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The Aroostook Review
by Geraldine Cannon Becker
Lewis Turco has been called an institution in the world of poetry. His name may well be recognized in other realms but many poets know it backwards and forwards and even in other formations (such as Wesli Court). Lewis Turco’s skills with language are unmatched. His interests revolve around books and people who love language as much as he does. Turco is required reading in my Form and Theory class—and highly recommended everywhere else.
It was a thrill to see poems by Lewis Turco in our AR mailbox. I read them straight away and immediately responded with an acceptance and a query asking for an interview. Fortunately for us all, the interview was granted. In my excitement, I couldn’t keep quiet about our featured scholar/poet. The people who knew this interview was forthcoming kept asking me when it would be posted. The delay in posting could not be helped but I think it is important to know that the interview took place in the early Fall of 2006.
The following information comes from his website:
The author of over forty-five books, chapbooks, and monographs, Lewis Turco has published The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics (E. P. Dutton, 1968), which, over the decades, has become known as “The Poet's Bible”; Awaken, Bells Falling: Poems 1959-1968 (University of Missouri Press, 1968); The New Book of Forms (University Press of New England, 1986); Visions and Revisions of American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, winner of the Poetry Society of America's 1986 Melville Cane Award for literary criticism, judged by Donald Davie); The Shifting Web: New and Selected Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 1989), The Public Poet: Five Lectures on the Art and Craft of Poetry (Ashland University Poetry Press, 1991); and Emily Dickinson: Woman of Letters, Poems and Centos from Lines in Emily Dickinson's Letters (State University of New York Press, 1993). He was the 1997 winner, with his Italian translator Joseph Alessia, of the first annual Bordighera Bilingual Poetry Prize for his A Book of Fears (Bordighera, 1998, judged by Felix Stefanile); a collection of memoirs, Shaking the Family Tree, was published simultaneously by the same publisher.
The Book of Literary Terms, The Genres of Fiction, Drama, Nonfiction, Literary Criticism and Scholarship (University Press of New England, 1999) was cited by Choice as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2000. In the latter year a companion volume, the third edition of The Book of Forms, A Handbook of Poetics was published, and in 2004 a third volume in the series appeared, The Book of Dialogue (all by UPNE). In 2004 also Star Cloud Press of Scottsdale, Arizona, published A Sheaf of Leaves: Literary Memoirs, The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004, and in 2005 Fantaseers, A Book of Memories. Forthcoming titles from Star Cloud are The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories and Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco, both due in 2007. (http://www.lewisturco.net/)
AR: I'm sure our readers would be interested in knowing more about your recent projects. So, would you tell us what you've been up to lately?
Turco: Until you asked me that question I hadn’t realized that I’ve been doing a whole lot of writing about family, both my own and that of my wife, Jean. Earlier this year I began writing a series of poems tentatively titled “Attic, Shed and Barn” about the house and property in Dresden that belonged to my wife’s family, the Houdlettes and the Cates, who were early settlers in the part of town called Dresden Mills—you’re using several of those poems in this issue. I’ve written scores of poems about the place over the decades, most of them collected in a book titled The Green Maces of Autumn, Voices in an Old Maine House, two sections of which won chapbook awards about ten years ago. In 2002 I published the complete series from my Mathom Bookshop, which I began on the property in 1979 and will close at the end of this year .
The most recent thing I’ve written is an essay in response to an article in the current issue of Italian Americana calling for more information about Italians who are Protestants. My essay, titled “The Story of an Italian Protestant” is about my father who was an Italian Baptist minister in Meriden, Connecticut, where my wife and I grew up (her father was my seventh grade shop teacher). It’s already been accepted by Italian Americana. A few months back I had my DNA tested by the National Geographic Human Genome Project and discovered that my deep ancestry is Arabic dating from the 10 th century in Sicily (“Turco” means “Arab” in Italian and I’m a member of an odd haplogroup, “G”). Jean’s DNA is being tested right now — I gave her the kit as a gift for our 50th wedding anniversary this past June.
The third strand in this recent family activity has to do with my mother’s ancestry. Thirty-one years ago I wrote a huge manuscript (1200 double-spaced, typewritten pages) titled Satan’s Scourge, A Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft in England and New England 1580-1697. When I finished it I never did anything with it, and I recently decided to type it into my computer.
It’s a book of history, a chronicle of the period when the Age of Sympathetic Magic, which had been the system by which mankind operated from time immemorial, was beginning to shift over to the Age of Science, “The New Philosophy,” by which the world would be increasingly governed from then forward. The main focus of the book is upon the Putnam family of Buckinghamshire, in England, from the birth of John Putnam, born in 1580, some of whose descendants would be involved in the last gasp of sympathetic magic, the great witchcraft explosion of Salem in 1692, the climax of the book. (My mother’s maiden name was, and my own middle name is, Putnam.)
The volume not only looks at all the witchcraft cases in England and New England during the period covered, but it also tells the stories of the major scientists and Adepts of sympathetic magic (often the two were the same) in Europe and America. The effect is twofold: First, the method is strictly chronological, unfolding like a tapestry year by year. As one thread of the tapestry swells and tapers off, others appear and interweave with one another. Second, the history is told from the point of view of common people, the Puritans of England and New England primarily, but also the crystal gazers, alchemists, witches and their accusers, and those ordinary citizens caught up in the webs woven by plotters, liars, “possessed” children and their parents, and, of course, the clerics.
Furthermore, this is the period when America was settled, when Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads carried out their Puritan revolution, and all the politics and machinations of the relevant sovereigns and courtiers of the period are also a part of the tapestry woven.
Everything in it is true. All the incidents took place in the real world, according to my historical sources (which are exhaustive), and the depiction of the Salem witchcraft trials is the most complete and accurate that has ever been written.
AR: I have read Lewis Turco and His Work: A Celebration (edited by Steven E. Swerdfeger, Star Cloud, 2004), which is a fascinating collection of essays about you, your work and your influence on others. At the end of this volume, a former student quotes you as saying: "A poet is born in his or her twenties" (213). Could you expand upon that for us? What exactly did you mean? I believe I've read elsewhere (but I can't put my finger on the source) that you said it is never too late to start learning about form. I've used The Book of Forms in my classroom, but I have to admit that I came to form at Winthrop University (then College) in Susan Ludvigson's creative writing class, using Patterns of Poetry, by Miller Williams. Both books have been called form Bibles by various poets, including me. What advice would you have for a person who would be a poet?
Turco: Miller Williams and I are old friends—we were Fellows at Bread Loaf together in 1961, and as Director of the University of Arkansas Press he was also my publisher, but his Patterns of Poetry (1986) is a much more recent publication than The Book of Forms which was originally published eighteen years earlier, in 1968. He used my copyrighted system of diagrams—the only difference is that he used “s” (for “syllable”) instead of my “x.” If you go back and look at that book, you’ll see that he even used many of my poems as examples, both under my own name and that of my anagram alter-ego “ Wesli Court.” I proofread his book for him, which I was happy to do because I was delighted to see that there was beginning to be a resurgence of interest in formal verse-writing after three decades of neglect.
There is no particular correlation, however, between “traditional form” and “poetry,’ which I define simply as “language art.” Something said well is something well said, but something said superbly is a poem, regardless of its structure, regardless of the mode— prose or verse—in which it is written. Prose is unmetered language, and verse is metered language, and any of the genres (poetry, fiction, drama, nonfiction) may be written in either of the two modes.
What I suppose I meant by saying that a poet is born in his or her twenties is that poetry, it seemed to me, is a young person’s art; fiction is an art often of middle age, and nonfiction is often the province of elders who write their memoirs. But that’s too facile. I used to believe that, but I’ve been writing all those ways most of my life. I also used to tell my students that “writing is writing,” and I think that would be a better quote.
AR: Perhaps you could tell us about patterns in the series of poems you have in progress.
Turco: Like many of my poems and series, Attic, Shed and Barn is being written in unrhymed variable syllabics. When I write in this system, which is my prosody of choice, I write the first stanza as though I were writing in “free verse”—that is, of course, prose. Then I count the syllables in each line, and I keep those counts in succeeding stanzas, line for line, indenting or not depending on the length of the line, the shortest indented most, the longest not indented at all.
People have been criticizing me for this method since John Frederick Nims did so at Bread Loaf in 1968 when my Awaken, Bells Falling was published. Most recently a critic in a Maine magazine criticized The Green Maces of Autumn for the same reason, saying that some lines did not end at a “natural” break or pause.
Well, but that means he wants to break or pause at the end of a line, and that’s absolutely the worst way to read any poem, even those that rhyme and have meter. Try it. Read any poem you wish and pause at the end of each line, then ask your audience how well they understood it.
No, I always told my classes to read poems just as they would read prose, stopping or pausing only where punctuation told them to. In your experiment, re-read the poem you chose obeying only the punctuation, not the ends of lines. Then ask again how well your audience understood the poem. I guarantee the improvement in understanding will be a hundred percent or better.
Lines are for rhythm. They are not substitutions for punctuation. That’s why one-word lines seldom work, because they have no rhythm.
AR: I found it telling to read "Upstairs" in A Sheaf of Leaves. You hone in on perception, prejudice and early influences with your usual swift skill. My own family had few books in the house—the most important one was the Family Bible. I got discarded books from the library at the end of the year and learned to read fast. I couldn't waste time and I was hungry for words. Sometimes I would savor the sound of words and read things aloud from the front porch, where the sounds echoed in the holler just beyond the steps. Would you describe the room in which you currently work? What volumes on your shelf do you reach for time and time again?
Turco: That would be the sign of a poet: a hunger for words. It sounds to me as though you are a natural. I was pretty much the same way—I always loved the way the sounds of words chimed with one-another.
As to the room where I work: The family house, built in 1754, is down the road, but I don’t live in it. My daughter, Melora Norman, lived there until recently with her family, but she works for the State Library in Augusta and she has moved there with her family to be closer. And it’s a better commute for her husband Steve who is the director of the Belfast city library.
The old house is drafty, it has a soggy basement, it costs a fortune to heat, so my wife and I live up the road on the same property in a big trailer that sits on a full foundation dug into the side of a hill. There’s a big screen porch in front of the place and a deck with an awning in back, and in the basement there’s a beautiful big room that looks out through many windows and a sliding glass door onto the Bog Brook in our back yard. It’s like watching a changing postcard all year. It’s tight and snug in the winter and cool in the summer. Actually, when I’m not out in the yard working on turning it into a park, I live in that room.
And books: in the barn of the old house I began the Mathom Bookshop in 1979 because I’d been collecting books all my life and I decided to begin selling the overflow. Basically, there’s not a lot of room in the trailer for piles of books, but the bookshop is my own private library. I’m donating a lot of my poetry books to the Special Collections of the Cleveland State University where I founded the Poetry Center of Cleveland in 1962, but who needs a monster library these days with the Internet sitting on one’s desk?
I’m always reading a book or two or three. Right now I’m reading The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly, published this year by Random House, and I recently finished Sicily , Three Thousand Years of Human History by Sandra Benjamin, also new from Steerforth Press. I’m always reading volumes of poetry—people send me two or three each month, and I have reviews of several coming out in various magazines. Today I began reading proofs of my forthcoming Fearsome Pleasures, The Complete Poems, to be published on my birthday, May 2 nd, 2007, by Star Cloud Press which in 2004 issued The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004. The latter is traditionally formal and the former is all sorts of things other than rhymed and metered, including prose poems, syllabics, even word-count poems.
AR: Perhaps you could tell us about your work with George O'Connell and the Christmas cards you do with him each year.
Turco: George is a wonderful printmaker living in Oswego, New York. We were colleagues at Oswego State University for many years, and we’ve been collaborating for most of them. Each year we do a Christmas card, and we take turns: One year I write the poem and he “illustrates” it, and the next we switch around—he does a print and I write a poem to fit. We’ve done both those things in larger works, too, including Bordello, A Portfolio of PoemPrints published by George’s Gray Heron Press in 1996 (the year I retired from teaching) and released during an exhibition of our work at the Rathbone Gallery in Albany. Another set was called “The Jazz Joint” —it was part of another exhibition at the Kirkland Art Gallery in Clinton, New York, in 2001. A retrospective exhibition of our work, “Collaboration: Prints and Text,” took place at the Tyler Art Gallery on the Oswego campus in 2001. Collaborating with George has been one of the true delights of my life.
AR: It must be satisfying to know that many people have made room for your books on their shelves, and turn to your books time and time again. I know you have been asked about this before, but would you talk about your success as a writer?
Turco: Ah, success. What is it? I never intended to be a critic or a scholar—I was fired from my first job in Cleveland for refusing to start work on a Ph.D. —yet I’m probably best known for my scholarship and criticism. I’ve published more original scholarship than 99% of the Ph.D.’s in the world, I have no doubt. That has always seemed quite ironic to me. And I started out as a fiction writer: my first short story won a local prize in 1949 and was published in my home town paper the summer before I entered high school. Yet my first book of fiction, The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories, won’t be published until 2007 (Star Cloud is doing that, too).
All I ever wanted to be was a poet, but many more people have read my books about poetry than have read my poems. So, by the measure of the world I am no doubt counted a success, but by my own measure that’s debatable, even though I think my poems are as well written and entertaining as anyone else’s, and I’ve published probably hundreds of them. Life is very odd.
AR: I've had former students write poems for me and send me off (when they knew I was moving away) with gifts, but to have so many people celebrating you and your work must have really been something.
Turco: Yes, but you know, I think maybe my greatest successes have come to me as a teacher. I truly loved teaching, and I loved my students. Obviously, your students must think well of you—I heard from one of them just this past week, Ken Markee, who spoke well of you. We never know as teachers what will be reaped the future, but in my case I got more back than I gave to my student Steven E. Swerdfeger, editor and publisher of Star Cloud Press, which puts out many of my books.
AR: I feel similarly about my students in all of my classrooms. The other students learned a great deal from Ken and I almost considered him a co-teacher in that online class. He often responded to student questions before I did, which I did not discourage. Former student, Sarah E. Smith, in the Spotlight of our current issue, turned the spotlight back on me in her essay on what life has been like for her since we were last in the classroom together. This was an unexpected honor.
As I mentioned at the outset, I was awestruck by the idea of interviewing you—I am still amazed by the breadth of your work and I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I hope to continue our correspondence.
Turco: The pleasure has been all mine. I like talking about poetry and the craft of writing better than almost anything else. I thank you for your interest and kindness.