Lewis Turco. Well, here it is September, 2010, already, my friend, and your new book, The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems, is out from www.StarCloudPress.com. It’s your first solo collection since The Airs of Wales back in 1981, if I remember the date correctly.

Wesli Court. That’s right, but you and I did a collaborative book titled The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004 six years ago.  Same press, though.


Turco. Twenty-nine years is a long time to wait for a new collection of your rhymed and metered poems.

Court. Don’t I know it!


Turco. Don’t we both? But this blurb on the jacket by X. J. Kennedy ought to make up some for the wait, shouldn’t it? He wrote, “This major collection by the astonishing Wesli Court is an event calculated to shiver all literary seismographs.  Readers addicted to poetry, but weary of ill-made poems, can latch on to it with joy.  Aspiring poets can seize it as a handbook of models, learning how to write anything from an ode to a sonnenizio, from an epigram to a blues epilogue.  While often striking a wistful, wintery tone of hail-and-farewell, there are notes of infectious cheer and some genuine surprises — even a poem to fulfill an unused title that Wallace Stevens left lying idle. With unique skill, Court shows us what a truly good metrical poem used to be, could be, and (in his able hands) still is.” That ought to make you feel pretty good.

Court. You know it does.


Turco. Here’s another one by Miller Williams — as I recall you and I both contributed poems to his handbook-anthology Patterns of Poetry in 1986: “It’s an increasingly rare pleasure to read poems about the real world in language as clear as it is lyrical, with deep roots in the past and illuminated by carefree rhyme.”

Court. Miller may have meant to say, “careful rhyme” rather than “carefree,” but his computer broke down and he sent the blurb to the publisher, Steven Swerdfeger, written out by hand. Steven couldn’t make out that one word, so he scanned it and emailed it to me for my opinion, but it was a tossup as far as I could tell. I thought “carefree” sounded more raffish than “careful,” so that’s what I voted for.


Turco. You voted for raffish rather than literary?

Court. Was I wrong?


Turco. I don’t know. Did he ever get his computer fixed?

Court. I was afraid to ask.


Turco. Here’s another comment by Rhina Espaillat: “The miraculous thing about all these poems is the way they avoid sentimentality and the temptation to reinvent the past, preferring, instead, a difficult blend of affection and detachment, honesty and regret.” The note says that it’s from a review in The Hollins Critic, but I’m a subscriber and I haven’t seen it there.

Court. I haven’t either, but I’ve seen a copy of the review — She sent a copy. It’s a fine review by a poet and critic I respect, as I do the other two as well, of course. The review will no doubt appear in due time.


Turco. You realize they’re all three friends of mine? Miller was even the director of the University of Arkansas Press which published two of my books.

Court. Certainly I know that, and they’re my friends as well, of course. The books Miller published were your The Shifting Web: New and Selected Poems in 1989 and before that, in 1986, Visions and Revisions of American Poetry, which won the Poetry Society of America’s Melville Cane Award for criticism.


Turco. Miller and I met while we were poetry fellows together at Bread Loaf in 1961, and that prize pleased him almost as much as it pleased me. But how much can one trust blurbs that are written by friends?

Court. Are you going to ask your enemies to supply you with blurbs?


Turco. Point well taken, but I’d trust these three any day. All are themselves fine formal poets.

Court. I don’t think there are any better writing today.


Turco. Well, then, let me ask you the obvious question: Why are you a traditionally formal poet?

Court. What an outrageous question! It’s your fault, and the fault of that Book of Forms of yours. I’m practically your galley slave. You’ve had me chained to the oars writing formal poems you could use in your “Handbook of Forms” actually for decades. You got to retire from teaching in ’96! Did I get to retire from writing sestinas, terzanelles, sonnets, blues…you name it? Not on your life. You could go on writing your nontraditional syllabics, prose poems, experimental stuff…what have you? But did you? Oh, no! You wanted me to pick up speed instead of retiring. Every time you wanted a formal poem, which was often, I had to write it for you!


Turco. To be fair, my book titled The Green Maces of Autumn: Voices in an Old Maine House came out late, in 2002 — it was nothing but quantitative unrhymed syllabic poems, and Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems 1959-2008 from Star Cloud had all sorts of nontraditional stuff in it, but I had no idea you objected to writing in forms!

Court. I don’t. I enjoy it. It’s a hoot and a ball. I like it very much. No, I take that back. I love it.


Turco. Then why are you complaining?

Court. Because every time I ask somebody how he’s doing he (or she) sayz, “I can’t complain.” I just wanted to prove that it’s possible to complain any time, even when you’re feeling good.


Turco. That seems perverse.

Court. That’s how I get paid sometimes.


Turco. How you get paid?

Court. Yes, “per verse.”


Turco. That’s an old pun. I should have seen it coming.

Court. I’m sure you did.


Turco. What are you working on these days?


Court. I’ve been writing a year’s worth of Epitaphs for the Poets. I hope I finished last month, August.


Turco. I hope so too. I’ve been posting them on my blog at www.lewisturco.net under the title “Uncle Wesli’s Daily Epitaph.” Who is the first poet in the sequence?

Court. John Gower who was born in the year 1330; he was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, who is the second poet. They were both poets of the royal court, and they knew each other.


Turco. How many have you written to date?

Court. I’m not sure, but the manuscript is nearly 80 pages long, and there are two or three epitaphs per page, depending on how long each is. The shortest are couplets, and the longest one, if I recall correctly, is eleven lines long, a roundelay for Swinburne, who was the inventor of the form. I think the average is three per page.


Turco That would make about 240 epitaphs. That’s a lot of writing. How long have you been working on the set?

Court. Well, I wrote the first two or three many years ago, but I started working at it in earnest last August, which is why I think I may have finished, but every now and then I find another poet I think ought to be included.


Turco. How long does it take to write one of these things?

Court. If I’m lucky, maybe five minutes, but I might tinker with one for years. Would you like me to write one for you right now? I just thought of a poet I like but somehow overlooked:

R.I.P. JOHN MASEFIELD
June 1, 1878 – May 12, 1968

He went down to the sea again,
To the lonely sea and the ships,
And that’s where Charon was waiting
For Erato to seal his lips.

Turco. How long did it take you to write that?

Court.  How long were you sitting there waiting?


Turco. I don’t think it was even five minutes. You managed to do a little research on-line, I noticed, and you looked up one of his best-known poems — to paraphrase, almost to quote in your first two lines, but the actual writing took maybe three minutes including those classical references to Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx in Hades, and Erato, the muse of lyric poetry.

Court. Sometimes I write one in my head while I’m lying sleepless in bed in the wee hours, or taking a shower. The problem is remembering it long enough to get it down on paper.


Turco. Does that happen often?

Court. Not often, but sometimes. On occasion a little poem will pop into my head without any effort at all. Once in a huge while I’ve even dreamt a poem.


Turco. And remembered it?

Court. Yes.


Turco. Any examples you can give me?

Court. This mote:

LINES TO BE EDCHED ON A WINDOW
In memory of Donald Justice

Clearly, you may see clear through me,
As though I were not here.

Turco. What is it you like so much about writing in meters and formal lines and stanzas?

Court. I love to see the language dance and hear it chime. I love to make it do what I want it to do and make it seem easy. I want to make it soar and dive deep into the human situation. I want to be able to do anything at all I wish to do with language.


Turco. That’s not easy, is it?

Court. Maybe not at first, when you’re young and learning how to write, but it gets easier and more fun the more you learn the craft and the more you practice the trade.


Turco. “Practice”? “Trade”? What are you, an artisan or an artist?

Court. Both. If you want to be a concert pianist, you’d better learn how to read music, play the piano, and practice unending hours.


Turco. There are many poets who think that poetry is inspiration, a gift of the gods, a swig from the springs of Helicon.

Court. Maybe it is, but if you’re going to be inspired someday, you’d better be ready for it, like every other artist — if you want to dance, you’d better learn all there is to know about your body and train it; if a sculptor, you better know all about stone and carving; if a painter, knowing how to draw would help — unless, of course, you’re an “abstract expressionist,” in which case anything goes. As far as I can tell it’s only poets who think they don’t have to know how to write. Neither you nor I ever felt that way.


Turco. You are so right. On the other hand, X. J. Kennedy once wrote a poem titled “Ars Poetica” that goes, “The goose that laid the golden egg / Died looking up its crotch / To find out how its sphincter worked. / Would you lay well? Don’t watch.” He’s a formal poet. Do you think he believes that?

Court. Maybe, maybe not, but he surely believes in the pun of his title. Unless I’m sadly mistaken (and I’m not), you would say anything to pull off a pun like that. At any rate, have you ever seen a concert pianist watching his hands as he plays? Joe, as Shakespeare did, just sits down and writes because long ago he taught himself how to do it, he committed what he learned to memory, and now it’s just second nature. It’s the same thing as instinct at this point.


Turco. You seem pretty blasé about the whole thing.

Court. You taught me that.


In summer of 2009, in a comment on my own piece, “Only one poem for the implosion of Capital”, I invoked Skelton for his leadership bringing female grace upon my pen.

 

Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and grene;
Of lusty somer the passyng goodly quene;

(Refreshing minds the April shower of rain;
Conduit of comfort, and well most sovereign;
Herber enverdured, continual fresh and green;    “Herber enverdured”: herb garden covered in greenery
Of lusty summer the passing goodly queen;)

 

Last year was a pretty good one for writing, but there must have been a superior, secondary, annual echo, because about a month ago, the goodly passing queen halted, pulled up a chair, and flourished a Midsummer birch wand.  Someone must have whispered my need in her ear.

Most of your poems are metrical and rhymed. Why? Do you see 21st-century metrical verse as a rejection of Modernism?

No, I don’t see using meter and rhyme as a rejection of anything. The opposite, in fact. It’s an affirmation of what drew me to poetry as a reader when I was young—the love of poems that lend themselves to being memorized, for example. I started writing verses for pleasure when I was 12 or 13, and it seemed natural to use the verse techniques of the poets I loved to read—Dickinson, Frost, Yeats and Millay were poets I fell for early and hard. Hopkins and Auden a few years later. I wrote bad imitations of all of them, too. But that’s part of learning to write poems and finding what you have to say.

One of the biggest advantages of rhyme for a poet is the way it brings randomness (via the arbitrary similarity of sounds) into the writing process. I often surprise myself, looking for rhymes, by coming up with an image or metaphor I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise or having a poem take a turn I couldn’t have predicted. Creative constraints can be freeing. But the short answer is that I write in rhyme and meter because doing so gives me pleasure. It’s not part of any program of opposition—to modernism or postmodernism or feminism or any other ism.

But why would a woman poet in 2010 want to use old-fashioned, patriarchal forms like the sonnet? Why not make up your own?

Forms don’t belong to anybody. Why cede a long-lived, flexible form like the sonnet to men? Or to Caucasians, or Christians, or Europeans? Take them and make them your own, I say. And sometimes I do invent my own forms. “Experimental” verse isn’t necessarily free verse.

Do you ever write free verse?

A poet I know who uses meter and rhyme exclusively says that he tried to write free verse once, and it nearly gave him a nervous breakdown. (Maybe he should be featured here.) I’m not quite as extreme as that, but to write free verse I seem to need a model or template of some kind. I’m paralyzed by total freedom, where every line can be broken anywhere. A few years ago I wrote a free verse poem that borrowed the basic structure and some of the rhetorical devices of “My Cat Geoffrey” by Christopher Smart. That poem, which is about Guinea Worm Disease of all things, originally was in an elaborate stanza form. It lay dead on the page until rereading Smart showed me what I needed to do—two or three years after I put the draft in a drawer.

Who are some of your poetic loves and influences?

Loves and influences aren’t necessarily the same thing. I love Whitman, but I don’t think his poems have influenced mine much. I love the Metaphysical poets, especially Herbert and Donne. I used to think that Dickinson wasn’t much of an influence, but as I’ve gotten more and more interested in verse riddles and in shorter meters than iambic pentameter, I think she’s there. Frost, Wilbur, and Larkin, definitely. Christina Rossetti, Elinor Wylie, and Louise Bogan, too, though I discovered them later than the others.

Among contemporary poets, I’ve been lucky to have generous mentors who encouraged and challenged me to do my best work, both directly and by example—among them Dick Davis, Carl Dennis, Rhina Espaillat, Dana Gioia, Sam (R.S.) Gwynn, and Timothy Steele. Among poets of my own generation, I feel an especially deep affinity with Joshua Mehigan, A.E. Stallings, and Greg Williamson, all of whom I admire and have influenced me.

It can be misleading to talk about poets as influences, though. More often it’s individual poems influencing other poems. And poets influence themselves, too, if only in the effort to avoid repeating themselves.

The main thing is to read deeply and widely and not worry too much about influences. In graduate school, I once invited a poet in the MFA program for coffee. I was thinking then of switching from the Ph.D. to the MFA program, mainly because reading literary theory was making me miserable. She seemed like (and was) a nice person, and I was eager to talk poetry, so I asked her which poets she read for pleasure. She named one contemporary American poet, and then said, “But I don’t like to read much poetry. I don’t want to be over-influenced.” I was stunned into silence. I doubt her attitude was typical—at least I hope it wasn’t. But I decided to finish my Ph.D.

Say a little about “Aubade.” What inspired it?

It came out of the experience of new motherhood. Those first weeks and months are so all-consuming, and you sleepwalk through them in a haze of sleep deprivation, a sort of timeless time. You’re up crazy hours, and the days and nights blur together. We were living in Brooklyn then, and I’d run into other mothers at the park with their toddlers or older kids, and often they’d say, “Oh, it seems like you’ll never forget the time when they’re tiny babies, but you do.” I remember vaguely thinking there might be a poem in that (everything I thought was vague at the time!). And of course my daughter wouldn’t remember any of what we did together in those early days—that struck me too. I scribbled one line from what became the poem in a notebook when she was a few months old—“You will remember none of this.” That’s where it stayed for… well, I didn’t get the poem on paper until the form finally revealed itself, about six years later.

Revealed itself?

That’s the way it feels—that the poem discovers its form. You have to be very patient sometimes, or you force it into being before it’s ready and ruin it. On the other hand, you can’t give up on the failed drafts and partial drafts if you think they have potential. You have to exhume the bodies now and then and check them for signs of life.

What’s the form of “Aubade”?

It’s in 8-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, each stanza having two rhyme-endings, with the seventh and eighth lines identical to the first and third.

Never heard of that.

I made it up—at least I think I did. But the form was inspired by a Louis MacNeice poem called “Meeting Point,” about two people having a love affair who share the illusion that their love can make time stop. That poem, also tetrameter, uses five-line stanzas in which the last line repeats the first. It’s a wonderful poem. I’d come across it a long time before, in college maybe, and then a few years ago I encountered it again and was fascinated with the music it made. I memorized it and carried it around for awhile. And that one little line of my own germinated.

Why the generic title? Isn’t it like calling a villanelle “Villanelle”?

Not quite, I think. A bigger strike against it is that Larkin used it for one of his greatest poems. But titling it “Aubade” let me frame the poem as a conversation with the many other poets who have written aubades, in various cultures and over centuries. I could participate in that tradition in my own way. That early, all-consuming bond between a mother and an infant is like the early stages of a love affair, and even as you suffer sleeplessness and mood swings and feel completely overwhelmed, like someone in love you want that time to last forever. And you know that it can’t. I could say a lot with the title without having to say it outright.

Is it typical for you to take years to finish a poem?

Unfortunately, yes. It seems to take me ten years, more or less, to collect enough poems for a book.

So we can expect the next one in 2014?

Maybe. If I’m as lucky with finding a publisher as I was the last time, which is a big if.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing or working (or taking your daughter to play rehearsals and softball practice)?

My husband and I just finished watching an excellent Brit TV series called Foyle’s War, about a police detective (played by Michael Kitchen) investigating murders in Hastings during World War II. We felt bereft when we’d watched the last one. Another of our recent enthusiasms is Breaking Bad. Right now our recommendations on Netflix are divided into two categories: “Understated British Dramas” and “Critically-acclaimed, Violent TV Shows.”

I started studying piano a year and a half ago. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Getting your hands to do different things simultaneously is not an easy skill for a middle-aged person to pick up, so I have to be patient with myself. My favorite genre is blues, which sounds good even when arranged for a beginner. I take lessons every other week, and my piano teacher and I exchange “words of the day” at the end of each one. My word of the day last week was “opsimath”—somebody who learns something new later in life.

Why have you been putting off doing this interview for months? Why have you stood me up and screened my calls?

I don’t know. Sorry! I couldn’t sit down and do it until the deadline was bearing down on me. I guess I have a horror of coming off as self-centered and self-indulgent.

But you’re a poet!

Right. It comes with the territory! Might as well embrace it.

Anything else you’d like to say?

That I’m really jazzed about being featured on TNB, especially now that I’m done with this interview. Please tell Uche thanks!