas eloquently roaring (in his cups?), and even Archbishop T. S. Eliot vatically intoning! I dreamed, and also did not dare to dream, that one day I too would read from that fabled stage. And since then, the poets and novelists of a new era, in all their brio and innovative ingenuity, go on enthralling the literary young with manic yearnings of their own. All hail to the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y!”

FP: How do you decide which authors to invite to the Poetry Center? Have any ever attempted to woo you?

BS: Curating a season of literary events here at the Poetry Center is like steering a ship back into port — we are slow, we are deliberate, and we require all hands on deck. After months of exploring, we’re eager to share all of the excitement of the sea with everyone back on land.

FP: Which writers were the most difficult to land? We hear Martin Amis will be flying in from England.

BS: It’s true. In November, we are celebrating the publication of Nabokov’s Laura, and Mr. Amis has agreed to participate. Also Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd  —  coming all the way from New Zealand! There are many international writers who we pursue from year-to-year, and with mixed results. This season, we’re particularly pleased that Spanish novelist Javier Marias has agreed to read for us. He has not traveled to the U.S. in more than 20 years. Steven Millhauser and Annie Proulx don’t often appear in public — and we’ve got them reading together. In January, we’ll present an evening with Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. Certainly they’ve appeared together in the past, but it’s surely not often that they read together.

FP: Have you ever noticed any tension between the poets, the dramatists and the prose writers? Do they bring out different crowds?

BS: Every once in a while, there is some tension, yes. Surprisingly — and to my joy — our audience, week-to-week, varies widely depending on our programming.

I like what Gary Shteyngart has said about our audience: “Hands-down the smartest audience in the Western hemisphere. Make it both hemispheres. It laughs when you’re funny, growls when you’re stupid, and afterwards asks for your email address and promises to write.”

FP: If you could do a panel at the 92Y with any three writers, dead or alive, who would they be?

BS: It depends on the situation, of course. But, from a programming point-of-view, I don’t know that a panel is always the best way to feature writers (be they alive or be they dead). Instead, how about solo readings from the following:

-Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett (dead)

-Alice Munro, William Trevor, Wislawa Szymborska (living)