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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JM: Over the years, you've been published in a lot of magazines. Could you talk about some of the magazines you like, and the ones that you think are obviously worth preserving?

TL: You know, there have been so many magazines over the years, and some of the ones that I like most are long gone, like Kayak. I don't know if anybody out there listening to this would have heard of Kayak, but it was a very big magazine in the sixties, out of California, edited by a guy named George Hitchcock. It did publish a lot of the so-called Neo-Surrealists. I remember waiting for that magazine at a bookstore, waiting for that new issue of—please, God, what's the name of it?

JM: Kayak.

TL: Kayak. I've always been affiliated with a magazine called Ploughshares, and I edited one of the very earliest issues of that in 1974, and I edited another one in '85, and I just finished guest editing another one that will be out soon. And I think that's always been a fresh magazine because they have a different editor every issue. Field was a very important magazine for me and still is. I think APR is a good magazine. I think it's spotty; I think it has some weak stuff, but I think it's a good magazine. Anteaus was a really good magazine, really classy, and that's defunct now, of course. I like to send poems to magazines if they have a weird enough name, an interesting enough name, that ask me. I'm happy to send poems to new magazines. Best one I remember in recent years which folded before even the first issue—these people in New Hampshire had a magazine called Tray Full of Lab Mice Publications , and it actually gets in as an acknowledgment in one of my books because they took a poem and then folded before it came out. But I liked the name so much that I left it in the acknowledgment. Now I tend to send to places that either ask me, or places that have been good to me in the past like APR. The New Yorker has been printing me lately. The Atlantic Monthly. My poetry editor Horton Mifflin, until recently I was told, retired with Peter Davison, and he's the editor of the Atlantic, so he's published a handful of poems over the years there. There are new magazines all the time. There's a new one now called The Marlboro Review which I think is a good name. I get magazines in the mail all the time, so it's still thriving.

JM: I notice you have a lot of books, even on your end table.  How much do you read, and what are you reading right now?

TL: I read tremendous amounts.  I read poetry all the time, of course, but I read a huge amount of nonfiction, particularly history. But all sorts of things: science, psychology, sociology, nature, blah, blah, biology, but more history than anything, huge amounts of nonfiction, and travel books.  I try to read a hundred books a year, not counting poetry. I can't do it every year, but that's what I try to do. I just finished reading a biography of Philip Larkin. I just read a book about the history of opium. I'm now reading a book about manic depressive illness. I just read that memoir by James Dickey's son called Summer of Deliverance , a wonderful memoir. Reading is a primary activity for a writer. I get things from reading, particularly history. I get subjects. I get words, sometimes ideas, from reading. Reading is a primary activity.

JM: Now, what about readings, as in events? Do you attend a lot of those nowadays?

TL: Oh, sure. We have readings here all the time, and I go to readings elsewhere with some frequency. Sometimes I think I've been to more poetry readings in the last twenty, twenty-five years than anybody in my generation because there are so many readings here at Sarah Lawrence, and I've been to a million of them.

JM: So who are the readers with whom you were impressed in terms of reading voice?

TL: Well, again, Bill Knott. Bill Knott, I think, was one of the best readers I've ever heard—this was back in the late sixties or early seventies when not many people read poetry as human speech, and still most people don't. Most poetry readings are stultifyingly dull. And most people don't write their poems to be read aloud. Of course, there's a lot of poetry that's essentially incomprehensible when you read it on a page, let alone when you're just hearing it—and most people don't read very well. A lot of the newer, younger poets who are involved in slam or performance poetry are a lot better. Often their poetry isn't as good. There's a young slam poet named Jeffrey McDaniel who is a terrific poet and a splendid performer, and he does both: he has good poems on the page, and he also performs them. He's published a couple of books. But there are a lot of dull readings, and when I hear a really bad reading, I feel bad, particularly for the new people in the audience, because if they think this is what poetry is—incomprehensible, a monotone read into the page—they're never going to come to another fucking poetry reading again. It will just reinforce all of their stereotypes about poetry—that it doesn't make any sense, that it doesn't speak to regular people.

JM: So poets really aren't doing their job necessarily in terms of developing readerships?

TL: I don't think a lot of them are. There are some who read very, very well and with real animation and without jumping around or wearing costumes or using props, but a lot of poets don't. A lot of poets don't read their work well, don't write their work with the intention of it being read out loud, but they still do readings, for the check, obviously, but nothing is duller than a monotone reading of work that's essentially incomprehensible—and there's a lot of that. I would rather have lit matches stuck in my ear.

JM: Now, academia. What are your thoughts on academia and its relationship to poetry? Let me, in fact, just give it a better context—say, eighty years ago, for instance, when most poets weren't really teachers, as compared to today.

TL: Most are now, and that's a big change. I mean, it's relatively recently that poets have begun teaching. Roethke was one of the first poet-teachers, starting in the forties. And it wasn't even fairly common until the seventies, and now it's very common. I have mostly positive feelings, but I've been in a unique position in that Sarah Lawrence is not your normal academic college. Sarah Lawrence respects the creative. Half of the faculty here are working artists of one kind or another. I can teach exactly how I want to teach. I mean, I don't have a Ph.D. You don't have to have one to teach here. Teaching is the number one requirement. Sometimes big universities can be stultifying, and there's all sorts of stupid politics and really pointless committee work that you have to do. But when you're in the classroom, I don't care where it is, what kind of school, it's the same. It's just you and the students and it's great. I love it.

But academia—occasionally you hear people squawking that you shouldn't teach, that it takes you away from the real world. But the real world is here, everywhere, and we're people from the real world. I've never bought that. As a teacher, you have a little more time to do your own work than if you were a lawyer or a doctor or whatever. I think there are too many people teaching poetry who don't care about teaching. That's the main problem. I think only people who really want to teach—writers who really want to teach—should teach. There are a lot of writers who take a job and resent the time it takes, resent their students, and teach poorly; and I don't think that's fair to the students or to the institution they work for.  I certainly don't think that just because somebody is a writer, that they're owed a living, and that they should be set up in an easy job by a university because it's kind of a crime to teach, and hate teaching and resent it.

JM: What would you call the greatest reward of teaching?

TL: Well, you see people get excited by poetry. You see their lives changed by poetry. You see someone beginning to learn how to articulate and express themselves in this very tight art form, in this very distilled manner. You see all sorts and hear all sorts of really human stuff, really human business. I often joke in class, for example, when something sexual comes up, which it does with some frequency, when people's sexuality turns up in poems, I often joke, saying, you know, they don't get to talk about this in history class or economics class. You're in touch with people's lives; it's very intimate. And here, we work one-on-one, as well as in classes, so you really get to know kids; you get to see them grow. I'm in touch with dozens and dozens of ex-students; I've made many friends among students. And it's a joy, you see—it's very fulfilling to see people learn to express themselves, to articulate their feelings, and to find fresh ways to do it, and how much pleasure and joy; and how much more human and a little less alone poetry can make us.

JM: Now, I'm going to switch topics and say this: Philip Levine said that as you turn fifty you lose some of the energy to write.

TL: That's not necessarily true for, I guess, Stevens or Yeats—Yeats or all sorts of people.

JM: What are your feelings about this?

TL: Well, it certainly hasn't seemed to slow Phil down. Phil's been over fifty for twenty years or so, and it hasn't slowed him down a bit. I think I've done my best work—I'm about to turn fifty-two—and I think I've done some of my best work in the last two or three years. We'll see what the future brings, but theoretically, there's no reason why someone shouldn't be able to keep getting better as one gets older. We supposedly get a little wiser and a little smarter, and we should be able to get better at the craft as we learn more. So I hope I keep getting better as I get older. I know that I've done some of my very best work just before or around fifty, but we'll see. Somebody else decides that, long after we're done with it anyway.

JM: You, and obviously many other poets, use poetry as a conduit... in a sense, to delight, inform, instruct, experience, let out linguistically. What else have you used to do these things?

TL: Other than language, what have I used to make poems?

JM: No, to make art or experience art.

TL: Well, I've never tried to make art in any medium other than writing and, specifically, poetry. I have no talent whatsoever for music or drawing or painting or anything like that. I enjoy painting, particularly, of all the other arts. I envy painters; maybe they're the only other artists that I envy. I like the fact that they make one thing, and it's a single object, and there's only one, ever. A poem isn't as valuable an object because a Xerox of the poem is the same as a zillion other Xeroxes. It doesn't exist as an individual object. I like that about painting, and color. I like music, but music is mostly a kind of background in my life, and as people try to play stuff for me—if they want me to hear classical music or jazz—stuff other than what's on the radio or pop music—I often listen, but I just don't know enough about music. I've always bought books as opposed to record albums. I like theatre—noncommercial theatre, off-Broadway type stuff. I've never been interested in dance, particularly, but I think painters are my favorite other artists; and painting, my favorite other art form.

JM: Can you tell me what you think the status of poetry is today?

TL: Well, poetry has never been more popular than in our culture. There have never been more readings, more publishers, more magazines, more writing programs, or more writers, and it's growing, it seems, at almost an amazing pace. Now, exactly why this is happening, I don't know. I have a couple of theories. One, that we live in a culture that's so overwhelmed by electronics, TV, radio and movies, that we long for something simple and direct and non-collaborative—something we do for ourselves. We're overwhelmed by technology and technologically produced art, so we long for something simple and clear and pure and direct, just words on a page. Two, poetry's growth has something to do with a generational thing. I've noticed in recent years—really to the point that I'd almost call it a phenomenon—that many, many more adults are writing poetry, people of my generation who, maybe thirty years ago, were artists or musicians, people who wanted to do something in art, and then life came along and then jobs and children and they had to put that on hold, and now, hitting around fifty—often very successful people—their kids are grown, they have enough money, and they want to do something for their hearts, their souls; they want to express themselves.

I'm meeting with a lot of these people; right now I'm working with three different doctors, a brain surgeon among them, lawyers, one mergers-and-acquisitions guy—people who have huge and very successful businesses and practices, but they want to write poetry, and they make great students. One, they can get better very quickly. They have something to write about; they're mature. Two, they really don't want to screw around at all; they want to work, to get to it. I think that has a lot to do with the growth of the art form, in a way. Poetry used to be confined solely to the university. Remember, really the only audience for poetry, except for poets, used to be people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, college students. That has changed dramatically. Twenty years ago, fifteen years ago, I would have been invited, ninety percent of the time, to read or teach a guest workshop at a college. And now, fifty percent or more of my readings are outside of colleges, at community centers, libraries, bookstores. Poetry isn't just connected to universities anymore.

I don't think there's ever been a time when poetry has been healthier or had a better chance of winning back a fair share of the audience that was essentially lost because poetry was incomprehensible and made people feel stupid, the kind of poetry that most of us grew up on in school, poems that never meant what they said. They were some kind of riddle that you had to decipher, and the point of reading poetry was like taking a test—to decipher the riddle. No wonder a lot of people—several generations of Americans—hated poetry. And that's beginning to change.

I believe poetry does two main things. I believe I'm quoting Philip Larkin here, but I think he was quoting Auden when he said that poetry is, "for enjoyment and pleasure," but, "it helps us endure." It helps us endure as human beings, and good poetry can be accessible and clear and lucid and still be highly original and fresh and powerful. We're beginning to reject this incredibly obscure, self-indulgent, incomprehensible poetry. People feel stupid because they don't get this kind of poetry. What they don't understand is that the author doesn't get it either. It's not about anything. It's simply arbitrary. It's simply the author's mind drifting around free association and breaking those thoughts up into lines, and when they don't get it, people feel intimidated by it; they think it's their problem when, in fact, it's the poet's problem, not the reader's problem.

JM: When you're teaching, is there less emphasis on poems with personal autobiographical narratives, the main sort of guise of a younger poet's writing? Do you try to discourage that at all?

TL: At a certain point I would, but I think newer, younger writers always want and need to write directly autobiographically at first, and I think you have to write those poems. It's perfectly natural. But, yes, I do encourage people to look outside themselves at a certain point and not write exclusively autobiographically, not write only about something they have directly experienced. Whole careers have been made by this, of course, and there are many poets who simply cannot write a poem until something happens to them that they feel is worthy of a poem, and then they write about it. I think that's kind of limiting. But I still write directly autobiographical poems sometimes, but not exclusively by any means.

JM: But how do you avoid rhetoric in political poems?

TL: I like political poems. It's how you do it—the subject. There are no brand new subjects, nothing new about being alive that Homer and Shakespeare and so many other great writers didn't touch upon at one point or another. But it's how you write about the business of being alive, how you do the thing that makes you original. So, a lot of it depends on paying attention to the craft and simply asking people when the time is right to try to write outside themselves. And there are assignments you can give people to do that—lots of ways to do that.

JM: Do you ever sit down when you write, try to create a poem, and want to address perhaps a domestic political issue?

TL: Sure, sure. I've written a lot of what you would call political or social or historical poems. Such a poem usually wouldn't start with that as my subject. It would start with a line or an image or something that I thought represented the subject. I'm aware of the dangers of political poetry: rhetoric or stridency or didacticism. But sometimes you have to risk those things in order to write a social or a political poem. I have quite a few poems that are—I call them pissed-off poems—because they're kind of angry, angry at injustice and cruelty and inequalities, at things like that.

JM: In teaching, are there certain poets you try to avoid? Certain movements you try to avoid because of what you might perceive as not helpful to students?

TL: Yeah, but I will read anybody with a student when I'm teaching in a literature class, though I'm going to teach poets that I think will be most useful for them. But if a student comes to me and wants to read anybody with me, I will read that poet with him, and read them closely, and ask the same questions and look for the same things. I think that there are certain poets that aren't particularly good for a young writer, not right off the bat, but might be later on, but there's virtually nobody I would discourage anybody's wanting to read. Some stuff I think is kind of silly, like language poetry. I think what they used to call concrete poetry where you'd make shapes out of words is kind of gimmicky and silly, but I'm open to anything that my students want to explore and think about.

JM: What's your take on Rod Mckuen?

TL: Well, it's just sentimental crap.

JM: Whatever happened to Rod Mckuen, anyway? 

TL: He's around. He's stopped putting out books, though. Suzanne Somers has published a book of poetry. There's a book of poetry now by the singer Jewel. Jimmy Stewart published a book of poetry. Jimmy Carter. I mean, there's always been that kind of stuff. Some of Carter's stuff is pretty good, actually. I happened to browse through it and it wasn't so bad. But there's always been that—it's just not poetry, not good poetry. You can call it poetry if you want, but it's dopey and sentimental. You know, even dopey and sentimental people don't read 'em anymore.

JM: Do you ever worry about people who may not be very familiar with poetry looking at a book by—I won't say a Mckuen since they're not being sold anymore—but, Jewel or somebody like that?

TL: I don't worry about that. You know, I can't. I don't have any power over that, can't change that. I would be happy if somebody, you know, if a student came to me with a book of Jewel's and thought it was great poetry. I would try to show them something that really was good and try to explain. I wouldn't attack Jewel or attack this kid's taste. I would try to teach him how to look for more and how to look for originality and true authenticity, stuff like that.

JM: If you couldn't teach, what other profession would you choose?

TL: I'd love to play center-field on a major league baseball team. In fact, if the devil came to me and gave me a fifty-year career as a poet and one year as a center-fielder for the Boston Red Sox, I'd have to think about it. If I could bat about .390 and steal thirty or forty bases and win a gold glove in outfield, I might consider that deal. But I don't know what I'd do—maybe be a librarian or work in a bookstore, something like that, or I'd work with children in some other way; Special Ed. I started out wanting to teach Special Ed. But I don't know; I've never done anything else. I've never wanted to do anything else, never had any fantasies about doing anything else. Teaching is just what I've always liked to do, and I work hard at it. I like it.

JM: What happens next for Thomas Lux?

TL: I just want to keep writing, keep trying to get better. I want to keep trying to write better and better. I'd like to write a couple of poems that might be read for awhile. I have some more books in me. I've also been writing some nonfiction, and I have the fantasy of writing a nonfiction book someday, probably on some odd historical subject, something like that, but I just want to keep writing and reading and raising my child and teaching, and I hope, before I die, the Red Sox win the World Series.

Interview with Thomas Lux
Conducted by J.M. Spalding
The Cortland Review - Issue Eight - August 1999

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