Poet Thomas Lux On Writing Non-fiction
April 9, 2012 12:55 p.m.
Guest: Thomas Lux, award-winning poet, Bourne Professor of Poetry, Georgia Tech University
Related Story: Poet Thomas Lux Scans San Diego
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Who do San Diego's eccentricity, oddities and dark corners look like to a celebrated poet? Thomas Lux' essays have appeared over the last decade or so in the San Diego reader. He took on topics that span from fire eaters, native insects, and now those essays have been compiled in a book called from the south land. Thomas is professor of poetry at Georgia tech, received many awards for his poetry in addition to many fellowships. He's here in San Diego to read his poetry as part of SDSU's living writers series. Welcome, Thomas.
LUX: Thank you, Maureen. Glad to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as a poet, from the southland is your first collection of nonfiction prose. How did you and Judith Moore begin your working relationship?
LUX: She just called me. I was teaching at UC Irvine in 1995, and she could tell from my poems that I had grownup on a dairy farm, and she wanted me to write an article on one of the last dairy farmers in the San Diego area, in San Diego County. And I said sure.
LUX: I'll try it.
CAVANAUGH: And from that rose this series of articles.
CAVANAUGH: How did your working relationship develop with Judith? She saw your work on the dairy farm, then you expanded from there. How did you pick your topics?
LUX: Well, sometimes she suggested topics, sometimes the editor James holman did. And after a while, particularly, I could pitch some articles myself, and sometimes they would let me do the ones that I pitched.
CAVANAUGH: And how long did you come -- were here in San Diego research something
LUX: I come for a week or ten days or so. They had a condo in Coronado for visiting writer. So you could stay there, and they paid your travel, and you just did whatever it took to do the article.
CAVANAUGH: Pretty sweet!
LUX: Yeah, and I'd go home and write it. I'd take lots of pictures for my memory, then I'd go home and write it.
CAVANAUGH: What is it hike for a poet to write reader-style nonfiction pieces?
LUX: It was really hard! It was incredibly hard. I had no idea how to do it at first. I got a lot of help from Judith, a lot of encouragement and tips, and the Reader was very patient with me. I think I said somewhere I don't know what they were thinking asking a poet to do this and actual printing particularly the first three or four articles.
CAVANAUGH: What did you find particularly difficult about it?
LUX: Writing prose. I had never written any extensive nonfiction prose before. I had read huge amounts of it. I read huge amounts of nonfiction, general nonfiction, history in particular, a lot of natural history. But I had no idea how to write it. It's a completely differentart form. So I had to learn on the fly. And it was hard.
CAVANAUGH: Was it the fact of telling a story rather than giving all your impressions of a particular place but actually telling the story itself?
LUX: Yes, yes. Telling a story in a poem is different than telling a story in prose. And it had to be lengthy. They had to be at least 6,000 words which is about 20 pages. So that was a considerable number of words to write. And putting it together, organizing it, when to quote people, when not to, how far I would go with being, say, a wisenheimer, how I could get off track on tangents. I managed to get poetry things in quite a few of them, and little bits and pieces here and there, but it was hard.
CAVANAUGH: I want to read you something from one of your essays on San Diego. This is from your article on Cirque Ubu. And you write about the women's costumes, you say they are dadaist, sexy 18th century French court-influenced, colors lashed with colors. Miss Kitty from Gunn smoke influenced, cubist at a slant. Not your usual circus tights and bangle. Now, do you think that's a sample of poetry and prose combined?
LUX: It is. In poetry, that's called a list, or catalog and enumeration. So that's a very common tool in the poet's tool box. I remember that sentence. It was fun to write that. And they were an interesting group. That particular article is not in the book, however.
CAVANAUGH: And it's image after image after image. And that is the part that's very poetic
LUX: Well, probably. My poetry is very concrete, and imagistic, and metaphorical, and very little abstraction.
CAVANAUGH: What kinds of things did you write about?
LUX: For the reader? Oh, I did an article on fire eaters. One time I did an article on hypnosis. I got hypnotized by several different people and wrote about that. I did an article on people who weep, who cry uncontrollably, and I also got to research the mechanics of tears, tear ducts and things like that. And I interviewed a lot of people who have cried a lot for various reasons. I did the dairy farm article. A guy who took pictures of insects. I really liked going around with him and seeing his pictures and things like that.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what kind of place did that leave you an impression that San Diego is as compared, let's say, with Massachusetts where you grew up, or Georgia where you teach now? Does San Diego stand out in your mind with its own separate personality?
LUX: Yes, I've been to LA several times, and other west coast cities, but I had never been to San Diego until I came here and it was a beautiful city. Everybody, I think I said this somewhere, everybody at one time or another that I knew in San Diego or met in San Diego used the word paradise to describe it. Of the weather, the mountains, the ocean, Mexico, etc. So I really liked it here. And that's part of the reason why I came back. It was fun to come back here, and more and more I was able to do weirder or more unusual things. I don't write political -- I write about characters, and the odder the better.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you are here in San Diego this time to join in the SDSU living writer series. You're going to be reading your poetry tonight. And you've been kind enough to agree to read a poem for us.
CAVANAUGH: You have a poem -- because this is kind of illustrative of the idea that a lot of things spark your poetry. This poem that you're going to choose and read for us is called refrigerator, 1957.
LUX: Yes, I'm thinking of the refrigerator in the house where I grew up on a dairy farm in a small town in Massachusetts. And it centers around one thing that you'll hear in that refrigerator. Refrigerator, 1957, more like a vault, you pull the handle out, and on the shelves, not a lot. And what there is, a boiled potato in a bag, a chicken carcass under foil, looking disspirited, drained, mugged. This is not a place to go in hunger or hope. But, but just to the right of the middle, door shelf, on fire, a lit from within, heart-red, sexual-red, wet neon red, shining red, in their liquid, exotic, a loaf, slumming in such company, a jar of merachino cherries. 3/4 full, fiery globes like strippers at a church social. merachino cherries. Merachino, the only foreign word I knew. Not once did I see these cherries employed, not in a drink nor on top of a glob of ice cream, or just pop one in your mouth. Not once. The same jar there through an expire childhood of dull dinners. Bald meat, hocked peas, and see above, boiled potatoes. Maybe they come over from the old country, family heirlooms or were status symbols bought with the piece of the first paycheck. They were beautiful, and if I never ate one it was because I knew it might be missed, or because I knew it would not be replaced. And because you do not eat that which rips your heart with joy. They just had such color, there was nothing else in the refrigerator that had any color except these merachino cherries. I asked my mother at one point why they were there, and she said she put half of one on my grandmother's half of a grapefruit about once a month. So that's why they lasted so long.
[ LAUGHTER ]
LUX: You don't get a lot of money from being a poetic but I've gotten like 15 jars of cherries over the years from this poem.
CAVANAUGH: Thomas when did you know that you wanted to be a poet?
LUX: I always loved to read as a kid. But I didn't discover poetry except for Mr. Frost and a few other poets in high school until I got to college in Boston in 1966. And I discovered there was a contemporary poetry which I didn't know existed, and I had a terrific teacher at a writing class at Emerson college, a real poet who was a teacher, Helen Chasin. And I learned more about the craft, and I fell deeply in love with it, and just kept doing it, and studying and reading and practicing.
CAVANAUGH: It seems that in a sense, poetry is more popular in the sense of poetry slams and other events that celebrate imagery and the rhyming word and so forth. Would you agree with that?
LUX: Absolutely. In my own writing life, the poetry world has -- and I count that about 40 years, has grown tremendously. And I given a lot of credit to the spoken word, the slam poets. These are not read to be understood. And they read with great energy and passion. But there's poetry in places that there never was before. It's not huge. It'll never be like ballet or serious theatre or anything, but it has grown. And it's been fun to be on that ride for almost 40 years now.
CAVANAUGH: Now, it seems that you read with great energy and passion yourself. Is this something that you had to learn to do? Would you prefer writing to performing your poetry?
LUX: Well, you have to write it first. And in order to get it to sound like it to somebody speaking with a certain amount of energy, I have to sweat blood. Everything I write takes at least 15 or 20 drafts. So the whole point is to make it sound like it's spontaneous, and someone just talking, but in order to do that, you have to work very hard. I do like reading. It's like a responsibility to the reader. If you stand up in front of an audience, and you're not reading loudly enough or you're not enunciating properly, if your poems are obscure, then that's kind of insulting and rude to the listener or reader. And my poems are meant to be spoken out loud, they're human speech.
CAVANAUGH: You hear some old recordings of earlier poets reading their work, and it's often quite disappointing. It never used to be the part of the idea of being a poet, performing your own work.
LUX: Right. I remember listening to Wallace Stevens the first time, incredibly dull reader. Even Elliot. Even though they had great ears for the music of our language, they read in a kind of monotone, almost a recitation, whereas poets are doing less and less of that now.
CAVANAUGH: What about the students that you teach? When someone says I really want to do this, I really want to become a poet, is it something that you embrace or say oh, wait a minute, let me tell you a story, son?
[ LAUGHTER ]
LUX: I often joke, I say if this is something you have to do, it's not a choice, it's something you either have to do or you don't, and if they say they have to do it, then I say I'll say a little prayer for them, and I will do everything I can to help them. I've had lots and lots of students over the years who I'm still in touch with even 30 years afterward. Anybody wants to do this, and they're serious, I pretty much will do whatever I can to help them.
CAVANAUGH: Thomas lux's book of essays about San Diego is called from the south land. He will read his poetry as part of the SDSU living writers series tonight at 7:00 in Scripps cottage on the SDSU campus. The event is open to the public, admissions free, and Thomas Lux, thank you so much.
LUX: Thank you. Thank you very much.