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Strange Life:  Eleanor Lerman Interview

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In the literary universe, I find that poets are usually the most humble of writers, with subtle, dry wits, an admirable penchant for solitude, and a dogged dedication to their craft.  They are the long distance walkers of track, often plying their trade in relative anonymity, obsessing over form and style, honoring each step as if it is their last – as great poets do with their words. 

Eleanor Lerman is a great poet.  Funny, irreverent, and wise, she burst onto the scene with her first published book, Armed Love, which garnered her a nomination for a National Book Award at the tender age of 21.  Since then, she has gone about the business of creating powerful, pleasurable poems and prose that both shadow and illuminate this modern world of ours.  With a critically-acclaimed new book of poetry, Strange Life (Mayapple Press), forthcoming, it is a great time for KGB to touch base with this important writer. 

Q:  You were very young to be nominated for a National Book Award for Armed Love.  Despite the book’s widespread acclaim, one reviewer in ‘The New York Times’ suggested it deserved a “double x” rating because the poems dealt with sex, drugs and rock and roll.  What was it like to experience great success at an early age, but also to be censored, so to speak, by the Time’s reviewer and others who felt a woman should not write about such topics?  Did these experiences, positive and negative, impact on your next work and those beyond?

It was devastating for me--but not for the obvious reasons. The “double X” warning made me briefly notorious and from the Sunday morning that review came out and then on for a long time, my phone didn’t stop ringing. You have to remember this was 1973; still the hippie years, with disco and the club scene on the horizon. The gay bars around Sheridan Square and down on West Street were packed.  If you were Andy Warhol or various other notables of the time, who better to have on your arm than a twenty-one-year old poet who dressed like Cher and had just been named by the venerable ‘New York Times’ as a literary outlaw? I got invitations to go everywhere with everybody--but the problem was that in reality, I was a pretty much uneducated, inexperienced Jewish kid from the Bronx with an admittedly nasty streak, but I was scared to death of all these people. I stopped answering the phone.  So, although I did publish another book of poetry, the experience had a chilling effect on me. I ended up meeting some of the day’s most important writers including Donald Barthelme, Richard Stern, Philip Roth and Tom Pynchon (all still very important, extraordinary writers, I must add) and while they couldn’t have been kinder to me and more helpful, I was scared of them too. I thought, I’ll never be able to do what these guys do.  And I thought there was a kind of literary hierarchy: poets were on the bottom, short story writers above them and novelists on the top, so I thought I had to start writing fiction if I wanted to have a life as a writer. The problem was, I had no idea about how to write fiction. And then, to top everything off, I got into a big fight with the major feminist/lesbian poets of that time--Adrienne Rich, Audrey Lorde and Alice Walker--when we were all nominated for the National Book Award and they wanted me to join with them in refusing it if one of us won because it was a patriarchal society, men were holding women artists down, blah, blah, blah, and I didn’t agree. I thought the big problem was that poets didn’t make any money, so to me, this was a class argument not a gender problem.

Anyway, all this made it very difficult for me to work. I did write a substantial amount of nonfiction and even worked on two true-crime books with my brother, Philip Lerman. But, it took a long time to recover from my rather tumultuous twenties.  The upside of all that turns out to be that once I did figure out how to get back to poetry it was like opening the proverbial floodgates, and I also became a confident fiction writer. So, as I get older I think I’m actually becoming more skilled, more sure of what I’m doing. That’s a lucky thing to have happen; as one gets older, it’s a great gift to have a calling. Of course, there’s also television. Thank God for mean robots, zombies and Law & Order. I’m never bored.

Q:  Strange Life has been described by Patricia Kirkpatrick as “dystopic arias.” It seems like dystopian poetry, stories and novels are resonating with today’s readers.  What do you think writers like yourself are tapping into, both in their own subconscious in creating these pieces and in the public’s interest in them?

I can’t answer for anyone else, but for me, as noted above, it’s a matter of getting older. And to be honest, it’s also a matter of being completely selfish. I’m not so much worried about the world coming to an end as I am about the end of me! There literally was a moment some years ago when I was out walking my dog when it occurred to me that not only had I reached an age that was older than my mother was when she died (in her forties) but that I was going to eventually die, as well.  You really don’t understand that, viscerally, when you’re younger; it’s much too abstract a concept. So, that changed my writing. I started looking beyond my usual concerns with politics, class issues, needing to find work that will pay the rent, etc., and began thinking about the Big Mysteries of Why We Are Here. the kind of stuff you talk about with your friends when you’re eleven and someone has just explained to you that there may be other dimensions, other universes, other beings living out there beyond the night sky filled with stars--many of which, incidentally, may already be dead because it takes so long for their light to travel here (that’s a very spooky idea when you’re a kid). I’m probably sounding facetious but I don’t mean to be. I really do feel like I am living in two realities: the everyday world where I have to walk the dog and go to the supermarket and check the television schedule and another one where I am deeply aware that life is transitory and that I know nothing about why anything in creation exists, who (if anyone or anything) thought it all up and indeed, what is going on out there beyond the horizon of the night sky. So those are the issues I was trying to explore in Strange Life, but also, on another level, explore those ideas in the voice of my generation--the Woodstock Nation, as I still think of us all--who, in many cases, are probably confronting the same questions. That’s why I never used the pronoun “I” in any of those poems. I wanted to try to speak for all of us.

Q:  You have a wonderful way of using color in your poems, almost like a fine artist working on canvas, providing readers with a transcending, almost multi-sensory experience.  For example, in the poem ‘Strange Life,’ which opens the book, there is the line: the color of everything can be described as in the blue hour, which eventually fades to gray… Given this strength, do ideas for you poems begin mostly through the visual, i.e. what you see?

That poem in particular did indeed start with a visual image: gray horses in a green landscape on a misty day. But that could be the beginning of a romance novel if you’re not careful, so I had to find some deeper meaning in the image and so it became that the horses are sort of ghosts who are born and born again and hence, party of the mystery of existence.  But most of the time I start with asking myself a couple of questions: what do you care about? What do you believe in? What do you think is happening around you? And then I try to find words and images to answer those questions. One thing I learned from reading Leonard Cohen--really, I should admit, from studying Cohen’s poems as if they were a writing handbook--was that a poem has to be constructed in such a way that it all cascades down to a very well-defined finish, startling and strong. So, often I actually start a poem by knowing the last line and working from there.

Q:  Living in Long Beach, Long Island, you are one year removed from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.  How did this storm impact upon you as a poet?

I actually wrote about this for Newsday. What I learned from Superstorm Sandy (I think you get arrested if you call it a hurricane because then FEMA would have to give people more money to deal with the devastation the storm wrought) is that I am an idiot when it comes to survival issues. We were extraordinarily lucky in that we live on one of the very few blocks in Long Beach that sustained no damage and no flooding whatsoever.  I sat in the window of my condo all night and watched the wind and the flood water have a biblical fight outside, on my street, and the wind won. Hurricane (and superstorm) winds blow west; we live in the far-east end of town so the wind blew the water back, back, back.  Sometime around midnight, in the pitch dark (because the electricity had gone out) we went downstairs, checked the garage (which is actually on a slope below street level) and saw that it was fine so we thought everything was okay and went to sleep. Of course, we assumed, the electricity would be back on the next day. Oh yeah, right.

The next morning we found out that the whole town, except for us and a few others, had drowned. It was beyond unbelievable. I couldn’t get over the fact that I had simply assumed well, no flooding on our block so we dodged that bullet, when exactly the opposite had happened. I also learned that in a dire emergency, the people who will come immediately to help you are the National Guard and the ASPCA. I still have a garage full of meals ready to eat (which are tastier than you think) and bags of donated pet food.  Further, Fed Ex should get a medal: we didn’t have mail for weeks but by the second day, Fed Ex was managing to get its trucks over the giant sand dunes that the flood had left on everybody’s corner and deliver packages--my brother was Fed Ex’ing us sterno from Washington D.C. since we couldn’t buy any and we had no electricity (for nine days!) to make coffee with or to keep warm and it was getting very cold. But the most important lesson was that you should marry someone who knows how to build a camp stove on your coffee table (I’m looking at you, Robin Hudler) and have a dog who will sleep under the blankets with you and keep you warm.  I don’t think it influenced my writing in any way except that it turns out to also be useful to have a car so that you can use it as a giant battery that will charge your laptop so you can keep working.

Q:  What are you plans after the release of Strange Life?

Aliens and radio waves. That’s all I’m going to say, but stay tuned!

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Eleanor Lerman is a writer who lives in New York. In addition to Armed Love (Wesleyan University Press, 1973), she has published several other award-winning collections of poetry—Come the Sweet By and By (University of Massachusetts Press, 1975); The Mystery of Meteors (Sarabande Books, 2001); Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds (Sarabande Books, 2005); and The Sensual World Re-Emerges (Sarabande Books, 2010), along with The Blonde on the Train (Mayapple Press, 2009) a collection of short stories. She was awarded the 2006 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Nation magazine for the year’s most outstanding book of poetry for Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds and received a 2007 Poetry Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2011 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her first novel, Janet Planet, based on the life of Carlos Castaneda, was published by Mayapple Press in 2011.

Order Strange Life at http://mayapplepress.com/strange-life-eleanor-lerman-march-2014-release-order-now/