So, the controversial Quincy R. Lehr.
You think so?
You criticize a certain strain of formal poetry as “Joanie Loves Chachi” in a review; you refer to a “jerk-off in a business suit” in a clear allusion to a prominent poet in your poem “Thud!”; you wrote a piece for The Raintown Review last summer called “The New Formalism: A Postmortem.” Need I go on?
That shouldn’t be necessary. I’m glad I’m “controversial,” though.
Why? Aren’t you afraid of limiting your audience?
Not especially. It has always bugged me when poets cite “the poetry” as some abstracted entity that doesn’t just transcend politics, time and space more generally, etc., but rather exists in some crystalline sphere rotating in Classical fucking harmony around the earth, with Beatrice and Jesus and Eurydice and Bob Marley and whoever playing harps. Poetry, on the contrary, is made up of the stuff of our lives, even as it frequently varies significantly from our particular autobiographies. The notion that ideas are somehow unimportant to poetry, that it’s all “craft” or some horseshit like that is frankly appalling.
Okay, but that’s not quite what I was driving at…
[interrupting] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t attack other poets. Be modest and deferential. Thank you, sir, may I have another. Look, man, I’m on pretty good terms with most of the poets I know, but there are a lot of fellow practitioners of the craft whom I… despise. I find their verse insipid. I hate their values. I hate their subject matter. I hate the towns where they live. I hate their stupid clothes.
After perusing the Facebook photo albums of hundreds of poet “friends” (some of whom even are really friends of mine), going to conferences, going to bars, and the like, I am convinced that one of the major problems with the poetry scene in the U.S. is that there are too many preps. Yes, you heard that right. Preps. In a discussion of putative grown-ups. Sure, there are too many trend-chasing fashionista hipster types, too, but they’ve gotten sufficient chastisement over the decades. The knit-sweater, Brooks Brothers fatherfucker lot have gotten too much of a free pass, so I’m putting them on notice. You preps had better call up Chip and Sheppy and Biff Buffington III, because there’s going to be a throw-down. I’ll introduce you Cole Haan-wearing scumbags to my friend Pain, and you and Pain will stare meaningfully into each other’s eyes during a marathon session of marginally platonic spooning.
Seriously, us boho artistic types didn’t try out for the football team and cheerleading squad back in the day. We kept off your turf. Kindly keep off ours.
What do you bring to contemporary poetry that’s different?
I write often long, often allusive poems about the world as I see it. If that means the poems get gloomy, so be it. If that means they get political or what have you, so be it. My debut collection, Across the Grid of Streets, is a full-lengther with seventeen poems in it, after all, anchored by three particularly long ones—“The Joke,” “Continental Drift,” and “Time Zones.” It doesn’t look like a typical first collection, and it doesn’t feel like one.
Your poems make frequent references to cigarettes and alcohol. Do these or other substances play a significant role in your creative process?
Do you ever feel that those who say they don’t need drugs to be creative kind of do? I don’t say this to endorse illegal activity, exactly, but more to lament the chirpy cluelessness and delusional faux-quirky schoolmarmishness of such remarks. Drugs of any kind—and the legal ones are drugs, too—don’t make a person creative, but a creative person will naturally be curious about them in the same way that one might be curious about Siberia or Bulgaria or Edmond, Oklahoma. They’re places to go.
That said, I quit smoking just over a year ago, and I’ve never been a good writer under the influence of alcohol. The actual writing is done sober, always.
Are the long poems written spontaneously, or do you plan them out?
Both. I tend to come up with ideas for longer pieces, carry them around in my head, sometimes for years, and they accrete details and images and nuances. When they’re ready to be written, I tend to work very quickly. The five hundred-line cantos in “Time Zones,” for instance, were written in one or two spurts each.
How does writing a longer poem differ from a shorter poem?
The scale of a long poem means that one must move beyond the one central trope that so often defines the short lyric and think more in terms of leitmotifs and contrapuntal elements, operating generally at a far greater level of complexity that I find particularly rewarding. It isn’t so much a matter of disdaining the short poem or even the short lyric—there is a place, and a prominent one, for that creature—as the belief that poetry can, and should, go further and deeper as well. In my own practice and my reading tastes, it’s a both/and situation.
You’re wearing Chelsea boots, drainpipe trousers, a studded belt, and a paisley shirt. What’s up with that?
Poets are artists, supposedly. We should look like artists rather than minor academic fucking administrators. And a note to male poets of a certain age—not only does that beard make you look a trench coat away from being a flasher, it’s not even remotely covering up your double chin. Have you considered a veil?
Really, it’s embarrassing. Gatherings of poets too often look like some family reunion barbecue in Clear Lake, Iowa or some such nonsense. And look, I’m from suburban Middle America myself. However, I got out as soon as I could, because Jesus Christ, the artistic life is not meant to be spent standing in some backyard with a Heineken in hand and Stevie Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac on the stereo.
When is the next book coming out?
Obscure Classics of English Progressive Rock should be out quite soon—I don’t have a precise date yet. If you read and like Across the Grid of Streets—and you should do both—you’ll love Obscure Classics. It builds on the first book, being in many ways a natural development from it, with less anger, perhaps, and a bit more wistfulness. I’m self-evidently biased where the book’s concerned, but I think I’m right.
Any final thoughts?
In no particular order….
I really don’t like people when they’re in love.
Yeah, yeah, nature’s pretty. Poetry’s pretty. What I think about receiving a crap-ton of poems on said subjects in the Raintown slush is considerably less pretty.
“Dear Editor: Please consider these five sonnets, because it’s the only form I ever use, and if you reject them, you’re clearly a free-verse-loving heathen, and….” Fuck off.
And speaking of which, the next time I read an announcement for a “new sonnet anthology,” it may well spark a tri-state killing spree.
Oh, and the word “mentor” increasingly makes me want to rip off the heads of small animals and drink blood from the stumps. Oh, it’s not a problem of influence, which is inevitable, more the obsequious name-dropping and stunted intellectual and artistic growth that the term too often implies, when the matter of interest is rather the individual’s idiosyncratic attempts to grapple with the language and its traditions and to make something from that.
And what’s with the “two-poem warning” at readings? It is almost as if one is admitting, “I know I’ve bored you assless for the past twenty minutes, but the nightmare will soon be over.” It’s symptomatic of so much.
And the idle chit-chat between poems at readings? Just do the thing and keep the intermedial stuff to a minimum, or at least make it more interesting than explaining what the poem turns out to be self-evidently about—only far more succinctly. I mean, for Christ’s sake, do Keith Richards and Mick Jagger stand stock-still behind podiums while Mick says, “Many, many years ago, when we were living in cold-water flats in London, Keith remarked to me that he and Brian Jones felt a certain level of dissatisfaction about the direction of their lives at the time. I concurred, naturally….” No. They just play the fucking song.
Do you feel better now? Has this been cathartic for you? Whatever. It has for me.