New York Times


Poet, Mother, Editor, Wife


Published: May 6, 2007

DEBORAH GARRISON'S first book of poetry, ''A Working Girl Can't Win,'' did remarkably well, selling 30,000 copies when even some Pulitzer Prize-winning poets are lucky to sell one-tenth that. The poems were about young women in love, out of love, making love and working in Manhattan. Most were written when Ms. Garrison was in her 20s and childless, living in the East Village and climbing the career ladder at The New Yorker.

And then, just as she was being lauded as one of those hip young postfeminist urban women portrayed in ''Ally McBeal'' and ''Sex and the City,'' Ms. Garrison gave birth to her first child and moved to New Jersey.

For several years, she did not write a poem.

Almost a decade has passed, and now comes her second book of poetry, ''The Second Child.'' That newborn of 1998, Daisy, is a third grader playing on a traveling soccer team managed by her mother the poet, who also has two younger children, Georgia, 6, and Walter, 4.

This time around, Ms. Garrison's poems are about the lushness of breast feeding; opening your eyes in the middle of the night and finding a child staring at you; and which kindergarten art is worth saving.

And while reviewers often used the word ''sexy'' to describe the first volume, that term has not come up this time around. These poems are about a woman who goes to bed exhausted.

And so it remains to be seen: Will parenting in Montclair sell as well as the young and pretty in New York City? Or as the poet herself puts it: ''Come next year, will the masses / be reading her story? Will she be / on the cover, or well past her glory?''

Following Ms. Garrison around is like touring her poems. Though on a recent spring day she wore a very professional gray pantsuit with a white shirt and no hat, metaphorically speaking, her hats number four.

Hat one: a tightly scheduled 42-year-old editor for some of Alfred A. Knopf's best-known authors, who works in Manhattan every day from 9:35 to 5. (''Never thought you'd be one of them, / did you, little lady? The good schoolgirl turns thirty, / forty, singing the song of time management / all day long, lugging the briefcase / home.'') Indeed at 4:55 on this day, after talking on the phone with the author Mary Gordon, she jumps from her seat midsentence and blurts, ''We have to go!'' Hurrying down Eighth Avenue at 5:19 with the Port Authority bus terminal in sight, the poet says, ''We've got six minutes, we're doing great.''

Hat two: suburban mother -- happy in her domesticity, a great baker known for her lemon bars, but a worrier, too. As she gets off the bus in Montclair at 6:15, two dots in the distance, Georgia and Walter, come running along the sidewalk, screaming, ''Mommy, Mommy, guess what.'' ''Look at them,'' Ms. Garrison says, ''they're not watching as they cross the driveways. If a car ever pulled out -- '' More than she would like, the mother in her poems can envision the worst: ''If he had to choose between me / and them, / just one of them, / goodbye to me. / Take me, / take him, / God forbid them.''

Hat three: wife to her high-school sweetheart, Matt Garrison, a lawyer. At 42, she's been married 20 years. On this night, after feeding and bathing the kids and reading them to bed, both parents go back to work. She'll fall asleep at midnight reading a manuscript, while on the other side of the bed, he's still thumbing his BlackBerry. (''I'm not half / of what I meant to be. / Among other things, the mother / of three. Too tired, tonight, / to seduce the father.'')

Hat four: the poet. Most writers would have moved quickly to capitalize on a first book's success, but Ms. Garrison says she was too happy and consumed with family. This she explains in ''Above the Roar,'' the final poem of her new book: ''When I was unhappy / words slipped ceaselessly / from my pen, / arrows down the page, / tears run together, / running to tell.''

But, she writes, when she was busy chasing naked little Walter ''down the hall where he dashed, / penis flying, proud and squealing, / to delay his bath a hundredth time -- / I was wordless, free. ''

Ms. Garrison wrote the first volume when she was a rising star at The New Yorker, having been hired straight out of Brown before advancing to become a fiction editor at 29. ''A Working Girl Can't Win'' was about boorish male bosses (''He was a thinker-aloud, couldn't have a thought / unless he spoke it out before an obedient listener''); young love (''For you she learned to wear a short black slip / and red lipstick, / how to order a glass of red wine / and finish it''); taking off a dress for a lover (''never rehearsed, but perfectly obvious: / in one motion up, over and gone / the X of her arms crossing and uncrossing''); and those paths not taken (''I'm never going to sleep / with Martin Amis / or anyone famous'').

The second book mixes her love of parenting with those middle-of-the-night worries. They're about hoping for more children (''For I want more -- / yet more / voices that pierce / my heart utterly''); waking in a panic (''And I leapt from sleep / If indeed I was sleeping / Belted my robe like a mother of old / And rushed to their beds to see ''); and the bittersweet moment when it's time to turn off the milk (''Goodbye, good boy. / What love, what sorrow, / to give you the heave-ho: / I'll have to wean you / starting tomorrow'').

Her poems have won praise in publications that rarely review poetry. Time magazine called the first book ''sweet and refreshing''; Newsweek, ''a wonderful collection''; Elle, ''wry, sexy, appealing.''

BUT no one knew better than Ms. Garrison the mixed blessing of having your poetry linked in the popular press with Ally McBeal and Carrie Bradshaw.

She is, among other things, the poetry editor at Knopf, an imprint of Random House, one of the country's most influential publishers of serious poetry. ''My book was both catapulted and smeared by the whole chick-lit movement,'' she says.

Poetry's literary establishment was not impressed. Library Journal wrote, ''Garrison entertains but shallowly.'' William Logan, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, wrote in The New Criterion, ''It's not that these poems are bad, though they're bad enough; it's that they're not sure what poems do, so they fall back on perky diary jotting, full of adolescent malaise.'' The Village Voice suggested that Ms. Garrison might have produced the first volume of poetry that could be turned into a sitcom. And when I asked Helen Vendler of Harvard, whom many consider the country's leading poetry critic, to put Ms. Garrison's work in context, she called back to say: ''I can't. I don't know Deborah Garrison's work.''

''Accessible'' is a word both fans and detractors use for her poetry. About this Ms. Garrison seems calm and balanced. ''You take the good with the bad,'' she says. ''If you're accessible that must mean you reached some degree of an audience. There's always that issue -- is accessible a good thing or bad in poetry? Look, it's not like I'm Jewel. And the greatest poetry through the years that lasts is accessible.''

As for reviews, she says she generally does not read them. ''Why? I know my own flaws intimately, and reviews can be so rattling.''

MS. GARRISON understands how rare her first book's success was. She's been Knopf's poetry editorsince leaving The New Yorker in 2000. While fiction and nonfiction writers have agents to submit manuscripts to publishers, most poets do not, because there's little money to be made in representing a poet who's not Billy Collins. Even highly regarded poets may get just a few thousand dollars for a book that might sell 1,500 to 3,000 copies.

So every day, Ms. Garrison opens her mail, and there are anywhere from two to a dozen unsolicited poetry manuscripts. ''Here's a letter -- she says I told her that her poems would find a place in this world,'' Ms. Garrison says. ''I honestly don't know if I said that. I don't remember her, to be honest.''

Virtually everyone will be rejected. Knopf -- along with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, W. W. Norton & Company and HarperCollins -- may be among the major poetry presses, but it publishes just a dozen volumes a year. In seven years as its poetry editor, Ms. Garrison has published just one previously unpublished poet, Sarah Arvio.

She tries to say something hopeful on the rejections. '' 'Alas' is a word I'll frequently use,'' she says. ''It sums up the whole situation: 'It's good -- alas, I have a full list.' ''

She has a reputation as a writer's editor. Besides editing poetry, she edits fiction and nonfiction for the Random House imprint Pantheon. When Julia Glass won the National Book Award in 2002 for her novel ''Three Junes,'' she singled out Ms. Garrison, ''my incredible editor.''

''She's not just my editor,'' Ms. Glass said in her acceptance speech. ''She's my anchor, she's my cheerleader, and she's my guru.'' Those things are also a fair summary of what Ms. Garrison tries to be for Daisy, Georgia and Walter.

FOR those who think of poets as pondering away the day, this would definitely not be Ms. Garrison. Few work as obsessively at balancing career, children and marriage. When she and her husband were ready for kids, both switched jobs. Mr. Garrison left a Manhattan law firm and late-night hours to be a counsel for a New Jersey company, so he can be home by 6:30. Ms. Garrison quit The New Yorker and weekly deadlines for her more flexible publishing job.

Montclair is equidistant from their offices. Ms. Garrison is on the 8:20 bus to the city every morning and on the 5:25 home. ''It's like a religion,'' she says. ''I don't stay a little longer at work to do that extra thing.'' Indeed, her new book has a poem about the 8:20 commute, ''Sestina for the Working Mother,'' and one on the 5:25 commute, ''To the Man in a Loden Coat.''

The family has a live-in baby sitter and a part-time housekeeper to anchor the household. On this evening, while Ms. Garrison met Georgia and Walter at home, Mr. Garrison picked up Daisy at her hip-hop dance class.

The first hour is for homework, a pre-bedtime snack (the baby sitter feeds the kids dinner) and news of the day. There's so much to tell, and everyone must talk first. Daisy found a millipede and is reading the sixth Harry Potter for the fifth time. Georgia is collecting string and ribbon to help the birds make nests. Walter says he's too shy to talk to me, and then 10 seconds later wants to stick his nose in my mouth to find out what kind of gum I'm chewing. ''Smells like strawberry bubble gum,'' Walter says. ''Guess what? I'm 4 and my birthday is Sept. 4, and next Sept. 4 I'll be 5, and the Sept. 4 after that -- ''

''Walter!'' everyone shouts.

''Walter has no volume control,'' Ms. Garrison says, adding that it's past bath time. This is a household where the children are expected to be in bed by 8 -- and actually are.

After baths, Mr. Garrison lowers the shades and Ms. Garrison reads Walter a book on front-end loaders. Ms. Garrison asks if Georgia would like to read her book ''Sheila Rae's Peppermint Stick'' aloud.

''You read it,'' Georgia says. ''They're hard and tiny words.''

As a reward to Walter for promising to stay in his big-boy bed all night, Mr. Garrison reads him a Spider-Man comic book, while Ms. Garrison goes downstairs to fix dinner for herself and her husband.

At the kitchen table, they consult the weekly calendar and divvy up driving assignments. Then Ms. Garrison catches up on e-mail for work and the soccer team, while Mr. Garrison leaves voice mail messages for colleagues to retrieve in the morning.

By 11, Ms. Garrison has the kitchen vacuumed, the lunches made and the dishwasher loaded and is headed upstairs. She gets into bed with her laptop and bill folder to check whether she needs to transfer money to pay the American Express bill. She reads a fiction manuscript for 45 minutes, until her head keeps dropping. When she turns off her light, her husband still has legal papers spread in front of him on his side of the bed.

In an instant it is 7 a.m., and Walter is climbing in between them to snuggle. He's been alone in his big-boy bed long enough.

A Drink in the Night

My eyes opened

at once for you were standing

by my side, you'd padded

in to ask for a drink in the night.

The cup was -- where?

Fallen down, behind?

Churning in the dishwasher, downstairs?

Too tired to care, I cupped

my hand and tipped it

to you. You stared, gulped,

some cold down your chin.

Whispered, ''Again!''

O wonder. You'd no idea

I could make a cup.

You've no idea what

I can do for you, or hope to.

You watched, curious and cool,

as I cupped some up

to my own lips, too,

then asked,

''Why does it taste better?''

From ''The Second Child''
By Deborah Garrison (Random House, 2007)


And, from seven years ago:

Poet, Editor, Working Girl


Published: April 23, 2000

In the fief of poetry, where status is a coin of the realm, Knopf is the high castle, the publisher of Modernist leviathans like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens and contemporary stars like Philip Levine, W. S. Merwin, Sharon Olds and Mark Strand.

Yet a literary age has passed at Knopf. A king has died, a successor named. And what is perhaps the most visible job in poetry editing belongs not only to a woman, but to a young woman who had the nerve to write an accessible book of poetry that sold well. T. S. Eliot probably wouldn't understand.

Deborah Garrison, Knopf's new poetry editor, lives and thrives in the rhythms of verse and understands her new role of literary gatekeeper.

''The hard question, when there are so many good poets out there,'' Ms. Garrison said, ''is: How do you choose these people you're going to elevate? The answer is: When you absolutely fall in love, when you want to read every word this person ever wrote.''

Ms. Garrison, 35, who began her new job in February, succeeds the late Harry Ford, which is akin to replacing Joe DiMaggio in center field for the Yankees. To many poets and poetry lovers, Mr. Ford was one of the best, if not the best, poetry editors of the 20th century.

Her red-brown hair pulled back, Ms. Garrison fidgets -- the girl in the third grade who couldn't stay still -- as she works in her Midtown Manhattan office amid the wrack of the literary life: unruly stacks of books, a riot of galleys and manuscripts. And, speaking at the speed of New York, she talks poetry.

''Poetry chooses you,'' said Ms. Garrison, who spent 15 years at The New Yorker, as an intern and an editor of fiction and nonfiction, before moving to Knopf. ''You don't choose poetry. You just get swept off your feet. If it chooses you, you have to live in it.''

Poetry has certainly chosen Ms. Garrison. Besides her recent hiring by Knopf, her first book of poems, ''A Working Girl Can't Win,'' has sold 20,000 hardcover copies -- a poetry best seller -- and recently came out in paperback.

Does Ms. Garrison, who will also be an editor at one of Knopf's sister imprints, Pantheon, tremble at succeeding a literary master like Mr. Ford?

''You can't make too much of it,'' she said in her no-nonsense way (picture a young Kate Hepburn let loose in the halls of poetry). ''You have to do your job, and get through each day.''

In her new position, Ms. Garrison faces a balancing act that involves coddling the princes and princesses of prosody, the aging mandarins of rhyme and meter, while cultivating midcareer poets and nurturing new, vital voices. She will still be a gatekeeper, but she plans to nudge the gate open a bit wider.

''Knopf's stateliness will counter any desire to raise hell,'' she said. ''I am working in the context of a great tradition. But I do want to bring in stuff that's fresh, that can stand next to Levine and Merwin.'' Mr. Levine, a Pulitzer Prize winner, taught Ms. Garrison as an undergraduate at Brown; now the student is the editor to the teacher.

Of Knopf's pre-eminence in this rarefied world, the poet Edward Hirsch, who began his publishing life with Knopf in 1981 and whose awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, said: ''It's the overall quality of the house, and it's the quality of the list itself. You join this particular group of poets who have such artistic distinction. You want to be in the company of those poets.''

There are other publishers married to poetry -- among major houses, Norton, Houghton Mifflin and Farrar, Straus & Giroux have fine lists -- but under Mr. Ford, Knopf became the country's leading publisher of poetry. ''The imprint has a certain power as far as what you can give a poet,'' Ms. Garrison says of Knopf, which publishes eight new hardcover volumes of poetry each year, in addition to paperback reprints, and receives about 1,000 submissions annually. ''It's a way of announcing them to the world.''

A typical Knopf poetry advance -- given that verse breaks even at best -- is $1,000. But being anointed a Knopf poet (think of it as a friendly lick from the Knopf borzoi) means higher visibility, which often leads to grants and awards, lucrative reading engagements and extensive reviews. Even the books themselves bleed a classic beauty. The paper is thick and textured, the type and layout as clean and inviting as a fresh-made bed.

Deborah Garrison the editor is also Deborah Garrison the poet. Her poems, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker, have been described as blunt, funny, subtle and smart.

John Updike wrote of her work in a prepublication blurb: ''With their short lines, sneaky rhymes and casual leaps of metaphor, Garrison's poems have a Dickinsonian intensity. . . . Many a working girl will recognize herself in the poems' running heroine, and male readers will part with her company reluctantly.''

Not that praise has been universal. Library Journal said that Ms. Garrison ''entertains, but shallowly.'' And she herself recalls a Village Voice review that dismissed her as ''a poster girl for accessible poetry,'' accessible being a word of four letters and one syllable in poetry nation.

Ms. Garrison worries that some poets will think that her book reflects the range of her taste, and she heard some secondhand grumbling when she was hired. ''I'm sure there were poets who thought, 'Oh, my God, her?' '' she said. ''But my own poetry is irrelevant to my role as an editor. My book would never have been on the Knopf list.''
And how does she reconcile the public life of her poetry with the private duties of editing? Ms. Garrison says it has never been a problem separating the two: ''Strangely, a poem becomes a world within itself when it's finally done.''

Coming-of-Age Diary

''Working Girl'' is a sort of coming-of-age diary of a woman in her 20's, focusing on work, love and longing. It is written in an even tone that ''is the kind of smooth, dark ice that conceals wildly rushing waters,'' as Ms. Garrison once wrote in a review of the poetry of Jane Kenyon.

Ms. Garrison was first smitten with poetry in the ninth grade, and it stayed with her, like a low-grade fever, through her undergraduate years at Brown (she also has a master's degree in literature from New York University). But it was at The New Yorker that she became serious. ''I was inspired to write by the talent at The New Yorker,'' she said. ''There was a desire to please a literary parent.''

It was out of those New York/New Yorker days that ''Working Girl'' grew, those days when she lived at the corner of East Fourth Street and Avenue A in the East Village and stayed after hours at The New Yorker typing, retyping and retyping again drafts of her poems, her obsessions.
Daniel Menaker, her editor at Random House and a former New Yorker colleague, is more emphatic. ''I think 'Working Girl' will have a long life on the backlist because it focuses on verities: love, marriage, romance, work,'' he said. ''It'll be in print for a long time. I can imagine that a 35-year-old woman who buys the book now will buy it for her 15-year-old daughter one day.''

Besides its accessibility, ''Working Girl'' also drew criticism because it sold well, Mr. Menaker said. ''There are some who think that sales success represents a setback for American poetry,'' he said.

''Working Girl'' sold 20,000 copies in hardcover. For a typical book of poetry, it's considered a victory to break 1,000 copies.

Ms. Garrison shrugs. ''When the stakes are small, the stakes are large,'' she said. ''Whatever I went for in my writing, I went for myself.''

'One Obsession at a Time'

Ms. Garrison, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., says she learned that confidence from her mother, Naomi. When Ms. Garrison, the second of three daughters, was 14, her father, Dr. Joel Gottlieb, an anesthesiologist, died of congenital heart disease.

''My mother was 40 when my father died,'' she said, ''and she had these three girls to take care of, and her whole life ahead of her, and she went ahead and did it.'' Her mother, who has a degree in architecture but became an accountant, is ''a go-getter,'' she said, ''a practical soul.''
A New York City working woman, the sophisticated older sister of her ''working girls,'' Ms. Garrison sits in her office and winds rubber bands around her fingers, binding her hands with mini-cat's cradles as she talks more poetry. ''You need to send stuff out there with energy. If you find your readers, there is a group out there larger than the 2,000 core readers of poetry.''

Ms. Garrison's poetry reviews for The New Yorker provide a clue to her taste. She praises Gerald Stern as a poet whose subject ''is the life of life'' rather than ''the life of language.'' She admires Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995, for poems that are ''frankly confiding'' and for being ''a poet with absolutely no airs.''

She doesn't want to overturn the Modernist and sometimes obscure tide of 20th-century poetry, but she does want to bring more readers to the joys of verse. ''Poetry can be pretentious sometimes,'' Ms. Garrison said. ''And if people feel poetry is this high citadel that you can't get into, it's bad for poetry.''

One night earlier this month, Ms. Garrison gave a reading with Sapphire, a New York City poet and novelist, at the Boston Public Library (April is National Poetry Month). The next gray, dreary morning, however, found her waiting in Upper Montclair, N.J., to catch a bus to work. The onetime Manhattan working girl is now a suburban working mother.

She waits with the other commuters, who graze in The Times or The Wall Street Journal, some of them already hypnotized by their Palms and laptops. The No. 66 DeCamp bus, $9.10 for the round trip, carries her down car-clotted Route 3, past Giants Stadium and the Manhattan skyline, through the Lincoln Tunnel to Midtown.

''Sometimes I work on the bus,'' said Ms. Garrison, who left Manhattan two years ago. ''But a lot of the time I use it as thinking time, about poems, about my life. It's the only time I don't have Daisy.''

Daisy is her 2-year-old daughter. Ms. Garrison's husband, Matt, is a lawyer for Medarex, a New Jersey biotechnology company. But Ms. Garrison, who is pregnant, doesn't fret about this pause in her life as a poet. ''You can only have one obsession at a time,'' she said, ''and having a child is like an obsession.''

Into the Cultural Shadows

Ms. Garrison assumes her job when poetry's noble profile is higher than it has been for decades. Which is to say it has crept from the cultural darkness into the cultural shadows.

The hip-hop omnipresence of rap has opened many ears to performance poetry and poetry slams. Bill Moyers's documentaries and books devoted to poets have introduced contemporary poetry to a broader audience, as has the hard work by Robert Pinsky, the activist poet laureate of the United States. Verse rides the subways nationwide, and countless atolls of poetry thrive on the Internet. Some 1,200 poetry titles were published in the United States in 1999. And in recent weeks ''Beowulf,'' translated by the Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, has heroically clung to the rungs of the Times's fiction best-seller list.

As e-culture erodes attention spans, some may chalk this poetry boomlet up to people's desire to devour Culture in bite-size chunks. But Mr. Hirsch believes otherwise. ''It's a moment in the culture,'' he said. ''People are finding that mass media can't satisfy their spiritual needs.''

Ms. Garrison added: ''There's a real yearning for authenticity. It's just such a pure thing. Poetry isn't being optioned to the movies for $3 million. Poetry is immune to all that stuff. It's a haven.''

Ms. Garrison wants to spirit more readers away to that haven. Like any good editor, she wants to sell books. The Knopf Group, which includes the Knopf imprint, Pantheon, Vintage, Schocken and Everyman's Library and is a division of Random House, sells about 250,000 poetry books a year. At the low end, a Knopf hardcover book of poetry will have a print run of 4,000 copies and sometimes not come close to selling that number. On the other hand, Sharon Olds's ''Dead and the Living'' has sold 60,000 copies -- a poetry mega-hit -- in hardcover and paper.

In Ms. Garrison's eyes, there's nothing wrong with commerce giving art a peck on the cheek.

Because most readers don't even know they need poetry, ''even something as simple as a book title matters,'' she said.

''You try to announce who you are a little bit. And the cover sells the book. The cover can be even more important in poetry.''

She's also counting on her energy and enthusiasm to sell Knopf's sales representatives on her writers. She wants the reps to remember her books after they've pitched to booksellers the novels and nonfiction books that lead the Knopf list.

She has already signed one writer who excites her: Franz Wright, a midcareer poet and son of the poet James Wright. ''I felt like I was reading a thriller,'' Ms. Garrison said of the manuscript, ''The Before Life,'' which she plans to publish on Knopf's spring 2001 list.
It was such energy and care that caused Sonny Mehta, the Knopf Group's president, to focus on Ms. Garrison. He interviewed other candidates, but said he was drawn to her because ''there was something so fresh about Deborah, and I admired her poetry.''

He also liked that she was an outsider to book publishing. ''There was a chance she'd bring fresh air with her,'' Mr. Mehta said. ''Publishing is so hermetic sometimes.''

Despite her poetic side, Ms. Garrison is known as a strong, practical and empathetic editor. Former colleagues say she thrived on The New Yorker's weekly deadlines, even during the chaotic years when Tina Brown edited the magazine.

''She could talk you down from your ledge of misery,'' said Nancy Franklin, a New Yorker critic whom Ms. Garrison edited.

And she won't be afraid to edit. ''My job is to ask, 'What are you really trying to say here?' '' Ms. Garrison said of working with writers.

''People only respect you for you saying what you think. I should've been a shrink, because I think I know what you want to say here. And poetry has more burden to be clear than any other form.''

Ms. Garrison recalls hearing the late Joseph Brodsky read at New York University in 1987, soon after he had won the Nobel Prize. Mr. Brodsky, who had spent 18 months in a Soviet labor camp and who had been banished in 1972, tried to read a poem called ''May 24, 1980.''

The poem starts:

I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,

carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,

''It was so moving,'' Ms. Garrison said. ''He started in English, but somehow he couldn't recite it in English.''

After Brodsky asked his editor, David Rieff, to read the poem, Ms. Garrison said, he recited in Russian from memory.

''It was a poem about the life of an exile,'' she said. ''And suddenly, I realized I was crying.

''You felt the power, even in Russian. And I felt like I was the luckiest person to have been in that room for the past 10 minutes.''