I think most people have had a teacher who made a difference in their lives. Margrethe Alschwede taught a class entitled “Women’s Lives” where I went to college. I still reflect on that class as it continues to help me in so many varied and unnameable ways.
No doubt Pearl London was one of these teachers. As a new teacher, she started a course at New School in Greenwich Village entitled “Meet Poets and Poetry, with Pearl London and Guests”. Despite a list which included W. S. Merwin and John Ashberry, nobody really payed attention; few students signed up. Then Pearl spiked thing up a bit; she asked the poets to brings in works-in-progress, doodles, scrap pieces of paper that revealed the process of writing poetry for such poets as Adrienne Rich, Charles Simic, Muriel Rukeyser, and Derek Walcott, to name a few.
Set in an usual room with a nine-panel mural by Thomas Hart Benson, the course soon became sought-after by students and (future) prize-winning poets alike. And Pearl was not to be forgotten with her colorful style and excitement for poetry.
As I put up a new display for National Poetry Month, I came across Poetry in Person. Alexander Neubauer, also a teacher New School, learned of Pearl’s class and eventually became aware that there were tapes of these meetings with famous poets. He carefully edited and compiled the transcripts with background information on the poets. Neubauer writes about his editing process for Poetry in Person:
“My primary goal was to capture the poets’ voices and habits of thought as faithfully as possible, whether they spoke in complete paragraphs, like Walcott and Matthews, or sounded like telegrams. In short, poets not only spoke for themselves, they were also allowed to sound like themselves. Since cuts had to be made, much of Pearl London’s voice was lost in favor of space for the poets.”
Despite the focus on the poets, I think it is easy to feel the behind-the-scene energy of Pearl in the book, as Neubauer explains: “. . . Edward Hirsch repeats a line from Robert Frost to the effect that if a book of poetry holds twenty-nine poems, the book itself becomes the thirtieth poem . . . Pearl London loved that thought, and I think I know why. There was a narrative drive behind the rhythm of her questions, energized by a deep love of poetry–and poets. Her classroom became the thirtieth poem, and, one hopes, that energy and love will be present in this book.”
Thanks to all the Margrethes and Pearls in the world!