“It's all a confusion.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
Throughout your career, I think it’s safe to say you’ve worked primarily as a poet of personal witness – your “I” seems to be interested in communicating private experience above all else, making those moments universal. Who’s your audience, when you’re writing in this mode?
I'm not exactly sure, Kaveh. I think it shifts and morphs as I write. Sometimes I write for or to a specific other, a beloved, other times for a small group of intimates, and sometimes I write to or for myself, some part of myself that asks to be questioned, confronted, consoled. And sometimes it's a distant other or others, ones I don't yet know or want to know. There are times I've responded to a poet or a poem I've loved or been confounded by. It's all a confusion. But I do have a need to communicate, to commune, with others, whether distant or close, and so I'm always trying to connect, make some sense of things that don't cohere.
You open your newest collection, The Book of Men, with “Staff Sgt. Metz,” a gorgeous meditation on youth and war and sacrifice (“When my boyfriend was drafted I made a vow / to write a letter a day, and then broke it. / I was a girl torn between love and the idea of love.”) The poem is dedicated to two soldier-turned-writers (Doug Anderson and Brian Turner). Why this poem to start the collection, why these men (the two writer/soldiers, your brother, old boyfriend, Sgt. Metz)?
Thank you, Kaveh. That poem is special to me which is one of the reasons it opens the collection. I didn't have either Brian or Doug quite in mind when I wrote the poem. Metz was my only concern in the moment, but he led me back into a time in my life that was confusing, a battle I was having with myself about how to navigate a war that included those I loved. Metz allowed me to stage that battle right there in the airport, to confront and question my feelings and ideals. The men I loved emerge as I regard my ambivalence, and reveal something I had not previously thought possible, a kind of acceptance as well as an even deeper confusion born of that struggle. That new awareness brought me back to the now, to the men I have come to know since, my friend poet Doug Anderson who fought in Vietnam, and my former student, Brian Turner, who fought in Iraq, both involved in a similar struggle, but years later, and in different wars. It’s not that I saw them differently, I saw myself in regards to them differently, and I was grateful that all of them, past and present, had survived. I was surprised to realize that my political and personal ideals had shifted, that I cared much less about all of that. What I saw I cared more about was life itself, the singular importance of a living body moving through the war torn world. The incomprehensibility of that fact, given the chances for survival, seemed suddenly worthy of ultimate supremacy, and awe.
You’ve always been very generous with your work and time, in terms of supporting new and alternative projects (like this one, and my last venture) outside of the traditional academic mags (though your work frequently appears in those too). On multiple occasions, I’ve picked up a new first issue, one with an interesting aesthetic or a weird cover, and found your name listed in the premiere’s contributors among many other (often surprising and exciting) new voices. It’s clearly important to you to support fledgling venues -- where does this commitment come from?
Well, when I was first coming into the world of poetry I saw how important it was that small magazines and presses accepted and supported my poetry, as well as the poetry of others I admired. Early on I worked with a small magazine as an editor and saw that it is really a occupation of the heart. Long hours, no pay, sitting on the floor in someone’s living room behind a box of envelopes stuffed with poems looking for a reader. I also sat around tables in kitchens with a motley crew and hand bound chapbooks, by staple or needle and thread, hour after hour until they were all finished and stacked back to back in a box or slipped one by one into envelopes and addressed. Years later, I visited the offices of APR in Philadelphia. I imagined it would be a far cry from those small living rooms and kitchens, some shining palace of poetry, and I was so surprised to walk up a flight of worn stairs to a small office packed end to end with old issues stacked against the walls, books in every cubby hole, two desks shoved into a dark space in the corner, some sickly potted plant balanced on a ledge, under watered, ill-fed, and two guys in shirt sleeves, shuffling through the envelopes on their desks, and propped on a stool, one ringing phone. It’s all work of the heart. Very few edit a small magazine to make money. It’s done for a love of the art. So, I have a big place in my heart for little magazines and small presses, struggling to survive, to find its readers, and if I can support them with my work or lend them my name (for what it’s worth, which isn’t much if you compare the work they do with my small offering) but it’s a win-win proposition any way you look at it. I also don’t send my poems out much any more. And, to be fully honest, I find as I get older that I’m less interested in publication than in using any spare time I have to write and revise poems. My time is so limited now, and I just want to read and write as much as I can. If a magazine writes and asks for a poem, that saves me time and energy, so I’m grateful. I’m also honored that anyone would ask. Flattery will get you everywhere!
Hah, duly noted. It’s interesting you note that you’re less interested in publication as you get older. You’ve appeared in print everywhere and have earned an impressive smattering of major awards – what’s one thing you’d still like to accomplish, poetically?
I’m not sure I can think that far ahead. Each day I wake up with the hope that a poem may arrive. Not just the poem I’ll write, but a real poem, something that surprises me, something I couldn’t possibly have written, or could only have written in a dream and so can’t really take credit for. When poets are young, I mean young as in writing their first poems, not after they have discovered the world of publishing and prizes, when we are young, we don’t want to accomplish anything beyond the poem. The poem itself is the triumph and success, the poem is the reward. I look back to that time when I was ignorant, unaware, and remember the sense of utter freedom that gave me. I work now to get back there again, to that room in a noisy house where I’ve closed the door and no one knows or cares what I’m doing, the room where the poem is the accomplishment.
You’re married to another successful poet and teacher, Joseph Millar, and you two teach at many of the same institutions. Can you talk about your relationship with each other as writers? Is there ever an element of competitiveness?
It’s a special relationship. I loved Joe’s poems long before I fell in love with him, so I’m his greatest supporter, as he is mine. We love teaching together, and I think students like seeing two people who love and respect one another interact about poetry passionately and with a good dose of humor. I think our mutual love of the art is infectious, and we love “infecting” others with the poetry virus. There are times when he gets something and I don’t, or I get something he doesn’t, but it feels like we’ve both won and we are truly and boundlessly happy for each other. I certainly won big when Joe received a Guggenheim recently. He turned to me on the couch and announced, “Honey, I’m gonna take you to Paris!” I mean, come on! We also help one another through the poetry depressions, those times when we’re not writing well, or when we are writing well and no one seems to notice. We sometimes wonder why we chose this ridiculous path, or why it chose us, and we bolster each other up, remind each other what we love about it, why its worth our time and effort and the inevitable failures we are setting ourselves up to face. We push and prod each other. We’re good together.
That’s the sort of ideal relationship I think a lot of artists seek. The Paris bit especially. How did you two meet?
We met in the Bay Area where I offered a weekly evening workshop for adults at a local independent bookstore. There was a core group of maybe eight, older women whose children had flown the coop, a retired doctor, a young woman who was accepted to an MFA program, but couldn’t afford to go, and Joe who drove up in the company van and came in wearing his work boots and jeans. We all had a lot of fun, but Joe was the star, the jokester, and the real poet in the group. Everyone loved his poems. After about three years, he asked me out on a date. By then I knew him, not so much personally, but through his poems, and once we began really talking over dinner, I knew I liked him. After we danced, I knew I could love him.
I’ve heard and read your former students evangelizing your teaching with true devotional fervor. I’ve read a smattering of poets who cite you as or among their most important educator(s). I’ve never taken a class with you, but you clearly leave a lasting impression on your students. Perhaps it’s a function of volume – you’ve been teaching for a long time, at several different institutions (I don’t think this is all of it, though.) What is it that characterizes a Laux-taught class? That is, how do you set out to differentiate one of your classes from the standard MFA/writing class?
I love teaching. I love learning. And my students teach me so much, keep me young. I’m not sure what I do. I think I have a good instinct for potential, for possibility. I admire anyone, right off, who chooses to sit in a stuffy classroom reading, writing and talking about poetry rather than sitting in a stuffy living room or den watching the latest CSI or locked onto a computer or smart phone watching YouTube clips of kittens friend-ing puppies.
I admire the impulse to reflect, to revere, to reveal, to exchange thoughts and feelings, to be quiet in mind and body, to listen, really listen, to another human being. Already, they’ve won my heart. I probably don’t do anything differently from many other teachers in actual practice. We’re all doing the same thing. I’m patient and I’m dogged and I don’t lie to them. I don’t give empty praise but I’m not a harsh critic, either. I listen. I encourage laughter. I wholeheartedly support the endeavor. I wish them well.
One of my favorite moments in your work comes from a poem in Facts About the Moon, “The Lost” (another poem about men), where a lover contacts the speaker from a hospital bed after they’d shared just one night:
I was surprised by his eyes,
each black lash damp, the lids
swollen and open, trusting I could bear the damage.
I saw how he was made of flesh and blood and how
I had to do it. He made me believe I was the only one
who could, the last to have touched him whole.
I literally got goosebumps typing it out. I don’t have anything intelligent to ask about this – can you just talk about the poem a little? How and when and why you wrote it?
It’s one of those mostly true poems: there was a boy named Chris who was one of a gaggle of boys I hung out with, I slept with him once, he lost his fingers in a work-related accident, and he called me. I’m not sure why as I knew him less well than many of the others we ran with, and I spent a few hours with him at the hospital, and later while he was in recovery. He was a sweet boy, as I remember, though I have to say I don’t remember him well, I couldn’t tell you anything about him beyond what’s in the poem. And so that was the question I began with, why me? I think it’s a question we all ask at various times in our lives, but more often when something terrible happens to us. This was a different kind of why me. And I don’t remember asking it of myself at the time, but years later, it began to haunt me. What did he see in me, why did he trust me, seem to need me? What did he know that I didn’t? The poem told me as it wrote itself. I loved men. I loved everything about them. And that in itself wasn’t as interesting to me as what isn’t said, that I had been raised by a man who was physically and sexually abusive. I should have hated men. I was certainly raised to hate them, and to distrust them, but I didn’t. I just didn’t. And somehow he made me see that. He taught me that no matter how damaged I had been, I could love and be loved and more importantly, trusted to see him, to know him, as damaged as he was, as beautiful, whole. He made of himself a mirror. In his crisis, he reached out to a young girl who had need of him. It was an exchange of self worth. Now I see that that’s what all of us are looking for, individually and collectively, someone who knows us for who we are, and still trusts us.
Interview Posted: September 1, 2014
MORE FROM DIVEDAPPER. (Drag left)