Sydney Lea is poet laureate of Vermont. His tenth collection of poems is I Was Thinking of Beauty (2013). Recently published are his collaboration with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (2013), and A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife (2013). Other recent publications include Six Sundays toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (2012) and A Hundred Himalayas (2012), a sampling from his critical work over four decades. Lea founded New England Review in 1978. To the Bone: New and Selected Poems was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. Pursuit of a Wound was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2001. He has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright, and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Middlebury, and Vermont College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic, New Republic, New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and elsewhere. He was interviewed by Brad Davis.
Image: You play the harmonica, specifically the blues harp. What is it about the blues—or music in general—that feeds you as a writer?
Sydney Lea: Now it’s been a long time since I took that harp out of its drawer. I don’t even sing (or “shout”) the blues anymore in public. I think of myself really as a long-time fan of blues and blues-based music—especially the jazz of the late bop, Monk-Rollins-Coltrane-Davis-Roach-Adderley Brothers era—rather than as a practitioner. I came to a point in college where I recognized that I was about as good on the reed instruments as I would ever get, and that was not good enough for me to keep hacking at it, so I stopped, cold turkey.
Nonetheless, music has had a profound effect on me as man and writer. The hard part lies in trying to specify what that influence may be, how it manifests itself in my poems, especially. I do have a chapter on the issue in my recent e-book with my dear friend Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry.
Curiously enough, or perhaps not so curiously at all, my attraction to America’s greatest contribution to formalism in literature—precisely, the twelve-bar blues format—has a lot to do with my being more or less a formalist. But formalism is not, for me, a matter of technique only. (When we English teachers discriminate between form and content, we are making an indefensible distinction in any case.) Somehow, I feel most energized in drafting a poem when its language is in happy or angry contest, or both at once, with the constraints of whatever technical limits have been placed upon it. Robert Frost cannily pointed out that we speak of musical strains. Those strains, that chafing, that friction—whatever you may call it—that confrontation of language with whatever format would confine it can have at least two results: after serial failures, it makes one change the format, or else it makes one invent ways in which to write what musicians call “fills”—clever, even virtuosic means of filling up the line or stanza within their strictures.
As I have said in other places, the need for such invention allows me not to worry too much about what I am trying to mean. That’s good, because if I know too specifically what my meaning wants to be, then the poem will be leaden and unimprovisatory, to use an all but unavoidable word in light of your question. I like my friend Stan Plumly’s phrase about “speech barking back at song”: I think that’s what the blues do; I hope it’s what I do when I’m on.
Image: Besides music, what other experiences or influences served to shape you into a writer and not something else?
SL: My profoundest influences have not, I think, been literary in the sense that an academician might use the term. Oh yes, there’s Wordsworth and Keats and Dickinson and perhaps above all Frost, and I don’t for a moment want to pretend that these voices have, even when not evidently, been crucial to shaping my own. But the voices I hear in my head every day are ones I started hearing at the dawn of memory: those of old woodsmen and women in upper New England, particularly in one region in Maine that I have haunted for most of my seventy years. I lately published a book of tribute to these folks, all of whom would be well over a hundred if they yet lived, called A North Country Life. They had no access to power tools or so-called modern conveniences of any kind, so they made their own entertainment by telling stories (and in some cases writing poems, usually if not always satirical ones). When, at a relatively advanced age for a beginner, I decided I wanted to be a poet and not, after all, a scholar, it was their voices I wanted to get onto the page.
But I knew the effort to transcribe their language in dialect would be beyond me, well as I can capture that dialect in out-loud speech. To try and write it down, I feared, would make me sound condescending, and that was anything but what I felt, because several of these men and women were heroic in my eyes: they were embodiments of valor, perseverance, and of a quality I’d simply call sturdiness. So I decided, rightly or wrongly, that by telling stories—not theirs, but ones like theirs—in poetry, I might capture some of the rhythms and cadences of that beloved speech without being forced to imitate it. Those influences account for my deciding, rather late in life by American standards, my first book not appearing until I was forty, to be a narrative poet. In fact, such prior, desultory and amateurish writing as I’d done, there being no writing courses for me to take way back then, had been in fiction. So in a sense, these old men and women had a lot to do with my opting primarily for the poetic genre as opposed to any other.
Image: So I don’t detect a childhood aspiration become life plan become literary career.
SL: It’s like a lot of things that have happened in my life. No doubt they happen in any life: circumstances come together in a way that seems auspicious to you, and you follow that way. You can talk yourself into thinking you chose all that, but the odds are equally good that all that chose you. Frost’s famous “The Road Not Taken” does perhaps show him taking a little credit for the poet’s self-creation, his so-called “rugged individualism,” but, even if most of his readers overlook the fact, it simultaneously pokes some fun at the whole idea. If the poem is only about striking out in some willful, individualistic way, then, for starters, why is it not called “The Road Taken”? Why do readers seem so intent on overlooking Frost’s own repeated stress on how the two diverging roads “equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black,” on how such passage as there had been had “worn them really about the same”?
I mention all this because, when asked, I can catch myself saying that I chose a narrative course because I wanted to move the poetry of my time in this or that direction. But truth is, I sort of went along for the ride. I wanted to tell stories in a somewhat musical way, one reminiscent, I hoped, of the way those Yankee elders had told their own tales—and here I am.
I can trick myself into thinking I did that. But I surely wasn’t the only power at work when I set out, nor am I now. Since I think God has had everything to do with everything I’ve done, literary and otherwise, I could say I’ve been divinely led and mean it. Trouble is, whenever I do say such a thing, true as I feel it to be, I immediately fear that I’ll sound like I’m playing a Chosen One or something. I hope I have more humility than that.
Image: Your earliest forays into narrative were in fiction. Then came poetry. Would you talk more about the conjoining of narrative and poetry in your writing?
SL: I have tended farther and farther away from pure story in my poems as my career has progressed; I have not written anything like “The Feud,” or “Spite,” or “The Blainville Testament”—long story-poems from earlier in my career—for quite a spell. Nonetheless, I have sustained my commitment to certain narrative values: character, setting, dialogue, and so on—the kind of values that in large part poetry had conceded to the novelists and story writers by the end of the nineteenth century. If my reader knows who’s talking, to whom, and where, then he or she may feel more at ease moving on to more complex matters in a given poem. I have simply never understood the impulse to withhold such basics from a reader, to plunge him or her into some obscure realm (obscure in every sense) from the outset. Such willful unclarity strikes me as extraordinarily ungenerous.
The ungenerosity has the effect, too—as I have learned from all my many readings and talks outside the academy, having chosen, as poet laureate of my state, community libraries as my venues—of convincing perfectly bright people, library-goers who obviously have a relish for books or, more basically, for language itself, that they are stupid. Or, equally off-putting, it implies to them that poetry is some arcane mode of communication in which one must be long schooled before one can enter into the cabalists’ company.
So many of my poetic fellows blame the paucity of their readership on American philistinism or commercialism, on the rise of technology and screen culture; I know I may sound reductive and perhaps overly wry and even ungenerous myself to say it, but I’ll say it anyhow: if you want to be read, perhaps you ought to start by writing something readable. Billy Collins does that. Many people read him. And many contemporary sophisticates despise so gifted a writer, I fear, precisely for that reason. Collins is—gasp!—so popular.
Image: It has been noted that, along with your gift for storytelling, you have an ear for dialogue. Where did that come from? And have you ever thought of writing plays?
SL: I’m a good mimic, that’s all. Foreign languages come to me as easily as mathematics comes painfully (or really not at all). That’s just the hand I drew. To call it a gift is accurate, but only in the sense that it was presented to me. But in any case, no, I have never contemplated writing a play. It just doesn’t feel like something at which I could succeed. I don’t know why, but there it is.
And yet now that you mention it, there’s a sense in which I do think of my poems as dramatic units. If my poem is ever a moving one, I hope that’s almost a physical matter: I have taken you from one place, and then, by dramatizing things that happen, objectively, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, I have moved you to another. As a teacher, as a reader, and as a practitioner, I am almost always far more interested in what a poem does than in what it may signify in some philosophical or essayistic sense.
Image: Your range as a writer is amazing—poetry, fiction long and short, criticism, sports journalism, all manner of creative nonfiction—and serves to indicate how you process and engage your world. Could you elaborate on the relationship between language, genres, and the world?
SL: I know this sounds overly mystical, but I can’t help it. It’s a little in line, I think, with some things I was speaking of a moment ago. There’s a way in which genres seem to choose me rather than the other way around. My one published novel, for example (though I’m at work, finally, on its successor), began as a piece of what is now called (to my distaste) creative nonfiction. Or not even so all-fired creative. I just wanted to put down a story told to me by one George McArthur, God bless his soul, of Washington County, Maine. It was not the best or the most remarkable of his stories, but for some reason it had lodged itself in my mind, and I wanted to get it out of there. Then it just took off on me, and I drafted that novel (which would require more than a year’s revision, to be sure) in a matter of three weeks.
About half the essays in A North Country Life are “translations” from poems that struck me as inadequate. Certain essays have clamored to be poems. On and on. John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word.” I believe that both in an orthodox and an heretical way (or maybe there’s less breach between the two than I might think): if I can abandon myself to language, if (and again I know I’m being a bit billowy here) I can allow the words to be what they want to be, if I can discipline myself to keep my ego and will out of the process, I can thereby make myself available to the literally creative power of the word and the Word. Thy will be done, in short.
Image: Where did your deep, spiritual connection with nature come from? And what part do hunting and fishing play in that?
SL: It simply came from the earliest possible exposure by way of my father; then, especially after my dad’s too-early death, it was nurtured by the old Yankees to whom I just referred, and I have never looked back.
And yet I shy a bit from the notion of spiritual connection, because I am not a Romantic. The grand appeal of nature for me is, precisely, that I do not find Coleridgean “correspondences” between my own capacities and natural ones. In fact I savor much of nature for its very otherness, its resistance to anthropomorphizing urges on our parts. I have small patience with contemporary poets who look at the natural world as a kind of grab bag of metaphor and image. I have still less for those who do so and at the same time simply violate the facts of the matter. In one of his poems, for instance, a famous contemporary New England poet speaks of quail being devoured by fishers here, even though there are no quail in the North Country, and never have been. He ought to have learned that before he talked such nonsense. If I can’t trust a poet on so literal a plane, how can I be expected to accept his or her credibility on higher ones?
I also have little patience with those who imagine the world of the beast and the bird and the reptile as one of peace and harmony, as certain loathsome Disney movies would have their gullible viewers believe. I have hunted and fished since I was nine. I don’t keep fish—except an occasional pan fish like a white perch—but of course there is no catch-and-release hunting, and one must deal with the finality of a successful shot. The only kind of hunting I do anymore has always been my favorite: I mean bird hunting over pointing dogs I’ve trained. That is the thrill that has abided. I think it has something to do with that sense of otherness along with my sense of being a natural creature myself: here is a dog, who for the most part has actually trained himself by way of instinct; there is a bird, which is a professional at fear and evasion; and here I am, who can’t know what the dog knows nor what the bird does, only what I do. But then there is the dog’s point, the bird’s flush, my shot and, though scarcely every time, the dog bringing that beautiful creature to hand. At that moment particularly, I have this strange, rather sacramental sense of some process much bigger than myself, bigger too than bird and dog and I together, as having reached its momentary conclusion.
I know non-hunters, not to mention anti-hunters, won’t buy this and can’t begin to get it. It should be pointed out, however, that at least I make sure that a bird is dead before I eat it; its wild fellow creatures, apart from members of the cat family, do not. If you think nature is all harmony, you have seen too many of those Disney films. Tennyson was right about the natural world being red in tooth and claw.
Image: Nature and poetry have a long and fecund relationship. Who are the poets writing today who approach nature in ways you think are important?
SL: There are a number of them, of course, doubtless including some I’m unaware of. But this is the sort of question that seems always to tongue-tie me. Asked in public, I will choose some examples, leave the hall, get in my car, drive a hundred feet, and say, often aloud, “Now why didn’t I mention her or him?”
So I’ll give a very short list of poets who relate to nature, perhaps not precisely as I do, but in ways that involve immersion in natural processes, rather than an adoption of the exploitative stance I mentioned a moment ago. There are Brendan Galvin, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Pattiann Rogers, Maxine Kumin, Gary Snyder, and of course our mutual dear friend Robert Cording. There is the too little-known Canadian poet Don McKay, a true connoisseur of wilderness. There was the late and scandalously under-noticed John Engels, whose observations of nature were meticulous and acute. The same for the terrific, under-celebrated, late Robert Siegel, an unabashed Christian.
I’ll stop there, but ask me next week and I’ll have others to add or substitute.
Image: It seems to me as though nature gets short shrift in the most high-profile poetry these days. Why is that?
SL: Well, fewer and fewer of us were raised to cherish the outdoors. Some come to the natural world late, and with no guidance such as I was blessed with, and so they have an even harder time processing, even partially, as we each must do, what’s going on out there. Some simply haven’t much interest, are devotedly, even sentimentally, urban.
It is of course hard-wired into us that, at a certain age, we begin to think everything has gone to hell; it never has, never does, never will. I had the good fortune to teach for over forty years, and meeting young people has been a good foil against the grumpy complaints that begin either with “Kids nowadays…” or “When I was young….”
That acknowledged, I do worry about the hyper-technology of our time. People speak of the social networks, but I wonder how social they are? Having a Facebook friend still seems qualitatively different from, and inferior to, having a flesh-and-blood friend, whom you can smell, hear, see, touch, and so on.
And few things depress me more than to be standing in some beautiful spot, say, in the White or Green Mountains, and to see a car pass the trailhead with the kids in back looking straight down at their phones or game devices.
Image: As poet laureate of Vermont, what are your duties? Have you been able to incorporate your love for the outdoors into your service?
SL: The duties are non-specific, and can be, in fact, nil. My wonderful predecessor, Ruth Stone, was appointed in her ninety-second year. Further, she was blind. No, the position is honorific. What one does with it is up to her or him. As I say, I chose to visit as many community libraries as would invite me (ninety-plus so far).
As a longtime trustee of our own town library, I know how central these institutions are for people who, to repeat myself, relish language, or so I assume. As a longtime academic, I also thought it might be refreshing to conduct Q&As with people who actually sought information rather than the opportunity to show how much they already knew. I greatly value the chance to answer such fundamental questions (whose answers the smart people think, often wrongly, they already command) as “Why do you or do you not use rhyme?” “What, exactly, is free verse?” “How does a poem get started for you?” “Do you believe in inspiration?” “How much do you revise?”
These are not questions one often gets in a college setting, especially in an era when capital-T Theory seems to prevail, most of which, as Marilynne Robinson has noted, assumes that we writers either don’t know what we are doing or that we do but are trying to cover up our base motives, all of which are elitist and subservient to the various power structures. (It has always struck me as ironic that these militant anti-elitists tend to teach not in inner-city or rural high schools nor in community colleges but in places like Yale and Harvard and Brown and Duke.)
I can incorporate my naturalist inclinations simply by responding to questions about my poems (though I do more informal lecturing than reading my own work): I rarely write a poem without some naturalist element in it, after all.
Image: In 1978, with poet Jay Parini, you founded the New England Review. This was just before the birth of the internet and the eventual rise of online literary publications. With the web now in its early adolescence, a growing number of highly selective online lit journals provide writers with an audience that is instantly global, something print journals, as fine and well-subscribed as they may be, simply cannot offer. Could you think out loud about print vs. online publication, their audiences and cultural impact?
SL: I am often asked this question, and must admit to being pretty much agnostic on the subject. I am an emphatically low-tech guy, partially by way of temperamental inclination and partly because I am seriously inept in this area. So the only thing I’ll predict is that the cyber-revolution will profoundly affect the course of poetry, indeed has likely already done so in ways of which I am not conscious. How this will exhibit itself I can’t say.
I have started to publish some work online myself: for example in the excellent electro-journal Plume and in Agni’s online avatar, and I’ll admit to getting a lot more feedback than when I publish on paper. Make of that what you will.
Image: Recently you assembled a selection of your spiritual poems into a book titled Six Sundays toward a Seventh. It is the first volume in the new Poiema Poetry Series, curated by Canadian poet D.S. Martin for the publisher Wipf & Stock. Fill me in on the series and how you see it fitting into the poetry marketplace.
SL: It is no secret that the vast majority of artists and intellectuals regard anything that smacks of religion as backward and irrelevant. We religious people, in fact, constitute the last group that it’s perfectly PC to make fun of or excoriate. We are often construed as cripplingly orthodox by people who don’t recognize the extent of their own, to my mind equally crippling, orthodoxies. The range of poetic sensibilities among Christian writers, or writers of any faith, is as broad as it is among the secularists, and the Poiema Series is a way of advertising that fact, among other things. It gives publishing access to many who otherwise might be dismissed for the unexamined reasons I have just mentioned. I am delighted by and grateful for Don Martin’s heroic work.
Image: How would you describe your relationship with spiritual reality—God, the mystery, the numinous, the Incarnate and Risen Word, the Great Spirit, what-have-you?
SL: It is that reality in which I move and live and have my being. I must either stop with that or write on forever—as I guess I have been doing throughout my career, even when others mightn’t see the inclination.
God also saved me from alcohol and substance abuse…but that is (and is not) another story.
Image: Have you given any thought to how literary art, poetry in particular, would profit were it to reestablish sympathetic commerce with what the great twentieth-century Jewish theologian and poet Abraham Joshua Heschel called divine pathos, “the inexhaustible concern of God for man”?
SL: To be a bit whimsical, though not entirely, if you get into a discussion with a Freudian, and you tell him that, no, you don’t have Oedipal feelings toward your father, said Freudian may well tell you that you are repressing your awareness of those feelings. Just so, if I claimed—and to some extent I do—that the bulk of meaningful poetry is a response to that inexhaustible power, whatever the spiritual inclinations of its makers, I could easily be accused of the same gambit. I make the claim, you deny it, I conclude the denial is founded on repression or ignorance. Of course it’s pretentious of me to say what is meaningful, other than to me.
Image: As a believer and a writer, what do you do with the endless jibber-jabber of so much religious language, some of it hateful and violent, some pious but disconnected from our beautiful, suffering world?
SL: I wince at it. The hateful and violent language, I notice, never seems to mention the Sermon on the Mount, for example. No, it is always Leviticus or Deuteronomy, and such examples from those texts that seem to me less the words of God than the postulation of certain tribal taboos.
I have never met a real fundamentalist, in fact. Fundamentalism, as it’s practiced, seems always to be so selective. I mean, no one lately has kept a man with a crushed penis out of the temple for biblical reasons, has he? We don’t condemn the televangelists in cotton-polyester for wearing garments made of two materials. If we followed every jot and tittle, we’d be doing that, and more. We’d have slaves to consider, say.
The trouble is, those who would have us believe that faith is inimical to human welfare always choose these kinds of “Christians” as their proof. That is, as they would not with any other segment of society, they base their judgments on the worst possible examplars they can find. Why speak of that lunatic Phelps family and not Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Why not Martin Luther King or Jimmy Carter or Mother Teresa?
Image: Would you reflect upon the influence of family and friends on your art and faith?
SL: Like the question about my relation to divine power and majesty, this is one to which my answer must either be terse or endless. To be terse: like any sinner, I have made many and many a mistake in my life on earth, but being father to two sons and three daughters, and now to five grandchildren, is emphatically not among those mistakes. Grace is a gift one doesn’t have to deserve, and never do I feel more graced than when in the company of my wife and extended family, ideally when they are all together.
When I was a beer-swilling, hockey-playing, hyper-hormonized adolescent, you might have told me that I’d become a poet and that I’d become the grateful family man I am, that I’d never feel more happy nor more “poetic” than when most familial. I’d have considered you nuts. But you’d have been right.
Image: By my count, you’ve published six books in the last two years, three of poems, three of essays. What are you writing these days?
SL: As I said earlier, I am working on a sequel to the novel I published twenty-four years ago. This one is coming as slowly as the first came quickly. I approach and avoid it; it may just not have the right stuff. I am going to give it one more redrafting and then come to a conclusion. I have a new book of poems completed, and it will appear from Four Way Books, the best publisher I’ve ever had, in late 2015 or ’16.
And of course I keep scribbling these darned poems. You can’t stop me.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.