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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Interview With Author & Former Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea

  1. Sydney, as the former Vermont Poet Laureate, how would you summarize the state of poetry today, in terms of society embracing it?  It seems odd, but the number of aspirant readers of poetry seems to be greater than its readers. Or perhaps not so odd after all: we live in a world– social and political– in which language is constantly debased (I think of the idiocies of advertising, which speaks, say, of a car as "an American Revolution"), distorted, or undercut (think of the shorthand language of Tweets and texts) that it's small wonder there remain many among us, known to an audience or not, who long for carefully chosen words and undistorted signification. In point of fact, poetry in the U.S. with odd aberrations such as Longfellow, Frost, and recently, Billy Collins– has always been an art for the few. But those few, I believe, will continue to have their poetry in one way or another, whether it be rap or Ellen Bryant Voigt.

  1. Are you concerned about the statements the new administration has made about defunding the National Endowment for the Arts?  I am deeply concerned. The right wing’s contempt for the NEA (and the NEH) has to do with the notion that if it doesn't sell, why bother? Why, say, support symphony orchestras in towns and counties where they would not exist without such subsidy? Why support poetry? Why dance? How are they “useful,” or commercially viable? On and on. In a word, the 'market" view of the arts is that a given product's value is reflected in its capacity to support itself on the basis of its popularity, which means that a sufficient number of "customers" are willing to pay for it as to generate a profit somewhere for somebody. Thank God that notion didn't rule the day when Shakespeare was writing; his major tragedies would have taken a back seat to bear baiting. More recently, the market might tell us that Rod McKuen was a far superior poet to Wallace Stevens. Needless to say, this is an idiotic conclusion. True artists have always had patrons, unless (like Stevens himself, say, or James Merrill) they were independently wealthy. There are few nowadays for literary writing, which is where the NEA has stepped in.

  1. Where do you see the future of book publishing heading? The future of book publishing? Well, I am surely no expert. The cyber-revolution will certainly have a greater and greater impact; indeed, it already has had a huge effect. It is in our time a snap to get “published”; whatever its merit, you can put your book online and voila! you are a published poet, novelist, scholar, memoirist, what have you? Production costs for online publication are virtually nil, so even serious, professional houses may well want to go in that direction.  I am old (74), so can, I hope, be excused for my sentimentality. But I already miss the feel of the book in my hand. I don’t want it on a screen, even though my friend Fleda Brown, former poet laureate of Delaware, and I did publish an e-book via a small and fine independent publisher, Autumn House . It’s called Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. Even that feels somehow unreal to me in its disembodiment, but it seems to me the way we are headed. The trouble with the cyber-world, in my view, though, is that it puts the village idiot in the same room as Emily Dickinson. Standards seem to me inevitably to get saggy in such a domain.

I do hope that, whatever its format, the publication of poetry, my primary genre, will amount to more than what is, in effect, vanity publishing, that publishers will keep alive the notion of judicious peer review. But as my comments above have indicated, these publishers of the less sellable genres like poetry will probably be small independents and will need some sort of support, public and/or private, to hold such a flag aloft for any length of time. 

  1. Tell us about your most recent books. I believe one of them was a poetry book, right? Yes, I published my twelfth volume of poetry, No Doubt the Nameless, with Four Way Books, an independent NYC publisher.  It’s a house that will survive but undergo major challenges if the NEA is defunded, by the way– which worries me selfishly (and otherwise too), because FWB, concentrating on poetry alone, is by far the best of the eight different houses that have done my work across the genres.  I am not sure what to "tell" about my latest collection; once a poem of mine is in the public domain, it is public property. Likewise, a book. It seems to me that everything I write contains, as it were, an allegory, one that is usually hidden...even or perhaps especially from its author. So I tend not to say much about any collection's "meaning." Indeed I am interested in the meanings ascribed to it by others. They are in general as valid as anything I'd offer, I suspect.

  1. Please tell us about last year’s published volume of essays. A curious project indeed.  After publishing my last poetry collection but one, I Was Thinking of Beauty, I was looking around for a new project. I knew that I had a bunch of poems on hand, some quite old, that I’d never been able to whip into what I considered adequate shape, and –who knows where the impulse came from?— I wondered if, given the greater suppleness of prose, they might work in the essay format. I tried that very format for one or two failed poems...and I liked the result. So I tried a few more and ditto. Having done that much, for a considerable spell my writing impulses seemed to come at me in this same unconventional format; I didn’t need the prompts of stalled poems anymore.  I ended up compiling, I believe, 61 essaylets.  The book is called What’s the Story? That indicates, I think, my contemplation of just how many of my experiences (hence my writings too) are factual as opposed somehow to being parts of a narrative instinct on my part.  In this case, I saw in due course, though as I’ve implied this may true, overtly or covertly, of any author’s work—I saw that these little essays were deeply autobiographical for the most part. To that extent, they represented a sort of summary reckoning of my path or paths through the world over seven decades. Thus the subtitle: Reflections on a Life Grown Long.

  1. What more can be done to encourage more young people to be exposed to poetry?  Well, that will depend, I think, on how many teachers are committed to including the art in their classroom’s everyday affairs. The inordinate and to my mind foolhardy stress on standardization and on STEM practica in our time makes this a challenge even for those thus inclined. And it is so easy for teachers, no matter how well intentioned, to put students off poetry anyway, by their insistence that a poem is principally a vehicle for “ideas” or “meanings.” As if, that is, it were forevermore a matter of psychology or politics or sociology or philosophy or whatever else.

Teachers (and readers and would-be practitioners) should always remember that poetry is an art, that it is primarily the result, like song, of a current of air rising out of the lungs and vibrating over the vocal chords. It may contain “ideas,” but it does not exclusively consist of them.  It is first and foremost a matter of arresting language. It would occur to no one to doubt that paint is a painter’s primary material, that notes are a composer’s, that movement is a dancer’s. Why do we imagine that poetry is any different? Its materials are words, yet we keep claiming that these are mere technical matters, that “hidden meanings” lurk behind those words. I love Billy Collins’s notion that a teacher should simply read a poem a day, as vividly and precisely as he or she can, and leave it at that. If this doesn’t make a student fall in love with poetry, I’m not sure what will. We must rid ourselves of the idea that poetry is a secret language that one must labor to learn.

  1. What subjects do you tend to tackle, thematically, on a frequent basis, through your writings? Why do you think you focus on them?  For whatever reasons, the workings of memory have always been an obsession. I was an elegist when I was far too young to qualify as one, and I have remained so. In that respect, though the comparison is pretentious, I am somewhat like Wordsworth. People often speak of me as being a child of Robert Frost, and no doubt I am to some degree, not least because of where and how I live in northern New England. But I tend to think Wordsworth’s my real daddy. This is really a mystery. My childhood, though rather privileged, was not a disaster but not terribly happy either, for reasons I won’t address here. And yet something like a longing for the past colors a great deal of my poetry.

  1. Any advice for a struggling poet or up and coming writer?  Yes: write. Then write some more. Then more. And more. And more. That sounds so simple, but it’s the only way. It is bizarre that so many people, including highbrow academics, have so juvenile a conception of the poet. They imagine poetry to be somehow the result of a gale of “inspiration.” Keats, say, just walked out one day and –bam!— he was the poet  we know.  (Same with Adrienne Rich—or whoever.) But if you look at Keats’s early work, published and not, it is really pretty dreadful. So is Stevens’s. So are the juvenilia of any author, myself decidedly included. Truth is, each “established author is one who simply kept at it, and anything you keep at for an extended period of time is something you’ll get better at.  To use an analogy, I’m sure that there were contemporaries of his who had equal physical talents to Michael Jordan’s. But Jordan was driven, and worked and worked on his moves. He did so over and over and over. Poetry offers rewards to that kind of persistence too. Practice may not make perfect, but it will make much better. Perhaps you won’t end up being a memorable poet– or you will. Who’s to say? But you’ll never know either way until you apply yourself as frequently as you can over a span, say, of a decade. Suspend self-judgment at least that long.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby 

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