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"The Joy of the Gamble: A Conversation with David Lehman" [by Aspen Matis]

VermontHere are excerpts from Aspen Matis's piece "The Joy of the Gamble: A Conversation with David Lehman" that the Los Angeles Review of Books published on Saturday, November 27:

ASPEN MATIS: Congratulations on The Morning Line. What would you like to share about the origins and creation process of this newest collection?

DAVID LEHMAN: The Morning Line is really a gathering of the best and most ambitious poems I’ve written (or completed) in the last five years, which has been a particularly fruitful period for me, perhaps because it followed my bout with cancer and brush with death. The book consists of poems (and a prose poem) that represent a range of my interests — everything from love to lunch, gambling to stamp collecting, music and martinis. I am inspired — to the point of writing poems — by the lives and works of Villon and Mayakovsky, Talmudic tales, jazz standards, Schubert’s Rosamunde overture, verse forms and word games, puzzles, wisecracks, big philosophical questions, the life of the mind versus what the French call la vie quotidienne. In college and since, I took seriously what we used to call a “liberal arts education,” the idea that an educated person should have an active relation with art, music, literature, history, and philosophy.

Some poems come easily, some take forever. It took me 20 years to write “The Complete History of the Boy,” which is a sort of biography-in-progress of a 15-year-old poet.

Learning you had just defeated cancer makes the vitality of the poems in The Morning Line all the more stunning — thank you for sharing about that difficult fight. This context makes the book all the more triumphant. Why, I wonder, is the period following devastation so often beautifully vital? And how, in your experience, might death’s presence in our lives contribute to our greatest awakenings and birth our truest work?

Your questions cut to the quick, Aspen. I guess if I could put it in one prosaic sentence, I’d say: All the things you usually take for granted, whether driving past a field of corn or admiring the nobility of your dog standing guard at the door, well, you take them less for granted. Okay, I can be less prosaic. I’ve come into contact with death and as a result I have wounds but also strength I never knew I had.

The Morning Line pubIn a clear-eyed and familiar voice, The Morning Line paints a nostalgic impressionistic masterwork that at once entertains the imagination and illuminates the big questions we’re now facing as a society. The book embraces, in John Hennessy’s words, “subjects ranging from the perfect martini and accompanying jazz recording to profound questions of faith.” In your mind, what inquiry or exploration unifies the work? What do you hope the book’s readers will be left with, after the final page?

Good questions. What unifies the book, I think, is the poet’s sensibility and craft and a certain quantity of joie de vivre and heartfelt happiness despite the uncertainty, noise, ugliness, and even misery that threaten to defeat the impulse to celebrate, an impulse fundamental to all creation. As to what the reader is left with, you’re in the best possible position to answer that question.

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?

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.

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?

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.

For the entire piece, please click here:
Photo credit: Stacey Lehman. Cover art by Ricky Mujica. The Morning Line was puiblished bby the University of Pittsburgh Press in September of this year.

October 04, 2015

September 29, 2015

September 18, 2015

July 15, 2015

July 11, 2015

July 06, 2015

June 06, 2015

May 02, 2015

April 15, 2015

March 12, 2015

February 25, 2015

February 04, 2015

February 02, 2015

January 13, 2015

December 13, 2014

December 11, 2014

November 21, 2014

November 12, 2014

November 10, 2014

October 28, 2014

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


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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