Thomas Lux: Poet Interview

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Please join me in welcoming Thomas Lux to the Poetic Asides blog. Years ago, we talked after Tammy and I read some poems on the local stage of the Decatur Book Festival. He asked for my blog URL, saying he might find it useful. He was very nice and polite and mentioned he had connections to Ohio as well. Of course, I had no idea who I was talking to until later when Tammy asked if I'd noticed Lux was at our reading. Ha!

If you're new to Thomas Lux, he's the author of a dozen books and nine more chapbooks, including most recently Child Made of Sand and God Particles. He holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry and is director of the McEver Visiting Writers Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has been awarded multiple NEA grants and the Kingsley Tufts Award and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. That's all impressive stuff, but like I said, he's also a nice guy who will talk with you after a reading.

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While Lux has many well-known poems, including a poem in the 2013 Best American Poetry anthology, I'm going to share the poem that hooked me on his writing years ago from his collection The Cradle Place:

The Late Ambassadorial Light, by Thomas Lux

Light reaches through a leaf
and that light, diminished, passes through
another leaf,
and another, down
to the lawn beneath.
Green, green, the high grass shivers.
Water over a stone, and bees,
bees around the flowers, deep-tiered beds
of them, yellows and golds and reds.
Saw-blade ferns feather in the breeze.
And, just as a cloud's corner
catches the sun, a tiny glint in the garden--the milk
of a broken stalk? A lion's tooth?
Or might that be the delicate labia
of an orchid?

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What are you up to now?

The usual: classes starting at Tech, reading, writing. I've been writing a lot of praise poems lately, odes, poems of gratitude. Aside from poetry, I read huge amounts of history, biography (just recently Lorca, Manson, Jesus, and Ripley) and general nonfiction. I also like to read about insects. Writing is 80% reading.

Your poetry is often described as surrealist. First question, could you describe your interpretation of surrealist poetry? And then, do you think of yourself as a surrealist poet (or at least a poet who writes surreal poems)?

No, I don't consider myself a surrealist, but I have certainly been influenced by surrealism, as have thousands of others and in many art forms other than poetry. It's probably the biggest and most important "ism" in art in the 20th century.

I love surrealism's irreverence, wildness, explosiveness of imagination, but I dislike its insistence on chance and the arbitrary. Sometimes there are lucky accidents though I think they're more likely to happen if one has sweat a little blood. I used to refer to myself as a recovering surrealist. Now, if someone asked me to label myself, I'd say: imaginative realist.

One thing I notice in your poems is that some are very humorous, but they're often seriously funny. By that, I'm talking about how Orwell's Animal Farm can be seen as humorous on one level but incredibly serious on another. Do you have a method for writing your humor poems?

Child-Made-of-Sand

That's actually the title of an anthology of such poetry edited by David Kirby and Barbara Hamby. Most of my humor is satire. It's difficult not to write satire, said Juvenal, in one of his "Satires" written a few thousand years ago. If anything, it is even more difficult not to write satire now. Look at the world.

That said, I think it was Billy Collins who said: If you're not funny in your regular life you can't be funny in poems. There's no method to it. I can't start a poem thinking this is going to be funny. In other words, it can't be forced.

Do you have a writing routine?

No. I write when I can. Being able to write every day for several days in a row, not needing to teach, or travel, are my best times to write. Therefore, I tend to do more of my work in the summer, during school breaks, etc. And, as I said earlier, I read until I bleed.

You're a professor of poetry at Georgia Tech and Director of the McEver Visiting Writers program, as well as Director of the Poetry @ TECH. Could you explain what's involved in your role as the director of the McEver Visiting Writers program and Poetry @ TECH?

I'm the director of Poetry@Tech and Bourne Professor of Poetry. It's my job--with input from our Dean, our dept. Chair, Travis Denton (Associate Director of Poetry@Tech), Ginger Murchison (former Associate Director), and others--to invite readers and to appoint McEver Visiting Writers. About a third of the poets we've had read (approx.125 in the last decade plus) at Tech are from Atlanta or elsewhere in Georgia.

For the last several years all of the McEver Visiting Writers have been local (so they haven't been visiting from very far!). McEvers (let's call them that) teach classes at Tech, in the community, and go to schools around Atlanta that ask for a visiting poet.

This year we have two ongoing community workshops, one of them for homeless HIV positive and AIDS patients. I've been to a few prisons. We have 5-6 day-long workshops each spring, taught by myself, Travis, and McEvers. Our mission is to serve not only Georgia Tech students but to serve the larger community as well. The reading series, the community classes, school visits, etc. are free.

As a professor of poetry, I imagine you're often helping poets figure out ways to play with their poems. Do you have any common tips for revising poems?

20 or so drafts, lots of attention, open to poem going somewhere you didn't think you intended, draconian editing, give them time to sit alone, stamina.

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Workshop your poetry online.Learn more.

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Finish this statement: Poetry should ________________.

Whatever it wants. If a poem (or any piece of art) is good it will stick around. If it's not it will dry up and blow away, even if it's stone--it'll just take longer.

What are you currently reading?

Just finished a book called The Unitled States of Paranoia, and am reading Passage to America, the former re the idiocy of 99.9% of conspiracy theories and the former historical impressions of America on foreign visitors during the 19th century. It seems the English, in particular, found us rather lacking in refinement. I also read poetry on a daily basis, both current and earlier.

If you could pass along only one piece of advice to poets, what would it be?

Read.

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Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer's Digest Writing Community and the author of Solving the World's Problems (Press 53). He's married to the poet Tammy Foster Brewer, who helps him keep track of their five little poets (four boys and one princess). Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.

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