in conversation with Judith Moore
(Author of Never Eat Your Heart Out)
San Diego Reader May 29, 1997
Poet Thomas Lux was born in 1946 in Massachusetts, son of a milkman and a Sears & Roebuck switchboard operator, neither of whom graduated from high school. Lux was raised in Massachusetts, on a dairy farm. A bookish only child, he spent his after-school hours in the town library. He graduated from Emerson College in Boston and published his first book Memory's Handgrenade shortly after. Since 1975, Lux has been a member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College; he is now director of the college's MFA poetry program. Lux is also a core faculty member of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program for Writers. In 1996 he was a visiting professor at University of California at Irvine. A former Guggenheim Fellow and three times a recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lux received the $50,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his sixth collection, Split Horizons.
On the day we talked, Mr. Lux was in his Sarah Lawrence office. I asked him how poets earn a living in America.
"Most poets earn their living like I do, by teaching. I don't know anybody, any poet, who earns a living solely from poetry. Even Ginsberg was teaching until he died. So most poets do teach or do whatever else they can. I know some doctor poets, some lawyer poets, some businessmen poets, but mostly we teach."
How did Mr. Lux happen to become a poet?
"Like most writers, I love to read. I read a great deal as a child and in high school. I started trying to imagine being a writer. I didn't even know that living writers, poets, existed after about 1945, which was when the textbook stopped. I started writing poetry in high school, by imitating the poems on the back of Bob Dylan's albums.
"In college I had a real poet for a teacher, Helen Chasin. She was a great basic workshop teacher. Tough, no-nonsense, a lot of craft, really perfect teacher for a young writer. She was both tough and encouraging. She was direct and objective and she made it clear that she wasn't talking about you or your feelings, that she was talking about the poem or this thing that you made, this object.
"She introduced me to Robert Lowell when I was a junior in college, in 1968 or early 1969. She had me and one other student to a dinner party with Lowell. He was like God, you know.
"That evening, Lowell taught me how to eat caviar. I was alone in the room with Lowell. My classmate was in the kitchen with Helen. I had never had caviar. I had no idea even what it was. So I told that to Lowell. He took a cracker in his hands and he dipped it into the caviar right up to about his first knuckle on his thumb and his finger. He had a huge mound of caviar on the cracker and on his finger and he put it in his mouth and chewed it, and he said, 'That's how you eat caviar, kid.' Or, something very like that. It was funny. It was very sweet.
"I remember that he read us some new poems, but he wouldn't let us look at the manuscript. They were the poems that were later in Notebook 1967-68. He got drunk, but I guess we all did. But he was kind and talked a lot. Maybe he was a little manic, looking back on it, but I don't know."
It was at about that time, Mr. Lux said, that he began to think of himself as a poet. "Which," he said, "of course would have been vastly premature and very arrogant, but I think you've got to be a little arrogant and crazy when you're a young poet and do not yet understand fully what you're getting into and what an incredible task it is. If you knew that when you were young, if you weren't arrogant, maybe you wouldn't be able to do it. It would be too daunting."
Did Mr. Lux ever wish that he'd become, say, an engineer?
"No. I think I'm one of the really lucky people who got to do the thing that they really wanted and loved to do. I never would have been an engineer or anything vaguely like that. I don't have the brain for that. What I should be doing is working in a box factory in my hometown or the Elastic Web factory, where my whole family worked. Given where I come from, I probably shouldn't be a poet. So I think I'm lucky."
This summer, Lux's New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995 will be published. I asked how he felt, looking back at his older poems.
"I left out poems from my first two books. So it doesn't go back through my whole career. But in the poems I do include, I feel that there's a certain level of a sort of language skill at work in those poems that go back to the later 1970s. But there's something missing in some of the earlier poems, some connection with an outside world, that I think gradually emerges as I got older and maybe mature and maybe smarter. In my own particular case, too, I stopped drinking. I think that helped. That change takes place within the selected poems."
Copyright © 1997 by Judith Moore.