||J.M. Spalding: Your father
was a milkman. Can you talk a little bit about what he was like?
Thomas Lux: He's eighty-four years old, and he spent most of his
working life as a milkman driving around in small towns in Iowa and Massachusetts
delivering milk. I grew up on the dairy farm. It was my uncle's and my grandfather's farm;
we lived on the farm and worked on it, and my father's job was to deliver the milk. The
one outstanding thing about his job was that there was a period, probably from the early
fifties until the later sixties, where he worked seventeen years in a row, 355 days a
year. His milk route was divided into two sections: two weeks, three days each, and
then on Sundays he delivered milk to a couple of stores. So he'd go out on the job on
Sunday for only an hour or two.
But everyday for seventeen years, he shaped up and went to workeveryday, never
missed a day. He couldn't, because nobody else could deliver the milk. Then when I was
about seventeen, my cousin was eighteen, a little bit older, we took the milk route from
him, and he took a week off. After that, he probably worked another fifteen years. I don't
know. But I've always been impressed by that, by anybody who can do that kind of job
seventeen years in a row. He was a gentle and sweet man. He had a job where he could just
drive around the town, be his own boss, really. Everybody liked him; he had a soft touch
for people who needed spare change or kids who wanted a piece of ice.
JM: What was his reaction to your becoming a
TL: Well... he didn't, and he still doesn't really get it. I mean,
they just didn't. Both of my parents have no way of understanding what poetry is.
Neither of them graduated from high school. When they thought about my wanting to be a
writer, they'd say things like, "Well, why don't you write stories?" They didn't
have any idea what poetry was. They seem to be perfectly accepting of it, but they don't
say anything about it. If they've read my books they've never commented on them. They have
my books on their coffee table. They've been to a couple of readings, and they're
generally supportive, but it's not within their realm of reference. So it's kind of
baffling to them, I guess.
JM: If you can pinpoint itwhen was your
first major experience with language?
TL: I remember liking the sound of words and particularly funny
sounding words even when I was very small. For example, I remember a kid once referring to
a helicopter deliberately, I believe, as a "hegilopter." I remember that from
when I was six or seven years old. I've always liked the sound of words. I liked playing
with words. And I was always a reader. Like most writers, I read a great deal as a child,
and still do, and at some point it just startedI just started fantasizing about
trying to do it myself. Late in high school, I did start writing a little bit privately
for myself. So I fantasized about it, say, by the time I was in high school, but I
didn't know it was something that one could actually do, particularlybe a
poetbecause there was no such thing as a contemporary poet that I knew of, except
possibly Robert Frost, and he was really ancient already when I was a kid. Every high
school textbook ended in 1945 (the year before I was born) and there were no bookstores
around where I lived. So I literally did not know that contemporary poetry existed until I
got to college.
I went to college in Boston. I had a couple of general writing
classescomposition and a so-called creative writing class in my first two years. In
my third year they actually hired a real poether name was Helen Chasinto teach
poetry workshops, and I was in her class. That's when I learned poetry writing and
reading. That's when my contemporary poetry reading began.
JM: And she introduced you to Robert Lowell?
JM: Could you talk a little bit about her?
TL: Helen Chasin was a Yale Younger Poet in 1967; she was quite
a well known poet in the sixties, and she was very young, she was only, I believe,
twenty-nine, twenty-eight or twenty-nine, when she was my teacher. She was a terrific but
tough basic workshop teacher who disabused me and everybody else in the class who had all
the stereotypical notions about poetry. She made us avoid sentimentality, made us avoid
abstraction; she began to teach the craft, so she was a perfect teacher for me at the
And she did invite Robert Lowellshe invited myself and a classmate of mine, a young
woman, and Robert Lowell to dinner at her house one night; the four of us. And
Lowellthis was probably in 1968, maybe 1969Lowell was the premiere American
poet. He was like a God. It was a big thrill for me. I remember finding myself alone
with him in the living room while Helen and Martha Fritz (my classmate) were doing
something else, probably preparing the dinner in those days, and she had some caviar out,
and I had never eaten caviar in my life. I'd never even seen it. So I said to Mr. Lowell,
"I don't know how to eat caviar; I've never eaten it before." So he took a
cracker, and he dipped it into the caviar to about the first knuckle on his thumb, and he
had this huge pile of caviar on the cracker and on his hand, and he just plopped the whole
thing in his mouth and ate it and then said, "That's how you eat caviar, kid."
It was an interesting evening.
He read us poems from notebooks at the time, but he wouldn't let us look at any of the
poems on the page because he was afraidhe actually said ithe was afraid we'd
steal stuff from him. He went into a long, dark, almost misanthropic kind of thing at
dinner that had anti-Semitic elements. He was very drunk. The last image I remember is
that Marthashe was a very attractive, young womanand myself were trying to
leave the apartment. We were at the door, and Lowell had her by one hand and I had her by
the other hand, pulling her out the door. Chasin had Lowell by the other hand, trying to
pull him in the door, and he was trying to pull Martha in with him. He was actually
hitting on her. He was drunk, and now that I look back on it, maybe he was in one of his
manic phases. But it was quite a night. Particularly because I was only a junior in
college and just a kid. It was the first time I had ever met a real poet, one of his
stature, certainly. It was quite an eye opener.
JM: Now that you were starting to devote
yourself somewhat to poetry, who were you reading?
TL: I discovered contemporary poetry pretty quickly once I got to college and
was exposed to it. The poets who were incredibly important to me were James Wright and
Galway Kinnell. James Wright of "Shall We Gather Up the River, The Branch Shall Not
Break," and "Body Rags," by Galway Kinnell. I was reading Levertov a lot
then, and Adrienne Rich earlier. I was beginning to read Roethke, Crane, and a couple of
contemporary poets whom I actually got to know; they were only a few years older than me,
but they were already pretty established at the time. I was reading James Tate too. There
were a whole lot of Cambridge poets... lots of people gathering around the book shop in
I had a teacher at Emerson College who was a publisher named James Randall, and his press
at the time, Jim Randall Press, was a very well known and established small press in
Cambridge. So while I was still an undergraduate, during my senior year, he published a
chapbook of my poetry, and Martha Fritz's, the woman I mentioned earlier. Both of us
in the same little book. At the same time, or shortly thereafter, he committed to my first
book when it was ready, so I had the very rare experience, which I guess I kind of took
for granted at the time, of having a publisher for my first book even before the book was
finished. It took a couple more years to finish it.
I was also reading a lot of foreign poets, Lorca, for example. I devoured everything.
Knott was an incredibly important poet to me and still is; I think Bill Knott is a genius
and probably the least known great poet in America. It's really kind of pathetic that he's
not as well known as he was even thirty years ago because he's even better now. I
just devoured everything. Everything was brand new. All of contemporary poetry was brand
new to me then. This was the late '60s. Those are probably the handful of books, of poets,
that meant the most to me that early on.
JM: There were a lot of movements at the time:
The Beats, and a little earlier the New York poets: Kenneth Koch, O'Hara, and Ashbery.
What was your exposure to these groups, or how did you feel about them?
TL: I was always aware of the New York poets from early on, but I
never really liked them too much. I always thought the work was a little sloppy and
arbitrary and lazy. But I was grouped with, and most influenced by the poets that were
called Neo-Surrealists at the time, because that was a time during which Surrealism had a
great influence on contemporary American poetry. Knott was a Neo-Surrealist, and Tate was
a Neo-Surrealist, and maybe still is; Michael Benedict was a Neo-Surrealistthe big
Surrealist anthology came out of this some years later. I was reading all the French
Surrealists and the Spanish Surrealists, so I was probably most influenced by that kind of
group of poets, the Surrealists, and so-called Neo-Surrealists.
After a few years, Surrealism felt like a dead end to me, and even though I still
appreciate a lot of the wackiness and the imagination of Surrealist poetry, I'm not very
interested in it anymore. It seems too arbitrary, and again, kind of lazy. It doesn't pay
enough attention to the musical elements of poetry. So now I refer to myself as a
recovering Surrealist. There were formalistswhat they used to call academic
poetsstill around, but the thing I gravitated towards was Realism. I think that
Surrealism is a youngand maybe particularly a young malething. I think there's
something very attractive about it. It's kind of an outlawed thing; the craziness, the
wildness, the arbitrariness, I think, appeals to young male poets. There certainly are
women Surrealists, too, but it's always been more of a boy's and a man's game. But that
was the group that I was most attracted to.
JM: Now, after you left Emerson College, you
ended up eventually going into teaching. Why did you go into teaching as a profession?
TL: I wanted to be a teacher even before I knew I was going to be a writer. That
was the only profession I'd ever thought about. I had done youth work before and during
college, and I liked working with younger people. I worked with the YMCA's in Boston. I
almost went into that full time. I was out of college for six months, and I was working as
a night watchmanfirst as a dishwasher, then a night watchmanand then I got
offered a class to teach back at Emerson. I was still in Boston, so I taught that class,
and then I went to graduate school for a year at Iowa where I didn't teach, but I worked
on the Iowa Review. Then I was offered a job to come back to Emerson to teach again
for a year, and I took it; I wanted to do it anyway, but I didn't think I'd be teaching in
college because I didn't have the advanced degrees. I don't even have an MFAjust a
BAbut I went from one job to another.
I did a year at Emerson. Then I went to Chicago, to Columbia College for a semester, and
then I got the biggest break of my life. I got an offer to teach at Oberlin, and I went
from a terrible job in Chicago to a really good school and a much better job at Oberlin.
That's where I really learned how to teach; the students were so good there, I really had
to start working at it. I did a year-and-a-half at Oberlin, and then I was offered this
job at Sarah Lawrence, and I've been here ever since. I've taught at a lot of other places
while on leave from Sarah Lawrence: mostmany of the other graduate programs at
Columbia and Boston University, University of Houston, University of Michigan, the Warren
Wilson program I've been associating with off-and-on for twenty years, University of
California at Irvine. I don't know if I've left any out. I've just liked teaching. I have
a strong teaching reputation. I work very hard at it. I think it's a blessing to earn
one's living doing something that one loves doing, and would do anyway. And I've been
really lucky to be at Sarah Lawrence because it's such a good school and the students are
wonderful here. We've been able to build one of the biggest graduate programs in the
country. So I've had the challenge to do that and be part of that program's growth. I've
been very lucky. One, that I've managed to stay employed every semester for all of
these years. It was tough at first: most of these early jobs were part time and had no
future; and two, tenure. It was a long time ago that I got tenure, and so I feel very
JM: You met Kevin Pilkington here at Sarah
Lawrence, is that right?
TL: Actually, I met him first in New York City at a book party, I
believe. I can't remember whose book it was, and I visited his class a few times at the
New School. I could tell he was a good teacher, and when something opened up here eight or
ten years ago, I got him an interview, and he got a job here. He's done a great job.
JM: Could you talk a little bit about your
friendships with Steven Dobyns and Kevin Pilkington?
TL: Well, they're two of my best friends. Dobyns I've known much
longer for probably over twenty years, and I really like his poems. Kevin I've known
for about a decade. Friendships with other writers are very important. Other writers whose
work I like and respect bring out the best in me. I see Dobyns fairly regularly now
because he's living back in Massachusetts, and I live part of every week in Massachusetts;
and I see Kevin here, at Sarah Lawrence, regularly.
Michael Ryan is a good friend of mine and has been for twenty-five years. He's out in
California, so I don't get to see him that much. You need friends to read your poems and
give you objective feedback. Most of the world doesn't care much about poetry, or
understand it. A lot of people are intimidated by it or threatened by it, so you've got to
have your friends, other people who do what you do and care about it.
Dobyns is a great poet, one of the best we have. His incredible energy has always been an
inspiration to me, and talking to him about poetry has been important to me. I've learned
much about poetry by being in the Warren Wilson program and teaching there for so many
years because we team-teach workshops there. All of the poets give lectures and teach
other classes besides the workshops, so I've been in the presencetwice a year, for
the most part, for the last twenty yearswith some of the best writers in the
country, sharing classrooms with them, listening to them lecture or teach other classes,
hanging around with them at night and telling stories. I've probably learned more about
writing and poetry by being on that faculty than in any other way, including all my own
individual study. And that's been another great gift. I've sort of cut down my work in
that program in recent years, but I'm still working in it occasionally. It's a great
JM: Over time, the pleasures we derive from
writing change. How have these pleasures changed for you?
TL: Well, I work on my poems. I Always did write many, many drafts, probably
even more now than ever before. I rarely write anything in less than fifteen drafts, and
twenty-five or thirty or forty is not unusual, over a period of weeks or months. The main
pleasure for me in writing is not starting a poem. In fact, it takes me about five drafts
to get a decent first draft. And I find that work awful and agonizing and slow, and I do
nearly anything I can to avoid it. But once I get a decent first draft, then I really find
pleasure in the process. I tend to work groups of poems together. I'll save stuff up and
begin a group of poems together. I work very methodically. Let's say I have a group of six
poems. I'll do a draft on all six before I go back and do a second draft on the first
one. I just work through them methodically, draft after draft. I find a real
pleasure in that kind of work, making little discoveries, pushing the poems a little bit
further along with each draft. That's when I really get lost in the work and in the
process of writing, and that's the timethe only timethere is no time. So my
main pleasure about being in the process of writing a poem is in the middle of it. The
last couple of drafts are not so much fun. I'm kind of tired of it by then and mostly
trying to comb the last few hairs in place. It's those ten or fifteen drafts in the middle
of the process, always over a period of weeks, sometimes months, that I am the happiest.
That's when I get the most pleasure.
JM: Your book New and Selected Poems spans twenty years of your life, and your
progression from '75 to '95 is quite evident. What factors do you believe played a role in
your progression as a poet?
TL: One, I kind of drifted away from Surrealism and the arbitrariness
of that. I got more interested in subjects, identifiable subjects other than my own angst
or ennui or things like that. I got better and better, I believe, at the craft. I paid
more and more attention to the craft. Making poems rhythmical and musical and believable
as human speech and as distilled and tight as possible is very important to me. I started
looking outside of myself a lot more for subjects. I read a great deal of history, turned
more outward as opposed to inward. Those are probably the main changes. And I suppose
those things could simply be described as part of growing up, as part of any kind of
normal maturation process for any person as well as a writer.