Jorie Graham is the author of 10 collections of poetry, including The Dream of the Unified Field, which won The Pulitzer Prize. She divides her time between western France and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University. Graham is the first woman to hold the Boylston professorship in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, a chair with an illustrious lineage dating back to John Quincy Adams. She was the unanimous choice of a special interdepartmental search committee formed to replace Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who held the position previously.
Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?
Jorie Graham: Well, I grew up in Rome. I spent the first 17 years of my life in Rome, therefore speaking Italian as the first language, and going to a French lisé, so speaking and learning to think via the French system, although my parents are American ex-patriots, so I grew up essentially bilingual, and then trilingual. I learned English fluently only when I was almost 18 and came to school in the U.S. after having been at the Sorbonne in 1968.
Of course, all foreign students in 1968 at the Sorbonne were with people holding foreign passports were asked to leave after what they called the Evénements. So I came to New York at that point and studied in the American system, and became a speaker of English, and, as a result of that, wrote in English, although I can’t imagine having written in any other language because the English language is such an extraordinary language for poetry, so I feel very lucky that it turned out that way.
Recorded on April 3, 2008