Katha Pollitt enjoys reading the Bible. It’s God she has some trouble with, particularly in the Book of Job.
“I’m a non-believer, but the stories are great ones and they do ask some deep questions that are interesting to think about,” said Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation and author of a new book, “The Mind-Body Problem,” published just this week by Random House. “To take away [Job’s] wife and his children and then give them another set I think is really strange. Doesn’t God understand you can’t replace one person with another? You can’t just make tragedy go away like that. For me, you can’t put a happy ending on that story.”
Pollitt will be talking about her new book, a collection of poems, as well as several other topics when she appears next Thursday night at Skidmore College’s Davis Auditorium as part of the New York State Summer Writers Institute.
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Click here for a schedule of presenters during the Writer's Institute.
The series of free lectures for the general public begins Monday evening with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Howard and continues through July 24. Also among those offering readings will be New York State Writers Institute founder and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy on July 17, while other authors scheduled to read include former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (July 3), and Pulitzer Prize winners Marilynne Robinson (July 7), Carl Dennis (July 16) and Charles Simic (July 23).
Pollitt, a graduate of Harvard, has been contributing to The Nation since 1980. Her 1992 essay on the culture wars, “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me . . .”, won the Whiting Foundation Writing Award, and her regular column, which appears every other week in The Nation, “Subject to Debate,” won the National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary. She has appeared at the Summer Writers Institute on three prior occasions (2007, 2005, and 2004), and was part of a special program at Skidmore earlier this year.
“I very much love to read my poems in public and talk to people about them,” said Pollitt in a phone conversation last week. “It’s interesting to hear what people have to say and to have them ask questions. It’s a great way for me to find out what’s on their mind.”
A few of the poems in her new book do concern themselves with the Bible.
“I wrote a poem about Lot’s wife, Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses, Job and a few others,” she said. “I point out in my poem about Job what I think is the unfairness and complete injustice with that story. God allows Satan to do all these horrible things to Job. To me it’s so wrong. But the stories that these people wrote so long ago are still with us, and they are great stories. They do make you think.”
While she isn’t afraid to delve into the spiritual realm, much of her work for The Nation focuses on the here and now.
“My column is mostly about politics and culture, and I’d say about 40 percent of what I do is about gender-related issues,” she said. “Women’s rights, feminism, abortion rights, whatever is going on in the world that concerns women. And then sometimes I’ll write a book review or a movie review. I really have a lot of freedom.”
Some people have referred to Pollitt as an “unabashed liberal,” and she doesn’t have a problem with that description.
“There are those who have demonized the term, and I wonder what those people think a liberal really is,” she said. “If you break it down, you’ll find that people often have more liberal views than they think they have. You’d think that we’re all for child molestation, money for everybody and no responsibilities. We’re not like that. Most of the things that Americans really value have come about because liberals fought for them. Take the First Amendment for example. The conservatives value that tremendously, but it was liberals who brought it about.”
Pollitt, who also worked at The New Yorker and Esquire as a copy editor, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her first book, “Antarctic Traveller,” a collection of poems, back in 1983. She wishes more people would become serious poetry lovers.
“I’ve always loved poetry, but I realize it’s not simple and it is complicated,” she said. “People are taught to regard poetry as a complicated way of saying something that might just as well have been said in prose. So, they try to boil it down to the message. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. Just read it for the pure pleasure and don’t worry about trying to understand each level.
“I write in both free verse and rhymed verse and sort of everything in between,” she said. “There are several ways of writing a poem, and I like to go back and forth.”