Why poetry needs more grit.
Image from Flickr via mabeleaff
Alex Lemon’s latest collection, The Wish Book, captures the relief and ecstasy of survival: “we’re still / Alive!” he writes in “They’ll Be Passing Out Lifejackets Soon.” Every poem feels like an emergency, an embodiment of Frederico García Lorca’s reminder that we might at any moment be eaten by ants, so we better make the most of this moment. And Lemon’s work does, handling the frenetic language with such grace that it’s excusable to miss his sleights of hand. There seem to be no illusions at all, just genuine magic. He describes his poems as “vessels that I can or hope to fill with everything I have.”
Lemon is the author of three previous collections as well as a memoir, Happy. Here, he speaks about his new book, the fractured world, and morbidity as a personal obsession.
—Erica Wright for Guernica
Guernica: A friend recently asked me to name some violent poetry collections. I hadn’t read The Wish Book, yet, so I’m afraid I didn’t mention it. These are violent poems, though. Does poetry need a bit of ferocity?
Alex Lemon: Wow, I’ve never thought of my poems that way—as violent—but I can totally see why you’d say that. Violence, to me, has so much negativity attached to it—maybe that’s my trouble with the word. But ferocious—indeed, I’ll take it. And yes, poetry does need a bit of ferocity. Poetry needs to be alive, unabashedly, and, for me, that entails seeing its complexity—the grit and grimness and jubilance and beauty. The world comes to us (or maybe it’s just me—and I know someone said this, but I can’t for the life of me remember who it was) in fragments and shards. Whatever stories we shape from our days, we’re always dealing with gaps, blank-spots, and blackouts—and in handling all these breakages, we are, at all times, so incredibly intimate with sharp edges, the unending knife-like moments of failure and joy in our lives. The only way to attend to the fractured world (or the fractured world I live in) is to write a ferocious kind of music, to sing that volatility.
Being deeply aware of fragility and ecstasy seems to me an essential part of being alive
Guernica: “They’ll Be Passing Out Lifejackets Soon” seems to capture the book’s philosophy in the phrase “we’re still / Alive!” How do you direct the fevered energy of your work? For this collection, how do you balance the joy of being alive with the possibility of dying later today?
Alex Lemon: I think of my best poems as vessels that I can or hope to fill with everything I have; I try to give to them all of the electric complexity that I addressed earlier. Each one fails at this, of course, but I keep trying—adoring each of them, loving the process, the ebb and flow of it—and each time, the failures (Beckett, of course) fail a bit better.
Being deeply aware of fragility and ecstasy seems to me an essential part of being alive and living fully—and there’s no way for me to separate this from my poems. Of course, this balance, when it comes to The Wish Book, was sharpened and reshaped and fell apart and died and was brought back to life through the things that concern writers: reordering, editing, cutting, tossing out, addition, reimagining, recollecting, collage, and endless, endless revision.
I see that relationship—sincerity/humor—differently. Instead of seeing a balance between them, I see them more inextricably linked—as if one is the hard candy shell that gives to the other—or one is the apparition, the ghost-image that invokes the other.
Guernica: Are you intentionally creating a balance between humor and sincerity? I’m thinking of those hotdogs in “Making It Nice.”
Alex Lemon: At some level, I probably am. But it’s not at the top of my list; it’s not something I prioritize. I think that balance you’re seeing is inherent in the complicated things I’m working through in each poem. But I see that relationship—sincerity/humor—differently. Instead of seeing a balance between them, I see them more inextricably linked—as if one is the hard candy shell that gives to the other—or one is the apparition, the ghost-image that invokes the other.
Guernica: Do you find it challenging to switch between writing poetry and writing prose?
Alex Lemon: At first, yes. I found it incredibly challenging to write clear prose that had the dynamism that I wanted. The early drafts of Happy were a mess—hundreds of pages of disjointed, obfuscating images with no sense of narrative or character. The pages weren’t tethered, the words didn’t cohere into a story. But, like anything else that takes practice, the more prose I wrote, the more the pendulum swung back toward the middle, merging some poetic sensibilities with the more fundamental elements of creative prose. Now, I feel so incredibly fortunate to be able to work in both genres. I feel fortunate that the time I spend working in one genre speaks to, motivates, informs and makes more productive the time I spend working in the other genre. My poems and prose are not often in direct conversation with each other, but there’s so much crossover—everything that comes out of that crucible of language—that working in poetry and prose is energizing—to me as a writer and to the work itself.
Guernica: Death is mentioned frequently in these pages. Is morbidity just a part of poetry?
Alex Lemon: Well, we’re all going to die, so mortality is a part of writing and life, of course. But morbidity isn’t—that’s a personal obsession.
Guernica: Any one way to die that particularly scares you?
Alex Lemon: Nope. It would be a total bummer to choke to death in front of a lot of people, though. Probably more for all of those watching—because after a bit of choking, Hello Darkness!
Erica Wright is the poetry editor of Guernica.
Alex Lemon is the author of Happy: A Memoir and four poetry collections: Mosquito, Hallelujah Blackout, Fancy Beasts and most recently, The Wish Book. An essay collection is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas and teaches at TCU.