Interviewed by Jackson Sabbagh
The quickie that the speaker suggests to his beloved in Lucky Me seems to be a way to stop dwelling on growing older, a way of having fun right now. Is one method more valuable than the other? Can we have one without the other?
At my age there’s really no such thing as a quickie, it turns out. That detail aside, I think of Lucky Me as a love song for the moment, in which we are healthy and reasonably prosperous and even happy, but which is also terrifyingly precarious and feels like the beginning of the end of something—faced as we are with the Zika virus and global warming and ISIS and those loons out in Oregon, and all the other horrors of our age. As a child of the sixties and seventies I grew up with an almost overwhelming sense of impending doom—we all assumed we’d be nuked to cinders at some point, probably before graduation. I also lived with an arrhythmia for about fifteeen years, which makes you feel like you’re dying even if you aren’t. So it’s a vivid awareness of one’s mortality, mostly—and worry about the kind of future my kids will have, but also delight and gratitude that they’re smart and healthy and that I have the great fortune to be married to a lovely woman who seems to like me pretty well, and so on. It’s a struggle, right? Not to give in to worry and depression. It’s not about fun so much as having a reason not to blow your head off. Once you’ve made the conscious decision not to kill yourself, it changes your perceptions a bit. That’s really what all of my poems are about, I think.
Lucky Me is in part a record of events and wishes that might have otherwise slipped past. Is that a benefit of writing for you? What did writing this poem give to you?
Well, as I say—at some point the ambulance turns at your corner and stops in front of your house, and whatever’s inside it is there for you. It’s inevitable. The other thing that happens is that you get old, if you’re lucky. You put on some weight because it’s your nature and the gym is a fucking bore, and your hairline starts to go and your face changes and gets pouchy and lumpy in ways that aren’t so great, and you can either fight it—you know, hours and hours on the treadmill, like a hamster in its wheel—or you can say OK, fine, this is who I am now. I’ve decided to take the Taoist approach, but with cocktails. This poem was a way of thinking about that, maybe.
The Lego structures in Legoland are so believably wacky. Was this inspired by an actual visit? Do you find that you write poems more to record places you’ve seen, or to invent or imagine places you’ve never been?
All of my wife’s family live in SoCal, so once on a visit we ended up at Legoland—fun for the kids, etc. It’s the kind of place you can’t make up—or at least I can’t. Most, maybe even all, of the Lego things in the poem are real, or at least I remember them, or think I do. It’s kind of a hallucinatory experience—that acid flashback they warned us about in middle school. So it’s not so much about recording places, but making sense of them, real or not, and the things that happen there. I do imagined landscapes, too—one of the poems in the forthcoming book takes place on a spaceship manned by giant lobsters—and sometimes surreal-ish takes on actual places, which is maybe what “Legoland” is. My experience of life generally feels like something out of a Magritte painting, though. Just to add—when I travel, I generally don’t take a lot of pictures. I prefer to remember things as I remember them, not as the camera does. Which is to say, memory with all its mangling and elision and getting everything wrong interests me more than the mechanical—or digital—truth you get from a camera.
In Legoland, we see how a father’s personality can be passed down to his son, and to his son, and so forth. Did this observation occur to you spontaneously as you were writing, or had you set out deliberately to explore that topic? Which of these modes of observation comes more naturally to you?
Usually when I’m drafting a poem I have only a very tenuous understanding of what it’s about (sometimes when they’re finished, too). I start with an image or a line or a title and work forward from there, and whatever conclusions the poem might arrive at are discovered as I go along. I think if you know what you’re going to say before you say it, there’s not much point in writing the poem, generally speaking. What’s interesting is the discovery.
After writing about people close to you, do you perceive them differently? Do you think about your poems’ subjects during your daily encounters with them?
I’m not sure I entirely understand the question, but I’ll venture in anyway. When you write about someone, whether it’s a poem or a non-fiction piece or even, God help them, if they end up as a character in a novel—you’re not really writing about them so much as a kind of stripped-down, poem/essay/novel-sized version of them. They become a character, for better or worse. So, you find that as you write, and for the life of the poem or whatever, you have a relationship with the person, but also the character—which is like the person but other than, if that makes any sense. You try to do right by people, but sometimes the poem requires the saying of Difficult Things, so then it’s a matter of saying them or not writing the poem. I will say that, in my experience, people generally don’t like to be written about, and wish I’d leave them and their lives the hell alone and stop telling everyone their secrets. To which my answer is kind of the Anne Lamott thing: you should have thought of that before you started hanging out with a writer. So maybe it changes their perception of me, more than my perception of them.
What do the drafts of both these poems look like? How would you describe your editing process?
They look terrible. It works like this: I write a draft. I think it’s pretty good! I go downstairs and read it to my wife. What do you think? I say. There’s a pause. It’s good, she says. I’ve learned that this is code for “It stinks.” So I go back upstairs and write another draft.