interviews index
 

 

    
[page 3]
   

   
 

A Conversation with
Leslie Monsour  
 

     


by Alex Pepple

 

     

        

 

                        

        

             

   

     

 

 


 

  

 

 

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Leslie: I've talked about why I'm exclusively a formalist. I'm going to go back to Frost again, who said "I'd as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down." Frost was always quick to add that he truly meant, "I'd as soon write...", that he was speaking strictly for himself and not directing what other poets ought to do. He thought poets should write the way they want to write...as long as they've mastered the tools of their trade. I believe the same thing. I've often said, it's possible to play tennis with the net down...anyone can do it; but I don't think anyone should try it who hasn't learned to play with a net. Some poets might say, "Poetry isn't tennis." I'd ask them, "What is it, then?" It's as much tennis as anything else.

Alex: What are your views about metrical poetry? Should it strive for consistent meter and rhyme? When do you take liberties and how much of that is too much? Is there room for experimentation? Do you experiment? Does accentual-alliterative formal poetry as opposed to the metrical fit within your views of formalism?

Leslie: How strict am I? I'm pretty strict with my own work. I want to be exact, and I want to know exactly what I'm doing. If someone points out an inconsistency I wasn't aware of, I'll work on it. If it's an inconsistency I made on purpose, I will defend it. But, once again, I don't dictate how poets ought to write, if they know how to use their tools. Most poets who are called "formalists" are pretty loose with their meters, I think. Brad Leithauser is known as a formalist, and he has said that precise, consistent meter is "quaint." So he varies his beats with a lot of inconsistencies. But he knows what he's doing. And I think he writes some terrific poems. Mary Jo Salter, who happens to be Leithauser's wife, is the same way. Some poets, like Dana Gioia, move successfully between formal verse and free verse. To me that's difficult. I'm a singer, and I know how hard it is for a soprano voice to lend itself to both jazz and classical songs. You have to choose one or the other. I gravitate towards conscientious formalism. Timothy Steele adheres very strictly to meter, and his poems are anything but "quaint"; they're exquisite, thrilling, and inspiring. Dick Davis is another poet who writes breathtaking lines of impeccable meter. Richard Wilbur, of course, is the ideal poet. The "name game" is really tricky. You always leave someone out you didn't mean to, and make others gasp at the ones you've included. 

I experiment with forms, but not with meter. I think there is an infinite number of combinations of rhyme schemes and stanza configurations to explore and devise. The poem I have in last July's issue of Poetry is a form I invented, although I believe it invented itself. It seems related to the villanelle...it has a common rhyme throughout, and its tercets lead to a final quatrain. I haven't named it yet, but I've had offers from various corporations, so I'm torn between the Coca-Cola Rima and the Disney McVillanelle. (Poets may have to resort to this sort of thing more and more as the NEA slowly disappears).

Alex: Yes, some six months ago you had your first time in Poetry with "Nimis Compos Mentis" — a delightful and quite playful verse. You were also the featured poet at their website — for poets, I suppose all of this would be the equivalent of playing at Carnegie Hall. I’ll ask you the (silly) question of how did that feel? How long or often did you try before that?

Leslie: I've submitted work to Poetry about five or six times over the past ten years. Early last year, when Joseph Parisi wrote me a very nice letter, complimenting my poems, and accepting two of them, I was thrilled. It does seem like a breakthrough. Also, you're paid two dollars a line! And you give up your rights in blissful surrender. Being selected as a "featured poet" was a very delicious icing on the cake. This kind of validation is very important for any artist, I think. Everyone wants their work shared and appreciated at the highest possible level.

Alex: How satisfied are you with your publishing experience, especially as it relates to formal poetry?

Leslie: I'm very grateful to editors who have taken an active interest in formal verse. Annie Finch edited an anthology for Story Line Press in 1994, entitled  A Formal Feeling Comes, Poems in Forms by Contemporary Women. At first I was ambivalent about it. I was happy to be included in a collection of formal verse, but I wished it wasn't restricted to women. After I saw the book, and realized what excellent company I was in, it never mattered to me again that they were all women. The book has been phenomenally successful. It's in its third or fourth printing, I believe. A few really terrific journals of formal verse have been successful, too, and I'm happy and grateful to have my work included in them: Bill and Mona Baer's The Formalist, Gerry Cambridge's The Dark Horse (which is distributed in both the U.K. and the U.S.), and The Edge City Review, which is published in Virginia, along with the longest-running journal of formal verse, The Lyric. I'm grateful to editors who haven't been prejudiced against formal verse. Joseph Parisi is certainly one of them, especially of late. And Mike Hammer of The Plum Review has been very gracious, too. I feel most indebted to Robert Barth and Michael Peich, who have published my two chapbooks. The Barth chapbook, which came about through a connection with Tim Steele, really gave me some favorable attention. And Mike Peich's work at The Aralia Press is so breathtakingly skillful and beautiful, any poet is extremely fortunate to have an Aralia book; also, Mike Peich is a great deal of fun to work with. Dana Gioia, who admired my Robert Barth book, saw to it that Aralia printed my poems, so I owe him a lot to him, too. The Aralia Press is at West Chester University, in Pennsylvania, which, each June, hosts the poetry conference, Exploring Form and Narrative. I don't know a way to have a full-length book published, except by winning a competition, and competitions aren't usually judged by editors or publishers, but by poets. You rarely get to have your manuscript judged by a formalist, and most mainstream poet/judges are pretty much in favor of ignoring and discounting metrical verse. So I'm still trying to get my 63-page manuscript published. Its title is, The Suddenness of the Past.

Alex: What has been your experience with online publishing? How much of it have you done before Able Muse?

Leslie: Except for having my work presented on Poetry's Website and the on-line publication of the LA Weekly article last September, in which my work was featured, I have no experience with on-line publication. I think Able Muse is an exciting new exploration of a fascinating medium. By the way, who owns the rights?

Alex: Rights information is provided in the About pages. The short answer is the author: Able Muse acquires first-time electronic publication rights. Rights return to the author after publication. We also reserve the right to republish it in a future multimedia electronic and/or print anthology.

Poetry has never been more popular than today — slams, Internet, writing programs and workshops. What is your assessment of the state of contemporary poetry? How do you see the literary web a) advancing the public awareness for poetry, b) improving or diluting the overall quality of poetry?

Leslie: More does not mean better. I don't think "slams" increase the public's awareness of poetry in a positive way. The Internet is not improving the quality of poetry; it merely increases exposure to bad poetry. Sure, include mine if you like...it's all terribly subjective. But I worry about literature in all of this. And language. Spelling, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, sense. Punctuation!!! Workshops, for the most part, perpetuate ignorance. (Here comes the hate mail).

Alex: Who would do such a thing? But if you must, make sure it scans, OK? Some have opined that poetry has moved toward balkanization into schools – the language poets, the neo formalists, the imagists, the beat poets... In your opinion, is this a divisive thing or do we all share a meeting ground? Should you care as a formalist?

 

 

        

 
 
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Leslie Monsour's start page

 

An Interview with Timothy Steele by Kevin Durkin

 

Kevin Durkin's start page

 

     

   

 

 


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