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(Almost) 10 Questions for Lance Larsen

My friend Julia wanted to bask in fame, or wear it in her hair like a dragonfly wing, or maybe roll in it like a dog. Wouldn't it be easier, I said, to just shake Fame's craggy hand? I meant the poet, who had just finished reading. This happened at a snooty conference where Pulitzer Prize winners and untouchables sample tarts from the same tray. My friend Julia refused to fawn, refused to buy his book. Well then, I said, let's join him for breakfast tomorrow.
—from "Dark Harbor," Volume 61, Issue 3 (Fall 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In first or second grade at Washington Elementary in Pocatello, Idaho, my class was assigned to write about hope. Here’s what I turned in, misspellings and all:

I hope that the war going on in veiknomb will stop
real soon. I hope that my uncle won’t get hurt
in veiknomb. Thoses are two seteces yousing hope.
Hope is a word something like the word wish.
Hope is a word that you can not draw like you can
draw a tree. It is a feeling in your head.

I’m sad to report that this may be the best piece I wrote during my twelve years in public school. Why? I quickly learned to turn all writing assignments into sensational adventure stories that went nowhere: ski accidents involving broken bones, bloody car wrecks, espionage plots borrowed from James Bond, stories (well the first page of a story) about Atlantis, etc. By contrast, this piece, as primitive as it is, captures something of the melancholy and hope that I still find myself channeling fifty years later.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve mowed lawns, tossed newspapers, worked security at college football games, acted as a rate clerk for ANR Freight, proofread articles for computer magazines, prepped students on how to ace the GMAT. My favorite gig was DJing dances in high school. A buddy and I bought the requisite equipment, including two pairs of industrial speakers, and formed a company called Dynamic Sounds. We supplied music at churches and schools, and once provided background music for an annual doctors dinner at a country club. We were even hired to provide tunes for a rival high school’s Sadie Hawkins dance. Then to our surprise, we got asked to the dance. We paid a friend to run the music. Not only did we get wined and dined but we made money while we danced. Which sounds mercenary and self-serving and awful but was mostly great fun. I knew the playlist in advance! And how long can you feel mercenary when you’re listening to Parliament and Earth, Wind, and Fire?

What inspired you to write this piece?
Many years ago, at Sewanee I had the opportunity of introducing a friend of mine, Julia, to Mark Strand over breakfast. I was expecting a cozy conversation among the three of us. Instead breakfast turned flirty, with me serving as awkward witness to what I could never have expected. Mostly I looked down a lot and ate my soggy honeydew. That’s the autobiographical trigger. To convert it into poetry, I found myself courting surreal, over-the-top aphorisms, which some of my favorite poets, including Elaine Equi and Dean Young, smuggle into their poems. This piece created a space for me to indulge that same impulse.

Do you write solo aphorisms as well?
I don’t write them all the time, but when I travel aphorisms become my go-to form, ideal on trains and buses and planes and when waiting in long lines or trying to recover from an overlong visit to a museum. For me prose requires big chunks of time, poetry a good deal of solitude. But aphorisms, if I have lots of good ones to read, pull me into writing mode almost immediately. I love them for the way they distill experience, rife with paradox and emotional contradiction, into verbal essences. It’s kind of a trickster form as well. I’ve published groups of them as both poems and mini essays, so they often operate as double agents. They’re ancient and dusty but also have a contemporary bit to them. One writer I know calls them literary cheese puffs. I think of them as linguistic sudoku.

How have you occupied yourself during the pandemic?
I’ve started running again with my wife, Jacqui, and we take evening walks—activities that frequently lead us to trespassing. By that I mean, if we pass a house under construction, and no one’s around, we usually go in. We may build a home of our own one day, so we call it research. Our most astonishing discovery came in June. In the master bedroom of a modernist house, I noticed a handwritten note stapled to a bare stud—not instructions to a subcontractor, as I suspected, but a passage from Shakespeare! Venus is addressing Adonis: “Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry, stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.” Seems like the right kind of quote for a bedroom. We looked more closely, and found quotes in every room, including this one in the kitchen from Sarah Bernhardt: “Your words are my food, your breath my wine.” We felt a little guilty, wandering and reading, like peeking into someone’s diary, but not guilty enough to stop. My daughter tells me that if you build a house in Bolivia—she lived there for a year and a half—you better bury a desiccated llama fetus next to the foundations. Bolivians believe it brings good luck, health, and general prosperity. Hiding poems under drywall seems much simpler to me. At bottom, aren’t we always trying to create a lovely nest and bribing household gods into taking care of us?

What is the most unusual publication you’ve had?
Many years ago, I received a request from ETS to re-publish an essay that appeared in Southwest Review. I’d never heard of ETS but I was thrilled and flattered, until I read the fine print and realized they wanted to re-print not the entire essay but one paragraph. How bizarre. After some cryptic back and forth with an underling I learned that ETS (Educational Testing Service) is the parent company responsible for the SAT and other tests, including the New York Regents exam, which used to be required of all graduating high school students in the state. ETS wanted to use my paragraph, heavy in metaphor, as the basis for an interpretive question or two. And not just for one year but five. How lucky can one get? When I asked about reprint fees, they told me to name my price. I asked for as much as I thought I could without raising red flags with an accountant somewhere—$500, to which they said yes. When I asked for a copy of my “publication,” they politely refused, explaining that all tests are kept under strict lock and key. That part was annoying. But I liked everything else: somewhere around a million guaranteed readers and the chance to irritate every one of them.

What is your favorite assignment to give students?
That keeps changing, but one I’ve used lately is the letter poem, or letter essay or letter story for that matter. It makes for a very flexible assignment. A letter to God is a prayer. A very short letter is a postcard. A letter to a Grecian urn or a pair of second-hand crutches is an ode. A letter to Whitman (at least the one Ezra Pound wrote called “A Pact”) is now part of the canon. I love the way that good letter poems clarify the rhetorical situation between speaker and listener within the first few lines. I recently taught a unit on sudden fiction and used a fabulous story by Lydia Davis, “Letter to a Funeral Parlor.” And not just any letter but a complaint addressed to the director who insists on using the obnoxious neologism “cremains” (cremation and remains) to refer to a departed member of the family. Talk about tacky. Talk about insensitive.

When I have students try their hand at this form from NPR, I encourage them to complain about something and to be indignant.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’d probably be an assemblage artist, one with a surrealist bent. I can barely draw a straight line, can’t mix colors, and have never come close to creating a likeness of anything, but I’m drawn to the art of arranging. I’m thinking of Joseph Cornell with his shadow boxes, or Arman with his obsessive collections of similar objects, whether they be watches, trombones, or ancient typewriters. I’ve also more recently discovered the work of Cornelia Parker, who suspends objects from strings or wires, sometimes steamrolled metal objects, sometimes just a few inches from the floor. The effect is chilling and mesmerizing. I like objects that haunt and re-wire my brain. How do I indulge this impulse in a dilettante’s way? I stack rocks in my backyard, and my pear tree is festooned with antlers my son-in-law drove down from Alberta, which is where he’s from: deer, elk, antelope, even a cow skull with horns attached. When I mow the lawn I have to keep ducking. Inside our house, I have tiny art installations that I’ve cobbled together. My current favorite, photograph above, features a child’s antique wire chair from Malaysia holding an ostrich egg. Above it floats an airy scrap of blue quilt. Above that hangs an antique iron arm (about the length of a cigar) confidently holding a quill pen. For me these objects have no fixed meaning, but I love the juxtaposition of materials. Together they celebrate being open to the rawness of experience and how satisfying it is to jump tracks and let the eye court mystery. Are these visual equivalents for what I do in my poems? I hope so. I want to write something that keeps drawing the reader back for a second look. I should also mention that Joseph Cornell lived in New York on a street called Utopia Parkway. Doesn’t every poet want to live on Utopia Parkway?


LANCE LARSEN is the author of five poetry collections, most recently What the Body Knows (Tampa 2018). He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Ragdale, Sewanee, and the NEA. He teaches at BYU, where he serves as department chair and fools around with aphorisms: “A woman needs a man the way a manatee needs a glockenspiel.” In 2017 he completed a five-year appointment as Utah’s poet laureate.

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