Robert Phillips,
The Madness of Art:
Interviews with Poets & Writers

(Syracuse University Press, 2003)

The problem with Robert Phillip's The Madness of Art, a series of interviews with prominent writers, is the title. These eight creative minds seem quite sane. Sure, William Styron discusses his depression and Karl Shapiro was once erroneously listed with writers who committed suicide (while still very much alive), but overall the transcripts reveal hardworking individuals whose mental capacities remained lucid.

Phillips' question-and-answer sessions, conducted between 1976 and 1999, focus on each writer's body of work, writing style, productivity and influences. He interviewed poets Philip Larkin, Karl Shapiro, William Jay Smith and Marya Zaturenska, as well as novelists William Goyen, Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth Spencer and William Styron. Of course, most of the artists crossed over into additional genres: Oates, a prolific writer, drafted poetry, drama and nonfiction as well as prose. Smith is well known as a translator and children's author.

A talented interviewer, Phillips asks probing questions, and then allows his subjects time to relate fascinating life experiences. Goyen's experiences at a New Mexico commune are entertaining reading as are his stories of Carson McCullers. Larkin and Smith each spent time in pubs with Dylan Thomas.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the index. All of the authors discussed friends, influences and other writers of their times. T.S. Eliot is cited as an influence by every author, while Ezra Pound drew mostly positive reviews. Replete with literary name-dropping among colleagues, The Madness of Art provides a rare opportunity to glimpse these writers' communities. It doesn't offer much new advice for the fledgling poet or novelist, but it feels like a cozy tete-a-tete with eight intelligent and inspiring professionals.

- Rambles
written by Julie Bowerman
published 4 September 2004

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