PC: What are your theories or speculations about the reason for the rise of the New Formalism?


LT:   During all the poetic fads and foibles of the second half of the twentieth century there were certain poets who steadfastly continued to write excellent formal poetry. Some who come to mind are Dick Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, De Snodgrass, Don Justice, and Joe Kennedy who provided fine examples to, and taught, many young people. Others who started out as formalists gave up and, for a while at least, turned into imitation Beat poets: Karl Shapiro, Don Hall, Jim Wright and Bob Mezey, for instance.


And then The Book of Forms came along. Just this spring Wesli and I celebrated its fortieth anniversary in two places: at SUNY Oswego on April 23rd where the creative writing program I founded is also forty years of age, and at the Newburyport Writers’ Festival where I gave a reading from poems by Wesli and me published in TBoF. There was no book remotely like it for thirteen years, until 1981 when John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason appeared.


The Book of Forms never sold many copies annually, but it sold between 1200-1500 copies steadily. If you multiply 1200 copies by forty years, you come up with around 50,000 copies sold. And many of these copies were passed around, used in classrooms, given as gifts, so it circulated widely.


Apparently a fair number of copies of the original edition are still around. At Newburyport this spring a performance poet, Johnny Longfellow, asked me if I’d sign his first edition copy, and it was a true first edition, not one of the reprint copies. I got a kick out of that. It was a bit dog-eared but still quite usable. Another person asked me if I would sign her hardbound copy of the third edition. I asked her where she’d gotten it because it had gone out of print almost as soon as it appeared. Jim Lehrer of PBS wrote me at my Mathom Bookshop to ask for one and I had to tell him that the only copy I could find on the Internet would cost him $95.00.


Then, from 1983-1986, when I was doing the annual poetry book roundup for the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbooks I began to notice that there were more books of traditionally formal poetry being published. I drew attention to them and called the beginning of the movement “Neoformalism.”


PC: When your poem, “November 22, 1963,” became a ballet, what input, if any, did you have in the process? A dance ensemble performed my long poem, “The House,” and I was invited to watch them put it together, invited to comment.


LT: No, that came out of the blue. The poem originally appeared in the J.F.K. memorial issue of Poetry in 1964, and it was widely reprinted thereafter, here and abroad. Brian Macdonald, at that time choreographer and director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, wrote to ask if I’d give him permission to quote from the poem on programs and to use a phrase, “While the Spider Slept,” as the title for his ballet. Of course I said yes.


PC: Would you tell us about the evolution of your interest in dialogue that led to The Book of Dialogue, How to Write Effective Conversation in Fiction, Screenplays, Drama, and Poetry, published by University Press of New England, in 2004?


LT: That book was a fluke, a most fortunate one. Writer’s Digest Books wrote to ask me if I’d be willing to write a book on poetry writing. I signed a contract to do so, and then they canceled the project for some reason and asked if I’d be interested in substituting a manuscript on writing dialogue or on plot, I believe it was. I chose dialogue.


I wrote the book practically overnight, but I included in it everything else there was about writing fiction as well. Dialogue came out in 1989, went through any number of printings and several editions here and abroad including one in Italian, and it was finally dropped in this country after the turn of the century. The University Press of New England picked it up, asked me to revise it to include other genres, like scriptwriting and poetry, and brought out The Book of Dialogue in 2004 as a companion volume to The Book of Forms and The Book of Literary Terms. In its various incarnations Dialogue has sold more copies since 1989 than The Book of Forms has since 1968.


PC: In the interview with Donald Masterson, titled “Making the Language Dance and Go Deep,” published in l980 in The Cream City Review of the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, vol. 8, nos. 1-2, 1983, now available on your blog, you said that Whitman "was much more interested in his ‘message’ than in the language that carried the message. Do you think it is especially difficult to write good political poetry?


LT: Indeed I do. The danger is always that the writer of a political “poem” gets so wound up in his or her topic and theme that he or she forgets that poetry is that genre which focuses primarily on language. Poetry is language art.


PC:  Whose poems that have a political theme would you recommend?


LT:  Probably Yeats. He never forgot that poetry was language. Maybe some Auden. Other poets who wrote political poetry sometimes were Kipling and Tennyson. For the life of me, I can’t think of an American I’d recommend. Of course Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich wrote not very good political poetry — Rich was one of those traditionally formal poets who in the ‘sixties jumped ship into the Beat boat. In my opinion that’s when she stopped being a poet.


PC:  I was interested in learning that your mother taught you how to bind books, and that you bound your paperbacks in college. Would you tell us about some of the books you've done, the LBJ, perhaps, or others?


LT:  You’re talking about one of my favorite stories from my time in the book trade: I ran a summer bookshop in Maine from 1979 to 1996 when I retired from teaching, and then I went full-time and on-line until the end of 2006. Before the shop, though, I was a book collector and scout.


It was a late colleague of mine at the State University of New York College at Oswego who got me started as a bookseller. His name was David Winslow. He had a Ph.D. in folklore, but he had had several other careers as well, including selling antiques and books. He taught me what I know about books as a commodity when he and I, on weekends mostly, became what are known as “book scouts.” We would sell the books we found upstate to downstate New York book dealers.


One day Dave called me up to say that there was a big sale of stuff in Hannibal, not far from Oswego. He said that they’d advertised books, but when we got there all we found of books was a box of paperbacks under one table. Dave sneered and walked away to look at other things, but I went through the paperbacks and found one, a first edition paperback original titled My Hope for America by Lyndon Baines Johnson. I bought it for ten cents.


When we got back to the car Dave saw that I’d bought something, asked to see it, and then began to rag me about it. All I’d paid for it was a dime, but he acted as though I’d thrown away a fortune. By the time we got back to my house I was furious and had decided that I would wreak my revenge.


I took the Johnson book, quarter-bound it in cloth and leather, put it in a package with an old leather-bound hymnal that I had restored, and sent it with return postage to former President Lyndon Johnson. In an enclosed letter I asked him if he would be willing to sign my book in exchange for the hymnal, which I hoped he would accept as a gift.


Not a great while after that I got the book back. President Johnson had signed a Presidential bookplate for me, and he included a letter on official stationery telling me that he was delighted with the hymnal, which he was going to place in the L. B. J. Presidential Library in Texas. I pasted the bookplate onto the inside-front cover of My Hope for America, and I tipped his letter into the volume. Then I called David and asked him to come over to the house so that I could show him a book I had picked up for ten cents at a lousy sale in Hannibal. Later on, I sold the book for a lot of money on one of our downstate book trips.


PC:  What sort of stories did you write?


LT:  The stories I wrote as a child were always fantasies. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction as a kid. In high school a bunch of us formed a “science-fiction reading club,” The Fantaseers. Its library was in my house, the parsonage, and I was the librarian. I’ve written about it in Fantaseers, A Book of Memories, published by Star Cloud in 2005. There’s a picture of the library (one bookcase) in Fantaseers. The distaff members of our gang called themselves The Reesatnafs, which is Fantaseers spelled backwards. When we all got together we were the Fantatnafs. Many of us, those who are living, are still friends (some of us, including my wife Jean and me, married within the gang), and we stay in touch even fifty-six years after our graduation.


PC: Can you put your finger on why you made the switch to poetry as what you wanted to concentrate on writing?


LT: There were two reasons: First, I couldn’t break myself of the habit of writing fantasy. I was writing poetry at the same time, so I just shifted the weight of my writing to poetry rather than fiction, though one of my high school English teachers, Mary Flynn, suggested that I could make more money writing fiction than poetry. And in the Navy, where I was a yeoman (a clerk, not an English farmer!) it was easier to write the shorter genre than the longer one.


PC: Do you see that as a blessing or a curse?


LT:  I don’t know. I published my first short story (it won third prize in a high school fiction contest when I was a freshman) in my home town newspaper in 1949, and I’ve continued to write fiction on and off over the years, much of it published in magazines and some of it even in anthologies and one high school textbook. Most of the stories are still fantasies, but they call such productions “magic realism” now, and it’s fashionable since Marquez.


I’ve never published a collection, although one was supposed to come out last year, The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories. My publisher keeps assuring me it will appear, but maybe there IS a curse on my fiction. Star Cloud has decided instead to bring out my nonfiction book first, this month (May): Satan’s Scourge: A Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft in England and New England 1580-1697. Even that one was written over thirty years ago.


PC: Do you advise young poets to keep even their failures in a file as a record of their writing?


LT: No. Failures are failures.


PC: Do you write using a computer?


LT: Yes, I do. What that does, though, is eliminate drafts. I used to be able to look back and see what I’d changed. Now, unless I run off a hard copy at each stage of revision, there’s no record.


PC: Do you think the use of computers has influenced poetry writing? If so, how?


LT: This question came up at the Newburyport Literary Festival on Friday, April 25th 2008 when Dana Gioia moderated a discussion among Rhina Espaillat, the honoree of the Festival, X. J. Kennedy, and me. In my case, the computer liberated me. I bought one pretty early on, in 1982, and what it did for me was eliminate all the labor involved in rewriting. Then, of course, later on the Internet was born, thereby opening up all sorts of things, from that rhyming dictionary we mentioned earlier, to publishing on-line. I have a wonderful time with my blog. I’ve resurrected many of my ancient works and posted them for whole new generations to read.


PC: A related question, what influence, if any, do you think that the Internet will have — or has had — on poetry? I’m thinking about internet writing communities and workshops, literary blogs, and internet periodicals.


LT:   It’s already had a profound effect. There’s a lot of interest in poetry all over the internet, but not all of it is good. There’s a lot of dumbness out there. People who have published one or two poems here or there, in print or cyberspace, think they are experts and feel free to express their opinions at any time and anywhere to anyone. But speaking for myself, I’m having a lovely time with my blog.





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Lewis Turco


© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

Lewis Turco, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin

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