Daniel Lawless is a poet and editor of Plume. He teaches at Saint Petersburg College. Below is an interview with Daniel conducted via email.
Why start an online poetry magazine?
For practical – monetary – reasons, of course, it’s easier than print; even print on demand requires one to sell – not my strong suit. Why, more general: a mixture of base and not so base motives: to duck school committee work; to allow my mother before she dies and some long-disappointed friends to believe I accomplished something (as if there was something to accomplish…another discussion); to pass the time; to put to some use a lifetime of reading and writing; as in writing a poem, simply to make a beautiful object.
As an editor, what do you look for in a poem? Do you imagine potential readers? Do you look for quality beyond your own personal taste? Or are you honestly subjective, publishing the poems that connect with you?
As our mission statement notes, I look for a sense of the uncanny, of the fineness of language, to be written by someone keener than I in some ways or many ways. Not so much a message: I do not wish to be instructed, unless beauty itself is instructive, and it is. The image that makes one want never to write again or to close the book or turn the page and pick up the pen, figuratively or literally. Potential readers, yes: mostly dead or soon to be so: Trakl, Cendars, Parra, Transtromer, Cassia, Ponge and Michaux, Follain, Canneti, Cioran, Bly, Li Po, etc. I would hope I look for quality beyond my own tastes, but I doubt I do. I publish what I like – why else – aside from the reasons given above, would I bother? And it is a bit of bother.
Is there anything a poem or poet can do or not do, that will guarantee rejection?
I’m not a huge fan of nature poetry: I see no greatness in knowing the names of things –plants, fish--though many do and can argue almost convincingly that such is an intrinsic, even a primary good. The poetry I loved first was Surrealism: Benedikt's great anthology. The translations were so flat – I liked how they contrasted with the extravagance of the imagery. When I learned to read French I was vastly disappointed by the musical quality of the work. So – I prefer a detached, observational style – Simic, Ponge, again – ipso facto, sentimental, didactic, pastoral, spiritual – likely not to be well-received. And formal approaches manhandled.
How do you think about “America Poetry?” Do you think about a coherent entity and compare it with entities from other eras? Do you think about individual poets who happen to be writing now? Is there a way to think about “American Poetry,” or should we only think about individual poems and poets?
If anything, I stayed away from American poetry when I was young; I think Sontag drew an entire
generation of poets and writers toward Western Europe. Part of this was inevitable rebellion against my mentor/teacher (and later my fellow grad students): a lover and crony of the Beats, pal of Thomas Merton. (Also the lure of the exotic, the obscure – which these were at the time, at least in my world of Louisville, Kentucky.) I thought of some books as coherent entities: Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel, the Artaud Anthology, the Contemporary European Poetry anthology with the white cover, Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life where I discovered Cendrars, Benedikt’s Prose Poem anthology, Leaping Poetry, Barthes’ Mythologies, magical realism, Borges, Tzara, Guillevic, Voznesensky, Mishima, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Guy Davenport essays : these were nations to me. Compare? Only in the most superficial way in which one compares the music of one’s youth to that which comes later --and finds inferior despite one’s public rehearsal of its minutia and over-loud praise. Am I wrong to think non-US poets take more chances, generally? And fail more often and succeed more spectacularly?
What are the most exciting things happening in poetry today? The most frustrating?
The usual complaint, which can be made of all the arts, I suppose – so many bands, so many films, so many this or that: a surfeit. Not too long ago, it seemed, one could know all of the poets worth knowing, might have assembled them in a Holiday Inn Express conference room. No longer, of course. Whether that is exciting or frustrating, I’m not sure.
Who is the one poet you wish everyone was reading?
Not a poet, but “the last philosopher in Europe” as he has been called: Emil Cioran – an aphorist of the first order, a master of knee-slapping bleakness, to use a phrase from my first Editor’s note, one who had read everything worth reading, like Steiner, also one with a horrific, troubling past to say the
least (Grass comes to mind), but a gorgeous stylist; one can, in reading him, if one is a particular type of person, only nod one’s head in assent until one becomes faintly ridiculous, like one of those mechanical water-sipping bird toys.
What is the responsibility of the poet to the world? Do poetry editors have different responsibilities? If so what are those?
The poet is responsible to nothing (except to his craft? on second thought, no, not even that) and no one: society or humanity least of all. Editors have no responsibility either – it seems silly to use those words in the same sentences – though many, many do, I know, serious, talented writers and editors. I merely say that, for me, no. One tries one’s best, one tries to be fair, to be discerning, but in the end whether one does or not is not a matter of responsibility, but temperament.
In terms of a poet's responsibility. Does poetry make the world a better place? Is this even a useful question to ask and if not, in terms of understanding poetry, what is a useful question to ask?
I am tempted to say that which distracts us from the inevitability of our demise, and does no harm to others in the general sense, is never a bad thing. I am great believer in distraction: that most things are little more than that. As I say, I think I am rarely edified by poetry, but often am fascinated by it, as one tends to be in the face of beauty in all its manifestations. Which is not nothing.
Is there a particular poem or poet that first showed you the potential of poetry? What was that moment like for you?
Breton’s “Free Union” – the listing was hypnotic, the images have stayed with me for forty years. I first read it in, oh, 1976 or ’77, I think. Around the time I took a trip to San Francisco, where punk was crowning in certain neighborhoods: exhilarating. I came back to Louisville and found it, punk, was popping up at the art schools and such, too. The spirit of DIY was in the air, and I recall printing up poems and stapling them to telephone poles – virgin forest then – unsigned, only a little stamp my girlfriend at the time made up. I’d walk around days later, checking my route as it were. Many were still there, weathering, which was nice, many were gone. Best was when I’d go to a party and find one of them stuck to a wall or refrigerator door.
How do you read a poem? What do you listen for and think about while reading? How do you discover
or create meaning through reading a poem?
Good questions. Could you answer them for me? If nothing else – and there is very little else – I have read a fair amount in my life, so reading becomes allusion, an echo chamber: this calls to this, to that, the other thing, and in time a dozen other things. That is what happens when I read, I think – sometimes to the detriment of reading the poem actually in front of me. To the degree that I have a way of reading, or listening for, or thinking about, poems, it has to do with the whispers of past work, other poets, distant images, that maintain some ineffable connection to the words I am reading: “.. that rose which only words distant from roses can describe…” (Aragon).
What are you reading now?
Poetry: Plume’s submissions list is growing frightening. Also Dana Gioia’s early work, Interrogations at Noon, and Montale’s Motets. Luljeta Lleshanaku . I like the unjustly maligned Padgett Powell’s Interrogative Mood – again, lists. Ennemis publics – a dialogue between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy. Pessoa’s Always Astonished. Larkin. Cavafy. Avital Ronell’s Stupidity.