This is the sixth and final post in a series of blog posts to honor those whom Nin calls star-makers, meaning those who help make others’ literary lives successful.
When you say David Lehman most think of The Best American Poetry series, but he does it all: anthologist, literary and cultural critic, editor, professor, star-maker, and poet. And more. Much more. But when I think of him, I think first and foremost of a brilliant poet, a man who seems always to have a poem moving through him, who can easily compose a poem a day, as he did for his collection The Daily Mirror. The way I see it, America is one lucky gal to have David-Lehman poems, David-Lehman wit, and David-Lehman exuberance flowing through her veins.
When I say that David Lehman’s poetry is flowing through America’s veins it is both a metaphor and very much a reality. Here’s just one recent example. A few weeks ago I was invited to read poems at a peace rally in central Pennsylvania. Community members organized this rally—the main organizer is a dear friend, Neysa Thomas, who wanted to find a meaningful way to respond to an act of vandalism and hate speech that involved defacing the local high school’s property with swastikas. Many members of the local community and Neysa’s synagogue supported the peace rally’s efforts. As I chose poems to read, I wanted to include poems of peace and prayer, poems that concretely communicate awe, poems that tell a story and make a peaceful argument, poems capable of speaking directly to a community that is at a loss for words, and, well, I immediately turned to Yeshiva Boys. David’s poem, “Day of Penitence and Awe.” That moving poem is still echoing through the streets in this small P.A. town. The opening lines of the poem read, “In temple I prayed / and chanted Holy! Holy! / Holy! And was scared.” It’s David’s voice that’s flushing out the wound. Poets like David who master the art form are poets who teach, influence, and shape how we see the world.
In his new and brilliant book, Poems in the Manner Of, David enters into conversation with poets from the past as he transmits his poetic influences and gives aspiring poets permission to embrace, imitate, and converse with the poets they admire (I will be using Poems in the Manner Of in my creative writing classrooms from now on). This collection is a shadowed contour of poetic forms, styles, voices, yet, as we journey through the tributes David’s wit and humor is often at its core. The book is a pure pleasure to read.
I laughed out loud when I read “Poem in the Manner of Emily Dickinson.” Here’s the poem in its entirety:
Another poem that exemplifies the amalgamation of content and style is “Poem in the Manner of Williams Carlos Williams.”
As the rain
the plums red
in the bowl
on the table
with their dark
red rind wait
for her eyes
to see them
her hair still
wet still full
of suds as
three old men
watch her touch
she sees them
And as David says in his note to the reader, “Limiting myself to three words per line, I sought the jagged edges of a William Carlos Williams poem.” He goes on to inform us how his imitation is an attempt to capture WCW’s style as he also imitates a similar process that produced this gem.
Another poem from the new book that I admire, “Poem in the Manner of Pablo Neruda,” is briefly prefaced with the note: “The industrious Neruda wrote odes to many things –including laziness.” I read this as a stage direction because this poem performs the essence of Neruda’s many odes and it’s an interpretation.
Poem in the Manner of Pablo Neruda
Yesterday I was too lazy to write this poem.
So I wrote an ode to laziness
and put in yellow birds and purple plums.
I closed my eyes and wrote an ode to sleep.
I opened them and conceived of odes
to streets, rain, wine, a beautiful nude,
my clothes waiting for me to wear them,
my toolbox, my medicine chest –
but these I left unwritten.
Laziness demanded it. She was a beautiful nude,
and we sat on the porch and watched the storm.
And I didn’t write an ode to the storm and an ode
to dying in Paris on a Thursday afternoon,
an ode to dusk on a lonely country road,
an ode to chaos (the sea) and an ode to form,
to books, to Buddhism, to the stars and moon.
I thought that I’d ask David Lehman a few questions here…
NS: David, you mention in the introduction of this latest collection how you began writing “poems in the manner of” back in 2002 and that the pace of producing slowed down, but the idea never went away. Could you talk about what you did during the dormant periods and about ideas that linger and eventually stick? There’s so much hope in knowing that the idea for this book lingered for well over a decade. Did you ever consider scrapping it altogether?
DL: I'm always working on multiple projects concurrently. Either that's because I'm a Gemini with Leo rising or I'm a workaholic or I'm just a guy who likes writing something every day. I always thought of this project as one that would take years to finish. Every so often I'd return to it and add a poem in the manner of someone I hadn't done before. Books take their time. Sometimes you so enjoy working on something you don't ever want it to end.
NS: Do you ever savor a project for too long or to a point that leads to new ideas/discoveries for other projects? I love the whole idea of writing "in the manner of" as opposed to "after" another poet or poem. I also love how you write poems "in the manner of" a whole decade or manner or mood. I was wondering if you could say a few words about the difference between a poem written "after" another poet, and a poem "in the manner of" another poet.
DL: Thank you for the compliment. I construe "poems in the manner of" to be wider in its application than "after." I like the idea that a poem can be a homage, a parody, an appreciation, a translation or adaptation, or an appropriation -- or any combination of these things. It was a great day when I realized that I could widen the project yet further by writing a poem in the manner of an Eric Ambler spy novel or a Johnny Mercer lyric for a Harold Arlen tune. That led to "Poem in the Manner of a Jazz Standard" and the ones dedicated to decades. I wrote almost twice as many poems as those included in the book. Among the ones I have shelved for now are poems in the manner of Victorian pornography, contemporary fiction, a romance novel, the Gothic manner, the "modern" manner, Sextus Propertius, Emerson, Hart Crane, as well as a short play about Shelley and his circle. These may yet have their day, who knows? Revising is sometimes even more fun than writing.
NS: I love that you say revising is sometimes more fun and that you mention what led to "Poem in the Manner of a Jazz Standard." The book ends with two poems influenced by music: “Poem in the Manner of a Jazz Standard” and “Poem in the Manner of a Hit Song by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, c. 1945.” Music is such a big part of many of your books. What song is running through you right now?
DL: There are two songs taking turns in my brain right now. One is the Gershwins' "I Don't Think I'll Fall in Love Today," a duet sung by Dawn Upshaw and David Garrison. The other is Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky to Be Me" from the show On the Town. Both are fantastic.
NS: You are a poetry-father to many poets—you’ve guided and nurtured poets as they’ve made their way into the poetry world. You’ve influenced poets as a result of your contribution as an artist, teacher, critic, editor, etc. How do you balance between being a star-maker and an artist, teacher, etc. How do you do it all? Do you sleep?
DL: I need a lot of sleep and I work hard because I enjoy it. That's the simple answer. I wish I had more time. There are many demands that are made of me and if I honored them all I wouldn't get any writing of my own done.
NS: Speaking of working hard and loving what you do. I'd like to bring up The Best American Poetry series. How did you become The Best American Poetry editor? How did you come up with the idea for the series? To what do you attribute its great success?
DL: The idea came to me on the first of August 1987. I remember the very moment. I had moved the day before, from Ludlowville to Ithaca, and on this day I was driving back to pick up assorted house plants that we'd left behind. No one thought such an anthology would have a chance because of the presumed lack of interest in poetry. We proved the doubters wrong. A lot of people are interested in poetry, at least potentially, but we have to overcome a defeatist attitude and we have to bring some imaginative flair to the project of publishing our poems.
NS: Now I want to know if you still have any of those house plants. Do you? This isn't a question for the interview, but I am curious. Deanna and I keep killing house plants and replacing them. Well, except for one aloe plant that seems to have survived for a few years now. We've named some of the plants (Ms. Bart, Sanchez, Lady Woodrow) thinking that it might help them live longer, but no luck. On a different note, I am always so impressed with your memory.
DL: Our house plants seem to be doing pretty well though probably none are left from 1987. Geraniums are very hardy. My memory's still pretty good. I had to memorize a soliloquy from "Hamlet" for last night's class and I did it and it went over well.
NS: Can you describe what goes into the editing process and how you choose the guest editors? Have you ever asked a poet to edit and had him or her turn you down?
DL: Very few have turned us down: some are too busy, some just don't want to do things that will interfere with their own writing time. In an editor I look for a poet of national reputation, who is writing well, whom I respect and whom I can get along with, and who would welcome the challenge with all the risks it entails—it is, after all, easy to offend friends and associated who don't make the final cut. Each year the dynamic between series editor and guest editor varies.
NS: Give me a highlight—one of your best memories or moments of editing The Best American Poetry.
DL: In our first year John Ashbery chose a poem by Donald Hall, "Prophecy." John told me confidentially that he thought it would be an even stronger poem if a certain stanza were omitted. Meanwhile he chose it for the “Best American Poetry 1988.” I asked Don for a comment on the poem and he told me he had revised it—he had removed the very stanza that John questioned. Great that their minds worked alike. When the series was new and we were establishing our name, the work was very hands on and I got to spend time collaborating with Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charlie Simic, Louise Gluck, Archie Ammons etc. Those were great days. I'm proud of the discoveries we made. Certain poets were little known when we published them—Nin Andrews, Anne Carson, Catherine Bowman, Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, Amy Gerstler, Terrance Hayes, Rodney Jones, Yusef Komunyakaa, Kay Ryan, AE Stallings, Natasha Trethewey, Susan Wheeler, Dean Young, to name just a few. In New York one day in 1990 Mark Strand and I spent a great afternoon looking at potential cover art for BAP 1991. Ten years later Robert Hass and I met in a hotel room in Princeton for a marathon session in which the merits of various poems were discussed. When Kevin Young was the guest editor, another decade later, in 2010, we kept bumping into each other by chance—once at the Tibor de Nagy art gallery in New York, another time in a Boston restaurant. These are all happy memories. I have enjoyed my dealings with all the guest editors; I have broadened my ideas about contemporary poetry, and we have done something that is indisputably good for the art and its sometimes beleaguered practitioners.
NS: This is so cool to hear straight from the source! Can we close with a poem of your choice from your work?
DL: Gladly. I will attach the first of the new poems in my New and Selected Poems: "Sixteen Tons."
To prolong the moment
as a simile extends a sentence
about the heroine’s innocence
which she yielded to her lover and now
she hates him as Eve hates Adam
when she risks her life
to give birth to their child –
To sit in your car and listen
to the last bars of something great
(Bernstein’s “Divertimento for Orchestra,”
you find out later) and then you turn off
the engine open the door
and return to your life, “another
day older and deeper in debt” --
That’s what the authorities fail to get.
You can learn a lot from
the sportscaster’s present tense:
“Three years ago he beats out that hit,”
about a player who has lost a step or two
due to a leg injury.
Three years ago, we all beat out that hit.
When I escape from this party
of unloved doves and loveless hawks,
I shall head to my desk and write
the sonnet that praises the antique pen
used to write out prophesies of today
with you on my arm, unafraid.
-- David Lehman
Nicole Santalucia is the author of Because I Did Not Die and Driving Yourself to Jail in July. She teaches poetry at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and brings poetry workshops into the Cumberland County Prison.