A short question and answer with poet and critic, Edward Hirsch
Apr 2, 2011
What are some of the most significant transformations, in your opinion, that the Foundation has undergone in its grant-making history since 1925?
The Guggenheim Foundation began as a wonderfully novel experiment. In its first few years, the Foundation supported maybe a dozen Fellows in a few key fields. Over the years, its size and impact have grown tremendously. The initial 2 ½ million dollar endowment has ballooned to 250 million dollars. We now give 180 fellowships in some 78 fields, including such disciplines as Computer Science, Astrophysics, and African Studies. We also have a sturdy Latin American program. But, to me, the most significant thing about the Foundation may be the continuity of our mission, a commitment to funding individuals at the highest level to the do the work they were meant to do. We don’t support groups or organizations. We have always bet everything on the individual, which seems to me increasingly rare in a corporatized America.
Can you briefly describe your own experience as a Guggenheim Fellow? How did it impact you?
I applied for a Fellowship after my first book of poems was published. I was disappointed but not traumatized when I was turned down. I reapplied after my second book was accepted for publication, and I still remember how stunned I was when I received the letter asking for my financials. I was utterly thrilled! I was teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, but I had already accepted an appointment to teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. After the announcement came out, the president of Wayne telephoned to congratulate me—it was like hearing from Zeus—and while we were talking I realized that he didn’t have any idea that I had taken another job. I had to call him back and break the news.
The Guggenheim gave me a great career boost, a real vote of confidence, but, even more important, it gave me the greatest gift of all, the time and solitude to do my work. I spent a year working exclusively on poetry, thinking my way toward a third book of poems, but also trying to figure out what a life in poetry might look like. The grant gave me the time not just to write, but also to think about my vocation, and how I wanted to fulfill it. I was on my path. My life’s work started to unfold before me.
What sort of impact does being the Foundation’s President now have on your own work as a poet?
The Foundation has broadened my horizons—as a poet and scholar, but also a person. I now read a much greater range of things that I had ever read before. I also look more knowledgably at photographs, see more contemporary art, and listen to all different kinds of contemporary music. I still drill deep down in poetry, but I also go much further afield in my studies. I’d like to think that the scope enlarges my poems. It has certainly enlarged me as a person.