Joan Larkin And Tony Leuzzi Discuss Poetry
This month we've invited several LGBT authors to participate in our first ever Voice to Voice conversation series. Throughout January we'll feature intimate interviews between novelists, poets, playwrights, and writers as they discuss everything from the state of LGBT literature to sex and sexuality between the pages to the joys and challenges of writing about LGBT issues, themes, and lives.
Our first featured conversation was between Violet Quill members Edmund White and Felice Picano.
Then we featured novelists Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn, writer Robert Leleux chatting with writer, actor, and drag legend Charles Busch, and lesbian novelists Ellen Hart and Val McDermid.
Now we bring you a conversation between poets Joan Larkin and Tony Leuzzi.
Larkin's "My Body: New and Selected Poems" (Hanging Loose Press), received the Publishing Triangle's Audre Lorde Award. Her chapbook "Legs Tipped with Small Claws" is forthcoming in Spring 2012 (Argos Books). Larkin teaches in Drew University's low-residency MFA program. Her honors include the Poetry Society of America's 2011 Shelley Memorial Award and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. You can purchase Larkin's books here.
Tony Leuzzi's "Radiant Losses" won the New Sins' Editorial Prize in 2009 and was published the following year. His next book, "Fake Book," is forthcoming later this month (Anything-Anymore-Anywhere, UK). In Fall 2012, BOA Editions will publish his collection of interviews with twenty American poets. He teaches at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY. You can purchase "Radiant Losses" here.
Here Larkin and Leuzzi discuss their approaches to their work, sexuality and poetry, and more.
Tony Leuzzi: Hi, Joan. I'm glad we're able to have this phone conversation about one another's work. It's a real honor for me because I've been a fan of yours for decades. In preparing for this, I read through 2007's "My Body: New and Selected Poems"; it was like reuniting with old friends who are even dearer to me than I'd remembered.
Joan Larkin: Thank you for the kind words, Tony. I'm glad I got the opportunity to read your books, too. I read "Radiant Losses" (2010) at least two times: it was wonderful. And I love the new book -- "Fake Book."
Tony: Glad you enjoyed them. Coming from you that means a lot. And congratulations on your forthcoming chapbook, "Legs Tipped with Small Claws." I was surprised by its appearance so soon after "My Body" since historically there has been a ten-year gap between each of your books.
Joan: Well, I'm a little older now and very conscious of having more limited time. I'm more immersed in poetry lately, less distracted by sex and romance, and though the need to make a living continues, I'm less driven to try to prove myself. One gift of aging is having a more solid sense of myself and what I do best. I'm really trying to focus more. Publishing "Legs Tipped with Small Claws" is a step towards finishing a longer book. There's another project I'm dying to get to, but lyric poems are my primary focus. I've often struggled with conflicting loyalties, which I could describe as lyric versus narrative, constriction versus expansion, or -- heaven forbid -- High Art versus something more ordinary. I have some narrative impulses in me that can't be satisfied when I'm focused on writing lyric poems.
Tony: It's great to hear you're finding more time for focus. I'll be interested to see where the next phase of your project takes you because not only has there been a ten-year cycle between books, but each of your books seems remarkably distinct from the others.
Joan: I'm not always conscious of what I'm doing with a book until it's done. I don't think in terms of a book when I'm writing, especially over a ten-year span, but I do feel as if each one of the previous books has put a period on some aspect of my life. Part of what makes each book so different from the others is that as my consciousness evolves, and as I've worked through some traumatic events of my adolescence, my need to write in certain ways has changed. "With Cold River" (1997), for example, I had been meeting with a group of poets in Western Mass. It occurred to me then that every participant was striving to please one of the two famous poets in that group by writing very pithy, economical lyrics. At that time, I'd left New York, I now see, to escape the loss of all my loved ones who died of AIDS in the '80s and early '90s. I couldn't begin to assimilate that loss, let alone heal from it, but I had this idea that I wanted to write something elegiac, something large and oratorio-like, as some way of encompassing all of my experiences with those lost loved ones. So I just said, "To hell with this effort to write economical lyrics that will please this particular older poet." Inspired by Allen Ginsberg, I began to write poems with longer lines and more expansive forms. Poems like his beautiful, disturbing ode to his mother in Part IV of "Kaddish" gave me permission to write the litanies and list poems in that book.
Tony: In those "Cold River" poems I see a remarkable balance between the intensity of their subject and your mastery of technical control.
Joan: I appreciate that observation. And it's actually related to a few things I wanted to ask you. Many of your poems employ conscious strategies and techniques, technical triggers and forms. What is your relationship to form? Do forms afford you some distance with which to submit and rebel against certain rules and strictures?
Tony: I began writing poems when I was 16. Like most American teenagers in the second half of the twentieth century, I hadn’t read or even heard much verse beyond nursery rhymes and an occasional Emily Dickinson poem. Due to this ignorance, I had no models to work from. At the same time, I knew that lined poetry was an art and as with any art it required some sense of organization or shape. My context for understanding this was music. I was a classically trained pianist, which means I was continuously exploring certain genres and forms that would determine my approach to the music. Preludes, Bagatelles, Liebestraums, Sonatas, Improvisations -- I knew what these were, and they were my first points of reference for this thing called form. When I started to read poetry I naturally imitated who I read -- William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Rae Armantrout, you. These imitations, though awful, helped me build a vocabulary. In college, I was under the spell of my then 71-year old academic advisor who embraced the Fugitives and the Metaphysical poets. He urged me to write sonnets. And so I did, almost every day for years. I might have written three good ones, but again the routine and the discipline were useful. I spent a long time working with traditional forms and struggling to sound contemporary. I dropped end rhymes early on in the process but continued to clutch the iamb. Ironically, it was the iamb that eventually took hold of me -- and it wouldn't let go. When I was preparing the poems for "Radiant Losses," I said, "No more. I want to be released from it. I want a less predictable approach -- one that embraces a different kind of music." Michael Waters had been telling me about his use of syllabic forms (via John Logan) and I thought it was high time to try that. This is why I turned to the Fibonacci-based poems in "Radiant Losses." I loved writing them. They eschewed traditional rhythms in favor of something more spontaneous. And it was a form that up to that point had not been accorded a great deal of respect. I wanted to work with a structure where I wasn't pressured to produce anything serious. This syllabic pattern also accommodated just about any kind of subject matter. I don't necessarily think of myself as a formalist so much as a poet who exploits certain conceptual strategies to work through a range of aesthetic and thematic problems, but the self-imposed restrictions of syllabic verse helped me focus.
Joan: This is so simpatico because my first experience with anything related to art was also music. My father played the piano. My brother played the piano. We actually sang together, everything from Stephen Foster to Tom Lehrer to Mozart and Schubert. And later, the oratorio, the sonata -- learning about musical forms helped contribute to my own impulse towards a more formal poetry. I have that in common with you. Although I'm not a serious musician, I've sung a lot, including in a choir and in a chorus. That's been a very important element for me. In your work I see that not only music but visual art, particularly painting, is an important source. In Radiant Losses, there are striking visual threads -- a diptych of a woman, a description of marginalia in an illuminated manuscript, memorable images. I sense art in your background.
Tony: Yes, there is. It came to me a little later than music, in my early twenties, but proved to be equally important. Socially, I tend to feel more comfortable among artists than other writers.
Joan: Ah, then there is another connection between us. Long before my public coming out, I ventured into the big heterosexual experiment and got married and divorced, then married and divorced again. I did it twice, both times with lightning rapidity. But both of the men I married were painters, and I learned a tremendous amount from them about looking at paintings and ways of thinking about them. I will always be grateful to them for this. Also, I would say half of my friends are visual artists.
Tony: Your poems clearly have a strong visual reference point. And I see this becoming more prominent with each book. In "Apprentice," a wonderful poem about your father, you write about following your father into the cellar where he fed the furnace: "I was the one / who stood and watched while he loaded the shovel / and aimed black chunks at the fiery / mouth." The scene you paint there is so incredibly vivid to me.
Joan: I'm glad it moved you. I don't know how to evaluate my own poems and that's one of them I wasn't sure about.
Tony: Really? I loved where you wrote "the moment / I first tried lifting my father's / burden, taking on his work, climbing / down steep wooden steps / to feed the thing that was always there / in the dark with its mouth open." The idea that you take on your father's burden and continue to feed that which can never be sated is incredibly moving.
Joan: Thank you. My father died young, at 57. I'm a lot older now than he was then. I would give anything to have an hour with my father as an adult, because I was so often in a painful tug of war with him. He was a huge supporter of my wanting to read and write and to get more education, but he also had an acerbic tongue and put me down all the time. He'd worked from an early age and though he loved books he didn't get to go past high school. When that poem came to me I was able to get access to a different feeling about him than I had when I was much younger and resisting and rejecting him. What he valued was with me all along, underneath the element of strife. He always seemed powerful to me, and sort of magical. He was a maker. He made that fire roar in the basement. I suppose there's a metaphor there, too, though I wouldn't want to try explaining it –– the fire's insatiable hunger, whatever it is, is more than just the literal furnace.
Tony: I saw the furnace as a metaphor for that which continually consumes the life force. One feeds it to keep warm and alive. When you can no longer do this, you're dead.
Joan: Yes, and taking on my father's burden feels literally true to me. I can feel it in my body. He did take care of the family in a very traditional way. He had no patience with pretentiousness and demanded truthfulness out of everything. There was a powerful directness in his relationship to language and the physical world that continues to move me and pull me towards him.
Tony: In "The Offering" (new poems included in "My Body"), I see an increasing attention paid to your relationship to Jewish tradition and culture.
Joan: I see this, too. After the years it took to face and finally be released from some damaging experiences, I was ready to address that part of my growing up that was related to the Jewish tradition. My maternal Grandmother was Jewish but Judaism was more a domestic presence in the household than something connected to the synagogue. My father converted to Judaism, but only nominally. Despite some attraction to religion in the past, I have never been comfortable with religion or the notion of an anthropomorphic god who has any interest whether or not I find a parking space or a lover. But the richness of Yiddish culture really appeals to me: the odd, black humor, the food, the candle-lighting ritual, the poetry, the music –– the music! I've always felt the holiness of fire and still love to light candles at Chanukah. It's a part of me. And my rebellion against religion is a part of me, too.
Tony: And yet one of your central themes is the importance of bearing witness, of giving testimony. This is a central element of the Jewish faith.
Joan: It's also a central element of the 12-step tradition, which has been part of my life for more than three decades now.
Tony: I can see that. Your poem "Testimony" about a man at an AA meeting named Arnold is one of my favorites. The setting is specific but the language once again evokes themes central to Judaism: the name Arnold means "strong eagle" in Hebrew and this image evokes the prophet Maimonides, that "great eagle" (as he is called) who carries us on his shoulders and protects us from the vultures. Yet "Testimony" is not an exclusively Jewish poem. It seems to acknowledge several religious traditions (John, Mary, and Sybil all make an appearance) and be non-religious at the same time.
Joan: If you see all this, perhaps it's there -- though I wasn't conscious of anything specifically religious in those details when I was writing; the names were names of friends. But the unconscious comes into the writing process, and sometimes a reader will be more discerning about what drives a poem we've written than we ourselves are. My friend the painter Mimi Weisbord pointed out to me that "cleaned up the mess that the baby made" in an early poem ("Rhyme of My Inheritance") was a reference to abortion. I protested: I was writing about diapers! And then I saw that she was right.
Tony: You are not guilty of overproduction. In his blurb on the back of "My Body," Gerald Stern writes: "There are no tricks and no evasive moves, nothing that in ten years she will be ashamed of or confused by." I can't think of a higher compliment for a writer! And he is right. All of your poems, like those written by Elizabeth Bishop, seem essential to me. And like Bishop, you work on a poem thoroughly before letting it out into the world.
Joan: It's good for me to hear this because given the world we live in I feel a lot of pressure to produce quickly, to get something out. Many of my colleagues write a new book every other year.
Tony: Ah, I know that pressure. "What's your new book?" I don't think every poet needs to be constantly writing. The ideas need to germinate. I need time to agonize about what's coming next.
Joan: Agonize is the perfect word!
Tony: I often liken my creative process to constipation. Certain ideas and concepts will be stuck in my head for a long time and so I'll feel blocked up creatively. I have to walk around with that burden for a while before it loosens up and comes out. Once it does, it does so in a torrent. Then I have to make sense and shape out of what I've written. I've never felt like a fluid writer. I have to turn things over and obsess for a while.
Joan: This sounds very similar to my own process. Sometimes I feel like I've just been lucky and I don't understand why a particular poem has come together at that moment. And there's always a ton of crap to cut -- the strained language that's trying to be Poetry with a capital "P." It's a struggle.
Tony: One of the most significant struggles I've had over the years is allowing myself to address homoerotic images and themes in my poetry. When I was starting out, I was entirely unaware of a tradition of "Gay and Lesbian" poetry that would provide me with suitable models for doing this. For me, then, poetry was not an acceptable place to express such things. The few examples I knew didn’t sit well with me, and I realized even then that this said more about me than it did about the examples. Was "High Art" sexless? Time and experience helped me get over some of those hang-ups. As I get older, the work becomes much more explicit in ways I want it to be explicit. It's a challenge I'm willing to embrace now, but I do so hoping to avoid cliches and polemics.
Joan: Oh, yes. I love the more explicit homoerotic poems in "Radiant Losses." And in "Fake Book" your allusions to traditional American pop songs evoke a romantic fantasy that you celebrate and deride. You demonstrate the complications of growing up in a tradition of a certain kind of romantic expression and come at it through your own experience; there's a yearning towards that, and yet you make fun of it and reject it. In one of your poems, "Don't Explain," you say, "I sensed something lost and wanted it back." I feel that pull going through many of those poems -- a kind of love affair with and interrogation of a traditional heterosexual way of making the world.
Tony: Thanks for seeing that! I do love those traditional songs, but I can't fully love them unless I allow a space for myself in them. One way of achieving this is to deconstruct those lyrics and carve out queer contexts in them.
Joan: I also get a sense of magic from these poems. In "Darn that Dream" you write, "On stage, a man in gown of green crinoline pulls one turtle after another from his big black hat." I love that! I saw in that line both a reference to gender non-conformity (the man in the gown of green crinoline) and the magic of the act. So many things were happening for me when I was reading the collection, and many other erotic images from "Fake Book" have a similar sheen of something magical, illuminating. I also love the untitled prose poems in the last section of the book.
Tony: Thank you! Those poems made me a little nervous because they were written very close to the book's completion and I hadn't had a lot of time to sit with them and consider if they were effective.
Joan: Oh, I love how nakedly autobiographical some of them appear to be! Those poems are also a further iteration of the magic I was referring to earlier. In fact, the entire book's structure reminds me of an extended musical composition in three parts. In the second part of the book, "The Burning Door," you write homophonic translations of Georg Trakl's poems. Although you were translating for sound and not sense, those poems possess some of the stateliness and weightiness of Trakl's work.
Tony: Isn't that odd how that happens! Anytime I've tried a homophonic translation -- regardless of the poet or the language -- my "translation" has had some weird similarities with the original work. I chose Trakl because he was a German-language poet and if you translate a German text for sound you can get a very English-sounding line.
Joan: Whatever that process has triggered has enabled you to be very playful and serious at the same time. I found those poems incredibly fresh and surprising the whole way through.
Tony: I think part of that is because when you initially translate a line for sound you get a word salad, which you then have to make some sense from. In doing so, I only discover the poem's subject about mid-way through the process, and such serendipity can lead you into fresh areas. It was because of this process that I realized the title "Fake Book" didn't merely refer to a book of musical notation but was, in a sense, a collection of "fake" translations.
Joan: But I also saw the title as referring to the notion of not wanting to fake it. A lot of the poems from "American Songbook," for example, underline a kind of false innocence in popular songs, songs that present a formula that is unworkable as life. In spite of your irreverence, there's a feeling of truth telling that emerges from your critique of the songs and your critique of yourself. You're not easy on yourself in that book.
Tony: And I think that is yet one more thing we share in common. No one critiques Joan Larkin like Joan Larkin.
Joan: That's for sure! Who could be a harsher critic of my work than myself? I have a question for you -- and it's one I ask myself. Do queer poets have an obligation to spread an awareness of our experiences to the world? Do we need to make same-sex experiences explicit in our work?
Tony: Personally, if queer poets do have such an obligation, then I'm not always meeting my obligation. Some poets can "strap on" various political subjects whenever they wish. I'm not one of those people. I write what I write because I want to write it. Whether what I write is explicitly gay-referenced is not something I fret about. The real question is whether or not my writing about anything is convincing. As I said earlier, the homoerotic has come through a lot more explicitly in these last two books, but it took me a long time to get there. For years I suppose I was addressing same-sex desire on a more subtextual plane, through such means as ekphrasis and plant metaphors. I don't think, however, that the more explicit homoerotic element in the newer work emerges from a sense of obligation to an audience. Perhaps solipsistically, I feel I'm doing it for myself as a way of facing certain challenges in my life, rather than running from them. My real concern, then, is how to transform this personal quest into something memorable and rewarding?
Joan: What you're saying is very sympathetic. It often doesn't affect how I write but I can't help but be conscious of how certain words like "narrative," "autobiographical," and of course "confessional" have become pejorative words for a lot of people talking and writing about poetry now -- some are dismissive of the "I" that has always been the heart of lyric poetry. I don't want to be told what I should or shouldn't be writing. I want to resist the temptation to be trendy or to be political in only the most obvious, limited sense. Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, "If one woman were to tell the truth about her life, the world would split open." Well, telling the truth means going deep, exploring what's under the surface, letting whatever is real emerge –– and it's often disturbing. Whatever it happens to be I want to be loyal to it.
Tony: What a beautiful statement of your poetics, Joan: you want your poems to be loyal to truth. That is sound practice. By the way, I love Rukeyser. Don't you?
Joan: My God! She's one of the great voices!
Tony: Her work is so fierce, her range incredible. Whenever I read her I think, "Why isn't she appreciated more?"
Joan: I think the reason for that is obvious. It's totally about sexism. She was entirely omitted by male editors of important anthologies. Women with strong voices make easy targets. Amy Lowell was attacked as "fat" and "popular" and Edna Millay as "promiscuous." And feelings -- with which females are famously afflicted -- can be dismissed as sentimentality.
Tony: Hopefully this is changing. So many of our most prominent voices in contemporary literature are women. I hope we continue to embrace women writers in this way.
Joan: I hope so, too. But I want to ask about your debt to a male poet now, namely William Carlos Williams. I notice that you've introduced each section of "Fake Book" with quotations from him. Williams wanted poets to be striking out into new territories. I'm wondering what connections you feel towards Williams and at the same time if you are aware of carving out new poetic territory.
Tony: My relationship with Williams in "Fake Book" is direct and complicated. When I finished "Radiant Losses" I was determined to write a new book of poems in which each poem was definitely part of a larger concept, as opposed to being merely a gathering of individual pieces. I didn't have an exact direction yet, so I just bided my time and read a lot. One of the books I finally got to read was Williams's "Spring and All." Most readers of poetry are thoroughly familiar with the verse poems from that book, but few have actually read the prose sections that frame the poems. I did and was floored by his energetic, almost spastic prose style. Williams was clearly having a laugh while writing that book -- and yet he was also very seriously considering "big" themes, such as reality and its relationship to poetry and the imagination. I found the book so odd and refreshing I decided I wanted to try my hand at a mixed genre experiment, where some of my new poems would be in playful prose and others would be in verse. Concurrently, I was writing prose poems about American popular songs from the '20s and '30s. I fused the two projects together and often made sly allusions to "Spring and All" in the prose poems. A few of the poems, for example, began as syntactic translations of certain passages from his text, where I would write sentences based firmly on the grammar but not his words. Other times, I would throw in an obscure "Spring and All" reference -- like Dora Marsden, just for the hell of it. The result is a weird book that is, I hope, still palatable to a wide audience. Williams himself is one of the most accessible modernist poets, and he did a lot to crush the pompousness of Eliot and Pound. At the same time, he was a patriarchal poet who wanted to be taken seriously as a major poet in the tradition of great male/heterosexual writers. For all I know, his ghost is cringing from my embrace of him in "Fake Book." But embrace him is what I've done, and in doing so, I've made him my lover, sort of.
But enough about that. Before we stop today, I want to mention your new work in "Legs Tipped with Small Claws." There are strange, lovely poems in there about animal life and, I suspect, much more.
Joan: Part of what I'm doing in "Legs" is to free myself from my more literal side and cut away all of the explanation, the introduction and the summing up. I still want to be lucid, not obscure, but I'm trying to be less concerned about the reader than about faithfulness to the music -- and I want to surprise myself. It struck me, rereading the manuscript, how much anger there is underneath many of these poems. I could hear the continuity of anger in me and in my voice. I don't know if other people will hear it, but that's what I heard.
Tony: I sensed some of that. In "Weddell Seal," for example, the poems trace the life cycle of a being that begins by being nourished though it is used and discarded later on.
Joan: In writing "Weddell Seal" I was literally relating the animal's life cycle. The mother seal's abandonment of her cub after she has nourished it, and the devouring of dead animals by other animals, is just what happens -- harsh, perhaps, but the unsentimental truth. The portrait of the mother in another poem, "The Covenant," may seem especially harsh, but I hope that compassion for her comes through, too. Perhaps behind the seal poem is what I’m now experiencing, which is an attempt to understand my life and my body as an aging person. I wanted to express an almost-detached sense of realism about a life span, an awareness that I too am going to die and disintegrate, but also feel the incredible joy of being alive in this moment.