ISSUE EIGHT
August 1999

Thomas Lux

Thomas Lux Thomas Lux is the author of Split Horizon, Sunday, Half Promised Land, The Drowned River and a volume of New and Selected Poems.  He is the winner of numerous writing awards, including the Kingsley Tufts Award.  Mr. Lux divides his time between the Metropolitan New York and Boston areas. 

Thomas Lux

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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 work—everyday, 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 poet?

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 it—when 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 started—I 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, particularly—be a poet—because 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 classes—composition and a so-called creative writing class in my first two years. In my third year they actually hired a real poet—her name was Helen Chasin—to 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?

TL: Right.

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 time.

And she did invite Robert Lowell—she 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 Lowell—this was probably in 1968, maybe 1969—Lowell 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 afraid—he actually said it—he 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 Martha—she was a very attractive, young woman—and 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 Cambridge.

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-Surrealist—the 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 formalists—what they used to call academic poets—still around, but the thing I gravitated towards was Realism. I think that Surrealism is a young—and maybe particularly a young male—thing. 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 watchman—first as a dishwasher, then a night watchman—and 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 MFA—just a BA—but 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: most—many 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 lucky.

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 presence—twice a year, for the most part, for the last twenty years—with 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 program.

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 time—the only time—there 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.

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Thomas Lux: Interview 1/2 (conducted by J.M. Spalding)
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue EightThe Cortland Review