Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

The Most Essential Element of All:
An Interview with Laurence Lieberman


Photo courtesy of the publisher


I interviewed Laurence Lieberman on January 10, 2013 in his study on the fourth floor of the University of Illinois Library in Urbana. Behind a bookshelf, a well-used electric typewriter sits on one small desk. Another desk allows for longhand writing. There’s no computer. Besides books, the shelves contain folders, vinyl recordings, and CDs. A working turntable sits nearby.

It’s in this windowless, isolated room that Lieberman has written thirteen books of poetry and three books of criticism while serving as poetry editor for the University of Illinois Press for its distinguished series of books of poetry until its discontinuance in 2009. Among the 96 books Lieberman edited for the series are volumes by Kevin Stein, Peter Serchuk, and Michael Harper, whose poems are included in this issue of FWJ. This sanctuary belies the immense amount of work that Lieberman has done here while serving as a professor of English and now an emeritus professor. Suffice it to say that what led him here to this room and this work were early mentors who planted the seed at Michigan where he was a double major in premed and English. Although he began studying medicine after undergraduate school, he eventually could not resist the pull of literature instilled in him by mentors like Austin Warren, whom he remembers fondly just before our interview begins and to whom he often refers as being among his most important influences. 

Fifth Wednesday Journal: I would like to start by referring to a recently published Tottenville Review blog, in which Salvador Reyes begins a two-part essay he is doing on you and Joseph Ceravolo. Part I introduces the two of you and expands on Ceravolo’s work. Part II, which will appear some time this spring, will deal predominantly with your work. But in Part I, he says that he chose the two of you to write about because “The last forty years have been a dark time for poetry’s solo wanderers . . . Even as poetry’s readership diminishes, the shoals fill their ranks — every oversized, famished new school thrashing over the same shrinking supply of literary affection . . . Who are the poets who have followed the actual path (not the mimicked one) of adventurers like [Gertrude] Stein, [Frank] O’Hara, and [John] Ashbery — striking out on their own? . . . When I cast back over the last forty years of American poetry in search of the most gloriously singular journeys, I hear two voices above the rest: Joseph Ceravolo and Laurence Lieberman.” And he concludes Part I by saying that like your poetry, Ceravolo’s poems are “not the random, stir-the-pot-&-let-the-synapses-fire, pop-culture snippets of imagery and phraseology that are the hallmark of post-modern poetic descendants like the language school.”
Are you an adventurer in the medium, someone who has deliberately not followed the schools, the mainstream of poetry? Is that a conscious act?

Laurence Lieberman: Interesting question. I would love to believe that about myself. I’ve never affiliated with any particular school. And in my criticism, I named my first book of essays Unassigned Frequencies because the poets that I wrote about all interested me for their unique character, their unique persona. They didn’t seem to be necessarily following anybody’s school. What I found most interesting in them was that they were singular voices. And one thing I wasn’t aware of until I’d been writing about other poets for a long time is that I love to read and write about poetry that is as little like my own as possible. You know, the last thing in the world I wanted was to find poets who wrote as I did. And I tried to develop the widest range of taste, to find remarkable poetry with the broadest possible diversity. So that’s what interested me in other people’s work.

FWJ: You have written a great deal on a variety of writers with singular styles: Robert Lowell, John Ashbery, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman. And you published an essay on your own influences in My Business Is Circumference: Poets on Influence and Mastery, edited by Stephen Berg in 2001, a valuable book for both novice and accomplished writers. (Berg’s title comes from a sentence written by Emily Dickinson.)   You elaborate there on why you have read and studied poets who write very differently from the kind of poetry that you write. But what are your specific influences, because you do have them. How did you arrive at this architectonic long poem?

LL: Roethke was certainly a great influence on my work, and so was Hart Crane. And in another way, Marianne Moore. Those were major influences, and they are all in that essay. But one writer that I didn’t mention, whom I have become more aware of recently as being a strong influence on my work, is May Swenson, a marvelous poet. And of all those, she’s the one I got to know personally, because I hosted her for a reading at Berkeley when I was a graduate student there, and subsequently, kept running into her again and again, both in the Virgin Islands and in New York City. I think she’s a magnificent poet. Her playfulness with language and with forms is perhaps even more of an influence on me than the work of Marianne Moore. Swenson is constantly having fun discovering a new way to play with her line in the shape of the poem on the page.

I remember a long poem I had in the Atlantic a few years ago when Peter Davison was still the poetry editor. He said that the way my poems are shaped on the page — the typography and so on — reminded him of one of his great favorite poets: May Swenson. I was so pleased to hear that because she was someone whose work I admired so much.

FWJ: Have you ever written about May Swenson?

LL: No, I haven’t. And I really should. Actually, my favorite books of hers are ones that came out posthumously. Sadly, she died of very severe asthma at age 76. She won a MacArthur Grant two years before she died and went on to write much of her greatest poetry, which has been collected in a wonderful book called Nature.

You ask about my “architectonic” long poem. I’d like to talk about that, and also how my poetry has evolved. I was born in Detroit and grew up in the Midwest. Virtually, with the exception of my family going down to Florida every summer where my grandfather owned a hotel, I did very little traveling outside of the Midwest until I met my wife, Bernice, in 1955 and took a car trip with her out to Berkeley. The images from nature as we traveled across the country to California had a huge impact on me. It was mostly subconscious, something I only realized in retrospect. But the kind of poetry I most emulated — Theodore Roethke’s richly textured diction or Hart Crane’s lapidary portraits — is replete with concrete detail and extrovert imagery. And their music and rich texture of language was something that I fell in love with. However, I didn’t seem to have any subject matter in the world around me that would justify the use of that kind of language.

When I got to California, suddenly there was something in the outside world that the language I wanted to write could marry itself to. One of the first poems I wrote in California was called “Eucalyptus Dance.”  And, incidentally, that’s the first poem I ever published. It appeared in The Nation in 1959.

Later, in St. Thomas — where I taught at the College of the Virgin Islands from 1964 to 1968 — I found that there was a world waiting right there for my ebullient language to match up with. And recently, I’ve been puzzling over the fact that the key subject of my earlier poetry was the underwater world, what the skin diver sees, rather than the human culture that I came to realize was there in abundance.

FWJ:  Many of the poems that make up The Osprey Suicides (1973) encompass that subject.

LL: Yes. The poetry of the sea. And the whole last section of my first book, The Unblinding (1968), is some of that poetry. Curiously, I had not become as aware of the culture around me as I was of the natural world. I took it for granted. We thought we were just going to stay there indefinitely. We loved the Virgin Islands. And we supposed that we would go traveling around the Caribbean whenever we got around to it. But we never did, because after we decided to move back to the States, we didn’t have time, other than a few trips to Puerto Rico. Therefore, my poetry focused essentially on the coral reefs and the underwater world. I had a particular fascination with different kinds of underwater life, which largely grew out of my affection for the animal poems of D. H. Lawrence and Marianne Moore. And then before I knew it, I had moved to Illinois to teach at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where I have lived since 1968.

Within two years of living in Illinois, I had won a grant which gave me a whole year in Japan. And it occurs to me now that while I was in Japan I was so much more aware that I was in a place of rich culture, because I had committed myself to writing about that country. So I approached it with a different attitude than I had when I was living in the Virgin Islands. When I was in Japan, I knew I would be there for only a short time — one year — and I wanted to find in that country images that my heart could most connect with.  It wasn’t until after my third book of poetry was published — God’s Measurements (1980), the book about Japan — that I realized I might have explored the cultural treasures of the Caribbean in much the same way as I had relished those of Japan.

And then I devised this plan — it started in 1980 — to go to the Caribbean and to visit all the countries there that my students had come from when I taught at the College of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas. It was as if I had grown to know the country through the students, and to have a feeling for each of the places they’d come from. And I decided to go to the places that I had known only indirectly through the students themselves.

Eastern Airlines had a special ticket you could get for a reasonable amount of money whereby over a period of three or four weeks you could go to as many different places as you wished for the price of one ticket. So I made arrangements to go to St. Lucia, Trinidad, Barbados, and the Dominican Republic.

FWJ: There’s an observation you made in an essay on Theodore Weiss in the Yale Review of 1971 that somewhat reveals the strategy that you use in your poetry. You say, “A poet must be a gardener or a mountaineer first, a word maestro second. Most of us learned the language too fast, and if we get lucky, we spend the rest of our lives learning to slow down, to wait for the words to reconnect with those avatars that enshrine them: things of this world.”Is this what you wanted to do when you returned to the Caribbean?

LL: Yes. I’m glad to be reminded of that because, as I said earlier, it wasn’t until after I discovered these exhilarating and transformative places in the world, I could somehow muster the kind of language I felt I was bursting to write in poetry. So once I found myself in Japan and the Caribbean, the right language welled up for me. But the places came first.

FWJ: That’s interesting. Just before then you’d written an essay on John Berryman, William Stafford, and James Dickey in 1968 — a sort of manifesto to writers in which you seem to be saying that they should contain multitudes of selves, to paraphrase Whitman. You describe the process as an “aesthetics of expansional poetry,” saying “an expansional poet has learned to liberate his personality, not just his experience in poems. He’s free to discover all levels of his personality, all hidden selves coming into play.” This brings us around from the importance of being a geographer or a mountaineer to the individual. It’s something that you had said about beginning to understand the culture of the Caribbean, not from just being in the place, but from the people who lived there. Is that what you meant by the “aesthetics of expansional poetry”?

LL: Well, specifically, I was writing about Dickey, Stafford, and Berryman. And now as I look back, maybe Berryman in the long haul is representative of expansional poetry more than Dickey or Stafford. If I were to talk about it now, I think I would talk about Berryman’s Dream Songs and Robert Lowell’s variously revised Notebooks. Both of those works — and I’ve written about them in my last book of essays — became in a mysterious way for the author a serial chain of poems to express what is the widest possible range of their sensibilities. And almost everything in their lives became accessible to poetry through that expansive medium. That I admire particularly.

But I’m talking about other poets whose work I love, rather than my own poetry. I’ve never done anything quite like that myself. To talk about my own expanded poem and the way I finally got moving into it, the first poem of that kind, I really believe, was “The Osprey Suicides.”  I had written a couple of other long poems in my first book, but it wasn’t the same thing. And I remember writing a first draft of “The Osprey Suicides” when I was at Yaddo in 1970. I had already lived in the Virgin Islands for several years, and I had visited Miami quite a bit because I had family down there. And the “Osprey Suicides” is set in Miami. I sent an early draft of that poem to Howard Moss at The New Yorker. Soon I got a wonderful letter back from him saying that they were tempted by this poem, but it didn’t quite work for them. It wasn’t as if he was saying that I should send it back again. He didn’t. But he said they were moved by it and it came close. It never occurred to me that I would try to revise it and send it back to them until I was in Japan in 1971. And I got to revising this poem, hoping to overcome some of the difficulties in it. I sent it back to The New Yorker just as a kind of fluke. Then I got a letter from Moss saying that they really loved the poem and they wanted to publish it, but there were a lot of weak sections in it, and would I consider making some cuts. I agreed with about two-thirds of the cuts, not all of them. But then I was left perplexed because the form didn’t work after I made all those cuts. I thought, well, I want this poem to have the power from the form that it seemed to have in its images. And I started playing around with a whole new kind of form that seemed to create an expansiveness.

So I wound up being pushed by accident into a totally different kind of form than what I had started with. I had at best a flimsy hope that they would approve the new form, but I didn’t care. I wanted it to be the poem it needed to be. When I sent it back, I told Moss that this wasn’t the same poem anymore, but I agreed with a lot of his cuts, and here’s what I have now. And then there was no question about it. He took it without changing anything. But that experience of plunging into a totally new form, one that somehow seemed to bespeak something in my other life — the spirit world, my subconscious, what have you — once I’d had that adventure, I would never settle for anything less in writing the long poem. And that’s how it all got started.


James Ballowe, FWJ advisory editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University. His biography of Joy Morton, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2009. In 2010, the University of Illinois Press published his anthology, Christmas in Illinois. He will be the guest poetry editor for issue 12 in spring, 2013.

The complete interview with Laurence Lieberman is available in the spring 2013 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. You may purchase it at the pre-release price until May 15th.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *