Interview with BooksandAuthors.com
BooksandAuthor.com: Who were your early literary influences?
Lance Lee: I started writing poetry in high school, and publishing in college, but through my 20s and 30s was more deeply involved with drama, writing and seeing a number of plays into production and print. Inevitably drama left me with the feeling a poem should be a highly condensed, dramatic, narrative accessible to a general audience, even if a brief lyric. That has made writing longer sequences and poems a particular challenge.
Beyond that, the question of literary sources is tricky, as I suppose it is for most poets and writers generally. In my case if I found myself influenced by a poet it was because he made me aware of something already there in myself I hadn’t been able to express yet: I didn’t want to sound like him, but like myself, and he helped in that. I always have had to do a poem my way.
To illustrate, one day I encountered Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu. I was deeply influenced, not into sounding like Neruda, but by the revelation, ‘Ah, you can be that free!’ While in college I was struck by Shakespeare’s dramatic soliloquies where a character wrestles his experience into meaning, a ‘wrestling’ that has stayed with me because so typical of my attempt to understand myself and my experience. My first book of poetry is titled, Wrestling With The Angel.
Whitman was a similar revelation in his freedom to make something unique out of any given poem. Some of his are great operatic arias of experience and spirit. ‘Aha’, I thought, ‘I can sing! I can write arias! I can…’ Robert Graves’ muse poetry set me free to develop my own myths and mythic personages to embody experience.
A group of poets as diverse as Shakespeare, Robinson Jeffers, William Wordsworth, and Miguel Hernandez, the Spanish poet, influenced my literal ‘sound’: they all, in their own way, have a gravitas, a musicality in their lines at once immediate, concrete, grave, and singing, at their best.
BooksandAuthor.com: Why do you write poetry? What is it about poetry you enjoy?
Lance Lee: This is difficult to answer, as it treads on the toes of the muse, and the muse doesn’t like being talked about. Odd as it may be for a modern poet to use that term, poets know, under a variety of names, that there is an inner sense of what is right and wrong, appropriate and not for a poem of their own that is at the root of their inspiration and which touches something more than themselves. That may be an illusion, but it is a functional one.
Also, particularly as a poet’s practice builds up over time, he takes possession of ‘tradition’ ever more strongly in his own way— and I hope women and women poets who read this will forgive my generic use of ‘his’ for all— integrating that outside stream, that wider consciousness, into his efforts, too. That’s not the same as a muse, but supplementary.
So why do I write poetry? Essentially because I have to. If I had a choice, I’d do something easier, or with greater financial rewards: but the need to meet that inner necessity I have to make sense of my life drives me through poem after poem. Over time I have found no other form allows me to engage with my experience as richly or as powerfully, or in as varied a way: hence the peculiar way others have influenced me, leading me not to emulate them but to seize on a broadening of my freedom to create a poem however my imagination may suggest.
Happily, that’s left me indifferent to the poetic and critical fads that wash over the field periodically.
All that— my inner sense of direction, even inspiration; my dialogue with the poetic tradition; and the wonderful freedom within the poetic form to wrestle experience into coherence creates a sense of real pleasure in its practice, particularly in a hardwon poem. A poem, for me, operates on the edge of what is conscious in our perception of self or other, and each poetic success sheds light on something previously unknown or barely glimpsed or intuited yet inexpressible. Success in making that expressible is exhilarating.
BooksandAuthor.com: Explain the title "Homecomings" as it relates to the collection as a whole.
Lance Lee: All of these poems in one way or another deal with literal homecoming, or homing in on my or another’s true self, whether as disparate as A Wasp In The Subway or Ars Poetica, where in the former a wasp learns to exult in its own nature, and in the latter I pierce a layer of self-abstraction to find that level where true words come from, the poem that wells up “speaking me.”
Some are dramatic monologues in other voices, whether classical, as in Lucretius, or central to the beginning of the modern poetic arc, like Dante, or rooted in a contemporary voice like the wasp’s in the poem just mentioned. In each the respective voice, whether Dante, wasp, or Lucretius, wrestles with his experience to find what can truly be said of himself against clichéd expectation, or misconception, or even inner frustration and bitterness, as with Dante. In a certain sense these are masks for myself despite being rooted in others’ experience. I don’t believe the gap between self and other is as large as we imagine.
In one sequence, Into The Woods, I try to find what is essential in each kind of wood, all being woods I have spent time in, not to write a nature poem though nature is obviously a strong element in my work, but to sense what in these woods resonates in me that has me repeatedly going back to them.
In An Incendiary Ground— Encounters With Greece I wrestle not with abstract appreciations of classic Greece, but with why certain aspects of it so affect me now. In one poem, the central encounter is with the ghost of my father, an echo of Odysseus’ encounter with key figures in Hades in the Odyssey as he struggle to get home... For me the poem always has to root in the modern, and finally let me say something about myself I hadn’t been able to, before.
This perhaps makes Homecomings one of my most focused books, though it probably has to contend with Seasons of Discontent, my fourth book of poetry, in that regard.
BooksandAuthor.com: The poem " Cliches" It is the first poem in "Homecomings", I once learned to avoid Clichés in poetry - -Is this correct? Explain your poem Clichés. Please explain any symbolism and meaning for this poem.
Lance Lee: Yes, absolutely, you are right: one and all we all struggle against cliché! The trouble with cliché, however, isn’t that it might not be true, or an apt comparison, or judgment in a given situation: it is simply that all of those given ways of communication have grown too familiar. Yet too often we confuse a ‘cliché’ with its subject, instead of how the subject is conveyed: so the cliché turns into writing about sunsets, or roses, or dawns, as if nothing more can be said about these, as if the hackneyed layers built up over the years describing these are impenetrable.
That is something I entirely disbelieve. Despite our profound similarities, we are each and everyone of us unique, and so too is our experience, however much it may overlap with another’s: that overlap can never be entire. If each of us could find the right, unique words with which to communicate that experience there could be no taboo, no overused subject. In one poem, Passages, in Human/Nature, I write about a sunset, and a reviewer (Judy Gahagan) wrote
“Who else these days will write a poem on the splendour of a sunset — indeed about a sunset at all — and do so as if for the first time in the history of poetry(?)”
Happily, this was in praise. In Cliches the intent is to write about such subjects freshly, even while seeming to make fun of them: and ironically to contrast them with modern subjects:
Be modern, urban, talk of terror,
bombs, disease, race, war, rape,
debate who is at fault, and rage
against the abuse of children:
talk of how change carries on
from one bad thing to another as the poem goes on. Implicitly, cliches would be better than what we’ve achieved in the modern era. But I say later,
for nature is not jaded,
there are only cruel or worn out men.
—and go on to celebrate a dawn, though hardly in the usual imagery. So on the one hand the poem is ironic, mocking cliché while trying to write freshly about familiar subjects, while saying we should dismiss those and talk about our contemporary, quite miserable achievements, instead; and an example of trying to make clichéd subjects seem fresh “as if for the first time”.
This grows out of a several central beliefs of mine. The first is that the world is never old, but always new; the second that experience, however repetitive, is always original; the third that poetry floods from wonder, not just private pain; the fourth that the English language belongs entirely to me, and I can do what I want with it (as I believe is true for you, too), with the result if an actual cliché does creep into one of my poems, it’s not because of a familiar subject, but of my failure to communicate my own unique experience.
BooksandAuthor.com: Where do you write?
Lance Lee: Anywhere.
I have a study at home, but I probably use that least for first drafts, and most for revisions. I might write outside, living in California and its clement weather, at a table at the foot of the garden. Perhaps I’ll pause while on a walk to write down anything from a line to a rough draft of a poem. When younger I could write in the kitchen surrounded by family activity and noise: I seem to have lost that ability. I’ve come to need silence, and to be able to brush away, almost like a physical gesture sweeping a table clear, the detritus of the moment from my mind. I can be on a beach: or in a smoke-tinged café in the winter watching someone homeless shamble by. I can be in a library, chased from table to table by sunlight making a given chair too hot to stay in. I might be having a coffee in a coffee shop.
I always have a notebook with me. It doesn’t matter how powerful a flash of poetry may be, line, stanza, poem, insight: if not written down, it is lost…
BooksandAuthor.com: What do you hope to achieve with "Homecomings" ?
Lance Lee: To win fame, fortune, wine, and women.
If I make enough from a poem to take my wife to lunch, I consider I’ve done well: from a book, a weekend away! So financial reward is not an expectation, anymore than fortune, wine, or women: anyone thinking poetry will achieve those needs to change professions swiftly.
So, seriously: well, I think I’ve given something of an answer already. For myself, I’m happy with the book’s diversity and its shaping my experience to coherence and, wearing others’ masks at times, others’ experience, to the same end. It feels coherent to me, if hardly the last word on any of its subjects. There are never last words, only new words.
For a reader, I hope it will give you pleasure, that you’ll like the way a poem sounds, or moves, or feel a similarity of interests, and like the way I put things; and that a given poem helps you think about yourself with insight. We are always making discoveries like that in books.
Emerson wrote in "Self Reliance” about how if we didn’t express ourselves we ran the danger of hearing our thoughts expressed by others with a certain “alienated majesty”— if memory serves me right. Whether majestic or not, I hope there won’t be a sense of anything alienated for a reader who finds these poems congenial: rather that he or she has met a fellow traveler helping put things in words that had been elusive before.
BooksandAuthor.com: What was the last book you read?
Lance Lee: Helen MacDonald’s Hawk.
Hers is a rare coming together of a book that has proved very popular and astonished me by the quality of its writing: it seems anything but mass market, but has clearly hit a popular note. The story is ordinary, on the one hand, a woman grieving over the death of her father, and, on the other, quite unexpected (thinking of some of what I wrote about for Cliches above), as she does so while simultaneously undertaking the training of a goshawk, a particularly difficult hawk to train. During the training she undergoes moments of near total identification with the hawk’s needs as an escape from her own, and then slowly rebuilds her life from her own private ‘ground zero’. Her language often has a poetic immediacy and charge that made me envious and admiring: when I looked into her background I discovered she was a poet, too.
She manages to weave several other strands in, also, with a running commentary on T.H. White’s famously failed training of a goshawk, which gives a literary leavening to her grief and animal identification. It’s an extraordinary book.
BooksandAuthor.com: What's next?
Lance Lee: I never know. Poetry is constant, if not continuous… That means I tend to go through fallow periods after completing a given book. That used to scare me, but I’ve learned to live with these periods, realizing that deep within I’m shifting into some new focus I’ll find myself having to find words for, later…
But I work in other areas too, and am revising a children’s novel just now, with a family memoir in an advanced stage needing some final decisions made before being completed. I’m happy to have these, but they always get put aside for poetry…
One project I am considering is putting together a ‘selected poetry’: the time seems right to do that. I did a version of that in Transformations, the book before Homecomings, which brought together prior works that had had accompanying artwork with them at publication, as well as a section of new poems with freshly created artwork. It made me realize I would be ready soon to put together a more thorough-going selection. I’ll have to see what my publisher thinks, Tom Tolnay at Birch Brook Press: he’s a man of good judgment and rare among editors in being able to make insightful editorial suggestions on individual poems, an area usually where angels fear to tread.