Poet Thomas Lux was born in Northampton, Massachusetts (1946). His books of poetry include Memory’s Handgrenade (1972), The Blind Swimmer: Selected Early Poems 1970–1975 (1996), God Particles (2008), Child Made of Sand (2012), and most recently, To the Left of Time (2016). His many awards and honors include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Robert Creeley Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and three NEA fellowships. Poet Billy Collins describes Lux as “one of the few poets writing today who fills me with envy.” Lux currently lives in Atlanta.
You grew up on a farm in New England and you’ve often said you had a “normal” childhood. Do you wish your childhood had been more exotic?
Do I wish my childhood were more exotic? Hell, no. For me, haylofts were exotic. Ditto cornfields; the small mountain below which we lived looked like the Himalayas to me. The smell of new-mown hay is still the highest of olfactory pleasures for me. We had a brook running through our property. Near the brook, in a few places, were artesian wells (pipes poking from the ground) with the coldest and clearest water on the planet bubbling up and out. I had a horse at eight; I was very small but could ride really well — my father and uncle were thinking I’d make a good jockey until I hit a teenage growth spurt. I know the 1950s were considered the Golden Age by many people, but it wasn’t until later that I learned they weren’t for many people — not for African-Americans, or Hispanics, or gay people, or just about anybody in a minority group.
Your father was a milkman. He worked 17 years in a row, 355 days a year — he never missed a day. Did he inspire a strong work ethic in you?
Yes, my father spent most of his working life as a milkman. For a few years after he stopped peddling milk, he worked in a metal shop (the winters had gotten too hard for outdoor work). I know the approximate number of miles that were on his milk route around our small town, and I estimate he drove that truck half a million miles. And yes, at one stretch he shaped up every single day for 17 years, until my cousin Jackie and I were old enough to drive and took over for a week. My mother worked, too, mostly as a Sears and Roebuck telephone operator. And, sure, my parents had an influence on developing my own work ethic. Nothing dramatic or glamorous, of course, just dogged: show up at the desk (or the classroom) and go to work. I still get kind of hyper in class; I can’t wait to talk about this or that poem. I take it very seriously, but it’s fun. If there isn’t laughter in the classroom sometimes, something’s wrong.
While we’re on the topic of work ethic, can you speak about your process? How many drafts does a typical poem of yours go through before you consider it complete?
I don’t think I’ve ever written anything in fewer than 15 drafts, and many more are common. I also have to bring them along gradually, in weeks or months. I have to work hard to make them seem like they were easy to write. I love the process, the focus, the possibility of discovery.
Your latest book, To the Left of Time, came out this year. “My Father Whistled,” from that collection, was recently read on TWA. Can you speak about that poem? About this new collection in general?
“My Father Whistled” is a kind of love poem to my father, a poem of praise and gratitude. He was a good man. But he was bad at fixing things. So am I. He had this little anxiety-whistle when he did have to try to fix something. But he could put snow chains on the milk truck in minus 10 degrees and would drive through snowdrifts all day to get the milk where it had to go. I’m worried that the poem is a little sentimental, and I am wary of autobiographical poems in general. There’s something about relentless me, me, me that I find kind of creepy. Some of the poems in the To the Left of Time are autobiographical, some are semiautobiographical, and some are presented as autobiographical but are completely invented, and some are clearly all invention. They’re all trying to tell the truth.
Emily Dickinson said: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” How do you know what poetry is?
I love that Emily Dickinson quote. I had almost forgotten the first of the two sentences. Thank you for reminding me. I just quoted the line about “the top of my head taken off” in the introduction to a book I edited (out early 2017, FSG), called I Am Flying into Myself: The Selected Poems of Bill Knott. Knott died in 2014 at age 74. Knott was eccentric, reclusive, sometimes rude, generous, and, I believe, a bleeping genius. I chose about 150 poems out of nearly 1,000 for the book. Tiger Bark Press is publishing simultaneously a book of essays called Knowing Knott. He was my (sometimes difficult and exasperating) friend. I loved him and his poems, and I can’t wait to hold that book in my hands!
I know a real poem when I get the workaday goose bumps. But sometimes, sometimes, it’s like an electric eel speeding up my spine. Also, when the poem says: Read me again; or: I’m human and alive, read me out loud!
Robert Frost was probably the first poet I read. A little later, Emily Dickinson. I learned in adulthood we share the same birthday. As the bird flies, we were born only about a dozen miles from each other. Among the few things I remember about high school English classes have to do with poetry: a teacher explaining onomatopoeia by saying “puuuuuuke,” Frost’s “Birches” (swinging from which my pals and I did before I knew anyone wrote a poem about it), “Evangeline,” Milton’s sonnet on going blind, “Ozymandias.” We were assigned to write a poem in, I think, eighth grade. I wrote, with my mother’s help, an ABAB quatrain. I think I got a B. It wasn’t until late in high school that I tried to write poems. I drove to a bigger town a few towns over to go to the only bookstore I knew. I bought of copy of the New Directions edition of Pound’s Selected Poems. I remember it sliding half out of the bag on the seat next to me as I drove home.
You’ve mentioned that your parents had a hard time understanding what poetry is. I think a lot of us (myself included) who are first in their families to go to college can relate to having relatives baffled by Poetry, capital “P.” Where is the practicality in it? My grandparents would have told me to go outside “and do something useful with my hands” rather than read poems. And yet, my grandparents naturally told stories using vivid imagery, paying attention to cadence, rhythm — they were poetic speakers without realizing it. Why does poetry have such a reputation for being aloof and contrary to ordinary people’s interests?
My parents, like most of the parents of my generation, grew up during the Depression and, right on its heels, WWII. I mentioned once in print that my parents didn’t finish high school. When they read that, they were hurt, embarrassed. I was meaning to praise them, their sacrifice — they had to leave school to work, to help support their families. What parent ever understood why a child might want to spend his or her life trying to write poems? It’s nuts! My parents never said much about my poems, but they kept my books on the coffee table (at least when I visited), and I heard my mother once took a book of mine to show her hairdresser! As a child, I did a lot of the usual stuff, too: sports, tromping the woods (often with a shotgun), riding horses and shoveling their donuts, dating girls, hanging out with pals, etc.
The question regarding poetry being aloof, or obscure, or “difficult” is a vexing one. I’ve squawked about this many times: I believe much obscure and difficult poetry is not obscure or difficult but merely, or mostly, arbitrary. The arbitrariness of brilliant minds, sometimes, but arbitrary. Or else, so hermetic it might as well be arbitrary. That said, the issue exhausts me; what once seemed burning is now tedious. There are all kinds of poetry, and there is room for all kinds. Still, the avant-garde is the only thing that never changes. (And still, deliberately obscure poetry is, well, rude.) Let the reader decide.
Why is there not a poetry section in airport bookstores?
That’s a great idea regarding a poetry section in bookstores at airports! Maybe a special rack, cheap enough, uniform editions. Sounds like it would be a good project for the NEA or the Poetry Foundation. Maybe a publishing house?
You started teaching creative writing workshops right out of college and have been teaching all these years since. Do you feel you’ve grown up in some ways alongside your students? Were you a different teacher, for example, in those early years at Emerson College than you were at Sarah Lawrence and you are now at Georgia Tech?
Teaching has been very important to me. I wanted to be a high school English teacher. Turns out, I became a college English teacher. I believe teaching is an honorable profession, and I think public school teaching is the most honorable. I did start teaching very early. I told my students this semester that I had been in college for 50 straight years, and that I recommend it! Actually, during the fall of 1970, just after I graduated from college, I worked as an apple picker, pot washer (there is a distinction: pot washing is a notch below dish washing in the kitchen hierarchy), and night watchman. Then I taught for a semester. During my one year of graduate school, I didn’t teach but was the managing editor of a literary magazine. For many years, I was marginally or part-time employed. I don’t have any advanced degrees. I often had two or three teaching jobs at a time (for example: Sarah Lawrence, Warren Wilson’s low-residency program, and the 92nd St. Y). I think, I hope, I got better and better as a teacher. As a faculty member in the Warren Wilson MFA program for 25 or so years, I learned a great deal from some of the best teachers of poetry of my generation (we team-taught workshops and attended each other’s talks and literature classes): Ellen Bryant Voigt, Michael Ryan, Louise Glück, Stephen Dobyns, Heather McHugh, Brooks Haxton, Marianne Boruch, etc. I’m just mentioning some of the oldsters!
Sarah Lawrence/Georgia Tech is not really much of an anomaly. Inside the classroom or one-on-one, the students are pretty much the same. I’ve been telling my students lately that the only thing my generation did better than their generation (or their parents’ generation) is rock and roll. Oh, and we did help stop an illegal and immoral war. I feel incredibly grateful to have and have had the teaching life I do.
You teach a workshop at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival called “Word by Word, Line by Line,” where special attention is made to the sound — the “noise” of a poem, where every detail is scrutinized. Can you tell us more about this?
Word by word is the only way I know how to talk about poetry in a class or when I’m talking to myself while trying to write. The point is to pay close attention to every word, syllable, the sounds thereof, the sounds in relation to other nearby sounds, etc. This kind of attention is not meant to be pedantic, rigidly correct, fussbudget, or nitpicky. One focuses in the hope of making some kind of discovery, to figure something out about the subject that you didn’t know or didn’t think of before. The purpose is to make something happen. I think Paul Celan said something like “real attention, intense focus, is a kind of secular prayer.” I call it work.
Your work is often heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time — ironic and sweet simultaneously. Do you crack yourself up while you’re writing? Has one of your own poems ever made you cry?
I never (I hope) laugh at my own humor. I was taught that is impolite. Most of my humor would fall under the heading of satire. A small percentage of it would fit in nicely with the Three Stooges, e.g., Moe running a cheese grater across Curley’s face. I do seem to combine “the heartbreaking and hilarious” in many poems. It’s not terribly conscious. Maybe it’s a survival instinct. There is, I believe, a saying that goes: “There’s nothing so serious as a joke.” I don’t think I’ve ever cried reading one of my own poems. It’s been implicit since childhood that that’s improper — it could seem like self-pity.
If you hadn’t become a poet and teacher, what do you think you might have done?
Not sure what I would have done if I didn’t teach or write. Probably make things, I don’t know what, but by hand.
Interview by Joy Biles