Community Issue 

May 2001




Len Krisak


Rhina P. Espaillat






Image from the Birds, II

After Millay

Lot's Wife

Grand Opening, Dry Cleaners

Day Trader

Amateur Avant-Garde Dance Recital


Page 1

Page 2

Page 3




Len Krisak teaches at Stonehill College and Northeastern University. His chapbooks include Midland (Somers Rocks Press, 1999) and Fugitive Child (Aralia Press, 1999). His book Even as We Speak won the Richard Wilbur Prize for 2000 (University of Evansville Press) and is out this March. He is the recipient of numerous other prizes, including the Robert Frost Prize for 2000 and the Robert Penn Warren Award for 1998. He is also the 2000 National Trivia Champion and a four-time champion on Jeopardy!


I'm Rhina Espaillat, and Alex Pepple of Able Muse has offered me the pleasure of interviewing Len Krisak, a widely-published poet familiar to all of you, especially those who follow the literary discussion on this great website. Len's third book, Even As We Speak, is due for publication any day now by the University of Evansville, which last year gave the manuscript the Richard Wilbur Award.

RPE: Len, are there, in your opinion, things that poetry can do that prose can't?

LK: Yes, two: heighten the language with rhyme and heighten the language with meter.

RPE: You're saying that you see the distinction between poetry and prose in formal terms. Let me turn the question around. In thematic terms, is there anything that poetry has no business attempting, in your opinion, as opposed to things that are "right" for it?

LK: I'm reluctant to use words like "no," (as in "no business') since they imply all encompassing generalizations. That said, I'm sure that if we take into account scale—the degree of intensity with which we focus on our subject—the size of our canvas—certain themes or subjects do lend themselves more readily to verse than to prose. How often do we say to ourselves, "I don't know why, but this (whatever 'this' is) cries out to be a short story and not a rondeau"? Something is operating there, although I'll be damned if I know what it is!

RPE: Well, I certainly don't want you to "be damned," but it's good to know that even a "Jeopardy!" champion and all-purpose smart cookie like you sometimes doesn't "know what it is" that helps him do what he does. In his wonderful poem titled "On Being Accused of Wit," X. J. Kennedy says:

         Blind chance not wit entices words to stay
         And recognizing luck is artifice
         That comes unlearned. The rest is taking pride
         In daily labor. This and only this.

How much credit do you give to "blind chance" in your own poems, and how much to "daily labor"? What does each do for you when you're at work?

LK: I note with increasing alarm how much more intelligent these questions are growing than are my answers!

Joe's poem is one of my favorites, too, but a couple of points about those lines you quote: is it true that recognizing luck is unlearned artifice? Are we not more likely to acknowledge the luck undoubtedly built into the process of writing poems if we have trained ourselves? I.e., you get to Carnegie Hall by practice, practice, practice.

And when he says "the rest" is taking pride in daily labor, he carefully declines to ascribe some percentage to that labor, thus leaving open the chance that it could range from 2% to 95%. My own take—I mean as regards what I write—is that the labor far outweighs the luck. Now, given the alliteration, can we get a poem started with "luck" and "labor"?

What does luck do for my poems? Well, it spares me a lot of time and worry spent trying to figure out what the right word is, or why the stanza scheme is all wrong. A gift is a gift.

Daily labor can be daily reading, of course, but work—the attempt to stay focused on what you're doing as you're writing—counts for a lot. The luck that comes from—what, the subconscious?—isn't going to have any raw material to work with if you haven't, as Joe says in the poem, been sweating over the keys—or pen and paper. Football coaches have a cynical take on this: it's funny how often prayer favors the bigger and faster team. I try to keep working with the weights in the hope that some day I'll have the chance to use the muscles I was able to develop.

RPE: I see you're grateful for the occasional gift from the Muse, but not going with the notion, so popular with undergraduates, that poetry "just comes." And then you mention two varieties of "daily labor, " namely "daily reading" and "sweat." Could we talk about the first a bit? I have some of your poems before me, and note that several are gifts of devotion to various poets. You quote, allude to, and in other ways pay tribute to Frost, Wilbur and Brodsky, among others. Please say something about the role of other poets in the direction your writing has taken.


Interview - page 2


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