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"The Joy of the Gamble": from a conversation with Aspen Matis and David Lehman

Aspen Matis Aspen Matis (left): In the book’s eponymous poem, “The Morning Line,” you write of gambling as an aspect of human nature — and of human folly. With intensity and grace, the speaker evokes a seductive picture of chance as “abstract art,” observing how “the gulf / is sometimes wide between the odds / set by the handicapper for the morning line / and the betting public at the track / when the horses reach the starting gate.” Why do you suspect that — as the speaker expresses — “[g]ambling is a natural human instinct”? Are you yourself a gambler, in some sense of the word?

David Lehman (below right): Life is a gamble. Even when you don’t realize it, you are making a wager. Crossing a busy city street, you are betting that motorists are rational and sane, undistracted, and obedient to a system of alternating green and red lights. That’s a trivial example, but think of the choices we make when it comes to colleges, companions, relationships, and careers.

When I quit the academic world to become a full-time freelance writer, I took a huge gamble. It worked out, though at the time the odds were long. I feel like my life is a gamble, and perhaps that is why I don’t gamble in casinos.

AM: In the same poem, the speaker draws a stunning connection between instability and religion, evoking God in “the risk you feel / when you are so deeply involved with another person / that you cannot imagine living your life without her.” That powerful stanza concludes: “The inevitability of loss, a much-misunderstood aspect / of gambling, is not a deterrent but an attraction.” Why, in your view, is instability so compelling? Why is risk-taking (such as risking love) a joyful high?

Civitella 2006DL: Life without risk, even if possible, wouldn’t necessarily be desirable. What makes a baseball game exciting to a fan is that the outcome is unknown. It is happening, it is real, and it can go either way. If love came with a lifetime guarantee, would it still be love? Would it be love if it didn’t have the fear of loss?

Graham Greene once said that he went to Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam, Haiti, Africa not “to seek material for novels but to regain the sense of insecurity” to which the London blitzes had addicted him. That makes sense to me.

AM: Your words make me wonder to what extent creativity is also gambling. That inquiry in mind, what is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems?

DL: There are few things I enjoy doing as much as putting words together to make something that will ideally outlive its author and give pleasure to persons of the unknown future.

from the Los Angeles Review of Books, November 27, 2021. 

I'd like to give thanks in this season of Thanksgiving, to Aspen Matis -- for this conversation centering on my book of poems, The Morning Line -- and for the intrepid interviews she has conducted for the Best American Poetry blog.


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Radio

I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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