Philip Schultz // The Cagibi Express Interview

Philip Schultz is a poet, and the founder and director of The Writers Studio, a private school for fiction, poetry, and memoir writing based in New York City. His latest collection of poetry is Luxury. More about Luxury follows the interview. Schultz is the author of numerous other poetry collections, among them Like Wings (1978), winner of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in literature; Deep Within the Ravine (1984), awarded the Academy of American Poets Lamont Prize; The Holy Worm of Praise (2002); Living in the Past (2004); the Pulitzer Prize–winning Failure (2007); and The God of Loneliness: Selected and New Poems (2010). Also, a memoir My Dyslexia (2011), and The Wherewithal: A Novel in Verse (2014).

Schultz founded The Writers Studio in 1987 after teaching at New York University for 10 years, where he founded and directed their graduate writing program from 1984 to 1988. The Writers Studio utilizes a method that emphasizes technique and emotional connection, making writers aware of the distinction between the actual writer and a narrative persona. Today it features an online program, workshops in New York City, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Tucson, Hudson Valley, as well as a celebrated reading series in New York City.

Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Philip Schultz: ​These days, most of the wandering I do is in my imagination. Even my more casual walks seem to have destinations. For a number of reasons, some having to do with my dyslexia, I find traveling difficult and seldom look forward to it. Though I have found certain places both fulfilling and provocative. Overall I’d say much of the traveling I do is in the past, which inspires much of my work. Sometimes the present competes for attention, though it seldom succeeds. Even exotic new places invoke memories that conspire to influence my experience of them. Proust would probably agree, and his traveling was done from the confines of his bed.

Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Schultz: Travel for me involves either work (giving readings) or family, and these involve chores and pleasure, neither of which are distracting.

Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Schultz: I seem to require peace and quiet and any space that provides this has worked for me. I once was the sole writer in a retreat for artists in Woodstock that offered neither. I was surrounded by loud music and what sounded like impromptu parties. Each hour seemed to bring more ambitious ‘distractions.’ I spent most of the summer looking for a place to write. I also like familiarity. My study at home in East Hampton works well, but it mostly disappears as soon as I began to work. On a good day I have no idea where I am, only why.

Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?

Schultz: I’m now attempting to complete a prose book about my school, The Writers Studio, that I’ve been at for a number of years now. As with most writing projects we have to be far along before we discover why we took it on to begin with. Why, for instance, would I eschew a safe, tenured teaching job for the risky prospect of starting a small private school when I once believed I wanted nothing to do with business or the idea of administration? Why, indeed. I’m finding too that unravelling the creed of negative beliefs concerning talent and potential that writers and writing students in particular seem to have to contend with has become a main theme in this book, whether I enjoy the fact or not. Mostly, I don’t enjoy it. But discovery of how we actually feel and think about even those things we believe we already understand is perhaps the real reward of imaginative writing.

Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?

​Schultz: A family trip to Cuba helped inspired my most recent book of poems, Luxury. In particular, a visit to Hemingway’s house outside of Havana opened up memories of my other visits to his houses in Key West and Ketchum, Idaho. This led to other discoveries and what started as a small poem grew into a much longer one. Another family trip to London and Paris led to a number of poems in a previous book. I seem to find the interplay between memory and the sensual realty of experience particularly evocative.

Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?

Schultz: No, I travel no more than I have to. The only real excuse I find for work is fear, fear of what I’m asking myself to confront next.

Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.

Schultz: Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer made me want to visit New Orleans. It was probably the first novel I read that I didn’t have to, and I fell in love with the narrator’s first person voice and the lyrical way in which he described every sensuous, physical detail. When I did visit many years later, it felt as if I was reliving my experience of his book more than a real place.

Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?

Schultz: I’m so often rendered uncomfortable while writing that it’s hard to blame it on any particular place. But while working on a novel in verse that pretty much took place in a basement cubbyhole surrounded by the dead files of a welfare building, I spent much of my writing day living in those dank secluded quarters. To the extent that imagination merges with memory, the experience can indeed become both physical and hauntingly present.

About Philip Schultz’s Luxury

Philip Schultz’s latest collection of poetry Luxury was published in January 2018 by W.W. Norton & Company. From the publisher:

In this compassionate new collection, Philip Schultz’s wry and incisive poetic voice takes on both the eternal questions of meaning and happiness and essentially modern complexities—the collective power of women’s marches, the strangeness of googling oneself, the refugee crisis, the emotions associated with visiting the 9/11 memorial. At once philosophical and droll, Schultz explores life’s luxuries and challenges with masterly precision.

Luxury takes its name from the center poem, which has an ironic ring next to Schultz’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Failure. The poem is a beautiful exploration of the pull toward life as Schultz examines the question of suicide, intimately probing a familial pull toward that darkness and weaving in the philosophy of Albert Camus and the voices and legacies of Paul Celan and Ernest Hemingway. Using humor, irony, and celebration as ballast against the book’s darker forces, Luxury explores the comfort and sustenance of life, the bittersweet clarity of aging, and the anxiety of existence.

From “Greed”:

Happiness, I used to think,
was a necessary illusion.
Now I think it’s just
precious moments of relief

Appears In

Issue 4

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