10 Questions for Henry Lyman
- By Emily Wojcik
Now all the batterings sustained in gym after dusty gym,
red wet faces shoved into his, thick leather mitts
pummeling his flanks with a noise of meat being beaten
to submission look like one long drubbing tattooed into his skin
years ahead of each particular humiliation, while the carcass
in the mirror is as scarred, he muses, as the map of the Republic,
with its crisscrossing of assassinations, rigged elections,
—from "The Pugilist," Fall 2018
Growing up in the 1940s and early 50s, when we had frequent air raid drills in school, I made up a rather scary poem about air raid sirens, comparing them to wailing banshees. I believe I was around thirteen at the time. But I wrote happier poems, too.
I feel lucky to have been exposed fairly early in my life to a number of the great poets from Chaucer on, and I suppose I must have absorbed something from each of them—some quality of sound or music—unconsciously, by osmosis. Among more recent poets, I owe much to Robert Francis, also William Bronk, in different ways. Translating Estonian poetry, as well as some of Rilke’s poems, has surely changed my use of English.
What other professions have you worked in?
When I was in high school I worked summers as a hospital orderly. I spent three years as a soldier, and later taught English and German in junior high school and college. For some twenty years I worked in public radio, as an independent producer and interviewer.
What did you want to be when you were young?
For a while I wanted to be a doctor. Organic Chemistry put a quick end to that.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I think a good many of us are haunted by history, almost to the point that one can feel it in one’s own skin. That’s probably what brought me to the image of an old prizefighter standing before a mirror, contemplating his scars. I had in mind an actual prizefighter, a late poet friend who made his living in the ring during the Depression, starting at five dollars a fight.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Certainly the small Connecticut farm where I grew up. The house and barn, the animals, the fields and hills, all that informed my imagination and in one way or another imbues whatever I write. A whole section of poems in The Land Has Its Say looks back to that first place. Though scarcely evident in other poems, and surely not in “The Pugilist,” it’s there nonetheless.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
When I try to write, I’m listening to the poem or sentence, and for that I need relative quiet. That said, when I listen to certain passages of music—Ravel, for instance—I feel I’m hearing a sound, or constellation of sounds, that I would want to reproduce in poetry, if only I could.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My life companion, Noële. Not being formally educated in literature, she can approach a poem without any preconception about what it should or shouldn’t be. Also, though her English is fluent, it’s not her native language. So if a poem of mine is unclear to her, I suspect it may need some revising.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Visual art. I sometimes find myself envying painters for their ability to portray an image directly rather than having to translate it into words. As for myself, I can only hope, or trust, that the picture I’m trying to convey will somehow come through. I often wish I could peer into a reader’s mind, to see what they see.
What are you working on currently?
I’ve been spending most of my time putting together a website for Poems to a Listener, a radio program I produced back in the eighties and early nineties. It consists of readings and conversation with poets, including James Baldwin, Linda Gregg, Seamus Heaney, Jane Kenyon, William Stafford, and Alice Walker, among others. They can be heard at www.poemstoalistener.org.
HENRY LYMAN'S work has appeared in Dark Horse, The Nation, The New York Times, Poetry, and other periodicals. His poetry collection, The Land Has Its Say, was published by Open Field Press in 2015, and the Elizabeth Press published two books of his translations of the Estonian poet Aleksis Rannit. He edited Robert Francis’s new and uncollected poems, Late Fire, Late Snow, and an anthology of New England poetry, After Frost.