CONRAD GELLER, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, is an old poet now living in Northern Virginia. His verse is widely published in print and electronically. Awards for his work include a Charles Prize, a Bibliophilos Prize, and several prizes from the Poetry Society of Virginia.
Geosi Gyasi: You grew up in Boston and received your education at the Boston Latin School and Harvard. Tell us about the literary landscape in Boston?
Conrad Geller: Actually I left the Boston area right after college, to teach in central Massachusetts. After military service and a few years of teaching I moved to suburban New York, where I spent most of my adult life. So I was never connected to a literary landscape, in Boston or, in fact, anywhere else. New York, of course, has always been a place of rich cultural ferment and, although I was never really a full participant in that culture, I benefited, I think, from its excitement and stimulation.
Geosi Gyasi: But what do you remember most about growing up in Boston?
Conrad Geller: My Boston in the Thirties to the Fifties was a wonderful place to be a kid. I lived in the West End, walking distance from everything. I sailed on the Charles River, skated on the Public Gardens pond, casually visited the great museums, which were free in those days, and went to the Peabody Playhouse to see miraculous productions of Gilbert and Sullivan and everything else. Best of all, the Corn Hill section, off Scollay Square, was full of used bookstores; where for a dime or fifteen cents I got Palgrave’s Treasury, Poe’s stories, and all kinds of interesting stuff.
But the best part of Boston was the opportunity to attend Latin School. That opened up everything for me, intellectually and artistically. There were no academic frills there, just Latin, French, German, English, history, math, and a little science. It was just what I needed.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us a bit about your days in Harvard? What did you study there?
Conrad Geller: I commuted to Harvard from Dorchester, where I was living then, so I wasn’t fully a part of life at Harvard. I had a wonderful time studying English literature, though my parents kept telling me that wasn’t practical (they were right). It was for me a time of Shakespeare and Chaucer, listening to Harlow Shapley tell about the universe, once meeting and speaking briefly with Robert Frost at a Houghton Library reception, schmoozing endlessly at Dudley House.
Geosi Gyasi: You once spent a Fulbright year teaching in London. What was your observation of the literary scene in London?
Conrad Geller: London was an exciting place to be in the Seventies, especially for a poet. There were poetry groups, poetry pubs, readings somewhere all the time. I met regularly with PIGG (Poetry In Grangecliffe Gardens), a group of earnest and talented poets, who did a lot for my development as a poet.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think Americans read enough?
Conrad Geller: Perhaps we don’t read enough, almost surely we read less than we used to. Reading — books, newspapers, magazines – is no longer the main way for us to get information, stimulation, or entertainment. Significantly, the newer means of communication seem to have led to a drastically shortened attention span. Among other effects, that’s probably why football has replaced baseball as the national pastime. I still read books, mostly science, poetry and philosophy, very few novels these days. I’m not one of those who deplore current trends or lament that tomatoes tasted better when I was a boy. I can get more information in ten minutes from the internet than I could get from two hours in a library.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you start writing?
Conrad Geller: I remember my first poem, when I was about seven or eight:
“I was riding on my bicycle
When down came an icicle
And hit me on the head
So I went to bed.
And when I awoke
I asked for a smoke.”
I didn’t own a bicycle and certainly didn’t smoke, but those were the exigencies of rhyme. I recited it to my brother, who thought it was cool, and so my career was started.
In high school I wrote poetry and short stories, mostly, it seems, imitative of Poe. Then there was mostly a hiatus for college and other strenuous pursuits, but I never stopped entirely.
Geosi Gyasi: Why do you write at all?
Conrad Geller: I have never thought about this question before. I suppose it’s mainly in hopes of being admired, recognized, at least known. Since my teen years I have had a poet’s identity, which has served me pretty well. The other answer is that lines and phrases swirl around in my mind, and it’s a relief, like sneezing, to get them into form and get rid of them.
Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “And Have I loved You?” has as it’s first line; “And have I loved you long enough by now?” How much emphasis do you place on the titles of your poems?
Conrad Geller: I hate the necessity of titles. By now I have written close to a thousand poems, and giving each one a unique title is a woeful burden for me. Using the first line as a title is a useful trick to get me out of the work of finding titles.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from personal experiences?
Conrad Geller: A writer can’t help but use his accumulated pool of experience, but for me poetry is neither confessional nor biography. Poetry, even according to its etymology, means making things up. I want readers to consider my poetry as fiction, not the revelation of my soul. The poet, like the stand-up comedian, assumes a character that is not himself when he goes to work.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the best time to write?
Conrad Geller: Many of my poems are, at least, begun in the twilight between sleep and waking. Sometimes, of course, whatever I composed is lost in the morning, but when it persists I then have to get to work to make it a poem.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you find the art of writing joyous?
Conrad Geller: Just the opposite. Since I sometimes write in forms and almost always in conventional meter, I have to do the hard work of an artisan to make it happen. By the middle of, say, a sonnet, I heartily hate what I’m doing and am eager to be rid of the task. Often I’m please with the result, however.
Geosi Gyasi: If you could go back to the past, would you want to become a writer?
Conrad Geller: Oh, yes. It’s impossible to imagine myself not writing.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired “The Destination”?
Conrad Geller: I have done about twenty poems about a future world of joylessness and desolation. In “The Destination” there is in that society a rule for euthanasia at a certain age. The old man is going to the place where it will be done. Maybe some day those poems will be a book; I don’t know.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there any writers to whom you look up to?
Conrad Geller: I have mentioned Poe, my first literary love. Of current poets I admire Billy Collins, though his poems are formally nothing like mine.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever written out of love or hatred?
Conrad Geller: I write out of a need to gather pieces of language into coherent wholes. Whatever emotions are conveyed are a result of that effort.
Geosi Gyasi: I am not sure if I’ve exhausted all that I want to ask you?
Conrad Geller: Thanks very much for this interview. It was fun.