Between 2003 and 2004, Valentina Polukhina conducted a series of interviews about Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Joseph Brodsky. She spoke with former Brodsky student and executive director of The Academy of American Poets (from 1989 to 2001) William Wadsworth; respected American essayist Susan Sontag; and prolific poet, playwright, essayist and fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.
Brodsky is a fascinating and contradictory figure even on the page; in life he was obviously both inspiring and infuriating, and these exchanges frequently make for gripping reading. Wadsworth says “Joseph was tremendously charismatic, but he also came across in many ways as an absolutist, and was frequently given to outrageous statements, even insults. If you couldn’t roll with the punches, if you disagreed with him and your skin was thin, Joseph’s manner could seem overbearing,” and there are several examples of this. Walcott says:
Joseph was somebody who lived poetry. He proclaimed it every time I met him. That’s why I admired him. He didn’t do the English or American thing, you know, of being shy and saying, “I am not really a poet” or, “I don’t like to be called a poet”—any of that nonsense. He was very proud of being called that. He was Brodsky. He was the best example I know of someone who proclaimed that he was a poet; that’s what he did. … He saw being a poet as being a sacred calling.
I continued to be mystified by people who admire his terrible self-translations, but in Russian he is one of the all-time greats, and I hope this book keeps his memory fresh in America.