Winter 1996, Volume 13.1
The Spiral in Time: An Interview with Poet David Lee
Katharine Coles (Ph.D., U of Utah) is a poet and novelist, who teaches creative writing at Westminster College. Her poems have appeared or will appear in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Poetry, The New Republic, and others.
This interview captures a moment in the ongoing conversation about poetry between David Lee and Katharine Coles. The interview occurred by telephone and on paper during the summer of 1995. At the time, David Lee was anticipating his forthcoming collection, My Town, since published by Copper Canyon Press. For interview conversations, he would drive thirty minutes to a telephone, since he had retreated to his Pine Valley cabin to work on his next full-length book, News from Down to the Café, and to finish the collaborative book, Covenants, that he was writing with Nebraska Poet Laureate William Kloefkorn. Covenants will be published by Spoon River Press in 1996.
Not only a national figure who has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, David Lee has been for nearly a quarter century among Utah's most beloved and widely read poets. From his early books, The Porcine Canticles and The Porcine Legacy, to the forthcoming Covenants and My Town, Lee has charted lives of ordinary rural people in the language that defines and expresses them. He has not only lifted these previously unsung lives into the view of habitual readers of poetry, but has also made poetry accessible and meaningful to many who would never have imagined themselves reading a collection of poems, much less a collection of poems written by a scholar of Milton, Dante, and the Bible.
Coles: Most of your work is about rural people and uses your version of rural American dialect. This is not mainstream. Can you describe the differences between your work and most of what is being written today in America?
Lee: How long do you want me to talk about this?
Coles: As long as you want.
Lee: In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes said that any time we have a conversation, we're really just redefining terms. What if I talk about what I think poetry is?
Lee: The poet's first preoccupation is with language. Most poets are pretty much literalists about John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Language is divinity; language was the inventor of man. This is the sacred trust. The difference between the poet and the novelist is that the novelist has a preoccupation with story, character, and action, where the poet's preoccupation, as Stevens said in "The Man with the Blue Guitar," always comes back to the poem itself, to language. There are exceptions. Right now I am crazy about Cormac McCarthy. What a poet he is.
Lee: On the other hand, the poet has a real kinship with the historian.
Coles: Isn't the historian preoccupied with narrative?
Lee: The poet's job is to somehow find a way to capture the eternal from the transitory, from the effervescent. I'm thinking here of Heraclitus: you can't put your foot in the same river twice. Like the historian's, our job is to put it in once and find out exactly what the river is at that moment. Pound says that we write not about water, but about the pattern inside the water, "That liquid and rushing crystal beneath the knees of the gods" and all of that. We're supposed to snatch the moment out of time, somehow find the crystal inside that liquid and rushing moment.
Coles: You've just described in a quintessential way the lyric poem. Are you a lyric poet or a narrative poet?
Lee: Both. But I hope I'm going toward narrative. It would be easy just to say, Seize the moment; but what I'm talking about is beyond the moment. Beyond epiphany. The poet must locate that bull's eye where we find self. In the Gnostic Gospels, Thomas says, "The Kingdom of God is within us." We map the moment of epiphany where self is found and then we speculate on it. And we're supposed to bring that moment to a sense of common understanding. That's what I see as missing in some poetry. Much as I'm not an Auden fan totally, Auden has that wonderful definition of the difference between second- and first-rate poetry. When you read second-rate literature, your ultimate reaction is déjà vu. "I've been there before." When you read first-rate poetry, you think, "I've had all these feelings before, and all these sensations, but I never did understand them. And now I do understand them, as a result of having come to grips with this poem."
Coles: How can language accomplish all that?
Lee: Language for poets is pure metaphor. A pure tool to think with. As with myth, we need metaphor, figurative language to make pictures of things we can't normally see. It's a process of clarification. This is one reason we have obscurity in poetry. Poets keeps the poems obscure as they write until they think they've got the readers on their side. Then they move to simplicity in the effort to reveal what's going on.
Coles: But one of the common patterns in your work is a sort of spiral pattern, the pattern of a voyage into the underworld that we see in Driving and Drinking but also in a poem like "Warts," which begins in something really familiar, two guys talking about how to get rid of the warts on their hands, and then moves to the realm of the frighteningly unfamiliar, and then moves back into the familiar.
Lee: That is an excellent perception on your part. Hopefully, we're trying to say the same thing. In a poem like that, we begin in simplicity so that we form the link, move into the obscure, and then reveal a simplicity.
Coles: Also, at the beginning, even though we're in an apparent simplicity, we don't really know why we're there and where we're going until we've made the journey into the heart. The simplicity masks the obscurity to come but doesn't erase it.
Lee: That brings me to a second reason we have obscurity in poetry. Sometimes, we have subject matter—as in the case of "Warts"—that is obscure to the poet. The act of the poem is to clarify it to the poet.
Coles: How was the subject matter of "Warts" obscure to you?
Lee: If you asked me, "Do you believe in faith healing?" I don't know what I'd say, though I have had warts healed. So I didn't know where the poem was going. The act itself was clarification.
There's a third reason poetry is obscure, and that's because it fails. The question a poem should raise is not "What did the author mean by that?" but "What does that mean for us?"
Coles: You want the reader to become involved.
Lee: Poetry is not a spectator sport. It cannot work unless we have active engagement between the poet, the poem, and the reader. All three are equally responsible for what is going to happen inside the poem. There's a huge bulk of poetry my friend Sam Hamill calls "clone poetry," where the poet expects the reader to be a spectator watching the poet dance. I don't buy that. The poet's job is to engage the reader and let that reader make a claim on the poem. If the reader does, then he or she will say, "This is about me; this is for me."
Coles: Which contemporary poets do you feel an affinity with?
Lee: William Kloefkorn, Richard Shelton, Mary Oliver—very much so. Elizabeth Bishop. I just reread her recently, and she hit me harder than she ever has. Tom McGrath moves me tremendously, but I haven't reread him in about ten years. I'm mentioning people who do pretty much narrative poetry. This summer I reread almost all of Kloefkorn, and I reread Shelton's Selected, and I was knocked out by them both.
Coles: What about dead American poets? Before Bishop.
Lee: I'm going to call Eliot an American poet and say Four Quartets.
Coles: He's somebody who, in spite of his obscurity, you still think is living up to the commitment?
Lee: Yes. He tries to engage and earn the trust of the reader, then to clarify something, to find out where the idea in his mind will go. I think The Waste Land is a bit overrated; "Prufrock" is absolutely wonderful, though probably simplistic. But it's the Four Quartets that hold me. I want to keep coming back to them. I once fell in love with Ezra Pound, but I don't come back to him very easily, very willingly, or very well.
Coles: What is it that you resist?
Lee: More him than his poetry. I get tired of that pretentiousness. I get tired of him banging the table with his fist until you see it his way or declare yourself an idiot. When I do agree with him, I have a hesitation or resentment about it. And much as I enjoy reading the Cantos, a lot of them are completely incoherent. I have no idea where he's going, and when I do figure it out, I think, "Well, that wasn't worth it." While there are beautiful moments, there are sections where I think, "Here's a guy who calls himself an imagist?"
Coles: He also likes the sound of his own voice.
Lee: He loves the sound of his own voice. He's very, very full of himself.
Coles: Speaking of voice, how did you go about creating the dominant voice in your poems? Are you aware of how you're creating it as you go?
Lee: In a previous life, I was a ruminant. A ruminant has four stomachs. He chews and swallows a thing, and then he coughs it up, and he chews it again, and swallows it, and repeats this at least four times.
Coles: Like a cow?
Lee: Like a cow. Cows have no brains, and maybe that's why they're ruminants, too. I don't write many poems. If I get half-a-dozen a year, that's an incredibly good year. Now, that's not true. Like everyone else, I might write a hundred poems in that time. But I have only half-a-dozen anybody is going to see. It takes me a long time to figure out what I want to say.
Coles: Is that where a poem begins?
Lee: I figure out what I want to say. Then, as a narrative poet, I feel my next job is to create a story characters and action. The next step I learned from Dante, Canto V of the Inferno, one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in all of literature, where Dante learned to let his own characters speak, to let himself sit back and listen. He says, "I fell as a dead man falls," because the story he heard shocked him so much. That's my next step. Then, let what they say be heard. Let that be repeated. My poems are not tales but retold tales.
Coles: You seem to retell your characters' stories in the voice of one character that's consistent not only from poem to poem but from book to book.
Lee: The book I'm working on with Kloefkorn is going to have a surprise.
Coles: Let's talk about that book. Right now, you are collaborating with Nebraska poet laureate William Kloefkorn on a joint collection.
Lee: I'm nearly done. Two years ago I told you I was starting a book called News from Down to the Café. But William Kloefkorn taught on our campus last year. On three occasions, he asked if I would consider doing a book with him. The first time, I thought he was joking; the second time, I thought, Hmm; and the third time, I jumped all over it.
Coles: He must have felt like he was asking a shy girl to marry him.
Lee: You got it. So I thought the title of the book would be something like News from Down to the Café, because he uses titles like that, too. He was the one who came up with Covenants.
Coles: A great title for a collaborative book.
Lee: But I immediately rejected it. He knew I had misgivings. Ten or fifteen times he's said, "Now, that's still up for grabs." Even after I had told him, "No, that is the title," because that was where I had focused myself. Every poem I wrote for this book has a covenant relationship in it. Fathers and sons, the living and the dead. My voice, John, with his friend, E. U. The idea of "covenant" took on a meaning that sort of stripped the inside of my brain. I loved what happened in my mind while I was writing it.
Coles: I read your poems together in a block, and I haven't seen any of Kloefkorn's. Do you know what form the book will take?
Lee: We're going to get together soon, in a quiet, neutral spot, and wrangle about the organization. It's not going to be Dave first and Kloefkorn second, or the other way around. Or even Dave, Kloefkorn, Dave, Kloefkorn. We're going to look at the poems and make an organic book out of them.
Coles: Like all your books.
Lee: I hope so. We do not want it to be a random collection of things we happened to do while we were putting this together. We had the theme, we had the motif. Now we want to make the poems talk to each other.
Coles: Your books do always seem organically coherent. You guys are going to sit down with poems already written and carve a shape out of them. Is that what you usually do, or do you begin with a shape in mind?
Lee: I have a shape in mind. The structure of Day's Work is really obvious.
Coles: Did you have the title first?
Lee: Yes. I may have had a few poems, but early on I had the title and the concept, that it would be one day, dawn to dusk. Then it dawned on me to make it one year. It starts in January and moves to the close of the year, when the sun's coming down. Then, as it follows the cycles of work during the day, it also follows the cycles of the work you do through the year.
Coles: So, you start with a concrete shape, as also with My Town, then the thematic shape becomes fleshed out as you go, as with the graveyard.
Lee: Like Michelangelo seeing a statue inside a rock. The job is to liberate a shape. I don't have the slightest idea how to write an original poem. If I have a strength, it is in putting poems together. There's a Chinese poem: "The plan is the work, the work is play, wherein reside silence and song, side-by-side, lighting the way." Once I've got that structure, the actual writing of the poems is child's play.
Coles: Earlier, you talked about the contract, the dialectic between the mind of the poet and the mind of the imagined reader. Though we may think of the poet as working in solitude and not subject to external aesthetic forces, most poets do imagine that reader.
Lee: I hear poets all the time say, "I just write for myself." That's absolute garbage. I rarely just write a poem. All right, I do. But nobody sees those.
Coles: Is that structure there to help the reader, then?
Lee: Twenty-five years ago, I had some advice that changed my life. My poems were not going anywhere, and a very good editor said, "Dave, it's because you don't have an audience in mind. You're writing to people who don't read poetry. Knock it off." That clicked. So I start with an audience in mind. Then I write a book they not only want but need. I find that necessary structure, and I work with it. I've got the very best audience I know how to create.
With Covenants, I haven't seen the structure yet. All I have is theme and motif. But before I started, I reread all of Kloefkorn's work. I think I can predict where his half of the book is going to go. I just fit my half around his half.
Coles: During the collaboration, did you find a difference between the dialectic that usually occurs between your mind and an imagined reader and the dialectic between you and a real collaborator?
Lee: It turned out to be no problem at all. I had the luxury of working with a person I know quite well, and whom I both admire and like.
Coles: Is he a member of your internal audience anyway?
Lee: When I was writing, it wasn't only to this broader audience, it was also directly to Kloefkorn. I had him in mind line-by-line through a lot of the poems. The poems I'm nervous about in the book, I'm nervous for him. How is he going to react?
Coles: I love the idea of him as a white-haired, mustached muse.
Lee: He is, for this book. He would hate that. He doesn't believe in muses. And he thinks if there is such a thing as a muse it has to be a female.
Coles: What is the book's surprise?
Lee: The poem that we're going to run with this interview is "The Rhapsody for the Good Night." A character came out in that poem, E. U. Washington. He is really talking through me now. When I wrote the title poem for the book, I had the Abraham covenants verse in mind: "This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee."
Coles: "The Rhapsody for the Good Night" is a really different poem for you. It seems to directly address lyric issues, like the question of where silence is. You use a Dizzy Gillespie epigraph: "Music is silence. The reason we have the notes is to emphasize the silence."
Lee: E. U. Washington is raised as a mute in a strange family. He doesn't feel comfortable talking until he's totally comfortable where he is. His language for me has become immediately identifiable, though I don't identify it until after the fact. My closing poem for that book, "Uncle Abe," got completely away from me. Which doesn't bother me: if the poem doesn't change somewhere in the act of writing, you should be suspicious. But here, I should be doubly suspicious: "covenant" in the poem becomes a play, a "chocolate covenant," "a chocolate covered nut."
Coles: And the Lord's covenant with Abraham involves circumcision. (Laughs.)
Lee: Okay. You laughed. So I had a choice: do I make this humorous or serious. I thought, "If I make it humorous, it's going to be silly. If I make it serious, I might get something out of it." I decided to develop this: "And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee." I wrote the poem, and when I was through I realized I had written it in rhyme, which I almost never do, and when I looked again, it was E. U. Washington's voice. Not John's voice.
Coles: E. U. Washington is becoming a central narrator?
Lee: I talked earlier about the idea of the retold tale, letting the characters be heard. The oral tradition is never a finalized tradition. Every time the poem is told, it should be in a slightly different way, until somebody does write it. Then it's only momentarily captured. I want to create the feeling the poem still exists in the oral tradition. And I want my poem told through a not totally reliable narrator.
I learned about the unreliable narrator when I was a sophomore in college and read The Brothers Karamazov. I was in seminary, and I couldn't understand why they gave us that wonderful Grand Inquisitor section to read. Even though I didn't have a good translation, I could tell that narrator was a fool. He says, "Well, reader, I wasn't there, and I don't really understand this, but let me tell you what happened," and then goes into this wonderful story, the detail in his own mind. I want my narrator to be like Dostoevsky's, or Chaucer's, or Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where that wonderful Marlowian narrator gets lost in his story. They're not good judges of character or situation, but they have in common a memory for seemingly insignificant detail and moments of dialogue. They throw facts to the wind, trying to find the truth of the situation. Story writing, narrative poetry, narrative writing, is probably the world's second oldest profession.
Coles: Maybe it originally arose as gossip about the oldest profession.
Lee: It has the same strategy. You've got it, you focus and market it, and you've still got it. Story is not plot. You can take the same story and tell it a hundred different ways. And you've still got it. That's where I link up with lyric poetry. Both my form of the narrative poem and the lyric poem are subjective rather than objective.
Coles: Which is why you want the language to feel different every time. But even within a poem on the page, the language shifts and reassembles itself.
Lee: That's an excellent way to describe it.
Coles: Returning to the first question: does using rural voices and rural language help you find the place where language is most shifting and alive for you?
Lee: Yes. Because of spontaneity. Both of thought and language.
Coles: You turn "covenants" into "chocolate covered nuts." The octopus tentacles in "Willie and the Water Pipe" turn into "testicles." An infant's thrush in another poem becomes "thrash." You use the twists of language as it lives in people's mouths to create that shifting landscape of words.
Lee: That is the journey I am taking. It's a precarious journey. When it doesn't work, it looks hokey. I have had editors ask me to take the dialect out of my poems, and I have steadfastly refused, because that would take out a major part of what I want to say. I'm not a conservative regarding language. Language must be plastic. It must shift. It must change. And connotation is at the very least as important as denotation.
Coles: Do you know why editors have asked you to take the dialect out?
Lee: Not absolutely. But there is a move in every form of art toward sameness. My childhood poetry teachers would read a poem out loud to us, talk about scansion for the prerequisite five minutes, and then come to the Overwhelming Question: "What is the meaning?" or worse, "What is the moral of this poem?" The idiots would raise their hands. Anything they said was wrong.
Coles: Of course.
Lee: The teacher would read the response from the manual, and that's what you'd better put down on the test. I despise that. One poem of mine, "Mean," began with the first poem I ever wrote, in the seventh grade. Ms. Carpenter sent us to, as we say in Texas, the liberry; she said, "You find a poem in the liberry, you put it on a piece of paper, then you rewrite it, changing a few things, and that'll be your poem." So I came back with a little poem, "Hell hath no fury like a sow with pigs." Ms. Carpenter gave me an F for the assignment, because it was poetry and mine didn't rhyme, but said I could rewrite it if I wanted to. I remain delighted that I never did.
A poem is kaleidoscopic. It opens to any interpretation that can be substantiated from the poem itself. As long as the poem hits that inner core. It's a Buddhist response: "Aha." That is the gift of poetry. Isn't that what you try to do?
Coles: I want the poem to be both changing and life-changing.
Lee: I disagree with Jesse Helms about art. Art is a conservative tool, a stabilizing tool. It shows what our society is at the moment. But while art itself is conservative, the approach to art must be radical. The opposite of conservative is not liberal. It's radical. The artist must retain that radical approach. Difference rather than sameness. Sameness is easy. It allows us the opportunity to define. Look at what happened to the study of literature at the university, with Harold Bloom and others. We no longer study primary source, we study literary criticism. We have made interpretation as important as the art, and the interpreter as important as the artist. Therefore, the artist must have an obligation to create art that is accessible to the interpreter.
Coles: Would you say that the dialect you use in the poems on the page is partly an effort to recreate for the silent reader the same shifting quality and difference you achieve when you perform the poems?
Lee: Yes. But it's also an attempt to escape myself as the author of the poem. People who have read my poems come up to me and want to converse in the language of those poems. In my own conversation, I'm not totally comfortable with that internal language. Part of it is the separation. Using the language of my alter-ego, John, allows me the freedom of moving into a connotative, metaphorical world. Though I admire that world very much, I'm not part of it. Even worse, the language will let John drift into my real-world conversation.
Coles: Do you try to make your poems as effective on the page as in performance, even though you belong to the oral tradition?
Lee: The dominant medium for poetry in our society is the printed page. How many people hear Dave Lee give a reading? The Porcine Canticles is in its fourth printing; there are several thousand copies out there. I don't think those people have heard me read. So if I'm not conveying the poems on the page, I'm not doing my job as a poet. On the other hand, you hear Dizzy Gillespie on a CD. We can no longer hear him in person because he's gone. But I was lucky enough to have heard the man play.
Coles: It was different from hearing him on CD?
Lee: Suddenly I was converted to jazz. Before, I just thought jazz was that strange, funny sounding music that didn't make a whole lot of sense. The oral performance, like the live musical performance, is a major part of poetry. But as a poet, you have to worry about that written line because nine times out of ten that's your only communication with your reader. That's exactly why I write the poems out in dialect. If I can make the separation from the normal realm of speech and sound, if I can get the reader participating in language that reader in all likelihood does not use—the normal readers of poetry don't fit in the society that I'm using in my poems—
Lee: —if I can get them believing in the society and participating, I've got my ball rolling.
Coles: And audiences at your performances are enormous, but they're often not only the usual poetry audiences—it's as if the dialect pulls in people who are familiar with the language but not actually with poetry.
Lee: If it does, I've accomplished my purpose, and if it doesn't, pin a sign on my back that says "Kick me." A poetry reading is not to glorify the poet. You perform poetry to bring poems alive.
Lee: I heard Mark Strand read a year ago. I expected not to like it. I had not been a fan of Strand's poetry. There were things I didn't know how to enter. I wasn't part of the world he writes about. After the reading, I even heard people say it wasn't a particularly good Mark Strand reading. I didn't know what they were talking about. It blew me away. I went out and bought a Mark Strand book, and I'd pretty much thought I'd never own one. That reading had nothing to do with Mark Strand. I had my eyes closed during a lot of the poems, picking up those marvelous rhythms, those marvelous sound patterns. I will die remembering a sestina he read as prose. It was like it blew up right in front of us. That, to me, is what a reading is about. The poem itself went beyond Mark Strand, and it made a claim on David Lee.
Coles: Like the moments in Pound that go beyond the peripheral issues.
Lee: That's right. (Chanting, in Pound's voice): "The liquid rushing crystal beneath the knees of the gods."
Lee: Yes. In spite of all of the pretentiousness and self-righteousness in Ezra Pound, that is beautiful. That's what the poetry reading can offer. On the other hand, you go to some poetry readings, and you want to have the little girl next to you say aloud, "That poet doesn't have any clothes on." A reading can reveal bad poems.
Coles: And a bad reader can take good work and render it hamburger.
Lee: I recently heard an important living American writer give a very flat reading. I don't think there were any good words for that person's poetry after the reading, even though it was good work.
Coles: My Town is the first of your books that makes the space of the town your characters occupy an explicit space. Driving and Drinking maps an area, but not an actual town. That town occupies imaginative space in you, and I recognize both Utah and Texas in it—the two places where you grew up. Is that town located in a specific space, like The Spoon River Anthology or Winesburg, Ohio?
Lee: Someone asked me if I had Edgar Lee Masters in mind. I did not. I don't know if you remember the conversation we had about this book three years ago, when we began to discover that it was set in a graveyard or a ghost town.
Coles: I remember. I think I'm the one who asked you about Masters.
Lee: I had most of the poems written before I wrote "Terrace Mound," which occurs inside the cemetery. I had the people and the place. Though it's a superimposed geography or landscape of the interior, I did imagine a specific place. I did superimpose Paragonah, Utah, and Post, Texas, and other placesbecause, as I say in the opening poem, "This is every place I've ever been." I wanted it to be that place we all call "hometown"if we want to belong to it, we will. Setting is tremendously important. By confining us, setting defines us. People speak and think and act this way because of where they are, the proximity both to each other and to a geographical place. But I don't have any specific place in mind. I did not call it Post; I did not call it Paragonah.
Coles: In what ways do you think American poetry is either regional or non-or anti-regional? Or do we have both traditions?
Lee: We have both traditions, of course. But American poetry is primarily regional. Eighteen years ago, I had a postdoctoral fellowship to study the American long poem with Roy Harvey Pierce at the University of California. In class, Pierce asked, "Is Four Quartets an American poem?" As you know, I'm a shy person in groups. Several people ventured answers. Then Pierce said, "All of you are missing the point. This is obviously an American poem because it is written about a specific place."
Coles: What about Wordsworth?
Lee: I exploded. I said exactly that: "What about the Romantics?" He said, "That was in the past. I'm talking about now." I wanted to say, "What about the Greeks?" Since then I've been in Spain, where so much poetry celebrates place. But there's an attitude that American poets somehow have a particular responsibility to celebrate place.
Coles: Even though the place isn't always America.
Lee: The first poems in My Town were written in Spain. But I had the rural southwest in mind. Not so much the landscape as the dialect and the idiom of the people.
Coles: I've heard some people say this book is darker than some of your other work.
Lee: I think it is. I just wrote the Covenants book and I started my new book, News from Down to the Café, and the poems don't have the belly laugh that there was in The Porcine Legacy, The Porcine Canticles.
Coles: What about Driving and Drinking?
Lee: The opening of the second section is a sort of a belly-laugh section.
Coles: But wasn't it also criticized for being a dark book?
Lee: Once we get past the belly laughs, I move the book into darkness, because I wanted Driving and Drinking to be a journey into Hell. It's modeled after Dante's Inferno, and it leads into the cleansing of the hell of fire. At the end, John says, "It don't take much to keep some people going." Life is worth living, both in the highs and the lows, but I seem to be moving toward the darker note.
Coles: I admire the dark tones. Why do you think some readers don't?
Lee: American poetry is filled with enough angst. People are looking for something lighter. How many books can you name that are funny? But I never wanted to be an Ogden Nash or a Russell Edson. I wanted to develop work with substance to it.
Coles: You've had dark tones all along, in poems like ""Pain," which uses humor as a counterpoint to darker subject matter.
Lee: You've got to have the opposite and equal reaction. I am not apologizing for the pig poems—they represent the best I was capable of producing twenty-five years ago. But I don't know how much I had to say then. I hope I have something to say now about life and the act of living. I have the responsibility as an artist, if I am an artist, not to duplicate my own poems.
You've talked about a spiral. I'm trying to learn to spiral inside my own mind, or if not in my mind then inside my own heart. The closer I come to the heart, the closer I come to the darkness. But I don't want everything to become black or morbid. Life has a tremendous amount of joy—my God, it's worth the going through. But I'm in my fifties. I'm no longer young. I'm really no longer even middle-aged. I'm entering the autumn and winter phase of my life. My poetry reflects that. There's still sunlight, but there are also shadows. And I glory in shadows. My Town is about death.
Coles: Explicitly, as well as metaphorically.
Lee: I kill the hero of that book in the book. I've never been able to do that before. Mr. Cummings dies. But he is still most assuredly alive, because he changes Billy Bob. Billy Bob goes in there to talk to Mr. Cummings, and he comes out a different human being from having witnessed that moment of death.
Coles: Mr. Cummings also lives in the narrative. Isn't that another function of narrative, to keep the dead alive?
Lee: Oh, yeah.
Coles: You can tell Billy Bob has changed because his language changes. As if the language is passed from Mr. Cummings into Billy Bob.
Lee: Again, the language is metaphor. In metaphor, we have the symbol, and we have the referent. A terrible mistake made in poetry and in mythology is the confusion of symbol and referent. That kills poetry. It kills God. When Nietzsche says, "God is dead," he's not bragging; that's a terrible lament. It's why we have no readers of poetry today. I'm tired of people saying it's television. It happened before television. We as poets have failed to remember that poetry is, first, last, and always, an emanation of the human spirit. The key is the perception of the essence of self in poetry. The ultimate effect—back to Auden and first-rate literature—should be the realization that you, reader, are the mystery you are seeking to know. The poet says, I give you yourself, through metaphor.
Good poetry creates an intelligible sphere. When Black Elk went out to the mountain, he said the mountain is the center of the universe. Then he immediately followed by saying the center of the universe is anywhere. It's everywhere.
Coles: We're back to the bull's eye or the spiral—the center of a spiral is a bull's eye—and also to spirituality. Not many poets are really writing about spirituality these days.
Lee: Nobody's interested in it.
Coles: Well, a few—Scott Cairns, for one, is. Mary Oliver is. And you are.
Lee: If I'm not I need to quit writing. Remember Keats, when he talks about Shakespeare's circumnavigation of the soul? Good poetry comes from within. Rilke said that true art comes from the anonymous self. The poet's job is to write from the inside-out, not the outside-in. The author has an obligation to make him- or herself not the star, only the point-of-view. We need to smash the idea of poetry as being the temple of Narcissus.
I write about fear. I write about the universal moment—I talked about Dante a moment ago. I write about the Other, about the Unknown. As a poet I embrace the most archaic values on earth. Ecclesiastes: "There's nothing new under the sun."
Coles: The Bible is everywhere in your poems. You often focus on the language and rhetoric of Christian religion. What relationship does this rhetoric have to do with actual spirituality?
Lee: The Bible was the seminal influence of my life. Thinking, art, everything else was linked to it. I was probably in late college before I began to read literature just for thinking, so the language closest to me was that of the Bible, and the stories that stuck were Bible stories. Of course, I dropped out of seminary when I realized that in studying theology I was not studying spirituality, I was studying the idea of religion. I'll take it one step lower: Church. And you've read my poetry. You know how I feel about church.
Coles: I can tell how you felt about Billy Bob, at least before Mr. Cummings gets a hold of him.
Lee: Yes. And the Reverend Strayhorn. I do not care for economic religion. I do not care for monomaniacal church-oriented religion. It has nothing whatever to do with spirituality. That form of myth is a deliberate reversal of symbol and referent. They're worshipping the referent rather than the symbol. The transcendent is what we're after, the mystery; the poem, the symbol, is the tool we use to explore it.
Coles: Can we relate this back to issues of speech versus silence, and talk about what kind of speech we can use to chart that silence, and what kind of speech might lead us away from it?
Lee: This morning, I drove in from Pine Valley along back roads. I was thinking about The Wife of Bath, about the question in the rapist knight's quest: What is it that woman wants more than anything else on earth? There, it's the primal position in the relationship. I thought, "Do I just love The Wife of Bath, or do I really believe that?" And then I thought, after listening to Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, Rush Limbaugh, I am ready for a matriarchal political system. Maybe I am ready for a return to a matriarchal theological system. I am a Deist, as much as anything, and at the heart of Deism is the acknowledgment of Gaia.
It says in the New Testament to watch out for people who pray in formal speeches. The best prayer is spoken inside the closet, alone. Silence is a major part of both the composition and the delivery of poetry. Poetry is compressed language, and the reason it is compressed is so we can contain silence in it. We need to get away from rhetoric, from worn out, oft-repeated language that has no meaning. That's why we return to figurative language. What is an abstraction? It's an indefinable term. Yet we need abstraction to communicate. How do we define the abstraction? Through figurative language. Making pictures.
Coles: So the abstraction becomes part of the silence at the center.
Lee: We put it in there as a point of reference, and most good poets jerk the abstraction out after they've seen what they're working with. Then they create the image to create the effect of that abstraction.
Coles: So when the poem is working, is it only or primarily defining the silence or abstraction at the heart and then mapping it, or does it accomplish more, does it create something new?
Lee: It's got to go to that central core of the self. That's why we use imagery. Not to create verisimilitude; that's garbage. To create participation, audience response. Once you can get the reader to smell something not there—a poem's a sheet of paper with type on it, that's all—the reader moves into that world and makes a claim on it. We're back to your image of the spiral, the Dantean spiral. Poetry is a spiral to the heart of the reader from the heart of the poet.
Coles: Out of the heart and into the heart.
Lee: We often forget this, don't we? Poetry is a form of communication. It flows not just from the poet to the reader, but from poet to poem, poem to poet, and line to line. Then from the poem to the reader, beyond the poet. Poetry lets us seize the moment out of the flow of time. Once we've seized it, it's past, it's gone by. Yet the poem doesn't acknowledge that. Faulkner said the past is not dead, it's not even past. That's what we achieve. The eternal.