Tom Disch: When we first spoke of this a week ago, you told me that your
inspiration, the person who had commended this task of writing one poem a day, forever,
was Robert Bly. There are, of course, other examplesdiarists, especially. Tell me
what your sense of this particular tradition is and how Robert Bly, in particular,
David Lehman: I go to Bennington College twice a year, in January and in June, for our so-called
Low Residency Program. Were there ten or eleven days, twice a year. The rest of the
work is done by correspondence. Robert Bly came in January of 96, and read to us
from a book he would publish in 97, Morning Poems. He had written them all in the early morning
hours, in bed, in the twilight of consciousness between sleep and waking. And he would
read us the poems he wrote that week, and I enjoyed them very much and thought,
perhaps Ill try the same thing. My own voice in poetry being so different from
Robert Blys, I thought there was no risk of duplication. And of course, I was also
mindful of the poems of Frank OHara, particularly in a book called Lunch Poems, which City Lights published in the early
60s. He wrote those poems in his lunch hours, dashed them off.
TD: Youve just concluded a group biography of the New York
School poets, including Frank OHara. Do you know if his huge volume of Collected Poems includes all his rejects; that is, all
of the lunch poems? I would think in an undertaking like this, it would be hit or
DL: There are two supplementary books to OHaras Collected Poems. And I wouldnt be surprised if a
whole cache of poems turn up sometime since he was less than assiduous in collecting his
work or filing it in a reasonable system. He would give away his only copy of some poems.
Its an extraordinary accident that some of the poems survive at all. They usually
did because John Ashbery kept a copy, or Kenneth Koch wrote out a copy by hand.
When I started writing these daily poems, it took a couple of months before I felt I
was succeeding at it. I'm not sure I was conscious of it then, but perhaps one motivation
was that this might be a way of getting closer to and more intimate with OHara.
These poems are certainly more casual and I think more sociable than any Id written
TD: In your daily output do you have a sense of wheat and chaff?
TD: One ordinarily would with other poems, but it seems to me
that part of the interest of this project is the dailiness, the continuation. And just as
there are dull stretches in other poets long continuous poems, so I would expect
there to be highs and lows in this case. But since theyre separate poems, a poem a
day, what is your sense of the balance between the whole thing and judging the parts by
your usual rating system: do I keep this or throw it out?
DL: Usually when I write poems, I throw out a lot, or I file them in folders that
perhaps I will visit years later. Computers have such large memories, its easy to
file away every single poem one writes, though that doesnt oblige me to include them
or to publish them.
TD: Isnt the sequence interesting independent of the
success or failure of the individual poems?
DL: Its interesting to me.
TD: Its an interesting undertaking. Thats why
Im here. You described your doing this, and immediately I thought the
project, and the process, bears thinking about, especially for working poets or those who
are under-employed. How often would your Muse visit if she werent under an
obligation to meet the daily quota?
DL: Deadlines are a great incentive. I like them in journalism. They get one to write
whatever it is one is supposed to write. Without them you might not write as much, as
often, or even as well. So in writing poetry I like to impose deadlines on myself.
TD: Not only deadlines, but a particular task. As a teacher you
come up with ideas, the seedlings of poems, that student poets then have to write. I sat
in a couple of your classes and got some nice poems out of it myself. Tell me if Im
wrong: each day you have to make an assignment for yourself.
DL: Yes, thats right. Also I was inspired by a statement Borges made in defense
of some of his Ficciones. He said that the plot summary seemed to him an
admirable form and that one could state very succinctly an entire plot or parable in a way
that would make the composition of the actual book seem a needless extravagance. An
assignment that I like giving myself, or to others, is to write the last paragraph of a
non-existent novel. Or a first paragraph. Some sort of fragment that would eliminate the
need to write the entire thing since one didnt have time to do that. Often my poems
are summary statements of longer works that, as a result of the poem, dont have to
be written. I write in a lot of different styles and forms on the theory that the poems all sound like me in the end, so why not make them as different from one another as possible, at least in outward appearance?
If you write a new poem every
day, you will probably have by the end of the year, if youre me, an acrostic, an
abecedarium, a sonnet or two, a couple of prose poems, poems that have arbitrary
restrictions, such as the one I did that has only two words per line. If you do it for
years, youll have a couple hundred poems in a great variety of forms and styles.
TD: If that is, indeed, your object, to create the widest
possible variety of poems. Ammons, writing his daily poems, such as The Snow Poems, has another approach. In such poetic
diaries it seems his object is to attain a poetic monotone, a meditation on Emersonian
weathers, which is a fine undertaking, but variety is not its hallmark. Consistency is.
DL: Thats something Archie is very good at, writing a long poem by a process of
accumulation and accretion. The tone is consistent throughout; therefore, he can pick up
yesterdays poem today and continue it without any apparent break.
TD: Apparent break. Inevitably, youre creating such
a sequence yourself, with apparent breaks. But do you find, looking back, a consistency in
your work that you didnt necessarily intend?
DL: Its hard to answer that. Though I have thought a good deal about what
Im doing and have been asked about it, Ive resisted making too many
formulations because Im still in the process of doing it. I havent sat down
very often and read the poems from Day One to the present.
TD: Are you aware of having emergency templates? If its
coming to the end of the day and you dont have a poem to show for it, do you have
any fail-safe formula to fall back on?
DL: Not really. When I got started and felt that I had something that sounded like me,
that was compelling and gave me enjoyment. I was happy. It was refreshing; there was no
struggle involved. At one point, I wrote one of these a day for 140 days without a pause,
and in that period I would wake up and look forward to the day and the composition of its
poems. There was a buoyancy Im not sure I ever had before. It was like finding out
that I could write as easily as I speak.
TD: Certainly youve had streaks of high energy, high
productivity. This project seems to be willing yourself to have a permanent streak, as it
were. How long ordinarily does a roll last, when youre on a roll? Another question
related to this is: What happens if you start a poem and its not going to be done
that day? Are you writing, meanwhile, other poems that are by the old poet who
isnt obliged to do a poem a day? Suppose you found yourself doing a sonnet sequence.
Youre not going to get that done in a day. Do you have working hours for other
DL: I do conform to that pattern of spurt-and-lie-fallow, spurt-and-lie-fallow, and the
spurts often follow the completion of a project or a book. In 1996, I had such a spurt. It
coincided with the publication of Valentine Place. In that period, during which I was
writing a poem every day, I wound up with a sequence of 175 or something like that. I was
also writing other poems: a sestina, I remember; a villanelle; a poem about Napoleon that
Id been working on for years. That was quite a period because I had a spurt that was
independent of the daily poems. And last year I wrote some poems as well, besides the
TD: When you have other poems coming along besides the daily
poems, how do you decide which is the daily and which is the "other"?
DL: The daily poems have as their titles the month and day theyre written, though
not the year. So, in a way, the problem of the title has been solved; they need no title
because they are the days poems. I begin with that and start writing and try to keep
myself to one page or less. These poems differ from most of the poems Ive written
before inasmuch as they are skinnier (by and large the lines are shorter); they are more
first-person; some of them are frankly autobiographical; some of them do have a diaristic
element. And while theres no length limit, I try to keep to one page, double-spaced,
though some poems are one page by dint of doing them a space and a half.
TD: Would it be fair to say that in your regular poetry the
language tends to be denser or trickier?
DL: I suppose thats true. There are expectations in the poem-a-day poems, but a
lot of them are committed to communication, to a reader, an assortment of readers.
Im writing a poem every day in this month of April  for a web-site called
Poetry Daily. Theyre publishing my daily poem every day this month, and thats
a great incentive toward concentrating the mind.
TD: Have you done your days poem today?
DL: With the web-site I have to turn in tomorrows poem by ten the night before. So
the trick this month is that every poem Im writing has to be post-dated by a day. I
turned in todays poem yesterday.
TD: Have you done tomorrows?
DL: I dont know if Ive turned in April 8 yet. I should check. [But the
computer isnt on.] I probably did send it in. In todays poem I used the
word "maybe" as an orchestrating word. It begins "Maybe Jim Cummins and I
will write John Ashbery for Dummies." I passed this store in which there were
all these books like Word-Perfect for Dummies and Windows for Dummies. Thats
a good example of a book I wouldnt actually want to write, but the mere mention of
it in four lines is the perfect apotheosis of the idea. Then each of the next lines starts
with another "Maybe:" "Maybe Ill live in Paris ten years and retain
my New York accent."
TD: Its a bit like Kenneth Kochs poem, "Thank
DL: Yes, Kenneth is good at the theme-and-variations poem: "Sleeping with
Women," "One Train May Hide Another."
TD: Is coming up with the donnée of the poem the chief act of
the poem in these daily poems, and is it as well in other cases?
DL: In other poems the choice of the form may be the decisive element. I had a spurt in
May of 95, that began with writing a sestina in which, instead of using six
conventional end-words, I used the names of six poets: Ted Berrigan, Marvin Bell, Philip
Levine, Anne Sexton, and Walt Whitman. And a variable. And having written that sestina and
found that it was a crowd-pleaser and an amusing poem, I next wrote a villanelle and other
poems in forms. That formal impulse continues for a while, but the daily poems are not
dictated by a form usually. A few are, when a couple of the lines suggest continuing with
a particular form.
TD: But youre under orders, as it were, to be alert to
the possibility of a poem around the clock, or at least until youve met your daily
quota. Do you think the habit of having to be alert for a new donnée every day is like
exercising at a gym? Will it carry over into a permanent worthwhile poetic habit?
DL: I cant predict what will happen. But in this period Ive been under
great pressure. Ive had books to complete, anthologies to edit, classes to teach,
and a seemingly endless list of tasks. The writing of the poem is invariably a
holiday, as though I were playing hooky from these other tasks. Its a way of
escaping these other anxieties and reducing the pressure. It doesnt take long to
write one of these poems if Im feeling inspired. And almost anything can inspire
one: a jazz record, a phrase that comes to mind, a phone call.
TD: Whats your sense of your success rate with the poems as
individual poems? If you were sorting out your lifes work, would as large a
proportion of these poems make the final cut as your other poems?
DL: When I began doing this in earnest, I felt that the proportion of good poems to bad
was so high, and that so many of these were successful, that this was all the motivation I
needed. And my friends enjoyed these poems. If I brought the days poem, or those of
the last several days, to a dinner party, the appearance of the poem would be met not with
groans but with enthusiasm. People liked the idea of the project, and they liked it even
better when they realized that peoples names turn up in the poems. A lot of them
want to be mentioned. Maybe they like the poems for the wrong reason, but its great
to have an audience and to know that it may well be responsive. Its also wonderful
to relax, especially if, like me, youre an intense person, and one thing about these
poems is that they sound relaxed. Or rather they suggest that the poet who wrote them was
comfortable being himselfwas, dare I say it, happy at the time. The thing is that
when one relaxes in some way, the result is better for ones writing
because you tend
not to block your own output. William Stafford was asked, about his own prolific work,
"What if a poem doesnt meet your standard." He answered, "Then I
lower my standard." I think thats a good attitude for a poet to have.
Tom Disch talks with David Lehman
TCR September 1999 Feature