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


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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.

When I read your poetry, the overwhelming sense I get of you is as a voracious reader, particularly of biographies and histories. Could you talk about the relationship between reading and writing?

I am a voracious reader. Aren't most writers? How did the original Dr. J. put it: "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to write a book." He also said we read in order to find out "what comes near to ourself." I wanted to write in the first place because I loved books I read and I wanted to try to do that myself. It would be churlish not to read a lot. I read history a great deal and all kinds of general nonfiction; quite a few biographies (another kind of history); more and more natural history (five books I've read recently, for example, were on the Dodo bird, lobsters, eels, locusts, and vanilla); a lot of poetry and writing about poetry; all sorts of things. There's no other way to learn about the Dodo bird! There's nothing on TV about them, haven't seen any movies on the subject.

Things strike me in reading that I sometimes use in poems. Sometimes my titles are snatched from reading; I lift things that seem to me to have metaphorical possibilities and then I try to discover them. I love books as objects too. I plan to die with 10,000 books. I think I have about 6,000 now, so I better live a very long time or else start reading faster!

History seems particularly important to you.

As I said, I read a great deal of it. Never in any systematic way but I have read deeply in certain areas: World War II, medieval, lately a lot of nineteenth-century world history and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history. A persistent theme of mine seems to be man's inhumanity to woman and man. Lots of examples of that in history and right up until the seconds before I finish typing up this sentence. Lots of metaphorical possibilities to mine there too! I'm just curious: I don't want to take tests on what I read; I don't want to argue with history professors about theories. An example of the kind of book I like best would be about the daily life—in as great detail as possible—of a fifteenth-century German pig farmer.

The Drowned River uses a famous saying of William Faulkner's as an epigraph: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." How important is that idea to your poetry?

Well, I believe Mr. Faulkner was right. I don't think he meant simply "history repeats itself," though that's implicit too. I think he's saying that humans are pretty much the same as we've always been. I think he's saying that despite all the tremendous advantages the modern world brings us, we carry our past, ourselves, our history, with us always. As a country. As one country among many others. As individuals. I think he's taking a swipe at our human arrogance, the relentless drive of the human ego.

The natural world features prominently in your work, but you seem more drawn to small creatures instead of wide vistas. Your latest book, The Cradle Place, contains poems about ants, maggots, dung beetles, locusts, scorpions, flies, and a lovely ode to the ice worm, "The Ice Worm's Life." What is it you find compelling about insects?

My connection to the natural world is a little mysterious to me. I grew up on a farm but have lived most of my life in cities. I got interested in insects a few years ago while I was writing an article about a photographer who took pictures of very small things, primarily insects. That got me on a bug kick. There's a lot of them out there. The combined weight of all the insects in the world is greater than the combined weight of all the mammals, including us! It's estimated that there are still about 150,000 species of beetle as yet unidentified. I like beetles. Without the dung beetle we'd all be up to our clavicles in cow pies. They deserve an ode!

So, I've read a fair amount of popular entomology, but understand: the creatures—bugs, snakes, rats—stand as metaphors too, are part of the allegorical connections I often attempt in my poems. I'm uneasy in writing about myself too often, too directly. A reviewer recently noted that I have only four seemingly autobiographical poems in The Cradle Place (and two of them are homages to other writers) and worms appear eight times. I took that as praise. The self is too often too common in poetry, I think.

Yes, the lack of autobiographical poems in The Cradle Place is noticeable. I know that you have referred to yourself in the past as a "recovering surrealist." Are you now a recovering confessional poet?

I write some poems about myself but not many. In a sense, all poems are autobiographical—no matter what the subject, they show what the poet feels about the world, what he/she hates, loves, quarrels with, and fears. I don't write many directly autobiographical poems because I haven't had that many things happen to me in my real life that are interesting enough to write about. I said to my mother a few years ago: A lot of my friends are writing memoirs, but I don't have anything to write about. She said: You could write about the time your horse got stuck in the mud.

That comment about being a recovering surrealist was a kind of joke. Surrealism was and has been one of the most influential schools of art for nearly a century. I love the surrealist poets—Desnos is my favorite. Does anyone know an early book of Bill Knott's called Nights of Naomi? It's the best hardcore surrealist book ever written by an American poet. My only quarrel with surrealism is its arbitrariness. I love mystery, strangeness, nuttiness, wildness, leaps across chasms, irreverence, all the crazy stuff we love about poetry. We don't usually love poems because they are well made, or smart, or deep. We love them for their crazy hearts. I just don't find chance or arbitrariness the end. It can be a beginning.

When you begin an allegorical poem like "To Help the Monkey Cross the River," what comes first—the ideas or the metaphors?

Tough question. I think most often a poem begins for me with an image, a rhythm, a little hint of something that might have metaphorical possibilities. Something one sees, hears, pops into one's head, pops out of reading—something that seems worth exploring. Like the bear who goes over the mountain: to see what he can see. I do many drafts of poems, trying to figure out what it is the poem is telling me it needs to do or say. It's a process, lots of trial and error. I have to work both very intuitively and with cold fierce consciousness, sometimes alternately, sometimes at the same time. I'm a lunch-pail writer: I go to work. I believe the monkey poem began when I saw some monkeys swimming across a river on a nature show. The poem was printed and someone wrote to the magazine to say that monkeys never swim unless they are taught to do so by humans. So I guess I imagined it. And I guess the person writing the letter never heard of metaphor or allegory.

Your poem, "Family Photo Around Xmas Tree," which seems to use the Christmas photo as a metaphor for a certain type of family poem, made me laugh out loud. Is humor something you intentionally strive for in your poetry? And do you think there's a general lack of humor in contemporary American poetry?

I don't think one can consciously strive for humor. I do think one needs the capacity to be humorous. Most of what's funny in my poems I think would fall into categories like satire, irony, black or gallows humor, workaday wiseacre attitudes. I do think there is room for humor in poetry. Life includes humor. Why not poetry? And it's not oxymoronic that humorous poetry can be serious.

One question about form. None of the poems in The Cradle Place have been broken into stanzas. Is there something that happens to a poem that is organized into stanzas that you don't want to happen to your own poems?

I pay a great deal of attention to form. Poetry's an art form, a craft. About the lack of stanza breaks: I stopped using them entirely about a decade ago. I came to believe I was using them arbitrarily, to make a poem look like a poem. It most matters to me what a poem sounds like. I think line breaks are incredibly important—they are one of the most important ways one tries to make the reader hear the poem exactly as one wants the reader to hear it. Tone, which carries a lot of the reverberations one is hoping to catch, can really only be heard.

I'd like to ask you a little more about the striking image in "Render, Render," the final poem in the book, in which the "dense, fatty, scented red essence" that is rendered becomes a kind of lipstick "to plant as many kisses upon the world as the world can bear!" That poem, like a lot of your poems, has images of putrefaction, but ends with such all-encompassing love.

Many of my poems quarrel with the dark, cruel forces of the world. One of those is putrefaction. But I'm glad you also say they often end with "all-encompassing love." Many of my poems, I'd like to believe, try to do that. And then some try to do both.

That poem is a kind of ars poetica. The literal rendering process—the glue factory—boils down all kinds of animal products. The resulting goop is used for many things—food processing, cosmetics, and such. Poetry, the poem is trying to articulate, is a similar process—everything gets boiled down, even (maybe especially) things not usually considered important or useful. Those kisses at the end, forgive me, are poems. What else can the poet do but write as best he or she can and then send them out there in the world?

Peter Swanson is a writer based in Boston. He received an M.F.A. in poetry from Emerson College. His article on comics and graphic novels appeared in The Atlantic Online.
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