Inscape: I want to ask first about the poem you read at the beginning of your reading on Friday—“Just Walking Around,” by John Ashbery. The last couple lines are, “The segments of the trip swing open like an orange. /There is light in there, and mystery and food. /Come see it. Come not for me but it. /But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other.”
Michael Lavers: It’s just the best thing I’ve ever read.
Inscape: How do you channel the feeling of those lines into your own poetry?
ML: I could respond in several ways. First, one of the things I like about those lines, “come not for me but it. But if I am still there grant that we may see each other,” is that there’s a very urgent longing that Ashbury embeds inside that poem to find me. And to find you. To find readers, and to have people to connect with and commune with. So one way I have tried to channel that is by simple things—by addressing poems directly to readers. To say, “Hey you, reader. Listen to this.” It’s also significant to me that he’s using the image of an orange, because the idea of human connection and human intimacy and human communication is very abstract. We know that it’s important and meaningful, but to make it more immediate, vital, and vibrant, he says all this stuff is happening inside of something vivid and concrete and specific and sensory—an orange. Those lines are so memorable to me. Because you couldn’t really pick an image that appeals to more of the senses more vividly–textures, smells, tastes, even sounds, when you open the orange up. All of these abstractions are embedded inside something that is bodily and therefore, I think, unforgettable. So I’ve tried to channel this is by not being afraid of rhetoric or abstractions, or of saying things like, “But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other.” That’s not imagistic language, that’s not sensory language. I do try to pair language like that with sensory language. I also have lines in my poems that try to mimic the rhythm and syntax of those sentences, “There is mystery and light in it, and food…” That tricolon of things has a pleasing repetition and symmetry, or maybe a pleasing asymmetry. Of course, all poets and all readers will find sections of poems that they respond to that other poets might not. So the overarching self-observation is that I am not afraid of imitation or emulation or modeling. We can easily fall into believing that if you try to sound like someone, you’ll sound less like yourself. But I actually believe that the opposite is true; the closer and more strictly you emulate, the more immediately you’ll be able to see what you are able to say and what you are not able to say. If I try to write a poem that sounds just like John Ashbery, I will fail, of course. But it’s in the distance between my poem and Ashbery’s poem that I’ll say, “Oh, this is what me is. This is what I can do that he couldn’t do, and this is what he can do that I can’t do.” You can really see what makes you you in exercises of emulation. That’s my working theory.
Inscape: When you read your poems, I felt that I needed to go out and write or draw something. Is one of your goals as a professor or a poet to help people want to create things?
ML: Indirectly it is. I’m never sitting at the writing desk thinking, “What can I say that will make somebody want to write their own poem?” But I am thinking, “What can I say that will surprise somebody?” I guess that’s my most immediate and perpetual motive as a writer, and I think that a natural consequence of being surprised is the impulse to want to surprise other people. So I’m not hoping that I can spawn my own poetic grandchildren, but if I inspire other people to try to surprise their own readers, then that’s great.
Inscape: How do you create these surprises? Are you surprised yourself when you are writing?
ML: Yes. I think the best way, but also the hardest way, to surprise readers is to surprise yourself. It’s hard to do because you spend so much time inside of your own head. Of course there are things about you that you might not know, and it’s those things that you should be tapping into. Any time a poem feels over-determined or over-willed—by which I mean, any time I have something to say before I sit down and write the poem, any time I think, “Yeah, you should tell your readers that.” Or, “You should make this argument,” or “Here’s an observation that I bet no one has noticed before”—are always times when a poem fails because it feels too determined and too forced. And everything in the poem becomes padding around a thesis that probably isn’t in any way exciting or surprising or original. Poems that I’ve written that worked are poems that, when I start, I have no idea how they’ll end. Writing that way is risky, mysterious, and vulnerable, and you feel like you’re walking on a tightrope into a dark chasm. But when it does work, it leads to discovery that I think is worthwhile. Or, the opposite could be true: other times I’ve written poems where I know how the poem could end, but the surprise, the act of discovery, is finding the path to that ending. What beginning and middle are going to fit this ending? That’s a kind of discovery that could work as well.
Inscape: Where’s the balance between having an idea for a poem, and making sure that idea doesn’t ruin the poem?
ML: I don’t think you need ideas to start writing a poem. You can just have a certain word in your mind, and ask yourself what word that word inspires. And then you have two words. And then, what is the third word your mind places in relation to those words? A poem can kind of spin itself, much the way that an oyster will spin a pearl out of one grain of sand. This is a way to make sure that you don’t really know where you’re going. You can also can do this with rhythms, saying “I just want to put some words to this rhythm.” And then add more and more rhythm. Of course, down the road you’ll get a sense for the content, idea, argument, or subject matter of the poem, but these could be as surprising to you as they are to the reader. Another way is to start with an idea that’s enormously broad. “Childhood,” for example. You’re not going to reduce or determine it too much. You don’t know what the poem’s going to be about that has to do with childhood—just “childhood.” You might start by making a list of the first ten things you think of when you think about childhood. Write them down quickly and throw that piece of paper away. Or better yet, post it above your writing desk, and title it, “Forbidden topics in my childhood poem.” So that the things are easy, immediate, common, too familiar or cliché, you instantly banish. You have to start somewhere new and different. It’s difficult, because you have to do original thinking. But the idea is that the readers will be doing original reading as well.
Inscape: Do you have a poem-writing ritual, or a space designated for poetry writing?
ML: No. I write here in my office, but I also write at home. When you have kids you can’t be picky about having the room be perfectly silent, and having your cup of tea be the perfect temperature, and having your chair be the perfect softness. So I’ll find myself writing poems on my phone while I’m in the checkout at Wal-Mart. I can’t get much done, but I can choose one word. If I have a line of poetry on the go, and I’m looking for an adjective, waiting for seven minutes at Wal-Mart, that might be enough time to come up with the right adjective. I’ve made a lot of progress that way. I got some good advice from the editor of The Anthology of Short Fiction—Richard Bausch. I heard him deliver a lecture about ten pieces of advice to beginning writers. One is to learn how to write everywhere, otherwise you won’t write at all. He has this anecdote about sleep-training his baby. A common piece of advice when you’re sleep-training a baby is not to be quiet. Put the baby down and then make lots of noise. Put loud music on, invite people over, have a party, bang some pots and pans so the baby gets used to falling asleep while there’s noise in the house. Otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life tiptoeing, and the baby will wake up every night, without a doubt. As a writer I think that’s an important skill to develop. You have to focus amidst chaos, and you have to develop flexibility. If you have a pattern—great. But you have to be flexible when your pattern is disrupted.
Inscape: How do you know when one of your poems works? Do they always?
ML: Oh, no. They almost always don’t. In the moment of composition, you can tell that you’re onto something good because you didn’t see certain things coming. That, at least, is a signal that it might end up good. It’s not a guarantee; you can be fooled, of course, in the moment, and think that you’re the most brilliant person in the world. But the only way I know if something I’ve written is worthwhile is getting distance from it, and then coming back to it. The best way of getting this distance is time. Every writer should find their own way, and do what works for them. I can’t really advocate this as a universal method, but it’s helpful for me to write a draft, and then put it away in a file called “Finished Drafts.” And I won’t look at it for—ideally—a year or more.
Inscape: That’s a long time.
ML: It is a long time! Well, relatively, maybe not—Horace said you should wait ten years. I feel that it’s a bit presumptuous to assume that I’ll even live that long, let alone remember what I wrote ten years ago. But I’ll try to give it at least a year, because thereby I develop a lot of objectivity. When I reread it after that year, instantly all of its flaws are clear as day. Instantly all of its successes—if it has successes—are equally clear. I know instantly what needs to be changed and what needs to be kept.
Inscape: You’ve mentioned before that a lot of your poetry is untrue. Do you ever feel like you’re deceiving yourself or readers?
ML:. I don’t feel any obligation to tell the truth in my poems. I think a novel—Anna Karenina, for example, a novel that has fictional characters, fictional stories, fictional events—certainly has to be one of the most true documents that we have. It tells us more truths about human nature than many other kinds of writings, like lists of names and dates and facts that actually did happen. I don’t want to sound pompous and say that my goal is to give the readers truth, but if that were my goal I think that fiction is a perfectly viable road to truth. So no, I don’t feel any remorse or guilt or anxiety about deception.
Inscape: How much should you try to decipher a poem when you read it?
ML: Absolutely as little as possible. In fact, I try not to at all. It might depend on what you mean by ‘decipher,’ but I want a poem to be beautiful and surprising and strange, and that’s pretty much it. I don’t need it to have ideas, I don’t need it to have information. It just has to be beautiful and surprising and strange. Samuel Johnson says that the aim of poetry is to please and instruct. But he elaborates a bit and he says that anything whose aim is to please should please instantly. I think that’s such great advice. I love poems that please me instantly. This might sound extremely elitist, but life is short and art is long, and you can’t read everything. You have to be very selective. So, I will give a poem twenty seconds. And if I’m not instantly pleased, if by then—say, by line six—I have not found something beautiful or surprising or strange, I’ll just stop reading. Because I know I can find what I’m looking for other places. If something is going to please, it has to please instantly. It can have multiple layers, of course, and I think the best poems are poems that can be read in different ways and mean different things to different people at different times in his or her life. The best poems are absolutely poems that reward rereading. Poems that you do not exhaust. This might involve some interpretation—noticing how certain words signify, how certain formal structures signify. But before it does all that, it has to please instantly. So when I’m reading a poem, I’m not thinking, “How interpretable is this?” I’m thinking, “Is this beautiful? Is it surprising?” And if it is, I keep reading. And if it’s really beautiful and really surprising, I read it again. Poems should be beautiful enough to make you want to reread them every day of your life. If they’re that beautiful, they’ll have stuff in them that you’ll keep seeing, and you’ll keep seeing, and you’ll keep seeing.
Inscape: You don’t often directly reference God or Deity in your poetry, but His presence seems to be there. What purpose does God serve in your poetry?
ML: He might serve a different purpose in the act of composition than he does in the actual poems. As a believer in God, I believe in inspiration, and something that’s been called the Muse. But if we want to argue about the source of the “surprise” in the poem…it sounds incredibly presumptuous and arrogant for me to say that these surprises are coming from God. But in the best poems—a poem by Robert Frost, for example—the surprise is too good to be human. Yes, there are geniuses in the world, but the greatest poems are evidence to me that in addition to geniuses, there is also divinity that communicates with humans. God, and my belief in God, is directly connected with why I write poetry The best poems are proof of something that’s greater than myself. It’s true that I don’t often make explicit references to God in my poems; I’m not sure I know myself well enough to tell you why that’s the case. Although I am very concerned with the afterlife, and how bad I think our religion, and many other religions are at depicting the afterlife. Yes, there’s all that stuff in the Doctrine and Covenants about degrees of glory and different kingdoms, but we more or less have no literature that talks about what it’s like there. What it feels like to live there, what it looks like there. Even Lazarus has nothing to say. Isn’t that remarkable? What did it look like, who did you see, what did you do? What was it? I’m very curious about that. And our inability as Christian believers, or just as a species to depict what happens after we die. I find that very interesting.
Inscape: You have a line in your poem “Coda”—“Even if the next is better, I’ll still miss this world.” That’s a thought that it seems everyone has experienced, but I don’t know that I’ve heard words put to it before.
ML: That’s more praise than I deserve. I just hope that the afterlife isn’t like church. Because church is great, but you wouldn’t want to spend the next eight eons in church. I want the afterlife to have all of the stuff that this world has in it. And three hours of church excludes a lot of those things that make life great. A doctrine of Mormonism is that the celestial kingdom will be located on Earth. The Earth will receive its paradisiacal glory. And I just hope that the afterlife will be a very familiar place.