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Lerman- Interview


An Interview with Eleanor Lerman

-by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I usually don’t ask questions about people’s lives (or even about a poet’s larger of body of work) in these interviews.  I like to focus on the poems featured—how they work, how they came to be, etc, etc…


But you’ve led a very interesting life.  Do you mind explaining your history not only as a poet but in the many other professional capacities you’ve found yourself in?


Eleanor Lerman: I’m glad someone thinks my life was interesting: I think I mostly let it go awry too much of the time! But to try to be brief, when I was eighteen, in 1970, I moved to Greenwich Village because I had gotten a job managing a workshop that made harpsichord kits. (It was the quintessential hippie job: we sat in a warehouse all day hand-making harpsichord parts, getting high and listening to Richie Havens on the radio.) There was a blackboard that we were supposed to use to list what parts we needed to order: instead, I wrote poems on it. One day, the man who lived in a carriage house in a lane behind the workshop—who also, at the time, happened to be a Famous Hollywood Film Producer Hiding Out in New York, so of course, I just assumed he knew what he was talking about—walked through our workshop because we shared a mailbox, and he stopped in front of the blackboard to read something I’d written. He said it was pretty good and I should try to get it published.  Well, eventually, I took his advice and my first book, Armed Love, was published by Wesleyan University Press.  It was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review section and they said, “If a book of poetry deserved a rating, Ms. Lerman’s work would be a double X.”  Well, from that one line came my fifteen minutes of fame, which I was totally unprepared for.


I was about 21 by then—an angry, and, I’m told, sort of strange girl from the Bronx who was essentially parentless, uneducated and possessed of a lot of dark ideas—and who had no idea how a minor cultural icon was supposed to act, react or even breathe.  (The book, by the way, is hardly deserving of anything near an “X” rating—but it was 1973 and young women were not supposed to be writing about homosexuality, drugs, handsome vampires, etc. etc. Who knew, back then, that vampires would turn into an industry all by themselves?)


I did have another book of poetry published, but then I thought I was supposed to do something else—something bigger, like write a novel. I was pretty bad at that, but I was offered a chance to work with a friend doing some comedy writing, so that kept me busy for a while. I did also write some nonfiction but I didn’t get back to poetry for about twenty-five years. (Where does the time go?)  And I only started writing poetry again because Sarah Gorham, the publisher of Sarabande Books, wrote me a letter telling me that she had admired my work when I was younger (which kind of wised me up to the idea that ahem, I wasn’t young anymore) and thought that maybe I might want to publish again. It took a long walk late at night with my very surprised and weary dog to decide that yes, I could try writing poetry again.  And once I did, I couldn’t stop—it was like Sarah had broken a spell I was under and released something sleeping in me that had been waiting a long time to get its power back.


I have since written three books of poetry (my next, called The Sensual World Re-Emerges, will be published by Sarabande in 2010), a book of short stories called The Blonde on the Train and Other Stories that will be published by Mayapple Press in February 2009, and completed a novel based on the life of Carlos Castaneda—finally, I think I’ve figured out how to write long-form fiction!


AMK: What sorts of changes do you see in your poems as a result of all of this?  What has influenced these changes?


EL: When I was younger, I romanticized self-destruction and I thought there were odd, mysterious things going on in some other realm of reality that I couldn’t access, but wanted to. Now I’m fifty-six and I am amused by the idea that I could ever have seen self-destruction as romantic or admirable.  I have a happier life and so I want to cherish it, not throw it away and I think that’s reflected in my work.


However, I am more sure than ever that there are odd and mysterious things going on somewhere and I’d still like to figure out what they are and what they might mean.  So, I guess I’d sum up the focus of my work like this: I was a strange, angry kid; after that, I made a conscious decision to be relentlessly normal, but that got boring; now, I feel an edge of strangeness coming back but I feel better able to balance between those two extremes. 


Technically, my work has changed simply because I finally admitted to myself that it’s not cheating to do rewrites. I think I used to be under the impression that once I wrote a line, there was something unethical about changing it. Now I know better—though I still don’t rewrite a whole lot. Also, since I’ve been writing almost daily for about eight or nine years now, whatever mental muscles I use have just gotten stronger. It’s an interesting phenomenon that as I find myself succumbing to the disturbing memory-related things that happen as you get older—you can’t remember some movie star’s name or the word that means light blue—that never happens when I write. When I work—so far—everything seems as smooth and clear to me as a perfect sheet of glass.


AMK: Moving on to the poems featured here, I think that one thing I like in particular about “The Mystery of Meteors” is that much of it is made up of statements.  By statement, I mean a sentence that contains images and movement but is primarily concerned with the reflective nature of the speaker as she observes the world around her.


I mention this because, typically, statements seem to weaken a poem when used as often as they are here.  Good poems are usually more interested in the experience of the speaker than whatever thoughts he/she may have about those experiences—narratives of thought are typically less interesting than narratives of actual events, experiences, etc… But the reflective nature of the speaker here acts as the driving force behind the poem.  After all, there are no meteors to be seen, so what else is there but the internal mind of the person staring up at the overcast sky? 


What do you make of this reading?


EL:  That’s very perceptive because I made a conscious decision somewhere along the line to try not to just write about me, me, me—how I feel, what happened to me last Tuesday, etc. So while certainly, the person writing is me and the experiences being filtered through the poetic line are mine, I am trying to be something of a witness to the wider world and the inner one, as well—not just self-absorbed (though of course I’m self-absorbed; I just pretend not to be).


I do try to be a reflection of my work rather than its sole subject. Now, the truth is that once a writer finishes a piece of work, that story or poem or essay goes out into the world and whoever runs into it somewhere probably hears it say something different than the writer intended. But that’s just fine: when a writer is writing, he or she feels something specific about their work because the writer is a unique bundle of good and bad experiences; every reader is/has their own unique bundle so nobody can relate to a piece of writing (or a painting or a dance or a movie or a song, and so forth) in exactly the same way.  But, as I said, that’s just fine. That’s as it should be.


“The Mystery of Meteors” is one of the few poems I’ve written that is based on a direct and specific experience, but even so, I tried to turn it into something moving outward—away from just me, personally—instead of just complaining about how overwhelmed I felt at that particular moment.


AMK: It’s interesting to look at how this poem proceeds almost as an exchange or negotiation between imagination and statement. 


For example, there’s that wonderfully imaginative moment at the end of the first stanza: “Leonid’s brimstones are barred by clouds; I cannot read / the signs in heaven, I cannot see night rendered into fire,” which then moves the speaker to another imaginative moment in the first line of the following stanza, “And yet I do believe a net of glitter is above me,” which then leads to a straight-forward statement about the self in the lines that follow, “You would not think I still knew these things / I get on the train, I buy the food, I sweep…”


The rest of the poem can be read this way as well, and I’m wondering if this is a sort of form or structure that, much like a more classic form, determines the basic movement of the poem, line by line/stanza by stanza… is form something you consciously thought about as you put the poem together, or is it an aspect of style?  An element of voice rather than structure?  Is there a difference? 


EL: I wish I could plan things out that carefully! The truth is that mostly, with words, I’m trying to create images and with the succession of lines, I’m trying to create a rhythm that I don’t think I could explain but I can hear somewhere inside myself. I once read a thesis about my work in which the student analyzed my use—or non-use—of periods at the end of lines and never had the heart to tell that person it was my editor who usually put in the periods; I tend to leave them out but there’s no real reason for that, only a feeling that some lines just shouldn’t have a definite ending. But I obviously don’t feel strongly enough about that to object when editors do add periods. 


My only real structural focus with every poem is on the last line: the whole poem has to be driving towards the end, and sometimes the end should veer off in a completely unexpected direction. I have had that concept burned into my mind for more than four decades, since I read a poem by Leonard Cohen in which the last two lines, actually, seemed to go someplace completely unexpected, and to me, that was masterful.  I’m lucky if I ever come close to achieving anything like this, from the poem “Travel”:


Now I know why many men have stopped and wept
Halfway between the loves they leave and seek,
And wondered if travel leads them anywhere --
         keep the soft line of your cheek,
The windy sky's
         a locket for your hair.


I consider myself lucky in that I never took any formal writing classes and never heard anyone discuss poetry as an art or practice or anything else. (I mean that just for me, specifically. I would never have listened to anyone try to teach me much of anything, so it would have been counterproductive.) So I have no guidelines other than studying the work of people whose work speaks to me. Leonard Cohen, James Tate and Richard Brautigan I read over and over and over again. Nothing is wasted in the structure of their poems, nothing is arbitrary and every word is perfect in its relationship to every other word. At the same time, they all take enormous chances—Tate, in particular, can sometimes seem to be just throwing words up into the air to see where they land in relationship to each other—but the result, while leaving you breathless (since you’re not always sure where they’re going) is often magnificent.


So, it’s hard for me to answer questions about structure and technique though I know I am employing those concepts or tools or whatever is the right way to describe them—I’m just doing it on a visceral level that I don’t think I’d ever be equipped to parse out.


AMK: One of the things about writing poetry that drives me crazy is simplicity…it seems fairly simple to write a simple poem and, yet, this is rarely the case—think of Michael Jordan dunking a basketball or Roger Federer panging an ace down the line. 


But, then again, there are those poems that do come to the writer fairly easily and that are fairly simple to read while maintaining a high level of interest, insight, and beauty.  I feel that both “The Mystery of Meteors” and “The Magellanic Clouds” are such poems.  And I love to read them.  But I’m very suspicious of this sort of thing when it happens to me as a writer.  I find myself wondering Is this a simple poem or is it just boring?  Have I achieved something worth reading or is it simply easy to follow?  And on and on and on.


What do you make of this? 


EL: Here (below) is Richard Brautigan being both simple and perfect. It would be interesting to be able to ask him if he struggled over this extraordinary poem or just tossed it off one day. As for me, I usually think that a lot of what I write is too cute or too maudlin or just plain silly. But what do I know? A poem I wrote called “Starfish,” which I now think of as incredibly sticky and sweet, has turned into something like the Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun”—it apparently gets read at weddings, funerals, graduations, sweet sixteen parties and once, I understand, was chanted at Burning Man. Garrison Keillor read it on the radio. So writers are probably the worst judges of the quality of their own work.  The best thing to do is just to enjoy writing while you’re doing it and then not worry too much about whether it was good, bad, or just plain boring.


"The Sister Cities of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hiroshima, Japan"

By Richard Brautigan

It was snowing hard when we drove
Los Alamos. There was a clinical feeling
to the town as if every man, woman and child
were a doctor. We shopped at the Safeway
and got a bag of groceries. A toddler
looked like a brain surgeon. He carefully
watched us shop at the exact place where he would
     make his first incision.


AMK: Do you agree that “The Mystery of Meteors is a “simple” poem, at least when it comes to the reading of it?


EL:  What I can tell you about that poem is that it’s the first poem I wrote after that now much-discussed twenty-five years of not writing poetry. And it’s sort of a report on how I made the decision to start working as a poet again. There really was a small, grim park (bare trees, ruined benches—that sort of thing) across the street from where I lived and I really did march my weary little dog around its paths for what seemed like hours, deciding what I should do. For a lot of complicated reasons, I knew that if I went back to writing it meant breaking up my family, moving from where I lived to someplace else—all kinds of enormous changes.


And yes, indeed, there was a meteor shower that night and I was trying to see it as symbolic but it wasn’t, it was just a meteor shower that nature had scheduled that night, just as nature schedules this meteor shower on this same night, or thereabouts, every year.  So I put all those elements together and decided that even though my wandering through the park was not in itself transformative, I was going to turn it into a transformative experience by writing about it.  And so that’s what it became.  So boil all that big stuff down and what you get is a fairly simple poetic narrative about a walk through a “meager park” and a meteor shower. If you think of it that way, sure, it’s very easy to read and it’s not much of a story. But of course, my whole life is also lurking in there somewhere, deciding which way it wants to go. All the dog wanted was to go home, so that night, we did. But all the following nights, we went elsewhere—poetry took me elsewhere, and the dog had to come, too.


AMK:  Do you mind discussing your use of punctuation in this poem?  At times we have line breaks rather than periods or commas.  At others, we have periods, commas, long-dashes, etc…


EL: I don’t have any strong feelings about punctuation one way or another. However, I apparently write very long and complicated sentences when I write fiction and editors are always slashing away at these unruly constructions—and more power to them if they can wrestle my work into submission. So, I guess the best answer I can give you is that again, somewhere inside myself something just feels right—a comma, a semi-colon, a period, no period, or whatever else.  Perhaps I just have too much to say all at once.


AMK: Exploring the book fair at last year’s AWP conference with a colleague, we were flipping through books at the Sarabande table, stopping to read the first lines of poems we thought were worth sharing with one another, when a young man approached us and asked if we’d read your new book.  We said we hadn’t, and he flipped it open to “The Magellanic Clouds.” 


I’ll never forget the brief conversation about the poem’s use of imagination, humor, images, and so on and so forth.  But what sticks out most was the last thing he said, “It’s touching.”  I think he really hit the nail on the head.  “The Magellanic Clouds” is one of those rare poems that reminds us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves and yet does so without getting preachy or using elevated language. 


Without asking you to give too much away, I’m wondering if this is a poem about God. Or faith itself?  That need to believe that something kind and powerful is out there looking out for us?


EL:  My brother has suggested to me—and I think he’s correct—that what I do is take a whole bunch of unrelated things that no one else would ever allow in the same room and throw a party for them to see if they’ll all dance together. That’s what this poem is: it involves the fact that I still own and often look at a book I was given when I was a little girl called “The Golden Book of Astronomy,” from which I derived a life-long love of stargazing; thoughts about my uncle, a strange, troubled and sad man whose great love was teaching (he was a physics professor in a poor college in New Jersey) and whose ideas about alternate universes and other dimensions I also remember hearing in my childhood; the fact that I just accidentally happened to see the phrase “the Large Magellanic Cloud” in a newspaper story about science; the fact that I seem to drag the Soviet Union and Jews into half the things I write (I am Jewish, my grandparents fled Russia long ago so it’s a complicated love/hate relationship that I think about a lot); the fact that I sometimes can’t stop myself from being funny even when I shouldn’t be; and the fact that I hope something, somewhere, does love us. Loves us desperately, kindly, with a forgiving heart.  I have faith that it does.


AMK: Do you mind discussing how this poem came together over time?  I can imagine sitting around thinking to myself, Man, I should write a poem about the Magellanic Clouds, but I can’t imagine actually accomplishing what you’ve accomplished here.  How’d it happen?


EL: psychic Edgar Cayce used to lay down on a couch, close his eyes, put his hands on his stomach and somehow—supposedly—make contact with the universe.  He’d do readings for people and tell them all sorts of things: what ailed them (and where to find just the right remedy to fix whatever was wrong); who they had been in a past life; what was going to happen to them next—all kinds of things.


I know I’m stretching that image quite a bit, but I sort of do something like that in a very, very small way. I kind of just open some door in my mind and say okay, whatever’s waiting out there, come on in now.  And what’s waiting out there are words, images, phrases, stories, bits and pieces of things that have been interesting to me that day or that week.  Sometimes memories pop up, sometimes just a few words—like “Magellanic Clouds.”  Sometimes an answer on Jeopardy reminds me of something—really, there’s no rhyme or reason to any of this. 


But it all goes back to that walk in the park with the dog: once I decided to write poetry again, some barrier in my mind just fell down and the world poured in. It just keeps coming and coming. All I do is try to control the flow; sometimes I have to think about the grocery list or the train schedule. But other than that, my mind just wanders and brings back all sorts of things. As I noted, the “things” are often unconnected; the fun is in figuring out how to put them together.


AMK: One of my favorite aspects of this poem is its range.  I mean, it doesn’t just describe a bunch of dust out there in the universe.  Magellan makes an appearance.  You directly quote a scientific paper.  Stars are born and comets fly past.  The Russians.  Nixon.  And of course there’s that voice making jokes about his/her failed love life and exclaiming “there is hope!”


Is this range something you consciously think about in your poems; an element you use to keep a reader interested, expanding and transforming the poem into something larger?


Or is this a poet having some fun?  Can it be both?


EL: It’s everything you’ve described, it’s all of it. But mostly, I’m amusing myself. In the end, isn’t that what all writers do? You try to please yourself; you’re working out your neuroses, getting even with your enemies, yelling at your grandparents, complaining about your love life, wondering if there’s a God, wondering if you have any talent, if there’s any chocolate in the cupboard and somehow, that all goes into the blender in your mind and comes out as poetry or stories.  Unless you’re John Grisham or someone like that, most writers—and poets especially—have to face the fact that they may never get published. Nobody may ever read what you write.  (I am still amazed that people read my books. Really.)


So, you have to absolutely love and be driven to write. It’s like an endurance race: the ones who are still at it can’t quit because they can’t live without what they’re doing.  For me, personally, writing also—always—involves telling a story. I have always loved stories, any kind of story. I love to hear people tell me stories. I love to watch stories on television. I wouldn’t mind if people stopped me in the street to tell me stories. So if no one’s around to tell me a story, I tell myself one and presto chango: the story becomes a poem.


AMK: What is it about space that so fascinates you?


EL: I want to know what’s out there, in the dark. There must be something, or somebody—or lots of somebodies.


When I was a child, I heard the sound that the satellite Sputnik was emitting (I remember a kind of soft beep) on a short-wave radio that someone in the neighborhood had rigged up. And I remember feeling sad—not scared, as Americans supposedly were, that the Russians were beating us in the space race.


What was I sad about? That poor little satellite (I was at an age when I imbued all kinds of inanimate objects with human qualities) wandering through the stars all by itself, destined to crash and die. Maybe I equated it with Bambi or something like that. Anyway, now, when I look at the sky at night I am sure something is looking back at me and waving hello. Maybe it’s just Sputnik’s spirit (which would also help explain all the Russians in my poetry—what accounts for Nixon popping up now and then is another story).  But I also remember my uncle explaining that television and radio signals drift through space forever (which turns out not to be totally true, but I’ll go on believing his version) so I’d like to find out where they end up. And if whoever is watching I Love Lucy on some distant planet likes the episode where she and Ethel work on the assembly line in the candy factory. That’s my favorite.


AMK: Thank you.