Poetry by David Lehman

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Poems from by David Lehman appear courtesy of Simon & Schuster. To order from www.simonsays.com

The Last Avant-Garde from www.randomhouse.com along with author comment

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At bn.com, a complete list of titles by David Lehman

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To visit David's page, with sample poems, at the Academy of American poets

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Visit our other interviews with:

Marvin Bell

Sam Hamill

Ruth Stone

David Romtvedt

Eleanor Wilner

Tony Barnstone

Arthur Sze

David Lehman

An E-view with David Lehman



By Rebecca Seiferle
   


        If the poetry world were divided into the practice of poetry and the criticism of poetry, David Lehman would be equally well-known in both circles. Critically, he is well-known for his Best American Poetry series, a series which he founded and for which he continues to serve as Editor. In this annual anthology, he and the co-editor, a different distinguished poet each year, select the best from a variety of literary and small magazines. The series has become one of the best read poetry anthologies.
        As a poet, Lehman is best known for his poem-a-day project, an experiment which involved writing a poem every day. The extensions of this practice probably extend even to the electronic world, where Poetry Daily has become one of the most visited poetry sites simply by sending out a poem a day, taken from a variety of poets and publications. In writing a poem a day, Lehman is following in the tradition of the New York School, extending the poetic practice of Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler.
       Lehman is an essentially American poet, finding poetry in the casual occurrence, in the moment: his work depends upon the conversational, the random and democratic encounters of text and people and event. In his work, we see a demystification of the process of writing in favor of a daily practice, a way of finding a place for poetry in almost any locale or frame of mind. If poetry has more of a place in American society today, discussed on the radio and read on television and postered on the interior of buses and subways, it is in no small part due to the efforts of David Lehman. As a poet, an editor, a teacher, and writer, he has consistently and inventively created a daily and public place for poetry. (This interview was conducted entirely by email in Fall 2001. David's “Opening Statement” was also written during this period of time.)


An Opening Statement by David Lehman


        In January 1996 I began writing a poem a day as an experiment. At the time I was working on The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, and in retrospect I imagine I began my daily poem project as a way of getting close to the spirit of two of the New York School's four founding figures, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler. Both O'Hara and Schuyler wrote poems that resembled journal or diary entries. O'Hara composed the poems gathered in Lunch Poems on his midday break from his professional duties as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art; in the summer and fall of 1959 he wrote these on almost a daily basis, cramming them with the quotidian details of his metropolitan life. Schuyler's efforts in this genre (“December 28, 1974” and “June 30, 1974” are two examples) differ tonally from the O'Hara model but similarly convey a sense of a specific day's doings.
        O'Hara and Schuyler were not the only precedents I had for my experiment in daily poetry. There was a great long poem by my friend Archie Ammons, “Tape for the Turn of the Years,” written in dated increments from early December to mid-January of 1963-64. Archie and I had talked about the writing of this book when I interviewed him for The Paris Review (Summer 1996). Robert Bly also spurred me on. In January 1996 Robert came to Bennington College in Vermont, where I teach in the low-residency MFA writing program that convenes for ten-day periods twice a year. Bly read the poems he was writing daily in the early morning hours and invited anyone in the audience to do the same.
        There began a two-year period in which I wrote a poem every day, or virtually every day. I think the longest stretch I went without missing a day was 186 days. I collected 150 of my favorite daily poems in The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry, which Scribner published in January 2000. But when I turned in the manuscript of The Daily Mirror, I found that I couldn't break myself of the habit of writing a poem daily: I liked doing it, it seemed to have a liberating effect on my work, and too many people seemed to enjoy the results.
        Inevitably, I gathered 150 of the poems from 1999 and 2000 into a new collection, The Evening Sun: A Journal in Poetry, which Scribner plans to publish in April 2002. (Eleven of the poems are published in this issue.)
        About these individual works and their relation to the whole, it's fair to say that such themes and preoccupations as the movies (January 3 and July 14), the spirit and atmospherics of “noir” (February 12), jazz (April 2), the consciousness of a New Yorker (September 2), Keats (October 2), and Guillaume Apollinaire (November 13) are recurrent. Sometimes my daily poem behaves like an obituary (December 29), sometimes like a study in blue (June 22). One general rule I have adhered to without exception is that the day's poem must fit easily on one typed page. On occasion I find it profitable to impose an arbitrary restriction. In March 14 (as in a number of other poems) I limit myself to three words per line. I do without punctuation altogether in some of the poems. I begin anywhere (a dream, a screed, a song, a quote), take a detour to the nearest nowhere (a Sixth Avenue bar, a porch in Ithaca, a “witness protection program called Ohio”), and stop somewhere waiting for you.

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David Lehman was born in New York City in 1948. He graduated from Columbia College and attended Cambridge University in England as a Kellett Fellow. He is the author of five collections of poems, The Evening Sun (Scribner, 2002), The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry (2000), Valentine Place (1996), Operation Memory (1990), and An Alternative to Speech (1986). His books of criticism include The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), which was named a “Book to Remember 1999” by the New York Public Library; The Big Question (1995); The Line Forms Here (1992); and Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991). His study of detective novels, The Perfect Murder (1989), was nominated for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

David Lehman has also edited such books as Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms: 65 Leading Contemporary Poets Select and Comment on Their Poems (1987; expanded, 1996), James Merrill, Essays in Criticism (with Charles Berger, 1983), and Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery (1980). He is, with Star Black, co-director of the KGB Poetry Reading Series in New York City. In addition, he is series editor of The Best American Poetry (Scribner), which he initiated in 1988, and is general editor of the University of Michigan Press's Poets on Poetry Series. His honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award. He is on the core faculty of the graduate writing programs at Bennington College and the New School for Social Research and divides his time between Ithaca, New York, and New York City.

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Seiferle: Perhaps we should begin with a general question about your writing practice. Do you have a set time for writing or do you improvise from day-to-day, as the mood or occasion strikes?

Lehman: It's different every day. In a project that values spontaneity and immediacy, it would seem odd to have an appointed hour for writing. I've never worked like that. I write whenever I have a chance, sometimes in the middle of doing something else, like walking; sometimes when reading; while listening to music sometimes, or while waiting for dessert to be served at a restaurant. Wherever I go I carry a pocket-sized notebook. I like the act of writing, the physical act I mean, with pen or pencil. If I don't have my notebook I'll use anything at hand — the back of an envelope, the front page of a newspaper. But I also enjoy writing poems on a computer screen.

Seiferle: Your poem-a-day project seems to imply a kind of willingness on the part of the poet to have a fragmentary, a momentary response. In other words, a poem per day implies that it is, in a sense, a poem of that day only, of its particular intersections. So the desire for the comprehensive, the monumental, the epic response, is forfeited from the beginning. Did this come naturally to you, dovetail with your own poetic temperment and intent, or has it involved a struggle of adaptation and evolution?

Lehman: That's a very thoughtful question. Writing a poem a day was very liberating for me because it helped me reconcile two impulses: the impulse to write ambitious poems and the impulse to write poems whose perfect exposition took place at one sitting. I had written poems on the run when I began writing poetry seriously, when I was in college, at Columbia, under the spell of Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems. It had been many years since I'd let myself write quick poems. But I was re-reading O'Hara and James Schuyler for the book I was writing about the New York School of Poets, The Last Avant-Garde. And the spirit of O'Hara's witty nonchalance and Schuyler's more rueful measurings of the day intoxicated me. One way I had of communing with that spirit, if I can put it that way, was to write my own daily poems. This was in 1996. I had so much fun writing these poems, and so greatly enjoyed the response when I read them aloud to friends, that pretty soon I decided to make a book of them. In doing so I felt I could make the writing of each individual poem simultaneous with the incremental building of a long poem. And in making a book, selecting which poems to include and which to omit, I guess I felt that the shaping impulse, the Apollonian impulse, could catch up with the feeling of recklessness that accompanied the writing. So the poetic conscience was appeased with the knowledge that a grand and ambitious and all-inclusive design underpinned everything, and no matter how inconsequential any given poem might be it could still contribute a necessary part to the whole. To use your terms, it may be that the 150 poems that form The Daily Mirror (2000) and the 150 poems that form The Evening Sun (2002) are comprehensive though not monumental, and value the fragmentary and momentary as ends in themselves that serve further ends.

Seiferle: So by collecting these poems in a book, you feel that they create a “long poem”? How do you go about “editing” that long poem into existence?

Lehman: By limiting the book to 150 daily poems when I've written three times as many, I can edit by selection and omission. In deciding which poems to include, I am going to rely not on aesthetic criteria exclusively but on my sense of the artistic coherence of the whole. It's a matter of discerning the order that is there and making it visible. In The Daily Mirror the knowledge that I was creating a sequence worked its way into the poems sometimes with a wink, sometimes openly, sometimes subtly, so in a sense I felt that I could work out some of the editing right there on the page. The book's title, for example. On December 16 I came up with Big City Daily as a tentative title, and the poem of the day pursues this metaphor. On December 17, the title changes to The Daily Mirror, which is the name of a defunct New York City tabloid. And on December 18, the letters to the editor have begun to arrive. And December proceeds toward the end of the year, which is also the end of the book, on a valedictory note.

Seiferle: Do you revise the poems as they are written, or in the editing process, or do you generally find that they are indeed poems whose “perfect exposition took place at one sitting?”

Lehman: Sometimes I feel I get it right in one go. Sometimes I revise as I write or a few hours later. In the majority of cases the poem as published is the poem as printed out at the end of the day. But this isn't the result of a programmatic decision. I don't see revision of a daily poem as somehow compromising the purity of the project. Purity doesn't interest me. I'm not keeping a journal, I'm writing a book of poems. I should add I characteristically revise poems I have written and poems I continue to write beyond or outside the boundaries of my daily poem project. “The Code of Napoleon,” one in a series of biographical poems I've been working on, was begun on June 18, 1991 (the anniversary of Waterloo) and I finally completed it to my satisfaction in 1996. I started a poem on Freud in 1998, during a trip to Vienna, and just finished it a couple of months ago (July 2001). That being said, I think of what the late Archie Ammons wrote about trying “to get some rightness into improvisations.” I love what he said. “The arrogance implied by getting something right the first time is incredible, but no matter how much an ice-skater practices, when she hits the ice it's all a one-time event.”

Seiferle: These poems are so much of the moment, particular intersections of encounters, both in the written and real world, various people and places. Perhaps you'd like to look at a couple and talk about the occasion that brought each of them into being.

Lehman: I wrote “March 13” with the requirement of using exactly three words per line. This arbitrary limitation, preceding the composition, helped to direct it. Like “March 13,” “April 2” began with a sartorial observation, only this time I started with no formal requirement, just the delight in the phrase “I thought happiness wore a skirt.” After personifying “happiness” as a woman, giving her a dress and heels and situating herself in a particular street, I realized she had become a certain woman who had made me suffer, so I switched my attention to the day at hand: the music on the radio, the prospect of lunch, the film crew in the street when I ambled home, the weather. I suppose the poem exemplifies the quotidian ideal that Frank O'Hara brought to the lyric. Some commentators think that this kind of poem is a dead end and that the future belongs entirely to abstract poems intensely aware of themselves as mediated expressions. I think the opposite. I think there is a lot of life left in the lyric. The colloquial urban lyric didn't end with O'Hara. The occasion that brought “December 29” into being was the death of Quine, the Harvard philosopher. I'd always meant to write a poem in the manner of a newspaper obituary, and on this day I was with my friend Stacey Harwood and my son Joe Lehman and when I told them excitedly that Quine had died I saw them exchange a significant glance indicating that the name meant little to them. So I had an extra incentive to write the poem.

Seiferle: Could you explain for those readers unfamiliar with O'Hara's work, how his work exemplifies “the quotidian ideal?” Could you quote a favorite poem of his and say a little about its virtues?

Lehman: There's a chapter on O'Hara in my book The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. O'Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art and wrote poems during his lunch break, recording the things he did and noticed and thought in midtown at midday. The book Lunch Poems includes some superb examples of his “I do this I do that” style, which can move from the mundane to the sublime in a trice. On August 7, 1959, he wrote “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul,” which wittily manages to make the writing of the poem itself an entertaining subject. It begins: “It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering / if I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch.” The stanza concludes with a different predicate and a different predicament: “it is good to be several floors up in the dead of night / wondering whether you are any good or not / and the only decision you can make is that you did it.” I love the speed of these lines, the easy colloquial speech, the subtle way that “I” can shade into “you” and gossip can turn into existential lyricism. Later in the poem these lines occur: “the only thing to do is simply continue / is that simple / yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do / can you do it / yes, you can because it is the only thing to do / blue light over the Bois de Boulogne it continues / the Seine continues / the Louvre stays open it continues it hardly closes at all.” As the result of a wish (“I wish I were reeling around Paris / instead of reeling around New York”) an extraordinary homage to the city of Paris has come into existence.

Seiferle: So perhaps at this point, I should ask you if there is something in particular that you would like to add or discuss about this process of writing a poem of day as we draw the interview to a close?

Lehman: Just that I'm grateful for your interest in my work. It's a wonderful to have a thoughtful, intelligent reader.

Seiferle: What are you looking forward to in your poetic future?

Lehman: While I continue to write poems in the manner of The Daily Mirror and The Evening Sun, I am also working on poems that are very different. I've been writing in various forms: sestinas, sonnets, a prose poem in the form of a corrections column in a newspaper, a prose poem in the form of a story shorter than fifty words, a series of twenty-six-word poems that recapitulate the alphabet. There's also a series of biographical poems. So far I've completed three: on Napoleon, Wittgenstein, and Freud.




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