March 14, 2002

A Poem a Day

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Daze: This new title, The Evening Sun, comes after The Daily Mirror which was a collection of poems that were written under this “one poem a day” idea. Where did the inspiration for this idea originally come from?

David Lehman: I started writing a poem a day in 1996. I was in the middle of writing a book about the New York school of poets [The Last Avant-Garde]. That book is largely about the four poets at the core of this movement: Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler. While doing the research — I was writing my chapters on Schuyler and O’Hara — I began to write a poem a day. At first, I didn’t make a connection between these two facts, but later it seemed to me that writing a poem a day was catching the spirit of O’Hara and, to an extent, of Schuyler, too. That is, some of O’Hara’s most affecting poems, written in 1959, are like daily poems. They were written on his lunch hour and they have the date as part of the poem. In 1959 during the summer in particular he wrote some marvelous poems that are full of quotidian detail during his lunch break at the Museum of Modern Art. The most famous of the poems that O’Hara wrote that summer is called “The Day Lady Died,” which is an elegy for Billie Holiday who died on July 17th of1959. … The really interesting thing about that poem is that it situates you exactly at the time and place of its own composition so that the act of writing the poem seems to be one of the subjects of the poem. Also, the poet is very attentive to everything going on at that moment instead of being abstracted from that moment. That poem actually begins: “It is 12:20 in New York a Friday / three days after Bastille Day, yes / it is 1959 …” Those are the first two and a half lines and they situate you at the exact moment of composition. The poem reconstructs the walk the poet had just taken after lunch, culminating in the discovery of the newspaper headline — the early edition of the afternoon paper the New York Post — with the headline that Billie Holiday died. That’s how the poem ends, with that discovery. It’s a very moving elegy even though it doesn’t appear to be an elegy until the last four lines.

D:Aside from O’Hara, are there any other writers or poets whom you consider an influence to your own voice?

DL: Well, among the poets who have definitely influenced me by their example or by their practice or as a kind of inspiration include Cornell’s own A.R. Ammons who was a wonderful poet and a great man and also a great friend of mine. John Ashbery is another poet who has meant a lot to me. Frank O’Hara, whom we’ve been talking about. Kenneth Koch, my college teacher. You know, I think that if you’re any good you try to multiply the influences that are at work on you, and expose yourself to as many as you can absorb. At a certain point, you find yourself being influenced by a lot of people, whether directly or not. In my case, I know that Kierkegaard the philosopher had a big effect on me. In another way, Ernest Hemingway did, James Joyce did, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens.

D: You were responsible for organizing the Ammons memorial reading that took place in the city last October, is that right? Can you tell me a little about that?

DL: Well, it was a very moving tribute to someone that we all loved. We had John Ashbery and Richard Howard and Robert Polito and the New Yorker’s poetry editor Alice Quinn and Ammons’s Norton Editor, Jill Bialosky. The poet Rebecca McClanahan came and Roger Gilbert came down from Cornell and so did Fred Muratori. I don’t want to leave out names — Douglas Crase participated and Stephen Tapscott and Philip Fried. At any rate, we had about a dozen people and everyone read one or two poems by Archie. We concluded with a tape of Archie reading a poem and singing a few bars of “Shall We Gather at the River.” It lasted about an hour and was very solemn and very well attended. We all wish that Archie could have attended. That would have been even better.

D: Getting back to The Evening Sun, the book begins with a poem dated Jan. 1st and ends with one dated Dec. 31st. Are they all from 1999?

DL: In January of 1999, I turned in the manuscript of The Daily Mirror which was written between 1996 and 1998, and I thought I had finished the project, but I didn’t want to stop. I kept writing, I got myself into a new rhythm and suddenly realized that I was writing another book. I guess it was going to chronicle the last two years of the 20th century, 1999 and 2000. I think that gave a certain shade to the book — pardon the pun. The phase “The Evening Sun” actually appears in, I think, three of the poems in the book. Archie also makes a kind of cameo appearance in “December 3.” Archie was in a couple of poems in The Daily Mirror, [published] when he was still alive.

D: Did he have anything to say about that?

DL: Yes, he really liked that book.

D: What surprises me about The Evening Sun is the scope of subjects is pretty astounding. We go from reading a piece about the Instant Messenger to Campbell’s Soup to poems written in transit and in hospitals. What was the process of writing these extremely varied poems like?

DL: Well, the process was as simple as write one a day. If you’re doing that for two years even if you miss a couple of dates here or there you’re going to end up with 400 or 500 poems. So, then you’ve had this spontaneity of creation and the improvisation of writing on this daily installment plan. But then also later, when you’ve got the amount of material that you’ve amassed, you have an opportunity to shape it into a finished work of art. One way you do that is by selecting which of the poems will be between the covers and omitting or shelving some others. It’s like you have this big mass and you’re sculpting it into shapes, the most obvious way being by choosing which poems to include and which to omit. It’s always the case that as you’re writing you’re finding yourself influenced by what you wrote the day before and the day before that. So, I’m writing poems and, at a certain point, I realize I’m writing a book. And some of the themes establish themselves, consciously or not. I used the phrase “the evening sun” a few times before I thought of it as the title and each time I used it I didn’t know that I’d used it before. There is always something you discover in the act of writing and then, once you’ve discovered it, you can make it an element in composition thereafter.

D: What is the importance or meaning behind the title The Evening Sun?

DL: Well first of all, like The Daily Mirror, The Evening Sun calls to mind a newspaper and there’s a sort of journalistic element in writing a poem a day. That’s journalistic in a double sense — keeping a journal and also journalism. I thought it was sort of fun to take the names of defunct newspapers and say, well, in a way I’m creating a poetry newspaper.

D: It feels like the titles are almost inverses of one another.

DL: I thought there was a symmetry between the two. The Daly Mirror is more the morning paper and The Evening Sun more of an afternoon or evening paper. A mirror represents a lot of things as obviously does the sun. If you have the good luck of having the sun in your title, you’ve got the source of light and you also have the whole theme of sons and fathers, which I do write about. I have one of each.

D: I don’t want to get too off track here, but I have to say I really like the John Sloan painting on the cover of the book. How much say do you have in determining what appears on the cover?

DL: Oh, I chose that. I’m lucky because as the series editor of The Best American Poetry anthology I have the determining say in the c
over art used for that. There are other people who are involved in such decisions, as you may well imagine. There’s my editor at the publishing house; there’s her boss; there’s my agent. So a lot of people have to sign off on the decision regarding cover art; it can’t be done in a rash or unilateral way. I found the John Sloan painting at the National Gallery and I thought, this is perfect, and everyone else seemed to like it and think it suitable too.

D: You mentioned the Best American Poetry series that started in 1988. That’s become quite an institution and I was wondering as the head of that project, how much of your time does that take up? And how much time does that leave you to write?

DL: I’m happy with the way that Best American Poetry grew out of thin air, out of an idea that I had while driving on Triphammer Road one early August day in 1987. I’m somebody who has a lot of energy and who believes that all the writing you do can, at least theoretically, enhance all of the other writing that you do. And the editing of Best American Poetry involves certain tasks of attentiveness and reading and critical work that are different from the kind of mental energies are involved in writing poetry so they don’t really interfere. The only direct relation there is that every so often I find myself writing a poem for use in the foreword I write annually for Best American Poetry.

D: Regarding your various teaching positions, do you teach solely graduate courses?

DL: I do teach one undergraduate course each fall at New York University. It’s a course called Great Poems — uncompromisingly enough. It’s for honors undergraduates who placed out of the conventional freshman literature class.

D: What do you want your readers to come away with once they put down The Evening Sun?

DL: Well, how would you answer that question?

D: Well, I guess what jumped out at me is the scope of the book. There’s a lot of ground covered here, a ton of subjects ranging from baseball games to poets and historical events.

DL: You know, I have a very eclectic mind with a lot of different interests. I’ve enjoyed hearing it said about me that my poems show an amazing range of reference. I’m interested in jazz and baseball, philosophy, religion.

D: I think that, given the variety of subjects here, that there will be different standout poems for readers with different interests. Is that a fair assessment?

DL: I hope so. There are 150 [poems] in it so that there’s almost a one in two chance that if you pick up the book, you’ll find a poem for your birthday in it. There are a lot of poems that sort of mark different occasions like the opening day of baseball or Halloween. In a way, I wanted to write a book that college students would really like because I think that when you’re a college student you have a receptivity to the whole world. You haven’t specialized to the point of being very narrow. I mean, you’re taking classes in sociology, history, science, math, foreign language, whatever. I think the college student is a very discriminating as well as demanding reader. It was when I was in college that I made many of the poetry discoveries that have served me well all my life. I also love the idea that The Cornell Daily Sun is running a piece because the book is called The Evening Sun and some of the poems were written in Ithaca. Some of them mention Ithaca institutions — Autumn Leaves bookstore, the Ithaca Festival.

D: How much time do you spend in Ithaca?

DL: I try to spend as much time as I can there. I was there for about three weeks this winter, which was lucky for me. I’ll be there again in the summer.

D: Have you been able to continue writing at this one-poem-a-day pace?

DL: I’m under no compulsion to write. No one’s going to come arrest me and yell at me if I fail to write a poem every day, so I don’t worry. I don’t want to worry. I don’t want to force anything. But if I find myself writing, I’m not going to stop myself from doing that either. The question is do I type it up? I write a lot and I keep a notebook. There are days when I’m sure I write more than one poem, but I don’t necessarily type them all up. If I do, I don’t necessarily print them out and if I do that, I don’t necessarily show them to anyone or read them aloud. You know [pauses] I’m always writing. But a lot of people make a sort of fetish out of the act of writing in a negative sense; the sense of making it hard for themselves to do.

D: As in they make it a burden for themselves?

DL: Yes, as if “My Goodness, I must be equal to the task of writing a work that will endure as long as the Iliad.” Well, the chances are that you may not write a work that will endure as long as the Iliad has, and that would be putting unrealistic burdens on yourself. That may be one of the ways that people create their own stage fright. Writer’s block is a thing too many writers suffer from, although a critic might say not enough do. It’s not a problem that afflicts this particular poet.

Archived article by Nate Brown