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Bibliophiles

Netflix and poetry in Darryl Pinckney’s post-pandemic literary life

Author Darryl Pinckney.Dominique Nabokov

The author Darryl Pinckney was a college undergrad when he enrolled in a creative writing class taught by one of the country’s foremost writers, Elizabeth Hardwick. He found not only a teacher, but also a friend and mentor who guided him into the upper echelons of New York City’s literati. Pinckney recounts his long apprenticeship in his new memoir “Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan.” A novelist, playwright, and essayist, Pinckney also writes regularly for The New York Review of Books, among other publications. The Indianapolis native lives in Manhattan with his partner, the British poet James Fenton.

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BOOKS: What are you reading?

PINCKNEY:The Book of Not” by Tsitsi Dangarembga, which came out over 10 years ago. It’s the second in her trilogy of autobiographical/ coming of age novels. She’s an extraordinary, interesting writer from Zimbabwe. I’ve also been reading Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” since June. It was my mother’s favorite novel. I wonder what would have attracted a Black girl in the segregated South to this mean female character, Becky Sharp. Maybe because my mother had to be on good behavior all the time, she found a book about someone who flipped off everyone appealing.

BOOKS: Did you read any memoirs while writing your own that you would recommend?

PINCKNEY: I didn’t read this for my own project but one of the strangest is the autobiography of Madame de La Tour du Pin, which is about her life during the French Revolution. She writes so well it’s all very vivid and exciting.

BOOKS: What is your favorite genre to read?

PINCKNEY: I probably read more history than anything.

BOOKS: How long have you been a fan of history books?

PINCKNEY: I wrote an article when Queen Elizabeth died and that reminded me of what a kind of passion I had had for English history as an adolescent and how bewildering it was to my parents. I started by reading Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” in junior high and then I discovered the Stuarts, which coincided with discovering I was gay.

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BOOKS: How have you changed as a reader?

PINCKNEY: It’s hard to make room for reading for pleasure now. Everything is somehow in the direction of work. Fiction reading has been a casualty of the pandemic for me. I’ve fallen into the habit of surfing YouTube or Netflix instead. I’m not into social media because my own narcissism is so overwhelming. I don’t have room for anyone else’s. That applies to contemporary fiction too. I would like to know what Knausgaard is up to but I’m too busy sniffing myself.

BOOKS: What kind of reader were you before you met Elizabeth Hardwick?

PINCKNEY: Probably rather narrow in my taste, or predictable—a reader in need of advice.

BOOKS: Who were the writers she recommended to you?

PINCKNEY: The poet Elizabeth Bishop. Also Flannery O’Connor, Jean Rhys and D.H. Lawrence. She was very keen on his stories. She made people who’d become corny not corny. She took Charlotte Brontë very seriously. I can remember the first line of a conversation she started with Mary McCarthy. She said, “I don’t believe Jane Eyre.” As a narrator they didn’t trust her. I also still keep in mind what she said about always reading poetry before writing prose.

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BOOKS: Which poets do you read before you start writing?

PINCKNEY: He wouldn’t like for me to say so but I do read James Fenton. Also Louise Glück and Danez Smith. I always look back at Auden. And Whitman, especially about America, because he’s so expansive in his feelings for the country.

BOOKS: Have you read poetry before writing for a long time?

PINCKNEY: Yeah. It’s a pause from the rest of the day. It helps me calm down before I start. Also you have to start with a little humility. You are striving in everything you try.

BOOKS: Do you keep a to-be-read pile?

PINCKNEY: I’m afraid I do. It’s not singular. There are three stacks. One stack of things I want to read, a stack of things I’ve been sent to read, and then an accumulating stack for my next project. It’s bad. It’s a fantasy of time, energy and sobriety.