Robert Pinsky is an American poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator. From 1997 – 2000, he served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Pinsky is the author of nineteen books, most of which are collections of his own poetry. His published work also includes critically acclaimed translations, including a collection of poems by Czeslaw Milosz and Dante Alighieri.His honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, both the William Carlos Williams Award and the Shelley Memorial prize from the Poetry Society of America, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He is currently poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate. Pinsky has taught at both Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Topic: Growing Up Jewish
Robert Pinsky: I grew up very aware that they are infinite number of degrees and ways of being Jewish. It has occurred to me that just about every Jewish person thinks that there are Jews who are too Jewish and others who are not Jewish enough and it goes right from the people who have four refrigerators who think the people with eight refrigerators are excessive down to the people who never go on the holy holidays, but they like telling Jewish jokes and I had quite a lot of the range in my family, my dad’s father Dave Pinsky when I was a kid, he had a bar called the Broadway tavern and he had been a bootlegger in the --- when liquor was illegal, he was in the liquor business and when I knew him he was married to a Methodist woman and had a wife three and he had a Christmas tree that wihtout exaggerating its probably seven or eight hundred feet tall and my other grandfather ----- the house was Kosher though my parents were kind of secular people in a nominal way we are affiliated with the orthodox synagogue and we did have to set the dishes and we didn’t have bacon in the house. If my dad and I want to order a pizza with pepperoni on it, we had to eat it off the piano bench, couldn’t put it on the table, that degree of being Jewish.I think people often make the mistake of inventing a kind of nice ethnic mom and dad for everybody if you are Italian or Jewish or you are Wasp or you are Irish until you actually know a person I think we make the mistake of filling any kind of cliche [phonetic] from some sitcom or movie and I didn’t have a nice old Jewish mom and dad. Like most people they were weird. I have a problem which I observe that for reasons that are hard to explain my mom missed my bar mitzvah and 10 years later she missed my brothers. Just didn’t take in of the ceremony and that sounds if the family was divorced or they lived all over the place. No. Just at the crucial moment you realize you don’t have the right hat, you stay home something or other and you don’t just explain things like that. You have to write four Russian novels to explain them.
Recorded On: 3/25/08
Robert Pinsky: I think skepticism toward things like titles, good reviews, what the world calls distinctions, recognitions, can become mechanical, but it’s a good armor too.