Alex Lemon is the author of many books of poetry, including his most recent collection Fancy Beasts, which you can read on Figment. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Best American Poetry 2008, AGNI, BOMB, Gulf Coast, jubilat, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Open City, Pleiades and Tin House, among others.
Read on as we hear from Alex about his process, Fancy Beasts, and squirrel haiku…
Did you always like poetry? Even as a kid?
I don’t think I knew what poetry was as a child—but I loved language. I was so into words, the way they roll off the tongue, how they mix together in a sentence. As a kid I read a lot—all kinds of books, dictionaries, even some Whitman and Dickinson—I also listened to a lot of music. I didn’t start consciously “liking” poetry until college.
What’s the worst metaphor you’ve ever tried to put into a poem?
Loving you was shaving a bear.
What’s your writing process like?
It depends on the time of year. During the school year, most of my time is spent preparing, grading, teaching, etc. (I teach at TCU—Go Frogs!) During this time I don’t spend a lot of time generating new writing—all of my obligations make it impossible. But I still take notes on the books I read, write reviews, and on long weekends I might revise some. I like to work late late late at night, or early in the morning.
During the summer, or on other long vacations, my wife (she is an academic writer) and I rotate “work” days—so, she might work Monday and then I’ll get Tuesday, etc. etc. On Tuesday, I’ll get up—hang out with my boy (roll around, go for a walk, chew on something) for a bit—and around 8 I’ll start “working.” For me, work can be reading or writing—it can be staring out the window and thinking. I’ll take a couple of breaks and read/writer until around four. If I’m really in a groove I might go back to what I’m working on late that night after my wife and the baby have gone to bed. Sometimes I listen to music (not when I’m revising)—right now, I’m listening to a mix-tape called Ghostfunk that I got on the Internet. If I’m having a terrible time writing—I might spend the day looking at art books, or I’ll listen to a music, trying to really focus on all of the sounds.
Your poetry has a kind of wildness to it that’s only partially contained. Can you speak to that?
I’m drawn to that wildness, that feeling-alive-feeling of language, or even the world around us. Those are things that I pay attention to. But it’s always a struggle to keep a successful balance—to control the crazed vibrations of language or life with a rigorous attention to a controlled poetics. When it happens, this balance comes through revision. When I’m first writing, I’m typing or scribbling with no inhibition, no internal censor. In a song, Brother Ali says “Whatever comes up comes out.” That’s how I feel about this first stage of writing. I just go go go go go. I’ll take a break from the poem—go back to it on another day—and then I’ll really focus on the poetic sensibility of the piece. For me, revision is a more surgical, precise mode of thinking, where I think about all I’ve tried to learn about poetry. I guess it’s also similar to surgery in the fact that revision can be messy. Poems lose legs. They get half of them taken out. Sometimes they don’t make it. But even that can be beautiful; I find the act of writing much more enjoyable than the Ala-Kazam! of finishing a poem.
Why do you think we read poetry? What can poetry do that prose can’t?
Poetry reaches into the purest parts of us—parts we don’t often get to use in today’s work—and allows us to converse, to feel, to live more fully. Poetry has a power and density that prose doesn’t. It is the difference between walking to the store (prose) and shooting yourself from a cannon that’s pointed in the general direction of the store.
Please write a haiku about squirrels (to fit your book cover).
Squirrels break dancing
Seeds, light-flickers, upon them
Do you feel you MUST write? Or do you push yourself to do it?
I have to write—I really do. If I haven’t written for a bit, I feel restless, I can’t sleep, I feel sick, upset, or just off. Not that the writing has to be good or sustained—I just think that creating something, actively using my intellect and imagination satisfies something like nothing else can. Creating fills me with the most glorious dopamines and endorphins (at least that’s how I feel).
Can you speak about the title “Fancy Beasts”? Why did you pick it?
I was living in California, and was really bummed out. I was disappointed in how little compassion the world around me had. I was incredibly sad, felt let down, because my health was failing again (I had brain surgery when I was a young man). Fancy Beasts seemed perfect—we, as humans, often think of ourselves as better than other animals, etc. etc. but really, at a very base level, we’re just beasts (maybe some of the cruelest) that have learned to wear bowties and lipstick. Deep inside us all we want is for our wounds to be licked and to do go the bathroom outside.