A Student Interview by Peter Bernhardt
If you're in the market for a poet laureate, the closest (and most interesting) thing Oswego College has to offer is Lewis Turco. Professor T. can usually be found in room 14 Sheldon Hall. The office is full of shelves crammed with antique and modern books, comfortable furniture, crass curios, and the unsinkable Mr. Turco. Author of several poetry collections and the much discussed Book of Forms, Mr. Turco provided me with a stimulating hour on the written arts. That hour is recorded below, as edited from the interview which appeared in Oswego's student newspaper The Oswegonian on Thursday, November 16, 1972.
Bernhardt. How long have you been teaching at Oswego?
Turco. That depends on how you calculate it. This is my eighth year as a faculty member, but in 1968 and 1969 I was visiting professor at the State University College at Potsdam, New York, so I've taught here on campus for seven years.
Bernhardt. Where did you teach before this?
Turco. Immediately before this I taught at Hillsdale College in southern Michigan. Before that I taught at Cleveland State University — then known as Fenn College — for four years, from 1960 to 1964. Three of those years I directed the Cleveland Poetry Center at the school. In the spring of 1959 I taught one semester as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Connecticut before I went to the University of Iowa to study in the Writers' Workshop there.
Bernhardt. As a poet, how have you been inspired by Oswego?
Turco. I guess I'd have to answer that by saying I don't believe in "inspiration."
Bernhardt. Not at all?
Turco. No. My definition of "inspiration" would be "nervous excitement." On occasion Oswego has inspired nervous excitement but not very often. I might say that not many places do inspire nervous excitement in me, or anybody else, I guess.
Bernhardt. How about people? Have there been any poets in the past that actually got you to start writing?
Turco. I think you've asked two questions. People interest me very much, and many people are the subjects of my poems. Here's one about a person I never met who was involved in an incident that took place here in Oswego. it's a prose poem from The Inhabitant, :
It was a quiet June evening; therefore, the noise of the collison reached across the green yards and caught the Inhabitant listening to the tickings a porch makes.
It was this evening, and he was filing cards in a mailing list; he could not sleep -- it was yesterday, and the names on their white rectangles sifted through his fingers.
He ran, and the neighbors ran, collecting at the corner; therefore, six-score eyes peered into the road at the spectacle.
Before the sound there had been another sound. A siren, on this street of sirens, coming close, wiring the afternoon -- stitching it with steel to the approaching darkness.
In the road -- the automobile, the woman fainting at the wheel, the left fender smashed. The windshield of the car cast a spiderweb against the sun.
An ambulance, spun into the curb opposite, nosed against the grass as though it were a steel beast grazing; therefore, the doors at its rear gaped open before the crowd who could see the dying man:
Like cardboard, he lay on the floor where he had fallen. His stiff frame littered the collision.
The attendants wrestled with time; therefore, his bones gave to their ministrations, swelling the shrunken flesh, lying at last upon the stretcher in the center of the street.
It was a dead man, the hair grown long upon his parchment scalp. Or perhaps it was a woman, barely breathing, her accident compounded, her body diminished by a thousand thousand accidents of moment.
They stared at the creature; a child cried, "See his bones!" Therefore its mother said, "Hush," and the spectators listened to each other babbling, but heard nothing more than their silent periphrasis.
They helped the first woman, weeping, from her car. She had been forgotten, but now she walked with help toward the hospital nearby, past the prime cause who never had awakened, who never knew he or she had been thrown down, who lay like a sack of winter in the center of a summer street.
The body must be moved; therefore, a passing mail truck stopped, came backing down the street; its grate gaped open to receive the late delivery.
Now it is gone; the neighbors stand and talk, their voices sharp with fright, but tongues blunted with relief. The Inhabitant speaks with Mr. Smith until, at last, the failing light disperses the folk as though by accident, diminishes their number interminably.
Some of the crowd will dream; therefore, the Inhabitant shall stay awake upon the porch to work by lamplight upon his cards -- ordering his neighbors' names, memorizing the streets of towns, listening to June bloom again and to a cat greeting another dawn.
Bernhardt Perhaps that's not an inspired poem, but it certainly gives you a feeling about Oswego!
Turco. As for poets starting me writing — no. I began writing as a child. The first poem I can remember I wrote in the fifth or sixth grade, but I didn't read poetry. I read books, largely fiction — Twain, science fiction, ghost stories. I grew up, like most red-blooded American males, conditioned to hate poetry. In junior high school I wrote stories all the time, most of them the kinds I had been reading.
Bernhardt How about 1ater on?
Turco. Yes, I've often been "turned on" by other writers. For instance, my book Pocoangelini: A Fantography & Other Poems, which came out last year , was "inspired," to use that word again, by W. D. Snodgrass' translation of Christian Morgenstern's Gallow's Songs, which was the adventures of a strange, half-human being named Pomstrom. When I read them I realized that I had occasionally in the past written a poem or two about a similar creature. I got those out, arranged them in a sequence, and started writing gap-fillers and extenders. That series became the title series of my book, which contains two other series as well, "Bordello," and a revised edition of my 1962 chapbook, The Sketches.
Bernhardt. May I hear one of them?
Turco, Here's the first poem after the "Prologue," just after Poco's rather strange birth:
astride a seahorse singing.
The moon rode a wave beside him.
"Moon" he sang "O moon O moon O,
I am Pocoangelini."
Upon a wave beside him
rode the moon. Tangled in weed
it sang, "Pocoangelini,
Poco Poco Angelini
I am a white dove of the night."
and the moon sang. The seahorse
bridled each wave, and the sea shied.
"O Moon O Poco Moon" they sang,
"Angelini, dove of the night."
Bernhardt. Stranger and stranger. Do you write to teach, or teach to write? I know that many teachers on this campus, in various departments, have a publishing quota.
Turco. A publishing quota for me is irrelevant. I've been publishing in the literary quarterlies since 1953 when I was nineteen years old and a yeoman in the Navy. I would be publishing anyway. It would make no difference to me at all if there were a publish-or-perish situation; I would be doing exactly as I am doing now.
With regard to publishing and to writing — one has to eat. I suppose it's fairly obvious that teaching English is related to writing poetry, and nobody is going to make a living strictly from the latter. I believe the last person to make a living strictly from poetry was Ogden Nash. Many poets in the United States, as well as other kinds of writers, make their livings by teaching. The kinds of books they'll publish, except possibly for textbooks, generally don't make any money. Of all the professions, that of the writer is the very lowest paid, I've read recently that the average professional writer in America can expect to make only $3000 per year,
I might say that I am as interested in teaching writing as in writing, I think. That's a hard thing to say, a hard thing maybe even to believe, but I have always been interested in getting my students to write as well as it's possible for them to write. I don't know whether that has anything to do with the fact that my father was a minister and I have a missionary element in my makeup, but if I weren't teaching I'd probably be bored to tears. Teaching is not a boring occupation.
Bernhardt. I checked the index over in Penfield, and the library now has six of your books. Two more are on order. Would you consider yourself a prolific writer, at least as far as poetry goes?
Turco. By my own standards I find that I'm not busy writing very often. I suppose that may be hard for people to believe because everyone considers me prolific; I've been accused, for instance, of publishing too much. But since that's what I do, therefore, I do it.
Bernhardt. Do you see yourself, compared with others, as a steady writer or a sporadic one?
Turco. Well, I write sporadically, but the overall effect is steady, for I always have something newly in print. I'll go on a writing jag — there are a lot of writers who do this. I'll start a project, and I won't be able to stop writing until I've finished it. One would have to say, I suppose, that that sort of writer is compulsive. I write very fast when I'm working on something; therefore, I usually finish it within, let's say, if it's a large project, three months. If it's a shorter project, I'11 be done within a couple of weeks, perhaps not even that long. Single items, such as a poem, story, or article, will take me only a day or two at most.
Bernhardt. What are the goals of your writing arts classes? Do you set objectives for the people in your classes?
Turco. In the poetry workshop the student may do pretty much what he or she wants to do. The idea behind that course is to take student work and judge it in terms of its own premises. I don't give many specific assignments. The class looks at each poem, decides what it was the poet intended to do — and we have the writer there to ask him or her what was intended — then we judge it in terms of its success with us as readers. Describing the course that way makes it sound easy, perhaps, but the criticism that comes out of the class is rigorous as a rule, and everyone has had the prerequisite basic course, The Nature of Poetry, which is very technical. The goal of the workshop is to help each member to develop in his or her own way as much as possible during the course of the semester. Many people come into the class not really knowing what it is they are trying to do. By the end of the semester I hope they will have consciously understood something of what they are attempting and learned ways that will help them succeed.
Bernhardt. Is there always enough student work to discuss every week?
Turco. Now that the writing arts program here is large, with a staff of seven members, and with twenty-three courses in writing being offered, there is always enough — most often, too much. But in the early days when there were sometimes only three or four students in a class, I would have to turn the classroom into a writing studio and the students would write with me looking over their shoulders, as art students do in a painting studio. I remember one class when no one brought in anything. I took them to another room of the old Penfield Library building, where the class was being held, to look at a print show. Each student picked out a print, studied it, then we went back into the classroom and everyone wrote a poem about his print. I did the same, and we compared work. That was a very interesting session.
Bernhardt Did you write a poem for that class too?
Turco. Yes. It's called
The bed frames them. Their eyes
tell little of the story. Some old passion
has been eroded. Rivulets of time have
eaten their cheeks until their faces
lie flat against linen
landscapes -- or against each other in a dark
room, on a night empty even of owlcries.
Their flesh is a sophistry of shadow:
nothing is hidden. They
must therefore film their eyes in order not to
notice there is nothing there to see. They sang
songs once, to each other, in moon light.
Now, not even night hawks
call out to the lovers in their still stead. Not
even sleep lifts the veils from their sight, returns
each other's image for an hour's dream.
And if the world wheel, what then?
The grim creature of the mind stunned
by the spaces of stars hung silently
among the dumb regions where death dwells
in an old house, watching from twin windows,
snuttering among pebbles
like a hag made of pimples and
sacks. She will stow her hours in odd chinks,
fondle each old thing on her ticking
as night whines beneath the bed and her roof
trembles with light. Then, at last,
when least she needs his flesh -- when least
they know each other in their age, the stars
will smash their windows, their roof vanish,
and the world come burning while they make love.
That, [from The Weed Garden, 1973], is of course much rewritten and expanded over what I wrote in the class.
Bernhardt. Have you read that poem during one of your readings here on campus?
Turco. I'm sure I must have.
Bernhardt Last year you and one of your students, P. J. O'Brien, gave a reading of nothing but bad poems, mostly by nineteenth century authors. What brought that on?
Turco. I don't know what brought it on. I've very often read bad poetry to my classes. It's a good thing to read, for instance, to an introduction to poetry class because many students feel they don't know what a bad poem is. Or a good poem, for that matter. How do you tell? Well, if you read a really bad poem, an obviously bad poem, that gives the students a water mark or, I should say, a low water mark, They can then judge other poems according to how much higher they rise above the low water mark.
With regard to creative writing classes, I find that young people despair that they're ever going to turn into competent writers. If I read them a bad poem I can say, "Look, you're already better than this.
Bernhardt. What advice would you give a budding poet?
Turco. Cut the psychic umbilical cord between you and your poem. A poem is not a baby; a poem is a work of art. Try to see it as objectively as possible, the more objectively the better. Then you can see how to write, and you will develop faster. Unfortunately, of all the genres, poetry is least obviously prone to objective approaches.
Most young people perceive poetry as radically subjective, therefore they believe that whatever they write is poetry, as long as they write it sincerely. If you are a short story writer there are built-in characteristics of the genre that must be considered: how to develop character, how to develop plot, who shall narrate the story. These things are obvious, objectively perceived elements of the short story. None of that is a necessary part of poetry — the poet can do anything he or she wants, the only requirement being that it be done superbly. As a result, most young poets start by writing what I really think are diary entries rather than poems, messages to oneself.
But poetry is communication no less than the other literary arts, at least so far as I am concerned, and in order to communicate one has to take into consideration the fact that people will read the poem. If you keep them out of your poem you're never going to have an audience. But if you can figure out ways to get them into the poem — and that means considering objectively how to do so — then perhaps you will begin to develop into a poet. Nothing is likely to happen until one has developed a self-critical faculty.
Bernhardt. How do you answer people when you are asked where ideas come from?
Turco. You get your ideas wherever you get them. I have no idea where my next idea might come from, if I ever have another one. That's another thing you don't know — when is it all over? I don't worry about that too much, however, because under normal circumstances I think it's all over when you decide it's over.
An idea can happen any time, anywhere. A poem may begin with a single word — for instance, I heard a word on television this morning. I was watching the weather forecast and the forecaster said, "When will the snow do what it's supposed to do?" But instead of "snow do" I heard "snow-dew." That word fascinates me. I may make something of that. I don't know where the idea is going to lead yet, but perhaps eventually something will click, will put that one word into some kind of context for me, and I'll be able to write a poem.
On another occasion I'd been collecting such words and making a list of them, hoping I'd eventually find a place to use them, but I never did. It was a short list — "twilleter" is a neologism, meaning a kind of insect, from Alistair Reed's Ounce, Dice, Trice; "common goatsucker' is another name for the nighthawk, which is one of my favorite words, but I tend to overuse it; "clum," which I ran across in the Oxford English Dictionary, is an ancient synonym for silence.
Finally I got tired of waiting for "inspiration' to strike, and I decided to write a poem and use all of the words, just to get rid of them. So I did, and as I was typing up the final draft, I meant to write the word "slicing," but it accidentally came out "sliving." I looked at that and thught it was more descriptive than the word I'd intended, so I decided to keep it. Years later I ran across the verb "to slive" in a book of archaic words; it meant, "to do anything furtively or slyly to sneak, to skulk" [from Lost Beauties of the English Language by Charles MacKay, 1874]. It turned out to be another ancient word and not a coining after all! And this is the poem [from The Weed Garden:
Time buzzes in the ear. Somewhere
nearby, beyond my peripheral
vision, an insect throbs its heartsong
to the couch. A twilleter fuzzes
against a burning lamp. Outdoors,
a common goatsucker strings twelve
yellow streetlamps on its bill. Between
its hoarse shrieks, the town sky drops pieces
of clum among my snoring neighbors.
If I close my eyes, a crack along
the wall comes sliving my lids to
split the mind's dry sight. Look inward: a
plaster skull sifts dust down upon old
webs that hang, buzzing, as darkness moves
ruthlessly to feast on something
small and hollow with blind, jeweled eyes.
So ideas come from everywhere; I guess all one need do is be receptive, keep one's ears open for sounds and one's eyes open for images. A poet, above all other writers, is interested in language. That's his material, You keep your ears open for language and your mind open to impressions.
Bernhardt. Do you consider writing an art or a craft?
Turco. Both. Without the craft there can be no art. That's true of everything. A person who wants to be a carpenter had better know how to build a house. A person who wants to be a poet had better know how to write a poem.