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DAVID LEHMAN (1) - SEPTEMBER 1999 FEATURE  

  

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FEATURE
 
David Lehman
  Tom Disch talks with poet and critic David Lehman about his daily poems. David reads three poems from his upcoming book.

Lyn Lifshin
  A Day in the Life: Lyn recounts the details of her day.

Robert Kendall
  Tales from the Hard Disk: The future of literature online.

John Kinsella
  Familiar Territory: Changes of Tense: the next chapter in John Kinsella's continuing autobiography series.

David Lehman

David LehmanDavid Lehman's new book of poems, The Daily Mirror, is forthcoming from Scribner in January 2000. The paperback edition of his book, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, will be issued by Doubleday Anchor in October 1999. He is the series editor of The Best American Poetry, which he launched in 1988. He lives in New York City.

Click to hear Tom Disch's audio introduction for this interview RealAudio Introduction by Tom Disch

Tom Disch talks with David Lehman

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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 examples—diarists, especially. Tell me what your sense of this particular tradition is and how Robert Bly, in particular, inspired you.

David Lehman: I go to Bennington College twice a year, in January and in June, for our so-called Low Residency Program. We’re 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, hmm; perhaps I’ll try the same thing. My own voice in poetry being so different from Robert Bly’s, I thought there was no risk of duplication. And of course, I was also mindful of the poems of Frank O’Hara, 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: You’ve just concluded a group biography of the New York School poets, including Frank O’Hara. 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 miss.

DL: There are two supplementary books to O’Hara’s Collected Poems. And I wouldn’t 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. It’s 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 O’Hara. These poems are certainly more casual and I think more sociable than any I’d written before.

TD: In your daily output do you have a sense of wheat and chaff?

DL: Yes.

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 they’re 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, it’s easy to file away every single poem one writes, though that doesn’t oblige me to include them or to publish them.

TD: Isn’t the sequence interesting independent of the success or failure of the individual poems?

DL: It’s interesting to me.

TD: It’s an interesting undertaking. That’s why I’m 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 weren’t 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 I’m wrong: each day you have to make an assignment for yourself.

DL: Yes, that’s 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 didn’t have time to do that. Often my poems are summary statements of longer works that, as a result of the poem, don’t 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 you’re 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, you’ll 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: That’s 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 yesterday’s poem today and continue it without any apparent break.

TD: Apparent break. Inevitably, you’re creating such a sequence yourself, with apparent breaks. But do you find, looking back, a consistency in your work that you didn’t necessarily intend?

DL: It’s hard to answer that. Though I have thought a good deal about what I’m doing and have been asked about it, I’ve resisted making too many formulations because I’m still in the process of doing it. I haven’t sat down very often and read the poems from Day One to the present.

TD: Are you aware of having emergency templates? If it’s coming to the end of the day and you don’t 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 I’m not sure I ever had before. It was like finding out that I could write as easily as I speak.

TD: Certainly you’ve 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 you’re on a roll? Another question related to this is: What happens if you start a poem and it’s not going to be done that day? Are you writing, meanwhile, other poems that are by the old poet who isn’t obliged to do a poem a day? Suppose you found yourself doing a sonnet sequence. You’re not going to get that done in a day. Do you have working hours for other poems?

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 I’d 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 daily ones.

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 they’re 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 I’ve 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 there’s 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 that’s 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. I’m writing a poem every day in this month of April [1998] for a web-site called Poetry Daily. They’re publishing my daily poem every day this month, and that’s a great incentive toward concentrating the mind.

TD: Have you done your day’s poem today?

DL: With the web-site I have to turn in tomorrow’s poem by ten the night before. So the trick this month is that every poem I’m writing has to be post-dated by a day. I turned in today’s poem yesterday.

TD: Have you done tomorrow’s?

DL: I don’t know if I’ve turned in April 8 yet. I should check. [But the computer isn’t on.] I probably did send it in. In today’s 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. That’s a good example of a book I wouldn’t 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 I’ll live in Paris ten years and retain my New York accent."

TD: It’s a bit like Kenneth Koch’s poem, "Thank You."

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 you’re under orders, as it were, to be alert to the possibility of a poem around the clock, or at least until you’ve 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 can’t predict what will happen. But in this period I’ve been under great pressure. I’ve 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. It’s a way of escaping these other anxieties and reducing the pressure. It doesn’t take long to write one of these poems if I’m feeling inspired. And almost anything can inspire one: a jazz record, a phrase that comes to mind, a phone call.

TD: What’s your sense of your success rate with the poems as individual poems? If you were sorting out your life’s 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 day’s 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 people’s names turn up in the poems. A lot of them want to be mentioned. Maybe they like the poems for the wrong reason, but it’s great to have an audience and to know that it may well be responsive. It’s also wonderful to relax, especially if, like me, you’re 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 himself—was, dare I say it, happy at the time. The thing is that when one relaxes in some way, the result is better for one’s writing because you tend not to block your own output. William Stafford was asked, about his own prolific work, "What if a poem doesn’t meet your standard." He answered, "Then I lower my standard." I think that’s a good attitude for a poet to have.


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Tom Disch talks with David Lehman
TCR September 1999 Feature

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