Gary Lehmann - Author

Author's Publications and Upcoming Appearances

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Poetry Starter at Just Poets

On November 5 at 1:30 pm, in the Lavery Library at St. John Fisher College on East Ave., Rochester, NY, I'll be giving a little talk on writing poetry and then providing a poetry starter. These are my notes toward that talk. Maybe they will inspire you to come, or, if you can't make it, provide a poetry starter for you right now.

Poetry has both a public and a private face. All poetry has to be personal. It has to reflect emotions that the poet feels deeply to make the poem real. On the other hand, if it is too personal, it loses its ability to communicate to readers.

Frequently, the inspiration for a poem arrives while I am looking at the news, reading books, or watching CNN. An interesting event occurs somewhere in that informational soup. That is where the poem begins. Say I read that Sigmund Freud opened a drawer behind his sofa in 1937 as he packed to leave Europe to escape the Nazis. In this drawer he discovered a fur hat which belonged to his father, Josef. It reminds him of a time when he was ten. His father had overcome financial difficulties to achieve a level of prosperity again. He bought himself this fur hat to wear on long walks through the woods around Vienna.

One day a man confronted him while on one of his walks, and called him a Jew. "You Jew" he yelled at him and he threw his fur hat in the mud puddle they were both facing. Later on, Sigmund's father told him this story to warn him about Anti-Semitism, but Sigmund was a spirited child and chastised his father for not fighting back.

I wrote this poems several years ago, and I now think that the reason that this story interested me is that I had some issues with my father. He worked for 38 years for the Gleason Works, an engineering firm in Rochester. After a while, he didn't advance as fast as he wanted to in the firm, but he stuck with it. I blamed him for that and I know he understood my reproach. Many decades later, I stayed at a univerity job much longer than was good for me. How could I have been so stupid as to do the same thing I blamed my father for doing?

Here is the poem that resulted:

In the Drawer

Gary Lehmann

In the drawer
behind the couch
Sigmund Freud
kept a fine fur hat
his father wore
to walk through
the Parks of Vienna.

In the park
behind the wall
Sigmund Freud’s father
met a man dressed in velvet
who called him a Jew.
“You Jew!” he said
pushing his fur hat into a puddle.

In the mind
behind the sofa in the drawer
Sigmund Freud
kept his disgust for the father
who did not answer back
and wrung muddy water
from his fine fur hat.

It is interesting that my personal reaction to my father is not an explicit part of this poem, but it certainly is part of the emotion in the poem. If I hadn’t had that personal experience, there would be no reason for me to have any insight into Freud’s dilemma. After all, he attacked his father for not confronting racist views and now, in 1939, he was doing the exact same thing himself. Life hands you these little insights from time to time. I just don’t think that every poem has to focus directly on the poet per se.

I think good poetry merges the public and the private. The personal aspect does not have to be explicit. It is present in the emotion that drives the public story. You will only find interesting stories that have some personal connection, even if you don't exactly understand what that connection might be at the time you are writing the poem.

Recently, I have been interested in the situation that developed at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans as Hurracane Katrina broke through the levees that protected the city from flooding. As the water rose, public power cut off. Later on, the back-up generator, which some genius located in the basement of the hospital, also cut out.

Suddenly, the first floor of the hospital was flooded. All the nurses and doctors rushed to help get patients up to the second floor. The evevators didn't work. There was a lack of coordination because the intercom system was out. The heavy hospital beds had to be abandoned, so every patient had to be put on a stretcher and carried to the second floor where there were no rooms available for them and not enough beds.

In every other room in the hospital, a simultaneous emergency occurred. The ventilators stopped ventilating. The operating rooms became inoperable. The suction machines stopped sucking. The place was in total darkness. Heart monitors stopped monitoring. Everything stopped at once. The modern hospital is designed to be powered. When stuff goes off all at once, you have the day from hell.

Now in the aftermath, Public Health officials in New Orleans are examining 45 bodies in the morgue to see if any of them were helped out of their rapidly diminishing lives by desperate doctors or nurses who couldn't cope with the sudden overload of emergencies. What would you do if you saw a patient drowning in blood you couldn't suction away? How do you save the life of a patient who needs constant ventilation, when the ventilator stops? What would you do to help a patient in extreme pain when you knew there was nothing to do to help? This same emergency is happening not just in this room but in every room on the ward. Similar life threatening emergencies are occurring on every floor through every door all at the same time.

In war, medics triage patients with the priority given to those patients who have the best chance of survival. That means that sometimes really injured patients have to die so many more easily saved patients can be returned to the battle. This is an accepted ethical practice in wartime, but is this the same?

I'm interested in this problem for a poem, because I think that in my life I have made decisions which affected other people's lives. The poem may be about the impact of Katrina on Memorial Hospital patients and staff, but behind it will be my own feelings and experiences informing the emotions I attempt to convey.

So, take some time to consider your own issues as relate to this tragedy and see if there isn't a poem in you about this situation. Come at it from whatever perspective engages your interest. Find the hot spot in the story and dig into it. Underneath there somewhere will be your feelings and experiences, but if you are like me, it might take weeks or months before that relationship becomes clear. Start by locating the part of the story that moves you most and then just explore it.

Be well and do good writing.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Public Lives and Private Secrets

We all admire great people, but we often don't understand what it is about them that we admire. Their private lives are hidden in dusty autobiographies which only occasionally reveal an instant which illuminates their greatness in a moment that lasts no longer than the flash of a paparazzo's camera.

This book of poems gathers up a parcel of those moments, first in great people's lives and then in the lives of ordinary people, to reveal something of what makes them of interest to us.

Each of us has experienced secret moments which have exposed, if only for a heartbeat, our true character. Sometimes we have hurried away from these naked moments, but at other times, we have had the courage to look at them fearlessly, trying to see what magic alchemy they might hold which can turn them into personal gold.

Public Lives & Private Secrets is an invitation to explore the meaning of the secret moments in your life.

Gary Lehmann teaches literature and poetry at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He annually publishes his poetry in journals around the world, delivers public lectures on history and literature, and publishes articles for journals and newspapers on literature and politics. He has written novels, several non-fiction books, and a play about Susan B. Anthony. During the summers, he interprets nineteenth century trades. He holds a Ph.D. in Literature and History from Duke University and lives with his wife, Wendy, in his long-time hometown, Penfield, NY.

From the book:

Cubist Nightmare
Paris 1914

Picasso returned from Spain
his arms loaded with cubist canvases,
the best he ever painted.

He filled his apartment on rue Schoelcher,
relishing walls that shouted out a new vocabulary
that explained the way people really live.

But his old apartment house seemed empty and dreary.
His buddies Georges Braque and Andre Derain
deserted him to join the madmen in the trenches.

As if this weren't enough, his only remaining friend,
Guillaume Apollinaire, joined up too.
The season of emptiness descended.

Picasso moved to Montrouge
where there was at least some life
in the cabarets and coffee houses.

He skulked about like an old man
sipping cognac and coffee into the late night
and brooding on the masques of war.

He returned to Montrouge to discover that a thief had
stolen a bolt of linen cloth he had not yet stretched.
The insult hit him like a machine gun bullet.

The world it seemed stood so upside down
that it could not differentiate a cubist painting
that explained the whole impending disaster

from a blank bolt of linen cloth.

Lord Byron Takes a Swim

Shelley's drowning was terrible enough, but
his cremation on the beach was unbearable.
Soldiers split his skull with a spade
digging the body out of the sand.

His skin was chalky gray from the quicklime.
The water-soaked corpse took hours to burn.
The fire was very hot and slow.
Children gathered from the town to watch.

Byron was on edge because he knew that
Shelley had dared the storm only to taunt him.
He refused to be guided by good sense.
Had he drowned himself just for spite?

Then Shelley's skull split open and
the brains ran out into the upturned
skull plate dancing and boiling in the fire.
Byron could endure no more.
He stripped his clothes and swam into the sea.
If only he had refused stupid competitions.
Shelley's small boat was too fragile for storms.
Lord Byron swam for miles, all alone.

As the cold began to inhabit his chest,
he wondered if he had the courage to drown.
Did he deserve to live now that Shelley
had found such a heroic end to life?

Byron turned back toward shore.
More wood was being added to the fire.
Everyone was bored with burning dead poets.
Lord Byron emerged from a heartless sea.

Anais made love...

Anais made love all wrapped in irony.
She stroked her lover like a pet boa,
the snake within and the tigress without.

Anais made love in willful uncertainty,
always aware of the tentative touch, the quotable caress,
the trespass between raw nerves and the gift of words.

Anais made love like a cellist,
never knowing for sure whether she was the musician
or the sonorous body that made the sound.

ISBN 0-941053-59-8

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Authenic Voice of Wendell Berry

Immediately after the American Revolution, it occurred to people that a new country had been founded and a new concept of what it means to be an American was required. On the one hand, Thomas Jefferson offered a vision of an agrarian America. The land is fertile and he saw life on the farm as a healthy, self-sufficient lifestyle suitable for a newly free people. On the other hand, Alexander Hamilton, born into a mercantile family, saw the future of America in industry. Ample natural resources and water power made America the ideal place to develop the industrial revolution without all the hindrances of Old World conventions.

Of course, as it turned out, the country went in both directions – at least until recently when big government has regulated family farming almost out of existence. Land lies fallow. People founder in their rootless urban environments, and America has, for the first time in its history, begun to be a net importer of almost everything.

The poet and farmer, Wendell Berry has taken up where Jefferson left off and offers in his writings a call for Americans to return to agriculture and self-sufficiency as a cure for our modern woes. Some see this as unrealistic, but others call it visionary, an authentic call for clarity and harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth.

Wendell Berry was born in Henry County, Kentucky in 1934 in tobacco country. He went to the University of Kentucky where he obtained a Masters Degree and met and married his wife, Tanya who has become has lifelong companion and first reader. After studying writing at Sanford University, he took his family to Europe for 5 years on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

When he returned to Kentucky, he settled down on a small family farm in Port Royal, near where the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers meet. "It is a real farm,” he has been quoted as saying, “not a writer-professor's country estate. Its chores include milking cows and currying horses, and mucking out stalls and mending fences and mowing hay and all other time-consuming sometimes back-breaking, labor that family agriculture requires"

He had seen what the world has to offer in all its modernity, and he has come back home to chose the land and the life of a farmer. Even as he taught at the University of Kentucky, he simultaneously farmed the land with a team of horses and a plow, natural fertilizers and herbicides. Even as he wrote and published 30 books, he maintained a simple lifestyle at home, no indoor plumbing, limited use of electricity, and lots of hard work and fresh air.

He has been remarkably productive as an author having written 25 books of poetry, 16 volumes of essays, 11 novels and short story collections.

He does his writing by a window during daytime when he does not require electricity. "It is best, for me when I can write every day, from breakfast until noon. That's about as long at a stretch as I can hope to write well." He works with a pencil. Then his wife transcribes each page and types out a draft copy which she reviews with him. He has resisted the almost universal tendency to write on a computer, because it will make his writing no better and will disrupt the creative harmony that he has had for so many years with his wife.

"I write in longhand, with a pencil, and make many changes and erasures as I go along. Every morning, before I begin, I read over and correct the work of the morning before. When I have finished a chapter or a story or essay, I read it aloud to Tanya, my wife, and make the corrections that this reading suggests to her and to me. Before she types it, I read it again and make further changes. Between typescript and publication many more changes may be made."

Despite this somewhat isolated existence, Berry writes about modern life. In a 1999 essay entitled “The Failure of War” he asks, ”How many deaths of other people’s children are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent and (supposedly) at peace? To that question I answer: None . . . Don’t kill any children for my benefit.”

In his essay entitled “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” he asks some crucial questions about the underlying causes of the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Would it have been necessary if we had adopted a more civilized idea of global economy? How is public education being used to create a predatory society? What would we have to do to become peacekeepers in the world?

“The serious question is whether you're going to become a warrior community and live by piracy, by taking what you need from other people.”

In The Art of the Commonplace, he offers an agrarian alternative to modern urban culture. He feels that environmentalists have been sidetracked into a focus on wild lands when they should be looking at the overall benefits of small-scale agriculture.

In his poetry book, Given, his “Sabbath Poems” transcribe poetry that arose from his long–time habit of taking Sunday morning walks of meditation and observation.

The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful.”

In his book The Long-Legged House, he sums up his whole writing philosophy in just nine words. “What I stand for is what I stand on.” For more than 40 years now, Wendell Berry has produced poetry and other writing that reflects a life centered on the land and the life of the farmer. His work is spiritual without being religious, authentic without being corny, honest without being unrealistic.

Still, you can’t please everyone. Currently on, one of Berry’s books of poetry is reviewed by an anonymous reader who says, “I thought this book was one of the most boaring [sic] books I have ever read. If you ask me I thought they should of selcted [sic] different poems by Wendell Berry. None of them were good. I don't reccomend [sic] this book to anyone!” This review features 3 spelling errors in just 4 sentences. I suspect that Berry would see this review as symptomatic of what he has been trying to say his whole life.

1072 words