Mark Leidner weaponizes the deadpan tone of a defeated world to reclaim that classically Romantic thing: the Sublime. Weaponizes like the weapon is a water gun; reclaims like he’s won a water gun contest and the reward is the end of global warming. In Returning the Sword to the Stone, Mark isolates the scenes of absurdity that string our inner lives together while gesturing toward the authenticities still available to us at this late date, this deeply stupid, cynical, and sentimental moment in history. Reading this collection was re-invigorating and a reminder that the opposite of stupidity is not intelligence but love.
Mark is a generous, wise, and witty writer. This interview was conducted by email.
While reading these poems, I was reminded of the D W Winnicott line where he says flippancy is a reaction to despair. What do you think is the relationship between that attitude and that feeling in your work? Does playfulness exist in concert with futility/frustration, or is it something purer and more simply fun?
I try to pair flippancy with something else — some other kind of seriousness, a lyricism, a formal constraint — to create tension. My favorite poetry is flippant yet not, playful yet ferocious, silly but provocative. Such conflicts are also the way I feel most of the time: despairing yet ready to laugh, contemptful yet looking to show mercy, skeptical but hoping to be naïve, etc.
Following on that, what or who is the contempt directed toward? The idealism here seems to be connected to love – the marveling at your subject who recites “Having a Coke with You” is one of the most moving invocations of love I’ve read in a long time. I love how that poem lifts off. Do you feel idealistic about love and love for writing? Or, why was it important to you to write a love poem where what you love is how much someone loves something else and loves sharing that something else with someone else?
I try to reserve the majority of my contempt for my own greed, vanity, and pettiness, but it often sprawls into contempt for the same qualities in others or the culture generally. While I’m idealistic about love and writing most of the time, that idealism is freighted with contempt for the deluding character of love and poetry. I usually feel satisfied with a poem’s honesty about poetry if it has at least little of both of these impulses in it.
In “Having a Coke with You,” I was recording a real-life event that spontaneously happened, so I didn’t think too much about underlying whys. In retrospect, it makes sense that I’d want to write this poem and put it in the book because it does present an ideal of love I believe in. Loving someone or something outside yourself is one way to escape the claustrophobia of exclusive self-regard. Loving someone outside yourself who in turn loves something outside themselves — poetry in this case, or a way of relating to it — seems like a more liberating extension of that transcendent space.
Transcendence calls to mind the moments of almost gleeful resignation in the collection: in the title poem, returning the sword to the stone (in all its forms) seems to indicate some abdication of expectation that sets you free. Is this act of playfully loving your limits (Sisyphus licking the stone) the same as humility?
We all face limitations we have no control over, mortality being the main one. I think learning to accept limitations, and possibly even to love them, is one pinnacle of wisdom. There is that Eliot line from the Four Quartets: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Someone quoted it to me once, and I often return to it. In Returning the Sword to the Stone I wanted to explore it.