On the strangest job interview I've ever had
The poet lives in a white farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. If you are able to follow the directions he gives you, you’ll turn right at a white fence. The fence swings open, slowly and surely, when it senses your car—a rare concession, here, to technology. You’ll inch through the gate and find a short driveway leading to the house and a large white-and-green building known as the barn.
If, however, you follow the directions the GPS gives you—whether because you can’t understand the poet when he tells you how to get there, or because you simply trust the GPS more—you’ll turn right about fifty feet after the white fence, which you probably won’t even notice, onto a winding country road called Field Lane. You will follow its twists and loops for about a mile, through woods, through fields, past other farms, past a horse in a pasture, past a red-headed woodpecker gnawing at a tree, up a hill, down a hill, over several gaping potholes, around a corner, and, finally, to the white farmhouse. It is only then that you will understand what kind of place you have come to.
The poet is somewhat famous, although not very famous, and he was then ninety-five years old. I visited him on August 1st of 2020 to see about a job. My mother and I drove there from Boston. The trip took us west, through the Berkshires. Past a sign announcing that, at 1,724 feet above sea level, we were driving over the highest point on I-90 east of South Dakota. Past wildflowers: Queen Anne’s Lace, something purple. Past signs for wineries and breweries and dispensaries. Past a shuttered for-profit vocational school called Salter College, housed in a building off the interstate that once held a strip joint called The Gold Club but, ever since July of 2019, when Salter College was forced out of business by the Massachusetts attorney general for defrauding its students, now holds nothing at all.
The job was to be the poet’s assistant. I saw the listing on Mediabistro and applied on a whim. Less than twenty-four hours later he emailed me, or someone emailed me on his behalf, inviting me to visit him at his home. I took my mother because I hadn’t driven in almost two years and, as the poet put it when he called me to give me the directions I would later ignore, “to make sure I’m not a monster.”
The poet is certainly not a monster. He is a strong and very old man, a self-professed “computer moron,” a writer, a dealer of Old Masters fine art, a truth-teller, a self-proclaimed “terrific cook,” and a repository of stories. When I met him he was wearing a blue mask, a red shirt, khakis and white sneakers. “Hello,” he said, raising one large mottled hand, and I turned from the flock of pheasants I was examining and followed him around the house.
The poet lives in a ramshackle farmhouse with a back porch that faces two apple trees and a pond. We sat on the porch, my mother and the poet and I, at a safe distance. It was then that we removed our masks. I would have preferred to keep them on—there was no real chance I had the virus, having not left the house for several months, but of course I still found the idea of infecting him terrifying—but he insisted, because he had cooked us lunch. A caretaker brought out apple cider. And then we began to talk.
I had been expecting a job interview, but this was not a job interview. I asked him about the hours—“theoretically nine to five”—and the pay—thirty-five thousand dollars a year. I asked him what I would be doing: in addition to finding his glasses and going to the post office, he said, I would help prepare his archives for their ultimate destination at the Beinecke Library, the same library I’d worked at for two years in college. “The job will be there even if I kick the bucket,” he said, answering a question I had not quite been able to ask. I said that all sounded fine. I wasn’t sure it did, but I also wasn’t sure if I had the job or not.
And then I asked where I might live if I took the job. This was a small, rural town, not a place you could easily find an apartment. He said the best place was the spare room upstairs. “It’s very beautiful,” he said. “This house, it’s very beautiful.”
When I asked if he had any more questions for me—about my qualifications, I think I said—he said no. “I know everything I need to know about you from the letter you wrote me,” he said.
He was talking about my cover letter, and I felt guilty, because I did not think the letter told him much about me at all. I had written it the same way I wrote all my cover letters—manically, assiduously, obsequiously, as if this job was all I wanted in the world. I written lines like “In the newspaper business, one rarely has time to sit with one’s words.” I had tricked this poor old man into thinking I was serious and contemplative, sweet and crotchety, and that I loved poetry, “sometimes ferociously, more ferociously even than prose.” This was true, but it had a lie inside of it. I love exactly four poems. The entire rest of the genre, I have no use for.
But he had no more questions, so I had to ask more questions. “How did you get into art dealing?” I asked. I knew he made his living this way, to support his poetry. He sold fine art, old art, mostly the Spanish and Italian masters. I had written, in my cover letter, about how much I loved Goya. The Black Paintings, the Disasters of War. I had meant that.
And then he answered, or rather he did not answer. He told me about a Mediterranean cruise his family took when he was a boy. He told me about the ricocheted bullet that pierced his leg on the island of Rhodes, a byproduct of a failed Greek Revolution. I thought he kept saying it was the Venezuelans who shot him. I later realized that he must have been talking about the Venezelists: anti-royalist Greek liberals, who staged a failed coup d’état against in 1935.
He told me about a great many things. His first wife, a Spanish beauty. His years living in Rome: “The best way to learn a language is to show up broke in a new country.” A poem he was working on, about why a friend of his had been so attracted to crazy women. The time he, as a young Navy cadet, spent a night in jail after saying “some words you shouldn’t say to police officers.” His years teaching in China. His brother-in-law, who oversaw the atom bomb program, and who he had never gotten along with. His uncles who were all barbers, including one who later won the Nobel Prize. His florist, who was Marc Chagall’s granddaughter.
Often, after telling a story, he would pause and say, “That’s a good story.”
He did not, for quite a while, tell me about how he became an art dealer. Eventually he said that a friend had wanted to sell a painting for $50 and he had asked, if he could sell it for $60, could he keep the extra money? The friend said yes. He made $15 on his first sale. He kept at it. And then, eventually, someone asked him to sell an El Greco.
Lunch came. The caretaker brought guacamole and crackers, paper plates, more cider. Gnocchi the poet had cooked, in a peanut and sweet potato sauce studded with peas and ginger and crisp nubs of burnt garlic. “The reason it’s so good,” the poet said, “is because I burned the garlic.”
He gave me writing advice. “Angels are specific and the devil is general,” he said, and I nodded. “Some people have the idea that you write because you have something to say,” he said, and then scoffed and rolled his eyes back as if the very thought caused him great pain. His hands were like the body’s inside, dark and purple. He never said why one should write, or maybe he did, and I couldn’t understand him.
He told me about the beings he lived with, and who I might live with too. His wife of fifty years. The caretaker, Evelyn. Margie, the golden retriever. And the donkeys, two of them, who loved music. He went out every morning to play for them. “What kind of music?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, “Mozart.”
When Margie appeared he asked if I had a dog. “No,” I said, “we have a cat. But I had a dog growing up.”
“Ah,” he said, “so you know what it is to love a dog.”
I said yes. And inside I thought about how I hadn’t much loved our dog, and how my mother, who was still sitting beside me, knew this—knew this because she hadn’t loved the dog either. And I thought, too, about how startlingly familiar his phrasing was. How I’d written a poem, in high school, about the dog I had never loved, and how as she’d grown old and blind and fragile I’d grown guilty. I tried to make up for lost time. “Now I sit beside you / rub your pitiful hoary head and creaking ancient spine / feel the warm waves of your breathing / and know what it is to love a dog,” I wrote. (Yes, I was a teenaged sentimentalist.) I’d never been sure if I meant it or not. My brother said I didn’t. I stopped writing poetry when I got to college. I felt I could not trust it. Besides, it was taking me away from what I really wanted to do: I wrote mediocre poems because they were easier than mediocre short stories.
He invited us inside, to meet his wife and have some blueberry pie. I put my mask back on. His wife was lying on a hospital bed immediately inside. She’d broken her hip, the poet told me. Her face was translucent but her voice was warm and strong. “Hello,” she said, “I’m Jane.” I smiled through my mask and said that I was Mariah. We pretended to shake hands from across a great distance.
The house was cluttered with objects of great worth and no worth. There was art covering the walls. “Oh,” I said, when I saw two small black-and-white prints, “Goyas.” In the next room we passed a table stacked with magazines: the New Yorker, the Paris Review, others more obscure and promising. The ones on top were new. I wondered how old the ones on the bottom were.
I saw the upstairs bedroom he wanted me to live in. It was beautiful, dark, spacious, with its own bathroom and a balcony. There was art on the walls, but the most impressive piece was a painted folding screen that had come from China. I could not imagine living there.
We sat in a sitting room and had blueberry pie—"I take a whole wheat pie crust, and I put blueberries in it, and I bake it,” the poet said of his process—and coffee with grounds in it. We looked at the walls: Picasso, Matisse. The poet asked my mother what kind of art my father liked. “He likes David Hockney,” she said. “David Hockney has been in this house,” said the poet.
The poet’s stories got sadder. He told us about the time he figured out how to save Djuna Barnes thirty-seven dollars on printing costs, “which was a lot of money to her, because she was a drug addict.” He told me the last words she ever spoke to him, but I couldn’t make out what he said: it sounded like “follow the harp.” He told us about Strega, an Italian liquor, and looked around for a bottle. I think he would have made us drink some if he could find it. He told us about drinking with Dylan Thomas, “one of the great alcoholics of the twentieth century.” About a graveyard in the East Village where you could find a drink at four a.m.: shots of whiskey, stacked on a coffin.
“You want to be a novelist, yes?” he asked me. I said that I did. “I’d be happy to read your work,” he said. “You’re planning on going to grad school, I imagine?” he asked. I said I was thinking about it. “That’s perfect,” he said. “You could go to Vassar, and keep working here.”
Eventually he seemed to grow very tired, all at once. We thanked him and got up to leave.
When we got in the car to go home my mom sighed. “There was a sense of decay in there,” she said, and I nodded: the yellowing New Yorkers, the coffee with grounds, the dust in the air, the wife with the broken hip. “It seems like the kind of place that would be hard to leave.”
I did not take the job. (My older brother, a cryptocurrency investor, told me I should as soon as he found out how wealthy the poet was, and that he had no children: “Maybe he’ll put you in his will.”) I hope the poet doesn’t hold that against me. He’s still alive—I check every so often. But I didn’t take the job, because just interviewing for it gave me everything I wanted. I had applied because it sounded like an adventure, but there would not, I sensed, be much adventure after the initial strangeness. There would have been long, dark, quiet nights alone or with an old man full of remarkable stories he could not quite remember how to tell.