An Interview with Alex Lemon by Miguel Murphy
Alex Lemon's poetry collections include Hallelujah Blackout
(forthcoming in 2008 from Milkweed Editions), Mosquito (Tin House Books 2006)
and the chapbook At Last Unfolding Congo (horse less press 2007). A memoir
is also forthcoming from Scribner. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming
in numerous magazines, including AGNI, BOMB, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast,
Kenyon Review, New England Review, Open City, Pleiades and Tin House.
His translations (with Wang Ping) of a number of contemporary Chinese poets
have appeared in Tin House, Artful Dodge, New American Writing and
other journals. Among his awards are a 2005 Literature Fellowship in Poetry
from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2006 Minnesota Arts Board Grant.
He co-edits LUNA: A Journal of Poetry and Translation with Ray
Gonzalez and is a frequent contributor to The Bloomsbury Review.
In the spring he will teach at California Lutheran University.
Miguel Murphy's poems have appeared in Willow Springs,
Hayden’s Ferry Review, and the Hawai’i Review. His first book,
A Book Called Rats, was awarded the 2002 Blue Lynx Prize from
Washington State University’s Lynx House Press and was re-printed by
Eastern Washington University Press in 2007.
Miguel Murphy: How much of poetry is nerve? I’m thinking about some
of your work that takes certain syntactical risks—with the line, with the sentence—poems
like “Who Finds You” “Fantastic Goes the Lost Cause” or “Fuck You Lazy God”. Some of your
poems are more clearly narrative, say “Callnote” or “Plum” or “Preface to Augury” but my
favorites have an utterance that is clearly not journalistic, but driven as if by impulse.
Can you talk a little about how you find the poem, how much you revise, and whether this
idea that “nerve” might in some ways be opposed to craft, has any merit?
Alex Lemon: My favorite poems—the poems I read again and again, are poems
that have that “nerve.” And I think it’s sad, or maybe boring, that a lot of poetry is
lacking it. The poems in Mosquito that you associate with this “nerve” are some
of my favorites, too, but I don’t think they could have been written with out the
tent-stake-like scaffolding action of some of the more narrative poems. And I think you
are spot on—the poems are driven, wildly sometimes, by impulse—by staying more closely
tethered to a new poem’s careening delight, and then working to, or through an end with
a lack of thought (which is a fuller thought, in a way). But this doesn’t happen all of
the time, of course, and it doesn’t mean that it’s all not garbage and will be excised in revision.
And no, I don’t think it’s opposed to craft necessarily. I think it’s an element of craft—an awareness of the poem that some writers cultivate because they are drawn, for whatever reason, to it. It is the anti-craft that is an essential tool of craft.
Most often, I “find” poems in a very non-conceptual way. Contemplation and memory blossom quickly after that first purely creative thought but I guess I kind of feel my way into poems. On the surface, I don’t think I begin with an actual thought—I’m sure they are there, always lurking, ready to spring out—but when I begin, the map unfolded in front of me is blank. The concepts, ideas, what-the-hell-is-this-about come quickly, nearly instantly after that first thought and the poem begins to find some sort of shape. But I want to find a rawness—maybe that’s that “nerve” you asked about—
something surprising. And hopefully, in doing so, the poems I seek to write, reveal more (at least to me), or have more possibility, and seem more alive. And also are ready, and laid out on the cutting table if you will, to be sculpted, however unwieldy that first utterance might be, by revision.
I revise a lot—maybe too much sometimes. I think this has more to do with my relationship to myself than my relationship to my work. It has to do with trust (and not feeling like I have it yet), and feeling pretty clueless about writing when I first started. I didn’t write much before I entered the MFA program at the U of Minnesota, and felt insecure about it. So when I started writing, I revised constantly. It helped me appreciate the page, each feature of language. So revising, in the beginning, was more about learning than “crafting” a successful poem. It had almost nothing to do with the actual poem. I wanted to taste each inch of the page—each endlessly possible syllable.
I still revise quite a bit—but because of time: teaching at Macalester College (which I’m no longer doing), and trying to engage in the world around me—I’ve begun revising less. My eye is sharper. There is more trust.
MM: What is your idea of “clarity” in a poem, and how much is this related to sound, music, syntax?
AL: Each new poem I write creates its own rubric of clarity from the poems’ manifold elements. Depending on the day, depending on what I’m feeling or reading or have been thinking about or talking about—the position of those elements will flutter up and down in importance.
But when reading, I’d have to say there are shifting kinds of clarity: clarity of sound, clarity of thought, a narrative poem, etc. etc.—but there are also poems that don’t, in an ordinary or ordered sense, have what one might consider to be clarity, but at the same brilliant time make a bizarre sort of sense. So maybe, when reading, I’d sort poems into ones that have an ordered clarity and ones that have a disordered clarity without a value judgment being placed on either. I’m sure that makes no sense.
MM: No. I like that very much. I think that speaks to what as a reader I find exciting about your work, this “sense” of clarity that breaks through in a moment of disorder in the language. This almost sounds like a definition of poetry. Do you have one? What makes a poem poem for you? How do you know when you’ve succeeded?
AL: Nope. No definition of poetry—though I do enjoy reading all of them—Voltaire, Dickinson, etc: Neruda talking his: my poetry “took its voice from the rain.” I know as soon as I come up with one I will instantly become aware of everything that is poetry but doesn’t fit within my terrible new definition. Give me some years. Maybe when I’m fifty I’ll have something, but I hope not.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever truly “succeeded.” I get better at failing. I welcome the inevitability of my ever-bettering failures, knowing that I’ll get up again tomorrow and try to clench the ungraspable.
MM: What do you make of the “workshop”? Was it useful to you in the writing of these poems, or did you have to fight for your own stylistic integrity? I ask because I imagine a kind of instinct in that setting to “clean-up” the language with narrative clarity. What did you make of your M.F.A. experience, and how does this affect your style as a teacher now?
AL: I really loved my MFA experience (I went to the U of Minnesota). I didn’t have a very strong background in literature or writing. As an undergraduate at Macalester College I studied Political Science and Communications, and entering the MFA program I felt totally unprepared. I was lost and kind of miserably shaming myself because I felt so far behind everyone else. So I really learned a lot from the people around me (both my professors and peers), and wasn’t afraid of making “mistakes” because I already felt like my life was one big one. All of this liberated my writing. Information was pouring in from the people around me. I read everything people told me to (thank you Ryan Black and Richard Hermes) and began feverishly writing. I listened to everyone in my workshops, but after about a year I was already developing my own beliefs about writing. Whether you want to call it stupidity or integrity, I did what I wanted to do—what I felt was right according to what my writing was calling for. I am what I am, I thought to myself. (read the George Saunders story “Adams”). Of course I had to deal with comments about clarity, or excessiveness, but I used them to hone my engagement with the page. I changed. I revised. Sometimes I did exactly what a peer said I needed to do. Sometimes I didn’t change a thing. I learned right away to listen to everyone, but, in the end, that I was going to make the decision about what I did or did not do, for myself. The professors I had (there are too many to list, but I learned from each of them) were wonderful about telling me when they honestly felt like something was too wild, or didn’t make sense, or whatever, but never told me that I was doing something wrong. They were amazing in the sense that they cultivated a wonderment in me, a sense that I was exploring for myself, but no matter how solitary I felt my writing life was, I was never alone. I had every poet that’s come before alongside me—urging me, with their examples, to move into my own space. The program showed me there were a limitless number of creative tools I had at my disposal. I can’t imagine it being more perfect.
My MFA experience has greatly informed my teaching. First, I had to teach each semester of grad school, so I learned how to maneuver around the classroom, but because of what I said before, I learned to bring (or at least try to bring) as high a level of awareness and appreciation to class as I can. I fill the classroom with as much excitement, knowledge, and support as I can. I feel fortunate that the workshops I’ve taught continue to be amazing (for me at least)—and are places where some real good writing and experimentation has flourished. But I’ve also realized, because of my own writing life during my MFA workshops, that workshops aren’t right for some students. And so, in each of my years of teaching, I’ve met individually, or in small groups, with students outside of class. I cannot explain how beneficial this has been to me, I can only hope it’s been half as good for my students.
MM: What’s your favorite poem in the book?
AL: “Fuck You Lazy God,” “Arpeggio” or “Mosquito.” There’s so much I love about those poems, I’m not sure I can pick one clear winner. They each do something I’m stunned by. They each fail in ways I didn’t/couldn’t have/wouldn’t have realized when I was writing them. There’s a beauty in all of that.
MM: I love the size and the PRICE of the book. I read that the size made you nervous, but as an object it’s reminiscent of other “small”, decacent volumes: Flynn’s Blind Huber, or Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty To the Gods. What do you think about the marketing of poetry and poetry as commodity? A hardcover book of poetry might cost 30 dollars or more—then here’s your book at 11 bucks, close to what books of poetry were a decade ago!
AL: It did make me nervous—but I think this has to do with my visual impairments more than anything. I freaked out a little bit because I didn’t know if I’d be able to read my own book—I couldn’t really visualize it. But what Tin House did was really perfect. The size of the book really turned into an essential part of the book’s being. The dense energy of it. I really couldn’t be happier with it. There’s something pretty miraculous about being able to carry it around in the butt-pocket of your jeans.
I was overjoyed to see the price of the book, too. I know it’s only a few bucks difference from other soft cover books—but there was something intimate-making about that price. Like it was inching toward a reader’s hands. Again, I have to thank Tin House for doing that—and for having a terrific understanding about marketing. I wish I had a better grasp on the marketing of it—but for the time being, I’ll leave that, and the commodification of almost everything in our lives, to someone else.
MM: Who would you claim as poetic lineage? I mean, who are the poets you return to, look to—who do you run out and buy—and who would you say you most inherit?
AL: I don’t think I’d claim anything. I think I’m too young to be able to speak about myself this way, and would just say, to steal some Yeats, that I have gratitude for all of my instructors. At this point in my life, (I’m 29, and feel like a poetic fetus) I’m still trying to read as much as I can—trying each day to learn something new (and I feel like one can learn something from everything read: wow about this/oh-no about that) because there’s so much I haven’t read yet. As someone who writes a lot of reviews, and is actively engaged in teaching contemporary literature, I read as much of everything that comes out as I can.
MM: Is this kind of engagement beyond the actual writing of poetry—teaching, reading, reviewing—is important to a poet? There is definitely a marketing, networking, business to contemporary poetry, one that is at times unsavory. How important are these things to you and what do you think is the role of the poet? How do you navigate?
AL: Is it important for a poet to do these things? I think everyone should read more books, especially poetry. But I’d probably, if pressed, say no, a poet doesn’t have to teach or write reviews. Is it important for me? Yes. Without a doubt. Beyond all the marketing, networking, business stuff—or maybe closer to me, my self—I love teaching, and I love reading poetry. I enjoy spending my days, when not writing, talking about literature, about poetry—and teaching is a wonderful, powerful thing to do with one’s life. I feel fortunate to be able to do it. So they are extremely important to me, but they have little or nothing to with what I think the role of the poet is. Much like my definition of what poetry is, I have yet to figure out what the role of the poet is. We wear many hats, sometimes. And other times we don’t wear a hat at all.
I navigate it like the half-blind captain of a powerless ship—filled with the sound of rain, or light on the glorious days—doing as much as I can, or nothing at all to stay well, but always listening as the hull makes music—slowly scraping across the rocky shallows.
MM: When did you first think of yourself as a poet, or do you?
AL: Sure, I do, why not? There are plenty of worse things to tell people, or think about yourself. I started thinking of myself as a writer when I started my MFA program. I’m not sure if it’s noble or sick, or whatever, but digging through existence to try and sift out the unsayable or piece together or tear apart meaning, is something, I think, one should humbly embrace. And even with all of the aching work of it, it is a hell of a lot of fun.
MM: Is there anything you think is missing in contemporary poetry?
AL: I’m not sure much is missing at all. I’m excited about something I see almost every day. It seems that there’s a tremendous amount going on. With desktop publishing, the internet, new technology, etc. etc. it seems to me like more writing is getting out to more people. There is more communication between poets. So much is happening, it’s almost hard to keep up with all of it. Maybe what’s missing is more aloneness, then—that good quiet.
MM: Just for fun, which book do you have packed in your Earthquake survival bag? In case of flight, catastrophe, apocalypse—I think you may have more experience here than the rest of us—what’s the one book you’d sneak along?
AL: I would take the first book of poems I spent time with—Contemporary American Poetry edited by Poulin. It was the required text in Wang Ping’s poetry course at Macalester College—my first guided introduction to poetry. Not only does the collection have a ton of wonderful work in there, that actual book has scrawls and notations that make it a real menagerie of memory and sentiment.
MM: Really? I think about this question for myself a lot, especially here in Los Angeles, and for me it’s always changing. Helene Cixous makes a comment about her own relationship to books she hasn’t read yet, that they wait for her, until she’s grown into the right person to answer them. You mention that you’re still trying to read as much as you can. There must be certain books you’ve read that have woken something up inside you at an important moment. Which are the books that haunt you? And what about those you’re still eyeing, but for whatever reason you haven’t been able to read?
AL: I’m haunted by all books, it’s the truth, or my truth. Or the truth of these words as I type them up. But also while I type this I’m thinking a lot about Paul Celan, Eduardo Galeano, Emily Dickinson, and James Wright. I can’t tell you why they’ve leapt into my head right now, but there, or here they are. Right now.
MM: I was really taken aback when I read Cate Marvin’s comment in Ploughshares that your work documents surgery, recovery, “and the sudden discovery of Eros . . . as the ultimate emblem of survival”. And in Third Coast, Michael Levin writes, “seeking bliss in its many forms is crucial to Lemon’s work.” These statements snagged me, I think because the address of the body in your work is so violent. It addresses the desperation of the body that can’t escape pain, as trembling verb, meat. Can you say a little about the relationship of eros to violence in your poetry?
AL: I think, for the most part, there’s only razor’s edge of difference between violence and Eros in many poems in the book (or life for that matter). So I don’t think Marvin and Levin are wrong. Many of those poems were coming from the same place within me—a place in me were sensation has changed drastically (heightened or numbed) to a such degree that there’s almost (for me) a confusion between pleasure and pain sometimes. In welcoming those feelings they become rungs on a ladder that climbs back into the body. Into a body where even the painful—wind blowing almost painfully against an over- sensitive cheek, let’s say—becomes erotic.
MM: If this pain-pleasure-ness is a door in your work, what would you say is on the other side?
AL: I’m trying to get there, so I don’t know. I get flashes or peeks sometimes, I guess, but mostly I get that door-crack of light, just a slash into what that room might be, and that’s it.
MM: Doty mentions in the introduction that one of the achievements of your poems is the way they surpass both cliché and blank utterance to express bodily pain in ways that must be surprising, since they are inventions. Can you talk a little about physicality in your text as syntax—say enjambment or your use of ampersand—and what that has to do with bodiness?
AL: This question, I guarantee, will be far better than any kind of answer I might have for it. I think a literary critic could easily puzzle that one together, though.
MM: Yeah, that’s a great, ridiculous question.. . I guess I’m interested in how much you consider syntax, especially in those poems that are fractured by intuition, or creative nerve, poems like “The Pleasure Notebook” and “Fever”. Is it something you especially agonize over, or do you find your choices about syntax simple, relative to the music of the poem?
AL: I agonize over everything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it all. Is it tortuous? Yes. Do I understand, or could I lie out a definition as to why it’s that way for me. No. I do think it has to do, for me, with a focus, or a fierce attention to each word, how it’s placed, and the ramifications of that placement.
MM: I’m thinking of certain lines, say, “I, the flesh-wish / am sickly wrapped in light”, and the poem, “Little Handcuffs of Air” and the end of the book: “They alternate intrusions. / They alternate blessings. // And each morning, the terrible / biography writes across the sky.” I’m thinking of Batailles’ discussion of Chinese torture victims, who have a look in their eyes no longer of pain, but of transcendence. I’m also thinking of the fantastic title to your new book—Hallelujah Blackout—striking for its coupling of religious ecstasy with bodily extinction. If there is a spiritual violence in the flesh, a dynamic between torture and religious ecstasy, vision and pain, that’s true in your poems, is this related to your idea of religion or personal faith? Is this at all related to your notion of beauty?
AL: I think it would be too easy for me to just say that my use of religious language is due to my notion of beauty or my religiousness. I’m inherently drawn to religious language for non-religious ideas. Though I think there are moments of transcendence in each of our days—that each of them is sacred—and there is a facet of this use of language that is interested in ecstasy through the body’s pain, there are an endless number of reasons for its use—spirituality, irony, hollowness, profaneness, profundity, etc. etc. etc. I was raised in a non-religious home, and my spirituality has more to do with compassion and connectedness than reaching a higher power. Is there an ecstasy (and beauty) of the every day reached through suffering? That’s me.
MM: It seems that every mention of your book and of you as an author that I’ve found is accompanied with a kind of disclaimer regarding your brain surgery. But when I read the book I was surprised—even grateful!—to find little explanatory information in the poems themselves about your medical condition, the operation itself, or your recovery. I have to admit I was more than a little annoyed, having read and loved the book, to hear about this condition again and again. I’m thinking too of Plath, whose work has often been reduced to her biography, her suicide. It almost seems that the incident becomes synonymous with the poetry. I suppose there is a romantic notion to this, that out of great suffering, Art is born. On the other hand, many of your poems are not necessarily “confessional”. Do you mind? What do you make of so much reference to the book as a kind of poetic document of your medical condition?
AL: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, so thanks for bringing it up. But I’m not sure I have an illuminating answer to this terrific question because my ponderings haven’t really reached a point of conclusion. I feel like I’m forever moving through this question, walking in circles that never overlap. I have no idea if they are expanding into obfuscation or closing in, getting ever nearer an “answer.” So where am I on this? I think it’s wonderful that you can see that, even though the majority of the poems in Mosquito come from a “confessional” space in me, they don’t necessarily have to. This is essential to me as an artist. If the poems are confined to the confessional, if they wholly rely on the biographical, they are not, to me, successful. They are not the poems I want to write. But if they vibrate on their own, transferring something fundamental between the words on the page and the reading world—whatever that might be (a poem can “work” in a thousand different ways)—the poem is self-reliant, in my eyes. That being said, I don’t find myself moving very far away from that confessional space of poet origination, but I surely hope I’m not relying on my biography.
I think that people write about my biographical information because—and I think this is where it gets mucky—it can backlight the poems. That information can/does change the way the work is perceived. There’s no stopping that. There’s a sort of chemical reaction that occurs, a reaction, some sort of smoke rising from the text—that some readers since Lowell, Plath, confessional poetry, etc.—want to know. Does the work rely on that? As I said before, I hope not. The biographical information also gives people something to write about in a “journalistic” way. Whether or not that’s titillating or insightful or whatever, I guess I’ll leave that for someone else to argue, but that information is a part of how we, as a culture, consume art. I have no idea—and at this point I’m not sure I care that much, honestly—if this is good or bad, but whatever masks we hold up in front of us and call art, we are inextricably linked, by the world we live in, to the narratives of our actual lived days. If the work we produce is more blatantly linked to our actual selves, it’s more likely to be used by reviewers/critics/journalist. I guess artists get to make a choice about what kind of stance/distance they take in relation to their biographies, but for me, there’s never been much of a choice so I think it’s safe to assume that there are others who feel the same way—that what they tend to write about is inevitable because of who they are or what they’ve become.
MM: Do you think there is a relationship between poetry and healing? On your book jacket, Mark Doty comments that you’ve made “a container for . . . an undeceived, adult form of hope”. I like that he says this, but I also feel suspicious of an implication that poetry might or should have this as an agenda. What do you make of this statement, as someone who’s written out of ailment?
AL: I think Mark is probably right. There can be hope. I believe there is hope in my writing. Does this translate to healing (is this the “agenda”?)? For some people, maybe. But not for me—it is not my poetic project. I’m not looking to poetry for anything. For the time being, I am feeling it all—happy and hopeful and sad sometimes and broken and utterly whole all at the same time.