This interview took
place at St. Michael's College in Winooski, Vermont, on October 20, 1971, where
Lewis Turco gave a reading before a room full of college students, a few
professors, some middle-aged people and some not so middle-aged, and a nun. It
appears here as it was edited from its original publication in The Vermont
Freeman, issue of "Early
November, 1971," page nine.
Mr. Turco was a
dark-haired, neatly groomed, mustached man dressed in a green shirt,
multi-colored vest, and red jeans. On a tour of several colleges in the
Northeast, the poet had read the day before at the University of Vermont in
Stanion. Mr. Turco, what did you think of your audience
Turco. I thought they were responsive. I got the
impression they enjoyed the reading.
Stanion. The audience chuckled after you read your first
poem. It was titled "Old News," wasn't it? You wrote it when you
found out your wife was pregnant with your first child, I believe. Would you
read it again?
Turco. Yes. It appeared in my book Awaken, Bells
Falling three years ago:
weeks gone," the doctor said,
that odd good luck look walking his lips along
trail blazed by the tip of
his tongue."Six weeks gone, son.She'll be fine.Lousy
bed, though," shaking his head.
"You'll be used to the idea come
off he went, his eyes propped
wide with a good call's work — blasé, not quite
the old wonder with which
I was left: the old bride whose acquiescence,
now find, can swallow down
this house with its carpet silences; stillness
pillows; the couch couching.
Outdoors, the dark lies in the hollows of trees.
descends like a muffled
lamp.These eyes seize on ancient things: the roadway
between its curbs, the
lurking swell of a still flat belly, and the
lidded moon risen, unwinking, on the world.
Stanion. That is a crowd-pleaser, it seems. Do you
deliberately write for a particular audience?
Turco. That depends on what you mean by audience, and on when you mean I think about it. While one is writing, I
doubt very much that one thinks about the audience who will be reading the
finished poem. But eventually, it seems to me, one has to consider the audience
one wants to reach. I think most poets are concerned more with the horizontal
than the vertical audience.
Stanion. What are those?
Turco. The "vertical" audience for literature
consists of the mass of readers of any stripe who exist at any particular
moment, whereas the “horizontal” audience is made of those readers who exist
from one particular moment forward into the indefinite future. Although the
vertical audience appears to be massive in comparison with the horizontal
audience of that same moment, in fact the horizontal audience will be much
larger — good news for the writer of "serious" as distinguished from
Stanion. It's the difference between the cult and the mob?
Turco. More or less. The smallest possible audience is
one — oneself; the largest is everyone. Every audience in between these
extremes is limited to a greater or lesser degree. If the poet addresses only
himself or herself, he or she is a narcissist; if the poet addresses everyone,
he or she must seek the lowest common denominator, and art is exhausted. The
poet, then, must consider the audience he or she wishes to reach and settle for
that readership which is as large as his or her seriousness of intent and
talent will bear.
Stanion. How long have you been writing poetry?
Turco. For about as long as I can remember. I published
my first poems when I was nineteen and doing a stint in the Navy.
Stanion. In the Navy? That sounds like a TV sit-com. What
is your background?
Turco My father was an Italian Baptist minister who
served congregations in Buffalo, New York, and Meriden, Connecticut, where I
grew up. My mother is a Methodist missionary from Wisconsin who traces her
ancestry back to the Putnams of the Salem Village witchcraft trials of 1692.
Stanion. Are you an only child? Are you married? Do you
have children? Do you write about people who are close to you?
Turco I've written poems about my brother, Gene, my
wife, my parents, my daughter — in fact, I wrote a whole series, about my
family, friends, and acquaintances, titled The Sketches. It was originally published as a chapbook in 1962
and was reprinted in my Pocoanqelini: A Fantography & Other Poems this year.
Stanion. You've also written on occasion about public
figures and events, haven't you? One of your best-known poems, I recall, is
titled "November 22, 1963," about the assassination of John F.
Kennedy. It's been translated into other languages, hasn't it? Would you read
Turco. I'd be happy to.
NOVEMBER 22, 1963(1)
for J. F. K.
Weeping, I write this:You are dead.The dark
animal of the heart, the beast that bides
stilly in its web of flesh, has stolen
flight again out of the air.What is there
to say?That I wish we were gods?That the
mind of man were equal to his lusts?It
is not — not yet.You were a man, but more:
you were an idea dreamt in a sweet
hour while the spider slept.We make our
web; its habitant makes greatness of its
prey.We are ourselves victim and victor.
You were and are ourselves.In killing you
we murder an emblem of what we strive
to be: not men, but Man.In mourning you,
good Man, we grieve for what we are, not what
we may become.
John.We will try
once more.Sleep, sleep now.We will
Stanion. Robert Frost read at the inauguration of President
Kennedy, and you spent some time here in Vermont at Middlebury College's Bread
Loaf Writers' Conference. Did you ever meet him?
Turco. Yes, in 1961, when I was a Bread Loaf Poetry
Fellow, I spent an evening swapping stories with him in Treman Hall on the
Bread Loaf campus. He had died by 1968 when I was a member of the teaching
Stanion. Some people have commented on the similarity of
some of your poems to those of Frost. Did he have an influence on you?
Turco. In a way, perhaps. Not stylistically, but Frost's
feeling for people perhaps influenced me in my writing about people
Stanion. Why do you write poetry?
Turco Perhaps for the same reason that others read
poetry: they are driven to it in their quest for a richer understanding of
Stanion. Is that why you wrote a sequence of poems,
"Bordello,"2 in your book Pocoangelini, about men who frequent a bawdy house?
Turco Yes. I tried to empathize with such people because
everyone seems to have written fiction and poetry about so-called "fallen
women," but I've never seen the other side of the coin. If there are
reasons why women become prostitutes, there must be reasons why men use them,
so I tried to put myself into those men's minds and attempt to understand the
psychology that motivates them. Each has a different reason — one has been
emasculated by his wife, another has had to work too hard and too long to find
a wife, and a minister deludes himself into believing that by knowing sin
firsthand he can serve his flock better.
Stanion. Probably the saddest of these men is Lafe Grat who
is too ugly to have a wife.
Turco Yes. For him the bordello is his only refuge:
In this house I am not ugly — nowhere
else.Nor is there
a mirror in the room we use, my bought
bride and I.What
images are reflected in her eyes
as in a dream only, my face redrawn
each evening of this woman, spared my name,
the cruel fame
of the publicly disfigured, I roar
with my old whore
like a whole man, transfigured for a time.
Lafe Grat.I work hard to make a living.
There's no giving
to a man who makes you think of darkness,
for my likeness
is found buried in everyone, hidden
it rises to gorge the beast in the blood.
So, out of mud
I am formed and rise each morning to stalk
where others walk
in a world of surfaces — till night when,
like other men,
I may purchase with coin my manhood, life —
a moment's wife.
Stanion. That sounds like an experiment in psychology.
Turco Writers were the first psychologists. A poet
experiments with words in much the same way that a scientist experiments with
physical data. Whereas the scientist explores the mysteries of the physical
universe, the poet tries to explore and understand the mysteries of the human
Stanion. You are a teacher as well as a writer — can
insight be taught?
Turco. A teacher can certainly teach technique, and he or
she can foster sensitivity, but no one can teach aptitude. I think it's
possible to teach almost anyone to write poetry — not great poetry, but poetry.
If I didn't think I could do so, I wouldn't be a teacher.
Stanion. And you've written a book on the subject, The
Book of Forms,(3) which
many other teachers use also, In a world that has become so depersonalized by
automation and overpopulation, perhaps we can use a few more poets.
1Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems 1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007, ISBN 978-1-932842-19-5, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN
978-1-932842-20-3, trade paperback, $32.95, 640 pages. ORDER FROMAMAZON.COM
Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Third edition, www.UPNE.com, 2000. ISBN 1584650222, trade
paperback, $24.95, 337 pages. “The Poet’s Bible," A companion volume to The
Book of Dialogue and The
Book of Literary Terms.
ORDER FROM AMAZON
I very much enjoyed
the Interview by Terry Stanion. The paragraph on one's audience was apt and I
was touched by “Lafe Grat”
I'm working on a
manuscript of my collected interviews over the years titled Craft or Sullen
Art. This is one of the earliest.
You wanted to know about qn even earlier one, "Interview with a Split
Personality" which was videotaped in 1968. I checked with SUNY Oswego, and
unfortunately it appears that it was destroyed when the "Learning
Resources Center" was eliminated.
Awfully short sighted of
SUNY Oswego, if you ask me.
the 10th of July, 2001 I sent a letter to Dana Gioia in Santa Rosa,
California, that said in part, “I write very little these days. My last poem
you probably saw in The Formalist,
‘The Gathering of the Elders.’ My last except for this, which I wrote for my
[then five-year-old] granddaughter, Jessima, when we passed a sign in Augusta
[Maine] that read, “Piggery Road” --
Piggery Diggery Dog,
We’re supping high off the
fatback and bacon
all else forsaken,
Piggery Diggery Dog.
Today [yesterday], Thursday, 24
June 2010, I ran across that letter and the stanza that I’d never done anything
with. Because Jessima, now a teen-ager, and her little sister Phoebe, six, are
staying with my wife Jean and me while their folks are attending a conference in
Washington, DC, I wrote the rest of this nursery rhyme for the two of them (but
mostly for Phoebe, of course — Jessie is ‘way too sophisticated now):
The red pen event is hardly worthy of
the name, considering the excellence and pedigree of its headliner.I was thrilled to present to the world "John," a new poem by Lewis Turco, and an interview of Mr. Turco by his altar ego (read the piece to ravel that pun) Wesli Court. In
"John" Mr. Turco contemplates through the glasses (telescope and
microscope) of a nephew the utterly grand and the utterly small. It includes a
brilliant, poetic take on the standard model of physics. It also includes
a meditation of the universe, rising to the following:
The paltry gods of Earth
were never meant to handle
phantasmagoria as these, were
never meant to represent
Thrones, Dominions, eidolons
of the mind
of man, these firefly mysteries.
The self-interview is a splendid
mini-memoir tracing through the history of a too-often neglected branch of
modern poetry, and it includes so much that inspires me as a poet and a student
of poetry. In one telling passage he describes how, sending poems out to
periodicals in the middle-to-late 1970’s, he was amazed that magazines began
accepting rhyming and metered poems more readily than syllabic poems.
"What was going on? I thought I knew. The worm was
beginning to turn again, and there was a big pile of younger poets who had been
using The Book of Forms for almost a decade, writing in the old forms, experimenting
with the Bardic forms, publishing in the little magazines, and even beginning
new periodicals that published what they were interested in."
I've read Mr. Turco's poetry and criticism
since I've been a teenager, and it has been an honor to work with such a
creative, perceptive and hard-working gentleman. I should also mention his Weblog, which is one of the best maintained
and most interesting you'll find by a major contemporary poet.
am extremely sorry to hear of the passing of the poet Allen Hoey. I'd known him
for years, since he was a young man publishing beautifully printed and designed
poetry chapbooks from his Banjo Press in Potsdam, New York. One of those little
books was my A Cage of Creatures
which Allen issued in 1978:
particularly sad when someone dies too soon, but obviously he accomplished much
and put his time to good use while he was with us:
county poet dies of heart attack
By: JOAN HELLYER
BUCKS COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Allen Hoey earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination
for his collection of poems entitled "Country Music."
Friends and colleagues are remembering Bucks County
Community College Professor Allen Hoey as a man with "a big soul and a
Hoey, 57, died Wednesday night of a heart attack,
said his wife, Deborah.
The language and literature professor was an
accomplished writer and poet who in recent years ran the Bucks County Poet
Laureate Program and the Bucks County's High School Poet of the Year contest.
Hoey, a Solebury resident, was recognized as the
county's poet master in 2001. The New York native also was nominated for a
Pulitzer Prize for "Country Music," a 2008 collection of poems, many
of which concerned life in northern New York.
He recently released "Stricter Means," a
selection of poems from previous collections. Hoey's other recent works include
"Chasing the Dragon: A Novel about Jazz" and "Once Upon a Time
at Blanche's" about the people he knew at a bar he frequented while an
undergraduate college student in upstate New York in the 1970s.
"A lot of the stories these patrons tell are
funny, but there's also a depth of sadness in many of them," Hoey told the
newspaper about "Once Upon a Time" in a 2009 interview.
"That same conversational mix of tragedy,
mishap and humorous half-acceptance continues through the book, including poems
about birthing cows, an over-flowed septic tank, an act of vengeance, and an
elderly lesbian farmer," Hoey said during the interview.
Deborah said her husband, whom she married in 2006,
was "an absolutely brilliant man with a very peculiar sense of
They first met years ago when she returned to
college as an older student. Then 10 years later, in 2000, after staying in
touch via the phone every once in a while they ran into each other in a local
bookstore. Both were separated at the time, Deborah said Friday. They decided
to "get a drink" together and have been a couple ever since.
Their blended family includes his sons Owen and
Stephen, her daughters Jessica and Lauren, son-in-law Bill and grandchildren
Tristan and Reece.
"He was a loving, caring wonderful man who I
did not have nearly enough time with," Deborah said.
Hoey's friends and colleagues also found much to celebrate
about the literary master.
"He could be very structured and could be very
humorous and down home," said John Strauss, Hoey's friend and fellow
language and literature professor at BCCC.
The poem, "What To Do When the Minute Hand
Won't Move," is an example of those abilities, friends said.
"Shake the clock. Depress the switch that
lights the face. Shake it again. Watch the ceiling till the slight glow seeping
through the slats lets you see every item arrayed across the dresser,"
Hoey wrote in the poem.
His attention to detail and passionate commitment
to the craft extended to the classroom, colleagues said.
"Alan was incredible. He was one of the most
reliable, productive members of the department. He was the curriculum
coordinator. I don't know what we are going to do without him," Susan
Darrah, the assistant academic dean of the language and literature department
at BCCC, said Friday afternoon.
is a link that will provide further information about Allen and a few of his
on September first (his first solo book since 1981), Turco will turn the table
on himself and interview Court. These are some comments about Court’s
This major collection by the astonishing Wesli Court is an event
calculated to shiver all literary seismographs.Readers addicted to poetry, but weary of ill-made poems, can
latch on to it with joy.Aspiring
poets can seize it as a handbook of models, learning how to write anything from
an ode to a sonnenizio, from an epigram to a blues epilogue.While often striking a wistful, wintery
tone of hail-and-farewell, there are notes of infectious cheer and some genuine
surprises — even a poem to fulfill an unused title that Wallace Stevens left
lying idle.With unique skill,
Court shows us what a truly good metrical poem used to be, could be, and (in
his able hands) still is. — X. J. Kennedy
increasingly rare pleasure to read poems about the real world in language as
clear as it is lyrical, with deep roots in the past and illuminated by carefree
rhyme. — Miller Williams
thing about all these poems is the way they avoid sentimentality and the
temptation to reinvent the past, preferring, instead, a difficult blend of
affection and detachment, honesty and regret. — Rhina P. Espaillat in The
This week, since I
have the proof copy of The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems on my desk, I have treated myself to intervals of
quiet so that I could read your poems again . . . and again, and have done so
with great pleasure.
It is a superb
collection, masterfully rendered by a true Master of Craft.
I hope that it
will find the very wide readership that it deserves.
I am an MFA student in
poetry at Spalding University and have just completed a semester of study with
Molly Peacock. Molly has pretty much turned me into a formalist, and I will be
writing my extended critical essay about the creation of narrative in sonnet
crowns, and the pressure that narrative exerts on sonnet form.
I've read that you've
published a sonnet crown under your pseudonym. Would you mind sending me the
name of the book that contains the crown.
Thanks so much for your
help, and for all your wonderful poetry!
Barbara Payne Freimuth
Sorry to disappoint, but
I've written a sonnet redoublé, not a crown of sonnets, under my pseudonym
Wesli Court. It's in the current edition of The Book of Forms, titled "Reflections in an Attic Room,"
and it will appear for the first time in a collection of my poems, The
Gathering of the Elders (by
Wesli), from StarCloudPress.com on September first. It was originally published
in Miller Williams' Patterns of Poetry.
Thanks very much!
I look forward to purchasing these books, and to hearing you read someday!
p.s. Great website!
Congratulations on your
Breakdown! I liked "John" very much — both scopes. The interview was
great. Wish the videotape for classroom television was online.
Thank you, Alice,
Maybe I can get Oswego to
put the interview on a cd. If so, I'll post it on my blog; meanwhile, it's in
my blog archive as a document titled "Interview with a Split
OMG Lew, you are amazing
and awesome. Thank you for sharing your exciting news with me!
Whatever became of your
I don’t know where to even start with this splendid history. So much
that inspires me as a poet and a student of poetry. But I will say that this is
the moment that gave me a frisson:
After a while you and I had all these poems lying around doing
nothing, so we decided to start sending them out to periodicals in the
middle-to-late 1970’s, sometimes under my name, but most of the time under your
name. To my amazement, magazines began to accept them. In fact, you began to
have more luck with your rhyming and metered poems than I was having with my
syllabic poems! What was going on? I thought I knew. The worm was beginning to
turn again, and there was a big pile of younger poets who had been using The
Book of Forms for almost a decade, writing in the old forms, experimenting with
the Bardic forms, publishing in the little magazines, and even beginning new
periodicals that published what they were interested in.
Hooray for the turned worm. I personally share your opinion of the
Beat Generation (and I throw in the Confessionals as well), as I’ve argued
before here on TNB. I’ll admit that I was given occasion to examine a few of
the writers more closely, and found some good bits here and there, but overall,
I agree with the characterization of when the loudest camp in poetry was
“consolidating its anti-intellectual stranglehold on a generation, and the
self-righteous, self-indulgent decade of the 1960s loomed ahead.” In fact, you
inspire me to publish my poem “Babel”, which I’ve long avoided doing because I
thought that all the reflex reverence for the beats meant maybe I was just
I’m delighted to think you
had some effect on the turning of the worm. I’m not dogmatic about form, but I
do really wonder how a poet can develop the marvelous mimetic and compact power
over language bards have perfected for eons, while ignoring all the hard work
and miraculous achievements of those eons of bards. In my opinion, the fear of
Erato is the beginning of poetic wisdom, even if sometimes that wisdom
ultimately manifests itself in free verse.
Thank you, Uche,
And thank you for asking me to be the featured poet this issue of thenervousbreakdown.com. You've been very kind.
interview has left me dizzy, exhilarated, and schizoid. The professorial third
of me is energized to tackle the long-needed revision and updating of my own
“book of forms,” FORMS OF VERSE, BRITISH AND AMERICAN, first brought out in the
early 70s by now-defunct Appleton-Century-Crofts. It was (and is–I still use it
in teaching, as do a few others) more a learn-by-doing book than a handbook.
The diffident and realistic third of me feels puny in the face of the erudition
of all the Turcos. The poet third cries out, “Sit down, shut up, grab your copy
of Turco’s BOOKOF FORMS and try some new experiments!” The poet third is the
loudest. Thanks, Mssrs. Turco, and Wesli Court too.
And certainly you ought to
update your book. The more, the merrier!
[“John” is] Beautiful. A wonderful homage to both John and Pythagoras.
I particularly like this… “into the nothingness that I could see and
the rest of nothing I could not.”
Thank you, Jude. Delighted you enjoyed the poem.
My favorite bit is the
ending of I, from “Who can compass it?” But as an amateur of physics I also
love the standard model rendered into verse of the middle stanzas of II.
Overall, the poem is a sheer pleasure.
Wesli Court Self-Interview Wesli Court is interviewed by Lewis Turco about his new collection titled The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems.
Traveler's Moon Photograph by Adel Gorgy
Three Poems “Domestic Duties Scorecard,” “Leftover Shakespearean Gnomes,” "Tsunami Strait."
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.