Nothing could be worse than afternoons
spent in the sun, a city park of plants
in their genteel arrays. I can’t sit down
or even notice them.
A lady swoons
in some far distant context; elegance
and ecstasy combine.
I’m in this town
and dizzy as blood rushes to my head
with images I can’t make out—not yet.
They pulse and recombine and undulate,
alive as meat, quivering and red,
sensual, decaying—but still wet,
a parody of some more tender state.
Forget the grass’s greenness—it’s the heat
that drives us into frenzy… or retreat.
ANOTHER TV ROMANCE
It’s all just motes of light, mere chemistry
and physics, coalescing into shape
and voice and narrative, a different cast
and slightly different setting. But we see
each plot device and reminisce of past
episodes. On DVD or tape
or still in syndication, obsolete
titles and stars are frozen in the roles
that terminate as our remote controls
snap them away into oblivion
for some new hero, slick, urbane, and fun
as anyone can be seen from a slouch
with a bag of potato chips, a threadbare couch,
and her… and maybe me. I’m not quite sure
with this week’s TV romance to endure.
Satellites, like angels on their pins,
dance around the world. Her show begins
with a premier at eight.
The scheduling will help her keep it straight—
which emphasis of lust
will stroke the script this time, who to trust
in the photogenic cast,
and if we’re in the present or the past.
I don’t know what to do.
She’s sitting there transfixed. I can’t get through.
A sitcom follows, sandwiching the news
of more austerity and further cuts,
of war and bombs, dissention in the pews
of dark gray churches. Then the laugher juts
from a set-up that we recognize,
a re-run recollected with a sigh
and all in the premise. Jokes get a backing track
—smiles on faces; malice in the eyes.
Again, the victim winces. So do I.
The punch line’s like the night; it will come back.
It must be in the jaw line, in the set
of shoulders in a jacket, tailor-made
for some high office—note the notch lapels
cut neither wide nor narrow. You can bet
the cuffs are free of stains. Some shit just sells
every time commercials get replayed.
Not quite romantic; handsome, but only just—
He’s Caesar’s laurels on receding hair,
Shoulder pads offsetting nascent girth.
Half used-car salesman, half a marble bust,
the pose is stiff but held for all it’s worth.
The music swells, and we’re supposed to care.
Good night, my dearest, if you understand
my thin, unscripted voice, the reflex quiver
I don’t intend my tone to have, too high
to play the villain, perhaps a bit too bland
for leading roles. I hope, though, there’s a sliver
of an oblique charisma, so I try
to tell her that my feelings haven’t changed
although the prime-time schedule’s rearranged.
Again, the episode’s complete.
A job well done. Girls and whiskey neat.
And bang. The villain takes a round.
Grimacing. Reverberating sound.
And fanfare. Once again the news.
Famine. Rapine. Shrill opposing views.
And pout. The model poses, struts
backstage. The cameras flash. The stage door shuts.
A sudden silence as the room
is all there is at last. A sudden bloom
in different ambience within the ear
bursts out in varied hues, and all is clear
as she turns and looks my way,
noticing, until another day
brings another fucking show
another plot with the same scenario
but with a different star.
We imagine this is what we are
as we lie down in bed.
Our dreams are similar but left unsaid—
with people whom one doesn’t know, but sees
beckoning luridly beyond the screen,
their lines the openers we come to mean.
Jonathan Creasy: You are a student and teacher of history, and your recent collection, Heimat, is grounded in historical facts and documentation. ('This is 2,500 years of human history.') What are the possibilities of history--national memory--in poetry?
Quincy R. Lehr: In general, when political theorists talk about what makes a nation a nation, those discussions tend to revolve around things like territory, language, and culture. Answers vary, of course, but those come up a lot. 'Culture' is perhaps the most slippery of these--ranging from where one goes to church (or where one's grandparents went to church) to what kind of sandwiches one eats to things like the twelve-bar blues and a national literature. Poetry, even if relatively marginal now, has historically played a central role in a nation's sense of itself--sometimes quite self-consciously. While I don't think I've ever cracked open Longfellow's Hiawatha without at least some sense of duty, he is clearly doing his level best to write a poem that could be from nowhere except North America, while using a metre (trochaic tetrameter) that one rarely encounters in English poetry.
At this point, that sort of real estate is pretty crowded (with Whitman probably playing the role of national poet by default in the U.S.), so with a poem like Heimat, I find myself not only grappling with history (American and otherwise) qua history, but also the legacies of anyone from Pound to Whitman to Ginsberg... the broad tradition of poets writing long poems about the nation, broadly construed, in this case the United States of America.
This touches on a distinction between Irish and United States poetry, Irish history and U.S. history. What did you make of your time in Ireland--as a poet-historian?
QRL: I was unusual in terms of Americans coming to Ireland insofar as I am not in any real way connected to the Irish diaspora. (Some Northern Irish Protestant ancestors on my mother's side came over in the early 1700s, but that's pretty common for hillbillies and wasn't a significant part of my consciousness.) I knew some of the high points of Irish history and literature, but I'd never made a particular study of them, and I wasn't a Hibernophile. Moving to Dublin and then Galway was in no way a case of my chasing after my roots, but rather meant that I got to be a foreigner for a couple of years in a place where I spoke the primary language. Indeed, as I study and teach the history of the United States, the biggest revelation was how American I am--it's less of an issue in the U.S. itself.
As far as poetry is concerned, to paraphrase Josh Mehigan, in the United States, there are a dozen schools of poetry, and they all suck, and you have to be in one of them. I may not have connected to the Ould Sod in a spray of Celtic mist or some shit like that, but Ireland, in addition to letting me out of Bush's America for a couple of years, let me into a country that's just too damn small for the levels of factionalism one finds in American poetry. In Galway in particular, I was gratified to see 'page' poets like Kevin Higgins and Susan DuMars participate in the slam scene, with the distinction between 'stage' and 'page' poets being much more blurred than in the United States. Yes, smallness is not a virtue in itself, and sometimes, factionalism exists because of real differences in direction, but the change of national scene for a time was quite positive for me.
In Heimat, you write
And I stood in the harbor in Dingle
and felt the salt in the air
settle against my skin in a tingle
as the traffic on the roundabout
circled slowly - stasis implied with movement -
and the signs in their stubborn Irish
were slightly defiant somehow
as if daring my voice to finish
a shift of language or change of heart
with fast-food joints on every block,
with a second car and a song in the charts,
and with radios blaring smut and shock--
but such is not my intent.
This is characteristic of how you often blend a seedy, rock & roll aesthetic with almost pastoral, metred and rhymed stanzas. You look forward and back at the same time. Where is this coming from?
QRL: I was a teenaged punk rocker in a university town in Oklahoma with a classical music buff organic chemist for a father and a librarian for a mother, where, for lack of all that much to do, really, I would spend inordinate amounts of time hanging out at the Kettle on Lindsay, drinking unlimited refills of coffee and talking with friends as well as older college students about, well, anything from girls to Shostakovitch to pre-Classical Greek philology to which Clock DVA albums were good and which sucked the sweat off a dead donkey's dick. And... there may have been some illicit drug use in the mix by certain parties I've just mentioned. As such, the mixture of 'high' and 'low' diction, elegant and scuzzball subject matter, and iambic pentameter and words like 'shit', 'fuck', and so forth seemed and seems entirely reasonable. Indeed, I like the contrast. Also, though I don't consciously draw as much from him now, Philip Larkin was an early influence. The first stanza of 'Sad Steps' goes like this:
'Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.'
The pretty bit is prettier for being next to the first line. Also, given my tendency to write long poems, I have to mix it up, if not in the prosody, then in terms of tone, rhythm (which is distinct from metre, which is more analogous to time signature), and diction to keep the effect from getting numbing. This also goes for 'difficulty'--Heimat has allusions to everything from nineteenth-century American politics to The Anabasis, but it has dick jokes, too.
Your reading in the Joinery (which is regrettably closing after seven years of brilliant work) showed that you have a distinctly performative style. What differs in the process of your writing and performing? How do the poems come to life in a live setting?
QRL: I try to speak clearly and avoid a monotonal delivery, mostly. Beyond that, I suppose that my take is that just because a poem's language should have an inherent frisson, there's nothing wrong with performing the thing rather than adopting that vaguely sing-songy Poet Voice that seems to almost dare an audience to go to sleep and that makes a point of riding roughshod over the actual cadences of spoken language. On the other hand, I write, in the first instance, for the inner ear, and I'm not a memorisation fetishist where readings are concerned. I see my role in a live setting as one, in the first instance, of reciting the material, rather than as the basis for a one-man show. I've never changed costumes for a reading, and I've always performed in what I was wearing when I walked into a venue.
That isn't to say that doing live renditions of poems hasn't affected my writing. Way back when I did lots of open mics, I wrote a lot of forty-to-sixty-line poems... long enough to have a bit of a dramatic element but short enough to fit under the time limit. Two of the three long poems in my first book, Across the Grid of Streets, are roughly the ideal length for a twenty-minute feature. Even though I didn't consider myself a 'performance poet' back in 2006 and had some poems in magazines, it tended to take longer to get a poem into print than it does now, so if I wanted to get a poem in from of an audience, I had to speak it. When I was better able to get into print (and more voluminously represented on the page), my poem lengths diversified. Also, and this is especially true for an open mic audience that, let's face it, usually isn't there for you, if one wants to appeal, that appeal has to be immediate and visceral, even if the ideas or references are complex. Even though I simply don't have the stamina for that many readings anymore, and I haven't been active on the open-mic circuit in a very long time, those lessons were important ones.
Music is very important to you, as it is to me and our mutual friend Ernest Hilbert. In what ways does music influence or infiltrate the writing?
QRL: There aren't any one-for-one correspondences but a great number of analogies--say, the time signature-metre vs. rhythm distinction. I allude to music a fair bit in my poems, as it's something I know pretty well and am around a lot, too. With the longer poems, thinking of longer structures--suites, symphonies, etc.--how one can organize sounds, themes, and motifs with varying degrees of looseness and tightness, was quite useful, especially as I've never been especially attracted to the novel-in-verse as something I especially want to do, and I'm probably too much a product of the postmodern era to do something like epic with a straight face. Of course, other long poems by the likes of Eliot, MacNeice, Auden, Zukofsky, Byron, Pound, Tolson, and many, many others have been important influences, too, but musical structures were certainly in my mind when I was writing and re-writing Heimat.
You are also an editor. What do you look for in poems submitted for your consideration? What do you actually find?
QRL: I'm only an editor of one journal, The Raintown Review--and strictly speaking, I'm the associate editor. The first thing to note is that we mostly get our poems from the slush pile with little solicitation, so one can have a Platonic Ideal of what an issue should look like, but the poetry portion of the magazine is made of whatever we choose from whatever we're sent, by and large. What do look for? The clichéd answer is 'the best', but that is singularly unhelpful. Jeff [Holt, assistant editor] and Anna [Evans, editor] don't have identical tastes to my own, but one can say a few things with confidence. While we lean formalist (which we construe pretty broadly), we are not especially fond of 'canon poems', those rather etiolated retreads of mythology or other poems that piggyback on the creativity of others that many magazines associated with New Formalism like entirely too much. While we like humour in poems, we're not wild about har-har jokiness or Borscht Belt clichés with end rhyme. We like narrative poetry, longer poems, poems that confront the world without flinching. Traditional forms are great, but more than about eight sonnets per issue is overload--we get a metric shit-tonne of sonnets. At the same time, some of my favourite poems we've run have been poems that surprised me, that I did not expect to exist but that, having come across them, seemed and seem necessary.
A lot of my energy, though, goes into the 'back of the book'. We are unusual for a little magazine these days in that we run reviews that average over one thousand words apiece--Anna Winterbottom's much-overdue annihilation of John Barr's rancid two-volume epic poem in the upcoming issue runs over three thousand. We also publish a fair number of belletristic essays and round-table discussions. It's probably the prose about poetry that makes me the proudest, in part because it was really my initiative to expand what had been pretty perfunctory under previous management to what's now the slight majority of the word count of a given issue. Prose about poetry can be fraught with peril. Authors don't like it when a review says negative things about that collection of poems they've shopped around for years after a decade of crafting the things, say. But we've managed, as a rule, to maintain a high degree of honesty and frankness in the criticism and, I like to think, advanced a few discussions about poetry and started a few more, proportions guarded and all that.
Do you recognize a coherent poetry scene in the U.S., New York or Ireland? Do you sense a movement in poetry / poetics in any particular direction?
There are several questions implicit in this one. First, is being an American versus an Irish or Jamaican poet relevant? I think so, while admitting to a lot going on in the interstices. In addition to different poetic traditions, curricula, and versions of the English language, the nation-state is still politically significant, not just on the level of legislation and where the cruise missiles strike, but what large-scale obsessions, fears, and controversies confront writers. Debates over religion in the public sphere, say, change if a religious organization has quasi-state authority, or if, say, there is an active creationist movement in a country or not.
As for coherent scenes, it is possible in Ireland to keep a bead on what is going on as a whole in poetry. If one reads, say, five representative po-journals, one will fairly soon encounter the bulk of Irish poets who actively publish in magazines. Likewise, if one buys fifteen books of new poetry a year in Ireland, it will be a minority of what's trade-published, but a significant minority. One can, as it were, keep up outside of one's own coterie in a reasonably systematic way.
American poetry's just too damn big to have that level of coherence. The names in Best American Poetry can vary widely from year to year, and if one gathered together a group of American poets from across the major aesthetic schools and asked them who the most important practitioners of the art in the U.S. are, the answers would have little consistency. We gain, I think, from a greater number of options and a weaker aesthetic mainstream, but it's pretty balkanized at the same time.
'Poetic direction' is a tough one when American poetry in particular has become an academic discipline, at least where the big prizes and appointments and so forth are concerned. I don't mean to say that an MFA makes a person a shitty writer or that workshops necessarily drain poems of life, but more that one of the things that academe does well is self-replicate. One goes into, say, history or sociology, learns the research skills, learns the major schools of thought, and picks one, often with the encouragement of faculty mentors. This is not absolute, but in poetry, this means that twenty-five-year-old grad students face pressure to align with the pre-existing schools, to send their manuscripts into the respected contests, and do their teachers proud. It doesn't make everything suck necessarily, but a bit of wank in Poetry a few years ago notwithstanding, we don't see very many manifestos, and the fault-lines are pretty much where they were thirty years ago, with perhaps a few more 'post-avant' types trying to adopt the look of the cutting-edge while jettisoning even the vestigial radicalism that avant-garde poetics used to imply.