Norman MacAfee, with Colonsay in the distance, home island of the MacFie Clan, September 2005
Credit: Copyright © 2005 by Victoria McFee
Write a bio about yourself.
When people ask me to choose, I sometimes will say, "I am not an either/or kind of a guy. I prefer both/and."
I love the physical world.
Every year around my birthday, March 18, I wait for the night air to turn so that humidity is 60, temperature 50, breeze 7 mph, or some such.
My cheeks, my face, recall with joy my first taste of the air of the outside world-when I was taken from
Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia March 25, 1943, suddenly on the street, age seven days and opening to the world.
No one can have such infant memories, the reader may say, but my face does, and therefore I do.
We lived ten miles from the hospital, in Whistling Corner, a Georgian-style house built in 1924 by my maternal
grandparents in the small town of Brookline. It was a 1920s town with a boulevard and a block of stores on either side,
including a movie theater, where I learned a love of film.
I love that my maternal grandmother, Alice Richardson Dietz, was born in 1874, linking me to ways and habits of the
nineteenth century, and phrases like "big as day" and "it looks like rain in cherry blossom lane" and "dear" for expensive.
My grandparents came from upstate Pennsylvania, in what is now uncharitably called Pennsytucky: Nana from the town of
Sunbury ("where the sun is buried," quipped Lorenzo da Ponte, who spent some years there) on the Susquehanna River
and Dada, Jesse Monroe Dietz, from Danville, the town across the river.
They went to Philadelphia to make good, and did, but they started humbly: their marriage certificate of 1900 has
Nana's occupation as compositor for Curtis Publishing, and Dada's as stable hand.
So Whistling Corner was their pride. It was the biggest house for a few blocks around, with gardens made by my
grandfather and beginning in 1936 my father, also Norman. It was big enough for six people, from three generations,
and bigger in my child's-size memory than in adult reality.
The garden: grape arbor, honeysuckle arbor, rose trellises, hydrangeas made blue with lime, lilies of the valley,
rose garden, rock garden, putting green, vegetable garden, tulips, azaleas, two weeping willows, spruce and fir trees and maples and dogwood.
The prize tree was a thirty-foot-high weeping beech, a rare species. It looked like a fairy castle with hiding space at
the ground level for my sister, Alice, four years older, and me.
For a look at Whistling Corner, you can visit a website that my domestic partner, Dr. Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes,
and I set up for the present owners, to see what the house and garden were like from 1924 to 1954, when we left.
You can copy the link
and paste it in the ADDRESS field of your browser (e.g., Internet Explorer, Netscape, etc.)
If it doesn't open, then type:
When prompted for a password, type:
(one word, all lowercase)
I'm writing Whistling Corner, a novel about my years there.
My grandfather directed meat operations for a supermarket chain, Acme Markets, from its inception in 1917 to his retirement in 1950.
My father, who came from Northern Ireland to Philadelphia in 1927, got into advertising at Acme then went out on his own.
One client was Tastykake, and in the late 1940s Dad handled liaison with it and a Philadelphia-NJ-Boston-Baltimore
TV network to broadcast the Tastykake Christmas Hour, live from Philadelphia's Academy of Music, with Eugene Ormandy
and the Philadelphia Orchestra and George Balanchine's ballerina wife Vera Zorina and the Temple University chorus.
It was a big event for which we bought our first TV. It was a kind of proto-Live from Lincoln Center.
I think of Dad and Dada as pioneers of what they did.
Dad had a drinking problem (he was even a pioneer in going to AA in the earliest years of that organization),
and Mother, it was felt even by her, never gave herself over fully to him, preferring life at Whistling Corner
with her parents and her two children.
These four adults all loved music, movies, plays, books.
I was an artist from age three or four. When I was five or six I was drawing a lot, and reading, and learned
about the Native American chief Metacomet, who would decades later become the hero of my opera,
The Death of the Forest, to music of Charles Ives.
Alice was taking ballet lessons taught by the sister of the 1930s singing movie star Jeanette MacDonald.
I went to a session and liked it and started lessons.
The Christmases of 1949 and 1950, I danced in Nutcrackers, in the first as the littlest Cossack,
leaping out on stage, pushed actually by the two boys who were the bigger Cossacks, small, medium,
and large, we were a blur of orange satin Russian blouses and black pantaloons. I landed upright, the
audience gasped, we hopped around, did the Russian wheel, which I can still do, and in three minutes the dance was over.
The Nutcracker is performed by hundreds of companies in America every year. It premiered in Russia in 1892
and flopped and flopped everywhere else and disappeared. Only when American companies took it up in 1940 did
it become the world's most popular ballet.
Our little company, rehearsing at the Brookline firehouse and dancing at the public schools, was part
of that pioneering first generation of Nutcrackers. But dancing was not encouraged for boys, and after the second Nutcracker, I quit.
But I'm glad of the experience. Dance became part of my creative vocabulary. Thus, toward the end of a
long poem from 2005, "The Coming of Fascism to America," comes this about the current political struggles against Bushism:
After immolation scenes
after long silence
the evil ones
I hated who
hated me and thought
me evil are destroyed
but so am I:
our spirits hover
we war in the air with
words before words
like swords before words.
It is not a dance, not
and arms and necks
and eyes that have
A year or so earlier, about 1948 or 1949, I saw the first movie I remember seeing, at the Brookline theater,
and luckily for me it was the great British film about life and art, The Red Shoes, by the writing-directing/producing
team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who became my ideal model of people working together to make art.
It was a particular treat to see a little later another great movie of that time with my grandfather,
Howard Hawks's Western Red River, about Dada's business, getting cattle to market, two generations before him.
The great trauma of my early years was the divorce of my parents in 1953, and then our leaving Whistling Corner the next year.
My sister, mother, grandparents, and I moved to a wealthier neighborhood but into a smaller, undistinguished,
ranch house, and my father went to a dingy apartment in Philadelphia.
My first year, the sixth grade, in the new school district, Radnor, was I think my best educational year.
I asked our teacher, Ralph Joseph, if I could produce a History of Dance, from the Cavemen, Egyptians,
Romans, to the waltz, Can-Can, Charleston, and jitterbug using the talents of my fellow students. He said yes,
and we went to work. I chose the music, designed the costumes, staged and choreographed the dances. The show
went on one afternoon, and it was much talked about.
That year I learned the word "audiovisual"-quite an exciting concept: two of the senses together. Other words
like it would follow in decades later, multimedia, postmodern.
That year too I learned about Hammurabi, cuneiform, the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates,
the Cradle of Civilization, birthplace of agriculture and libraries and cities. Ever after I have considered
sacred the land where Iraq is today, and feel the Bushes' destruction of it and its people to constitute an
especially vicious crime against civilization, against humanity.
That year I wrote a History of the World, starting with the Egyptians and stopping at the Coliseum. 26 pages.
With hand-drawn illustrations copied from a childhood favorite, H. A. Guerber's book Myths of Greece and Rome,
and from stills from Hollywood sword and sandal epics of the early 1950s. Calling Mel Brooks.
Then I announced my next project: The History of Charlemagne, which I hope to write eventually,
maybe as an opera or a people's history or a film or all of the above.
In high school I learned about the American class system. In middle-class Brookline I had been in the upper crust;
in upper-middle-class Radnor I was from nowhere, man. I came to understand by feeling the cruelty of the class system.
My new collection of poems is called One Class not for nothing. And I expect at least one critic to dub it No Class. Fine with me.
In junior high, my best friend was one of the class's three African Americans, David Watkins. He too was gay,
though we didn't know that word in the mid-1950s. He was a violinist, and he continued to work in classical music in later decades.
In senior high, the mother of one student, Sheppy Houston, had become a Quaker and, in largely Republican Radnor,
was a Democrat. Ann started a discussion group in 1960, and we had debates about the candidates for the presidency.
I was given Nelson Rockefeller, who would reappear in "The Coming of Fascism to America."
Born a Republican, but
made me a leftist.
I saw the gap increasing,
I saw Rockefeller at The Cherry Orchard.
And Rockefeller was the last
After him, the deluge,
Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Bush.
The gloves kept coming off
down to the iron fist
pounding on our mental doors.
I have recently got back in touch with Shep and her first cousin, Judy Allen, who was my high school
girlfriend. Shep became an architect and Judy a painter. Judy and her husband kindly drove nearly three hours
to attend the premiere of scenes from The Death of the Forest in an auditorium without air conditioning on
one of the hottest nights of 2005.
The fellow student at Radnor who influenced me the most as a writer was Carol Probst. In the tenth grade,
Carol handed me a copy of one of the first issues of The Village Voice, published by Norman Mailer, that
included a little play by Samuel Beckett, a monologue by Shel Silverstein, and a Jules Pfeiffer cartoon strip.
That first Village Voice let me know about a utopian society, Greenwich Village, of artists, writers,
and thinkers. For many decades I hoped to live there-and actually now do. It's all it's cracked up to be. It's what you make it.
Carol and I took Latin, and translated parts of the Aeneid. She pointed out something Virgil wrote:
"Tros Tyriusque mihi nullo discrimine agetur." Years later, in "This Is War," a long poem that I wrote
at the start of the first Bush's Gulf War, I translated it as "Trojan and Greek/ I'll treat 'em alike."
Carol and I played hooky to go into Philadelphia and see foreign films. We co-edited the high school newspaper.
I reviewed Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible and Bergman's Wild Strawberries and Capote's The Grass Harp. She wrote
a prose poem, a copy of which I have, about drowning in the lemon pudding of mediocrity, and a piece in praise of
Jackie Kennedy. I wrote poems of religious angst, cities, war.
I went to the University of Pennsylvania. She went to Vassar, but came home for psychological treatment.
Back at Vassar, in her junior year she committed suicide. I am trying to find other writings by her.
When I saw the Italian film The Best of Youth in 2005, the story of one of the heroes who helps a troubled
girl at a mental hospital moved me so because of Carol. I think I have never gotten over her death, because
I still do not know why she did it, and because I did not know how to help her.
I entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1961 with an equal love for both writing and drawing/painting/sculpture.
In sophomore year I focused on writing but kept my hand in the visual arts.
In a class on Romanticism, the professor, Morse Peckham, told us that the three greatest American artists were
Frank Lloyd Wright, Martha Graham, and Charles Ives. That was my first introduction to Ives, whose music
I would start using in 1980 for The Death of the Forest.
A year behind me at Penn was a student I never met at the time, Donald T. Sanders, who would become a producer
of The Death of the Forest in 1997, when we finally met.
At Penn I was writing fiction, and another student, Bill Morris, got me into writing poetry more. After graduation,
we went to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, along with another Penn writer, Barry Casselman, whom you recently
interviewed. We three lived together the first year. The second year Allen Ginsberg came through Iowa City
causing dancing in the streets and be-ins. He read his new poem, Wichita Vortex Sutra.
I never became friends with Ginsberg, alas, but we performed at benefit readings several times in New York in
the 1980s. At one, against Reagan's interventions in Central America, Abbie Hoffman greeted me at the door by
lifting his t-shirt to reveal his midriff and sang the first verse of "I'm Chiquita Banana and I've come to say,
Bananas have to ripen in a certain way..."
After I read my two poems, Allen came up to me and said that he was writing poems like that now too,
then asked to see mine. I handed them to him, and with his pencil he carefully crossed out four unnecessary words.
At Iowa I took courses from two memorable professors: the Chilean novelist José Donoso taught Latin American
literature (Juan Rulfo's great novel Pedro Páramo, Neruda, Cortázar, Paz) and Proust (we read all of Remembrance of Things Past).
From Neruda and Donoso I learned of Chile's unique place in Latin America as a democracy, and I was elated
when the leftist Salvador Allende was elected president in the late 60s, and furious when he was overthrown
and killed in a U.S.-backed coup.
The other professor, Ch'eng Hsi, taught ancient Chinese poetry, painting, and opera. I kept my notes
from his class, and decades later wrote a sequence from them with illustrations, The Song of the Earth.
After I left Iowa, I read and followed Charles Olson's advice to those who go to places like the Iowa workshop:
Forget everything they teach you about writing poetry!
I came to Manhattan in 1967 and have lived here ever since.
Robert Kennedy (1925-1968) was my senator when I came here. Because of his 1968 presidential
campaign, he became my favorite American politician.
In 2004, I published a book of his speeches from that campaign,
The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now.
I had hoped my book might help Democrats ground themselves in values of
peace and economic equality, and might help elect John Kerry. For more information, click
The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now.
On November 16, 2005, I spoke at the celebration of RFK's 80th birthday at the U.S. Capitol.
Senators Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi,
Representatives John Lewis, Dennis Kucinich, Edward Markey, Mel Watts and Hilda Solis, Dolores Huerta,
Harry Belafonte, Jeff Greenfield, Father Robert Drinan, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and others also spoke.
I spoke about politics and culture then read a poem to him written the day before.
The event was videotaped and appeared on C-Span Saturday November 19 at 8 p.m. It is available
from C-Span. The poem "For Robert Kennedy's 80th Birthday Celebration" appears in
Here are my somewhat edited remarks and the poem.
After the senators and representatives, I'm the first non-politician to speak tonight.
It is a great honor to be here tonight.
I would like to mention again the South African speech that John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, and others just quoted.
It is a speech for awful times when humanity looks for hope.
"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man
stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends
forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring,
those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
The last words are most important here. In 1966, Robert Kennedy foresaw that the all-powerful walls of
apartheid would come tumbling down. They finally did 27 years later.
Today, tonight, in these years of the Patriot Act and an almost neo-fascist administration here, we
must remember that it too can collapse, Bush too can collapse.
The Gospel According to RFK is my tenth book, but the first to be put in the Current Affairs shelves
at bookstores. I said that I was the first non-politician to speak tonight. But in fact, my work in
art and literature has been political.
I have translated books of three great writers with big funerals, meaning they were advocates for the people:
Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, about the wretched of the earth; the letters of Jean-Paul Sartre, like RFK a
great critic of the Vietnam War; and the poetry of the great filmmaker Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini, who loved
RFK and was himself a victim of assassination, in 1975. Three million passed by Hugo's coffin, 100,000
attended Sartre's funeral, and 20,000 Pasolini's. Millions in person said farewell to Robert Kennedy.
The Gospel According to RFK contains only the speeches of Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign,
from his announcement to the words "and let's win there." It outlines a vision for America that is still
valid today. It shows a way out from perpetual war and perpetual poverty.
Robert Kennedy read poetry. He loved it and thought it valuable.
I wrote this poem yesterday in New York City for Robert Kennedy.
For Robert Kennedy's 80th Birthday Celebration
I write this in Bush's America
of torturing, Bush lying us to
war, Bush laughing at
the gap between the rich
and poor increasing.
No one knows what you
would be like today.
I am not a mathematician
so have no equations
to bring you to 80
and tell us what you
and the world would be
like had you lived.
I came to New York
alone to live my life,
with you as my senator,
and I hoped my president.
June 1968: I had no TV,
was writing poetry about
Vietnam, went to bed for
a restless night, dreaming of
anguished voices in subway tunnels
beneath Astro Place and woke to
a beautiful morning and
moaning in the streets and shops.
You were dying. The line was a mile
long for your Saint Pat's requiem.
Alone in an East Village room
that fall I wrote the words
"nostalgia for the future,"
not quite realizing
they were for you.
Your words and thoughts that year
kept you alive these years.
You became the president
of the other America
that we have carried with us
thirty-seven years. You became
the president of this other America
that we salute today, where
everyone has a job and some hope,
where there is but one class,
where we honor the arts of
"mercy, pity, peace and love."
Peace to you, "warring soul
with your delicate anger."
Peace to our bloody world!
After I moved to New York in 1967, I worked at two publishing companies, six months at Harcourt and 20 months at Praeger.
I was fired from the first probably because the previous day I had joined a lunchtime picket line
of fellow poets protesting that Harcourt was charging the exorbitant sum of $17.50 for Philip Whalen's new book of poetry, On Bear's Head.
I quit Praeger in 1971. Another poet, Joe Ribar, was working there too, and he quit and said,
"You'll never find time to write if you have a nine-to-five job." So I quit, and have done freelance
editing, writing, and translating since then, living usually alas often very precariously from hand to mouth.
For eighteen years I lived in a sixth-floor walk-up on 79th Street next to the East River. It was a
real poet's garret, in a mixed neighborhood of working-people and the wealthy. I was a hermit. I had
only a few friends in the neighborhood: a composer, another poet, a photographer of jazz musicians and
the homeless, a radiologist. I got a lot of writing done.
But I had periods when I was more public. In 1984, for example, I gave my first and only writers'
workshop, on political poetry, downtown at the Poetry Project, at St. Marks in the Bowery.
In 1988 I finally moved to Greenwich Village, where for thirty years I'd wanted to live.
Describe the room you write in.
I write almost anywhere-the subway, on the street, at the movies-using a notebook I keep in my back pocket.
But I do most of my writing and rewriting in the room that serves as our bedroom and my study.
I live with my domestic partner, Dr. Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes, a biochemist and plant physiologist,
in a three-room apartment in the Village.
We are a mile north of Ground Zero, and the World Trade Center towers were part of our
landscape at the nearest corner, 11th Street and the Avenue of the Americas.
As I write on my Mac I face in the direction of Ground Zero, but we could not see the twin towers from our apartment.
At my back as I write is the New School, and at night, if they have their lights on and
their blinds up, we have the world's best outside view of the room of murals painted by
José Clemente Orozco in the 1930s: Gandhi, Lenin, Stalin, Cárdenas.
Above and around the computer are a few photos, of Miguel, of Nana, of me at a year old and four.
There are small copies of two huge drawings in the series The Endeavours of a Certain Poet, by Ana Maria Pacheco.
In the summer of 1978 Ana and I attended a concert of the contemporary Polish composer
Kryzstof Penderecki's music, conducted by him, in an 11th-century church in London. At
intermission I said to Ana and our friend Roger Evans, who had introduced us, that I had
been thinking for many years about writing a new requiem, to inspire composers ... the
poem would be in ten parts.... Ana knew what I wanted, and she replied that she would like to make ten paintings on the subject.
I was in London on my way to Italy to continue some translations I was doing of the
poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had been assassinated in 1975. In Italy a few days later,
I started writing, partly inspired by Pasolini:
"The poet's a liontamer inspired by
some boys, but let him let up they'll kill him."
In London, Ana started painting.
I finished the poem, 600 lines, six or so months later, back in New York, in early 1979.
We wanted to publish a book of the poems and drawings together but no publishers had the money to
do an illustrated book. Eventually, in 1988, a small collective in New York, Cheap Review Press,
now defunct, brought out A New Requiem, and on the cover is a sculpture by Ana. To read more about
A New Requiem, you can click on the link. A New Requiem will be available soon from the
Cervená Barva Press Bookstore at http://www.cervenabarvapress.com/bookstore.htm
I had been to Italy the first time in 1976 and wrote another long poem, "Italy '76," which begins:
"The human individual in his living room
is only half that story, the other being
the world of torture, the over-made-up
cheering sections for the two..."
Also on the wall above my desk:
a photo of a now lost iron sign "Whistling Corner" that was at the entrance of our house till 1954,
a photo of Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus in Pasolini's film The Gospel According to Matthew,
a printout of the MacAfee clan tartan with a Clinton-Gore button, the slogan "You're a MacAfee, you can do it," and a STOP WAR sticker
and, although I am not a believer, a cross from a necklace my mother would wear to church.
Of the six people who lived in Whistling Corner, I alone remain.
There are also two drawings by me:
one is from Gloucester's Eyes, a ballet libretto with drawings, using the Dover cliffs scene with the
Duke of Gloucester and his son Edgar from King Lear, intermixed with an aria by Orpheus from the first
European opera, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo: Lear and L'Orfeo, two meditations on life and death written probably
at the same instant, but in London and Cremona. The drawing is of an old man not unlike Ezra Pound with the caption "Ripeness is all."
The other is part of a drawing of two dancing figures from The Song of the Earth. They illustrate
the first half of the poem, which begins: "By West Lake, people are singing and dancing." Miguel took
the image and via a computer painting program, added colors.
Other art in the apartment includes a dozen color drawings I made in 1985 for a production of Helen Adam's
ballad opera San Francisco's Burning. Black-and-white versions of some were published in Hanging Loose magazine #65.
I would like a publisher to bring out a book of my drawings and paintings.
In late 2000, I began writing a long poem called "Life During the Coup." We live, as I say, a mile from
Ground Zero. Everyone has their own 9/11. Here is a version of mine, excerpted from "Life During the Coup."
It is about to appear in Omega 6-
August 11, 2001:
The world will never be the same.
Everything is now a lie.
They had done it.
No one could trust anyone again.
It was the jungle.
Things continued as before.
The 24-hour news cycle
spewed forth phony scandals.
The coup leaders overturned
treaties honored for decades.
You and I had to make a life
in this circumscribed world.
There would be much less for us now.
The beast had been unleashed and was
devouring everything in sight.
It was only now realizing its power.
We pledged to be together forever.
The moon lit our naked bodies
six times a month. The New
School's Orozco murals shone through
many nights. I wait for the red-tail hawks
to come again. People with will but no
intelligence won. If we follow the hawks
high up up Sixth Avenue then east to
roost on the Chrysler Building's eagles,
my love, for four or eight years,
we will be, alas, four or eight years older.
Once we are there, we will peer in
at the empty ballrooms of the 1930s.
They will fill with people from Diego
Rivera's Man at the Crossroads-the old
ogres of Wall Street, played by the coup
leaders, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld.
Quetzalcoatl with his giant wings will
smash though the windows and devour
some of those, but not all, alas, who
have everything but do not share it.
All the world's artists will follow Q
on a star stream through the jagged windows
and dance on the bones of the oppressors.
Allende and Neruda and Pasolini
and Welles and Sartre will
live again. They will go through
the pockets of the wealthy dead and evict
the landlords even if they call themselves
anarchists (with inherited property!).
September 4, 2001:
Arthur Waley's biography of
eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po:
"The Ming T'ang (Hall of Light)
was a magic building symbolizing
and giving power over the universe.
Ancient monarchs were supposed
always to have one, and the Confucian
Classics contain many indications
as to how a Ming-t'ang should
be built, but the different passages
are always at variance." The original
Ming T'ang was really a small
thatched hut, but the new T'ang
ruler built it 300 feet tall, and it came
to symbolize overweening pride.
Soon the country was torn apart
by a terrible civil war. I think of
Bush and his missile shield,
the abrogation of treaties, etc.
In her fifteen-year reign she also
instituted the requirement that
bureaucrats be good poets.
Which in its turn inaugurated
a golden age of poetry. Of course
the two greatest poets, two of the
few we still read, were not rewarded
by this system. Tu Fu kept failing
the exams, Li Po didn't even take them.
September 10. I read Gary
Snyder: "In Avatamsaka/Hua-yen/
Kegon thought there is an
enlightened condition of the universe
that is 'all phenomena interacting
multidimensionally without obstacle.'
In Japanese this is jiji mu-ge."
We are getting ready for the day.
It is one of Miguel's late days,
so we slept late. I am about to vote.
The phone rings. Paty calling from
Mexico City: "Are you all right?"
"Yes, how are you?" "Turn on the TV."
One tower is burning. A plane hits
the second. It is happening.
It is happening a mile south.
Outside, the most beautiful day
of the year. Woman in business suit
walks by covered in ash, making
hair spiky, Butoh Laurie Anderson.
We walk to Avenue of Americas,
and see two dust clouds that minutes ago
were towers. A river of people pouring
north, no one knowing what is happening,
if there will be more. I see a very tall man
walking south, the only civilian going
toward the site: Ramsey Clark, who opposed
the Gulf War as I did. He who has
grappled with the meaning of the world
as few others have or could have.
Outside the post office, closing, a black man
is saying, shaking his head, "I try to have
love for everyone..." I look in the eyes
of those I may never see again.
Surely goodness and mercy shall
follow me all of my days, and I
shall dwell in the Village forever.
Days pass. I am confused in thought, word and act.
You are a poet, composer, director, translator, and artist. Do you favor one more than the other?
I do not compose music. For The Death of the Forest, I chose 110 minutes of music from the dozens of hours that Charles Ives wrote.
I like most writing poetry and things like The Death of the Forest, and my play that could also be a film,
about Jean-Paul Sartre, Life Begins Tomorrow
I am embarrassed that my command of foreign languages is trifling, but I feel that translating literature
you love is the duty of writers. (In my defense, as a poet, I have come to paraphrase Guillaume Apollinaire:
I don't want to learn foreign languages because I don't want to spoil my English.)
I translate only those works and writers that need to be heard in English. I instigated the Pasolini.
I translated Chinese poetry for The Song of the Earth on my own. Publishers asked me to do the Sartre
letters, Les Misérables, and Claude Cahun's Heroines.
And except for the Cahun, I always have a translating partner, someone with expertise in the primary
language: Luciano (for the Pasolini) or Luigi Fontanella (for Daniele Del Giudice's novel Lines of Light-Harcourt, 1988)
or Lee Fahnestock for Sartre and Hugo.
Did you study music, theatre, or any of the arts?
From an early age, I drew, danced, wrote. I played the piano by ear, but lessons ruined it. In school and university
I studied art, writing, the history of Western music. In New York, I took a course in directing.
Please talk about your opera, The Death of the Forest. How long did this take you to write? What inspired you
to write it? Where is it being performed?
When I was five I was learning to read in Whistling Corner and came upon an 1890s three-volume History of
Our Country, probably for high school students, with fine lithographic illustrations. One leapt out at me:
an American Indian being shot in the back, titled "The Death of King Philip."
I think my father was having a lot of problems at that time, and I may have put some of my feelings about him
onto this picture. I took some red paint and daubed it around the figure of King Philip.
This historical figure, born Metacomet, who almost defeated the English in King Philip's War in Massachusetts
and Rhode Island, born in 1640, shot dead in 1676, would become the hero of The Death of the Forest.
In 1974, at Charles Ives's centennial, Columbia Records released his four symphonies conducted by Eugene Ormandy,
Leonard Bernstein, and Leopold Stokowski, and a collection of his songs, sung by the husband-and-wife team of Evelyn
Lear and Thomas Stewart. I fell in love with this music, of our first great classical composer, and played those LPs over and over.
In about 1979, I proofread the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and suddenly was reading an amazing story,
told in an English inspired by the recently published King James Version of the Bible: Mary Rowlandson's narrative
of her captivity during King Philip's War, a war I had learned about when I was five.
Mary told her own story, one side of the story, and I wanted to tell what was going on behind her, things she didn't
see, so I studied the war, and began thinking of a ballet libretto about the war, Mary, and Metacomet using Ives's First Symphony.
I loved the New York City Ballet, so I started writing the libretto, hoping that George Balanchine would choreograph.
But Ives's songs were haunting me and I started adding some to the piece and started calling it an opera.
I used a framing device of the six-year-old Charles Ives dreaming the opera (he is in a way the five-year-old Norman
learning of Metacomet). And I wrote short interludes of Charles at various decades in his life, at 20, 30, 50, 79.
But the central story is of a war that raged across New England in the 1670s, that made New England, and that set
the template for the later American wars of empire. And the protagonists are Metacomet and Mary Rowlandson.
I didn't know if I could actually write such an opera, and the only way to find out was to do it. No one, I think,
has made an opera this way-a writer taking music of a composer who never wrote an opera but wanted to. We are calling it Poet's Opera.
I made the score by dubbing on a home audiotape machine what I wanted to hear, choosing from among dozens of LPs,
tapes, and CDs, and then made over from about 1982 to 2004 a dozen or so versions of the tape score and libretto, as
I learned more about the war and about Ives. Recently Miguel transferred the final version to CD, and it sounds stupendous.
In 1997, Donald T. Sanders, executive artistic director of the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts,
heard about The Death of the Forest, and offered to produce it. In 1999 I began translating some of the opera into
Algonquin, the language of half of the opera's characters, using Roger Williams's 1643 book A Key Into the Language
of America as my glossary.
One brief song of Ives, "The Pond (Remembrance)," with shimmering, luminous accompaniment, he wrote for his father,
George, his musical soulmate, who died at age 50, in 1894, when Charles was 20.
"A sound of a distant horn
O'er shadowed lake is borne...
My father's song."
In The Death of the Forest, in one of the interludes, 20-year-old Charles sings it, learning of his father's death.
And then later, Metacomet's nine-year-old son, Metom, sings the Algonquin version over the body of his father,
assassinated by the English settlers:
Tú-ki-u Metacom? Tú-ki-u nòsh?"
which translates as:
"He is dead. He who was king here.
Where is Metacomet? Where is my father?"
In 2003, Don Sanders introduced me to a Dutch choreographer, Beppie Blankert, who loves Ives's music and has
made two evening-length Ives pieces. She read and listened to The Death of the Forest, fell in love with it,
and began making a production. In 2005, she premiered scenes at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, in
the hills and forests where much of the opera takes place.
Her chamber version will open in 2007 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (June), then play in Amsterdam and
New York City (November). This will serve as a taste of what a full-scale version will be like: full orchestra,
chorus, singers, dancers, in an opera house.
As Don Sanders has written: "I think The Death of the Forest can become an American cultural treasure produced by
opera companies the world over." Over the decades I want to see and hear The Death of the Forest in various productions
at small and large opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, etc.
Click here to learn more about The Death of the Forest.
Click here to see a drawing for a possible cover of the libretto.
The general website is http://www.normanmacafee.com/forest.html
You have translated some great writers such as Victor Hugo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Jean Paul-Sartre. Are these
writers that have inspired your own work? Talk about what books you translated by them and why.
They have indeed inspired my work, Pasolini (1922-1975) and Sartre (1905-1980) particularly.
Pasolini's 1964 film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew blew my mind, as they said in those years. Pasolini was a
gay leftist poet, and so am I, though 21 years younger than he. The Gospel was the first movie of his I saw, and I
saw as many of the others-especially The Arabian Nights, Salò, Medea, Accattone, Teorema, The Decameron,
Hawks and Sparrows-as often as I could in the sixties and into the seventies.
I bought a Pasolini selected poems and enrolled in Italian classes at the New School to learn enough to read and
translate his poetry. I was writing long poems and so was he.
On November 2, 1975, I had just finished writing a poem involving him when I picked up a Philadelphia
newspaper with news of his assassination outside Rome: "Italian Director Bludgeoned to Death."
The next month on the train from New York to Philadelphia and carrying a journal with Pasolini's final interview,
I sat down next to the most interesting-looking person on the train, who turned out to be an Italian documentary
filmmaker and writer, Luciano Martinengo. He saw me reading the interview, and we got to talking and soon we were
planning to translate Pasolini's poems.
Luciano and I worked on them in New York and Italy from late 1975 to early 1982, when Random House published
our collection, Pier Paolo Pasolini: Poems. It was the first English-language selection of Pasolini's poetry.
It is now available from Farrar Straus & Giroux.
You can click to see reviews for Pasolini: Poems.
It is available at many bookstores, including Amazon.
For my poem about The Gospel According to Matthew, click
After the Pasolini book came out in 1982, several publishers asked me to do more translations: City Lights wanted
me to do a second collection of Pasolini (but Luciano and I had translated his best work, so I was not interested)
and Harcourt wanted me to do Italo Calvino's essays.
But I was in the midst of writing The Death of the Forest, which I originally conceived as part of a novel, Tolerance, so I passed.
Tolerance is a homage and response to D. W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance in which four stories are intercut.
As a girl, my mother saw the first run of Intolerance, with live orchestra, and she never got over it.
Intolerance has been called the greatest American experimental film. It is most famous for the vast Babylon set,
invoking an early peak of civilization in what is now Iraq-an American artist dreaming in 1915 of the beginnings
of civilization and filming its fall.
Finally in 1980, I began writing seven texts and intercutting them to make Tolerance. I have a stupendous blurb from
alas a rejection letter from Robert Giroux, the legendary editor of T. S. Eliot, Orwell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert
Lowell, about Tolerance: "[Tolerance] is a challenging work, of great originality. Not since John Dos Passos' USA
trilogy has a writer made such effective use of fugal techniques, interweaving what appear to be historically disparate
themes into new coherence." Now that four of the seven parts of Tolerance have been published, I think a publisher will take it up.
But as for the next translation after Pasolini: in 1985 I had read that a new musical version of Les Misérables
was a big success in London and was coming to New York. Around this time, a friend, Lee Fahnestock, called to say
that a publisher had asked her to translate a new version of the Hugo novel based on the first American translation,
from the 1860s, and she felt she needed a partner on this because the book had an impossible deadline: The new version
would be the tie-in to the show, it had to be ready for the Broadway premiere in March 1987, and we would have only a few months.
I immediately agreed to do it. What a joy and honor to be asked to make the best possible translation of such an
archetypal work, the story of Jean Valjean, sent to prison for decades for stealing a loaf of bread. So we did it,
and our version, the only one that has the logo of the show on the cover, is generally considered the best translation.
The show ran on Broadway from 1987 to 2003, and will reopen on Broadway this October, 2006. Lee and I attended the opening
and the closing, and we'll be there at the reopening. Our translation of Les Misérables is available from most bookstores,
including Amazon: click here.
Les Misérables led me to work again with Lee Fahnestock in the early 1990s on two volumes of the letters of
Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, which we titled Witness to My Life and Quiet Moments in a War
In high school I had bought a copy of Being and Nothingness but didn't read it till 1991. I was profoundly grateful
to Sartre because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. I was draftable during that war, and the opposition of the
world's most famous philosopher helped me resist it. I became a conscientious objector.
In 1986, I edited the first posthumous biography of Sartre, by Annie Cohen-Solal for Pantheon.
As I was translating the Sartre letters, events in them from August 1939 to 1941 haunted me. Soon, I was writing a
screenplay, which could also be a play, Life Begins Tomorrow.
It is August 1939 and Sartre, then 34, and Beauvoir, a few years younger, are staying at a rich friend's house on the
Riviera. It is sort of like Jean Renoir's great film The Rules of the Game, with a group of people being silly before the coming of the war.
Then Sartre goes into the French army and, when France falls, is captured by the Germans, and becomes a POW.
We are now in the realm of another great Renoir film, The Grand Illusion.
In the German camp, Sartre writes his first play, Bariona, to give hope and feelings for resistance to his fellow
prisoners. It is for Christmas 1940, and it is essentially an existential Nativity play. There are some beautiful
speeches, in particular one for an angel announcing the birth of Jesus, which includes the following passage:
"There. He's born!
His infinite and sacred spirit
is imprisoned in the soiled body of a child,
and is astonished to be suffering and ignorant."
A few months after the Christmas play, Sartre escapes back to Paris and Simone de Beauvoir.
Don Sanders and I are planning a reading of Life Begins Tomorrow. We hope that Ethan Hawke or Matt Damon, both now
in their mid-thirties and Sartreans, will play Sartre in productions of the play, and (only one of course) in the movie.
In 1997, a neighbor, Shelley Rice, asked me to translate a legendary, unpublished manuscript from the 1920s, "Heroines,"
by the French surrealist lesbian Jewish writer and photographer Claude Cahun. The work was published in Shelley's book
about Cahun, Cindy Sherman, and Maya Deren Inverted Odysseys. The jacket copy says:
"Central to Inverted Odysseys is Claude Cahun's Heroines, a series of fifteen stream-of-consciousness monologues written
in the voices of major women of literature and history, such as the Virgin Mary, Sappho, Cinderella, Penelope, Delilah,
and Helen of Troy. Translated by Norman MacAfee, these perverse and hilarious vignettes make their English-language debut
here. This is also the first time that Cahun's text has appeared in its entirety." In fact this was the first publication
in any language, including French, of the complete text.
I hope a publisher will bring out a book of Heroines. The stories are a delight, and can be performed as theater and set to music.
Finally, I want to mention the series of nine Chinese poems, with some translations in it, The Song of the Earth.
The first poem contains lines from "To Tell Old Tales on Western Isle," poem inscribed on a painting by Tang Yin (1500s).
I finished this version when I was about fifty.
fifty years in flowers
sleeping in the womb.
China China, no need
to know my name!
Poor as ever, with
just enough for wine.
Ashamed to be called scholar.
They think I'll never die.
I've never tainted my
nature with mindliness.
I am my own philosophy.
The Song of the Earth will be published soon in Lucas Klein's CipherJournal
Each of the nine poems has a drawing. Cipher wanted to but couldn't publish them. The Song of the Earth
with the drawings would make a good chapbook.
What is the strangest thing you've done to find writing material?
In September 2005, I went to Inverness and then to the Hebridean isle of Colonsay to attend, for the first time, a
Macfie clan parliament and gathering, which occur every four years.
The name Macfie (MacAfee, McAfee, MacDuffie, Duffie, etc.) means "the people of ancient knowledge," and the
clan is ancient: its DNA traces back to the end of the last Ice Age in Spain 10,000 years ago. The clan was
broken in 1623, when its chieftain, Malcolm, was assassinated on Colonsay during clan warfare. The clan re-established itself only in 1981.
I'm writing a book, The Ballad of Malcolm Macfie, about the clan, my father, and the 1945 British movie I Know
Where I'm Going! by the Red Shoes' team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, about a young woman who tries
to get to Colonsay, called Kiloran in the film.
Colonsay is almost three hours by ferry from the Scottish mainland. A little larger than Manhattan, with two
million people, Colonsay has under a hundred residents, fewer people than in our apartment building in Greenwich Village.
I will arise and go soon and go to Colonsay.
What are you working on now? What are some of your future projects?
My selected poems, One Class, is knocking on publishers' doors.
I want to direct films-maybe The Death of the Forest, Life Begins Tomorrow-a documentary version of
The Gospel According to RFK, a documentary about Pasolini, one about the Wagner and Strauss singer Dame Gwyneth Jones.
I love Gwyneth's art, which is wild and free. As a girl she would climb up the Welsh mountains and sing in the
wind to hear her voice. Gwyneth I realize is my operatic alter ego, singing Brunnhilde and Elektra and the Dyer's Wife
and Leonore. She is almost seventy and still singing, and now beginning to direct operas, and maybe she will direct a
production of The Death of the Forest.
I hope to direct a reading this year, the centenary of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, of
San Francisco's Burning, Helen Adam's ballad opera, at the Bowery Poetry Club. I would like to try to direct
other operas, including two by Ezra Pound, about François Villon and Guido Cavalcanti.
I am writing Whistling Corner, The Ballad of Malcolm Macfie, and maybe a new political book, which
comes out of the same impulses as the RFK book.
How do you find the time to do all of this? What are your secrets for balancing life and art?
Luckily Miguel and I mostly love our work. We do not pay terribly high rent because of New York City's rent
stabilization laws, so we do not need to earn a lot of money. This frees us up to use at least some of the
gifts we were born with a good amount of time.
Any last comments or something else you'd like to share?
I realize I have not really discussed the poet who has had the most effect on me, Ezra Pound-the model of engaging
with history and politics, of having unorthodox ideas, of translating. He was alas a fascist and alas an anti-Semite,
but he was a great poet, and great poets come along so seldom that one must cherish them. I recently published some
of my thoughts about him in our alumni magazine:
Poetry is important to me as a means of expression and communication, but I draw my inspiration not just, and
sometimes not at all, from other poetry, but more from the living world around and from music, politics, history,
and especially film: Griffith, Eisenstein, Orson Welles (solely because of The Magnificent Ambersons), Renoir,
Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette, Michael Powell, and others have been more important to me
than every poet but Pound. Pasolini as both poet and filmmaker is an ideal to me.
Pound and Pasolini did more to bring poetry out of its closet of hermeticism than almost any other artists.
Pasolini said, "I was an unarmed partisan, and I fought with the weapons of poetry."
As I was responding to your questions, I read that it was in my birth year, 1943, that Henry Luce, the founder
of Time magazine, proclaimed the start of "The American Century."
In one way or another, I have been fighting against that concept most of my life, and with increased need since
the takeover of our country in 2001 by the fascist neoconservative Bushites with their Project for a New American Century.
Why do I fight? Because I love life. I want to live to be 120 or 300 (to use the new higher age limit by which
the American Actuarial Association calculates lifespan, or the even higher figure by the Living Theatre in their
play The Yellow Methuselah) in a world less horrible than this, where everyone uses to the fullest the gifts they were born with.
I met the Living Theatre's founders Julian Beck and Judith Malina in 1984 and saw most of their plays. In
The Yellow Methuselah, they played 300-year-old sages who ask the audience: "Would you like to live to be 300?
But what kind of world could you live 300 years in, and what are you doing to make that world happen?"
"The Coming of Fascism to America" talks about all this. Its first lines are:
"The information we are receiving is all false.
Our country has betrayed us!"
It is available as a chapbook published by Bob Holman and the Bowery Poetry Club and can be bought soon from the
Cervená Barva Press Bookstore at http://www.cervenabarvapress.com/bookstore.htm.
The poem can also be read in the
April 2006 number of Jacket magazine, published by poet John Tranter:
I guess that's it.
Thank you, Gloria, very much for your questions.
This material is copyright © Norman MacAfee 2006