Wide shot of a bookshelf

Three New York Poets

Charles North, Ma
English NYC

Three New York Poets by Charles North

When did you join Dyson?

I’ve been at Pace a long time, though until the late 1990s mostly as an Adjunct in the English Department, teaching composition and literature. I was made Pace Poet-in-Residence in 1997.

What motivates you as an educator?

I care a great deal about literature and about writing and try hard to encourage students to care as much as I do about both. A few years ago I created an Honors course which I named “The Pleasures of Poetry,” to counteract unfortunate misconceptions about poetry—what it’s “for,” how to approach it, who reads it, what readers gain from it—which I encountered throughout my schooling, many of which are still current.

What do you do in your spare time to relax/unwind?

These days I watch a lot more sports than I play; but sports have always been a great interest. (A few years ago I published a book of poems in the form of baseball lineups.) My wife and I used to travel more than we do now; a long time ago, we lived in France for close to a year. I also love movies and music. When I was a kid I was a serious clarinet player—sax too—and at one time thought of spending my life in music. And of course I’m always reading. My family, wife, grown daughter and son, and three grandchildren, are very important to me, as are friends (including poets and artists). Someone I know who lives in a lovely part of Westchester recently said he envies people who live in the city because of all the interesting walking they do! I feel lucky to have the city to walk around in.

What are you reading now?

I’m usually in the middle of more than one book at a time. At the moment I’m halfway through Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift, which for some reason I never read; also a book by William Gass on the poet Rilke; and a mystery by one of my favorites, Nicolas Freeling, which I found for $1 in a used bookstore upstate. I’m a little disappointed in the Bellow, but enjoying the other two.

What is the main plot or central theme of the book?

Three New York Poets (which I didn’t write, though I’m one of the three poets written about) is part biography, part mini poetry anthologies, part literary criticism. It was originally written as a PhD dissertation, then revised to appeal to a general audience. There’s no “theme” per se, though one thing that underlies it is the ongoing friendship, in and out of poetry, that I and the other two poets, Tony Towle and Paul Violi, enjoyed for something like forty years, from the time we were young poets.

What inspired you to write the selected poems?

I can’t really say, because the poems in my section were written at different times, and because the whole notion of inspiration is mysterious! At least partly. Even the poet doesn’t really, or fully, know what the particular inspiration or inspirations were.

Why is this book important in your field? What does it contribute to the current body of knowledge on its topic?

What does it contribute to the current body of knowledge on its topic? I’m not the one to answer that, either! What the book sets out to do—there are forwards by the author and by the poet/philosopher John Koethe—is to record a productive friendship among three poets, and also to make a case for poetry as helping to change the lives of all of us for the better. Along the way the author discusses our work, our achievements, the relationship of our personal lives to our writing, etc.

Tell me about a particularly special moment in writing one of the selected poems.

That’s an interesting question—and a hard one to answer! Hard to remember, among other things. One of the pieces in my selection comes to mind: a prose poem I wrote about 15 years ago, titled The Philosophy of New Jersey and dedicated to my daughter, who had just been accepted into a philosophy PhD program at Rutgers. I was thrilled, both because I was a philosophy major who almost entered a philosophy PhD program, and because Rutgers is one of the top programs in the world. The title is, of course, something of a joke. But the poem turned out to be quite serious—though not, I hope, somber. And I think my daughter got a kick out of it.

Is there anything else you would like to share about the book?

I do think, though again, I’m not the one to say so, that it sheds light on what poets and their lives are really like, cuts through at least some of the mythology. And—I like to think—the mini-anthologies are chosen to suggest how wide and various the range of poetry is. I can’t comment on the poems of mine that are included; but I think there are some terrific poems in the other two sections, ones that give a sampling of the numerous pleasures poetry has to offer.