Catching Up With 2023 Poetry Prize Winner Lance Larsen

October 26, 2023 | blog, interviews

Lance Larsen’s most recent poetry collection is What the Body Knows (Tampa 2018). His poems have appeared in Southern Review, APR, River Styx, Ploughshares, Poetry, New York Review of Books, Best American Poetry 2009, and elsewhere. His awards include a Pushcart Prize and an NEA fellowship. He teaches at BYU and fools around with aphorisms: “Gesundheit!-as close as I’ve come to Nietzsche and Heidegger in months.” In 2017 he completed a five-year appointment as Utah’s poet laureate.

SP: When did you first identify yourself as a poet? What was the catalyst for that moment?

LL: As an undergrad, I focused on fiction, then took a poetry class my last semester from Leslie Norris, a remarkable Welsh poet who counted both Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney as friends. During my MA I slowly drifted towards poetry, which I recognized as a more accommodating form for me—less plot, more opportunities to describe raging rivers, porcupines, and a certain hardcore basketball coach I had who overdosed when I was in junior high. I had no idea how to work him into a story, but I could write an elegy. Despite my slow start, I was mesmerized along the way by certain highly sensory poems, including Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty,” Wright’s “A Blessing,” and Bishop’s “The Fish.” I didn’t know language could be so dense and rich and alchemical. Of course, I wanted to give poems a try. I began calling myself a poet when I applied to PhD programs in my mid-twenties.   

SP: Who are your poetry ancestors? What school of poetry best fits your works?

LL: Somewhere Frank O’Hara writes, “My heart is in my pocket. It is poems by Pierre Reverdy.” I tend to fall in love with whatever writer happens to be in my pocket, which makes me a literary mutt of sorts. I’m sympathetic to the intricacies of formal poetry but also love the rawness and chance and absurdity of surrealism. I love Shakespeare (the surreptitious poetry in the plays more than the sonnets). I have lots of room for Keats and Coleridge, and both Dickinson and Whitman (some poets act as if you have to choose between them). Thirty years ago, in the introduction to my dissertation, I discussed Milosz, Bishop, and Roethke, not an obvious trinity of influences. For a time, Larry Levis was the only poet on the planet for me, then I fell in love with Anne Sexton and Linda Gregg. I have an enduring enthusiasm for Pablo Neruda, New York school poetics but also the austerity of Olav Hague. I can’t get enough aphorisms into my system, ancient or contemporary. I especially like them when I’m traveling. I just started re-reading my marked-up copy of 350 Arguments by Sarah Manguso, intimate little fragments that are addictive. Lately, Ross Gay is a favorite of mine, and I have an ongoing soft spot for Bob Hicok.

SP: Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish poet writing in the 20th centuryin his poem “Account,”  he writes that he “was driven because [he] wanted to be like others, [he] was afraid of what was wild and indecent in [him].” How does this contrast with your understanding of the search and service to “The Invisible Thing”?

LL: My impression is that “Account” focuses on Milosz’s early writing life, in other words, his relative inexperience as a developing poet. In discussing his service to “The Invisible Thing”, Milosz is a mature poet with decades and decades to look back on. I don’t see those as contradictory impulses but part of a greater whole. This amplitude is hinted at in another Milosz poem of habitation called “Ars Poetica?” Here’s the penultimate stanza:

“The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,   
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,   
and invisible guests come in and out at will.”

I think Milosz would agree with Whitman that we are a multiplicity, multitudes in a drop of water. Both Miloszes I’ve alluded to here, as well as hundreds of Miloszes I haven’t mentioned, can be gathered and held together in some larger Milosz.

SP: In your poem, you say you are haunted by bossa nova, the new wave or trend. Are all artists haunted by the drive to set the next trend? M. Lincoln Schuster is quoted as saying, “Discover needs still unmet…start trends, don’t follow them…far more important than being the first, be willing to settle for the best (‘An Open Letter to a Would-be Editor’).” Do you feel that this sprint to the next big thing helps or hurts the poet?

LL: Sorry to disappoint but in mentioning bossa nova, I had in mind not “the new wave” or “avante garde” but something quite pedestrian, the way Brazilian rhythms get in my head. Ear worms, we might call them, but lovely ones, unshakeable to an unsophisticated listener like myself. I’m thinking of “Girl from Ipanema” and “Corcovado” or just about anything by Astrud Gilberto.

But let me hazard a more direct answer. I don’t think all poets are haunted by “the drive to set the next trend,” though many are. While I want a poem to sound like the decade in which it is written (a Pound dictum), trying to be strictly on point with the latest trend is a fool’s errand. Even if you somehow manage to get it right (highly unlikely), will it still be right next week? During Vietnam, protest poems were everywhere, and served a crucial social and political purpose in the moment, but as poetic artifacts, how many have survived? Only a handful. This morning during a run, I was listening to a New Yorker fiction podcast in which Deborah Treisman quotes Stuart Dybek, who said that a writer’s job is not to “say” things but to “make” things. I like the distinction. I’m naïve enough to believe that if something is well-made it will hit an aesthetic sweet spot in the now but also have some sort of staying power.

Let me mention another Polish Nobel poet, Wisława Szymborska. Was she trendy? I don’t think so. Was she an original? By my definition, and my ear, absolutely. There’s something understated and generous and wise and human in her poems, including her devastating ekphrastic poem about 9 /11. She’s describing a photograph of the towers before they came down, which freezes those in the act of jumping. Here’s the final stanza: “I can do only two things for them— / describe this flight / and not add a last line.” That empathetic quality in her work, however you define it, will always keep me coming back for more.

SP: “A Secretary of the Invisible Thing” mentions angels, phrenology, superstitious chain letters, hauntings, and ghosts─what is your connection to the mystical or magical?

LL: I am a poet of belief, of Judeo-Christian affirmations, though I usually write about my beliefs obliquely. I’m absolutely holding out for a larger order, some world beyond this world. Campy references are a surreptitious way of putting all that on the table, I think. On the one hand, my granddaughter waving goodbye to a whirlpool is an act of naïve magical thinking, as if whirlpools had feelings, but there’s a poignancy and humanness implied by that act that seems more authentic than many dry religious creeds. Whether ghosts are real is beside the point (though I hope they are). Ditto phrenology and chain letters. We absolutely need the category of the supernatural to round out who we are. Maybe Stevens is getting at a similar thing with his “supreme fictions.” Literature, not to mention everyday life, thrives on fruitful (and often goofy and unproveable) binaries. Do I literally believe in a Muse—some kind of (mostly) good daemon to whom I am an amanuensis? No but also yes. It remains my best explanation in accounting for the unplumbable mystery of hearing voices in my head.  

SP: In this new time of generative artificial intelligence, how would you respond to claims that the writer will become obsolete? What would you say in encouragement to young poets?

LL: Will we destroy ourselves, and the world, by 2030, thanks to AI, as some prognosticators predict? Crossing my fingers, no. Poems will become obsolete only when we decide humans are obsolete. I think the human voice will always offer something that can’t quite be replicated, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. I tell young writers to write not because their writing will change the world or bring them loads of cash, but because writing will change who they are. In “America,” Ginsberg has this audacious and ironic line: “America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe.” In pretending to monetize poetry, he’s making exactly the opposite argument: that though poetry can be bought and sold, it can’t truly be bought and sold. He’s inviting us to go against the system, even if we are the system. This question made me think of the ending of Fahrenheit 451. After all the physical copies of books have been destroyed, there will remain a small band of crazy geniuses reciting them from memory. In a similar way, I’m confident that in the future, we’ll have no shortage of Luddites, those who go on writing longhand without the aid of AI, even if AI robots can do a better job. There will remain some delicious human smudge on what we create. I would tell a young poet to concentrate on getting that smudge just right.

Submissions for the swamp pink Poetry Prize open on January 1st and will close January 31st.

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With a $20 entry fee, writers may submit up to 25 pages of fiction. Winners receive $2,000 and publication. All entries will be considered for publication, and more than one story may be entered.

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