INTERVIEW WITH GREG LAWLESS
by Tova Gardner
“In the end everything I read deteriorates into ruin. My mind is like a rustbelt town, filled with half-remembered lines from Dante and Moby Dick; filled, that is, with fabulous mistakes, out of which I try to build something fetchingly ugly and lasting and heartbreaking. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll do it, too.”
Over the past few months I have had a continual conversation over email with poet Greg Lawless on addressing place in poetry.
All hometowns are dying. Nostalgia is an abiding threat. If we are too faithful to our past we will engender for ourselves a smothering spiritual provincialism. And if we do not recognize the dying town inside ourselves, we will never condemn it, build over it—never destroy it, and recover from it.
I grew up in a small town called Clarks Summit, just a few miles from Scranton, PA and much further, it seemed, from anything else. I remember walking back and forth across the bridge on Grove Street above the train tracks, trying vigorously to picture just where those tracks might terminate. I couldn’t and I knew this inability of mine, this imaginative blindness, said a lot about me, or a lot about my situation, but I didn’t know what it said.
If asked to imagine a city as a child, Scranton would have been my only option. Scranton, as a source of images and fatigued memories, will always determine my sense of orientation and (im) possibility. I will never be free of it, but I will always use it to pose the (perhaps useful but unanswerable) question of my freedom—to wonder if I might be free of it, through exodus and art—and I will always use it to determine the extent of my imaginative captivity.
What kind of poetry did you want to write if it wasn’t about Scranton, place, address, etc, when you were younger? What did you set out to write about? Do you think a great poet or great poetry can come from only addressing place? Like the struggle you depicted of small town nostalgia?
I used to write poetry as a solution to, or as an escape from biography. Early on, I thought of poetry as a means for transport. Lyrical situations that transcended scenic or historical contingencies (early Strand poems, for example) interested me a great deal because such poems, I thought, were not dependent on the memoirist ethos of suffering and revelation that seemed so prevalent among the established writers where I went to school. For example, someone breaches the silence of a restaurant or a café, shuffling through a stack of papers, awkwardly adjusting the microphone and then reading poems about a bike accident at sixteen, or some post-confessional equivalent. I had to escape that, I knew, but I wouldn’t for many years.
When I eventually started to write poems of memory and place, I did so armed with a critical vocabulary born of disputing such poetry. I also had the expansive, symbolically diverse and surreal conceits of James Wright, Merwin and others in mind when I tried to summon up some glimpse of Pennsylvania that would be interesting to my readers and me. If I were going to show someone pictures of my hometown(s), I would have to chew the corners off first, I decided; otherwise everyone would die of boredom.
So I let the violence of the language connote the violence of my memory, my psychology and the place where I am from (not that any of this is essential—these are just choices). Violence and rust gave me peace in the end, since I trusted jagged disruptions of language as a sensible emotional impulse to guard against nostalgia and remain faithful to the real. Since violence indicates, barometrically, that you are paying close attention to the world. What was beautiful in Wright and Merwin I would make ugly. I had to chew the corners off them as well. Living and dead, I hope they don’t mind.
You are a graduate of the Iowa Writers Program. There is criticism for these types of programs. What was your experience?
I think the kind of environment that such programs afford is indispensable for young writers who have yet to make up their minds about anything. Having two years with little to do but write and learn, gracelessly, how to teach, seems almost comically generous now. I understand why people critique these programs for churning out writer-drones and bringing the corporate folly of groupthink to the literary arts, but I saw little evidence of these things at work in Iowa. My classes were for the most part aesthetically and temperamentally diverse. But when the program was done, I was relieved. I never had any plans to travel to Iowa outside of going to school there and I was glad to abandon its monotonies. Living in the Midwest for three years had left me anxious and a little dizzy. I needed to get out of flat—to be closer, for psychological reasons, to the coast, and to my family.
When you were a kid looking out at the railroad tracks imagining, did you feel you had the power to be more than ordinary?
When I was looking at those tracks, I’m afraid that I was directly confronting my own mediocrity. I knew that I did not have the power to alter my setting or circumstance with my mind, imagination or will, and that is the very essence of being mediocre. So I think I just hoped that, one day, I would grow out of it, which is a finally fruitless but reasonable aspiration. Now, when I write a poem that people publish, read, compliment and enjoy, I understand that praise is only part of the story. I still get plenty of rejection letters and many of them are deserved, even edifying in their own sickening way. I don’t deserve meaningless praise from strangers after all, so such rejection helps to cool the ego and confirm what I’ve always suspected about myself: that I’m not that special.
These days I’m happy to be so nearly invisible. I write and read a great deal but I don’t “do readings” or mix with other writers all that much. I’m just a guy with a library card, more or less. And this suits me because I love books but have no taste (or talent) for schmoozing and performance.
As for your question about great poetry and place, the answer is no. Great poetry is a continual disappointment to standard expectations. And aside from that, some poets just aren’t from anywhere. I can’t think of any examples right now, but I know it’s true because I want it to be true. But I have to say that even poets like Ashbery, O’Hara and Koch, all of them great poets, returned often to places they loved in their otherwise spontaneous or scattered poems. The snowfall of Ashbery’s Rochester childhoods, for example, is just as important as anything else in his work.