A poetry reading can make a person learn a lot over the course of an hour or so. You may remember lost love, you may rebury and mourn, you may be inspired to create and build and destroy and everything in between. At the release reading of prolific poet David Lehman’s New and Selected Poetry on campus on Wednesday, this was no different.
We learned the NYU bookstore could hold a fine poetry reading, tucked away in the back corner away from the Think, where the law advisories and business books rot back into trees. Here, Lehman read from the new semi-anthology, and discussed his long and winding career with critic Ken Tucker. We learned that so many people will still come out for poetry, even if we’re the only NYU student still standing. And we learned that Lehman is damn good at poems, enough to thoroughly fluster the NYU Bookstore woman who introduced him.
Lehman has been hustling the poetry game for a quarter of a century. He’s been the series editor for Best American Poetry, the annual anthology series that he founded in 1988. On top of that, he’s edited Oxford Book of American Poetry and scores of erotic and prose poetry collections, writing plenty of nonfiction books, all while composing his own poetry at a breakneck speed and teaching poetry at the New School and NYU for more than a decade. “I feel proud of how prolific I’ve been,” Lehman said via e-mail, “though sheer productivity makes things more complicated when the time comes to make a retrospective gathering and decide which poems you think worthiest of attention.”
And these aren’t even the same quatrain over and over again (we see you, Dee Dee Ramone). He’s written an entire book of sestinas, many translations, short poems, extended formless works, poems that read like crime novels or news articles. Lehman’s even dived back into rhyme. When Tucker asked about his recent rhyme spree, Lehman replied, “Writing in rhyme is as radical a thing you can do these days.”
He followed up with Local: “I feel that a change of pace can be very helpful for a writer in a fallow period. If you’re writing third-person, past-tense, autobiographical poems, it may be useful to switch tenses and points of view; if you’ve been writing prose poems and you’ve taken that train as far as it goes, maybe try writing a sonnet sequence or a verse drama. I’ve taken that advice to heart. Writing in different forms and styles is also a way of keeping yourself interested and on your toes, especially if, like me, you enjoy a challenge.”
Lehman read eleven poems from the release, mostly from the new poetry section, but recited a few by Tucker’s request. You can read an excerpt of his new work via NPR, but the old work carries the same poignant weight. In “Nirvana” he lists types of oysters he has eaten, beers he has drunk, plums consumed, state’s nicknames inhabited, and young people’s crimes committed – “but I still have not found nirvana.”
As any poetry interview and any poetry-induced learning should end, there is the daunting question for all the starving angel-headed hipsters out there. Lehman, got any advice for the young poets? “…The first thing I say in any class differs from year to year. But sooner or later I know I will tell people that they don’t have to like anything, even a certifiably canonical work, but that they owe it to themselves to read the authors that generations have prized. And I recommend writing every day — there’s no better method of improving your writing, and it’s the only reliable way to write a book.” We’ll take any advice for someone with as much experience as him.
[Image composite, both via]