Ernest Hilbert: You write rhymed, metered poems of sophisticated social satire. They are immediately recognizable. Needless to say, they don’t seem to fit easily into the larger trends in American poetry. Is that a disadvantage or an advantage?
Quincy R. Lehr: Were I a careerist, it would be a disadvantage. It is easier to find acceptance if one has a ready-made niche. But I like to think I’m not a careerist. Moreover, I should hope that any artist who’s not working on commission—and even one who is, I hope—strives to not sound like anyone else in some fundamental way. Let’s face it, putting one’s self forward as an artist requires a great deal of self-belief, and if I felt my poems were derivative, I doubt I’d have the guts to shamelessly promote them hither and yonder.
EH: Why do you write poetry in 2012?
QRL: Does anyone have a good answer for this? Somewhere between the grasp for the ineffable, force of habit, and it being cheaper than good wine, I suppose.
EH: Why do you rhyme?
QRL: For a while, I wrote unrhymed poems, but rhyme is a way of getting additional resonances, juxtapositions, and associations into a bunch of words rather efficiently. I’m not one of those New Form fundamentalists who think poems that don’t rhyme want your kids to get gay-married, but by the same token, it’s a really versatile prosodic tool.
EH: Are you a satirist?
QRL: I don’t know that I quite have the requisite aloofness for proper satire. I’m strongly present in my poems, and my narrators tend to be self-aware. But I am frequently doing something adjacent to satire or chuckling over a cryptic joke. But maybe more satiristic or satiroid than downright satirical. I do not consider significant swathes of my work to be in any way light verse. I have a limited tolerance for the “comic poem.”
EH: Do you have Roman or English antecedents?
QRL: Both, I should think. I studied Latin in high school and liked Catullus in particular, probably for his personality as much as anything else. A dash of Lucius Cornelius Sulla also got into the mix. As for the English, Pope, Byron, Shelley, Chaucer, Auden (1930s), Rochester. I could go on and on in this vein. My first love poetically, the first poetry that made me think I’d want to do this, was French Surrealist and Russian Cubofuturist. There’s a good deal of Aragon and Mayakovsky in some substrate of what I do.
EH: What does style mean for you?
QRL: Style is that dialectical moment when a series of quantitative gestures, rarely entirely unprecedented, become qualitative, something intrinsic to a particular person, or even a particular person in a particular period of his or her life. And it’s a total thing. Shifts in wardrobe, vices, sleeping habits, and poetry, if significant, will tend to move in tandem. We may think of ourselves as compartmentalized, but we are all single, if contradictory and evolving beings.
EH: But what does that mean for poetry?
QRL: I’ve never had much patience for the notion that art—certainly including poetry—is somehow separate from everything else. When the Aesthetes argued that life should imitate art, they were saying something quite profound. One’s life can and perhaps should approximate one’s poetic aspirations, and one’s “style,” broadly speaking, can’t really be divorced from one’s work. The preppy New Formalist will tend to sound like a preppy New Formalist, and younger “experimental” poets have this way of looking like harried graduate students circa. page 200 of the dissertation. Poetry, like what we wear, what we eat and drink, how often we exercise, etc., is, at bottom, an intervention of one’s personality into the world at large.
EH: Is iambic pentameter a British convention? What does it say if an American uses it?
QRL: It’s an English-language convention. If Americans use it, it’s because we, too, speak English. I’d take Robert Bly and Diane Wakoski and people like that more seriously if I found their notions of what an “American” is remotely relevant to fellow Americans I actually know.
EH: What influence does music have on your poetry?
QRL: When I was a teenager, I used to read poetry with the likes of the Sisters of Mercy and Mötörhead blasting through the headphones at such a volume as to rearrange my DNA and cause any future children of my loins to be born mutants. In addition to referencing the music fairly frequently and often composing poems by analogy with musical form (song, suite, symphony, etc.), rock taught me something crucial—one can make a godawful noise intelligently. There’s no rule that says that smart must be monotonal or have a low decibel level.
EH: Are you a hipster?
QRL: Living in the vicinity of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I hope not. Hipsterdom is an oddly static thing, as anyone who’s spent time in the neighborhood bars knows. There’s an odd anomie among contemporary hipsters. It’s all these people in the arts for whom it’s part of the pose, but the pose seems arbitrary rather than inevitable. Baudelaire talks about an odd asceticism in dandyism, an almost monk-like pursuit of the dandy ideal, and hipsterdom approximates it, but one gets that flattened postmodernist sense that it’s all interchangeable, that one is supposed to be creative, but that what flows from that is unimportant, whether claymation stand-up on YouTube or competitive glockenspiel.
EH: Shortly, what are your influences?
QRL: Louis MacNeice, T.S. Eliot, early Auden, everything seventeenth-century, Lemmy, American social history, the 718 area code, red wine, Gerard Manley Hopkins, bands with twelve-string guitars, French Symbolism and Surrealism, Russian Futurism, Lord Byron, psychedelic whimsy, the Birthday Party, Derek Mahon, political demonstrations, Van Der Graaf Generator, the Carter Family, bad daytime television, feta cheese made from goats’ milk, cigarettes, no longer smoking, Ezra Pound, every poem I’ve ever admired, and every poem I’ve ever disdained.
EH: What are your larger impulses?
QRL: I’m trying to write the definitive Quincy R. Lehr poem, that poem that one can only approach by successive approximation, that the poems up until now resemble in some vague, mutilated way. And I hope I can do that while keeping the cat fed and trying to cook the best pot of green chili stew ever. I try not to be a dick, at least not to most people.
EH: Is “If God is Good” an Audenesque poem?
QRL: If I could tell you, I would let you know.
EH: In “Death of a WASP” and other poems you skewer the privileged. Are you angry about something?
QRL: Well, “Death of a WASP” is part of a far longer poem (a book-length poem entitled Heimat) and revolves around the notion that “multiculturalism” is frequently a patina that covers for essentially the same kinds of people running the show. I’d say not so much that it represents anger as downright hatred of a system that, as we have been reminded consistently recently, has always been marked by inequality, but has become far more so in recent decades. What makes me angry is that my generation, which hit adolescence as the USSR was going down, bought into a notion that went: trade is up; America is the sole superpower; with greater abundance, you will work longer hours than your parents, for a lower standard of living, and with less job security. And we accepted that. Infuriating.
EH: You seem to be openly against capitalism and its excesses. Please comment.
QRL: Yes. I’m against capitalism full-stop. I’m a recovering Trotskyist but an unreconstructed socialist. Capitalism’s a generally horrific, profligate, wasteful, and rather stupid system that’s destroying the world. Not only can we do better, we must. The impact of this sentiment, which is at the core of what I believe, on my poetry is something that I, at least, can only answer on a case-by-case basis. Certain periods of my poetry have been more “political” than others, though I don’t think I’ve ever reached the point of didacticism in the verse.
EH: What would you recommend in its place, and what would it have to do with poetry?
QRL: It would be, at best, narrow to base social policy in the first place on poetry, but clearly, we’re not engaged in something churning out the big bucks here. Even if some degree of paternalistic interest in the arts remains in the ruling class—and it clearly does in some quarters—that hardly justifies a system based on exploitation. Moreover, the rapaciousness of landlords—in New York, certainly—has made it harder and harder to live the artistic life (which requires contemplation and yes, leisure) without bureaucratic or academic sponsorship.
Now, I’m not saying that putting the economy in the hands of the public will make life peachy for artists in particular, but our masters are working us to death in this country. No one I know—at least in my age bracket—gets enough rest, isn’t at least a bit scared about their finances, and has a good balance between their work and their life in general. Trotsky once said that the three great problems facing mankind are hunger, sex, and death. Socialism is designed to solve the first. How to make the girl you like like you back or how not to croak . . . let’s put those aside as works in progress.
EH: To what degree do the classics affect your poetry?
QRL: To be perfectly honest, and I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but the longer I do this, the less I think about discrete influences, but rather, at least to the extent that I’m conscious of influence, it’s specific moves I’ve seen in specific poems—an allusion or something like that. I probably read a greater proportion of contemporary poetry relative to the classics than is entirely healthy due to reading the slush pile at the Raintown Review in my capacity as associate editor, but for pleasure, I’d primarily read poems written before World War II and frequently before 1900. But I generally notice resonances of writers, recent or long-dead, after I’ve written something than in the midst of composition.
EH: In “Alternative Rock Song” you take to task complacency and high-minded notions of what could be termed the “correct” way to understand the best of new culture. Do you represent an older guard or a new one?
QRL: I parted company with “alternative rock” in the wake of grunge, when it got all Stone Temple Pilots, and the most recent rock group I really like is the Drive-By Truckers, whose first album came out thirteen years ago. (I am discovering more new music that I like as I re-enter the system as a musician again.) I’m not the flavor of the month. But I doubt I ever was. If I’m anything in regard to Old Guards and Young Turks or whatever, it’s anti-Establishment. In every sense of the term.
EH: If you had to list three great poets living today, who would they be?
QRL: Sticking with Anglophones, Derek Walcott would be at the top of my list. Derek Mahon has gotten a bit samey recently, but in his heyday, he was fantastic. And Mark Strand, whom I think is doing some of his best work now.
EH: What is your favorite novel?
QRL: Dostoyevsky’s “White Nights” is more of a novella or very long short story, but it’s my favorite piece of prose fiction. Impeccable and stunning. If you insist on full-lengthers, the U.S.A. Trilogy by Dos Passos.
EH: What is your favorite epic poem?
QRL: The long-form poem to which I return with the most consistency is MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, but that isn’t an epic. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound would roughly fit the bill, I think. Where long poems are concerned I have a particular fondness for the twentieth-century long poem that references epic, but isn’t one—Zukofsky’s A, Pound’s Cantos, “The Waste Land,” and so forth.
EH: Where is American poetry going?
QRL: Further down the path of institutional replication and fragmentation, I’m afraid, with bright-eyed MFA students shelling out their moolah to join this, that, or the other fief as vassals. (They do realize that university administrators see them as cash cows, I hope.) We already have a system that gives us the paradox of an astonishing array of magazines, books, authors—with remarkably little variety. That seems to be the main legacy of the MFA programs, which do not seem to be losing their grip, but have rather expanded into areas of the American po-biz that were once critical of the system. That said, there’s a lot of good stuff going on and a fair number of very promising writers. I’m not sure one would glean that from the major prizes, though. It was good that A.E. Stallings won the MacArthur Genius Grant, and quality periodically wins out elsewhere, but the main thing systems do is replicate themselves. And with the institutional mainstream, I don’t see that changing. As for where it should be going, my attitude is “surprise me.” I can answer that question at great length where my own work is concerned and concretely where the work of others whom I admire is concerned, but the real eye-openers tend to be things that wouldn’t have occurred to me had someone else not done them.
EH: That doesn’t sound like a very promising future.
QRL: Maybe not, but there’s always something else going on besides the boring court poetry.
EH: What do you think of poetry conferences?
QRL: In the U.S., they or similar gatherings may well be inevitable due to geographic spread—one can touch base with the New Englanders, meet the Californians, etc., and drink a great deal. That said, I could happily dispense with ever attending a conference workshop ever again. Others doubtless find them more useful. I just wish that there were more to do at them than listen to Some Fucking Establishment Figure do a drive-by critique of the half-dozen poems one chucked in the post, provided one has the training wheels off but is not in the conference’s inner circle.
EH: You are an editor of a poetry journal. What do you think of poetry journals at large?
QRL: Hoo boy. Tough to say. There are thousands of them. Increasingly, I judge a journal by its “back of the book.” Does it run reviews? Are the reviews those fluff horseshit reviews, or are they real reviews? Are there essays? Are they feeble or not? I tend to have little patience for the journal that is ninety pages of poetry and nothing else, Participate in the discussion, too, or fuck off. To do otherwise is both cowardly and dull.
EH: What do you like most about being an editor of a journal?
QRL: My professional relationship with Anna Evans is one of the most rewarding of my life, for starters, falling somewhere between an older sister/younger brother and good cop/bad cop axis. Our tastes have some overlap, but we are in many ways quite different, too. The inevitable arguments have made me far more conscious of my tastes. More generally, I like the process of assembling a magazine—it’s like assembling a book with less straightforward ego, as the point really is to showcase other people.
EH: What least?
QRL: I don’t mind reading the slush, actually. The bit that really bugs me is the politicking. For better or worse, given the Raintown’s largely formal (broadly construed) orientation, we will inevitably have some variety of relationship with that strange beast “New Formalism”—a label I would not claim for myself and which has a great deal of baggage that can get in the way. There are, to be sure, some good journals in that constellation. The Dark Horse is pretty much always worth a read (and is more in the vicinity of New Form than actually within city limits). Measure just gets better and better. Think is okay in the way Milli Vanilli’s first album was okay. But the tendency of American poetry posses to behave like ultraviolent gangs in out-of-the-way ghettos means that we have to fight against the typecast more than we really should.
EH: How does US poetry figure in the world scene, particularly since a poet recently won the Nobel Prize for the first time in a decade and a half?
QRL: We’re a parochial enough bunch that I doubt that this question occurs to enough of us. I imagine that you maintain your ties with England, as I do mine with Ireland, in part as a way to offset that. Certainly, it came as a revelation to me that Irish poets knew far more about what’s going on in the U.S. than American poets do about Irish poetry. Sure, in their case, it’s a small country looking at a big one rather than vice versa. But there was an awareness of the rest of the world’s poetry there that I far more rarely encounter here. We have good writers, even fantastic ones, in roughly the same proportion as everywhere else, and if we as a culture get less Tea Baggy and xenophobic, that will probably become increasingly clear to the world at large.
EH: What do you think of first-book prizes?
QRL: Cynical Ponzi schemes begging for corruption. I’d far prefer that presses and authors subsidize their publications by selling them rather than printing them on the twenty-five-dollar checks of also-rans. Also, why should presses turn over their editorial apparatuses to various po-biz apparatchiks with their own, frequently self-serving agendas? If I ran a press, I’d prefer to publish things I liked than what someone else extracted from a slush pile (or, per Jorie Graham, inserted into one).
EH: If you could change one thing about American poetry, what would it be?
QRL: The pay-for-play system that seems to dominate American poetry. Two reasons—the first being that the rigmarole of MFA, conferences, workshops, etc. can get ruinously expensive, the second being that the system’s promises that it can make one a good poet flood the market with buglers who have shelled out a crap-ton of money and have the pieces of paper (and debt in many cases) to prove it—and who clog up the system. It’s not only grossly exploitative, but it breeds delusions as well.
EH: What sort of delusions?
QRL: That one can be certified a poet the way one can an electrician or CPA or what have you. That the degree is the thing. I meet “poets” with some regularity in this city who haven’t written much or published anything since they graduated . . . but they have the degrees and the hours racked up in workshops, so they must be the real deal.
EH: Do they really feel that way?
QRL: All of them? Who knows. That would take a better calculator than the pre-install on my computer to crunch the numbers. It is, however, quite common at literary events with a large number of MFAs to be scoped out according to whom one knows, what conferences one has attended, etc., in discussions that are essentially resume swaps. When one asks about poems published, one hears, “Oh, I had three in the student lit mag two years ago.” Or something like that. An MFA promises, like any other terminal degree, to make you into the thing. You get a degree in electrical engineering, you go out and get a job as an electrical engineer. Do an apprenticeship as a plumber, ditto. Sure, it’s more malleable in the liberal arts, but the sense of entitlement remains. Also, so many of the programs seem to put a great emphasis on “networking,” which shouldn’t even be a verb. It really puts things backwards, puts too much emphasis on the system and not enough on the craft.
EH: Do you have an MFA?
QRL: No. And I should indicate that there are plenty of poets I admire who have MFAs. There are also plenty whom I don’t rate much at all who do and plenty of poets whose work I admire who don’t.
EH: What did the New Formalism movement from the 1980s do for American poetry?
QRL: It definitely opened up a space for people such as myself who use meter and rhyme and all the rest, which I perhaps selfishly regard as a good thing. At the same time, though, the movement’s tendencies toward paraphrasability as a point of program, deliberate middlebrow literariness, and greater than internally acknowledged political conservatism have had less salubrious effects. I suspect that the movement has, at this point, produced its major poets—and it did have some—and its good next-generation protégés, most notably A.E. Stallings. The metricists, sometime metricists, and semi-metricists of my generation whom I tend to admire the most deviate in significant to fundamental ways from wide swathes of the New Formalist blueprint.
EH: Is it at all a useful way of describing poets who are not of the first generation of New Formalists? Must one declare oneself a New Formalist? And what’s new about it?
QRL: “New Formalism,” which, I suppose, is roughly as new as New Romanticism, is probably more relevant institutionally nowadays—a constellation of MFA programs (or factions therein), conferences, contests, and awards. It is less a movement than a career path that yes, some born after, say, 1960 do pursue.
EH: What comes after? New New Formalists? Post-New-Formalism?
QRL: The Point of Diminishing Returns, perhaps? That said, there does seem to be a certain stability in American poetry factions resulting from their institutionalization, as it were.
EH: What are the institutions?
QRL: The universities, mostly. Grant-giving entities, too. Foundations. That sort of thing.
EH: Which ones are devoted to New Formalism and its adherents?
QRL: To varying degrees . . . The West Chester Poetry Conference, the Richard Wilbur Award, Nemerov Sonnet Award, the University of Evansville Press, at least decent-sized chunks of the MFA programs at Arkansas and Johns Hopkins, the Anthony Hecht Award (which has a broader shortlist as a rule, but tends to be won by younger metricists who seem to frequently have JHU and Sewanee connections), the Poets’ Prize, the New Criterion book competition . . . and there are more, of course, but that should give you the gist.
EH: Is there a future for print journals?
QRL: At least for now, yes. The internet is still a relatively easy come, easy go proposition, and while it’s shifting, e-journals still follow print protocols in many important ways. Perhaps print will disappear when we really have a handle on electric media, but it’s too early to say, and a broad prediction would be a bit glib.
EH: How are you using the internet?
QRL: In addition to checking my email and Googling old music videos? Probably a bit less dynamically than I could. The Carmine Street Reading Series has a blog, though, and I’m on Facebook like everyone else. I run an online poetry crit-and-discussion board called Dr. Whup-Ass’s Bitch-Ass Poetry Round-Up. I publish in online venues as well as print ones. So I’m around where cyberspace is concerned.
EH: What are your thoughts about poetry readings?
QRL: I like readings that recognize that there’s more to it than just reading the fucking poem and that the point is to perform the damn thing. Just because a great number of readers bore the shit out of audiences with monotonal delivery, static stage presence, and overlong, inessential introductions doesn’t invalidate live recitation. It just indicates that many poets don’t do it well, aren’t interested in doing it well, and are even hostile to doing it well. But a great reading of great poems is one of the best things known to humankind that involves neither alcohol nor nudity.
EH: How would you improve readings if you had your own reading series?
QRL: Well, as you know since we’ve featured you, I am involved in running the Carmine Street Metrics Reading Series, which is, I think, a good, congenial environment. The vast majority of that, though, is down to our regulars and features. The job of a host is to try to pick good writers/performers, get the thing over in a reasonable amount of time (I’ve taken to calling a third hour of a reading “the hour of death”), and to make everyone feel welcome while setting a certain tone. A host generally doesn’t give advice on how to perform, and let’s face it, had I tried to give you that sort of advice for us, you would have rightfully blown it off. You know what you’re doing. That’s why we asked you.
EH: Any parting words?
QRL: If it’s between you and the koala, always punch the koala. You may never need that insight, but if you find yourself in the position where it is relevant, trust me. Punch it.
[…] Recovering Trotskyist: An Interview with Quincy R. Lehr […]