An interview for KPFA-FM Berkeley, California, by Jack Foley
Listen to the interview: http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/15266
Lewis Turco at the West Chester University Poetry Conference, 2004
This interview was conducted during the Tenth Annual West Chester University Poetry Conference, “Exploring Form and Narrative,” where Lewis Turco was honored with a poetry reading and a panel session on Thursday, June 10th, 2004, “The Achievement of Lewis Turco,” with the poet R. S. Gwynn and the publisher of Star Cloud Press, Steven E. Swerdfeger. Star Cloud had just published Lewis Turco’s A Sheaf of Leaves: Literary Memoirs and a festschrift volume, Lewis Turco and His Work: A Celebration in honor of the poet’s 70th birthday. The Press was preparing to issue in the fall The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004.
Jack Foley. I am at the West Chester University Poetry Conference, and I’m with the distinguished poet Lewis Turco. Probably most people interested in poetry will have heard of him because he is the author of The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics which is an extraordinary book. I think anybody who has any interest in form whatsoever has turned its pages — I know I have — but he’s also a considerable poet, and he is in fact not just one, but two poets.
His selected poems came out a little while back, The Shifting Web, which is a lovely title, but in the fall he is going to have a book out titled, The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004 (Scottsdale: Star Cloud Press). Wesli Court is also Lewis Turco
Lewis Turco. Everything came together in a kind of crux. I was teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego and an old man named Charlie Davis, who had been a furniture seller in Oswego for many years, decided to come back to college in the late 1970’s. He had graduated from Notre Dame many, many years earlier, back in the 1920s, and he came and took my advanced class in poetry writing. For ten years during the ‘20s and ‘30s Charlie had been a jazz band conductor and the composer of the jazz classic “Copenhagen”….
Foley. Oh, my!
Turco. Yes. He was from Indiana, and when he was a kid he’d been carried around on the shoulders of his neighbor James Whitcomb Riley, “The Hoosier Poet,” and he wrote poems like James Whitcomb Riley. Well, when he got into my class I wouldn’t let him write poems like that [laughter] and I made him go and read William Carlos Williams’ long poem Paterson.
Foley. [Laughs] Quite a shock, I expect.
Turco. I told him, “Charlie, the rest of the students in this class can write rhymed and metered poems, but you’re the only one who’s not allowed to.” He wanted to know what he should write like, and I said “William Carlos Williams.” He asked me, “Who’s that? Should I know him?” and I said, “Yes, he’s a famous contemporary of yours.” I added, “Go read Paterson.” He read it, and he was inspired!
Turco. Yes, and he sat down and started writing a manuscript titled, And So the Irish Built a Church, all about how, in the 19th century, the Oswego Irish had built a church from scratch.
Turco. He did the same thing Williams did: he used the voices of different people, and he stuck in bits of journals and newspaper articles which he made up, and he even composed a dedicatory hymn that they supposedly used at the church when they put it into service. Every time he brought a segment of that into class — a ten-page segment about every week — the class would go crazy. Each segment was wonderful! So when he got the whole thing finished he said to me, “Now what do I do? I want to publish it, what do I have to do?”
I told him, “Well, you’ve got to start sending it out to publishers.”
He said, “How long will that take?”
I said, “It might take a long time.”
“I don’t have a long time,” he said, “I think I’ll publish it myself.”
So I led him through the process of putting out this book, and after it was printed he began The Mathom Publishing Company…
Foley. Oh, my!
Turco. …in Oswego, and he said, drafting me, “You’re going to be my editor.”
Foley. And he did publish that book?
Turco. Yes, he published And So the Irish first, before he got the idea for the press….
Foley. Did he work in passages from Henry James on St. Patrick’s Cathedral? James was terribly anti-Irish and saw the cathedral as it was being built: he hated it!
Turco. No. This was people poetry, right off the streets of Oswego. And one of the first books he decided to publish from his press was All Around Our Town, a collection of his short stories about Oswego. Later he published another book, That Band from Indiana, about his jazz band, Charlie Davis and His Joy Gang, which I still sell in my on-line bookstore, the Mathom Bookshop in Dresden, Maine — in that way the publishing company never died.
But he also wanted to publish a collection of my poems, which I didn’t think was quite right, since I was editor of the press, and how would that look? So I said, “No, you can’t publish a book by me, but how about by Wesli Court.”
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“Me,” I said. But Wesli had been writing rhymed and metered verse all these years, and that sort of poetry is coming back — this was in the mid-nineteen-seventies.
Foley. Had Wesli been publishing these poems in magazines?
Foley. Did the editors of the magazines know that Wesli Court was you?
Turco. Some did, some didn’t; most didn’t. As a matter of fact, Wesli had been getting more acceptances than I had! That was the first clue I had that formal poetry was coming back during the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties.
Turco. Wesli’s first-written collection was titled Curses and Laments which I had had accepted under my own name by Song Magazine Press, but it wasn’t published until the year after Charlie published a book of Wesli’s titled Courses in Lambents. Curses contained a curse against the president of my college which I had titled, so that she wouldn’t understand it, “Virelai Avortée en Forme de Rondeau Acrostiche,” which means that it was an aborted virelai, a French verse form, that wouldn’t come out as anything but an acrostic rondeau, another French form. It had her name down the left-hand margin, and it also had an anagram on her name, “Ring a virile lady,” made from the letters of her name, “Virginia L. Radley.” It was all about how I was asking her to give me a virile lay.
Foley. [Laughter]. Indeed!
Turco. The refrain was, “Lai, won’t you?” L-a-i, of course.
Foley. Of course!
Turco. And the last line was, “No, you won’t lai.”
Foley. [Aside, to the non-existent director] Has this been taken off the air? [General laughter].
Turco. I wrote Richard Behm, editor of Song Magazine Press, and asked him to change the name of the author of his collection to Wesli Court rather than Lewis Turco, and the reason I titled the book Charlie wanted to publish Courses in Lambents was because, if President Radley heard that I had authored a book titled Curses and Laments I could show her Courses in Lambents, which was innocent of any reference to her. So Wesli had these two books come out almost simultaneously, in 1977 and 1978.
Foley. What about reviewers, though? Were they in on your secret?
Turco. Not as I recall. There were some reviews, not a whole lot of them because they were small presses, and all that. At that time nobody knew who Wesli was, really.
Foley. Do you have a biography of Mr. Court?
Turco. I gave you a copy of my A Sheaf of Leaves: Literary Memoirs, which just came out from Star Cloud Press. It begins with “A Brief Life,” which also contains the story of Wesli Court.
Foley. Indeed, okay. So he has a genuine existence apart from you.
Turco. Until yesterday here at West Chester Poetry Conference when I gave a reading that for the first time acknowledged it was Wesli Court who was reading.
Foley. Why don’t we hear from Wesli Court? Hear one of Wesli Court’s poems?
Turco. All right, and since you’re an Irishman, Jack, I’m going to read you a Wesli Court Irish poem:
Dirty old, dowdy old Mrs. O'Malley
Lives in a shack at the foot of our alley
Whispering into the flue of her stove
Songs for the children unborn of her love.
Mrs. O'Malley, Mrs. O'Malley,
Crooning the ballads she learned in the valley
Where never she lived, which never she saw,
Save with the eyes of her mother-in-law.
"Erin!" she sings, "O Erin so green,
Isle of remembrance that nests in my spleen,
Far has my husband gone, far has he flown,
Back to the Eden that wefts in my bone.
He married me here when we were ah! young,
Crushed in his great arms the air from my lung,
Carried me home here and said to his Mither,
Here is my colleen, I shall wed with no ither.'
"'Mither' me this and 'Mither' me that —
The stories she told, they were rolled through her fat;
She ogled and joggled and sighed fit to tie
And cried, 'O! to see the old sod and to die
Soon, ah! too soon in the green arms of Eire,
The shadows so bright and the valleys so fair.'
"'Come, Mither, come, and back we will go
To that fondest of isles that torments ye so.
And when ye are laid underneath the old sod,
I'll come back again to my wedded of God!'"
Silly old, sallow old Mrs. O'Malley
Waits in the shack at the foot of our alley
Singing of places that she never saw,
Save with the eyes of her mother-in-law.
Foley. Ah! It’s a darlin’ poem, a darlin’ poem! Now, how about Lewis Turco, what does he sound like?
Turco. Oh, Lewis Turco is quite a different act.
Foley. I can well believe that.
Turco. I’ll read you the last poem in The Shifting Web a poem that contains the title of the book, a poem about poetry, which one shouldn’t write, I suppose.
Foley. I don’t see any reason why not, but you actually said to me that Lewis Turco writes experimental poetry whereas Wesli Court writes rhymed and metered verse.
Turco. That’s right. That’s not to say that these aren’t metered, because they’re written mostly in unrhymed syllabics. But I’ve done prose poems and all kinds of other things….
Foley. You would expect somebody who is the author of a book called The Book of Forms to do so.
Turco. That’s probably why. Well, anyway, this is called “Poem,” and it has a line in it that’s the title line for this book, The Shifting Web:
It is time to write a poem.
You have spun out the string of hours --
it winds down the road, across
people's lawns; it tangles itself
in the bushes of the park, catches
in the lower limbs of a horse
chestnut, and there, now, it lifts to
a kite, a blue kite against the gray
sky. You must shinny after
it. When you've caught it, hauled it down
by its rag tail, you see your poem
scrawled on the tissue wrinkling in
your hand. You feel the balsa rib
bow. Windcaught, the kite whispers free, sweeps
across the street, blowing like
the spiders that ride the air as
voyagers: you have read that somewhere;
the kite spins out its line. You can
not now follow. Your hands stop. No
longer do they climb and circle. You
have seen the poem. The day
freezes in its frame. The words squirm
out from beneath your hand. The wind is
solid air, the clouds the color
of waiting. Only the kite moves
above the still neighbors in their rooms,
on their lawns, amid their sounds
turned to rosedust hovering in
a blank white square of world: When that is
done, things will move again. The kite
will be somewhere in the center
of the shifting web it is weaving.
You will follow it, follow
the filament from pause to pause,
poem to poem. It is almost
done. You can feel the wind stirring.
Foley. Wow. That’s gorgeous. You said that it’s syllabic, but it’s very hard to hear syllabics.
Turco. No, you can’t hear syllabic meters.
Foley. But it’s very rhythmical.
Turco. I think that if one is a poet one has to know how to do rhythm.
Foley. But it feels almost more rhythmic than most poems feel to me. I felt at some point that I could figure out exactly what the rhythm was that runs all through it, but I couldn’t.
Turco. No, you can’t.
Foley. But that was interesting. In a way it felt like a regular poem, but on the other hand it didn’t read like a regular poem quite. It’s almost as though it threatened to be a regular poem, but was not. But it didn’t sound like prose. Read us another.
Turco. I’m looking to see if I have something from The Sketches here — yes, I do. I’m going to read you “Lorrie.” Now, this is a poem I read at George Washington University oh, I don’t know how many years ago. Afterwards this young black man came up to me and said, “You’re not supposed to be able to write like that.” The reason I’m reading this is because it’s a prose poem, basically, but it’s got rhythm.
Lorrie looked good — man,
she was a jazz band, straight
as a clarinet, and the tunes she played
with her hip action wowed my crowd.
Lorrie swung like a prime ensemble,
smiled the cool blues as we sipped our
brews in the racetrack dive while the
bass thrummer, a basic type, swiped
at the strings, making us think
of beds and things.
There we were, dancing our eyes
among the beers while Lorrie walked
her pert way among us, mashers all,
and we asked, "What's up tonight,
"I've no time," she smiled, "no time —
I'm a college girl, my major's law.
""By night I slide drinks down
to your hands, and in the daylight
I guard lives at Ryall's beach."
Then, when the jazz bunch quit and
the horn stopped snorting
and the drums bumped the last bum
out the door, we went too, man,
we went too.
Who wants to see Lorrie meet her beau?
Who wants to see his old eyes, older
than she'll ever be, and his dark hands
grab her wrist hard as they leave to park
in the raceway woods?
Foley. Wonderful! Wasn’t it Langston Hughes who said that not everyone can be Dr. Martin Luther King?
Turco. That’s true [laughter].
Foley. It fascinates me that you’re doing both these kinds of identities in your poetry. Do the two of them ever meet? Are there poems in which part of your identity is Wesli Court and part is Lewis Turco?
Turco. I think that you can probably say that; for instance, when I was just out of the Navy — and this was a long time ago — this poem that I just read, “Lorrie,” was an experiment in jazz, and it was written at Yaddo in the summer of 1959. One day I was having lunch in my room with another resident, an artist, with whom I and several others had gone to a bar the evening before, and I was bragging how fast I could write a poem. I told him I could write a good poem in twenty minutes. He didn’t believe it, and I said, “Okay, then, I’ll show you,” and I took a pad of paper and a pencil and said, “Give me a subject.” He said, “How about our waitress, Lorrie, at the bar last night?” And I wrote this poem in under twenty minutes.
I’ve always been interested in everything there is to know about language, about rhythm, about rhyme, even about flat prose — whatever it happens to be.
Foley. Let me ask you a question: One of the things I’ve noticed in talking to people here at West Chester, for instance Dana Gioia, who said he wrote in free verse, he wrote in traditional forms, and he couldn’t understand why a poet wouldn’t take advantage of the entire range of poetry. However, when Dana writes in free verse, everything is pushed over to the left-hand margin, and it’s nothing like “projective verse,” in which he has never written. And as far as I can tell, none of the New Formalist poets that I’ve talked to have ever written in that mode, either.
Turco. I’m not a New Formalist.
Foley. I know, but you are a formalist to a degree.
Turco. I’ve always been a formalist….
Foley. Have you ever written in projective verse?
Turco. I have read the essay and tried to understand it, and I don’t.
Foley. No, no, I don’t mean the essay, what I mean is this: You’ll have one block of type, and let’s say it’s an inch from the left-hand margin, then you’ll have another block of type 2.5 inches from the margin, then maybe a third block of type, and these are each individual themes in the poem, and when these themes return they take those same places on the page.
Turco. I have done things like that.
Foley. You’re the exception, then.
Turco. I’m not a New Formalist., but I’m a formalist. The reason I’m at West Chester is because I wrote The Book of Forms, and probably every single person here at this conference has used it, and that’s why there’s a New Formalist movement. The first edition came out in 1968 which was the height of non-formalism, anti-formalism, or whatever you want to call it.
Foley. I know. One of the things about that book, though, is that in it you don’t really talk about the history of the forms.
Turco. No, I don’t.
Foley. The triolet, for example, is a French form used usually for light verse, but in Dana Gioia’s “Country Wife,” the triolet carries a very heavy subject matter. The speaker of that poem is tending towards suicide. Gioia’s deeply serious content plays against the feeling the form invokes.
Turco. What you’re talking about is what I call “the burden of tradition” that lies upon certain forms. Every once in a while someone, often one of the Beats, declares that traditional forms are dead, okay? Well, a form can’t be dead because all it is is an abstract pattern. What they mean is that there’s such a burden of traditional usage that lies upon a particular form that they can’t see beyond it and write something that is completely different. Let me read you a triolet I wrote. This is in The Book of Forms. If you can’t get out from under the burden of garden-club verse that this form is usually used for you’ll never write something like this, which is from a series called Bordello.
Foley. Once again we’ve been taken off the air. [Laughter.]
Turco. My first job teaching was at Fenn College, now Cleveland State University, and I had to teach all these socially-conscious 19th-century novels about “fallen women,” and it quite annoyed me, so I decided to write about all these “fallen men” who used these fallen women, and they do so for different reasons. All the poems are in very strict forms, but they don’t sound like it. This is
I take my women any way they come —
I'm Jasper Olson, brother. Hard and fast
I play this game. Though some folks think I'm dumb,
I take my women any way they come,
and come they do. There's no time to be numb
in this life — grab it now and ram the past.
I take my women any way they come.
I'm Jasper Olson, brother, hard and fast.
Foley. Actually, he’s not Jasper Olson he’s Lewis Turco or, occasionally, Wesli Court.
Turco That was Wesli Court. [Laughter.] Last week, up in New Hampshire, I did a workshop on dialogue, and I asked the people who were there, how many of them had managed to read all of Ulysses by James Joyce. About a dozen people were present. Two said they had, and everyone else said that they couldn’t finish it. I’m one of those who couldn’t finish it, but I had a reason for not finishing. I read it up to the point where this quote appears in the text: "She heard old Royce sing in the pantomime of Turko the terrible and laughed with others when he sang:
I am the boy
That can enjoy
THE LAMENT OF TURKO THE TERRIBLE
Some folk call me Turko,
Turko the terrible Turk.
James Joyce wrote about me
Through some fantastic quirk —
For he could not know of me,
Since I had not been born.
Still, he'd the sense to counsel
The ages and to warn
That I'd appear
To strain your ear
I am the boy
That can enjoy
I have been pantomiming
Now over forty years,
Scribbling and inditing
So much you'd think the tears
Of editors and readers
Would swamp the Muses' boat.
But no, not even Turko
Can sink it — it will float
Down Moby's road
Despite my load
I am the boy
That can enjoy
What's fine about my singing
Is not my crackling voice,
But that, though I go inkling,
The world still has its choice,
Like Royce, to miss or laugh at
The witless fogs I pen.
The stars, they go on spinning;
The Earth now and again
Churns as I sing,
And fall and spring
At things as they may be.
I am the boy
That can enjoy
Foley. We’re going to have Lewis Turco read some more of his poems, but first there’s a question that springs to my mind as I’ve been listening to him: he was a formalist before the New Formalists formulated themselves — he wasn’t one of the old formalists, but he was formalist. He wrote in forms, and he wrote The Book of Forms, which he points out is one of the books that allows the New Formalists to be formalists at all because it’s a place where they can look and find out what the forms are. What is your opinion as an outsider, because you’re not a New Formalist, of the New Formalism?
Turco. I can’t tell you how delighted I am that there’s finally an audience in the United States, after the Beat revolution of the ‘fifties and the ‘sixties, for rhymed, metered poetry. Not that that’s the only kind of poetry that people have to write, it’s just that formal poetry was outlawed for about thirty years, and, you know, that’s a political stance. Why outlaw anything? I write prose poems — I wrote a whole book of prose poems titled The Inhabitant. I write in William Carlos Williams’ style — I wrote a whole book of poems like that, called American Still Lifes. You know, I don’t sit around saying things like, “You can’t write this way,” or “You can’t write that way.” You can write any way you want to write. I have only one criterion: You’ve got to do it well. And if you don’t do it well — and, by the way, I don’t think Walt Whitman did it well — it isn’t worth writing.
Foley. I’d argue with you about Walt Whitman. I think Whitman’s poetry reads aloud extraordinarily well, but you didn’t quite answer my question. I understand that you’re really quite happy about the number of people writing formally now, but what I was asking you is not that there is an audience for that kind of writing, but what do you think of New Formalism as a movement and of the poets who are writing in it?
Turco. Well, you’ve mentioned Dana Gioia, who I think is a wonderful writer, and he’s one of the New Formalists. And I have been friends with R. S. “Sam” Gwynn since 1968 — I was his critic at Bread Loaf that summer. I’ve kept in touch with him all these years, and he’s turned into the world’s — and I mean the world’s — greatest humorous poet. And last night here at West Chester I went to a reading of young faculty where I heard a poem by David Yezzi, whom I’d never heard before, who wrote a poem, “Woman Holding a Fox,” about an old woman who was attacked by a fox that just blew me out of my seat. There are some really fine young people writing poems in rhymes, meters, and stanzas again, and I think that’s just wonderful.