Friday, May 18, 2012

An Interview With Newly Appointed Utah Poet Laureate Lance Larsen

Poet Lance Larsen (at microphone) with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. Photo by Trent Nelson
Why does poetry matter?  There's a great quote by William Carlos Williams that touches on this question. “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” This suggests to me that without poetry something in us perishes.  Poems help us cultivate Intuition, honesty, emotional vibrancy—call it what you will.  It wakes us up to the mystery of our own lives.  In the right hands, it is as elemental as air or water. It is also a good dirt, in which we bury that which we hope will grow.

Of all the genres a writer can choose, why choose poetry? Truth be told, the boundaries between genres are breaking down, and many writers work in more than one field.  For instance, besides poetry, I write personal essay and memoir. That said, poetry seems especially well tuned to what cannot be articulated directly—what one feels breaking through between lines, between words.  Poetry is both the most solitary of the literary arts but also the most communal. After 9 / 11 it's what readers reached for. Poetry seems supremely suited to telling emotional truths more piercing than straight fact, more dazzling than the most inventive of fictions.

How would you say that Utah has shaped your poetry? It has shaped my poetry in the same way that my formative years in Idaho have shaped it, and two years in Chile, and five years in Houston, and visits to England, France, Italy, and Spain: all these landscapes have insinuated themselves in subtle ways into my thinking and perceptions, my syntax and grammar. I frequently write about liminal places, where suburbia bumps up against the wilds.

Are there any specific poems that you feel are especially in tribute to or reflective of Utah? In my forthcoming book, Genius Loci, the following poems reflect my evolving sense of place: “Americana,’” “Backyard Georgics,” “Witching for Water, Etc.,” “Tabernacle,” “Owning the Snake,” “Like a Wolf,” and “Late Morning Salvage.”

What funny stories have happened since the appointment? Nothing funny of late, though I’m sure all I have to do is wait.  The former poet laureate, Katherine Coles, has a story worth repeating.  On her first morning as Utah’s poet laureate, she received a phone call at 5:30 a.m. from an older gentleman.  Luckily, she was already up.  Her sense was that he’d been waiting since 4:00 a.m. to phone.  What he wanted to know was this: what should he do with the poems of his deceased wife.  Her response was right on the money: make copies of them at Kinko’s and distribute to family members.

What do you feel the next 5 years will be like? How does one prepare for something like this? Busy, and with lots of frequent flyer miles registered on my odometer.  The poet laureate is a kind of itinerant preacher of the word (lower case), or a Johnny Appleseed of the literary artifact.  In either case, it’s not so much shoe leather I’ll be wearing out, but the tires on my Toyota Corolla.  The only preparation is to write lots of poems and to memorize the counties in your home state.  I have some homework to do concerning the latter.  Concerning the specific duties I’ll take up: one learns by doing.

What is your advice to young poets? The usual things: read yourself silly; keep a journal; treat writing like a vocation not an avocation, which means sitting your butt down at least an hour or so a day; don’t quit your day job just yet; become an aficionado of something, whether it be quarter horses, Andrei Tarkovski films, Chinese porcelain, or the art of hybridizing daylilies.

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