O:JA&L Featured Writer:
INTERVIEW WITH TERRY LUCAS
O:JA&L: How did you come to write poetry?
TL: In the poem, “In Memory of William Butler Yeats,” W. H. Auden wrote “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” What hurt me into poetry was a painful childhood. I was born into a family steeped in right wing religious fundamentalism—a fear- based belief system that governed my entire existence. The arts of any kind were, at best, tolerated, and then only if they were in the service of my parents’ religion. Otherwise, they were considered “of the Devil.”
I didn’t write poetry as a child. One time I filled a spiral pocket notebook with drawings and captions. My mother gave me a lecture about wasting paper—“Do you know how hard your father had to work to earn the money to buy that notebook?”—and then tore up all the pages and threw them away.
I hated English in school, particularly the study of poetry. Perhaps if I had known that there were living poets (other than Robert Frost), I might have turned to them earlier. But, so much time was spent on ancient and medieval figures and movements that usually only in the final class session, if then, was any mention made of writers or artists in the 20th century.
At eight years of age, I had a deep sense of a calling to something bigger than myself, but it was framed in the provincialism of a Southern Baptist church in a small town in southern Illinois, which means I was told that God was calling me to preach. And so at by age eleven, I was standing behind a pulpit on an orange crate, delivering sermons in church.
It wasn’t until I attended a required poetry reading at New Mexico State University, at age 20, where I heard William Stafford, the opportunity occurred for an elevated language that was not doctrinaire or prescriptive in nature to intersect with my pain.
I began to devour poetry. I read everything that Stafford had written, and then moved on to the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, the New York School poets, the San Francisco Renaissance poets—everyone in Naked Poetry, The New American Poetry, Contemporary American Poetry, and other anthologies. I also read some international poets such as Rilke, Baudelaire, Lorca, and others.
Even though poetry was changing me on the inside, I didn’t change my career path. Instead, I graduated with a major in philosophy and went on to seminary where I earned a master’s in religious education, and afterward became a minister of education at a rural southern Baptist church in west Texas. After three weeks, I knew I had made a mistake—not only about that church, but also about a career in the ministry. I wrote to Keith Wilson, my former poetry professor who had introduced me to Stafford. We developed a correspondence that lasted the rest of his life. He guided me in who to read—poets like Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Philip Levine, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, and others—without whom I would have never made it through the next three years, after which I left the ministry.
It wasn’t for decades after that experience, having worked as a retail executive, that I began writing on a regular basis. In 1998, I hit a wall in my personal life—divorced, working 100 hours per week, traveling on the road 200-250 nights a year, feeling trapped in a mind-numbing, soul-deadening job. I was driving through the Willamette Valley and started reciting aloud a poem Stafford had read that spring night in 1970, “Near.” It begins, “Talking along in this not quite prose way, / we both know it is not quite prose we speak. / And it is time to notice the intolerable snow / innumerably touching before we sink.” I had been trudging through the intolerable snow, trying to keep from sinking for decades. I began crying as I continued reciting the poem aloud, drifting through the hairpin turns as I started up a mountain pass. The final stanza ends on an admonishment: “Maybe there are trumpets in the houses we pass / and a red bird watching from an evergreen. / But nothing will happen till we pause to flame / what we know before any signal’s given.”
I felt those final lines calling me the way nothing else ever had. I vowed right then to get up the next morning at 3:00 a.m. and write the way Stafford did every morning. That was 18 years ago, and I haven’t missed many mornings since.
O:JA&L: Why poetry? What is it about poetry that calls to you in a way other genres do not?—or perhaps they do…
TL: I am a poet first and foremost. I do write reviews, articles, and essays. And last year, I wrote my first draft of a memoir that I will pick up again later this year and begin the editing process. However, poetry is my first love because it cuts to the core of language. More than that, it is, what Lewis Turco has called, “The art of language.” Fiction is the art of storytelling. Playwriting is the art of dramatic dialogue (even if only with oneself). Only in poetry is the fore-fronting of language the main goal. Language comes first. Novelists begin with an idea and then write a story around that idea. Memoirists already have their story, and write in order to discover its meaning. Poets come to a blank page—perhaps with a story to begin with, perhaps not. Either way, they search for a language and try to listen to what it wants to tell them. In other words, they write to discover themselves, instead of writing to express themselves. I have an article about that subject in South 85 Journal: http://south85journal.com/2015/04/why-i-write-discovery-vs-self-expression/
It’s important for readers of poetry not to confuse the reality of a poem with the reality of something happening in the objective universe. I love what Dorianne Laux says about that. In her workshops, when someone suggests a change of an image or an action, and if the poet says “But that’s not the way it happened…” Dorianne says, “We love you, but we really don’t care!”—meaning, it’s the poem that’s important, not how you experienced something or how you remember it. That’s why I write poetry. In a poem, anything can happen, as long as rings true emotionally, and makes the poem better. In other genres, there is not as much freedom. Poetry is driven by imagination and play. Poetry remakes the world in the image of language, and pushes the boundaries of language in the process.
O:JA&L: You’ve mentioned some poets that have influenced you—the poets of your youth—Creeley, Snyder, Levine, Bly, Levertov—and now Dorianne Laux. What other poets have influenced your work the most?
TL: The poets whose work I keep close to me are all living poets still writing: Gerald Stern, Michael Waters, Alicia Ostriker, Stephen Dunn, Philip Levine, Spencer Reece, Adelia Prado, Li-Young Lee, Suzanne Buffam—the list is quite long, and includes many of the poets listed in the acknowledgments following my poems in this issue, for the lines borrowed for my cento, “The Thing Itself.” These are poets I turn to when I bump up against that blank page and nothing comes. What draws me to them is their sense of the line as the basic unit of expression in poetry, and the music of that line, their sharp images, their wit and humor, and their interest in the human condition—the big questions: death, love, meaning. I’m looking at many of their books on my desk right now, and they are never far away from me.
As far as the biggest influence that changed my writing, it would have to be Larry Levis. Levis was Philip Levine’s student at Fresno State in the ’60s, and according to Levine, the best poet to ever come through his classes. I encountered his work in my MFA program in 2006, under the guidance of Michael Waters. The longer line that Levis developed by the time he was writing his later books, along with his circular narrative and imagistic arcs, appealed to my sensibilities, and comes out in many of my poems. No one can write like he did, beginning with an image and taking it all around the world, and then right back to the center again, letting it gain strength from the story it told, and then taking it back out in an even wider circle—again and again. It reminds me of the way the author of the gospel of John in the New Testament wrote—thematically in those ever-widening circles of influence. Also in the book of Revelation with ever-increasing plagues in a series of seven. I asked Philip Levine where Levis got that and he said, “Certainly not from the New Testament. I don’t know.” That one feature of Levis’s work has fascinated me and continues to influence my work to this day.
The Writing Process
O:JA&L: What else can you share about your actual writing process? Where do you get your ideas for poems? Do they always come to you the same way?
TL: For me, a poem will begin in one of several ways. Sometimes I remember an experience that seems to have the possibility of an interesting vocabulary. I’ve worked retail most of my life—men’s apparel and shoes—and there is an interesting language that surrounds that field. Names of fabrics and cuts of clothing that are evocative: serge, gabardine, birds-eye, Balmoral, Algonquin, etc.
Also, I have access to my father’s vocabulary of “the road,” from his hopping a freight train at age nine and living with hobos, as well as from the trucking industry, where he worked for forty years as a long-haul driver. And then there’s my vocabulary from the fields of theology and philosophy.
When I think of something that happened in my childhood, I try to imagine an event that can include some of that unique diction. “Addicted” (http://www.primenumbermagazine.com/Issue3_PrimeDecimals3.html#anchor_214) is such a poem with words like diesel, Stanley thermos, Freightliner cab-over, and 250 Cummins [engine]. Or take “Black Friday” (https://citronreview.com/2012/09/14/black-friday/)—itself an interesting phrase—with words like Allen-Edmond wing-tips, worsted wool, triple-pleated trouser, and double-bonus dollars.
Other times I might borrow a line from another poet and then riff on it, taking it in a completely different direction from the original poem. That’s true with “Addicted,” as well. The first line is from a Gerald Stern poem, “Winter Thirst” that begins “I grew up with bituminous in my mouth,” that I changed to “I grew up with diesel in my mouth.” And then I took a right turn and made the poem about riding in my father’s 18-wheeler as a child. Sometimes I will write a poem as an answer to another poem, as if the first poem were calling to me.
O:JA&L: Do poems ever come to you complete, without need for revision?
TL: Almost never. It’s a gift when it happens. Usually I spend a lot of time revising and end up with several drafts over an extended period of time. “To the Fog,” the final poem in Dharma Rain, came to me in its almost completed form while I was walking one morning. That is quite rare for me. I usually spend several months, even years sometimes, before I accept the fact that the poem is as good as I can make it. And that process always involves getting feedback from a few poets whose opinions I value.
TL: Yes. The longest amount of time between a first draft and the poem’s final version (and consequent publication), was over 40 years. I wrote the first draft of “Shiprock” in a college class in 1970, and it wasn’t completed until a few years ago in a form that Lisa Hase-Jackson accepted for her online journal 200 New Mexico Poems. I just sent off a poem I wrote in 2006 that I’ve been tinkering with for more than 10 years. The new political climate provided a fresh context for the poem, and I changed some of the images to accommodate it, hopefully making it both more current, and more universal.
O:JA&L: What’s the poem about?
TL: It anthropomorphizes parrots, pointing out specific flaws in inauthentic humans by placing them in situations that would make sense for parrots. For example, “[Parrots are] such hypocrites— / hate pirates, desert islands, treasure chests! With reverence / for tradition, show up for the photo shoots, do fly-bys / as long as its for scale—times ten.” I got to thinking how politicians parrot what other people say for political or financial gain, and I added some issues that are timely—climate change and misogyny, for example: “Parrots don’t believe in climate change, put their faith in tropical / nights, perched on bar stools lapping cocktails to forget their day jobs, / pink umbrellas hanging from their beaks, while wives sit at home / on the eggs.”
O:JA&L: You’ve published two full-length collections of poetry within a year. How did that happen?
TL: It took me seven years to get my first full-length collection, In This Room, published. It only took seven weeks to get my second, Dharma Rain, accepted for publication. I think it was in one of Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing that I first encountered the idea that to write is to re-write. It has never more applied than to my MFA manuscript. I thought I’d get it published in the year or two following my graduation. As time went on, I realized that I wasn’t being tough enough on my own work. So, I kept taking out poems that didn’t seem to fit the manuscript as well as the new ones I was writing.
After In This Room was accepted, I had another 70-80 poems that seemed fairly strong. I laid them out on the floor of my study, and realized that some of them connected in ways I hadn’t realized. But, they lacked something in the middle. I had just reviewed Rebecca Foust’s wonderful book, Paradise Drive, a collection of sonnets that tells, in the words of editor Tom Lombardo, one woman’s story of her “pilgrimage from the roots of debt and despair in a small manufacturing town [Altoona, Pennsylvania] to wealth and despair in one of the most precious pieces of real estate in the United States [Marin County, California].” I was impressed with the aptness of the sonnet form to the book’s narrative arc. And so I wrote a series of sonnets about the fundamentalism I had grown up with that propelled me into the ministry, and away from my true calling as a writer. I had already put a lot of effort into most of the poems in this second manuscript. When Ron Starbuck from Saint Julian Press read it, he wanted to publish it right away. I had to talk him into waiting until the end of 2016, so I wouldn’t have two books coming out early in the same year. That’s how it came to pass that both books came out in 2016—one in January and the other in October.
O:JA&L: What are your current writing projects?
TL: I have several going at the same time. As I mentioned, I wrote six hundred pages of memoir last year that I’m going to edit down to 200-250 pages, after returning from my book tour in April. And then I began a series of poems a while back on the various elements—“Ode to Hydrogen,” “Neon—Up in Lights,” “Hymn to Yttrium,” etc.—that combine humor with scientific truth. The poems could end up as a section of a manuscript or, who knows, even a stand-alone chapbook.
I also am working on a series of cross-out poems from the text that the photographer William Binzen wrote about his collection of images (Waking Dream), from the early years of Burning Man and from the Desert Siteworks Project (1992-1994). I’m really excited about the project, even though it is moving slowly. I plan to have sections I and III be cross-outs from his text, and the middle section a series of ekphrastic poems using his images as inspiration. Bill has already given me permission to use one of his images on the cover, so all I have to do is get busy and finish it.
And then there are the poems that continue to insist on being born from my childhood and early adult experiences, the essays, the reviews—I never seem to run out of things to write about.
Advice to readers
O:JA&L: What advice would you give to people of who are interested in reading poetry, but say they don’t understand it?
TL: I would first ask them, “What poetry?” I don’t understand every poem either. The challenge for the poet is to write with enough accessibility that the reader is not totally lost, and to write with enough mystery so the reader is not totally bored. There is no greater challenge for a writer than striking a balance between opacity and transparency. And part of the challenge is knowing your readership. The flip side of that addresses this question—knowing what poets strike that balance for you. I don’t mind occasionally looking up words or special terms if the writing is good, but I don’t want to consult a dictionary for every line, and some readers don’t want to look up anything. A poet should be considerate of readers and includes notes that explain any technical terms, specialized knowledge, or remote references.
It is also true that understanding everything in a poem (in the common use of the word understanding—to be able to accurately explain “in other words”) is not absolutely necessary for enjoyment of a poem. Blaise Pascal’s quote comes to mind: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”
My girlfriend speaks of “the gasp” that takes place when reading a good poem or story or viewing a piece of great art. The most important part, for me, is that emotional connection between the reader and the language—call it what you will.
So my advice is to read as many different poets as you can, in order to find the one(s) that elicit that “gasp” from you. Throughout this interview, and in the acknowledgments section to my poems in this issue, I’ve listed some of them that do that for me.
O:JA&L: Who are you reading now?
TL: On my desk and in my briefcase, half-read, are the following books: My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry (Knopf, 2016), a collection of essays by Philip Levine published posthumously; The Last Shift: Poems (Knopf, 2016), by Philip Levine; Waiting for the Light (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017), by Alicia Ostriker; and Immortal (for quite some time) (The University of Utah Press, 2016), a cross-genre work, somewhere between extended obituary and memoir, written by a childhood friend of mine, Scott Abbott, a professor of humanities, philosophy, and integrated studies at Utah Valley University, about his memory of a younger brother who died of AIDS.
O:JA&L: Any final thoughts for our audience?
TL: Reading and writing are sacred practices, like breathing in and breathing out. Try doing one without the other for a while, and see what happens! In order for an organism to be healthy—including persons and societies—there not only has to be productivity, there has to be an infusion of energy from outside. In terms of writing, that infusion has to include the reading of other writers. Only then can one make their unique contribution to the field. Because of its complexity and diversity, this principle is never more true than in poetry.
About the poet:
Terry Lucas is the author of two full-length poetry collections: In This Room (CW Books, January 2016) and Dharma Rain (Saint Julian Press, October 2016). In addition, he is the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Altar Call, selected by the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival for the anthology, Diesel; and winner of the 2012 Copperdome Chapbook contest (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2013). He has received numerous other writing awards, including the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Feature Award in Poetry, the fifth annual Littoral Press Poetry Prize, and six Pushcart Prize nominations.
Terry’s poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in dozens of national literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, PoetryFlash, and South 85 Journal. He has taught in the Chicago public school system as a Master Poet in the Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center’s Writing Center and is a guest lecturer for the Dominican University Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing. Terry is a 2008 MFA graduate of New England College, having studied under Gerald Stern, Maxine Kumin, Alicia Ostriker and Michael Waters. He is the former Co-Executive Editor of Trio House Press, now serving as an Assistant Editor in order to devote more time to his own writing, as well as to his poetry consulting business. More about Terry and his work can be found here.
Image #1: Interview Photo by Janet Goodman
Image #2: Portrait Photo by Brian Busch