by Bernadette Sukley
Lee Upton Author of short stories, novellas, poetry and four books of literary criticism; as well as over fifty articles and essays about literature. Her awards include the Lyric Poetry Award and The Writer/Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America; the Pushcart Prize; the National Poetry Series Award; the Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series Award; the BOA Short Fiction Award; and the Mary Louise VanArtsdalen Prize for Scholarship, the Marquis Teaching Award, and the Jones Faculty Lecture Award at Lafayette College, where she is the Writer-in-Residence and a professor of English.
Bernadette: As a poet, do you think it's the placement or the economy of words that paints the most successful images?
Lee: Every poem comes into the world as a new species, and every element in any poem contributes to the poem’s power. The most powerful images depend on many factors, including the structure and diction of the poem—-what [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge called “the best words in their best order.”
Bernadette: Your poetry is filled with personal experience. Are you ever concerned that the reader may not be able to relate to you--or is that the challenge for the poet?
Lee: Both my poems and fiction often derive from imagined experience, but the emotional underpinnings of the work come from having lived through experiences that are common to many of us. At the same time, as a reader I don’t need to have experienced what a character has experienced. What we read can extend our imaginative sympathy and allow us to enter worlds that differ greatly from our own. As a reader I’m ready to entertain the possibility that the uncanny and the strange may refresh my sense of possibility.
Bernadette: Without giving too much away from your conference presentation can you describe what "extreme concentration" means?
Lee: Extreme concentration refers to the ability to focus on writing intensively, shutting out distractions, and having faith that the act of writing itself will lead us into new areas of awareness. Writing poetry in particular calls for extreme concentration, given that if we pre-determine the ending of a poem, most often the poem loses vitality. There’s a high stakes quality to writing poetry, a willingness to allow language to lead us into discoveries that we could never anticipate.
Over time, writing becomes a little like long distance running. You learn to extend your capacity, both for writing for longer periods and for trusting that while you write you will draw up associations and conceptions that you couldn’t have encountered in any other way than by writing.
Bernadette: You will also discuss self-trust for the writer. How does a writer preserve that when the industry, agents, editors tell them to change?
Lee: One way to develop self-trust, I find, is to recognize that creating a perspective that only you and you alone can create is worthy of respect. Who else has your exact voice? Having faith in your own unique voiceprint is essential. That means that you have to listen to your writing, reading it aloud, testing it, deciding when the voice in the writing attains a pitch that strikes you as resonant. Nevertheless, it’s often useful to listen to what other people have to say about your writing. Sometimes you’ll become aware of what would otherwise be invisible. At the same time, some advice, inevitably, will be bad advice. Some advice will also be contradictory.
No one can know with accuracy what writing will attract readers. What we can know is what in the writing excites and surprises us as writers. All we can do is to read widely and write full-heartedly, boldly, and freely. As for editors: I’ve been blessed with exceptional editors, most recently Joseph Bates and Jim Schley, writers themselves, and I’ve been grateful for their attentiveness and inspired suggestions.
Bernadette: What draws you to poetry?
Lee: I write poetry, fiction, literary criticism, and creative nonfiction. Of all those genres, poetry is especially exciting for its immediacy, the ways in which poetry can startle us, even within a few lines, drawing us up and out of limiting ways of seeing the world and our situation within it. Poetry can break through our hardened resistances at an accelerated pace.
Bernadette: Do you think it's necessary for writers to study poetry to become better writers?
Lee: I tend to agree with Cynthia Ozick, who claims that most artistically ambitious fiction writers have done at least some work with poetry. But then, who hasn’t written a poem, at least during childhood and adolescence? There may be few better ways to develop the ability to rewrite word-by-word than by reading poetry and seeing how one verb, one noun, one comma, can change the shape of anything we write. A substantial amount of poetry calls for “slow reading,” an almost obsessive attention on each word—-and that sort of enhanced attention is useful for any writer during the revision and editing stages. Exercising a willingness to allow the unexpected to enter a piece—the poet’s necessary discipline—-can be very good training for any sort of writing.
Bernadette: Of all the poetry that you've written, which is your favorite poem?
Lee: I like my fifth book of poetry’s title poem, “Undid in the Land of Undone.” In some ways it’s a writer’s anthem:
Undid in the Land of Undone
All the things I wanted to do and didn't
took so long.
It was years of not doing.
You can make an allusion here to Penelope,
if you want.
See her up there in that high room undoing her art?
But enough about what she didn't do — not doing
was what she did. Plucking out
the thread of intimacy in the frame.
So let's make a toast to the long art
of lingering. We say the cake is done,
but what exactly did the cake do?
The things undid
in the land of undone call to us
in the flames. What I didn't do took
an eternity —
and it wasn't for lack of trying.