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A Conversation with
Leslie Monsour  
 

     


by Alex Pepple

 

     

        

 

                        

        

             

   

     

 

 


 

  

 

 

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Leslie: Why do I choose to write in forms? Because I can no longer do it any other way. In 1987 I had the good fortune to take two classes at UCLA Extension with Timothy Steele. One of his classes was called "Writing in Meter," the other was "Writing the Short Poem." For the latter, we used The Oxford Book of Short Poems, which to this day remains my favorite anthology of verse. It begins with anonymous poems of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and ends with poets like Wilbur, Hecht and Heaney, who are still writing today. The poems are thirteen lines or under, so as not to include sonnets, or the collection would have had to go into several volumes. Instead, it contains under 300 pages of poetry. It's a wonderful, handy book. When I took Tim's classes I already thought I was a pretty good poet. I felt I'd made progress with vivid, original thought and imagery, and compressed, refined language. I'd been published in the local journals, and given some fairly successful readings, but I felt my poems lacked the discipline and polish of the art, and I wanted to see what I could do about it. I have a degree in English Literature, and I was familiar with scansion and meter, but I didn't see how these applied to contemporary poetry until Tim Steele showed us all the variations and substitutions that go into metrical construction, and the beautiful regularities and rhythms of the English language. Up-to-date American English is every bit as suited for iambic pentameter as its Elizabethan ancestor. Once I began to apply meter to my lines, I was hooked forever. Writing in meter helps the clarity of my expression. I know of poets who say they really don't care if their poems are understood or not, as if clarity of meaning were some kind of weakness or flaw. I think there's a certain arrogance about this sort of attitude. Why leave the reader in a haze with nothing to stand on? This doesn't mean you always have to be concrete. I think you can be abstract and still be involved and concerned with a solid communication of the ideas in your poem. A poet I know once made a disparaging remark about a very popular and successful contemporary poet (who writes only in free verse ó in fact, he makes fun of formalists ó but I enjoy his poems because they're honest, intelligible, and funny). The remark was, "His poems never send me running to the dictionary." Well...I agree that it's good to have our knowledge of vocabulary advanced by reading poetry, but first and foremost, I believe a poem should make sense in everyday language. Robert Frost said, "I prefer to be understood." That's how I feel. I often read free verse poems that move me very deeply. But I can't write that way anymore. When I shuffle the deck, I like the way it feels to settle the cards into place, tapping the edges until they line up smoothly. How else can you deal them round the table? I suppose, you can deal from a disheveled deck if you want to, some do, and still deal some mighty fine hands. I prefer to do it from a flush deck. It's easier.

Alex: Speaking of LA, the "Poets Anonymous" group launched and are sustaining a billboard campaign to bring poetry to the masses. Given the scope of the campaign and how much a billboard ad costs, the amount spent for this promotion easily runs into six figures. Is this a useful exercise that will heighten awareness of poetry among the public, or is this money better spent directly on the poets themselves, for instance, through workshops, grants, awards?

Leslie: The "Poets Anonymous" billboards: I've only seen one of those billboards. It has a quote from a Bukowski poem, which says something about how those who never go mad don't live fulfilling lives. It's a brief quote, and I don't know how anyone would recognize it as poetry...except that Bukowski is very popular and influential with LA poets. But the general public wouldn't know it was poetry, so I don't think it heightens their awareness or enjoyment of poetry in any way. I don't consider it a waste of money just because it doesn't serve poetry well.  A billboard with any kind of non-commercial message is welcome, as far as I'm concerned, as long as it stimulates the mind in a healthy, honest manner. Apparently, there aren't very many of these "poetry" billboards. I drive all over the city, and Bukowski's is the only one I've seen. How could the money be better spent for the cause of poetry? Take down the billboards so we can see more trees...or use the money to supply every student in every school with The Oxford Book of Short Poems. I don't think we need any more workshops. There are plenty of those. What we need are more sound educational backgrounds in poetry.

Alex: Even among formalists, we find different voices not only as a result of the preferred types ó or lack thereof ó of variations to meter and rhyme schemes, but also from their predominant subject, and the style. In other words, we have the confessional versus the selfless; nature themes to women issues to politics; variations from narrative to lyrical styles.Ö From what Iíve read of your work so far, Iíve speculated that your topic of choice is nature and the interaction between the sexes. How far off am I? What issues are important to you and how are these reflected in your poetry?

Leslie: "Nature and the interaction between the sexes" are very important topics to me, so I don't think you're off at all on that. Some of Robert Frost's themes are very important to me; the penetration of spirit into matter, for one. In my poem, "Desert Prayer," this is represented as "sky's collaboration with the land." My poem about the "Burrowing Bees" has a bit of this, too...I talk about the bees inhabiting air and earth with equal ease; they toil above the earth, and leave the seed of their race within it. Very few of my poems fail to include some kind of animal...wild animals in particular. By the way, I consider insects wild animals. A surprise encounter with a wild animal, even a moth, is such an awakening experience for me, I feel, more than ever, alive in the moment when it happens. It sparks a desire to understand my presence here, and my oneness with everything, or, as Nabokov puts it, "to try to express one's position in the universe"...through the discovering process of a poem. Frost says a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. I like to think that's what I strive for. I hope I sometimes succeed. For the chapbook Robert Barth published in 1998, I chose the title, "Earth's Beauty, Desire, & Loss," which are the three great subjects of poetry. I read an interview once, a long, long time ago, and I think it may have been Alicia Ostriker who said this; I never forgot it. I also believe in exploring and understanding the possibilities of all kinds of love and loving experiences. Frost, whom I keep going back to, said ( in his poem, "Birches") "Earth's the right place for love:/ I don't know where it's likely to go better." So let's see how much we can find out about love while we're here.

Alex: There are different degrees of formalists. There are those who write exclusively in form, those who adhere to a strict meter and rhyme, those who don't mind loose meter and rhyme, those who from time to time dabble into free verse.... Though youíre exclusively a formalist, are you sometime tempted to lose form with a little free verse?

 

 

        

 
 
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Leslie Monsour's start page

 

An Interview with Timothy Steele by Kevin Durkin

 

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