Interviews Eleanor Lerman
Mia: Your first book, Armed Love was met with favorable
reviews, earning a nomination for the National Book Award. It was
also met with criticism: A reviewer for the New York Times rated
it “double X.” Unfortunately
I don’t have the book yet, but what would make a book (of
poetry no less) rated XX?
Eleanor: I didn’t view the “Double X” as a criticism—just
a surprise. The book didn’t have an objectionable word
in it, nor anything explicitly sexual, but this was more than
30 years ago and perhaps it was unexpected for a young woman—a
be writing things like “vampires are happier when they’re
homosexual.” I thought that was funny, actually (and cleverly
alliterative!) but I guess the reviewer thought otherwise.
Mia: I guess what I don’t understand is the book was published
in 1973, which was during a time of “free love” and “live
and let live” kind of eye-opening experience for Americans;
Ginsberg’s “Howl” had already made its splash in
1955 with a subsequent obscenity trial in its wake and we’re
talking almost twenty years later, why the backlash?
Eleanor: I think what the reviewer was reacting
to, as I noted above, was first of all that this book was written
by a relatively young woman and it was full of pain and anger and
allusions to death. Perhaps that was shocking thirty years ago;
perhaps it was some pre-feminist prejudice on the part of the reviewer.
At that point in time, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll may have been
seen as a male concern. In any case, it made me seem like a much
more interesting person than I actually was.
Mia: In one of many articles, the dominant view
is that you did not write another book of poems for 25 years because
of the backlash against Armed Love. And in your interview
with Nickole Brown of Sarabande Books, when she asked about the silence,
your response was something along the lines of “you were trying
to live a normal life and writing poetry was making you face your
sexual identity, making you feel unsafe and raw.” But you had
already written the book,
Armed Love so I’m guessing you weren’t prepared
to have your personal life so “exposed”?
Eleanor: The older I get, the more the answer to that question—where
were you for what is actually closer to thirty years—evolves,
because I think about it in (I hope) more mature ways. For example,
yes, indeed, I was having some problems with pronouns, meaning, when
I was younger, I wrote about love, which meant I had to decide if
I was writing about girls or boys, and I hadn’t, at that point,
really decided that yet. But also, because of this temporary status
I had suddenly achieved as a minor cultural figure, I found myself
in the company of a lot of famous and successful writers, most of
them novelists, and I thought that was what I was supposed to do
next—write a novel. So, I think I had the idea that you were
supposed to go through stages as a writer: poetry was the training
wheels, then maybe you wrote short stories, and finally, you somehow
emerged into the big time as a Novelist, with a capital N. In other
words, there were a lot of forces that were working on me and I was
too young to make good decisions about myself as a human being or
as a writer, so I made some bad ones, like trying to write novels.
I was not, at that point in my life, capable of writing anything
in long form nor of developing full-fledged characters. In the end,
everything has turned out fine though because I did just go ahead
and live my life and when it was time to come back to writing poetry,
I did. And I’m a better person now, a more settled person,
and, I think, more skilled as a writer, so time has ended up being
my friend. As were those writers I met long ago—they were all
very nice to me, very helpful. (People like Donald Barthelme and
Richard Stern; I owe them great debts.) I was the one who had problems.
Mia: The character of Jack Sears in your story, “Alison’s
Restaurants,” mysteriously disappears off the air for six,
seven months, on a “self-imposed exile” from a radio
show. I don’t want to give the storyline away, but one of
the things that stood out for me was that Jack’s life had
become unmanageable due to a major depressive episode that he couldn’t
account for, and that he didn’t want to be labeled “crazy” by
his listeners. I know that you revealed in one interview:
I wish I could make my absence from struggling with literature
into something romantic (a crippling love affair, a decades-long
meditation on the cruel nature of art) but it's much more mundane:
I was trying to live what I thought was a normal life, but thankfully,
I wasn't equipped for that.
What are the most outstanding parallels to the story with your
Eleanor: Oh gosh, what an interesting question. I hadn’t seen
any parallels until you brought that up. So let me first give you
the rooted-in-reality answer: the Jack Sears character is based on
a man named Art Bell, a famous radio personality whose program focuses
on aliens and crop circles and things like that. He actually did
disappear for a while and there were all kinds of rumors about why
that happened; the truth was that he had some personal problems to
deal with (don’t
But, to make a connection I hadn’t thought of before,
there is a major disappearance in my past, and it isn’t my
separation from art. From the time I was a young teenager, I had
a stepsister who suffered from schizophrenia; one night about twenty-five
years ago (a couple of years before I had my first book published
but after I had left home to live on my own), she apparently got
up in the middle of the night, walked out of my parents’ house,
and was never seen or heard from again. The police searched for her,
so did private detectives and psychics but not a trace has ever been
found. I actually had very ambivalent feelings about all that: my
stepsister was extremely difficult to live with, her mother (my stepmother)
manipulated her in a way that had caused problems between myself
and my father and had made it difficult for my brother and I to maintain
the close relationship we had always had (and still have, now) so
I felt sorry that my parents had to go through the agony of not knowing
what had happened to my stepsister, but I also wasn’t too upset
that she was gone. (What can I say? I was young and heartless.) So
I think the concept of disappearing looms large somewhere in my subconscious.
Death, of course, is the final disappearance, so I’m going
to have to think about all those connections a little more.
Mia: Do you feel in any way that your writing
has been “forced” to
change because of the earlier reactions to your work?
Eleanor: Nope. To begin with, I think that my work as a poet mostly
exists below the radar of popular culture, so I can’t imagine
anyone cares about a culture phenomenon that was interesting so long
ago but is more of a curiosity now. (The idea that a poet could cause
a stir in an age of constant, streaming pornography and violence
is almost quaint.) The only pressure on me as a writer comes from
me trying to keep pushing myself. For example, poetry is a very selfish
and self-involved art; you spend a lot of time thinking and writing
about me, me, me. What I am trying to force myself to do is take
myself out of my work so that I can use myself as a filter of experience
instead of being in a constant mode of confessing that I feel this,
I think about that, etc. Doing that is turning out to be a lot harder—but
more productive—than worrying about how my work will be reviewed.
Mia: I’d say that’s a pretty
good summation and attitude about writing. Your writing seems
to be doing exactly what you described above, "filtering” your
experiences where we begin to see the writer take on the role
of a medium. A good example is your poem, “Star Fish” where
life is personified. You’ve mentioned a lot of famous
people, writers, artists, directors you’ve known, and
it must be tempting material to write about, but you’re
the only real authority of your own life, so I hope you don’t
take too much of the “me, me, me” out of your work.
On that note, when and how did you become interested in writing?
What was the most compelling reason that you took up writing?
Eleanor: I have been writing as long as I
can remember. I was lucky in that all along the way, the teachers
at the public schools I went to in New York opened doors for
me to literature. We read Shakespeare in sixth grade and were
taken to see Shakespeare performed; also in elementary school
we were told to write a novel! The teachers expected us to
like to write, to want to—and I did. (I can still remember
the “novel” I
wrote, by the way: it was about a horse named Distant Call.)
In high school, when I had kind of veered off into a different
direction than the other students (I was angry and wild) I
had an English teacher who read my poetry and told me that
while I shouldn’t share it with the other students because
it might be about subjects that were a little too much for
them (I guess he was predicting what the New York Times reviewer
would feel some years later), he knew I was going to be a writer
and I should never let anyone steer me in another direction.
But when I was around fifteen or sixteen I also had one of
those amazing moments that come perhaps once in a lifetime
when you deeply, deeply understand what your life is about:
it happened to me on a bus, going home from the town I lived
in (Far Rockaway, in Queens, NY). I had been in the local drugstore
and was glancing at some books for sale on a rack in the front
of the drugstore and recognized the name of one of the authors—Leonard
Cohen—because he sang a song called “Suzanne” that
was playing on the radio at the time. The book was called “The
Spice Box of Earth,” and I thought it was a book of song
lyrics, but when I started reading it on the bus ride home,
I realized it was poetry, and for the first time ever I realized
that poetry was not all that (to me) mumbo-jumbo of Robert
Browning and Wordsworth and Yeats and Auden that teachers were
always reading us, or making us read, but that it could be
written by people living in the here-and-now, that it could
be about eternal things like love and destiny and desire and
anger but written in contemporary—and beautiful— language
that meant exactly what you thought it meant. (In other words,
you didn’t have to read the poem and then pick it apart
to find “hidden meanings” behind the incomprehensible
lines and phrases.) I knew I had met my fate.
Mia: Would you consider adding some of the
poems from, Armed
Love in a future book, or in a best-of collection?
Eleanor: Oh, I think I’d put in the “vampires are happier
when they’re homosexual” poem, because I still think
funny. And probably true.
Mia: How do you feel about this sudden resurgent interest in your
work - all this attention?
Eleanor: As I admitted above, I’m selfish.
And a bit of a ham. The more attention the better!
Mia: In your book, The Mystery of Meteors, there’s a poem, “Flora
Street” that you dedicated to T.E. Lawrence; your bio also
mentions that you did a whole series on Lawrence. Is this the Lawrence
of “Lawrence of Arabia” and why did he interest you?
Eleanor: Let me explain about T.E. Lawrence: I was always interested
in him because he was a person who appeared to be one thing (a hero
in the guise of a romantic solider who had led a people to victory
over their oppressors) but in fact, had a many-layered hidden life
characterized by guilt about his work (he felt he had actually betrayed
the people he led), guilt about his sexual desires (he was raped
once, when he was captured by Turks during the Arab uprising he led
and probably, to his horror, liked it; later in life he hired someone
to beat him, probably in part to assuage his guilt and probably also,
because he took some pleasure in the pain), abandoned his identity
and re-enlisted in the army as a private named T.E. Shaw, was a remarkable
writer (The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his book about the Arab uprising,
is sheer poetry) who managed to lose his 1,000-plus page manuscript
on a train and had to rewrite the whole thing, etc. etc. He was extraordinary
and lost and confused—all the things that made me feel a kinship
with him when I was younger, and as I got older, I realized the burden
of carrying around all those lost desires and all that guilt, so
I related to that, too. And on top of that, he was a visionary who
thought the Arabs and Jews were going to have to find a way to not
only live together but bond together in the Middle East; he was an
early supporter of what became Israel and carried on a long correspondence
with Chaim Weitzman, the first president of Israel. Truly a fascinating
character. He also put together a collection of poems others had
written that meant something to him and I have a copy of it; I had
never heard of some of these poets (probably late 19th and early
20th century) but I just love them.
Mia: Unlike Harper Lee who went into permanent
retirement after her first book, To Kill a Mockingbird,
we as readers, editors and publishers are relieved and elated
to have you writing again with the release of your two recent
Mystery of Meteors and Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds both
published by Sarabande Books. Here is an example of what
about the books, paraphrased:
[Lerman] silent for so long, has released award-winning books
from the vantage point of middle age, and the view from there
is angry, rueful, and politically charged. ~Claire Dederer
It could just be my disposition, but not only am I amused,
I heartily disagree: “Politically charged?” - possibly; “rueful” -
where?; and “angry” – doubtful.
I find your writing to be playful, sure-footed, tongue-in-cheek
sarcastic, realistic and reflective (e.g., "That Eons Pass and
I Still Remember," "We Are Lucky," "How We Become the People That
We Are") but hardly angry. Of course, there’s the Ha! attitude
that needs to be reckoned with, but anger is an emotion that’s
closely related to frustration and I don’t sense it in
I guess the music fooled you: you thought we’d keep
the party going even to the edge of the abyss. Well,
too bad. It’s all yours now… Have a good day.
~ That Sure is My Little Dog
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee … And then life suggests that you remember
years … Upon reflection, you are / genuinely surprised
to find how quiet you have / become. ~ Starfish
What I also sense is your ability to still feel awe and bewilderment
and that in itself is the beauty of your work. You also seem
to have an interest in everything, and have tried just about everything.
What are you thoughts about your own writing, now that I’ve
taken up a better part of this interview to impose my own views?
Eleanor: What happened to me was that one day about
ten years ago I was out walking my dog and it occurred to me that
I had reached an age that made me older than my mother was when she
died in her early forties. It was like the arrow of mortality had
just been shot through my brain and the consequences of that moment
still reverberate. I am aware that life is going on on at least two
levels (probably a million levels, but I’ll just focus on two):
the temporal, where you have to worry about typos in your letters
and paying your property taxes, and then some other mysterious level
where the Big Questions live—why am I here, what am I supposed
to be doing, do I have a soul, what did the Egyptians know that I
understand? That’s what my writing feels like to me: the only
tool I have to find my halting way along on both levels at once.
at cleaning up the typos, but it’s more interesting to think
about the Egyptians.
Mia: I’m not a psychic or a prognosticator,
nor have any desire to be either, but it feels to me as if your
work is fated to become the social voice of our times; for instance
"Howl" is now considered “one of the principle
works of the Beat Generation.” Though much of your writing
is written in retrospect, it speaks to the generation who lived
in your time and to the new generation of poets who seem to be
struggling for a perspective on the Zeitgeist, your work
must be a sextant for them. I think it’s a confusing, chaotic
time, but ironically these times are not so different than the
Vietnam era, with ast least one exception: Protestors are not going
to the streets en masse to protest the war in Iraq. Furthermore,
such clarity and aplomb in your writing, and yet it is the mark
of great writing when you can leave it open-ended, without answers.
Do you mind sharing your personal/political views about what poets,
poetry, and why you might think today’s poetry is missing
Eleanor: To be honest with you, I don’t read a lot of poetry,
so I don’t think I’m in a position to comment on the
quality or relevance of what’s being written today or not.
That may have something to do with the fact that younger poets are
writing from a perspective that doesn’t mean much to me anymore—that
doesn’t suggest their perspective isn’t absolutely valid,
it just means that I’m somewhere else. (Remember, that arrow
of mortality is still zinging through my thoughts.) Personally, I
always go back to Leonard Cohen and James Tate, two poets whose work
I used to teach myself to write. I remember I would read Cohen, for
example, for the sheer pleasure of listening to him sing through
the words on a page, and then reread his poems over and over again,
like a scientist, trying to figure out how he was putting words together,
creating images, to make me feel so much when I read his work.
I also go back, time and time again, to Flannery O’Connor.
She was vicious and funny—now there’s a role model. When
I get anywhere near writing about anything political, vicious and
funny is a good approach. I have noticed that a lot of generational
politics has been creeping into my work, but that’s because
I am both saddened and amused by how much we—the psychedelic
generation—thought we were going to accomplish and didn’t.
We had the best of intentions, we tried very, very hard to be humanistic,
to do the right thing by our fellow men and women but in fact, we
may have helped to push open the lid of Pandora’s box just
another crack. What’s in that box is nothing like what we expected:
the violence, the disregard of each other’s humanity, the ethnic
and religious hatred—where did all that come from? What happened
to the human revolution where we were all going to live off the land
and dance under the stars? We meant well, but went wrong somewhere.
So what’s a person to do? Keep your eyes open, watch what’s
going on. Try to help somewhere, if you can. And then, of course,
write about all this.
Mia: Your line breaks in your new work published in Tryst for
the first time are completely different, shortened dramatically.
I know one of the possible answers you’re going to give me
is that the poem demands its form, but why the shorter lines?
Eleanor: Again, you’re being a lot more perceptive about my
work than I am! But you’re probably right: my last book had
a lot of mid-life culture shock in it. What I’m working on
hope—focused on those larger questions I mentioned earlier.
Everyone’s life involves a lot of time sitting around someplace
like an office discussing why the last order of widgets was defective
and who should be blamed for it. Years can go by when that all seems
very interesting and punishing each other for the defective widget
shipments seems satisfying. But you do reach a point when—to
go back to my idea of life being lived on two levels—it gets
harder and harder to participate in those discussions because the
realization is dawning on you that the office you’re in is
in a building on a planet in a solar system tucked inside a galaxy
spinning around in a universe that no one understands. Who cares
about the damn widgets? So maybe as my work shifts from one set of
issues to another, the lines shift as well. It’s an interesting
Mia: I love that you admitted in one interview, you never used
to edit any of your poems and now you do. Why have you changed
your practice – when it seemed to be working well for you
in the past?
Eleanor: When I was younger, I was much too full of myself. I thought
something like well, I wrote this poem so it
must be brilliant, wonderful.
I now recognize that I am a workman, and I need to build my house
with care. Sometimes you pick up the wrong tool, use the wrong part
so you have to start over again. Also, while I have always been disciplined
about the act of writing—I write every day—I was not
always disciplined in my thinking or able to calmly and quietly conduct
an internal dialogue with myself about what I thought I was trying
to say in a particular poem. Now I am, and I take great pleasure
in applying the same scientific investigation I practiced on poor
Leonard Cohen (What is he doing? What does he
mean?) to my own work.
There’s the selfish poet again: I’m apparently very interested
in my own thoughts, so don’t mind rambling around in them at
any given opportunity. But there has to be an outcome to that kind
of indulgence, and that’s where it’s useful to apply
discipline, otherwise you just end up daydreaming. I’m very,
very serious about my work; it deserves my full attention, and that
means not just whatever skill I have as a writer but also whatever
capacity I’ve developed as an adult to think—and to think deeply.
Mia: Can you sort of summarize, or theorize how writing poetry is
different than writing prose for you?
Eleanor: When you’re writing a story, you can push a character
out on stage to substitute for you—your problems, your secret
desires, your neuroses. As I alluded to earlier, it’s harder
to do that when you’re writing poetry. In poetry, that me,
me, me thing looms large. I’m constantly trying to quiet it
Mia: Do you feel that you have found your voice and is it likely
Eleanor: Oh, I hope I’ve found my voice but
I hope it keeps changing, too. That would mean I’m getting
smarter, learning more. But I hope that “vicious and funny” stays
Mia: What other types of writing have you pursued; I
mean how about play scripts, biographies, journalism, translations…etc?
Eleanor: Years ago I did some comedy writing. (As
filler for a drive-time radio show featuring a now-well-known comedian,
I wrote what has to be one of the worst jokes in comedic history.
is the cereal America fears the most?” Answer: “Dreaded
wheat.” I actually wrote about that in a poem called “Hot
Town Sukiyaki”). I also worked with my brother on two true-crime
books that resulted from the television show America’s Most
Wanted, which he produced for about fifteen years. A couple of years
ago I also wrote a book of short stories, Observers and Other Stories
and I plan to continue writing short fiction.
Mia: Where do you work and what is the most
interesting thing about your job? Or perhaps, a better question
to ask, what is the most interesting thing that has happened
in your life and do you plan to ever write an autobiography?
Eleanor: I work as an editor, but I keep that life as separate as
I can from my life as a writer. In almost every other respect, my
life is really very quiet. I like that nothing very interesting happens,
except once in a while, so there’s not much material for an
autobiography. Ideas are now the most exciting things I encounter,
along with finding ways to access my memory. I don’t know if
this is true for everyone, but I find that the further away I get
from experiences I’ve had—years away, even decades—the
more I can look back on them in a clear-eyed way and use them to
inform and enrich my writing. And there I go being heartless again,
even about myself: the best thing about my memories is that I can
use them as building blocks for my work.
Mia: Do you have interest in teaching a workshop, seminar
or as an honorary professor?
Eleanor: I’m easy to engage in
just about anything having to do with literature—and,
as I mentioned earlier, I’m a terrible ham. I’ll
more or less do anything anyone asks me to do. Last month,
New York City held a one-day event called “Poem in
Your Pocket” day,
and one of the activities involved having poets go to different
schools in the city and read poetry. I was asked to read
in a school in the Bronx, near where I spent most of my
childhood. One of the things I mentioned to the kids was
that Edgar Allen Poe had once lived nearby, in a little
house that is now a museum. They asked me if I’d
ever met Poe and though true, I am getting to be a lot
older than even I can imagine, I had to admit that sadly,
no, I’d never had the pleasure.
Mia: How do you know Sarah Gorham of
Sarabande? I sense that the two of you may go back
Eleanor: It was Sarah Gorham and her husband, Jeffrey Skinner, who
brought me back into poetry. I had never met either of them but they
had read my early books and wrote to me, out of the clear blue sky,
to ask if I was still writing poetry. Of course I wasn’t, but
it was their letter that changed my life. I can still remember holding
it in my hand and thinking, Can I do this again? And if I do, I will
have to change every single thing about my life.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Eleanor, thank you for granting us
this interview and for the opportunity to showcase
your poetry. It’s been
truly a delightful experience and a treat to get to know you.
Copyright © 2007 Eleanor