Poet Sydney Lea visited the campus of Texas Tech University on September 22, 2011. A few hours before his reading that evening, Lea was kind enough to answer questions from students and faculty. What follows is an excerpt from that conversation.
Q: Why would a guy have a truck full of stunks? [laughter] You don’t quite get at it in the poem, which I think is beside the point, but I still ponder it and ponder it to this day. [The poem in question is titled “Fathomless” and appears online here.]
A: Well, I think the point of the poem is, “Why?” I don’t have an answer, that’s the thing. Quite a long time ago I walked into a little general store, and it smelled like every skunk in Vermont lived there. I couldn’t figure it out, but then I traced it to an individual who was walking around and smelled like he had taken a bath in skunk spray. Then when I went out into the parking lot, I noticed he had all these dead skunks—I say in the poem it was in a truck, but it was actually a Bronco. And I felt like somebody should’ve spoken up, said, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
But I didn’t, and nobody else did either. I felt bad for the couple of old women, whom I knew, who ran that store, you know, both of them eighty or so. They were too polite to say anything, but clearly it was gonna be a long time before people walked in there without saying, “What the hell? Did you have a skunk under the house or something?”
And then, ten years later, I just happened to smell a skunk, and I thought of that and I began pondering why, but I don’t think the poem answers the question. . . . I don’t know why.
Q: I guess I’ll ask the real question I want to get at, considering that poem and maybe some of just your general aesthetic. There seems to be a lot of restraint in that poem, because you’ve just juxtaposed the death of your brother with this horrid experience that happens at the same time. That smell recalls all this stuff, and you refrain from trying to figure out how these two things are connected, other than by the smell. Can you talk about how, in your work and in the stuff that you like to read and in other poetry that’s out there, how you think restraint works, and how it should work?
A: That’s a good question. I remember way back in the seventies, I applied for an NEA fellowship, and in those days you could write in and get a report—I didn’t get one [a fellowship], and so I wanted to know, and I read several critiques, and you know, [feigning arrogance] obviously they were crazy, stupid. But there was one that said, “Trivial subject matter. Verbose treatment.” So I think he was twitting me (or she) for not being sufficiently restrained. I thought you were going to ask a different kind of question . . . but since you didn’t, I’m going to try and address that. [laughter]
Q: You can answer the other one. [more laughter]
A: No, um . . . [sighs]. I don’t know that I would have an answer, that I can draw a line in the sand and say, “You go too far, you’re not being restrained enough.” In fact, and I’ve quoted this sometimes in workshops with my own students, I remember that an early mentor of mine (speaking of not always being completely restrained) was Richard Hugo, and he invited me to send him some poems, one at a time over a period of time in the early eighties. I think I had one book out, but I’d been working on another one. I sent him a poem and I said, “I’m afraid that it might be corny.” You know, I might have gone too far. And he wrote to me back, and he said, “If you’re not risking being corny then you’re really not in the ballgame at all.”
So it’s a matter of stepping up to that line. The things that we call “corny” are just too much of a genuine thing, right? An overstatement of things that are genuine enough, or else they wouldn’t have fallen into the great sort of poet-well of sentimentality.
But as to when you know that is, I still trust my wife. She’s the only person I show my work to now, and she’s pretty good at detecting that line. She’s the kind of critic I want, because she’s very literate but she’s not literary. She’s good at detecting that and saying, “You’re just going over the top here, you’ve already made that clear.” And the other thing she’s good at detecting is when I’m just sort of faking it. She has her own little series of marginal comments—you know, most editorial comments are like stet or del or whatever, maybe a little carat—she’s got one that’s NASG, which is New Age Sensitive Guy, which means I’m faking a little bit. She says, “I know you well enough, you’re not that good. Come on!” [laughter]
But I’m very reliant on her, and particularly in that way, because I think in my case, I’ve got one of these sort of all-you-can-eat personalities. I’m inclined at times [to fake it]—I hope less as I’ve gotten older; I think I’ve learned a little the matter of restraint. I think it’s often a matter of learning to trust yourself, you know, that what you’ve observed and what you’ve rendered and what you’ve said is adequate, that it doesn’t need to be expounded upon so that the reader will get it.
And I know that myself, in teaching especially beginning writers, one of the more common things I will see is that urge to explain. Especially at the end of the poem, when everything has been made perfectly clear. It’s what I call the Arthur Miller ending, you know, when you watch the play and everything’s perfectly clear, [at the end] there’s a character who comes on stage and tells you what it was all about. And there’s a curious way in which, as a reader, I feel condescended to. It’s like, “You thought I was so damn dumb that I didn’t know this, so you had to put in all this extra explanation.”
But I think—I hope—the capacity to say enough and not too much is something that, like anything else . . . anything you do for a long time seriously and regularly is something you get better at, whether it’s shooting baskets or writing poems. . . .