Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas presenting at Lit Youngstown’s 2018 Fall Literary Festival*

Love poetry or hate it (btw, you don’t really hate it), Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas is right there with you.

What’s it like to be a poet laureate? I asked Dave Lucas that–and more–in this interview over email. Here’s what the author, teacher, and “poetry evangelist” had to say.

Dave, how much does it mean for you to have been chosen as Poet Laureate of Ohio, and what’s up next for 2019?

If you’d asked me this a year ago, I would have said how honored I felt by the selection and how excited I was for the two years to come.  A year into my term I still feel honored and excited, but more than anything I feel gratitude.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to see parts of my home state I’ve never visited before, to talk about poetry in such varied settings and with so many people for whom poetry is a way of making meaning of their lives.

In 2019 I hope to continue those travels, but I also hope to “meet” more Ohioans virtually through the “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry” project.  The project entails a monthly column syndicated in Ohio newspapers and media outlets; this year we hope to create a podcast version as well, so that we can promote poetry in whatever medium Ohioans get their information and culture.

As Poet Laureate, I imagine you’ve met many Ohioans in your travels around the state. What has surprised you most?

I’ve certainly been struck by the number and quality of poetry programs taking place at the regional and local levels.  These are workshops, reading groups, recitations, slams, and more, and I’ve encountered them everywhere I’ve traveled in Ohio.  The internet has of course been revolutionary for bringing people together around a common interest, but there’s something wonderful about seeing people gather in common physical space to talk about poetry.

In your Poet Laureate column on the Ohio Arts Council site, as well as in the classroom, you send the message that most of us love poetry, even if we don’t know it yet. Can you talk a little about how you define poetry and give us a couple examples of the kinds of poetic language we can find outside of what we traditionally think of as poetry?

Literary history tells us that anyone who attempts to define poetry today is about to be proven wrong tomorrow.  That’s both the pleasure and challenge of trying to say what poetry is or isn’t.  So I try to maintain as broad and flexible a definition as possible.  I think that poetry is the aesthetic pleasure we take in language.  Words are for play as well as work, as the groan-worthy puns of any good “Dad joke” will demonstrate.

So puns and jokes in general might be examples of the poetry we find outside of “poems.”  So are the metaphors we use to describe the world.  Riddles, jingles, lyrics, mnemonics, and more.  For instance, I’ve just finished a column (my sixth installment) about the artistry of slang, which Walt Whitman treats as the democratic aspect of poetry.  In this column I argue that even if you haven’t read a poem since high school, you participate every day in the artistry of language simply via the creativity of the slang you use.

One of the daunting things about poetry is the idea that we poetry readers think we’re supposed to read it “right” and find buried meaning. How can you assuage our reader-guilt at perhaps understanding a poem only on its surface level?

Too many of us seem to have been taught that poems are supposed to be solved, some “deeper meaning” discovered and extracted like a vein of ore from a mine.  If we can’t find “it”—or if we find something that we’re told is not “it,” we feel inadequate.

Let’s change the terms.  For example: you hear a song for the first time.  You don’t get all the words, but you like it enough as a whole—its rhythm, its sounds, how it makes you feel, etc.—that you want to hear it again.  You don’t feel guilty about not getting all the words; you just want to listen a second or even a third time.  You keep listening.  Eventually, you get all the words, often before you’ve realized it.

Your poetry collection, Weather, begins with place poems.

“River on Fire”
Stranger, the way of the world is crooked,
and anything can burn. Nothing impossible.
Who comes to send fire upon the earth may find
as much already kindled, may find his city
bistre and sulfurous. Pitched and grimed.
On those suffered banks we sat down and wept.
There the prophets, if there had been prophets,
would have baptized us in fire. Who says impossible
they fill his mouth with ash, they quench him
as if a man could be made steel. A crooked way
the world wends, and the rivers, and the prophets.
Go down and tell them what you have seen:
that the river burned and was not consumed.

…and your collection ends with a poem that examines the language we use for Northeast Ohio’s natural landmark of Lake Erie. How did you decide how to order the collection: as an argument for or against something, as a journey from one time to another, from the external to the personal–or something else entirely?

As you mention, the book begins and ends with the lake.  (Of course, it shows up in the middle of the book, too.)  For me, the lake—or my idiosyncratic idea or myth of it—is what Seamus Heaney calls “the first place in myself.”  So I wanted to begin in that place and with local flora and fauna before moving into the human and even personal histories of (or in) the region. The whole book is an attempt to marry those different histories and mythologies into a coherent vision of place.

Your newer poems center around myth. Can you tell us how the new collection is shaping up and where we can find one of the poems?

The new collection has been “done” several times now.  I assume the writers among your blog’s readers will nod and sigh in recognition of what I mean.  I hope it will be “done”—again—soon.

You can read “About Suffering—,” my take on the myth (and on other takes) of Icarus and Daedalus at the online home of The Threepenny Review.

Do you see poetry changing along with our digital age, with the Instapoets (poets who feature their poems on Instagram), for example? What do you think about it?

The Instagram phenomenon is interesting to me because “Instapoetry” blends forms and genres: you experience the poem as a photograph of the poem.  So you get an experience of the poem as a visual artifact, something different from what you might experience at a reading or a performance.  It’s a reminder of just how many ways we can experience language, and the subtle differences between one experience and another.

What’s your best piece of poetry-writing advice?

The only piece of advice that I believe to be true for anyone who wants to write (poems, or anything else)—no matter who they are or what they want for their writing—is to read as much as possible, to read enthusiastically and omnivorously.

Thank you to Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas for giving us a lot to read and think about!

Find out more about Dave Lucas…

Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  Named by Rita Dove as one of thirteen “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize.  In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio.  A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised. 

And more…

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*Photo credit: Courtney Kensinger

40 thoughts on “My interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

    1. _Weather_ is my favorite book of poems, and I’m not just saying this because Dave might look at these comments! It’s especially interesting how he transitions from the landscape to the personal and communal. I keep going back again and again to his poems, and they always offer something more.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, he’s a really nice guy–and an amazing poet, of course. In the fall, he talked a lot about his new collection, so I’m looking forward to that. I’m so glad you stopped by here–will be following your blog!

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    1. Yes! I love that too–so contrary to how I viewed poetry (like a really exclusive club!) when I was younger. His column is wonderful, getting in to all the kinds of language that can be viewed as poetic: jokes, slang, etc. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I adore the questions you asked him – and enjoyed reading his responses. I remember learning about poetry in high school and there were so many ‘rules’ and ‘don’t do this’ that my teacher shared, it made me not want to write poems. Now I just play with words in hopes to break free from the haunting memories of those naysayer teachers. Fun read, so glad you got to meet him and talk with him!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Shelley! I’m with you on the high school English teachers making poetry feel very daunting. Wordplay should be fun. I love when you feature a poem on your site–good on ya for excising old demons! I’m hoping my boys’ experiences with poetry at school are different than ours. So far, they are; they will even write poetry in imitation of Shel Silverstein, etc., sometimes, which I think is such fun! As usual, I appreciate you stopping by the ol’ blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome – I’m tickled to hear that your sons are having a better experience in poetry than ours. PS – I enjoy stopping by here on your blog – I always learn something new – you always inspire me with your words of wisdom!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Words are for play as well as work.” I love the lightheartedness he gave to reading and writing poetry – I feel like people are often intimidated by poetry as a whole due to the serious and deepness we attribute to it. So happy to hear an accomplished poet thinks like this!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. YES, we Ohio folks (I lump myself in, though I moved away years ago *tears*) have to stick together! Dave Lucas’s poetry is really great–and he’s a very down-to-earth, nice guy too. Thanks for stopping by my blog–I appreciate it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great interview, and so much inspiration in Dave Lucas’ views on poetry, listening/ reading and writing, and “Instapoetry” :

    “like it enough as a whole—its rhythm, its sounds, how it makes you feel, etc.—that you want to hear it again.”

    “many ways we can experience language, and the subtle differences between one experience and another.”

    “to read as much as possible, to read enthusiastically and omnivorously.”

    Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I appreciate that in this interview, Mr. Lucas offers a view that allows readers a bridge, a gentle, approachable way into a world they haven’t explored. He gives them a welcoming invitation to read and love poetry, telling them not to be afraid, intimidated, or feel inadequate. I’ve realized that there are numerous styles of poetry I never knew existed, and at its core, poetry is mostly about expression. At least, that’s what I’m doing when I’m writing. And for those that read poetry, it is usually about whatever meaning/feeling(s) we want to attach to the words. And of course; I’m open to anyone elses perspective on my perspective. Thanks for sharing the interview.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks so much for checking out the interview–and for your perspective. I love your metaphor of the welcoming invitation. I’m picturing being led by a trusty outstretched hand. And you are right, there are so many different types of poetry-as-expression. I also believe that once we express ourselves, our poetry is a communication between the poet and the reader. So there can’t be a “wrong” way to read poetry. I appreciate your weighing in here!

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      1. So true. Again, using the bridge metaphor, poetry is the bridge across where reader and writer meet in the middle and are forever linked. Love your “Moon” name. So many lovely pictures cascade through the mind upon hearing that word. I use it in my work often.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Love that sentiment–and couldn’t agree more. And thank you for the compliment. I wish I could take credit for “Moon” but it’s just my maiden name, a good ol’ English name. Tough to grow up with–you can imagine the teasing–but nice to have now! Just checked out your site. Really great stuff!

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Moon may be your maiden name, but it’s instilled with your energy, and now those grown children are probably wishing that they had such a romantic name. You’re welcome and thank you as well. I’m not sure where my writing fits, but I still write, as I search for its home. Life is an adventure, no?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Poetry is not an essay rehashed or someone’s tribute to mom as is often presented. Then there is stream of consciousness rubbish – the sort of stuff you wrap up and toss into the garbage bin. It is of course based on thoughts and around themes and needs to be created like a sculptor or a painter planning, rearranging and fashioning until the design is right. It can’t be just a description. It must have the added dimensions of originality and creativity with – hopefully – some inspiration. It is not easy.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. No, not at all easy, which is why some of us (this reader, for one) have felt like poetry is an insider’s club whose entry code I couldn’t crack. I do think the success of “Instapoetry” and self-publishing has given younger writers and readers “license” to try writing poetry–some of it successful, some not. Like any art form, as you say, poetry isn’t just dashed off, but crafted and revised and reshaped over (sometimes) years and years before it’s finished. But, then, if it’s like my work, it never truly feels finished! Thanks for your insights!

      Liked by 1 person

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