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No. 3 in Series
Degrees of Apprenticeship
The Sarah Lawrence Program
WithIntroductionandPoemsby Thomas Lux
Karin de Weille
Jenifer Wohl Jonson
Alice A. Loxley
Greg A. Nicholl
Laura Sherwood Rudish
Daniel V. Shea
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When I started teaching at the college in 1975, we had two or three students in our MFA program. In fact, there were no classes: graduate students were in undergraduate classes. We—in poetry, primarily Jane Cooper, Jean Valentine, and myself; and in fiction, Joe Papaleo, Grace Paley, and Linsey Abrams—then began teaching graduate students in their own classes. We lacked only one thing for this endeavor: salary. We taught the classes for nothing. For a few years. As we gained more students, the faculty gained a little cash to buy a little sawdust to put in our shrouds.
Since about the mid-80's the program has grown and been strengthened year by year. We give what no other program gives: individual conferences with the faculty, and plenty of them, as well as rigorous workshops and craft classes. It's the Sarah Lawrence way, and it's the right way. We have incredible students, many have published books in recent years. Our faculty (look them up on the web site-if I listed all of us here I might develop carpal tunnel syndrome) are all working writers and teaching matters to them. There are approximately 30 writers teaching on campus in any given year. If there is another college or university with more than 7 or 8 (and that would be very rare) writers on the faculty, then I will turn in my Progress Is Coming To Sherwood Forest T-shirt.
I am leaving (oracular nutty's taking it on the lam) my Sarah Lawrence teaching position at the end of this academic year, though I'll return next year for several residencies in the MFA program. It has been a great privilege to teach for a quarter century plus, both undergraduates (many now in their 40s!) and graduate students (many now never mind how old) at Sarah Lawrence College. I am particularly proud to have seen the graduate poetry program evolve into something—because of its rigor, imagination, and its spirit of generosity—that honors the art form we love.
It is my prediction that you will read some good writing in this issue of Big City Lit. Read until you bleed. Come to the party at KGB Thursday, March 7. Write until your eyebrows turn white.
PS: There are three unattributed quotes or near-quotes in the above. Name them and their authors (poets) and you will be rewarded with a trip to the Bahamas, Paris, or someplace better.
Lux is singular among his peers in his ability to convey with a deceptive lightness the paradoxes of human emotion.
Everybody knows that for a ballet dancer, in order to make a gazelle-like leap, you have to practice for years to do that. But people think because they have language, if they have feelings and they put them down, they have a poem.
Suzanne Somers has published a book of poetry. [So have] Jewel, Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Carter. I happened to browse through [Carter's stuff] and it wasn't so bad; it's just not poetry, not good poetry. You can call it poetry if you want, but it's dopey and sentimental. Even dopey and sentimental people don't read 'em anymore.
A lot of poets don't read their work well, but they still do readings--for the check, obviously. But nothing is duller than a monotone reading of work that's essentially incomprehensible—and there's a lot of that. I'd rather have lit matches stuck in my ear.
Sarah Lawrence is not your normal academic college. Sarah Lawrence respects the creative. Half of the faculty here are working artists of one kind or another.
If the devil came to me and gave me a fifty-year career as a poet and one year as a centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox, I'd have to think about it. If I could bat about .390 and steal thirty or forty bases and win a gold glove in outfield, I might consider that deal.
I just want to keep writing now and reading [Lux reads 100 books a year in all areas, especially history] and raising my child and teaching, and I hope, before I die, the Red Sox win the World Series.
Interview conducted by J.M. Spalding
Copyright © 1999 The Cortland Review Issue Eight—The Cortland Review
It Must Be the Monk in Me|
It must be the monk in me,
or the teen-age girl. That's why I'm always off
somewhere in my mind with something
stupid (like a monk) or spiritual
like a teen-age girl). Sometimes, there's vision,
by reason of faith, in glimpses, or else
and more often, a lovely blank, a hunger,
like Moses' hunger when with his fingernails
he scraped the boulders of their meager lichen
and then fiercely sucking them . . . It's a way
of living on the earth—to be away
from it part of the time. They say
it begins in childhood: your dog
gets runned over, your father
puts a knife to your mother's throat . . .
But those things only make you crazy
and don't account for scanning,
or actually mapping, a galaxy inside. I believe
it happens before birth, and has to do,
naturally, with Mom. Not with what she eats,
or does, or even thinks—but with what she doesn't
think, or want to: the knot of you growing larger
and, therefore, growing away.
(from Half Promised Land (Houghton Mifflin, Boston1986))
Postcard to Baudelaire
It's still the same, Charles.
Every day dislimned, the heart clicking
erratically—the sound of amateurs
playing billiards. How are you enjoying
the high privileges
of the dead? The double
triple and more turns
of the dark, the delicious
please of quietude? No one,
no thing is different: the oblati swarm,
the poor are formed into lines
leading poorer . . . There's one good thing,
Charles: the few beautiful verses
granted you by God
sing. Even though you're deaf
I want you to know
they sing! You should know that,
Charles, it's still the same.
(from Sunday (Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1979;
Carnegie-Mellon University Press, January 1989)
It starts, somehow, in the hot damp
and soon the lit bales
throb in the hayloft. The tails
of mice quake in the dust,
the bins of grain, the mangers stuffed
with clover, the barrels of oats
shivering individually in their pale
husks—animate and inanimate: they know
with the first whiff in the dark.
And we knew, or should have: that day
the calendar refused its nail
on the wall and the crab apples hurling
themselves to the ground . . . Only moments
and the flames like a blue fist curl
all around the black. There is some
small blaring from the calves and the cows
nostrils flare only once
more, or twice, above the dead dry
metal troughs . . . No more fat tongues worrying
the salt licks, no more heady smells
of deep green from silos rising now
like huge twin chimneys above all this.
With the lofts full there is no stopping
nor even getting close: it will rage
until dawn and beyond,—and the horses,
because they know they are safe there,
the horses run back into the barn.
(from Sunday (Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1979;
Carnegie-Mellon University Press, January 1989))
Long bones are loveliest: I love long bones
O I know you're long, longer . . .
And O yes—the slow curve
at the base of your spine, you
remember, where the moon
hides almost half
its face: moon, goodbye . . .
There is some joy,
in fact, lots: your mouth
and her ancestors.
I know behind your cheekbones
there are wings, I said wings,
and your face is flying
(believe me—this has nothing
to do with the clouds
conception of motion and speed)
towards mine. Goodbye,
lost river. Hello, lost river.
I have something for you: here,
our calm shadow and one more
never final sleepwalk.
(from The Glassblower's Breath (Cleveland State University
Poetry Center (CSU Poetry Series, II) 1976))
Your Tender Message
Your tender message affected me: I fell
down a flight of stairs.
I wasn't hurt much.
My legs had been broken before.
I just lay there and shuddered.
Then I heard a noise, clink,
on the floor beside me: only a small piece
of my life falling off,
only another small loss . . .
Somehow, I got outside, pulled a leaf
from a tree, and looked at it.
I stayed out there all night,
pulling leaves from a tree,
reading them—each one sadder
and more useless than the first.
(from The Glassblower's Breath
Cleveland State University Press, 1976)
The Perfect God
The perfect god puts forth no dogma, can't,
or laws that dim the soul. He lets you sleep
and eat and work and love and treats you like
a man, woman. He needs no slaves; the self-
appointed, meek but cruel—they annoy him.
There are old books he didn't write but likes
for their rhythms and truths some of the stories tell.
He likes, loves these books, I said, but is bored
by exegesis too literal, wild.
Prose, poems, sometimes suffer the same fate,
but this also bores him and he won't, can't,
or does not care, or dare, to interfere
with either. The perfect god is sad, hurt,
when humans fear their lives—those solitudes
so small beside the tundra, polar caps,
Congo River (whose every curve he loves),
the empty, equatorial bliss. He likes,
loves what's vast, which seems to us so blank.
He loves what's sane, serene, and fiercely calm,
which he didn't invent but understands.
The perfect god—and god, yes, is perfect—
is impassive, patient, aloof, alert,
and needs not our praise nor our blame.
And needs not our praise nor our blame.
(from The Drowned River (Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1990))
Trochee, trochee, trochee—that's how
I heard them, the cows,
their beings, they walked
like that, into the barn each night
and out again each morning after giving up their milk.
They were always out eating, their heads down,
in field or barn,
eating grass or grain.
The field short-cropped, lunar,
dotted with rocks,
cow pies. Out of thirty, maybe three
or four you gave names
to: Bossy, Bessie. They were stupid
not cute, and would not love or nuzzle you.
They went out in the morning and came back at dusk.
They didn't just hand it over,
their milk, but you could take it from them,
great foamy pails
emptied into vats
and sold for cash, all but one large blue pitcherful,
which stayed home
and which, when cold,
you poured atop a bowl of oatmeal
and ate through a thousand winters, every day
safe, tame, broken, and lost.
(from Split Horizon (Houghton Mifflin, NY, 1994).
Winner: Kingley Tufts Award)
What I love about this little leaning mark
is how it divides
without divisiveness. The left
or bottom side prying that choice up or out,
the right or top side pressing down upon
its choice: either/or,
his/her. Sometimes called a slash (too harsh), a slant
(a little dizzy but the Dickinson association
nice: "Tell the truth but tell it slant"), a solidus ( sounding
too much like a Roman legionnaire
of many campaigns),
or a separatrix (reminding one of a sexual
variation). No, I like virgule. I like the word
and I like its function: "Whichever is appropriate
may be chosen to complete the sense."
There is something democratic
about that, grown-up; a long
and slender walking stick set against the house.
Virgule: it feels good in your mouth.
Virgule: its foot on backwards, trochaic, that's OK, American.
Virgule: you could name your son that,
or your daughter, Virgula. I'm sorry now
I didn't think to give my daughter such a name
though I doubt that she and or
her mother would share that thought.
(from Split Horizon (Houghton Mifflin, NY, 1994))
Barrett and Browning
Mr. Browning helped but I think poetry
for her father made Miss Barrett decide
to live. I think
I believe this dire couple.
And for once I believe
scholars: they loved each other.
Elizabeth, of course, was smarter.
Robert, in the beginning, more ardent.
He was positive
and if his main inventions
were in a field
other than verse
he would have invented the wheelchair
and pushed her
relentlessly south and warmer.
I'm sure this was one reason why
she got up and walked alone . . .
Love helped, though, and they did
love each other—bearing
one healthy but dull child
and many healthy poems,
which, of course, is never enough . . . .
(from Sunday (Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1979;
Carnegie-Mellon University Press, January 1989))
The Corner of Paris and Porter
Meet me there, you remember, the corner
of Paris and Porter. We stood on that spot
after walking our city all day,
dropped-off-the-earth lost each in the other.
We'd live in the house there, we said,
we loved the sway-back porch, the elms
in the yard towering. We stopped
in the thick, still shade of one,
the sidewalk raised and cracked by its roots.
On the curb: a mailbox, agape, flag up,
a dry birdbath in the yard,
and in the driveway a yellow car: this was lucky,
a yellow car, a child once told me.
The sunlight a wall slamming down
outside the shade's circle. Two old sisters, we guessed,
lived there: two
on two wicker porch chairs.
We'd knock on the door,
tell them we love their house,
which they'd then bequeath to us,
on the corner, the house
we found by chance, chirps and childcalls,
the clanking of lunch dishes,
though we saw not one child or bird.
The mailman (we never saw him but knew his name
was Steve) would leave great piles
of letters, the grocery
and the garden would provide.
It was the corner
of Paris and Porter,
in that part of the city
where we'd never walked before—it was south
and farther south, past downtown,
beyond the meat district, the fish market,
past the street of clocks, the tripe stalls,
the brick kilns, the casket factories; we turned
east, a few blocks north,
there was nothing but warehouses
and long blocks of lots,
tall fences topped by barbed wire, behind which
what? We walked over a bridge
(the train tracks beneath were thick with weeds)
and there it was: a neighborhood—houses,
yards, shrubs, we were talking and talking,
I don't know how many miles, lost
in each the other,
and though we did not know where we were,
we knew where we were going: the corner
of Paris and Porter, remember, the day was blue
and clear, I recall the exact path of an ant,
the mica glinting in the curbstone, a curtain
parting momentarily at your laugh.
I could have drowned in your hair.
Meet me there,
today, don't be late, on the corner
of Paris and Porter.
(from The Street of Clocks (Houghton Mifflin, 2001))
All work reprinted with author permission.
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