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We are honored to welcome Adam LeFevre, who plays Francalou in David Ives’s The Metromaniacs, as our first “virtual” poet-in-residence. As part of Poets are Present, the month-long poetry residency through which a different poet will be in the Lansburgh Lobby for one hour prior to Mr. Ives’s poetically charged farce, Adam answered questions submitted by our patrons and wrote a two new poems inspired by his time in D.C.
Keep up to date with the latest poets in residence – including Tom Gill, who plays the Boy Soldier in David Greig’s Dunsinane, and STC’s own Gary Logan, Director of the Academy for Classical Acting.
STC: What is the story that started you on your poetry career?
Adam LeFevre: When I got into junior high school it became clear that literature was pulling at me. I loved it. I loved all the books that boys weren’t supposed to like. I cried at Jane Eyre. I always was gob-smacked by language, especially language that was not what you hear on the streets, seeing it written, seeing certain kinds of poetry for the first time. It just was such a feast, truly a feast. When I was home, by myself, I would always recite stuff out loud because it felt so tasty.
In the same week I was introduced to E.E. Cummings and to some of the most famous Shakespeare sonnets. “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” “My mistresses eyes are nothing like the sun” a couple of those. I was smitten, and also related to the story of Shakespeare’s poetry, because unrequited love was a huge theme of my high school years. So I got it, dark lady, dark boy, nothing was coming back to him, poor guy, and I thought “I getcha, Bill! I understand!”
So the first poem I ever wrote was a Shakespearean sonnet that had no capital letters or punctuation, in honor of E.E. Cummings. It was metrically and rhyme-ically a Shakespearean sonnet called Sonnet – because I wanted everyone to know I wrote a goddamn sonnet –Sonnet To Autumn’s Sister who was this very abstract female entity who was not requiting my adoration. It was awful. But at the time I thought, “That’s it. No one needs to write another poem. I have just summed it up and we’re done.” That was the beginning. I think initially it was a way to communicate my passion and sending my heart out, and hoping, if not for an answer, then for an echo. I’m not ashamed of that now. To some extent that is still what poetry is to me.
STC: What poems or poets inspire you?
ALF: A lot of the ones that inspire everybody. Certainly early on, Shakespeare. Then later on, that ilk of classic English poets like John Donne. You had his both sacred and profane times so that was interesting. To think in Sonnet to Autumn’s Sister I could actually be talking about God and not some hot chick. Later on I got involved in the first of the vers libre, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, those poets that sort of began the modernist era before the English or American people got to it. Emily Dickenson, for sure. Whitman for sure. I’m getting back to Elizabeth Bishop. She’s so chilly in some ways, and so elegant. The elegance trumps the chilliness. I feel a very warm, beating, sad heart behind that chilliness of hers. Among the more contemporary poets, Eliot, problematic for me, but was certainly influential. Yeats, amazing; you can’t ignore him at all. Yeats for showing how a poet has ages, and how, I think, a great poet goes through changes. Recently I got back into someone who nobody really talks about anymore, but she was a big rock star back in the day, Marianne Moore. Wallace Stevens, certainly blew me away. I was stunned by John Ashbery. He stopped me for a while because I loved him, and I couldn’t do what he did. A few of the poets I studied with at Iowa, Mark Strand, who just passed away, Marvin Bell – I got back in touch with him and I consider him a friend – a poet named Don Justice who was a marvelous poet and a terrific teacher I dedicated [the chapbook] Ghost Lights to him. Sandy McPherson, who was a teacher of mine, Sharon Olds for sure, Heather McHugh, who I’ve always adored. Carol Ann Duff. She is the poet laureate of England.
STC: Can you tell us a bit about your process: where do you write your poems (in a notebook, on your phone, etc), How long does it take you to write a poem, and once a poem is written, what is your preferred way of reflecting on the poem?
ALF: Before I had a family, before I got married and had kids, I was bouncing around, but I had a notebook with me always. I was living in different apartments, one summer I hitchhiked across the country, but I always had something to scribble on. Then as I began to pursue my career in show biz, and got married and had a family, my time became more strained. I used to whine to myself, “I don’t have time. I don’t have time. I don’t have time,” but again I was constantly writing. Notebook after notebook I would fill up with versions of things. Fill that one up, put it away and come back to it. Some of which I would have come back to five years later and say, “There might be something here.” That has been an interesting journey.
Now I have a little room in the back, which I turned into my writing room, which during the cold months I go to. But I live alone now. My wife passed away and the kids are gone, so for first drafts I often sit at my kitchen table. I have either a big ring-bound notebook or sometimes those marble notebooks or sometimes I use a legal pad. I still compose longhand. I cannot compose on a keyboard. There’s something about the movement, about the scratch, something about that it feels properly temporary. I’m much more likely to be able to go [draws a big X] or I can take it and put an arrow “that goes there.” That’s the way I start. When something is ready, I go to the word processor and see what it looks like on the page. I’ll immediately put it away, even if I have time. Put it away for at least a couple of days. I talk to myself out loud now. My children are worried about me! But it’s just the way I do it. I can hear the words, or I’ll say things like “That sucks. You suck. You can do better.”
I tell people though, if you are wanting to, and feel you need to try for some form of published thing, you will end up getting 90% rejection slips. Even those poems that end up later on getting accepted elsewhere, because it is not necessarily this particular person’s cup of tea. But that’s a good way to find out if you’ve really got a clinker. I’ve begun, reclaiming friends from the poetry world who I trust will tell me what’s shit and what’s not. They’ll tell me in the nicest way. It’s important that you’re able to tell someone that in an encouraging way.
STC: What do you strive to do with your poetry? Do you have specific goals when you begin a poem, or do you write and see where it goes?
ALF: Before I got this manuscript called A Swindler’s Grace accepted at New Issues. I reconnected with Marvin Bell over email, not having spoken to him in 30 years. And he wrote me the most wonderful note back. He said that he and his wife Dorothy were wondering when the next one was going to come. I wrote him back that I have been writing, sometimes very badly, but I that I have been writing. And I told him I have this sort of creative crisis, thinking: Who cares? The world doesn’t need another poem. It certainly doesn’t need another of my poems. I’ve been sheepish about publishing, sending them out, when I sent them out and got rejections I’d say, “of course, because it’s bad.” So I’ve been sitting on them for the longest times but that I’m now sort of getting excited about it again. He wrote me back and said, “We poets write poems for ourselves. And to think of it any other way is probably a mistake.”
You know, there’s a kind of narcissism that says your poetry is really going to be of service. And there’s that old thing that Plato said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Bull shit. And that other quote, “Poetry accomplishes nothing. God bless it.” [Shakes head]. I stand somewhere in between those two, but mostly towards “Poetry accomplishes nothing.” But mostly I just need to write it.
STC: What are your favorite themes or key influences?
ALF: I’m not a political poet, though sometimes I feel I should be, and yet I think sometimes my poems embody political ideas. What interests me more is natural history – and it sounds odd –the degree to which natural history actually and metaphorically applies to the human heart and the human body.
Also humor and addressing unfathomable mysteries like a friend. Seriously. Mystery is our friend, certainly as poets it is. And it’s not that we shouldn’t try to solve it, but first what we should do is with grace try to coexist with it.
I’m getting more and more back towards forms. Metrical forms. I’ve always been interested in that, and the teacher who got me interested in that, well the first teacher was Shakespeare, but at Iowa, Don Justice was fascinated with form. Even his poems that were in “free verse” were so meticulously drawn that they were almost formal. To me, those were great launching points when you want to write but you don’t know what to write. Start with a form. It’s like, if you go out into your workshop, and you have to build a table, you start building a table. You know it’s probably going to have to have four legs and a top. And you just do it. You don’t sit there waiting for the muse to hit.
STC: What words matter to you?
ALF: [Chuckles] To answer that first by being snippy and say what words don’t: I try to get rid of all articles. “A’s” and “the’s.” The perfect poem would have nothing but a noun and a verb. Maybe just a verb. That would be the quintessential poem. People say what we really want to do is to write an elegantly beautiful poem about nothing at all. We want to have its meaning be the impact of its beauty. That’s probably impossible. And it’s probably not a good thing to aspire to.
Words that are delicious inspire me. I have favorite words that last for a while. Currently one of my favorite words came when I was shooting a film in Pittsburgh, Monongahela, the name of the river. I’m inspired by words that are a great banquet. Monongahela is a banquet. Dart. Not that it’s a snack but it’s bite-sized and to the point. It will get your attention. So it’s a combination of things. I think of language as a grand buffet, and I like to start at the front of the line and go through and remember don’t put too much of this on my plate because down there there’s going to be something else that I really want.
STC: What have we inherited from the poets of the past?
ALF: It all started with an oral tradition. Poets were declaiming before they were writing. I’d like to think we still have that. Ginsberg had it. Dylan Thomas had it. That power within the tribe, the culture, that a poet can have that kind of bardic impact. Speaking the truth, and speaking the current history. Speaking for the tribe. After Whitman, after Eliot, after Pound for sure, starting with people like Stevens, we started reducing. It’s a more minimalist quality that we are after. Stevens started with it; a beautiful poet Mark Strand pursued it, W. S. Merwin. Now he’s back to writing much more ornate poems, but Bill Merwin went through this thing where he’d write four-line poems about a rock and the sky and a bird. It was all about distilling down into these incredibly raw, specific images. It was Eastern in a way. I think we’ve come out of that now, and I think we’re at an age where we’re again embracing formalism a little more. It’s a pendulum.
STC: What is the climate of poetry today? Where do you see in the future for poetry?
ALF: I’m very excited about the amount poetry today. Some of it has to do with the proliferation of graduate writing programs today, and there’s good and bad to that. I think there are a lot more very competent poems being written today. I mean by that poetry by people who have gone through a writing program and gotten their MFAs. There’s not just Iowa anymore, by any means. So there is a baseline now of very, very good, competent poems being published in magazines and books that are very much worth reading. Most are not particularly exciting. You hear a voice that’s unique. I think that’s the way it’s always been. There are some writers who possess some quality of imagination, description and language that no one else has. When that happens I am just riveted. “Listen to this.” Not to denigrate at all the moderate middle, which has a value. I think people who should read poems I think it makes us better people.
STC: What 5 contemporary poets or poetry books would you consider mandatory reading?
W.B. Yeats Collected Poems
Wallace Stevens Collected Poems
Pablo Neruda Collected Poems – he’s such a poet. Both political and poet of the heart.
A really good anthology of nineteenth century French poets.
Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass at least.
Now, if you asked me tomorrow, I’d say yeah those guys plus ____, plus ____.
STC: What profession do you think would benefit from poetry?
ALF: I can’t think of any line of work that wouldn’t benefit from it. Any place where the bottom-line is the dollar, they need it. Anyone who thinks the ends can justify the means and the ends are money. Those who don’t read poems.
Poetry – and it’s the same with theatre – anything that can help us as individuals connect our hearts to another is essential. Both these art forms can do that when they’re working well. Who wouldn’t benefit from that? We all benefit from that.
Orioles weave their nest
Unconscious of any cleverness
Willows hula in April sun
Not knowing how the hula’s done
Ratsnake swallows mole
Untroubled by good or evil
Mole’s last squeak – adrenal song
Not a screed on right and wrong
The loopy moon doesn’t smile or frown
The wind needs no hope to carry on
Likewise seek no pity
No better day to come
Likewise want no meaning
From the poem.
— Adam LeFevre
Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, D.C., 2015
AN OPEN LETTER TO PIERRE L’ENFANT
Mon cher Pierre,
Are you aware
Of the poetry
In your blueprint of our city?
This august place where
The elect embrace their
Like a drunk prom date
And call it consensual
Call it “business as usual”
Seen from above
As by eagle or dove
Your streets become a metaphor
What do they stand for?
These broad avenues, radiant
Slicing through a chessboard grid
Availing a commerce so torrid
It might melt from exertion.
Pierre, what’s your version?
Dites-moi, s’il vous plait.
Did you mean to convey
A wheel or a web? Our city
Is which – symbolically?
A wheel like a juggernaut
With freight crushing anything
Standing in its way? Anything?
Or web? A gossamer snare
Raveling the unaware
In their own good intentions,
Food for some weaver’s inventions
“Character is fate” quoth Aristotle
Was this your message in a bottle?
Have we been defined
By these streets you designed?
Does form in fact determine
Our beginning and our end?
Pierre, I fear thus far
We’re little better than we are
Despite your genius and God’s lamp
We’ve yet to make it through the swamp
–Adam LeFevre. February, 2015