KPFK–Interview with Paul Lieber: WHY POETRY? listen here

Cathexis Northwest Press–Beth Ruscio—June, 2019


How long have you been writing poetry?

You could say I’m a short story writer whose stories kept getting more and more compressed until I finally was brave enough to jump in with both feet and learn the craft of poetry. Still, I squirmed when people announced I was a poet now. Not so fast I thought. I didn’t publish for years and years. Not because I didn’t have material, but because I had a reverence for the job title. So, I’ve probably been writing poetry all my life, but until fifteen years ago, a lot of it stalled in my head like a weather system whose precipitation never hits the ground.

Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?

I fall in love pretty easily. Which is not the same as being un-discerning. As one of my mentors, David St. John says, “A poem convinces not by its argument, but by its music.” And so it is with me that I’ve been convinced I was in love with a particular poem by the music of its coming and going. My parents were actors (as am I) and they had a great affinity for the artful way to say things, admired it in others, cultivated it in themselves, read constantly, and by example, showered us with appreciation for the beauty of the spoken word. So lots and lots and lots of poems have moved me to love them. And I would be remiss if I didn’t bring Bob Dylan into the mix. He was my gateway drug into the possibilities of language and the persuasiveness of the spoken word.

But I must single out an experience I eventually wrote about in a poem of my own called This kindness written in rain. The late, lamented poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly read her poem Song my first summer at the Idyllwild Summer Poetry Festival. From its opening lines, “Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree. / All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it / Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing / The song of a night bird. . .” and through every haunting stanza to the absolutely devastating end, “Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song / Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.” I was enthralled. It took the top off my head, knocked the breath out of me, every kind of way you could describe being bowled over. And I can say, thirteen years later, that hearing Brigit read that poem in her plaintive, urgent but plain spoken way was the night I fell head over heels in love with poetry. And wanted to make it my own.

Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?

Well, first off, see the above. And B, I probably find a new poet I love every week. That summer I was introduced to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poetry, I also met and began to hear and love the poetry of poets who would become my teachers: Cecilia Woloch (Sacrifice), Ellen Bass (The Human Line), B.H.Fairchild (The Art of the Lathe), David St. John (The Red Leaves of Night). This is in addition to my first teachers: Laurel Ann Bogen (Washing A Language) and Suzanne Lummis (In Danger). Later, I would hear and fall in love with the poetry of Natasha Tretheway (“Miscegenation”), Terrance Hayes (American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins—the whole book), Dorianne Laux (“It Must’ve Been Summer”). And in countless workshops and readings, thanks to those teachers which have also included Sarah Maclay (Music for the Black Room), Gail Wronsky (Dying for Beauty) and Dorothy Barresi (What We Did While We Made More Guns), I would get besotted with Galway Kinnell (The Book of Nightmares—the whole book), Philip Levine (The Simple Truth), Larry Levis (Winter Stars), C.D. Wright (Deep Step Come Shining), Li-Young Lee (“From Blossoms”), Lynn Emmanuel (“Blonde Bombshell”), W.S. Merwin (Migrations—the whole book), Stephane Mallarmé (A Tomb for Anatole) and in particular, Anna Akhmatova (from“Requiem: Instead of a Preface” & “Three Things Enchanted Him”), Wislawa Szymborska (People On A Bridge) and the prolifically rich (yes) and resonant poetry of Adrienne Rich (from Diving into the Wreck to Final Notations: “It will not be simple, it will not be long / It will take little time, it will take all your thought. . .”). Right now I’m re-reading Diane Seuss’s “Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl,” and will soon curl up with Dorianne Laux’s newest collection “Only As The Day Is Long.” And I could go on and on if you’d let me.

Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?

Whenever I begin a poem, even as long as I’ve been doing this, I think, now how does this work again? It’s a mystery that I have to be willing to live in and trust. I get into a very quiet zone, which doesn’t necessarily mean, you know, a church. But it does usually mean I’ve dialed out distractions. Turned off the noise. Although I’ve just as often been in a noisy space and suddenly be struck. It’s important to carry pens. Often I read. Sometimes a poem arises out of having a conversation with a phrase in a novel, a newspaper article, another poem. I’ll feel a heat from a phrase and I’ll enlist that phrase as an epigraph, which very often the new poem will outgrow. But it will ignite something, give me a diving board. Things are occurring to me. Walking is always involved. Once I’ve got even a tiny notion, or a very rough draft, I’ll head out the door, bring paper and a pen, or some times my phone and I’ll send emails to myself with lines. Although I once was out walking and didn’t stop, just wrote and tripped and broke the phone and cracked a rib. So, stop and then write! It’s helpful to have someone waiting for the poem, a deadline, or a reason to deliver. I have a friend, John O’Keefe, brilliant playwright, who calls and wants to hear a poem. It’s a treasure to have someone needing your poem. And then, once I’m in the thrall of a poem, a kind of concentration sets up in me that looks like day dreaming and feels like bliss. It’s a demanding mistress. I’m quite enamored of that feeling.

How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?

I remember Dorianne Laux describing how she wrote her poems in longhand right across the page and went back and put in line breaks. David St. John calls it staging the poem, which I can relate to having spent a life in the theatre. But, there’s only one rule: let the poem be what it wants to be when it grows up. You can force it into a form and it’ll rebel. Or it won’t have the potency it was meant to have if you make it behave. On the other hand, I experiment all the time. I’ve made up forms. Jericho Brown was talking about a new form he just invented called The Duplex which I’m experimenting with now. I’ve written what Terrance Hayes called The Golden Shovel poem. Mostly, I enjoy surprising myself. That’s where doors in your head can really get opened. To limit your vocabulary, or have to use certain words, or restrict a line to a certain number of syllables. I’m fond of couplets, but then I’m also crazy about sonnets. I subscribe to the strategy that a very difficult subject matter is sometimes, at least in an early draft, more open to be coaxed out and onto paper if you employ a formal form. And it doesn’t have to be fancy—it could be syllabics, a sonnet, look at Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art.” I wrote a poem about my parents’ deaths in a form called a Glosa. I’m pretty certain I might never have written it otherwise.

Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?

Read across all genres. Go to the library and discover poets for yourself in the new titles aisle. Go up into the 811 nonfiction (which I’ve never understood) section reserved for poetry and find a whole book by a poet whose one poem you’ve just come across. And this I do with a solemn regularity—when a poet dies, read as much of their work as you can. I feel like this is the duty of poets, to gorge yourself on the poetry of the poets who’ve passed on, on whose shoulders you will one day stand, so that some of what they were about gets ingested and comes out your fingers. Suzanne Lummis used to call this smuggling. Smuggle some of what you like about how a poet is doing something, study them, go to school on them, have a conversation with one of their poems. Go to readings. Sign up for open readings. Read your own poems to an audience. Poetry lives in the air. Seek out poets you’d like to study with. Find out about where they’re teaching. Enroll. Find a good workshop. Be devoted to it. Other poets can be your most valuable audience. And learning to critique others’ poems is immensely important to refining your critical skills. You will develop an aesthetic. It will spur you to write better and better.

What is your editing process like?

Out loud. I read it for tone, for music. Mining. Not settling for the facile. I strive to push past the wrapped up ending. Willing to sacrifice the best lines to achieve a surprising, even difficult diction. Fresh. Pull something forward from the back forty of my mind. Once or twice, it has felt like taking dictation. But most of the time, it’s draft after draft, sometimes ten, sometimes forty, pushing myself out of the way to let the poem have a fuller and fuller voice. To be what it wants to be when it grows up. And allowing myself to stay tuned to the frequency of this particular speaker in this particular poem. B.H. Fairchild says, and I’m paraphrasing, that a poem is never just an inert set of words. A poem engenders an experience in the reader. To achieve a “radical dislocation of consciousness.” “Poetry doesn’t explain the frog. It tries to turn you into the frog.” So, that’s what I’m looking for—making poems with a frog turning capability.

When do you know that a poem is finished?

I know that someone said you never really finish a poem, you just abandon it. And I get that, but if I really have abandoned a poem, then I don’t consider it finished. It probably won’t see the light of day. It ends up in a drawer that I will open sometime down the line and attempt to rescue because I’ll have learned more by then, and may know just how to write it. For the poems I have finished, there’s a kind of calm I feel, calm mixed with elation. Doesn’t last long. To be a poet is to start from scratch every time. It’s a way of being in the world. I try to stay curious. Keeps me restless.

Interview for BRICK ROAD POETRY PRESS–July 2020

What prompted you to write SPEAKING PARTS?

Maybe, because I admire listening so much. And I learned that a speaker can’t assume she has the floor, she has to keep earning the listener’s attention. I invite readers to suspend their disbelief and embrace the mystery of lives lived in the present tense. In the film Bright Star, I like the way Jane Campion has Keats talk about diving into a lake as an experience to be one with, not reaching after going to shore but shooing away certainty, easing into mystery. That’s my welcome mat. The title of the book is meant to be a gift to the speakers of the poems, some of whom are perennially voiceless. The book gives them the floor.

The poems of SPEAKING PARTS are in three sections: Subtext, Repertoire and Soliloquy. Tell us why.

They’re theater terms, employed by actors and playwrights. For Subtext, I’ll quote from my poem, “The House Goes to Half”—“and beneath sound, the felted silence, a stealth text . . .”Subtext is the color underneath the black and white that runs on a parallel track, not voiced but tacitly understood. Imagine: if looks could kill. Repertoire: The range of life’s adventures playing out—from the micro to the E-ticket rides: love, decline, inspiration, disappointment, disguise. There are elegies in that section for my late parents who taught me to love the spoken word. A Soliloquy is a pretty nifty illusion. A character speaks to let the audience in on her secrets. This section opens with “Start Talking” allowing Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity to mouth off for a change.

What about acting informs your work as a poet?

As an actor, you get under the skin of a character, which requires a willful act of surrendering your own sense of self and subsuming it to allow the character you’re playing to be inside looking out through your eyes, talking out of your mouth. Writing poetry very much calls a poet to these same devotions. And in all the arts, there is the possibility for duende: risk, edge, the passion of fado singers. Lorca gave duende a female pronoun when he said, “to rob oneself of skill or safety…and deign to struggle with her at close quarters…” and arrive at “freshly created things.” So, in a way, Keats’ negative capability is the gateway to Lorca’s duende.