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Interview with Poet Sandra Hochman, author of Loving Robert Lowell

Poets are often an intriguing bunch, and Sandra Hochman is no exception.  She was on the front lines of the women’s movement and even interviewed Gloria Steinem.  She also directed 1973 documentary Year of the Woman.

Her first book in 40 years is a memoir, Loving Robert Lowell (Turner Publishing, June 27, 2017).  Lowell also was a poet and a married man.  The book description says, “Sandra Hochman was 25 when she received a journalism assignment that changed her life: interview Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell. She called him to set a time to speak and he suggested they meet immediately at the Russian Tea Room in New York. There, he confessed he had just left his wife. Many martinis later, they began a heady and disorienting affair with more heat than city asphalt baking in the sun.”

I was lucky enough to send her a few interview questions.  Please give her a warm welcome.

How did you begin as a writer? What inspired you to write, how did you keep going, and what stumbling blocks did you face and overcome?

My parents hated each other. They got divorced when I was young and they sent me to boarding school. In boarding school, I was lucky. God blessed me. I had a great teacher who took an interest in me and encouraged my writing. I was so lonely. His encouragement meant everything to me. I kept writing to get his attention. I found that by writing I was able to get a lot of attention.

Later, having a child of my own was a stumbling block to my writing career because it was expensive to support her. Because her father didn’t support her, I had to write to make money, rather than write for pleasure.

I wrote novels to make money to send my daughter to private school and pay for her nanny. With every book, I got paid. Jogging was Ariel’s 6th grade payment. Happiness Is Too Much Trouble paid for her 10th grade. Each book represented 2 years of her private school. Only my poetry I wrote for pleasure.

You’ve interviewed a number of famous celebrities and feminists in the past, particularly as part of the Year of the Woman documentary.  How did that experience influence or not influence your writing?

Making Year of the Woman with the producer Porter Bibb was the most fun I ever had in my life. I was the co-producer, director, and star. Art Buchwald plays the chauvinist pig and I play the revolutionary feminist.

I had an all-woman crew long before that was a fashionable thing to do. The difference between making a documentary and writing is the difference between going to Pittsburgh or to Paris. Making a film is Paris. It’s so much fun. Especially when you are in charge. Porter let me call the shots.

I also learned the unglamorous parts of making a film: hiring lawyers, making contracts. I loved it all. Movie making made me feel good. It was a boost to my ego, and when you feel good it’s easier to write. When you feel like shit it’s hard to write.

Your memoir, Loving Robert Lowell, will be published this month, what should readers take away from it about being a poet and how the relationship shaped your future?

Robert Lowell gave me wonderful advice. He said, “Sandra, never compete with your peers. Take your poem and float it down the stream of history. The greatest poets don’t compare their work to their peers’.  They compare it to the greatest poets of all time.” It was interesting advice and an important takeaway for me.

The other thing I learned from him is how he framed his problems as “grist for the mill.” He joked that the problem was the mill itself (his mind).

After our affair ended, I was very depressed. Then a few years after Robert Lowell and I broke up, I realized I could not have handled the problems of his illness. I was glad that I was no longer with him. But it took a few years. I never was as happy with any man as I was with Robert Lowell. It was the only time in my life when I had a really great relationship. I admired him more than any other man on earth.

Thank you so much, Sandra, for answering my questions.  I have so many more!

About the Poet:

Sandra Hochman is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet with six volumes of poetry. She also authored two nonfiction books and directed a 1973 documentary, Year of the Woman, currently enjoying a renaissance. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and she was a columnist for Harper’s Bazaar.

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    What a fascinating interview!

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    It sounds like she’s had a fascinating life so I bet that book is great.