The Adirondack Review
Interview with
Lee Upton
When did you first discover that you wanted to study literature? What was it like growing up for you? Did your family encourage reading from a young age, or did you develop this interest on your own?

I read intensively almost from the time I learned to read, and the dramatic elements of the literature I read resonated in some ways with other freedoms I experienced, particularly the experience to roam about freely. I was one of those feral sorts of children who run about, unimpeded. My family encouraged my reading and my independence.

What are some books that you were particularly fond of as a young person?

I read poems and plays and novels before I could understand much of what I was reading. Shakespeare in big doses, for instance. Then too, I especially liked the stories of Robin Hood. I identified with him in some goofy way. The first book I cried over was Robin Hood. You could have floored me when he died.

When did you begin writing for pleasure -- for need?

In early childhood. For a while I even created a little newspaper for my family called The Grand Prix. I had read those words somewhere but had never heard them said. You can imagine how I pronounced them.

When did you begin to submit your work for publication, and what journals did you target? What was the first publication that you remember feeling especially proud of?

I sent poems anywhere and everywhere when I was a college undergraduate. I remember being amazed when a poem of mine was published in the Denver Quarterly. I don't believe that I was out of college when the poem was accepted.

You write poetry, literary criticism, and fiction. Why poetry? Why the others?

I like the steep vertical drop that poetry makes possible, the sense that every mark, down to the comma, rearranges the entirety of the poem. There's nothing quite like it, the way surprises mount up. Poetry's the art of outwitting oneself. One's sensibility has to expand in ways that are unpredictable and disorienting. There's the old saying about how readers get "lost" in a book. Writers have to get lost in their poems, at least for a while. You bring all you have to bear to the poem, but the poem gives you the sensation that you have lost certain barriers. The compass you bring to your dealings with the world doesn't quite work there. You are lost in the poem, but it's a wonderful way to be lost, losing your most rigid self to make a poem.

I wrote literary criticism only after I had given myself a good number of years of writing poetry. By that time the act of making discriminations and describing the ways poems work began to seem more natural. In some ways it's surprising that more poets aren't literary critics; anyone who writes poetry beyond the early years of intuitive work is making critical choices continually and needs to be reading very widely and deeply. The longer one writes, the longer it's necessary to be a stern critic of one's work, if only to keep oneself from infertile, aimless repetition. It can be liberating, too, to write about another writer's work. Often I've written about writers who have been ignored or overlooked, and so I've felt an obligation to defend poets whose poetry has been poorly characterized.

As for fiction: I wrote fiction alongside some of my early poems, then stopped for a number of years. But in recent years I have been drawn back to the form and now feel myself to be committed to writing fiction.

Writing in different genres may make a long life of writing more possible; you can pick up new structures and new possibilities for one genre by working in another. I don't think I felt as fulfilled as a writer until I began working in three genres. And there's one very simple reason that strikes me for working in three genres; you can write for more hours a day. When I write poetry, I'm depleted after a couple of hours. After two hours, I may be so drained that I know I'm incapable of making good choices in that form. But when I move on immediately to literary criticism, I feel refreshed. Another set of strategies awaits me. And then when I work on fiction I find the sheer horizontal quality of it, the way characters interact, to be so gratifying that I am again refreshed. My ideal day is one when I can be writing for long hours, moving between genres and then tracing my way back to poetry, bringing new adventures with language to bear on the poem before me.

Your poetry sometimes contains references to mythology and other classic themes -- you especially seem to enjoy having fun with them. What draws you to these themes?

We had a wonderful book in the house when I was very young, Gods and Goddesses in Art and Legend, by Herman J. Wechsler. I still have the book. Even now, when I look at the pages I feel what I felt then: this wild exhilaration about stories in which anything can happen. And the little book that introduced me to the Greek gods is full of wonderful reproductions in which people are doing dramatic, passionate things. The cover is Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and there she is on her half-shell, coming in on the waves. My fascination with the myths grows out of early familiarity and a sense that there's no stopping their possibilities for making meaning. How can anyone resist them? They're so ribald and funny and tragic--and they keep happening. They're so often about metamorphoses, and their substance is that of metamorphoses; they are not only about change, they keep enacting change; they are change-making agents. Myths change shape each time we read them, no matter what culture they or we emerge from. They are figured by time and meant to continue to unfold in time. They are volatile, and so working with them means that they're bound to give a writer trouble, in the best sense. They've passed through so many minds that they're fairly drenched with mischief.

You have a Ph.D. in Literature. What was the focus of your dissertation?

I wrote my dissertation, which became my first book of criticism, on the wonderful poet Jean Garrigue. I hadn't heard of her until it was time to pick a topic for my dissertation. I got her last book at a library sale, where it went for a ridiculously cheap price -- five cents, if my memory serves me. On the back of the book were blurbs by Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore, very enthusiastic blurbs. It was because of the blurbs that I bought the book. For a few days I kept the book by my bedside and would pick it up to look at poems before going to sleep. Within a week I found myself having real feeling for Garrigue's ambition and the way she deployed scrolling, ornate images down page after page. She's an under-rated, under-studied poet. When one takes her work into account, one's sense of the literature that women wrote at mid-20th century shifts. Her poems are strange and opulent, gorgeous even. She lived life on a large scale, and her poems bear the mark of that pursuit.

Do you ever get burned out? Do you feel the need to take long breaks from writing, or do you keep a fairly steady pace?

I get "burned out" when I can't write. When I can't write because of lack of time I feel sick and sad and exhausted. Otherwise, because I work in different genres, I don't exhaust myself in a negative way by writing over a long period of time. (There is a positive sort of exhaustion that I like, as if after a day of work you're coming up from underwater and everything around you looks new and inviting). A sort of rhythm develops when I'm writing, perhaps because I know how to "feed" myself well with plenty of reading and conversation. I have two children (a kindergartner and a seventh grader). I can't afford to get exhausted too awfully.

Do you have special writing rituals: favored notebooks, quiet rooms, etc., or is that not really of importance to you?

Because I worked for a newspaper as a free-lance writer while I was in college, I learned how to concentrate in all sorts of situations. But I have my preferences. I much prefer a quiet place to work. I have a study and do all my computer work there. But the real work for me, the most exciting and immediate work, takes place when I'm writing in longhand at the dining room table. I write in longhand, revise the work until it's full of hatch marks, type revised copy into the computer, make hard copies, and write all over the hard copies in longhand again. I envy people who can work through all stages at their word processors. I do so much writing by hand and then go on to retype my additions that I actually sometimes get nauseous from doing all that detailed deciphering. I feel like I'm reading while riding in a car; there are just so many marks to unscramble. But I haven't found another way to work, finally. I can be more inventive and listen more fully to the poem when working in longhand. The work I do on the computer is at the more superficial, editing level; any substantial revision occurs in longhand.

Who were some of your early influences? And your peers -- of the writers whose work appears alongside yours in journals and magazines, whose work do you admire today?

T. S. Eliot was essential. Dickinson too. Plath of course. Such committed experimentalists, really. And Louise Bogan, too, about whom I wrote my second book of literary criticism. Stevie Smith has been an influence, as has Elizabeth Bishop. James Tate, Thomas Lux, Louise Gluck, and Jean Valentine continue to be very important to me. I admire many of my peers and have a special fondness for Paul Muldoon, Bin Ramke, Glyn Maxwell, and Anne Carson.

Are you still a contributing editor at the Denver Quarterly? How did you come upon that?

Yes, I'm still a contributing editor. I owe Bin Ramke and Donald Revell gratitude for making me one.

Do you prefer writing literature or criticism? Poetry or fiction?

If I had to make a choice, I would choose poetry above other genres; it offers the most immediate psychological awards, the most immediate discoveries, the most dramatic, time-compressed experience during the period of writing. I've come to need to write fiction now, too, and I think that the genre has its own rewards that no other genre offers in quite the same concentration--that sense of almost casual discovery, the sort of discovery at the level of the scene that differs somehow from work in scenes in poetry. The pressure on the individual word in fiction isn't the same as in poetry; you have to discipline yourself to tread more lightly so that an almost orchestral effect begins to take shape in fiction. You don't generally sink into words in the same way as in poetry; the words disappear for a time. The sense of open vastness that fiction sets up is exciting. Alarming too.

As for literary criticism: A year ago I expected that I would refrain from working on any large critical project for the next several months. My plans involved working on poetry and fiction. Nevertheless an idea for a new book of criticism thrust itself on me. It was as if, because I have written three books of literary criticism, a template has formed in my mind; I read a poet's work and feel compelled to write about it. I feel seized by an idea.

When you have promising students who seem to enjoy literature, and they ask you why they should major in English as opposed to computer science, for example, what do you say to them?

I teach undergraduates, and at that level English and computer science are both practical majors. I suppose it's always important to ask the student about what area of study gives him or her the most pleasure; in other words, in what area does the student find his or her ability to concentrate at the deepest level most developed, so that the state of sustained concentration is most fully experienced. The student's answer to that question is telling. Everything depends on the individual student and the way that student's proclivities may be best realized.

We have some remarkable students at Lafayette who are able to experience enlightening connections between disciplines. Some are double majors. Some major in English but do a good amount of interdisciplinary work and thrive because of the intensive focus on their writing that they receive in English classes. The possibilities for combining interests are exceptionally broad, and I encourage my students to make the most of their opportunities here.

What are your thoughts on MFA programs? Are they useful? Ridiculous? Wonderful?

An MFA program generally won't get anyone a job, but if a writer wants to carve out a time for concentrated writing in a community of writers there's nothing like it. You're just about poached in writing in some programs; you meet people who feel as strongly as you do about writing. Your education accelerates in a good MFA program. You're in a program for the experience of writing and reading under pressurized, exhilarating circumstances. I tell my students who are contemplating MFA programs to research the schools thoroughly. They shouldn't hand themselves over to a program, even one with a very strong reputation, without knowing a great deal about each faculty member--not only the faculty member's writing but that person's attitude about teaching less experienced writers. A dedicated writer may be deeply attracted to an MFA program. Witness Flannery O'Connor.

Have you thought about writing a novel?

I'm now writing a novel, and this summer I'll be revising novels I've written over the last few years. My agent for fiction, Eileen Cope, suggested I write a novel; I will always be grateful to her. Without her suggestion, I don't imagine I would have had the faith to try out the form. Now I'm a devotee of writing in the genre. It's like taking a long ocean voyage. You don't know if you'll come back as the same person after it's over, or if your house will still be standing. It's such an inclusive form; you can put in all sorts of quirky things, and you can make people do and say things that are outrageous, and you can explain their motivation or enact their motivations at length. It's been a liberation to work in the form. It's also heartbreaking sometimes; it's such a difficult stretch from the other work that I do. It inverts strategies that I've developed over decades.

Is writing getting too cliquey, or will there always be room for individual styles of writing? Do you ever find your writing being classified in a way that you disagree with completely? How do you address this criticism? How do you respond to the positive criticism that you receive?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
There will always be room for individual styles. Almost no one wants to be classified, at least not for a period past an apprenticeship. In some ways, there is only room for individual styles; everything derivative sinks away. As for being judged in a way I don't want to be judged: I try to tell myself it's none of my business. You asked how I respond to "positive criticism": I respond with enduring gratitude.

What are your feelings about on-line literary publications? Are writers slowly becoming more open to them? Do you still see a lot of resistance -- reservations -- from some?

On-line journals are some of the best forums for poets. I like the fact that if a new poet interests me I can go on the Web and usually find out more, instantly, about that person's work. There are so many "hits" that are possible: more readers, more poets, more formats, including audio. I don't understand the resistance to on-line publications. The texture of a book, the tactile delight it offers, the way the words on a page evoke a certain intimacy, cannot be superseded. But on-line publications give us so much too: the speed of access, the incitement toward experimentation, and the way the words illuminated on the screen offer up their own particular incandescent beauty. Poetry is the genre that seems to like the computer screen, perhaps because of poetry's own speedy, nervy means of travel.

What was it like to be awarded the Pushcart Prize?  Did you find a quicker reception of your work following that (as well as the publication of your books), or did those events really not have as much of an effect as you may have expected?

It was a marvelous thing to be awarded the Pushcart, and I'm sure that it was helpful to me. The volumes in the series are remarkable for their inclusiveness. Each new edition's arrival is one of those happy moments of the year.

Is poetry receiving more or less attention than it was when you began writing? Is it still a significant force in American culture, or is it fading away? What can we do to have poetry reach more people -- or should we want that? Is the number of people who read poetry necessarily a good indicator of its importance in society? Some seem to think that we need to reach as many people as possible, that those in the literary world have a certain responsibility to touch as many people as they can, as if exposure to art and literature itself is actually going to achieve the results that they hope for. Do you agree with this, or do you think that other factors are more important in determining the relevance of poetry to society?

The growth in numbers of people who write poetry has been phenomenal. There are many more publishing outlets and performance outlets for poets too. On-line publications like yours are at the forefront in many ways, making it possible for all sorts of poetries to thrive. I haven't tended to worry too much about an audience for poetry, and that may be because I've found it to be such a contagious art; people who read it want to write it, and people who hear it want to write it and declaim it. More and more young people are excited about poetry. They had to experience it for themselves by becoming actively engaged in it. The different types of poetry most available now call for different responses, and fulfill different needs. The proliferation of varieties of poetry (from explosive performance poetry that shouts or whispers on a public stage, to the implosive, inward poetry of private meditation or advanced theory-making) creates new audiences. There's something out there not only for many sensibilities, but for many moods. Whims, even.

In what direction do you see your writing going?

Toward a renewed sense of the poem as a field of implications. Toward the poem as an expression of human freedom that requires an acknowledgement of the varieties of freedom that may be experienced in language. Toward a further re-thinking of the meaning of the genre and what the genre may make possible for us in this time, in this and other places.

Toward greater expansion, including toward working with poems in a series and writing long poems. I owe this movement toward expansion to my experiments with narrative. Writing longer fiction has allowed me more readily to experiment with different sorts of tones and possibilities and conceptions in all my work, and has even afforded me a greater sense of ease in poetry. I've felt more assurance and excitement about poetry in the past year than ever before, and a sense of urgency, that an ancient call to all of us needs to be answered. I see the act of writing imaginative works (including writing literary criticism as an act that is dependent on imaginative sympathy and the visceral description of a new practice in language) as a way of being most alive for me, and as a necessity. I know too how fortunate I am to have a life that allows for sustained writing, and I want to do what I can to honor such good fortune.
by Colleen Marie Ryor
Lee Upton
Photo: Theodora Ziolkowski
LEE UPTON's fourth book of poetry, Civilian Histories, appeared in 2000 from the University of Georgia Press.  Her third book of literary criticism, The Muse of Abandonment, was published by Bucknell University Press.  Her poetry has appeared in recent months in the New Republic, the American Poetry Review, and the Denver Quarterly, and is forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly and The Harvard Review. This is her second appearance in The Adirondack Review.