Interview With Sydney Lea, Poet, Author & Critic

Lea talks about various issues related to writing, reading and creativity
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Sydney Lea’s twelfth volume of poems, No Doubt the Nameless,  appeared in March. He has recently published his fourth volume of personal essays, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long. A former Pulitzer finalist, recipient of The Poets’ Prize, and founder of New England Review, he lives in the state of Vermont in the USA. He is also the poet laureate of Vermont.

Alok Mishra: I would like to start this session with a direct question, sir. How you came into creative writing? What was the source of your inspiration?

Sydney Lea: I was raised among a much older generation who had lived in upper New England well before electricity, power equipment, and so on. They made their own entertainment, largely by telling stories (and in some cases writing folk poetry). I longed to capture their voices but did not want to write dialect, for fear that I would sound condescending, when in fact these older men and women were my heroes. I decided that poetry might capture the rhythms of their language without having to imitate the speech patterns themselves.

Alok Mishra: Please tell me about your education.

Sydney Lea: I took three degrees from Yale, a BA in intellectual history, an MA in American Studies, and a Ph.D. in comparative literature, but I count the people I just mentioned as at least equally important educators. They taught me many outdoor skills, which have been very important to me, but also how to shape an effective narrative in prose or poetry.

Alok Mishra: Anyone who goes through your writing career can easily culminate that you are a poet, an essayist and a novelist – no less important, a professor as well. My question is, how do you manage or juggle all these professions?

Sydney Lea: I am also the father of five children and six grandchildren. The effort to fill that role in a good way has been as demanding, nay more, than the other things you refer to. In my retirement, I have a lot of time to write in any case…and yet I write somewhat less than when I was editing a magazine and teaching full time. Somehow I have always found time for writing; don’t ask me how, save that university teaching is less demanding of one’s physical presence on campus than, say, grammar or high school teaching.

Alok Mishra: What is the genre that you more often incline towards? Please specify your reason as well.

Sydney Lea: That varies greatly. I tend to write in one genre at a time only. There are seasons in my life when poetry takes precedence and others when the essay form does. (I have only written one novel and rather doubt I have another in me.) Since I will soon have published my twelfth volume of poetry, the poem has been my chief preoccupation. I have but four collections of essays in print, but I am currently working on another.

Alok Mishra: I was going through your productions and found one thing very interesting – the titles of your works. For instance, Ghost Pain, The Floating Candles, Pursuit of a Wound, A Little Wildness, A Place in Mind… how do you see it? Is there something special behind these titles?

Sydney Lea: Well, except for the novel, which is all about how memory may retain a sense of place even when that place has been greatly altered, the others are simply phrases lifted from the texts of the books themselves, ones that seemed to fit the preoccupations that those books presented.

Alok Mishra: In the context of present scenario, sir, where do you find poetry? You have written a novel, essay collections and poetry anthologies; let me know how did the readers receive these genres? Do you think poetry has been overtaken by other genres, especially novel?

Sydney Lea: In the western world, the novel has, almost since its origin in the 18th century, had more readers than poetry. There are exceptions in our own nation like Longfellow and Robert Frost, but for the most part poetry in America and Europe has always been a minority art. Not every reader is drawn to it. I don’t think there’s any crisis now After all, his contemporaries worried that Chaucer would be forgotten within a generation. My legacy is not anything I can afford to dwell on, so I don’t.

Alok Mishra: My questions tend to become too poetical, sir, excuse my poetry! However, an article in The Washington Post, April 24, 2015, states that according to the government data, poetry is going extinct! Compared to 17% in 1992, only 6.7% of adult American population has read a work of poetry in the past 12 month! What are your views about this?

Sydney Lea: I mistrust such data. Surely, not even so eminent a newspaper as the Post can have asked every reader in the nation what he or she has read in the last twelve months. So far as I can see, poetry is more popular now than it was in the 70s, when I began my career. As I say above, people are always bemoaning the death of poetry (and even of the novel), and yet for some, there is no substitute for lyric, so it will abide in one way or another. Or so I believe.

Alok Mishra: I reserve a question for my guests like you. In this age of digital revolution, people love reading fancy fictions in digital format. I see a sense of commercial fiction being developed. Do you concur with this view?

Sydney Lea: I am 73. The digital world is therefore largely unknown to me, though like everyone else I am publishing a lot in online journals such as yours. There can’t be any doubt that the explosion of technology will be—indeed already is, in ways that I am in no position to judge—crucial in the evolution of all creative writing. How? Again, I am not the one to ask.

Alok Mishra: Let us get back to your work. I have come to know different spurs from different writers that urge them to write. What makes you write? Is it a sudden call, or you plan your writings?

Sydney Lea: I do not plan anything when I write, unless it be a critical essay or review. My novel, for example, began as what I thought would be a short essay. As for poetry, if I know or plan where a poem is going, it is unlikely to be very lively. I need to feel surprise at where my language takes me; if I don’t feel it, what is the likelihood that a reader will?

Alok Mishra: All I could collect from your works, on your website and other sources, I can see that your poetry does not agree, at least necessarily, with rhyme. It has been an on-going debate, sir. I want your views as a reader and as a poet, both, on this subject of rhyme in poetry.

Sydney Lea: I have no firm position on this matter. Truth is, though, I use rhyme, or half-rhyme, a lot in my poems. One of the ones I sent to you is in fact a villanelle, and if you inspect closely, you will see quite of rhyme in all the poems I sent. I am attracted to rhyme, or at least to flirting with rhyme, just as I am attracted to regular forms (though they tend not to be received forms like the villanelle but ones of my own invention). This is no more than that, an attraction. It enables me somehow. That’s all. I would scarcely insist either that poetry should rhyme or not rhyme. Such dialectical debates, it seems to me, are silly and unproductive. Some of my favorite poets use rhyme as Frost largely did; some avoid it, as Wallace Stevens did.

Alok Mishra: Tell our readers about your prose sir.

Sydney Lea: I don’t know what I’d tell. I would ask a reader to tell him- or herself about it.

Alok Mishra: Have you any books ready to be published?

Sydney Lea: I have a twelfth volume of poetry due in March of 2016 [which has been in prints now]. It is called No Doubt the Nameless.

Alok Mishra: And at last, what’s your message to the students of literature and would be creative writers?

Sydney Lea: The secret to being a writer is no secret at all: it is, simply: Write, and write regularly for an extended period of time. There are no tricks. If you want to get good at something, you must do it a lot. This is as true of writing as it is, say, of becoming a competent cricket bowler or basketball player.