By the Book: Middlebury author Jay Parini waxes poetic on the literary life | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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By the Book: Middlebury author Jay Parini waxes poetic on the literary life


Published March 20, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.
Updated December 8, 2015 at 11:16 p.m.


As sure as you can get two eggs and toast for $2.35 every morning at Steve’s Park Diner in Middlebury, you can find Jay Parini parked at a booth along the wall, writing poetry. The author starts each day with breakfast, coffee and a 75-minute session writing rhymes.

Even in the breakfast rush, nobody bothers the bald, bespectacled Middlebury College professor as he fills composition books with hand-scrawled stanzas. He pens the first draft on the right side of the booklet, revises it on the left and, every five years, ships off a big box of these valuable papers to the library at Lafayette College — his Pennsylvania alma mater.

For Parini, it’s a daily rite — the literary equivalent of a morning jog. “For 20 years, I’m sitting here,” offers Parini, who has picked this significant spot to meet. No question stumps him. His answers come so easily they seem prepared. Soft-spoken but fast-talking, he knows exactly what a good interview requires. “After this,” he promises, “I’m going to take you back to the house.”

Right on schedule. Every day after Steve’s, the 53-year-old poet heads home to Weybridge to work for another two and a half hours on his “prose” projects. At 12:15, he breaks for an hour of basketball back at the Middlebury College Field House. Describing himself as “fanatical” about the sport, Parini, 5-foot-10, never misses the regular pick-up game. He’s broken every one of his fingers. “I plan to play until I’m 70,” he declares.

Post b-ball, he’s professorial, either preparing for class or teaching 20-year-olds the finer points of writing and reading poetry. By five, he returns to the 1850 farmhouse he shares with wife Devon Jersild and their three sons: Will, Oliver and Leo, aged 19, 16 and 7, respectively. More often than not, he’s invited someone over for dinner.

“The only way I can get it all done,” he explains, “is in a very ritualized way.”

You could argue that nobody in the American authorial circles does so much, so efficiently. In the past 24 years, Parini has produced about 40 books — a swelling oeuvre even he can’t keep track of, that includes six novels, a book of essays, four poetry collections and more than a dozen edited anthologies, as well as biographies of Robert Frost, John Steinbeck and Theodore Roethke.

At the moment, Parini is simultaneously writing a biography of William Faulkner and editing 350 essays that will make up the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. He just finished a full-length play for Oldcastle Theatre Company in Benning-ton. In the past two months, Parini’s byline has turned up on articles published in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Burlington Free Press.

“I think of it all as just writing,” the profilic author says with an air of self-confidence that sounds almost glib. “A biography project is the same as writing a poem, in many ways. I’m always working on everything at once.”

“The wonderful thing about Jay Parini is that he is truly a 21st-century man of letters,” says Lincoln author Chris Bohjalian. “He is capable of writing the single best biography of Robert Frost I have ever read, producing lyric, thoughtful poetry, writing these gorgeous, page-turning novels and then, then — penning a 600-word essay on why the New York Knicks are having a terrible season.”

After the Knicks piece ran in The New York Times, Parini scored a personal invite to a game and “shoot around” with the boys. “I was green with envy,” Bohjalian says. Parini took them up on it, but dismissed an offer to appear on stage in a Lincoln Center tribute to John Steinbeck with Bruce Springsteen, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee.

In the long run, however, there may be more reason to admire Parini’s most recent publishing effort than his access to celebrity circles. The Apprentice Lover is a smart, sexy, coming-of-age story that Parini calls “the most accessible book I’ve ever written.” It’s easy to imagine Matt Damon playing Alex Massolino, a 21-year-old poet protagonist who quits Columbia University just shy of graduation to take a job as secretary to a famous Scottish writer on an island off the Neopolitan coast.

Capri turns out to be a whole lot different from Pittston, Pennsylvania, where Alex — “the smart son” — has shown more interest in writing and books than taking over the family construction company. His brother Nicky is not so lucky: He’s been shipped off to Vietnam and killed by a land mine before the story starts. His graphic letters from ’Nam — inspired by missives Parini received from a high school acquaintance — interrupt the main story line to describe a considerably harsher overseas adventure.

The “action” Alex sees is of a different variety. His writer-employer, Rupert Grant, turns out to be as lascivious as he is learned. His two female “research assistants” — one English, one Italian — double as sex toys. Modeled after the Scottish writer Robert Graves, Grant makes the most of his “muses” with the tacit permission of his wife. The situation disorients Alex, a young man seeking guidance in a quest to “reinvent himself, to become a worldly and cultured person,” as Parini puts it in the book. With the war in Vietnam raging in the background, he ends up testing his American values against European ones.

Not coincidentally, Parini had a similar Henry Jamesian experience when he left Scranton for Scotland during his junior year in college. “All of the issues that obsess a post-adolescent male were there for me,” he says, conceding The Apprentice Lover is based on experiences from his own life. But in the same way Parini takes liberties with subjects like Tolstoy in The Last Station, he calls this book a “fictionalized autobiography… not straight one-to-one but out of materials from my life.”

The book also ties together many of the literary themes of his earlier work: the obsession with biography, the interest in the writing life, Italy, a young man coming to terms with the world… “The Apprentice Lover has in it all the things I’ve learned about writing and research,” Parini reports. “Everything I know is in that book, in a way.”

Parini’s real mentors had better boundaries than the one portrayed in The Apprentice Lover. At St. Andrew, a professor introduced him to New Yorker writer Alastair Reid, who lived about a mile and a half from campus in a stone cottage overlooking the ocean. Parini bicycled out to his house every day, at tea time, to show him a freshly written poem.

“We’d sit at his kitchen table, across from each other, and he’d correct my poem,” Parini says. “He’d go over it, cross out words, rearrange stanzas, do all that stuff, while I sat right there. That’s how I learned to write, sitting next to Alastair.” Reid also introduced him to dozens of accomplished authors, like Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda.

Years later in Vermont, Parini’s Rolodex expanded further when he struck up a friendship with Robert Penn Warren, a relationship he also described in a recent article about literary apprenticeship for The New York Times. While he developed valuable writing and editing skills from Reid, “Red” Warren provided a model for a literary lifestyle — Parini notes he “moved easily” between poetry and fiction, and loved teaching as well.

Warren argued convincingly against literary specialization and “I believed him,” Parini wrote. “While I have kept poetry at the center of my writing and reading life, I have found useful expression in various prose forms, including the novel and critical essay.”

Two pictures of Warren share the wall next to Parini’s desk with shots of Tolstoy, his wife Devon and Gore Vidal — his most recent “teacher.” Parini met the flamboyant leftist writer in 1985 while on sabbatical in Amalfi. “We were neighbors,” Parini recalls. “He lived in a great mansion, a palazzo, on the hillside behind my house. I said to the tobacconist in town, ‘Does he ever come down this way?’ The guy said, ‘Vidal walks by your house every day at five o’clock without fail.’”

So Parini left him a note, and the elder writer invited him to dinner the very same day. A routine developed not unlike the one Parini had with Reid. They still “talk on the phone constantly,” says Parini, who edited a collection of essays about the author and has been appointed his literary executor. Vidal makes a lively lefty dinner appearance in The Apprentice Lover, as do two other famous writers Parini met on his Italian adventures: Graham Greene and W.H. Auden.

It’s a way of approaching autobiography that shifts the focus off the author. “I don’t want to do a memoir that is just all the famous people I ever knew,” Parini explains. “It seems rather tacky. I figure I’d get it into my fiction. I just draw from that stuff and reissue it.”

Parini’s list of acquaintances suggests he has a tolerance for big, ego-driven personalities — he collaborated with the late actor Anthony Quinn, for example, on the screenplay for The Last Station. He calls Noam Chomsky a friend. Ditto ultra-conservative Burlington neurologist Ken Ciongoli, with whom he edited a book of essays by Italian-American writers. Although he personally “has no use for George Bush or John Ashcroft,” Parini says, “I’m happy to let people have their opinions — as long as they’re interesting and passionate and can argue.”

The same requirements apply to the subjects of his stories. In life and literature, Parini is driven by “character,” as opposed to plot. “I’m interested in what motivates people… obsession. Even if I am writing a biography, Robert Frost is a character to me. I feel like I got a Frost in my book, but I don’t have the slightest delusion that it’s the Frost. When you choose one detail and not the other, it’s fiction.”

But that doesn’t mean he slacks on facts. Parini routinely travels to the settings of his stories. He reread everything on Capri and related subjects before he wrote The Apprentice Lover. He got the goods on Robert Graves — the real-life inspiration for the slightly demented mentor character in the book — from Reid, who apprenticed himself to Graves on the island of Majorca. While he translated Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius, with the elder writer serving as editor, Reid observed his mannerisms, literary opinions and sexual habits. “Alastair thinks I got Graves perfectly,” Parini says of the fictional dynamic between Grant and his young American charge.

“I’ve always been fascinated by mentor relationships, and have sought out literary father figures for advice and inspiration,” Parini writes in a pre-publication letter to booksellers. “In this novel, I give full vent to that obsession.”

Parini’s own full-blooded Italian father did not share his son’s passion for literature, but in his own way, he too “reinvented himself” — as a Protestant minister. Like the Massolinos, he grew up in the construction business among brothers who all took up the trade. He chose a very different path, first by switching from Catholic to Protestant, then by becoming a man of the cloth.

Describing his dad as a “very unusual guy” who gave marvelous sermons and toasts, the author says his father thought his son would go into law or business — like Parini’s younger sister. “It was a stretch for him to imagine a literary life for me. No one in my family had done anything remotely similar.”

Nor did papa ever understand his son’s interest in Italy. Alex is likely speaking for Parini when his Italy-bound boat passes Ellis Island: “It seemed ungrateful of me to reverse the journey my grandparents had made with such difficulty… There I was in a family video rewinding.”

The elder Parini also went against the grain by marrying a Protestant Englishwoman, thereby establishing what his son experiences as a fundamental internal culture clash. “I always have this split in me between the Italian side and the Anglophile, English side.”

That could explain why Capri is teeming with Brits in The Apprentice Lover. And why Parini himself can be friendly and outgoing while still maintaining a cool reserve.

He was a “bookish nerd” as a student at West Scranton High. “I was the kid in thick glasses sitting in the back of the room, reading,” Parini suggets. But he always played basketball, starting at age 12, through Lafayette College and post-grad in Scotland, where he was on the team at St. Andrew.

The British university system appealed for other reasons, too. Terms are short, Parini explains, and you don’t necessarily have to be there for every class. “From 1968 to 1975, I was pretty much traveling in Europe,” he says. In the course of his continental drift, he discovered Capri. On that first ferry ride from Sorrento, “I remember being stunned, overwhelmed by the beauty.

“What Alex is going through [in the book] is what I was going through: how much to reveal, how to treat women, all of that stuff was there. Learning how to be in the world, and do it with some grace and balance. It’s not easy to figure that stuff out.”

Through behavior modeling and self-discipline, Parini appears to have achieved that symmetry in his own life. “I have no idea how his brain is actually compartmentalized,” Bohjalian suggests. “But the diversity of his work suggests not only that he is brilliant, but that he is capable of moving with enormous skill between seemingly unrelated subjects.”

Along with all kinds of writing, those would include basketball, motorboating, cooking, entertaining friends and, of course, teaching. Parini started his U.S. academic career at Dartmouth, where he taught and later married his smartest pupil — Jersild is now a published writer and her husband’s toughest editor and critic. He came to Middlebury because of dual interests in Vermont and Robert Frost. Twenty years later, he has an endowed professorship in the English department, a sweet deal that minimizes his teaching obligations so he can devote more time to writing. This spring, he’s got one class that meets twice a week.

Nobody cuts Parini’s poetry-writing seminar — even on a warm, sunny day that feels more like May than March. All 15 student bards are accounted for when the teacher waltzes into the “chateau” with examples of sonnets and villanelles to inspire their homework assignment. Parini maintains a remarkable rapport with the class, at once beating them over the head with a line of iambic pentameter, then entertaining them with an anecdote about a Frost poem that he asserts is really about a young boy masturbating in the woods.

But when the students start reading their own work, Parini treats them like colleagues. His critique never dominates the discussion, but fills in — gentle, encouraging and right on target. If the rest of the class misses something, he pipes up with comments like “Basically it’s a terrific setup…” or “The language is the tail wagging the dog in this poem.”

To one student, who has written a poem about seagulls, he recommends reading “The Wild Swans at Coole,” by William Butler Yeats. At the end of the session, he invites them all to his house for Sunday dinner.

“He can take a room full of 40-plus students and give you the impression that you’re having a private discussion about a mutual favorite poet outside of class,” says senior Drew Peterson, recalling Parini’s modern poetry class last semester. “It wasn’t even what he knew about the poetry — which was admittedly fairly substantial — as much as the fact that he knew most of the poets we were reading personally, and had really bizarre anecdotes about all of them.”

It’s plain to see the tables have turned for Parini — he’s the mentor now. “I have an endless group of people I am helping in one way or another, reading their work, offering comments,” he concedes. “Much of my day is taken up with other people’s writing.” It’s a role that demands occasional career counseling.

“A student asked me last week, ‘Mr. Parini, what would it take for me to be a real poet?’ I said, ‘Well, what do you mean by a real poet?’ He said, ‘At the end of my life I’d like to have a volume of collected poems, published. My work, published by a major publisher.’ He said, ‘Is that possible?’”

Parini told the student it’s possible, “but what it requires is a little bit of talent and tremendous obsession. You have to go to a diner every morning for 60 years, and work on that, every day. At the end of that you’ll have a volume of collected poems that’s worth something.”

A tall order, indeed, and one that should keep Steve’s in the breakfast business for a long, long time.

Jay Parini will read from his new book, The Apprentice Lover, at the Book Rack in Essex, April 5 at 7 p.m.