A.M. Juster introduced himself to me by mentioning Bidwell Hollow in a tweet.
It was the day before Thanksgiving and I, a lover of frigid winters, was relaxing and enjoying near-zero temperatures in western Massachusetts. Checking my phone, I saw the before-mentioned friendly tweet.
“A warm Twitter welcome to @BidwellHollow,” the tweet read. Who was A.M. Juster, I wondered, this person who welcomed people to Twitter?
My intrigue grew as I discovered that A.M. Juster is Michael J. Astrue, who served as Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. But Juster is also a published poet who’s also produced some books of translation.
And that’s why I’m excited to present this week’s interview with A.M. Juster. He’s an interesting civil servant-turned-artist, who uses Twitter for good.
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Q&A with A.M. Juster
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born at Maguire Air Force base in Fort Dix, N.J. because my dad was an Air Force pilot. While he was on active duty we also lived in Georgia, Alabama, and Oklahoma.
After his discharge, we stayed near Fort Dix, then moved to Boston because Peter Bent Brigham Hospital was the only place in the world that could treat my mom’s rare disease.
You’re a lawyer and former head of the Social Security Administration who writes and critiques poetry, so how do you describe yourself at parties?
I’m not big on labels. In law school many of my classmates thought it was important to “become a lawyer,” but I always thought of the law as a tool for public service, not a source of identity. I feel the same way about MFA programs and “becoming a writer.”
How do you prioritize between the public service work you do and your writing?
I took early retirement in 2013 because I was diagnosed with a serious and unusual form of rheumatoid arthritis, so I just tell people that I’m retired. That seems to deter all but the few who are genuinely interested in me.
What first attracted you to poetry?
Family always came first, public service a close second, and writing, as much as I have loved it, a distant third. I wrote a lot in my head during slow commutes and idiotic mandatory meetings, and sometimes I could put pen to paper in airport terminals and hotel rooms. It’s an increasingly disdained model, but it worked for T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams.
Non-academics shouldn’t be embarrassed about their work—I think their jobs often provide better experience to support good poems than an academic career does.
When did you start writing poetry?
I co-won an Arbor Day poetry contest when I was eight, so somewhere, in the roots of an oak tree beside a parking lot for what is now a middle school, there is a time capsule with my first poem.
I loved poetry even at that early age because my mom used to read to me (mostly A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss) beneath the biggest tree in our front yard.
By my count, you’ve translated works from five languages into English. Is that correct? And how many languages do you speak or read/write?
My count is eight—Latin, French, Italian, German, Middle Welsh, Oromo, Chinese, and Old English. I don’t consider myself fluent in any of them, and I worked off literal and phonetic translations for the Oromo and the Chinese.
My original foreign language was German. In the fifth grade my teacher put me in the back row and told me not to worry about the classroom discussion and to read whatever I wanted to read. I read adventure novels (Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson), all the Isaac Asimov I could find, an introductory college textbook on nuclear physics, and an introductory German textbook.
I didn’t get that far, but almost five decades later I could—by going very slowly—read the scholarly notes I needed for my Maximianus commentary and translate the section of the medieval poem Parzival that I need for my in-progress anthology of poems about the phoenix myth.
I took five years of both Latin and French at Roxbury Latin, and those are my best languages. In recent years I have tried to get as far as I could on my own when I wanted to learn another language, then I took or audited courses at local universities. I studied Middle Welsh and Old English at Harvard, and Italian at Tufts.
What’s your approach to using Twitter to connect with other poets and writers?
On Twitter I avoid tweeting about politics, cats, and recent meals—it’s all poetry all the time with only very occasional exceptions. I also try to offer content that you can’t find elsewhere.
Most of the Twitter #poetrycommunity focuses on a small number of hip and heralded British and American free verse poets. I concentrate on traditional considerations of form, and I wander temporally and geographically. A tweet on Horace may be followed by a new Nigerian poem.
Do you have any advice to writers and poets on using Twitter?
Twitter and other social media (I concentrate on Twitter because it is hard to succeed in even one medium) can suck away your time and your emotional energy. I tell friends to follow people who are showing you new things in your primary area of interest, not just reinforcing what you already know or believe.
Who are some poets that you admire?
From the more distant past I love Horace, Ovid, Dante, Gwerful Mechain, Shakespeare, Marlowe (they are two different people), Donne, Swift and Byron. More recently I love Eliot, Auden, Plath, Heaney, Szymborska, Walcott, Akhmatova, Brodsky and Wilbur. Among the living I love Marilyn Hacker, Kay Ryan, Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy, Wendy Cope, Rhina Espaillat and Adam Zagajewski. In the younger generation I am a huge fan of Caitlin Doyle.
Have you read any good books lately?
I have reviewed a lot of dreadful biographies of poets lately, so this year I haven’t read as much great poetry as I wish I had, but everyone should be reading Marilyn Hacker’s Blazons (Carcanet 2019) and Rhina Espaillat’s And After All (Able Muse Press 2019).
Anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about A.M. Juster?
I am excited that I have a new book of mostly original poetry coming out in the next 12-18 months. It’s called Wonder andWrath, and it will be published by Paul Dry Books. The handful of translations include what I believe is our earliest extant poem by a woman complaining about domestic abuse—a stunning englyn by Gwerful Mechain. It will also include our last significant poem in Latin—A.E. Housman’s heartbreaking love elegy for the great unrequited love of his life, Moses Jackson.
Thank you to A.M. Juster for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website’s contact form to reach out.
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