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Donald Hall: A Poet's View 'Out The Window.'

The 83-year-old former poet laureate reflects on how life has changed as he's grown older. "My body causes me trouble when I cross the room, but when I am sitting down writing, I am in my heaven — my old heaven," he says.

12:07

Other segments from the episode on February 8, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 8, 2012: Interview with Katherine Boo; Review of Chuck Prophet's album "Temple Beautiful"; Interview with Donald Hall; Review of DVD releases of television shows …

Transcript

February 8, 2012

Guest: Katherine Boo – Donald Hall

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A new book by our guest Katherine Boo takes us inside a shantytown on the edge of Mumbai, India's thriving financial capital. The residents of the slum, called Annawadi, experience a level of poverty hard for most Americans to imagine.

There are about 335 huts, though some inhabitants lack any shelter and sleep outside. Rat bites are common among sleeping children, and barely a handful of the 3,000 residents have the security of full-time employment.

A young trash-picker named Sunil(ph) worries constantly that he will remain small because he doesn't get enough to eat every day. Annawadi is next to the Mumbai Airport and surrounded by luxury hotels. Boo spent more than three years among residents of the slum, observing their social distinctions, their struggles to escape poverty and conflicts that sometimes threw them into the clutches of shockingly corrupt government officials.

Boo's book reads like a novel, but the characters are real. The New York Times book critic Janet Maslin said of Boo's storytelling gifts: Comparisons to Dickens are not unwarranted.

Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius grant. This is her first book. It's called "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well, Katherine Boo, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's good to have you. Let's begin with a reading from the book. This is in the prologue. Early on, we are introduced to this character Abdul. Tell us about him and set up this reading, if you will.

KATHERINE BOO: OK. Abdul Husain is 16 or maybe 18 or maybe 19. His parents are hopeless with dates. And for nearly his whole life, he's been supporting a family of 11, buying and selling the recyclable garbage that rich people throw away. And as the book begins, he's been accused of a terrible crime, which is the burning of a disabled woman, and the police are coming for him, and his parents tell him to hide because if he's arrested, then the family will go hungry. And so that's where the book begins.

DAVIES: And he runs into the shed where he keeps his material, right?

BOO: He's - in the Bollywood movies, the outlaw kid would be running off across the roof of a train, but Abdul, his whole world is this slum of Annawadi, and the only place he knows to go to hide is in the shed where he keeps all his garbage.

(Reading) Inside was carbon-black, frantic with rats, and yet relieving. His storeroom - 120 square feet, piled high to a leaky roof with the things in this world Abdul knew how to handle. Empty water and whiskey bottles, mildewed newspapers, used tampon applicators, wadded aluminum foil, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by monsoon, broken shoelaces, yellowed Q-Tips, snarled cassette tape, torn plastic casings that once held imitation Barbies.

(Reading) Somewhere in the darkness, there was a Berbee or Barbie itself, maimed in one of the experiments to which children who had many toys seemed to subject those toys no longer favored. Abdul had become expert over the years at minimizing distraction. He placed all such dolls in his trash pile chest-down.

(Reading) Avoid trouble. This was the operating principle of Abdul Hakim Husain, an idea so fiercely held that it seemed imprinted on his physical form. He had deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks, a body work hunched and wiry - the type that claimed less than its fair share of space when threading through people-choked slum lanes. Almost everything about him was recessed save the pop-out ears and the hair that curled upward, girlish, whenever he wiped his forehead of sweat.

(Reading) A modest, missible presence was a useful thing in Annawadi, the sumpy plug of slum in which he lived.

DAVIES: That's Katherine Boo, reading from her new book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." So Abdul was a guy who grew up picking through trash. He had a particular dexterity for sorting through garbage, right?

BOO: He'd been doing it since he was six. His muscles had developed around the labor. And so he became able to take what people threw away and make not just a subsistence living for his family but one of the best livings in the slum, and that caused some people to wish his family ill.

DAVIES: And that's because he graduated from just picking through trash but actually buying it from others and then getting it to recyclers, right?

BOO: Right.

DAVIES: So you were there for more than three years. How did people react at first to this blonde American woman, you know, in the slum?

BOO: Oh, god, at first I was a circus act. I was a freak. Everywhere I went, people would be like the Sheraton, the Hyatt, the Intercontinental. Because this slum, this slum was surrounded by luxury hotels, five luxury hotels, and people thought I'd lost my way, going from the airport to the Hyatt.

But the people in the slums had concerns a lot more pressing than my presence. They had work to do. They had families to raise. They had hopes to fulfill. And so after a while, they kind of relaxed and let me just follow them as they lived their lives. And one of the things that I would do was - I wasn't trying to gather people around a table and talk to them.

I was just going where they went. I was doing what they did, whether it was teaching kindergarten or stealing scrap metal at the airport or sorting garbage, and I would sit and listen and talk to them intermittently as they did their work because it was very important to me not to get in the way of their ability to make a living, but I also really wanted to know them.

DAVIES: Let me ask you to describe Annawadi, I mean, this slum. When you walk in, what do you see? How are people living?

BOO: Well, I'll describe it this way. You come into the Mumbai International Airport, you make a turn, and you go past a lavish Hyatt and a beautiful hotel called the Grand Maratha. By the time you get to the Hyatt, which is about three minutes in your car, you've already gone past this place.

There's a rocky road that goes into it, and you turn in, and the first thing you notice when you get into this landscape of hand-built, makeshift, crooked huts is one of the borders of the slum - or it was I came in 2008 - was this vast lake of extremely noxious sewage and petrochemicals and things that the people modernizing the glamorous airport had dumped in the lake.

And so it was almost beachfront property on this foul, malarial lake, and all around it in this, the single open space in the slum were people cooking and bathing and fighting and flirting. And there were goats and water buffalo. There was a little brothel, and men would line up outside the little brothel. And there was a liquor still.

And mainly there were families and children who were trying their best to find a niche in the global market economy. Almost no one in Annawadi had permanent work. Six people out of 3,000 last I checked had permanent work.

DAVIES: The corruption that you describe is just breathtaking. Everything comes at a price. The water taps that the government puts in are taken control of by the local political party. They charge for usage. Everything in the justice system - some of our characters get accused of a crime - everyone from the person who takes their statement to the people in jail wants a handout.

And then even medicines in the hospital are ripped off so that if you want - if you go to the hospital, and you want medicines, you have to get them yourselves. You say in here that the effect of corruption I find most under-acknowledged is a contraction not of economic possibility but of our moral universe. What do you mean?

BOO: I mean what I see all the time in children in any country is an enormous ethical imagination. I really think that from a young age, people have a sense of justice in a society that is so corrupt that even to help a neighbor bleeding on the street is to risk your own livelihood and your own liberty because the police system is so corrupt.

I think that that innate capacity for moral action gets sabotaged, gets abraded, and I think that I see that constantly in my work. I see constantly, that in incorrupt societies, in extremely viciously competitive societies, people's instinct to do the right thing gets turned upside down.

DAVIES: Katherine Boo's book is called "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Katherine Boo. She's written a new book about three years that she spent in a slum near the Mumbai Airport. It's called "Behind the Beautiful Forevers."

India is, of course, a country with a long-standing caste system. And I wondered, in a place like Annawadi, where you people from many different regions engaged in all kinds of pursuits, surrounded by a country that's supposed to be modernizing, to what extent castes, you know, determined how people were perceived. To what extent could people, you know, transcend that structure?

BOO: Most of the people in Annawadi were low caste, SC or OBC, if people are familiar with those terms. But what's happened in the cities is that people are free to invent their own livelihoods in a way that they aren't in the village. So in - for instance, there was one Brahmin family, they had come from a rural community, where the only work that the Brahmin head of the household would have been allowed to do was religious work.

But since nobody from this village was around, and there was somebody who needed a laborer to roll tar on the road today, he could go and do it and wouldn't be stigmatized in his community. Similarly, there are historical - there are traditional castes who do rag-picking and scrap-picking, and - but now so many people see that that's the only work they can get, that people of all manner of caste have come into that business and made it extremely competitive and difficult for those traditional people like the Matangs, who have been collecting for generation upon generation.

But one thing - one thing that was very clear to me is that the young people in a place like Annawadi aren't tripping on caste the way their parents are. They know their parents have these old views. But every day at the slum, it was more important, well, you know, can you hit a cricket pitch, can you dance? What are your - you know, do you have a good job? I mean, those things among the young people were much more important in determining who got respect and who didn't than the caste that they'd been born by.

DAVIES: The poverty that you describe is - I mean, it is so grinding. So many people are on the very edges of existence. What are some of the ways that people escape, I mean, escape their misery?

BOO: The drug of choice at Annawadi was something called Erazex, which is the Indian equivalent of White Out, that you - when you mistype, you white it out. And they just - people in the office buildings all around Annawadi would throw out the bottles when they were not quite empty, and the kids of Annawadi knew the value of the dregs. You just, you know, spit in the bottle and get it on a rag and sniff.

And you got a high that was - for one, it was hunger-killing for the people who didn't have enough to eat. It was a very effective alternative to food. But the other thing is it just, you know, this work just day after day collecting garbage in a society that repudiates them for the socially necessary work that they do, keeping the streets of the prospering city clean, that really wears on your mind.

And the kids were very much aware, and the adults, of the fact that the people who went in and out of the airports looked at them as if they were garbage, too. And, you know, a little Erazex after the workday could kind of take the edge off that.

DAVIES: One of the most remarkable things to read here was that you tell us in the book that no one in Annawadi was actually considered poor by traditional Indian benchmarks. Is that right? I mean, if they're not poor, who is poor?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOO: Go to the village, and you'll see what poor is. No, so officially, the poverty lines in many countries, including India, are set so low that officially the people that I'm writing about look like part of the great success narrative of modern global capitalism. They look like the more than 100 million people who have been freed since liberalization in India in 1991 from poverty.

So usually in my work, I'm not looking to write about the poorest and abject. I'm not looking to make you feel sorry for people. I want readers to have a connection more blooded and complex than pity or revulsion. But really, the main point I have to say is that on the books, these men, women and children have succeeded in the global economy. They're the success stories.

But I hope what my book shows is that it's a little more complicated than that.

DAVIES: Well, I mean, so many of them are just on the edge of losing, you know, food and shelter for the day. I mean, are the truly poor, are they rural poor who sleep out in the open? I mean, who are the...?

BOO: Well, many people in Annawadi sleep out in the open, too, but when Asha(ph) - in the book, I follow Asha, the mother, who has used politics and corruption to try to give her daughter a college education, I follow her back home to Vidarbha, a very poor agricultural region.

And when Asha walks through the door, everybody can see on her face and the face of her children how good life is in the Mumbai slums. Asha's grandmother walks on all fours, she's so bent from agricultural labor. And when Asha walks in that door, she stands mast straight.

So however you think - however tough it is in the Mumbai slums, as Abdul Husain says once, you know, it's - the city is hard on migrants, and it's terrible sometimes, but it's also better than anywhere else.

DAVIES: And you write about suicides, particularly among women. How common was that?

BOO: In my work in general, I don't just immerse in a community and follow people over a long period of time. I also gather public records, official records from public hospitals, from police stations, from courts, morgues, public health offices, schools, education offices.

And one of the things that I became very interested in when I was at Annawadi is how people died because I had a very strong sense that the official record of what happened to people wasn't accurate. And one of the things that I found was that there were women who were taking their own lives and just refusing the very limited options that they were afforded in terms of choosing who to marry, in terms of whether to have children or not.

They were opting out. They were committing suicide. Part of what I talk about in the book is I tell the story of one girl whose arranged marriage was fixed at 15 who felt very strongly that there was another life, a more liberated life for women outside the slum. But she just didn't know how to get there.

She would see these commercials, and the actresses were lifting up an orange soda and saying, you know, now have a little fun, have a little wildness. And she wanted that. And I think for many, many young women in the slums, it's just a question of I know it's happening, I know it's happening right outside the walls of the slum, but how can I get there?

DAVIES: And rat poison was available.

BOO: Yeah, rat poison was available for 35 rupees.

DAVIES: You know, as I consider how much time you spent among these folks, I have to believe that you must have felt a lot of affection and sympathy for so many of them. And, you know, given the poverty that they suffered under, I can imagine that you must have at times felt compelled to help them. I mean, what you or I spend for lunch would have been a windfall to so many of these people.

On the other hand, you know, the need is so immense that you could give everything you own, and there would be more of it. How did you deal with that feeling?

BOO: When I first came to Annawadi, I explained that I was there to write about them and that the constrictions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, involve that I didn't end up paying them for their stories. It's a convention in my profession that I struggle with. But at the same time, I know that if I had gone to Annawadi and started handing out money to some people and not to others, first of all it would have been a very disruptive thing, and also my hope is that by following people I'm looking not just at...

Often in journalism, stories about the poor began with a reporter going to an NGO and saying tell me about the good work you're doing, and let me follow you, and maybe if you could just pick out some real success stories, I'll write about them. I think that those kind of stories do an injustice to the enormous amount of creative and enterprising problem-solving that low-income people do for themselves, that most of the ways that people get out of poverty in the United States, in India and anywhere else I've ever been, is through their own imaginations and their own fortitude.

And I don't automatically presume that my way - there were certain moments that - where I wanted to intervene and say no, this is what I would do. But it's not necessarily the case that in their societies, my way would have been the best way.

There are as a journalist, for me there are certain times when you absolutely stop being a journalist and you start being a human being. And there was one particular instance that I describe - a very, very brutal eviction, where some - a gang of drunken men set upon a young mother.

And there's a case where, no, you're not going to sit back and document this, you're going to do whatever you can to diffuse the violence. I will say this, that I have a few friends who do this kind of immersion journalism, and it's extremely difficult sometimes to remember that you're there as a journalist and not a social worker.

And I guess the only thing I can say is that you - what you end up seeing is you get a very close idea of how - of what the needs really are, and then you come from that reporting and try to think in your own charitable giving, well, you know, what can I do to do the most good, not just for one person who I happened to be writing about but for people that I've never met.

DAVIES: Well, Katherine Boo, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BOO: Thank you for having me, Dave.

GROSS: Katherine Boo spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her new book is called "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Chuck Prophet has referred to his new album, "Temple Beautiful," as a love letter to San Francisco. Prophet has spent 30 years in San Francisco, with detour south to L.A., where he was a member of the band Green On Red, and part of the city's psychedelic pop scene of the early '80s. Rock critic Ken Tucker says: You don't have to be a San Francisco native to enjoy "Temple Beautiful."

[Soundbite of song, “Temple Beautiful]

PROPHET: (Singing) There she stood right next to me at the Temple Beautiful. The lights went off and the band came on at the Temple Beautiful. She got so excited. Shooby doo wop-wop. So excited. Shooby doo wop-wop. There she stood right next to me at the Temple Beautiful.

[end soundbite]

TUCKER; Chuck Prophet's new album, "Temple Beautiful," takes its name from a former synagogue that hosted punk-rock shows in the late '70s and early '80s. It was next door to the temple overseen by the cult leader Jim Jones. That may sound like a grim or black-humored reference point around which to erect an album, but with Chuck Prophet, grimness and humor, fact and fiction mingle freely. Before anything else, he's a guitar player with a melodically nasal voice whose phrasing favors the whimsical and the querulous.

[soundbite of song, “Play That Song Again”]

PROPHET: (Singing) Rebecca, she was here. Rebecca, now she's gone. Rebecca got a nasty streak, seven miles long. Oh. Rebecca said don't ask me why. You wouldn't understand. My mother came from Omaha. My father, Vietnam. Put your hands together. Now pull your hands apart. I say oh, oh, oh, play that song again. Oh, oh, oh, play that song again. Oh, oh, oh, I could hear it all night long.

[end soundbite]

TUCKER: Over the course of this album, Prophet takes you on a tour of San Francisco as he's lived and dreamed it - watching Castro Street Halloween parades, the famous local stripper Carol Doda and the San Francisco Giants-era Willie Mays. Prophet says his album is filled with quote-unquote, "Google-free" facts and non-facts to suit the mythology he wants to create about the city he's so fond of.

[soundbite of song, “Castro Halloween”]

PROPHET: (Singing) I hear the church bells ring, Willie Mays is up at bat. I hear the crowd go wild, all he did was touch his hat. All in meanwhile, Carol Doda stood up and said I won't be ignored. She showed them everything she had, then she show them all a little more. Jim Jones...

[end soundbite]

TUCKER: One of the ways Prophet achieves tension and release in his songs is by contrasting the content of the lyrics with the tone of the music. Take, for example, "White Night, Big City," about the 1978 murder of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and the riots that followed the trial of Milk's killer, Dan White. Prophet frames his version of that narrative with a song that has a jaunty melody, a refrain featuring doo-wop harmonies and openhearted compassion. The result is music whose ironies aren't cheap ones.

[soundbite of song, "white night, big city"]

PROPHET: (Singing) White night. White night. Big city. Big city. White night. White night. White night. Big city. Big city. White night. What do you know? What? What do you know about? What? What do you know? What? What do you know about? What? What went on. What? 30 years ago. White night. White night. Big city. Big city. White night. Breaking the law in the great big city. White night. White night.

TUCKER: Ultimately, you can listen to "Temple Beautiful" for the superficial catchiness of its tunes, Prophet's slash guitar chords, his searching, keening vocals and have a good time. And if you want to, you can listen more closely to what he's getting at on this album, and experience it as one man's alternative history of three decades of West Coast culture and politics. All that, plus a few awfully good songs about having your heart broken.

GROSS; Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Chuck Prophet's new album called "Temple Beautiful."

[soundbite of song, "Castro Halloween"]

PROPHET: (Singing) When the shots rang out and two men died, you took off your mask just to see me cry. Did I dream you up or did you dream me? Is there any place else you would rather be? Halloween was here but now it's gone. There the skirts and heels are marching on. Halloween is gone.

[end soundbite]

GROSS: Coming up, former poet laureate Donald Hall reflects on how his life has changed in his 80s. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: We've been following the life and work of poet Donald Hall over the years. He's a former poet laureate and professor. He had cancer when he was in his 60s. After he went into remission his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, was diagnosed with leukemia. She died in 1995. I recently read an essay Donald Hall wrote in The New Yorker about his life at the age of 83. He says he teeters when he walks and he can no longer drive. He spends a lot of time looking out the window in his New Hampshire house, which has been in his family for several generations. After reading the essay which is called "Out the Window," I wanted to talk with Hall again. Since it's hard for him to get out of the house, especially in winter, we just called him up.

GROSS: Donald Hall, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love your article in The New Yorker and it just made me think about all the really - there's one section in it that made me think about all the real annoying ways that people who are old or who are young or who are short - like me - are patronized in ways that the people who are patronizing you don't - they think they're being nice like...

HALL: Right.

GROSS: ...they think they're flattering you and they're so not. And I think you have the ultimate story in that category. Just to set it up a little bit, you were in Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts, an incredibly prestigious award, and you came early so that you could go to a couple of museums. So you're in a museum and you're in a wheelchair because you can't be on your feet for long and your friend is wheeling you around and you see a Henry Moore sculpture and you knew Henry Moore. You had written a New Yorker article about him, you'd written a book about him. And OK, so then what happens?

HALL: OK. We were going around the museum and thereto before the medal ceremony. I can't stand up very long, so a friend of mine pushes me around and we look at pictures together. At one point we're standing looking at a Henry Moore sculpture, a carving, and a museum guard, who's standing nearby, very kindly came over and told us that this was Henry Moore and that there were other Henry Moores around the museum. I had actually written a New Yorker profile about Henry Moore, later a book, and I knew Henry Moore very well. I thought for a second on telling this guard, but then I thought it's too egotistical and I might embarrass the guy, so I didn't say anything. We went on and looked at many pictures. And later that morning we stopped to have lunch at the cafeteria. When we came out from lunch, me in a wheelchair and my friend Linda pushing me, the same man, the same guard said to Linda, did you have nice lunch? And she answered him. And then he leaned down, smiled a hideous smile, shook his finger and he said, did we have a nice din-din?

GROSS: That's so horrible. I mean like you knew Henry Moore. You knew the artist you were looking at. You are a man of words. I mean you're a poet. You are still writing. You were receiving the National Medal of Arts and he asked you if you enjoyed your din-din, as if it's like you were 2 years old or something.

HALL: He talked baby talk at me. And I, and we were just so flabbergasted we didn't say anything back to him.

GROSS; Did you want to? Did part of you want to say like, cut it out, would you?

[soundbite of laughter]

HALL: I didn't know what to say. I could've called him an idiot or something but I was taken aback, totally taken aback and I was amused. I thought it was funny that he should make such a mistake. I wouldn't talk baby talk like that to a baby. And here he was, talking it to an 83-year-old.

GROSS: Well, part of what you write about in your New Yorker article is what the experience of getting older is like for you now at 83. What are some of the things that's surprising you most about getting older and about having trouble keeping your balance and needing a wheelchair when you're out, you know, having trouble with your fingers, buttoning your buttons.

HALL: Yes. All that is natural and it's a little depressing and progressive. Just recently my knees have started buckling and I have a brace on one of them. It's a steady kind of deterioration. The crazy thing is that I feel cheerful through all of it. And I don't mean that everyone does, but I do. Oh, for four and a half years now, I've hardly had a sad thought, except to curse a bit at my own clumsiness now.

GROSS: And you are a man who is not unfamiliar with depression, am I right?

HALL: Oh, my late wife, Jane Kenyon, had it and when she died, she was young, she was 47 when she died. I, well, I went through anguish. I yelled and I screamed, and then I had depression for while. But I was able to write and that really saved my life and perhaps that's what saves my life right now. I am physically handicapped, but I can sit at my chair and work at my writing, and I enjoy it. I have to do draft after draft after draft. I've always done that. I'm doing it more with prose than I used to, to get the words just right, you know? It takes me a long time, but I love doing it, and I have to do it every day or I feel I'm not doing my job.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you to read a short passage from your recent New Yorker article "Out the Window."

HALL: Yeah. (Reading) After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other. Thirty was terrifying. Forty I never noticed because I was drunk. Fifty was the best, the total change of life. Sixty extended the bliss of 50. And then came my cancers, Jane's death, and over the years I've traveled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy.

GROSS: What is most unanticipated to you about this galaxy of being old?

HALL: Well, it probably is the attitudes of others toward age. And I don’t mean to feel superior, probably – or to sound superior. Probably when I was a young man, like 60, I looked at 83-year-olds as if they came from another galaxy. And now I find myself being seen that way. As I don’t exist. People don’t see me. I know I would've been like that but it is weird to be in that position.

GROSS: So now you said before that your attitude has been really cheerful in spite of, like, diminishing physical abilities. And, you know, like one way of dealing with diminishing physical abilities or illness is to get, like, really angry with your body. Apparently you don’t feel that way.

HALL: Not really, no. No. I lamented disappearances but I can't feel angry about it. It's natural. I am probably older at 83 than some people are at 90 - physically older. But as long as I can do my work and continue to enjoy myself working on words, I feel fulfilled. But my body causes me trouble when I cross the room; when I'm sitting down writing and I am in my heaven, my old heaven.

HALL: I began writing when I was 12, I don’t think very well, but I've been doing it my whole life and it's the kind of center of my life, together with loves and children. Writing is something I have that not everyone has, that I adore.

GROSS: Now, you mention in this article that you're not writing poetry anymore; you're writing prose. Why is that?

HALL: I felt poetry slipping away and I'm not sure why. It was palpable. And I've always felt that poetry was particularly erotic, more than prose was.

GROSS: Do you mean like erotic in subject matter or sensual in terms of the language itself?

HALL: In terms of the language itself.

GROSS: OK.

HALL: I say that you read poems not with your eyes and not with your ears, but with your mouth. You taste it. This part of poetry, which is essential to me, seems to have diminished gradually until finally I really don't have it. I don’t have so much particular inspiration either. It used to be that phrases, lines, would come into my head, often many of them in the period of, you know, five days or a week.

HALL: And maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about, but the words had a kind of heaviness and deliciousness to them. That’s decreased, become less frequent, until finally, from the last few years, there's been none of that.

GROSS: So what do you think about the idea of your books outliving you? Does that give you comfort?

HALL: Well, if it gave me – I can't say it does. I have hope, but I do not have anything like conviction or knowledge that they will. I have been alive too long, among too many writers, whose names I have seen so important, who have died and are not speaken(ph) of afterwards. Having some success in your life does not mean that your work will endure.

HALL: In an almanac, look at the lists of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize over the last 60-70 years and see how many names you remember. It's chilling, really. So I can hope, I can daydream, but I certainly think that the chances of me being read 100 years from now, 50 years from now, are probably not good. But that cannot be your only end. You cannot write in order to be, as it were, immortal, because you will never know. It's impossible. Therefore...

GROSS: That's true, isn't it? Yeah. You'll never know.

[soundbite of laughter]

HALL: Forget about it.

GROSS; Yeah.

HALL: Just write as well as you can and don’t speculate about whether you will be Chaucer or Shakespeare.

GROSS: Donald Hall, thank you so much for talking with us again.

HALL: Thank you. It's very good to talk with you again after many years.

GROSS: Yes. It's been a long time.

[soundbite of laughter]

GROSS: It's good to catch up. So thank you and I'll look forward to more of your writing.

HALL: I hope so.

GROSS: OK.

HALL: Bye-bye.

GROSS; Bye-bye. Donald Hall's essay "Out the Window" was published last month in the "New Yorker." Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews two new DVDs of TV shows that showcase comic writers. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: When it comes to the home video release of TV shows, most of the attention goes to the newest seasons of the newest shows, but our TV critic David Bianculli says there's gold to be found in the first-time DVD releases of a couple of older TV programs. One is a 1970 edition of the "David Susskind Show" and the other is an onstage reunion, in 1996, of Sid Caesar and his legendary writers.

DAVID BIANCULLI: The two DVDs I want to talk about today are hilarious, but they aren't sitcoms. They're talk shows - well, one's a talk show, and one's a filmed seminar. But they're both fascinating examples of a specific pop-culture moment frozen in time. And they're something else as well, both are highly entertaining real-time examples of talk-show Darwinism.

Both shows feature a large, unwieldy guest roster, all of the guests competing for attention at the same time - and by the time the programs are over, the winners are apparent. The first DVD, from S'more Entertainment, is a 1970 installment of the "David Susskind Show," a syndicated talk show. The topic of this particular program, never before released on home video, was "How to Be a Jewish Son."

And the guests fielding questions from Susskind included actor George Segal, who had just come out with the movie "Where's Poppa?"; writer Dan Greenburg, author of the then-recent best-seller "How to Be a Jewish Mother"; and Jewish entrepreneurs from the fashion and fast-food industries.

But the breakaway stars, the guests who ended up running away with the show and taking it over almost completely, were David Steinberg and Mel Brooks. Steinberg had just played an unintentional part in the firing of the Smothers Brothers on CBS, and Mel Brooks had mounted the original movie version of "The Producers."

No matter the topic, these two were hot. And even when one of them was asked a question by Susskind, the other was just as likely to respond. And the responses, for the time, are almost shockingly candid. Here's Steinberg, the son of a rabbi, and at the time very much a single young man, answering one of the host's questions about dating outside his faith. But when Susskind asks Steinberg a follow-up question, the reply comes from Mel Brooks instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAVID SUSSKIND SHOW")

MEL BROOKS: Well, it's hard to bring a gentile girl home to a Jewish family. What you do is you bring home a black girl first.

DAVID SUSSKIND: By way of breaking the ice.

BROOKS: Then you bring home the gentile girl and then you're in. Then they say, oh, come on in. Hiya. Would you like something to eat?

They say Mary Smith, sit down. See, that "CH" like in "Chanukah."

SUSSKIND: Seriously, have you brought – have you brought gentile ladies into your household?

DAVID STEINBERG: No. I...

SUSSKIND: Your father's being a rabbi--

BROOKS: Do you know, in a Jewish religion if you're going with a Jewish girl, if you're just engaged to her and you break off you still pay alimony?

Did you know that? I bet you didn't know that.

SUSSKIND: No, I didn't. I didn't know that.

BROOKS: Legal. That's legal. Sure. Three kisses and mm-hmm, alimony.

SUSSKIND: Alimony.

BROOKS: It's not a lot but there is a token, a token, like 80 percent of your.

SUSSKIND: In your bachelorhood you must've paid a lot of alimony.

BROOKS: Oh, in my bachelorhood, did I pay alimony. There was a girl in Scranton, I gotta tell you...

BIANCULLI: The David Susskind Show was televised for 28 years, and "How to Be a Jewish Son" was its most famous, and most requested, installment. And now it's here. The other DVD is a reunion of the writers who had worked with Sid Caesar, either on 1949's "Admiral Broadway Revue" or his two 1950s TV classics, "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour."

There are no clips from those shows on this DVD. What there is, though, is priceless. Unlike an edited version shown years ago on public TV, this is the entire two-hour seminar, in which 10 very smart men sit onstage in folded chairs and tell their stories while telling jokes at the same time.

And what a panel! Lucille Kallen, who wrote for "Your Show of Shows," isn't there. Neither is Woody Allen, who wrote for some of Caesar's TV specials. But my, look who is: Not only Sid Caesar and his writing co-star Carl Reiner, but writers Neil Simon and his brother Danny, Larry Gelbart, good old Mel Brooks again, and others whose names are less familiar, but whose one-liners here are just as funny.

And that's what I love most about this freewheeling two-hour discussion. It's comedy at its most democratic, just as in a real TV writers' room. It doesn't matter who offers up the best joke, funny wins, and all the others are smart enough to know funny when they hear it, and laugh generously when it arrives.

Here's a perfect example. Sid Caesar is describing the weekly budget for "Your Show of Shows" when one of the less famous veteran writers, Sheldon Keller, throws in an ad lib that delights everyone, including Caesar.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "CAESAR'S WRITERS")

SID CAESAR: The first "Show of Shows" cost 60 – an hour and a half, an hour and a half. Everything – all the writers, all the yada, yada, yada. Everything cost $64,000 a week for the entire show.

SHELDON KELLER: I saw the same show in Kmart for $28,000.

BIANCULLI: And right after that, someone else scores too. It's Mel Brooks, who clearly thrives in these highly competitive joke-filled environments.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "CAESAR'S WRITERS")

BROOKS: I belong to Sid. I didn't belong to the show, I didn't belong to Max Liebman.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's right.

BROOKS: I belonged to Sid.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You still do, don't you?

BROOKS: Yeah. And Sid could call me night or day and sometimes he'd wake me at 3:30 in the morning. He'd say Mel, Sid. Need a joke. OK. What is it? Carrots. OK, carrots. Ah, I ate so many carrots I couldn't sleep. He said why? I could see through my eyelids.

OK. Carrot. Joke. Carrot.

BIANCULLI: That's the beauty, and the equality, of comedy. No matter who comes up with the joke, funny is funny. And so are "How to Be a Jewish Son" and "Caesar's Writers."

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TVWorthWatching.com. He reviewed 2 new DVDs: "Caesar's Writers" which was recorded in 1996 by the Writers Guild West, and "How to Be a Jewish Son," a 1970 episode of "The David Susskind Show."

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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