Q&A with David Lehman
David Lehman is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Yeshiva Boys (Scribner, 2009) and When a Woman Loves a Man (Scribner, 2005). Among his nonfiction books are A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook/Schocken, 2009), The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Anchor, 1999), The Perfect Murder (Michigan, 2000), and Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991). He edited Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present and The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present, which appeared from Scribner in 2003 and 2008, respectively. He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006), a one-volume comprehensive anthology of poems from Anne Bradstreet to the present. Lehman teaches writing and literature in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City. He initiated The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and continues as the annual anthology’s general editor. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989 and an Academy Award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1990. His poems appeared in Smartish Pace, Issue 15 and he read in the Smartish Pace reading series in New York on Oct. 4, 2008. He lives in New York City and in Ithaca, New York.
When you were writing a poem a day for a year, I think it was, and then stopped writing that much, did the poetic workout have any recognizable effect on your future writings? Would you recommend this task to other writers?
D. Smith — Philadelphia, PA
I wrote a poem a day not for just one year but for five! The practice grew into a habit that I cherished. I recommend it. Writing a daily poem makes you more inventive, because you have to create something new each day. You’re also inclined to be adventurous and take chances. If you try to do something — a reverse sonnet, say — and fail, well, what’s the difference? You’ve got all these other poems in the bank. The freedom to write something bad is crucial for any poet who refuses simply to repeat himself or herself.
As for the effect on my subsequent writing, yes, there are days that I summon the voice of the poems in The Daily Mirror and The Evening Sun, my two “journals in poetry.”
What influence has the internet had on poetry in general or your poetry specifically? Do you like the way the internet has influenced poetry?
Dan Watts — Rockville, MD
This is a tough and complicated question. I’ll name something good and something troubling. Good: the speed in disseminating a poem (or any piece of writing) is tremendous. You can write a poem today and see it published tomorrow. This has effected a change in the way some poets write; the medium of communication always influences the style of exposition. Look for the tendency toward informality and “talk poetry” to continue. (And at the same time, because every action arouses an opposite reaction, you’ll see the continuation of formalist rebellions.) For a lover of books, the bad thing about the Internet is the incredible pressure it has put on the publishing industry. The printed book and magazine do not face extinction. But the very act of writing that sentence dramatizes the threat.
I enjoyed seeing you read for Smartish Pace in New York and was wondering if you think there is a relationship between the way you write your poetry and then read it? Does the idea of a public reading influence your writing? Thank you.
P.B. — New York, NY
Thank you for the compliment. A South African poet on a panel referred to “page poetry” to distinguish it from the “spoken word” variety. We don’t talk about “page poetry,” but the very existence of such a phrase has remarkable implications. Given the importance of public readings as a way of disseminating poetry, I have a feeling that many if not most poets have — consciously or not — a live audience somewhere in mind as they make certain decisions when writing a poem.
I’d also like to say that younger poets would be well advised to practice reading their poems aloud. Too many of them read too fast, or in too low a voice, or in too apologetic a manner. This is something that writing instructors should be addressing, I believe.
Do you have trouble finding enough poems to fill the Best [American Poetry] book each year? Seems like there’s far-far-far more crappy poetry published than great poetry.
Alice — Baltimore, MD
Alice, nearly every guest editor begins the year skeptical that there are seventy-five poems that merit inclusion. And in every case, the editor is amazed to find that seventy-five slots are not enough to represent all the vital, interesting, worthy, inspired poems published every year in the United States and Canada.
There may be “more crappy poetry published than great poetry,” That has always been the case. But even if every issue of every serious literary magazine has only one valuable poem among, say, fifteen contenders, you’ll quickly accumulate several hundred poems of value.
What is your goal in writing poetry? What is your primary task? Thanks David & SP!
Jean — Belleville, MO
Hi Jean. The simplest questions are the most profound. The first poem in my new book of poems (Yeshiva Boys) is called “On Purpose” and it addresses this question. But the simplest answer to your query is this: I love poetry and I love writing it. Love is a powerful force.
I write poetry myself, but am currently trying to foster the talent of a student of mine. He read some poetry in class yesterday, and it blew me away. I offered to research some journals that might be willing to look at his work, but don’t know how to sift through them on behalf of a 16 year old kid. The Jewish mother in me won’t let him leave my class for the summer without giving him some direction. Can I bother someone of your esteem for some advice? Thank you. Susan
Susan Coonin Kogon — Garnet Valley, PA USA
Thank you, Susan. I can’t tell you how many poets and poetry lovers have told me that school teachers kindled their lifelong love of language and literature. There are so many magazines out there it’s hard to know where to begin. If you have access to an old-fashioned university library that has a periodicals room, it might be a good idea to accompany the student there, gather a bunch of magazines, and see which ones have poems that speak to him. One magazine that has a long and proud history of publishing poems by high school students is Hanging Loose, in Brooklyn, edited by Robert Hershon.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Amy T. — Houston, TX
I always have a whole row of books on the night stand. At the moment these include the aphorisms of Arthur Schopenhauer, a thriller by Frederick Forsythe, A. J. Ayer’s Voltaire, a novel by the British novelist John Wain (Hurry on Down), mystery novels by Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, Ira Gershwin’s Selected Lyrics, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, and books of poetry by Beth Ann Fennelly, Donald Justice, and Erika Meitner. Yes, it’s nothing if not an eclectic list–something for every mood. Bliss. I will read as many as five books concurrently–the Forsythe thriller, the Wain novel, Schopenhauer, Gershwin’s lyrics, and Erika Meitner’s new book of poems at the moment–and though there’s always the risk that I won’t finish one or another, that’s fair enough. As Kierkegaard says, if you see the middle of a play without having seen the opening acts you have a very different experience from the one the playwright was kind enough to prepare for you. I read novels the normal way, but with books of poetry, philosophy, and history I love reading the chapters in the order of my choice.
This poet is finished answering questions and we apologize if your question was not answered.–THE EDITORS