Interview with Dave Lucas
A chat about poems, Bun B, and millennials.
Photo: Ohio City Magazine, Summer of 2013
Ohio State markets itself as a research institution, which doesn’t necessarily need an asterisk,
but rather a clarification – research doesn’t just involve STEM fields. Research happens in the
humanities as well, and although they aren’t necessarily presented by the university like its
athletic or scientific achievements, the accomplishments of those within the humanities at Ohio
State are just as important. Ohio State has some of the best faculty in the fields of political
science, linguistics, education, social work … you get the idea. Working within both the school
of music and department of linguistics, I’ve been lucky to listen to these people explain
concepts and theses that are being presented at national and international levels. Taking
classes within the English department also turned me onto these sorts of occurrences – these
people really are in every part of the university.
In a turn of events that’s likely to pique the interest of any English professor in Denney, AROUSE member Genevieve had the opportunity to interview Dave Lucas, a man who’s accumulated quite the resume, capped off by an appointment by John Kasich as Ohio Poet Laureate. Dave and Genevieve held this interview this August in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s atrium – the biggest room in the whole building, an expanse of grey and green with plenty of natural light coming in. They are both wonderful people and appreciate you buckling up for this extended interview. – Sam Shomette
only to read poems as poems but to be aware of how poetry is part of our everyday language. So that’s my goal. I think two years should be plenty of time to get that done. [laughs]
G: So are you travelling around for this job?
Dave: Yeah, so far I’ve logged close to 3,000 miles in my car throughout the state of Ohio. Lots of trips to Columbus. I’ll be around from time to time, and this fall, other than Columbus, I’ll be in Athens, Marietta, Delaware, Toledo, and Akron, Youngstown. Probably a couple other places that are slipping my mind right now. But I have lived in Ohio my whole life, but have spent most of that time in northeast Ohio, so it’s been really fun to get a sense of the state beyond my usual stomping grounds.
G: I have found that at OSU, it’s cool to meet kids from other parts of Ohio you’ve never been to. And not only hear how their accents are different, how [the way they pronounce] words is different, but their experiences in general.
Dave: Accents is a great thing to mention too, in terms of the differences in the poetry of everyday speech. My dad’s side of the family is from southeastern Ohio and I remember him telling stories of deliberately trying to lose his accent because he thought it placed him in particular way, which I just thought was heartbreaking because I love the way you can go to a different place and the English we think we all share —I mean we do all share it but there are such interesting variations on it that I think distinguish us and make us fascinating.
G: So when you are traveling to these places, what are you doing exactly?
Dave: It depends what I’m asked to do really. I’ll give readings, or lectures, or lead workshops, or sometimes, I’ve visited a number of schools, [and] we’ll just sit and talk, sort of like we are right now, about poetry. People will ask me questions. Students have great questions because they are in a weird spot where they sort of —well I’m thinking of myself as an adolescent at least, when I needed poetry most, I might not have known that yet, but when I needed it most —people were asking me to find the secret meanings of poems. And luckily I had some teachers that didn’t do that, but there was way too much of that that I experienced and I am guessing your listeners would be all too familiar with as well, that threatened to make poetry feel like something that didn’t belong to me, whereas I think it really does belong to all of us.
G: So going off of that, how can we be reminded that music in itself is a form of poetry?
Dave: One way I think to begin with that is to think of poetry as something we can do without, we don’t need any instrument, we don’t even need pen and paper, although that helps, but poetry begins in the human body, and like dance, the only instrument is your own body to create it, or to experience it. You just need the voice, the breath, the working of the diaphragm, the vocal cords, an ear to be able to hear those sounds, or a sense of rhythm to be able to feel how speech is in intention with silence all of the time. So in that regard, words are music in themselves. But I think we run into trouble, because when we talk about poetry as music, as my teacher Charles Wright has said, “the notes in music don’t necessarily mean anything, whereas words do mean things.” And that’s where I think poetry becomes music, but also something else, and that’s where it gets complicated, and for me, delightful, but definitely complicated.
G: Yeah, yeah, it can be cool sometimes to just look at the lyrics of a song and do that instead of listening to a song because you see it in a different way.
Dave: I think that is true, although there are also times when I will look at the lyrics of a song and it just feels absolutely sterile to me because what I am missing is the way that the singer is using their voice to inflect emotion, the way that the instrumentation is going on behind it. So it’s a difficult negotiation to figure out how much of the one you need in order to make both of them happen. But with that said, you can read and listen at the same time too. G: So as a poet, you wouldn’t say you’re just a lyric person, you can enjoy a song for the beat and stuff, too?
Dave: I do, but yeah, yeah I am a sucker for words for sure. If there are words in a song, I am going to be listening to them and the only way that I don’t do that is if the lyrics are in another language and even then, I am listening for words that I might be able to pick-up, something in French that I might recognize. Or, I do that thing so many of us do when we hear words that are not words that we recognize, and that is invent our own English versions of them and think about what they might mean.
G: So where did you fascination with poetry begin?
Dave: I don’t know. [both laugh] Well, it’s the only true answer. I think that looking back I could say that I was always fascinated as a kid with, words, especially words that seemed new, or exciting, or difficult. They made me feel smart as a kid. But I was always a mimic. I would always imitate people and I would pay close attention to words that people used and the way that they spoke. Now, none of that really meant anything to me until probably when I was an adolescent, having those feelings, “oh, nobody understands me, my teachers don’t understand me, my parents don’t understand me, my friends maybe, but not really.” And yet, in some ways I felt understood by the music I listened to. And then as I started growing a little bit out of that, I needed something else, and I happened to take a poetry workshop when I was in college, and started reading those poems in the context of listening to music, to pop music at the same time and all of that ended up being a way of realizing, oh this is something I not only want to spend time reading and thinking about, but maybe might actually be able to do.
G: So did you enter college as an English major, or…
Dave: I entered college thinking I was going to write novels, honestly, and then I took this poetry course, I fell in love the same semester, you’ve heard this story before. [both laugh] And I think those things were very difficult for me to separate. And then I did end up taking a fiction class and I had this wonderful teacher, a writer named Maureen, who said to me, of a story that I wrote, “Dave, it’s really lovely what you’re doing with the language here, and I am enjoying how you’re using words, but you know that in a story something has to actually happen, right?” And I thought, oh yeah I guess it does, maybe this isn’t me, this isn’t for me. [both laugh]. And so, from that point on, it was really poetry as my choice, because nothing has to happen in a poem. All that has to happen is the language.
G: So recently you did a City Club talk. The City Club is...how would you describe that for people who aren’t from Cleveland?
Dave: I would describe The City Club as a public forum for ideas that has been in existence for 106 years now, I think. And ideas considered in the broadest possible way, so often we’re talking about political issues that concern the nation or the city. But sometimes, we also talk— they also talk about the arts—I say “we” because I had the chance to talk about the arts there and talk about poetry a couple weeks ago.
G: Yeah, and something I really enjoyed you talking about was people struggling with grasping and understand poetry, and “getting” a poem. And that’s what I’ve always struggled with, in elementary school, in middle school, throughout college, is understanding a poem and it feels like it’s a thing teachers really focus on, but there’s so much more.
Dave: So let’s put this in the context of something your listeners might recognize. So if you’d play a song, we were just talking about Sister Rosetta Tharpe. If you play a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song and the next thing you did was to check in with the listeners and say, “ok, now call in and tell me what it means, tell me if you got it!” your listenership would dwindle immediately, because all of the fun would be taken out of it. Now we can do that with songs, I mean I do that with songs, too. Usually we encounter music in a context where the first thing that we’re supposed to do with it is enjoy it. And that’s why I think that we need to reconsider the way we approach poetry, because if we approach it as something first to be enjoyed, then we might be more likely to try to “get it” later on. I’m not against the idea of trying to analyze poems. I’d be out of a job if I didn’t analyze poems. But, I think that the whole idea of grasping and getting suggests that we’re clawing to get to some secret that we think a poem holds, whereas most of the time, the secret that the poem holds is just the way that it is using language to create an experience for us that might be, as you said, the sort of music of the language, that might be some wisdom that we’re looking for there. It might be something as simple as the way that a poet uses a definite article instead of an indefinite article. Something like that, that makes us think of how the poem works, rather than what it means. I think if we approach poetry that way, a lot of pressure is taken off and then we’re free, maybe to enjoy it, ideally to enjoy it, and then after that, if we wanna analyze and become English majors and go to graduate school, then that’s fine. I recognize that most people aren’t doing that and yet, I still think that they can and in fact already do enjoy poetry because we do this with language all of the time. We do it not just when we encounter a poem in a book, but we do it when somebody says, “Oh I can’t believe you said that to me” and then we say, “Oh but I didn’t mean it that way,” and they say “but I said it that way,” and you say, “well, I didn’t mean it that way,” and you get into an argument over what something means. It’s not just with poetry that we do this, it’s with everyday interactions and I think that the more we’re aware of that, the more that we’ll be more comfortable with what poets are up to.
G: For some of our listeners out there who don’t read poetry a lot, what’s an easy way for them to find poems that they like?
Dave: If you want to go directly to poems, one of the best resources I know is the Poetry Foundation website. It’s www.poetryfoundation.org. You can search for poems there based on the theme of the poem, you can search based on poets, you can look basically in any way that you want. But I would say that if you’re not ready to do research, just listen to the way that people talk around you or think of the way that you use metaphors in language to describe things. Imagine a conversation you’re having with a friend that you’re in a course with and you say, “well I can’t see that far down the line in the course.” That whole idea of “seeing down the line” is a metaphor, it’s a poetic gesture that we use. Being more aware of the ways in which people speak in poetry, all of the time, I think is a great place to begin.
G: I’ve been hearing a lot of things about how listening is very important in our generation and in this political climate it is very important to listen to people, and I feel like you’re kind of saying that by listening to the way people talk in general. Is that a good practice to help me more understanding towards people?
Dave: I hope so. I certainly think that. I don’t know anything that goes wrong when we listen more and listen better to each other, but it’s difficult to do because we’ve all got our own things to say, as well. But I also think that there’s an odd, sort of paradoxical thing that happens where the more you listen to the way that somebody talks, and by that I mean the idiosyncrasies of their speech, the more I think we actually understand what they have to say and who they are. That’s not to say that, the way that we talk marks us as from that place or that place, but that the way that we talk is an extension of what we think and who we are. I think we can look at public rhetoric as something that is in a disastrous state right now, and one thing we can do about that is to listen more closely, listen better, and maybe wait a moment longer before deciding what we have to say. And I say that noticing that I have been talking for like 15 minutes now in this interview, [both laugh] but I am going to console myself in the fact that you asked me to do it.
G: [laughs] Yeah I did, this is a unique situation in that sense. So we often use music when we need to be consoled, when we need advice, when we need to be more relaxed, we’ll listen to a song as a release. Do you do this [with] poetry and do you think those two go side by side?
Dave: Absolutely. There are poems that I go, almost sort of as rituals in some ways. There are poems that I like to read every autumn, I like to read James Wright’s (great Ohio poet’s) ”Every Autumn Begins In Martin’s Ferry, Ohio.” I often, after an experience of grief, return to a Dylan Thomas poem called, “Death [Shall] Have No Dominion.” But there are so many others...sometimes it’s a matter of missing a person, not having spoken to a teacher in a long time, so I’ll go back and read one of Rita Dove’s poems because then, if I am reading “Sunday Greens,” I can hear her voice and there’s the consolation not only of the poem on the page, but the sense of the poems themselves. And I think one of the things that is consoling about poetry in general is that, reading a lyric poem gives us this experience that we are encountering another human being. That might be the poet, that might be a version of the poet, that might be a speaker if the poem is a dramatic monologue, maybe it’s just our idea of another person. But that encounter is something that I think allows us to be, if only for a moment, more than simply ourselves and that’s always a consoling feeling because then we are not alone.
G: Yeah, I think the power of reading things and hearing people read poems is [a way of] knowing that you’re not alone…
Dave: It’s difficult because it takes a different kind of concentration than listening to a song. You can listen to a song and do something else. I listen to music mainly when I’m driving.
G: Yeah, same.
Dave: But it’s dangerous to try to read a poem while you’re driving. [both laugh] I wouldn’t recommend it. So it requires a different attention and focus. I think we need both frankly, I think we need both that way of sort of letting the music wash over us, but we also need the focused attention that reading a poem can provide. On the other hand, you can go to a poetry reading and sort of let the language wash over you and find yourself disappearing into what you’re hearing, in the same way that you can do that with the song. So, you have lots of options, those of you who are interested in wading into the waters of poetry.
G: So this is a question about some specific artists, but artists like Patti Smith and Bob Dylan.
Dave: Yeah, pretty good artists. [both laugh]
G: Yeah, pretty amazing artists, are known for both their poetry and their music and also their music is often interpreted as poetry. Are there other people like them you can think of who are known for both of these things?
Dave: Leonard Cohen comes to mind immediately, in part because he began as a poet, before he started recording songs. I think that the rhyme schemes in a lot of hip-hop songs I admire are as fascinating and poet and complex as anything you’ll find in the Elizabethans or anything else. But on the other hand, I think that something can be lost when reading it on the page because then we lose the experience of the beat behind the poem, we lose the experience of the ways sometimes a rapper will bend a word to create a rhyme. I’m thinking of this song that I teach called “One Day” by UGK, the rapper Bun B, who actually teaches a course at Rice University [called] “Rap is Poetry,” rhymes the words “dice game” and “twice man” but he pronounces “man,” in a certain regional way as “main.” And I think about that as a rhyme as something that poets will sometimes do on the page. And we would lose it if we just had it on the page in Bun B verse, but there are ways of doing it on the page and there are ways of doing it with the voice and I never really get sick of either one, which is part of the pleasure of both the reading and the listening.
G: Yeah, it would be weird to think of just listening to Bob Dylan’s lyrics as just his lyrics and not ever hearing his voice.
Dave: Well I’d rather read his lyrics than Tarantula, which I think is just awful.
G: [Genevieve laughs] I’ve never tried.
Dave: And Bob Dylan is one of my absolute touchstones but I remember trying to read Tarantula and thinking “maybe I don’t like Bob Dylan,” actually. [both laugh] But I applauded loudly when he won the Nobel Prize, in part because it forced a conversation about the bounds of literature. I think there are a lot of good arguments out there about why he should have not won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I think that the conversations people had had after that took place were really useful for us in terms of thinking about, “what is this one category, what is this other, do these categories really matter at all?” As I joked with a friend of mine who was very much against him getting the Nobel Prize for Literature, I said, “well I hope he wins it for economics next year.” [both laugh]
G: So going off the hip-hop thing, so you teach hip-hop songs in your [classes]?
Dave: I do, I do. I teach a class called “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry,” and we think about poetry, both as something that you and I have been talking about it, as something that exists in poems, but also as something that exists in everyday speech. And I think that the ways that most people who don’t necessarily read poems, experience poetry, is by listening to music. And hip-hop especially because it makes such an intentional focus on wordplay. Wordplay I think is more important in hip-hop that it is in almost any other popular music genre. And if you listen to...I like to think about a rapper sort of describing who they are, saying where they’re from, as a version of Odysseus showing up in the Odyssey in someone else’s court and always what happens is they throw him a great feast and he’s supposed to sing about who he is and where he’s from and what his travels have been. And that sounds to be as the basis of a lot of great hip-hop songs. So, thinking about those songs as an extension of a tradition that is thousands of years old, I think is a way of reminding ourselves that we’re just sort of one point in this ongoing way, all of these ongoing ways of using language to tell our human stories.
G: What’s a way to motivate people to just write and not focus on writing really, really good poetry? [both laugh]
Dave: Read first, read first. I think a lot of people, at least if they’re like me, began feeling they had something, all of these words are in capitals now: Something Very Important To Say. [Genevieve laughs] And then I realized I didn’t really have anything important to say that hadn’t been said already but there might be some interesting way of saying something. I learned that by reading a lot. So that’s the only tried and true way for anybody to become a better poet, but even if you’re not trying to become a better poet, it’s a way of becoming a more whole person because you’re spending time with other people’s words, other people’s ideas, and if you’re not much of a reader, start by listening. Again, listen to music, listen to somebody read poems, but just listen to the way your friends talk, listen to the way your parents talk, listen to the way your teachers talk, and think about those different registers and what they mean, and then start paying attention to the way that you talk and seeing how it differs when you’re with your friends or teachers or parents and the complicated and lovely ways in which we use language all of the time.
G: Do you ever start writing poetry in your Memos on your phone, like the Notes section?
Dave: No, I can’t do the phone. [both laugh] I think this marks me as just a little bit older than millennial, because I can’t seem to do it on the phone and I can’t even use the dictation software because when I say it aloud at first, I think “Oh that’s stupid, I can’t do that.” So I have to write something down on a scrap of paper that I feel like I could throw away at any moment and the world would never know what idiotic thing I had just come up with. So I don’t use the phone and, in fact, if friends read from the phone at poetry readings I always make fun of them as being way to young and hip for the rest of us. But this is just dating me, I realize as I say that.
G: Yeah, I definitely use my Notes in my phone a lot. But I see that, it is fun to write down stuff.
Dave: Yeah, but you’re young and hip and I’m too old to be on a radio show!
G: You kind of mentioned this, but do you ever struggle with thinking that everything you’re trying to say has already been said? Is that ever an anxiety…
Dave: It’s a constant anxiety. Yeah, I think that’s the constant anxiety of almost every writer I know. Not only that everything has already been said, but that it’s been said better than we have to say it. The one consolation with that is knowing that as far back as the ancient Egyptians, there are records of writers saying “well, it’s already been all said, I can’t say it.” As far back as Ecclesiastes, we have the idea that there is nothing new under the sun. So, I think that this is a constant concern, but it’s also a way of driving us to find some slight variation that, as Ezra Pound said, makes it new.
G: I like that. I know my friends and I have been thinking about that a lot, because we’re at the stage between being adults and being teenagers. You’re thinking of what you want to do with your life, and when thinking about what you want to do, thinking of whether it’s worthwhile or not, the time you’re putting towards it...it gives you a lot of stress.
Dave: I think the only answer there is that if you think about...you have to love the means as much as the idea of the end. So you can think about, “oh, I’d like to become blank.” But if you don’t become “blank,” you have to enjoy the thing you’re doing in the meantime. So if you’re a writer, don’t write because you want to get published, or be famous. I mean, certainly we all attempt to do those things, but write because you love it. The rewards that the world offers are never enough for you, which means that the work has to be enough. So play these songs because you love these songs, listen to your friends because you love them, and wanna listen to them, and not because there’s some end in it.
G: Yeah, yeah. It can be hard, especially when you see young people who are doing more than you, succeeding...maybe not succeeding more than you, but…
Dave: Well all of my students have already started apps when they were sixteen.
G: [laughs] Right, yeah, it can be hard to see that sometimes.
Dave: Yeah, and I don’t know if it’s good news of bad news that that never ends, as far as I can tell. I mean, if it does, I haven’t gotten to the point where it ends yet. [laughs] I would say worry less, but then I think of 18-year old me and he wouldn’t have taken that advice at all. [both laugh] do the best you can.
G: [laughs] Yeah, that’s really hard advice to take. A lot of adults tell me that, and I appreciate it so much… Dave: But trying to follow it is a different matter.
G: What would be a good way to make poetry more accessible at OSU? Because I don’t know of many clubs we have, I know we have one creative writing club, or some open mics, but what have you seen at [Case Western Reserve University] that allows students to interact… Dave: I would imagine you got, I mean OSU is such a big school, I know people who teach there...go to readings given by faculty, go to readings given by students in the MFA program, go to readings by students who are undergraduates, but then go to stuff off-campus, too. Because there’s OSU and then there’s Columbus, and it can be difficult sometimes to separate the two, but there’s different things going on all over the place. The other great thing about where you are is you’re close to Kenyon and Denison and some of these other places where there are great things going on all of the time. So, I would say the first great thing to do is to find a community of friends who are interested in these things with you. Then if you’ve got some way to get off campus, get off of campus and expand that community because then you’ve got friends at a different place who are interested in the same things and now the circles of your interests begin to overlap with other people’s circles, and all of a sudden you’ve got a community of your own.
G: That’s definitely the exciting thing about going to school in a city, you can easily take the bus to go see a show, or yeah, go to a reading. It’s good to take advantage of those things.
Dave: And yeah, I don’t know if it’s wise to Uber all the way to Granville [where Denison College is], but I guess this will test your commitment to poetry.
G: [laughs] Truly, yeah. Do you have any final advice for our listeners, as a professor, as a writer, as a person?
Dave: If your listeners are listening, they’re already doing one of the most important things, so no, they don’t need my advice, other than I thank them for making it the whole way through listening to me. Listen to other people, it’s more fun. [both laugh] G: Thank you very much, Dave.
Dave: Thanks, Genevieve.