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[page 5]


A Conversation with
Leslie Monsour  


by Alex Pepple
















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Leslie: The first thing that happens when I write a poem is that I can't stop thinking about it. (Was it Richard Wilbur who said, "Poetry is how I organize my day"?) As I go through my day, the idea keeps running through my head, varying its appearance, as if a thought could try on language the way we try on outfits, looking for a handsome, comfortable fit. Finally I have to start putting all these different versions down on paper and trying them out loud. Almost everything falls naturally into iambic pentameter. I seldom know what path the poem will it will reach its wisdom. I've arrived at completely unexpected outcomes. The poem, "Travel Plans," which is in the July issue of Poetry, began because one day I was watching
the way a tree grows. Then it became a poem about an old man and a child. I was pretty astonished when I found myself writing about two old friends or lovers sitting under a tree drinking wine, making up pipe dreams. I saw the poem had a turning point when one of the pair makes a wish out loud; that's when I realized it had the potential to be a sonnet. Almost the last part is figuring out the rhymes. Robert Frost said, "The rhymes come in pairs, don't they?....I want to be unable to tell which one of those he thought of first." (Frost had a habit of thinking of poets as males.) That's a good thing to remember when you're using rhyme. Try to fool Robert Frost about which one you thought of first. Lots of times, the ideas stay in the notebook, and I find it more productive to come back to them later. It's like a day of fruitless shopping; you can't find anything that fits you wait till you're in better shape, or the new fall collection is in.

Alex: How prolific is your muse? Do you consider yourself a slow or fast writer? In a year about how many poems do you write, and how many get published?

Leslie: I think I'm pretty slow. I don't think you should wait around until you're in the mood to write...that's a trap. It's wonderful if an idea strikes you so fluently, you can get the poem down all at once. Then you can spend the next eight months or so revising it. If you have notebooks filled with ideas, you can sit down every day for a certain amount of time and see what you can do with your ideas. It's very hard, maybe impossible, to get started with no stored up ideas. To force yourself to produce an idea out of thin air is too artificial, I think. You become self-conscious. The ideas have to come from your own observations, and you're not observing when you sit down to write...observations come accidentally, and you have to be ready for them. Sometimes they occur at night, so I keep a notepad by my bed. A notebook of ideas is the essential raw material. I complete about ten poems a year; I probably start about fifty. I'm lucky if two or three are published.

Alex: It takes discipline to write formal poetry and it takes a significant amount of study and practice. One of the criticisms labeled against formalism is that it is poetry in a straightjacket that hinders free expression and emotion. Why formalism? What are the rewards and pleasures of meter and rhyme?

Leslie: I don't think I struggle and fuss more with formal verse than I used to do with free verse poems. What did Eliot say? — "No vers is libre for the poet who wants to do a good job?" Something like that. I don't think free verse is less demanding on the poet than formal verse. Sometimes rhyme and meter will actually solve a problem more easily. You run into the unexpected when you're looking for rhymes. You stir subconscious ideas and create opportunities for what Frost called "feats of association," — opportunities to "bring up something in your mind that you almost didn't know you knew." I often feel sorry for poets who confine themselves to free verse. Their choices are so limited, and they have to try so hard; some of them resort to being unintelligible.

Alex: What poets have influenced you, and why? What contemporary poets are you particularly fond of?

Leslie: I don't know if I can say a poet has influenced me...I can name some of the poets I most admire...I mean whose WORK I admire. (Have you seen the Wendy Cope poem, "Favourite?" "When they ask me, 'Who's your favourite poet?'/ I'd better not mention you,/ Though you certainly are my favourite poet/ And I like your poems too.") Robert Frost (surprise!), Robinson Jeffers, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, John Ciardi, W.H. Auden, Richard Wilbur, John Keats, the three Wills: Shakespeare, Blake, and Wordsworth, are all poets whose lives and works I've been terribly interested in at one point or another. I need to read Homer, Ovid, and Horace once in awhile, or I begin to shrivel up. I still enjoy A.A. Milne, Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson — even Robert Service. I'd like to think Tim Steele and Wendy Cope have had some influence on me, because their work is just about perfect. Dick Davis is sublime; I love to run into his poems and translations, as well as poems by X.J. Kennedy, Timothy Murphy, Dana Gioia, Charles Martin, Anthony Hecht, Thom Gunn (though I've been disappointed a few times lately), Mary Jo Salter, Brad Leithauser, Amy Clampitt, Kay Ryan, Gwendolyn Brooks (I haven't seen anything from her in awhile; I hope she's well), Mark Strand (sometimes), and William Logan (also sometimes). I like Billy Collins, too ... I mean his poetry; he's one whose poems begin in delight and end in wisdom, but you have to play without a net when you're in his court. I'm always happy to see work by Rhina Espaillat, John Ridland, Kate Light, Kevin Durkin, and Dolores Hayden. All of these poets teach me to maintain high standards, and delight my mind with their dazzling array of subjects and their breathtaking shapes and sounds.

Alex: Do you have projects you’re currently working on, or any forthcoming publication?

Leslie: This year, I have a poem coming out in The Formalist, two in The Dark Horse, and four in The Edge City Review. I've written a novel, and I'm trying to figure out whether to get a new agent or work on it some more; it's turning into a lifelong project. I'd like to revive an opera libretto endeavor with a composer who lives in Berkeley. And I'm always revising poems...even published ones.

Alex: It has been refreshing to have you share your thoughts here (beside your wonderful poems) about the state of poetry today, and doing it with such courageous frankness. Leslie, it is truly an honor and a pleasure having you as Featured Poet.

Leslie: Thanks very much, Alex.  The pleasure's all mine.  You've been delightful, intelligent, professional and charming.  And you made me feel very bold!  I must say, my confidence in the value of the Internet is vastly strengthened by enterprises such as yours.  I pledge great future interest and support.




Interview - page 4 An Interview with Timothy Steele by Kevin Durkin


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An Interview with Timothy Steele by Kevin Durkin


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