a literary review
Poet and museum friend Justin Evans talks to Western poet David Lee about his new book Last Call, retirement, and how his writing methods have changed with time.
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A few months ago I was fortunate to share a phone conversation with my friend and mentor, David Lee. He is the author of more than fifteen books of poetry, his latest being Last Call, which is a tribute to his close friend, William Kloefkorn. Lee collaborated with Kloefkorn on three books of poetry before Bill passed away in 2010. Lee considers Last Call a continuation of the two of them working together, and has written both of them into the book under the guises Clovis Leadbitter and Billy Klogphorne. Together, the two men drive across a vast landscape over the course of a single day, sharing stories and talking to many great characters familiar to Lee’s other books.
I first met David Lee when I transferred to Southern Utah University in 1997 as a history major, minoring in English education. Dave was at the time, department chair for Language and Literature at SUU, and was about to be named as Utah’s first official Poet Laureate. He was my first literature instructor at the school—Introduction to poetry. I dug up the courage to approach him with a poem I was proud of and he was gracious enough to read it, refusing to pull any punches when he told me what he thought. Even though I only had one other class from him on teaching methodology, I grew to see Dave as a mentor. It was a relationship which continued after I graduated and moved away. We began a correspondence which has now lasted these past 17 years, developing into one of the most important friendships of my life.
I called from my home in Northeastern Nevada to Dave’s home, deep in the hill country of Texas, where he lives with his wife Jan. We spoke of his writing from his last days at SUU; through his period of adjustment to retirement; several of his books since the publication of So Quietly the Earth in 2004; up to and including his most recent writing. As with many of our conversations and letters, our minds wandered from one topic to another and back again.
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I know this is going to be a bit lengthy, but I think the best place for us to start might be for you to talk about you departure and eventual return to the long form narrative poems which you are most known for. Did that departure teach you anything new which you use now, having returned to those narrative poems?
Okay. I don’t think I ever “meant” to depart from the long form narrative; it was just something that happened. I wrote the two lyrical/desert poem books as my farewell to Utah, a place where we’d lived for over 35 years. That was a traumatic time in a certain sense: leaving the place which had shaped us intellectually and aesthetically. I will always remain a child of the desert, and desert beauty will always be my internal yardstick.
I don’t have a strong recollection of much of the process of writing the poems for So Quietly the Earth. I think I wrote that book as an anticipatory book, readying myself for the transition. It’s very much a book of a father looking back on the rearing of his children. The voice of the “While Walking” series is my son Jon’s when he was somewhere between 6 and say 9. The book is the story of a love affair set inside the primordial elements of earth, fire, water and air, all set in Utah, mostly Southern Utah. The music of the book is Beethoven’s 6th, the pastoral symphony. It is also the music of my daughter, who was (and is) an incredibly gifted musician.
Stone Wind Water was probably my least successful book, certainly in a commercial sense, yet I learned more about the writing of poetry from that book than any other I’ve written. It is very much a book of elegiac geography: the deaths of Tom Auer, Ken Brewer, Leslie Norris and Ellen Meloy, all pretty much occurring within an 18 month period, inspired and set the tone for the book. I promised myself I would do everything possible to write a book without a single 1st person reference, and no meaningless verbs. It is very much a book based on music, as many of the poems are written on the forms of fugue, sonata, sonatina, rhapsody et al. The music I most oft heard was Beethoven’s 5th, though at times I tried to reach the 9th. There were others, of course: one poem is based on the Night on Bare (Bald) Mountain, another on Fanfare for the Common Man, yadda yadda. I spent 4 hard years on that manuscript, working on it every day. Some call it my worst book, a few say it in many ways is my most successful. The truth of the matter is probably somewhere in between. I will never be sorry I wrote it, but it was a painful, stress-filled, difficult process.
After I finished Stone Wind Water, I began writing Bluebonnets, Firewheels, and Brown Eyed Susans, my book on Texas women, 1948-1962. That book took me directly back to my narrative form, and the poems go into the zones of dialect, colloquialism, humor and tall tale. I spent two terrific, fun-filled years on that manuscript, then came the death of my big brother, great friend Bill Kloefkorn, which shook me to the ground. After a couple of months, maybe more–time dissolved and so did I into the realms of wallowing in angst, remorse and self-pity–until Bill came to me in a dream and told me to get off my dead ass and get to work on my book for him. “Book for you?” I asked, and he said, “Goddam right. You don’t think you can get out of it this easy, do you, Lee?” So I went north, and during a 2 week period when I was house sitting for my friend and surrogate brother, the novelist Rob Van Wagoner, I wrote my long poem “Amanda Strayhorn, Preacher’s Wife.”
Bill was there during that writing, looking over my shoulder, watching. I don’t remember him giving me any lines or nudges, but he was my muse, watching. I could talk about that in some detail. But after the Van Wagoners returned, the day Jan left to fly to Boston for the birth of our grandson, Joshua, I went up to our Cascade River digs and after a failed start on a silly long poem about a kids’ rock and roll band named Toxic Slobber after one of their mastiff dogs, Bill spoke to me and said, “Not now on that one, let’s try this,” and in 8 days I wrote the Monument to the Great Plains series, which forms the symbolic spine of what became Last Call. In writing those poems, I distinctly heard Bill’s voice leading and prodding me along: he was the literal muse for those poems. Once I had that series done, I was able to clearly see the book. I wrote the entire manuscript in 2 years, the fastest ever for me with a full-length book. Bill was pretty much with me all the way. That was undoubtedly the most fun I ever had writing a book. Every day was a day of conversation with my dear friend.
Once I had that manuscript complete, I wondered if I could ever go back to my book on women. A good, no, an excellent friend, the poet Steven Nightingale, invited me to come live in his wonderful house in the mountains above San Francisco, and while there I reopened that manuscript.
You mentioned Steven Nightingale, whose primary focus is the sonnet. I have just bought Wings of What You Say, and it is amazing. He (and perhaps Ernest Hilbert, too) has certainly reimagined the structure of the sonnet, offering up amazing variations of that form’s image. I know you have your own ideas of form, the significance of numbers, etc., and I would love you to explain your relationship to form and your use or avoidance of form in writing your poetry.
Yeah, I love Nightingale and his work, and I agree, his new form is very very nice. I, too, love Wings of What you Say. I have all his books of sonnets and this is the best, methinketh. I dreamed once last fall that I got to be there in the room when John Milton wanted to talk with him about his renewal of the form. He is a splendid poet and a better human being. He and his wife are wonderful environmentalists/conservationists, beautiful people. By the by on this topic, he is a brilliant novelist. He has 2 novels out. Both may be out of print but can be found: The Lost Coast and Daughter of the 13th Moon. He’s a blend of Castenada, Kesey, and Marquez. Wild and woolly. Think you’d like him in that genre as well.
Yes, I am using more “numbers” in my poetry. When I was writing “Amanda Strayhorn,” (which will be in the woman’s book) with Kloefkorn watching over my shoulder, I was several pages into the poem–4, I think–when I discovered I was writing it in 7 line stanzas and basically a 3 to 4 beat line. That was totally unconscious. Once I realized it, I saw all the reasons why–and loved the writing of that poem. It was an extension of what I learned while writing Stone Wind Water, and it did lap over into some of the poems in Last Call: I tried to be conscious of form in each of the poems, even though many appear to be free verse. Some are rimed, but rarely end rimed or patterned rimed: bells tinkling in the subconscious ear was what I was trying to achieve. Some things I played with are the obvious couplets, tercets and quatrains, but I also tried to play with the magic underbelly of the #9 (the number of the woman), 3 (magic deity) and 7 (perfect completion), for instance.
In virtually every poem I try to sneak in something I actually think no one will ever notice, but I know it’s there. It’s sort of a gift to myself to re-discover sometime later to create the “ah-aha” moment. When someone does spot it, I’m always perplexed because I have to wonder if I’ve been clumsy or obvious, but then I always justify myself by saying, “what a wonderful, brilliant, perceptive reader I have.”
How do you invent your names? How do you name the characters we meet in your poems?
Some of them, that’s the actual name of the person I am sort of building and trying to develop in the character mold. Other names come, and I’ve talked about it before: Once characters start coming to me, they occupy my subconscious and start a dialogue with me. As Milton said in “Book Nine” of Paradise Lost, “These voices come to me unimplored whilst slumbering,” and often they will give me their names there. Very rarely I will be driving down the road and see a name of a town or a place or a side road that hits me so strongly that it5 becomes the name of a character. For example, there’s a woman who I am writing for in my book on women right now whose name is based on a town in Northern Texas named Maypearl. That’s a perfect name for one of my characters. All that comes together, which is to say a lot of names are based on real people I have known mixed with the act of creation, and god knows where that comes from.
You mentioned real towns, which actually leads to the next thing I would like to talk about. How much of the town which you use for your characters and for the stories to take place is Matador, Texas; and how much is of it perhaps Paragonah, Utah; or have you created an entirely original town from fragments and from people, perhaps an amalgamation of those two places?
Okay, you’ve given me A,B, C. What is option D going to be?
Well actually just those three.
No, D is going to be, “All of the above” and I choose D. But I will add to this by saying Garza County is mentioned in several of my poems and in Last Call, but I do not mention any specific town in any of my poems. Garza County was the center of the first real South Plains Oil Boom. Now I need to say this about Last Call: It starts at Adolph’s and ends at Adolph’s, and Adolph’s is right here where I am now, in the hill country of Texas. In that book I try to encompass because that book is a telescopic book. It’s two people’s entire lifetime wrapped up in one single day. And the two people in question did not spend their mature years in Texas at all, but I placed them there as a metaphor. The pickup journey they take in that day covers all of Texas. It goes up into Garza County; it goes into the hill country; it goes over to Judge Roy Bean’s. It’s encompassing.
And you are less concerned with the actual ability to go to all of those places in one day, and more concerned with the touchstones those places create?
I ask that because as you know Gabriel Garcia Marquez just passed away, and his work in magical realism is on my mind.
Yes. It’s a major influence on me. I mean, I am not going to say I had Marquez in mind when I wrote this book, but I did have that telescoping of time in mind. I hope it’s obvious in Last Call the events of the book on the surface are contemporary right now. It’s two old guys closing out their lives. These are two old friends who have known each other for a long time. They have a home locus in an area, which seems to be in Garza County-ish, but right now they are in Adolph’s, which is in the hill country. It’s that willing suspension of disbelief. I want the reader to be able to hold that in mind.
There are, in spite of the idea the book can be seen as taking place in 2014 or 2010 when (William) Kloefkorn died, moments which float back to their youth, and a documentable date which could be placed between 1958-1960. I refer to movies that were popular and political movements to popular to that time.
As you are talking about this, I got the image, the mental impression of the two of you driving around like the Sam Peckinpah film, The Wild Bunch, without the guns, one last hurrah.
I think Kloefkorn, Billy Klogphorne, would love that analogy. It’s exactly that, a last hurrah. It’s Eliot and The Four Quartets. “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.” And ‘I have returned to where I have started.’ From there we move into death, the inevitable. We move toward it, hopefully with a sense of gratitude and dignity. So yeah, it’s a last hurrah. I don’t dislike that analogy at all.
When I read your poem, “Driving Solo: Clovis rants: A Monologue in Five Acts with Intermission,” where you stopped at the gas station in Ely, I realized I know that road. That’s why I asked about the likes of Paragonah. All of a sudden you (Clovis in the book) are in Utah, then driving north through Nevada.
Yeah. Of course you do. John Simms, in one of the epigraphs of a poem for him, he says, “This is everywhere I’ve ever been.” It’s all in one lump. It’s every place I have referred to in all of my books, but I have also tried to apply it to Bill Kloefkorn’s books which are centered in place as well. I just try to blend them.
There’s something else about Last Call, which the poem “Driving Solo” reminds me of. Both men are married. Clovis’ wife is in Twin Falls Idaho. He is completely separate from her. That’s why he can go out all day, and they can talk about old girlfriends because nobody is listening in. Clovis obviously lives inside town because they go to his house for the second poem of the book, “The Traildust Gospel.” Billy’s house is obviously outside of town because he says he’s only got so many acres and Kay Stokes says, ‘Well, I’ll lease you some more to do this grand project that we want you to do. And Billy’s wife stays inside the house, and you must have the ability to see everything from the kitchen window, and it must be pleasing to her. “I’ve had people try to tell me that “Driving Solo” poem may not fit this book, and I disagree completely. It gives Clovis the imprimatur to be there with Billy, and he doesn’t worry about his wife or anybody listening in.
I certainly see that blending with some of the titles of your poems in Last Call, which are styled much like Kloefkorn’s titles.
So, is the concept of place in your mind specific, or archetypal?
Oh, it’s very archetypal. Absolutely. Well, I guess I could say it’s both, because there is an Adolph’s, and Rena, the first name mentioned in the book is Adolph’s wife. She’s the cook and bottle washer there.
Adolph’s is a real place near your current home, and you enjoy going out there, which is a sharp contrast to your feelings from when you lived in Utah. I take it you have found a group of people there you get along with. Is that right?
Oh, yeah! It’s almost kind of like the people I have been writing about for the last fifty years of my life, I am now living amongst exactly them. Many of the people see themselves in the characters in my books. A lot of the real people I write about don’t read poetry, but some of the people down here actually started reading my books. They see themselves and their ilk in it. They take pride in it, and that’s pretty neat!
I am always obsessed with food, so I want to know does Adolph’s serve a good steak?
They serve an excellent steak, and especially if you like the chicken-fried steak. The problem is it’s just so damned expensive you can’t afford to eat there very often. A chicken-fried steak with baked potato and the blue cheese dressing on a wonderful salad is going to cost you every bit of $6.00. When we lived in Utah, we would probably go out to eat maybe three times a year, whether we needed to or not, and here, we pretty much go out once a week. If we aren’t there two weeks in a row, they start looking for us wondering if we are okay.
Now that’s not saying Dave and Jan have become incredibly gregarious. You cannot be a writer and be that way. Writing required privacy, solitude, and all of that. But at least here we go out and get among them, much more than we ever did in Utah.
So, what has retirement done for your writing? You have mentioned this before, but you used to do all of your writing once a year. Is that correct?
Yeah, I did. I wrote every day, but I wrote while I was driving to and from work. It was about an hour each way. Back then I had a good memory, or a reasonably good memory. I could hold usually around 14 poems in my head and then I would go to the cabin. I was on an 11 month contract with the university (Sothern Utah University), so I had the month of August off. Jan would go study Spanish to get ready for her school year, and I would go to the cabin and write. And mostly I would just get the 14 poems down on paper and start the revision process. And at that rate, I could usually get a book done in about four years.
When I let the word out that I was going to take an early retirement, my fellow faculty members warned that I would hate retirement: I had been a workaholic for so long (I didn’t miss a day of work for any reason other than professional travel and connected work for over 25 years–including illness–and no classes were dismissed even when I was on the road, yadda yadda) they didn’t think I could adjust. I told them I was a latent Buddhist: watch.
Still, I get the sense your retirement is a retirement in name only. You seem to be busier than ever. Can you talk about what your retirement has done for you?
I have loved and thrived in retirement. That said, I do miss teaching: I miss teaching poetry, Milton, literature; but I do not miss the daily grind of meetings, administration, endless regulations and re-regulations, the nonsense of the job. My first goals in retirement were to travel, read and write. I’ve kept that goal. For 6 years we travelled almost non-stop, Mazatlan to Fairbanks, Port Townsend to Orlando, side to side-top to bottom. We did settle down and establish Bandera as a winter base and Seaside for our summers, but even then we stay on the move. The difference is, during my 6 poet laureate years (when I did close to 100 gigs a year),
I went alone; now Jan and I try to travel together for most of the (few) gigs I do. That has made a few differences in “battle fatigue.”
That was then. Now, first of all, I no longer have the luxury of a memory. My heart attack took that completely out of me, so my style of writing has changed. I now have to have notepads and pencils around me for writing. I can’t hold anything in very long. But I don’t owe anybody else any part of my life other than Jan and the kids, so I have four hours a day for reading and one, two, whatever I need for writing every day. That means I have been able to do more. I’ve had a fairly prodigious output since I retired. I’ve had five books published and I’ve got another one almost done, and I’m well into the book on jazz. I almost can’t compare it to what I did then because the process is so different.
Do you like this new process?
Oh, yeah, I do. I have to like it, because it’s all I’ve got. I can’t go back and write the way I used to because that part of my mind was destroyed. I have to do things differently. I have made myself accustomed to it. I enjoy working that way now. It doesn’t bother me. Well, it does some, but it doesn’t drive me crazy that I can’t remember things very well any more. There are books that I’ve written . . . I’m thinking now at this moment of Stone Wind Water . . . I’ve learned more from the writing of that book than any other book I’ve ever done. On the other hand, it’s my least successful book. I will also have to admit there was not that much joy in the actual writing. I didn’t get the giggles while writing that book. This book for Kloefkorn is about the fastest I’ve ever written a book. I had to write the book fast so that the memory wouldn’t disappear. I did most of the writing of that book in about two years. The quickest ever for me.
And I had fun, because Bill was there with me as my muse in the writing of that book. The book I am writing now, the book on women, has been an absolute delight. I am not going to call it fun; I am not going to call it hard. It has been a delight. I’m enjoying my writing because it has been so kaleidoscopic; every book has been completely different in theme in focus in process.
I write or think about writing every day. I realize I’m running out of time–I’m in no way paranoid about that, it’s just a fact. So I’m more selective about what I write, even though I do write for my own pleasure, just to see what’s on and in my tiny mind. But when I come to the concept of what I want to write to show others, I think in terms of a book. I rarely write a single poem (other than for my own entertainment) unless it’s an exercise or self-prompt just to get the juices flowing. If I do these ditties, I don’t take them seriously. Fire starters. Any poem that presents itself that doesn’t fit that bottle either doesn’t get written or if I do jot something down, I don’t take it much more seriously than I would a republican.
With Stone Wind Water, your process was to translate into Chinese ideograms and then translating back.
Yeah. Yeah. Or starting a poem at times with ideograms, seeing where they were going to go, and then moving that back into English language. I enjoyed doing that, but I don’t think I smiled very much while I was writing that book. It is a frowning book. It was of course a book of death. Ken Brewer and Leslie Norris, and Ellen Meloy, and Bill Holm died during it. It was just death, death, death. But it was a book I had to write as a personal catharsis.
I’d like to revisit your old level of output. You would get your 10-14 poems in the month of August all at once.
Yeah. I would keep them until August. I would have to go into my memory and scour it completely and get it on paper.
And you also spoke of something magical happening with your writing at that time, being surprised by twists and turns in the direction it might take.
Sure. If something magical doesn’t happen in the midst of the writing, usually that is a poem that going to be scrapped. There’s gotta be magic in it, and if there isn’t, then it probably is not a poem. It’s probably more in the direction of a memoir or confession. No. The magic is what makes the writing fun. And if writing ain’t fun, then why the hell do it?
Like you said earlier, your friend is going to be disappointed.
Or worse than that . . . Bill’s going to be disappointed, and he’ll come kick the shit out of me while I am trying to sleep.
Does Bill Kloefkorn still come to you?
Oh, he’s not there like he was during the writing of Last Call, and especially the writing of that series of poems about the monument. He was just right over my shoulder then. But every now and then, I will come to, especially in the women’s book, especially in the poem “Post Mortem” about the woman whose husband has died, Bill spoke to me during the writing of that one. At one moment in there he said, “You’re getting it right, Lee.” But that’s where you could ask Dave, “Is that really Bill there, or you pushing to be like Bill?’ I couldn’t answer you that. I can say for me, it’s Bill.
I really don’t know, either. I’ve had some pretty strange dreams myself. I have never had anybody come speak to me like you have, but I have had what I would call visitation. I think that is part of the eternal we are all a part of.
I got you. That’s as about as close as I can come to.
If you’ve never had it happen to you, you don’t know what the big deal is.
I agree. It would be much easier for me to talk about this if I would drop the whole ‘Bill came and talked to me’ and use a word like muse. Well, okay, I could do that, and it’s basically the same thing. The muse for the Last Call book had Bill Kloefkorn’s voice in it. It’s very much like the book on women, where very often the voice has been Eleanor Wilner’s voice. She’s not dead, but she’s there. Her voice is inside my head. At the brightest flickering of my candle I have most likely connected with her genius, but my genius is fleeting when it happens for me.
You don’t have to sell me on the notion of fleeting genius. It’s strange, because you talk about the writing and you talk about a sense of what is working and what is not working, the magic there, and I have to admit it took years for me to recognize the difference between what is working and what isn’t working because I was so overjoyed that I had written something.
Of course. I think that’s a universal. We, each in a non-ego centric fashion think we have done is the most beautiful thing we have ever done in our lives. Then later, after quiet repose, we go back to look at it and often can’t figure what it’s about, much less what it’s trying to say.
That fine line the writer walks: Loving what we write because we have to be encouraged, but being willing to throw it all away if it isn’t working.
Yep, Exactly. That’s why for a real writer, the writing isn’t in the creation. It’s in the reflection and the revision. That’s the real work. A writer who doesn’t look forward to that is never going to be much of a writer. And it’s hard. It’s almost like spanking one of your kids. You know you don’t want to do it, but you know if you don’t correct it, you have to ask yourself what you are doing even writing in the first place.
Do you have any parting thoughts about Last Call, maybe what you enjoyed most?
The whole book for me was in so many ways a bitter-sweet delight. It helped me deal with the fact that Bill’s gone. On the other hand, like I say in one of the poems in the book, I’ll be there sooner than later. Strike a fire. Make sure I can find you.” I don’t know of any part of this I didn’t enjoy writing. If there ever was anything that was above the rest, it would probably be that ‘monument to the plains’ series, because that’s when Bill was so closely with me. I felt him at every movement of every one of those eleven poems.
How did you know when the writing of the book was over? I mean did any poems not make the cut? I ask because your process, as you describe it seems to be a very guided process. From my own experience writing, I know I would have a hard time knowing when I had written enough as opposed to over-writing, writing too many sub standards poems.
Yes. Bill actually told me when this book was pretty much done. On the other hand, there were some poems which came to me ‘whilst slumbering’ and eventually dis-invited themselves from the book. Three of them in particular, poems I felt were among some of the very best I had written said, ‘We just don’t belong in this book.’ And I more or less asked, ‘Where do you belong?’ They gave me that always difficult answer, ‘Think about it, you’ll know.’ I did, and they belong in the women’s book. One of them I left in Last Call, anyway, and I hope it works. I had to win one out of three arguments. There were things I thought would be in the book which are not there, and that’s only right.
I find that I end up having pointless arguments, fighting the structure of the book and sometimes the poems for so long, not accepting what the poems are trying to tell me.
That’s exactly the process I am trying to talk about. Sometimes the poems tell you what they want to be, and where they belong.
I know you have talked about the possibility you may not continue to write poetry as you grow older. You have talked about how Bill Kloefkorn in his later years found writing poetry difficult and so he stopped, refusing to write substandard poems.
Well, I am almost at the end of my writing career. I am going to be 70 this summer and that may happen to me as well. I am trying to get done what I can get done while I still feel there are some creative fires burning in there. I’m prepared for the fact that I might be winding down. I am at the age where many writers cease. So, when I am writing I use the term monomaniacal. When I am writing I am a driven human being. I am not too much interested in going in other directions because the poems are leading me where they want to go. I am prepared for the fact my writing might be winding down. Well, many many writers, most of ‘em die. I’m getting up there for it. My original role model/ mentor, at least my latest preocupative role model was Bill Kloefkorn, and he pretty much quit writing somewhere not a whole lot older than where I am right now. On the other hand, I will say this: My present muse, role model, and hero, is Eleanor Wilner. I do not know how old she is, but she is doing some of the very best writing of her life, so there is hope I can keep going. But I am also prepared for the words to say, ‘Well, we’re sorta done. We’ve done the best we can, Dave. Now it’s time to get in the rocking chair.’ I’m not nervous about it; I’m not fatalistic. I am fully prepared for my creative fluids to go dry on me.
Do you think you will ever over extend the quality of your writing with your continued desire to write?
Even though I talk about the possibility of quitting writing, I can’t see that happening because I take so much pleasure in doing it. I think I would continue to scribble and sketch.
Maybe just not show anyone?
Yeah. I think that’s what a good editor is all about. Someone who should be willing to tell the writer, ‘This is not ready for prime time, and probably never will be, but keep on doing it because it keeps your brain happy. You are not atrophying at least.’ I think I will keep writing. I don’t know how long I will keep publishing. Maybe that’s a better way of putting it.
Do you think you will ever make the transition into memoir, as Bill did so well?
No. I used to get asked at least once every year by somebody in New York, “Your talents are in narrative. When are you going to step outside this ‘stuff’ you are doing and write a novel, and at least make some money doing it?” I just don’t want to write novels. I have always loved what I was doing. Now I keep getting asked when I am going to start writing the memoir the world wants to read. Jan really answered it for me one day. She was there when I got the question, and she leaned over and said, “This is not my conversation, but I am going to say something. Have you read Dave’s poems? Every godamned thing he writes is memoir.” And I just thought, wow! I like that.
Is it a stylistic thing you don’t like about prose or is it that you don’t like your prose?
No. We’ll go back to that word we were using a little while ago: Fun. I don’t find the writing of prose to be fun. Milton said writing prose is almost as if he was confined to writing with his left hand. I won’t go there, exactly, but I just don’t get the charge, I don’t get the electricity out of writing prose as I do when I am writing poetry, and I am a socialist: Why do I care about making money? You Mormons have that, “Man is that he might have joy” and I agree with that. It’s one of the major processes of life and the joy is in the process of the writing of poetry. And I only bring that up because you are calling from Mormondom to Texasdom. I am not making an accusation. It’s just your part of the world, and it is part of my background, too. It’s wrapped up inside of me as well. I get my joy from poetry and I don’t get it from prose.
Well, really those are all the questions I had for you, and then some. I have already taken a lot of your day.
Well it doesn’t seem so long. It’s been a very pleasant conversation. I hope I did half-way justice to your questions. You’ve been in my classes before. You know it can take me 30 minutes to say, “yes.” That’s just how I am. I hope I’ve given you something worthwhile there.
It has been a pleasure Dave, and I cannot wait to get the chance to talk to you again, and possibly just sit down with you in person and share an evening or a meal, or both. You have a wonderful evening.
Thank you. As I always say, hug Becky twice: once for me. Abrazos.
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Originally from Utah, Justin Evans currently lives in rural Nevada with his wife and sons. He served in the army from 1988-1992, eventually graduating from Southern Utah University in History and English Education, then from University of Nevada, Reno, with an M. Ed. in Literacy Studies. He is the author of four chapbooks and three full length volumes of poetry, the most recent being Friday in the Republic of Me (Foothills Publishing, 2012); Hobble Creek Almanac (Aldrich, 2013); and Sailing This Nameless Ship (BlazeVOX, 2014). From 2006 until 2014, Justin edited the now defunct literary journal, Hobble Creek Almanac.
David Lee was raised in Post, Texas (southeast of Lubbock, northeast of Lamesa — think hot, dry and flat), a background he has never completely escaped, despite his varied experiences as a seminary student, a boxer and semi-pro baseball player (the only white player to ever play for the Negro League Post Texas Blue Stars) known for his knuckleball, a hog farmer, and a decorated Army veteran. Along the way he earned a Ph.D. in the poetry of John Milton, taught at various universities, and in 2004, retired as the Chairman of the Department of Language and Literature at Southern Utah University. Lee was named Utah’s first Poet Laureate in 1997, and has received both the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award in Poetry and the Western States Book Award in Poetry. Lee received the Utah Governor’s Award for lifetime achievement and was listed among Utah’s top twelve writers of all time by the Utah Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author of more than fifteen books of poetry. In 2004, So Quietly the Earth was selected for the New York Public Library’s annual “Books to Remember” list.