Interview by Gavin J. Grant
Eleanor Lerman was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1952. She is the author of two previous books of poetry, Armed Love, and Come the Sweet By and By. She has been nominated for a National Book Award, received the inaugural Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press, and was the recipient of a fiction grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives and works in New York City. In April this year, Sarabande Books published her latest collection, The Mystery of Meteors.
BookSense.com: I've read that for a long time you were not writing poetry. Were you still writing during that time?
Eleanor Lerman: I was doing some writing for a while-for example, I wrote a couple of short stories, one of which, "Remedies," turns up in collections of gay fiction from time to time. I also worked with my brother on some crime-related books he's done. But mostly, no, I was just living my life -- the wrong kind of life, as it turns out. I wish I could make my absence from struggling with literature into something romantic (a crippling love affair, a decades-long meditation on the cruel nature of art) but it's much more mundane: I was trying to live what I thought was a normal life, but thankfully, I wasn't equipped for that. It just took a very, very long time to turn back to what I really wanted to do, and that was to write. The most interesting thing about the whole experience is that I thought, for years, that I had absolutely nothing to say, but as soon as I decided to try to write poetry again, wham -- I couldn't stop. It surprised even me.
What kicks off a poem for you? Is there one thing that always happens, or .. .?
It's usually some sort of phrase that just occurs to me during the course of the day. If I want to, I can sort of look for it, and if I look, I'll find it on a daily basis, but I can also be more lazy and just wait. Here's an example: I was on the subway the other day, riding from Manhattan to the Bronx, and there's a place where the train goes above ground. I was passing by Yankee Stadium, but looking over to the other side, to where there was a row of tenements; it was late afternoon and the light was hitting the windows in a certain way. And then I thought, Sunset hammers at the windows of Mt. Eden Avenue. That's the kernel of a poem. However, I don't usually have a real idea of what the poems is "about," or what it will make me feel, until I sit down and try to fit the phrase into some sort of framework.
Are you ever inspired from other forms of art?
Just about anything can give me an idea, but even if the stimulus is external, the idea only exists briefly on its own as something inspired "from the outside." In the example I gave earlier, about "sunset hammers," it was afternoon light that gave me the idea, but then I take that and kind of match it up with other ideas, memories, feelings that are rolling around inside my psyche at the moment. I would say that as a person, and as a writer, I am much more attuned to and a product of culture-specifically, American culture-than I am to art.
Are you writing pretty consistently?
I can't stop. But it's a lot less crazy than it was when I was younger. I used to feel that if I didn't write every day, I was falling down on the job. And I never edited anything -- I just spewed it out, and there it was. Good or bad, it was finished as soon as it was written. I'm more thoughtful now -- I hope! -- about what I'm doing, and I've become -- again, there's a big element of hope here -- a good editor of my own work. I don't think that because I wrote something, it's just fine as is. Now, writing a poem or a story is the beginning of the process; there's usually some work to be done to fine-tune the piece.
In your earlier poetry the focus is more introspective. Was it a conscious choice to look outside of yourself with these new poems?
The answer is probably that I'm older now and I don't think I'm as fascinating as I apparently thought I was when I was younger. I don't see the world as revolving around me and my feelings. I can see myself in a larger context -- life, death, how many times a day to walk the dog, -- the usual stuff that everybody has to deal with as time goes on. I'm still, of course, very concerned with my personal fate, but I also realize that there are bigger things going on and in order to understand anything about my life, I have to see myself in relationship to all the things that have happened to me, to the world around me, the things I've come to believe, the things I can't change. None of this is very profound or original, but that's part of why I'm sure it's true; there's very little I'm experiencing that most people my age -- I'm 49 -- wouldn't relate to in one way or another.
A lot of your earlier poetry seems to have come from anger or unsettled feelings. Can you still relate to that poetry?
I'm so much more amused now than I was when I was younger. (It wasn't politically correct to find anything amusing when I was in my twenties.) But I can go back and read what I wrote and understand how strong my feelings were -- they're equally strong now, only not so angry. I've gone through some mighty struggles with myself -- I'm sure we all have -- and while I'll bet there's a lot of trouble still to come, I seem to be in a bit of a lull now, so I'm trying to enjoy the calm. And be philosophical about whatever comes next.
This sense of amusement is tangible in your poetry. Have you found this opens your poetry to a different kind of reader?
I hope so. When I was younger, the reviews of my work usually referred to them in some way as "X-rated." Right there, it seems like the people I'm writing for are on the fringe, where I guess I was at the time. Well, I'm about as far from the edge as you can get now, and I think people reading the book are probably going to be in the same group -- they've got a history, but now their big problems are getting to work on time, hoping that bump on their shin isn't cancer. You know, the usual wonders that life hands you in middle age.
How has the world of poetry reacted to your return?
Well, I wish I could tell you that it's been as much of an event as John Travolta's return to the silver screen, but really, nothing much has happened except that I've reconnected with people I thought I had lost back in the dim mists of time. They're still around, I'm still around, and it's nice to fine old friends have missed you.
Some of your poetry seems to be almost a new type of American poetry, using tabloid ideas or imagery...
As I mentioned above, I know I have been shaped by the culture I've been raised in and have absorbed every minute of every day for many years. When I was a child, my family's life revolved around television; if we were outside, we had the radio on. And the radio was an extraordinary conduit of culture because you could experience something -- Roger Maris hitting the big home run, Jean Shepherd talking about his Indiana childhood on WOR, late at night -- in a way that was so intimate, it seemed to be directed specifically at you, to involve you. And you could be somewhere else while this was happening-in the park, in bed, half asleep-which somehow made it more magical, because you had the sense of being safe in your familiar environment and yet experiencing all these extraordinary things that came out you from the airwaves. And I think because my parents didn't try to filter any of this-culture was good, tv and radio were good -- I loved all of it unconditionally. I think also because my grandparents were immigrants, but immigrants from the wave of people who came here to escape things so terrible that they wouldn't tell you about them, or even really tell you where they were from. (I come from a generation of people who believed, for a long time, that there really was a place on the other side of the ocean called "the old country.") So, the message was, you're American, be glad you're American, enfold yourself in being American. Well, that never stopped. So yes, give me a copy of People magazine or a book about alien abductions and I'm happy-since those things now, too, are part of American culture. I love it all.
What are you reading?
Recently, the new biography of Jung (an anti-Semite, a racist and more than a little nutty: go figure); Guns, Germs and Steel, The Secret Pilgrim by John Le Carré, The Dating Game (about the geologist Arthur Holmes), The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.
Do you have any recommendations?
Leonard Cohen and James Tate, always. The best writing teachers I ever had. Though, I must say that the one time I actually met Leonard Cohen, all he really wanted to talk about was where he could find a good movie playing in New York. It actually made me like him better -- he's not just the moody poet or an aesthete; like everybody else, he wants to eat some popcorn and watch a good thriller.
Do you have a good local bookshop?
Does anybody? I thought the only place books were sold now was online or in a mall. I'm not complaining though -- it's another cultural development that's OK with me. I can always find what I want and if I order online, a nice little box comes straight to my desk. It reminds me of how we used to order books for our summer reading in the sixth grade. Books in boxes are better than candy.
Author photo by Ben Fraker.