KPS interviewer and poet Ann van Buren joined Timothy Liu for tea on February 28, 2020. This abridged transcription of the conversation begins midstream, with the story of Liu’s association with Gordon Lish, editor of the avant-garde literary magazine, The Quarterly. In the 1980’s, when Liu was taking a creative writing class as an undergrad at Brigham Young University, Lish sent students in the class $1 and $5 stamps and encouraged them to send him their work. Liu mailed him many poems, and during his early 20’s, he took Lish up on a long-standing invitation to come to New York City. At that point, Liu was doing an MA at University of Houston, and Lish was an editor at Random House. Liu presented the guard at the NYC office building a handmade note that appeared to be signed by Lish. With that, the young writer gained entry to the building and spent the afternoon with the editor who chatted while sorting through manuscripts. The rest is literary history.
Timothy Liu: Shortly after that he started publishing my poems. Over the course of 10 years he published 40 poems; that was a lot. Remember he saw everything I ever wrote, so hundreds and hundreds of poems. His support really meant a lot to me in my mid-twenties. At that point I was crazed about poetry. But you don’t really have a sense about how you’re going to make your way. You just throw yourself into everything and fall flat on your face a bunch. Every now and then you just get lucky.
Ann van Buren: What a wild adventure! What happened next?
TL: So when I left there (Lish’s office) I was dazzled. He did take me out for lunch downstairs at a little Chinese restaurant. I don’t remember anything else that happened but when I got back to Houston I was flipping through an issue of APR (American Poetry Review) and I saw that the following summer there was the Aspen Writers Conference that Laure-Anne Bosselar started. That summer the three guest poets were Charles Simic, Linda Gregg, and Carolyn Forché. I just thought, Well, the greatest teacher of poetry in America (Simic) and my favorite poet in America (Gregg) were going to be there. The stars were aligning. I thought— I don’t have the money to go to the conference. They had one scholarship, the Bosselar Scholarship. I applied and luckily, I got it. All I had to do was figure out how to get to Aspen. It wasn’t a super expensive flight, and I was asked to come a day before it actually started. It was a long conference, two weeks, and as the only scholarship student I got to go to the little cabin where all the teachers met before the conference began. I met Linda there, Charlie there, Carolyn Forché was there. It was a game changer. I signed up for Charles Simic’s workshop for two weeks. I didn’t want to be Linda’s student because I thought I’d really like to see if we could actually know each other and maybe become friends. For some reason I didn’t want her in that mentor role. I didn’t want to be friends with Charlie Simic; I wanted to be his student. So that was it. After the two weeks there I spent every day with Linda. Like hours. I helped her do errands and that’s how we met.
AvB: What makes Simic the greatest teacher?
TL: Well, he’s very surreal but he loves writing short poems. When I studied with him he said he finds most poems written in America are just too long-winded. He also said the most beautiful thing in a poem is a beautiful figure of speech. So if you have an apt metaphor then there’s not a whole lot more you have to say. He also said things like every American poet’s secret ambition or not-so-secret ambition is to write the great long poem, whether it’s like Cantos or Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette. There’s just some weird sense that at some point you can you try your hand at writing something grand. He said that, in his experience, most long poems in America are really just a bunch of short poems strung together, and that if you could make a great short poem you’re getting somewhere. Most poems I wrote were under 20 lines. The anthology that Simic did with Mark Strand, Another Republic, introduced a lot of people to Eastern European writers and South American writers who have this sort of surreal tradition. It was the logical stepping stone after, let’s say, the deep imagism of the Sixties. We had Merwin, Bly, James Wright, and they did a lot of translating. For my generation of poets this anthology Another Republic was a really big deal. It included the Greek poet, Yannis Ristos. That’s the first time I encountered his work, and he is my favorite 20th century poet, a great poet who published 200 books. That’s why I was predisposed to wanting to work with Simic. I had known his work, but that summer in 1989 he had just won the Pulitzer for The World Doesn’t End, a little book of prose poems. He was flying high and really celebrated that year and yet he was remarkably ordinary, humble.
AvB: Well, he was also traumatized by his experience growing up in a war torn country. I wonder if you connected with him in that way, just dealing with dark subjects but in an almost amusing way, dark as it is.
TL: It’s funny, I was less conscious of him being a survivor of World War II. I think maybe 10 years later, when I was in my 30’s, I began thinking a little bit more about that. I enjoyed that his poems have a feeling of haunted houses. It wasn’t all fun and games. There’s always spiders and planes flying around and blood and little things like that juxtaposed with cute images that are often like moments of childhood. I didn’t quite connect the dots until a little bit later. The other thing that’s funny is his first five or six books were all published by George Braziller. Richard Howard was the editor of that series for about 20 years. He wrote the forward for Charlie’s first book, Dismantling the Silence, and Richard became my teacher since then. So there are all these little things like that. You can’t really explain all these coincidences but it made things feel really meaningful. After I studied with Simic, The Book of Gods and Devils and Hotel Insomnia came out. Those books have some of my favorite poems in them, where you first read them in magazines and all of a sudden they’re in the book and you have them. One of the things that Charlie said to me in a conference, and most of what he said I’ve forgotten— you only remember one or two things— but in our conference he said Timothy, you’re writing poems like no one else. All you need to do is go out there and grab the poetry bull by the horns. And he said You go out there and you show the world what the f***poetry is for. No one has ever said that to me before or since and that’s what I remembered. I thought wow, I can’t believe this guy that I had kind of put on a pedestal would just say something that simple.
AvB: So, what is poetry?
TL: Well, poetry is something you put into language. It’s an arrangement of words that has never been committed to the page before, so they have that kind of freshness.
AvB: I’m asking this because you have several ars poetica poems in your books. An ars poetica is a poem about poetry. Poetry Magazine defines it as a poem that explains, instructs, or is written as art-for-art’s sake. In what ways would you like your poems to instruct us, and in what ways are they art for art’s sake?
TL: I think poems are a commentary on what the art form is. For example, my book Of Thee I Sing opens with an ars poetica and the final line is “The craft could be taught but not the art”. The idea there is that you can be a maker— you can learn how to do meter, scan; you can get better at rhyme and free verse and syllabics. The craft of it can be taught— but there’s also the poetry part of it. There’s a part of it that can’t be taught at all. But you can learn it, that’s the thing! I think we learn it by reading; we learn it by hearing the poem aloud. I would call it the magic or the mystery that touches us.
Here’s a little example. In this really famous haiku by Basho, he says The temple bells have stopped / ringing, but the sound / keeps coming out of the flowers. When you first experience this poem, you’re kind of blown away by it, right? You can study the poem; you can memorize it. So what is it about the temple bells? First you have the temple bell ringing, the sound of it, and then it’s juxtaposed with a magic moment, the sound that keeps coming out of the flowers. That’s a total surprise! We have different scales: bells and flowers; cast metal/organic; something that might last centuries/something that might last less than a day. The poem is suspended between both things. The poem is very delicate, fragrant, and frail. Yet, like the bell, it could last centuries. In fact, this poem has. This little poem is the bell that keeps ringing— even though Basho is dead and probably most of the temples that he walked to are gone or remade. How did he make this happen? And can I play with something, let’s say a bell, an instrument cast by humans, and can I juxtapose that with something natural and see if I can make something spark? Now you’re on the road. You can learn it by observing but no one can give you the secret formula. You just take it in and try, try, try. Every now and then you hold something on the page and—like, I did it! I got lucky! I did it! Sometimes you revise it and sometimes you’re struck by lightening early on. We don’t’ have a whole lot of control over that. You have some, but not a whole lot. Certainly we can’t sit down and say “Today I’ll write another immortal poem as great as a Basho poem.
AvB: I’ve been thinking about this. There’s a trend in poetry that requires a book to have a narrative arc and a coherent theme. I wonder if this is contrary to the way that poetry is created. Who sits down and writes poetry that way? Poetry does seem to be something that comes from the moment.
TL: It’s funny, because one way to imagine a book coming together is a poet lives and writes for five years and they just have these moments and then they collect them together almost like you’re arranging a couple of gallery rooms of paintings. You go from this room to this room and it’s a book. But there’s also a tradition in poetry that’s a little bit more contemporary, which is rather than rely on the inspiration of the moment and the magic, there are these projects, they call them projects. I think that poets right now are drawn to that.
AvB: Are you?
TL: Not hugely, I have to say. Although there is a project I’ve been working on for the past several years. It’s not yet coalescing into any kind of book. I was Mormon from the age of 14 to 24 and then I came out of the closet and couldn’t be a self respecting person and do both. Enough time has passed, maybe 20, 25 years, and in the last five years I’ve been driving upstate to historical Mormon sites.
AvB: Oh, in upstate NY?
TL: Yeah. Joseph Smith founded the Mormon church in the 1830’s. His homestead is still there. The sacred grove where he saw God the father is owned by the Mormon church now.
AvB: Where is this?
TL: There’s a town called Palmyra and near Palmyra is a hill called Cumorah. That’s where he says he found the golden plates which he translated into the book of Mormon, buried on that hill. Every summer they have a pageant out there and a lot of devout Mormons and non- Mormons drive up there and there’s a huge outdoor little show where beams of light come down and they pull the golden plates out of the ground.
TL: So, for five years summers I’ve driven to these various Mormon sites and written poems about them. I don’t know what it’s going to be, I don’t know what I’m going to see, but I go out there and let this Mormonism which I kind of just sealed off out of shame or disgust—the time became ripe for me to open that door again. That squares with my practice because I’ve always felt like the energy in poems comes from those shadowy places in our psyche. It’s that investigation, that excavation, that if we move towards the taboo, if we move towards those places that we silenced, whether it’s in our speech, in our confession, or whether it’s on the page in the writing, we’re going to bring up some stuff that’s kind of ugly and maybe not even great poetry in its raw state but there’s also something about it that’s very intense. Also, it’s possible that we’re going to allow American poetry to spread its elbows a little bit. It’s such a huge animal as it is and yet all of us have these experiences that are consigned to silences or it’s just indecorous. It’s impolite to talk about a lot that we’ve survived and to bring that first into our own consciousness, into our language, and then to make art out of it, to sort of make it memorable and hope that this personal little, you know, psyche-excavation, might actually leave something behind that someone else might be able to respond to, right? That seems like to me a really nice sort of ecosystem for poetry.
AvB: So, where do you get the ego-strength for that?
TL: Let’s start with when I was at Brigham Young. I remember encountering Louise Glück’s poem, “Mock Orange”. She says “It’s not the moon I tell you it’s these flowers lighting the yard” And then she says “I hate them I hate them as I hate sex…” When I read that, it’s like I never read a poem where someone was talking about how much they hate sex. I identified with it. It is kind of gross! You know? So it was an astonishment. I remember I was at the Brigham Young University bookstore and there’s her book, Triumph of Achilles and it’s the first poem and I read. I felt embarrassed, or exposed, just by reading her poem. But as a reader and a writer, it also gave me permission. I thought if she could go where that poem goes, there are some things I would like to say, things I don’t think I could have imagined saying in a poem until I first read her poem, right? I think you don’t have to go to school to realize that. You don’t have to take a class or get an MFA; you just have to open a book and encounter a poem, whether it’s Louise Glück, Linda Gregg or Rilke. If you’re astonished and all of sudden you feel like Really? Does that mean I can, you know, start wading into the shallow end of the pool, baby steps, but sink down deeper in?
AvB: Right. It’s still very brave though.
TL: Well, I can also say that I’ve also been a big fan of psychotherapy. My mom was crazy, paranoid schizophrenic, and very abusive when I was growing up and I had to really go to the very slow, hard, way of confronting what that meant for me as an adult, how that warped things and made me have a lot of trouble in my interpersonal relationships, because it was so formative. If you grow up in a house where someone’s drinking, using drugs, mentally ill, we survive it, but in that process of survival you get kind of damaged, a little bit wrecked. Right? The curious thing about that is it turns out that, for whatever reason, a lot of artists, musicians, and poets are also kind of wrecked. There’s something about art that when we encounter it, it makes us feel like it’s okay to be here. Right? We don’t connect everything up. You could hear a great piece of music or hear a great poem that has nothing to do with mental illness or drinking, but on a deep level this makes us feel better to be alive, as opposed to what we see on TV, or what I call the little, shallow, surface where a lot of popular culture, mass culture, lives. We know when we experience something from a deeper place.
AvB: Also we know that we’re not alone in some of those experiences. I studied with Sharon Olds, and she’s a master in this regard.
TL: She’s such an important poet. I remember reading The Gold Cell or The Father or The Wellspring. Those books blew my mind.
AvB: I remember the speaker in the book, The Father. Reading it, I wondered How could you love this person who did that to you? Then I realized that it’s a way of telling the world that you can love yourself, because you’re part of that experience. Your life includes that experience and it goes beyond it as well.
TL: She makes us feel the complexity of what love is. The father in that book is so beloved and yet so exposed. Her intensity, devotion, and passion for her father definitely crosses into taboo country. It’s like really? You’re gonna say this?
AvB: Yeah. Talk a little bit about that. In your poem where the father and son are exchanging olives in their mouths. Talk about crossing over into taboo country.
TL: That’s in “Ars Poetica: At Fifty”.
TL: So, I was sitting there drinking dirty martinis and when I first wrote the poem it was just like me and some other man in my imagination. In fact, I’m not much of a drinker— I can maybe have a glass of wine or a beer or one martini— but I’ve never passed an olive in a martini back and forth with someone. In my imagination though, I’ve done it a million times. I guess that in the writing of the poem I went a little further and thought, well, what if a father and son were having martinis and just felt like doing that. I thought that’s so beautiful. There’s something weird about it, I mean olives, we think of peace, right—
AvB: The olive branch.
TL: And the Mediterranean olive oil and anointing. I just went further with that. I would say that there’s that incredible moment between father and son when they can both sit down as adults. They can talk about sexual regrets. First we have exchanging just an olive, and now we have the confession which also to me is like we’re really crossing some territory here. In my life I remember when I was maybe turning 30, I walked with my dad along a reservoir in Northern California where I grew up. He told me about his wedding night with my stepmother and how the intense sexual moment of consummating their marriage went awry when at the climactic moment my dad shouted out my mom’s name.
TL: I couldn’t write a poem about that right then, but in that moment something shifted in my relationship with my father in a permanent way. It was freeing. It was like wow; we get to do this. Another time I went to visit, we were driving. I remember he was in the passenger seat and said Tim, in your relationship with men, are you the man or the woman? And I said Dad, it doesn’t really work like that, but I know what you’re asking. To answer your question, you can be both. It can go two ways depending on how you’re feeling that day.
There’s that moment when the parent is seen as an adult rather than “the parent”. Also the child is seen as an adult rather than just a kid. It’s a weird kind of moment. So for me, even though I don’t say that in the poem, I’m feeling gratitude in “Ars Poetica: At Fifty”. I’m writing this poem at fifty, but for most of my life I only thought my dad could be fifty, you see? So there’s something about that happening inside the poem.
AvB: It is very liberating to be able to talk about these things with one’s parents or children because each generation’s perspective on sex changes. It’s beautiful that you were able to cross that boundary with your father. He must have been a very open and loving person.
TL: Yeah. He’s one of the reasons I turned out okay. So this poem starts with the father and son passing olives back and forth in their mouths and there’s also an acknowledgement that within each of them are still these secrets that are lodged in the body that no one can relieve. No massage, no yoga practice. This is where the poem comes in. The poem also gets a role. Whether you’re reading a poem or making one, it’s that sense that we go into these places that are knotted or naughty, almost a homonym. And we’re going to work out the kinks, the knots, so that we can get a little bit of relief. The body can be hunched and expends energy, as we are in winter. As we age, we suffer it more. The body— we struggle and love being alive and breathing air. It’s tough with each second. That’s just how it goes. So that’s something I want the poem to probe. Like deep tissue massage.
TL: I visited my dad in Shanghai and we went for these massages. We’d never done that in America, but in China we did. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had a Chinese massage.
AvB: No. Though I did live in China for a year, massage wasn’t a part of it.
TL: Well Chinese massage— unlike Swedish massage that’s so nice and relaxing— is pressure points, digging their elbows into your shoulder blades. I think that poetry is a little bit like that.
AvB: Yes, it’s very intense! Speaking of massage, in your poem “True Value” you refer to seekers who are “money starved and guru crazed…. still trying to coax anxiety out from 30 something skin.” It’s not the only poem that speaks with disillusionment about seekers who buy into various spiritual practices. I wanted to hear more about that. You’re very involved in esoterica and the occult.
TL: Yes, I give Tarot readings every week and have studied with some great teachers. This is what I’ll say. All of us are works in progress and trying to negotiate the physical world, how to be present. Then there’s a world beyond the five senses. We’re interested in the big questions like what happens after we die, if anything, other than going into the ground. What happens to this life that we’ve lived? Does it just live on in the memory of other people and in art? Or is there an entity that maybe we pass into, another realm, that a lot of people don’t make contact with while alive, but some people claim that they do. As a kid I was always interested in this stuff. I remember when I was 10 and I went to the library in Almaden and got books on astral projection. I would lie down in my bed and stare at the ceiling and think Let me see if I can get closer to that ceiling. I didn’t’ know. You read these para-psychology books and who knows if it’s real but whoever wrote it thought it was. So let’s say it’s a spiritual practice to make contact with the other world. It’s the world that we can’t perceive with the five senses. Is it possible that poetry can also transport us, give us epiphanies, visions? I mentioned the poet Adam Zagajewski. In Houston, he said that a great poem is like a dream for everyone. This is kind of great, because our own private dreams— they come to us whole. If we can remember them, they’re just all there. They’re effortless. We don’t do anything.
AvB: I love when that happens.
TL: So a great poem is like a great dream for everyone. Maybe what Adam is saying is that when we read a great poem we’re astonished because the poem makes having that experience so effortless. It’s like the way we listen to Mozart; it’s so perfect. But getting back to the world that is “guru crazed and attention starved”— I wrote that poem almost 20 years ago before social media. I did read a great book on the insatiable need for attention and how culture participates in that. We see that further confirmed by liking and commenting activities on social media. So here’s an interesting thing. What’s the difference say, between a guru and a spiritual teacher? In my mind a guru has a lot of followers, not just one; they have acolytes. Sometimes you go to an ashram and there’s the guru. Poetry works against that for me because it’s so private. You can have this amazing spiritual experience teaching one-on-one with the poet— alive or dead— maybe a poet you’ll never meet— and I don’t know, you can’t get duped by a poem in the way you could get duped by a quote-unquote guru.
AvB: That’s true, or perhaps not in the same way.
TL: How much of a spiritual quest is communal, where there’s a leader, a teacher, and then everyone else—the groupies and followers. Isn’t that different from when you read Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and you get to the line “You must change your life” and literally you’re breathless and you think yup…
AvB: I love that poem of yours, (“Archaic Torso”). It was a brilliant retelling of Rilke’s poem, in your own words. What you’re talking about is perception, I think. After I read your poem I researched a bit about Rilke and Rodin and their parting ways. In the process, I found information about Theodore Lipps.
TL: Tell me.
AvB: He came up with the concept of “inseeing”. He says that it’s not only the artist’s craft that makes a work of art, but the ability of the artist or any viewer to see into an object, that makes it art. I was wondering if you can relate to this concept as something you experienced while writing this poem.
TL: Well, there are people who say that 90% of all communication and information that we take in is non verbal. Only 10%, a tip of the iceberg, is the language we use. There are theorists who say that without language we have no thoughts. Of course some of us don’t totally believe that. Does that mean that a child, before they start speaking, has no thought? As a poet, I’d say we put a big premium on the uses of language, pleasurable innovative uses of language, but the poet’s job is also to notice all that’s not encoded in language. So we’re sitting here, and this kitchen is just screaming info. The way that we’re sitting in these chairs drinking the tea— our body language our movement— there’s so much info. So I do love pop psychology and psychology and especially books about body language. If it’s true that a lot of the information we get every day is underneath the surface of language, then wouldn’t our lives be richer if we’re paying a little bit more attention to that.
AvB: I think people are paying a lot of attention to it in how they feel they ought to dress but it ends up being almost a wall. People are looking for clues in somebody’s gaze or focus and what that means and so we try to alter our nature and hide what we’re really feeling because we want it to conform to what we think the person in front of us expects.
TL: That’s true. You can use the nonverbal info as an armature. Well, here’s an example. I remember when Linda Gregg was alive. She died last year. We used to go to the Met Museum, to the Asian Wing, the Greek Wing, or to look at 19th century painting. But I remember one time going to a gallery the Asian wing that’s between the Chinese and Korean artifacts. It’s a room of Bodhisattvas. Guan Yin is in there and a lot of Buddahs, and I’m’ going to say that in this room there’s probably 12 to 20 of them.
AvB: I love that room, and Guan Yin is my favorite.
TL: They’re all on pedestals and pretty big, and we played a game, Who’s Your Favorite Bodhisattva Today. We’d both wander separately and report back whichever one was our personal favorite today. Then we’d walk over to it and hang out together. A lot of times we wouldn’t say anything.
AvB: So it would change—
TL: Yeah. We would just hang out with the bodhisattva almost like it was a person. Then we’d say something. Usually what we said was not art historically interesting. It was a personal response. Those were some of my favorite memories of being in that museum. I would say we were experiencing something that was not just an intellectual thing about the history of Chinese art or Eastern religions. There was something else that we were trying to make contact with. I don’t think it’s any different if Rilke’s wandering around in the Louvre, on break, when he’s not in Rodin’s studio, and he looks at these pieces of Greek marble and most are damaged and desecrated and he happens to come across Apollo who’s missing a head, and he makes a poem. You can’t write that poem if you’re not in the spiritual place and the conditioning to see it.
AvB: I think that, according to Lipps, both Rodin and Rilke would have been looking for the life within the marble. They really believed and I think you believe and I’m sure that I believe that there is life there and that somehow, it is possible to see the movement in the stone. That’s what they were bringing alive in their art.
TL: Yeah. So then the question becomes how this knowledge gets carried across. If your parent or teacher or friend is out there—there are people who are not ready for this— and they would say, like, it’s just a piece of marble, what do you mean? Of course it takes all kinds.
AvB: Yeah, they’d say, It’s just a piece of marble dear, there’s something wrong with you.
TL: It’s just a vase. Put it on eBay!
AvB: Poetry and art are places where you really can bring that version of life into the room.
TL: And yet most art historians projecting a slide of a marble torso of Apollo probably wouldn’t say what Rilke did in this poem. And if we take poets writing ekphrastic poems and take a bunch of poets to the Met and say pick your favorite sculpture and write a poem we probably know that most people doing that today would not have caught what was Rilke was able to say.
AvB: We wouldn’t have that statue! It would be part of the pile of rubble.
TL: Yeah! We’ve all been to the Louvre and there are Greek statues everywhere. It is pretty crazy, once you know the poem, you can find the torso of Apollo. There’s no little sign saying by the way this is the torso Rilke is writing about but as you narrow down the search in the Louvre among the pieces of Apollo they have left, you get to the one that Rilke is writing about and you say This is It! It’s right here and this thing is glowing. It’s fun, because the next time either of us is back in Paris we can then say I think today’s the day. Let’s find that torso!
AvB: Okay! Let’s go find it now!
AvB: There’s one other question I’d like to ask. It’s based on a statement you made for Ephemera, online. The title of the piece is “All My Poems Are Fictions”.
TL: Oh yeah. Sure!
AvB: Can you talk a little about this idea that your poems are fictions? Do you mean to say that when you talk about anything that has happened, or that is not part of our immediate experience, that it has to be re-interpreted? A re-interpretation is not what happened in the original instance, and therefore it’s not truth. Is that what you’re saying?
TL: Yeah, so we think about that Bob Hass poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas” where every word is an elegy to what it signifies because whatever words you’re using refer back to something that is already gone. So it’s only in the act of trying to capture it in the present, with this glorious, imperfect, but immediate language, that you’re creating something that’s always going to be different from the experience. One of the funny ways to think about it philosophically is I remember when my mom went crazy in a Sizzler Family Steak House. The upshot is, we were kicked out because she threw her lobster across the dining room.
AvB: That’s a little dramatic!
TL: I have written about it from time to time, but every time I tried to write about it, every time I tell the story, it’s always different. It’s just a version of a version of a version. I love going to therapy. My current therapist is a Jungian guy. We’ve been seeing each other 13 years and what I realize is, if you see a therapist regularly, in the course of a year you’re going to talk about a lot of life’s events over and over. But each time you tell it it’s going to be different. Each telling is kind of interesting. I know in the end with the poem you’re going to pick the version that you’re going to send off or you’re going to pick the version that you’re going to collect into a book but we know there are all these versions. Just like today, sitting here together, there could have been a hundred different ways we could have talked about any of this stuff. Any one would be different but all of them would also be in a certain range. We’d be circling around the same thing. So I think that’s the part that’s important. There are two things that come to the poem. I wish I could say these two things simultaneously. One thing is that the lived life does matter. It’s not just all wordplay. I think the art comes from the condition of the soul. I really believe that. So the fact that Linda Gregg and I are playing this game with Guan Yin or the Bodhisattvas, the fact that we would do that, I don’t think that many people at the Met are doing that.
AvB: No, that room is often empty!
TL: Right? But that’s what we did. If we sit down and write a poem we might be writing about a piece of trash blowing across the street in Washington Heights or Brooklyn but we’re writing about a certain kind of life that’s conditioned. If we’re playing that kind of game at the Met everything else we’re doing partakes of that. We sit down and order food at Via Quadronno— that’s a place we used to like to go at Madison and 74th where the the old Whitney used to be— and there’s a certain way we’d go in there and experience the food and talk about things and again that restaurant is full-up with people, so the life-lived matters. So all my poems are fictions, they’re made up, but they’re based on a life-lived. And that’s the thing that I want to bring into some service always, into some sort of conversation. I did write a novel in lyric prose called Kingdom Come, a Fantasia. It came out three years ago. A grad student read it and interviewed me. Privately, he sent me an email and said Tim, can you just tell me how much of what you wrote about actually happened? I said 98% of it. And he said I knew it. And I said Why? And he said Because I just don’t think you could have written those sentences if you hadn’t lived it. Of course, we’re poets and fiction writers. You can make up anything if you want to. We want you to. We don’t want you to be boxed-in to your stupid little identity. Right now we’re in such a weird time but you can be anything, a talking horse if you want. You can do that but it doesn’t excuse you from the life you’ve been living. Right. So this is the thing. Some of it can be taught. But how much of it can be taught, I don’t know.
AvB: Wow. I’m so glad that we did this. Thank you for this easy and open conversation. I’m so grateful.
TL: Ditto. Thank you. And thanks to the Katonah Poetry Series.
AvB: You’ve given a lot! See you on April 5, 2020, at 4:00.