Riffle Backstory: Q&A with David Lehman, Editor of The Best American Poetry Series


David Lehman's latest book is New and Selected Poems (Scribner). Editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry, he teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School in New York City.

If you could give your young poet-self one piece of advice, what would it be?

It would be the same advice I would give to a young poet today. Read a lot of poetry, especially the great poetry of the past; disregard critics, except dead ones; write a lot, every day if possible; and never expect your poems to earn you a living.

What's you favorite method of procrastination?

I used to like taking long, almost aimless walks in the park, Fort Tryon Park, where I grew up, or Central Park, when I lived in the Upper West Side. Today I may allow myself to get too involved in twelve takes of "All of Me" -- Mildred Bailey, Russ Colombo, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Helen O'Connell, Frank Sinatra, Mae West, Johnny Ray, Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Willie Nelson, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra with Johnny Hodges on alto sax.

Which poem in this collection took the most work? Which one just wrote itself?

"Yeshiva Boys" took me twenty years to write. I wrote a draft in 1988, worked on it for a year, put it aside, and returned to it in 2006, when I had the luxury of a six-week stint in Italy, at the Civiella Ranieri, a foundation in the hills of Umbria. A year later I felt it was finally finished, and I suppose the long parenthesis was necessary. A pleasure of poems that "just write themselves," as the saying goes, is that you remember various aspects of the blessed event. I wrote "The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke" in a cafe in Paris in June 1977. "Radio" took me by surprise one afternoon in late May 2002.

Which poet or author do you think is underrated or underread?

There are so many -- you name the poet, and chances are, he or she is overlooked or underrated. Of the eighteenth-century poets, Thomas Gray is terribly great and too little read. Among recent poets, Joseph Ceravolo was a remarkable talent, and I am glad to have had the chance to write the introduction to his long overdue Collected Poems, which Wesleyan published a year ago.

What is your latest obsession, literary or otherwise?

See answer to #2 above. Sinatra recorded "All of Me" in 1946 and again in 1947 in atypical Axel Stordahl arrangements that feature the piano. In some outtakes Sinatra mutters as the song ends: something along the lines of "get it while you can, I'm leavin' town." Good as these cuts are, the best Sinatra cover of the song comes to us courtesy of Nelson Riddle and his orchestra in 1954.

Is poetry today dead? Alive? Undead? Indifferent? Why should we care?

People used to debate whether the novel is dead. There was a split decision that satisfied nobody, and I think proponents were ready to throw in the towel. But people keep on writing novels, and some of them get read and make a dent in the reader's consciousness. What is different today is that poetry has moved to the center of this debate. Is it dead, does it matter, is there too much of it, does anyone anywhere buy books of poetry? The discussion is fraught with anxiety and I suppose that implies there's a love of poetry, and a longing for it, and a fear that we may be in danger of losing it if we do not take care to promote it, teach it well, help it reach the reader whose life depends on it.

-Edited by Max Minckler, @maxminckler