Interviews December 2004

Details, Details

The poet Thomas Lux talks about rendering the unruly stuff of life into metaphors that stick
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The Cradle Place
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin
96 pages, $22.00

A cursory look at any of the eight full-length books of poetry that Thomas Lux has published since the early 1970s will yield an extraordinary array of subject matter. Crack a spine and you'll be confronted with an ode to the virgule, or to the limbic system, or a poem simply titled "Commercial Leech Farming Today," that is, refreshingly, about commercial leech farming today. Lux's latest collection, The Cradle Place, has poems devoted to national impalement statistics, to the ice worm, to the dung beetle. More impressive than the range of Lux's poetic feelers, however, is the way in which he distills these subjects into the original and striking metaphors that run through his disarming poems. Take, for instance, Lux's description of a gletz, the flaw inside a diamond, as "these breathless, cell-sized cells / where two inmates are locked / and each has a knife."

Charles Simic once described his own poems as being "a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one's walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a torn photograph." Lux's poems feel a bit like this as well, loaded with macabre details picked up from the histories and biographies that he consumes. A prolific collector of facts, Lux works his findings into poems often accessible, usually witty, and almost always dark. Much of his imagery centers around dissolution and decay: a horse bleeds to death at full gallop; flies amass so thickly above a corpse-strewn battlefield that the surviving soldiers use flame-throwers to get through them. The birds in a recent Lux poem are nailed to trees. There is a poem for his daughter entitled "Can't Sleep the Clowns Will Eat Me."

While other poets recycle personal history with ever-diminishing returns, Lux, having made the history of the world his palette, continues to excite. But his poems are not merely exercises in show-and-tell; they operate satirically, and with unexpected compassion, and there is a real allegorical bent to his work, never more apparent than in his latest book. A poem like "The American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association" is grounded in fact (there really is such an association) and also a sly examination of audience and aesthetics. That Lux is able to construct poem after poem with such ambidextrous facility is testament to his continuing artistry. Lux's poem on leech farming ends with the line, "I like the story because it's true." It's an apt description of what is likeable about Lux's own writing—his knack for uncovering curious scraps of knowledge that stir the imagination.

Lux, a farmer's son from Northampton, Massachusetts, attended Emerson College and then the Iowa Writers' Workshop. A former Guggenheim fellow, he has been awarded three NEA grants and the 1995 Kingsley Tufts Award for his sixth collection, Split Horizon. He currently holds the Bourne Chair in poetry and is the director of the McEver Visiting Writers Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. His books of poetry include Memory's Handgrenade (1972), The Glassblower's Breath (1976), Sunday (1979), Half Promised Land (1986), The Drowned River (1990), Split Horizon (1994), The Street of Clocks (2001), New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995 (1997), and The Cradle Place (2004).

We corresponded recently via e-mail.

Peter Swanson


Author photo
Photo credit

Thomas Lux

 

Tell me a little bit about growing up on a dairy farm. Were there expectations that you would continue in your father's trade?

The dairy farm where I grew up was about a hundred miles west of Boston. I liked the hayfields, the cornfields, the woods, the hayloft. My grandfather was the farmer and when he died, my uncle. My father was the milkman. There wasn't an expectation that I'd be a milkman. I remember telling my father that I wanted to. He said, "No, you don't." My parents are of that generation who lived through the Depression and then World War II and were determined that their kids would have a better shot than they did.

What led you to Emerson College?

Going to Emerson College was somewhat of a fluke. I think it and Salem State were the only places that accepted me. Turned out to be right time, right place for me. James Randall, who later became my first publisher at Pym-Randall Press, was a professor at Emerson and encouraged me very early. In my junior year, at Randall's instigation, Emerson hired a working poet, Helen Chasin (she had just won the Yale Younger Poets Prize) to teach. This was the first peep of what has become one of the largest and most respected writing programs—both undergrad and graduate—in the country. I was in her class for two years and it changed my life. She was a tough but generous teacher. I'd been trying to write poetry since high school but never had instruction. Helen's class was a whole new ballgame: there were rules to be learned before one broke them.

What were some of the rules to be learned in her class?

The rules were the rules of the craft: attention to music, line breaks, distillation, syntax, metrics, clarity, received forms, etc. The craft, and all its elements.

Did she inform your own teaching?

Sure, she informed my teaching. There are basic things—the many different ways line breaks can be used, for example—that all young or new writers need to learn. Poetry writing can be taught, just like music or painting can be taught. Everything but how to make a metaphor can be taught, and even that can be developed if there is a spark of it in a writer. You can't teach the fire in the belly, of course. You can't teach the need to write and read poetry, and you can't teach stamina. You can't teach someone to love the art form. And then I think there's another one or two percent of poetic nuttiness of logic that can't be taught—but that would probably fall under the category of metaphor. All else can be taught.

At that time, what poets were you reading and emulating?

The poets I was reading and emulating were numerous. The American poets first, from the oldest to the (then) youngest: Whitman, Crane, Eliot, Pound, Berryman, Roethke, Lowell, Jarrell, Rich, Sexton, Plath, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, Bill Knott, and so on. I've left out at least a dozen. The English poets: Keats, Byron, Coleridge; later, Hopkins, Thomas, Larkin. Another dozen or so left out. Foreign language poets in translation: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the surrealists, dadaists. The Russians, particularly Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Blok. Spanish and Latin American: Vallejo, Neruda, Huidobro, Paz, Alberti, Lorca—on and on. I think my generation, in particular, has been at least as much influenced by foreign poets as by writers in English. It seemed to me the early seventies was a very lively time for translation—Bly and Wright doing Neruda and Vallejo, Merwin translating Mandelstam, etc.

When did you first start to think of yourself as a poet?

I guess it was around this time, taking Helen's classes, that I began to believe that I might have a chance of being a poet. Robert Frost said the word "poet" is a praise-word, a word not to be tossed around lightly, and I don't. I still believe/hope that I might have a chance of being a poet.

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