When he was a child, David Shapiro brimmed with violinistic ambition. The sagacious nine-year-old, however, scuttled his nascent musical career to instead write poetry. It was a fortuitous decision. His verses began appearing in print while still a teen. At the still-tender age of 18, his first book-length collection was published. January -- interesting title -- under the aegis of the late Kenneth Koch, made its appearance in 1965. He has, in the decades since -- the bulk of his adult life -- offered up a steady, ongoing stream of intense, rarefied verse.
Overlook Press has recently published New and Selected Poems (1965-2006). An overview of four decades’ worth of poetry is, by anyone’s definition, a milestone achieved by a lucky few. Preening, however, is not part of David Shapiro’s constitution.
“I sometimes think I’m in that wonderful category of ‘neglectorinos.’ Recently, I think I’m getting lucky again because I am so old. It’s a kind of sympathy vote.” Morose sentiments, to be sure, from one who could pen the affirmative “Now Oh word never disappearing” -- the very essence of literary immortality.
An erudite sheen runs through the years-long output, an allusive corpus unafraid -- with references to Percy Sledge and Nancy and Sluggo -- to detour into the colloquial. Newark-raised, Shapiro has not shied away from his Garden State roots, (Poems from Deal, its title taken from a Jersey-shore town, came out in 1969) taking his place, along with Ginsberg and Williams, as bards of this much maligned state.
“We are now,” Shapiro says of his poetic peers, “the grandfathers and less hated by the young.” It’s a comment that can’t help but lead directly to ... the photo. Any backwards glance has to, sooner or later, touch on that famous photo -- pride and albatross both.
In the heady days of 1968, the year of revolution, Columbia University was a famous fulcrum of protest. In a photo flashed across the land, students are shown occupying the office of President Grayson Kirk. Perched in a plush chair, smoking a pilfered, establishment cigar, is a young David Shapiro, plain as day. It’s the portrait of the artist as a young rebel. How does it feel being an enduring, iconic symbol of campus protest?
“I was bewildered by it all, as so many of us were. [Mark] Rudd said to me one day: you’re the new media superstar. I was terrified because I knew I would be punished. I was beaten in gauntlets ... suspended many times. The photo was taken with dissimulation by a guy who said, ‘don’t worry, it’s only for the Village Voice.’ A voice inside of me said: Be more prudent, you idiot.” He experienced the mixed blessing of being recognized in bars. “I think the photo has hurt my career. Many a time some neocon has raised the specter of that photo and gotten me out of jobs here and there. I am proud to have tried to stop the ‘full fist of the American empire’ from falling.”
Shapiro has, more than most poets, long and intimate ties to the art world. An intellectual multitasker, he is a working, active art historian. Owing to a sculpting father, he grew up around “kilns, paints, wax, plaster, and clay.... I was influenced by everything, including constantly looking at museums with my father. My education continued at 15 when I met the de Koonings. Elaine was a fine teacher.” He became acquainted with Jasper Johns -- the new collection is dedicated to him -- and Larry Rivers. Shapiro’s writing has included studies on both Johns and Jim Dine, as well as a trailblazing exegesis on the representational significance of Mondrian’s flowers. “My god has always been Meyer Schapiro and my religion is sometimes his adamant pluralism. I am, I hope, a little footnote to his great majestic cathedral of responses.”
The culturally polyglot aspect of David Shapiro’s life and oeuvre has been buttressed by steady collaborative venues. “I have collaborated with architects ... with Greg Botts and George Schneeman, other poets like Frank Lima, the moviemaker Rudy Burckhardt. I collaborated every which way with Lucco Pozzi, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, and Chris Haub. I collaborate so much my house is filled with poetry-paintings.” He has worked with Jacques Derrida and the Israeli poet Michal Govrin. There has been an ingenious reinterpretation of the biblical ten plagues with painter Lily Prince and poems written with his young son, as well as bits of remembered songs first sung by his toddler sister. It is a decades-long, era-spanning body of work. What next? “I would like to conquer certain things I haven’t: a novel, short stories, plays ... songs for Heine and punk rock. More collaborations, illuminations.
“One shouldn’t think of the future when one is lucky to be alive.” | July 2007
Richard Klin lives in New York's Hudson Valley. His writing has appeared in the Forward, Publishers Weekly, Parabola and the Web zine LiP. He has recently completed a novel.