A Conversation Between Poets

Date:       Feb 24
From:       Dave Landsberger
To:         Yaddyra Peralta

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me


Your poems are really good. I liked them a lot. I want to talk about CHRIST STILL SWIMMING to start. Jesus swims through the poem and there’s this tremendous humanizing in that act. I mean, Jesus obviously bathed, but the pervading image is of Jesus’s miracle: walking on the water. That’s a great engine for the poem. Is that where the poem began or was it elsewhere?


Date:       Feb 25
From:       Yaddyra Peralta
To:         Dave Landsberger

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

Thanks, Dave!

The poem began with another poem which was an unconscious homage to James Tate’s GOODTIME JESUS. That poem was a silly surreal poem in which Christ wakes up in a small-town jail after a bout of public drunkenness. He’s so hungover, he has an out-of-body experience where he can kind of see the rural and mountainous Honduran terrain from above.

It was that last bit that made me want to write more Christ poems. On some level it has to do with religion and with my extended family’s encounters with American and European proselytizers and the way these waves of religion via missionaries–Roman Catholic, American Evangelical–have shaped the culture and politics in Honduras.

Personally, I am mostly interested in Christ as a literary character and he is red-hot when he is human–angry at his disciples for slacking, angry at the money changers, fearful of himself whenever he is alone. . . I think he is an interesting vehicle to use in my work as he is an outsider viewing Honduran culture and history. In some ways, he enacts my encounter with Honduras, as it is mostly the place of my parents. I literally just wanted him to walk through the country, from south to north. When he reaches the Caribbean in this poem, I wanted him to swim because the waters are just majestic there. I didn’t realize that Christ was not walking on water until I had finished the first draft of that poem.

My Christ does strange things in that series of poems. He drinks hooch, talks to toucans, goes snorkeling. . .
So, here is a question about one of your poems. As always, I found so many surprises in all three–I almost don’t know where to start.

I would love for you to talk about the cicadas in IS IT THE SHOES?

I feel like you’ve talked about cicadas before, perhaps at a reading. . . the way cicadas have become a poetic cliché. Just drop one in a poem and your work is done. (I don’t want to put words in your mouth; this is just my memory/interpretation.) Cicadas are traditionally a marker of summertime in Japanese poetry, and at times can be used to symbolize reincarnation. But the cicadas in your poem are dead, dead, dead. Please talk about your reading of cicadas in poetry, particularly Japanese poetry, if you’d like. How does that reading inform your current work?


Date:       Feb 26
From:       Dave Landsberger
To:         Yaddyra Peralta

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

What bothers me is that poetry can take this living thing, the cicada, and reduces it to one thing: it’s noise. And a poet will make that choice, over and over, to keep using it only as a noise. I understand that it’s what we associate with cicadas, but I think it’s poetry’s responsibility to make a living thing even more alive. The cicadas in the poem are dead because no one’s interacting with them.

In Japanese and Korean poetry the cicada is a symbol of purity. It lives underground off of the dew, for years and years before reproduction. It uses nothing but what comes to it. Many classical poets in these cultures were either high ranking government officials or monastic hermits. The latter lived with no one but the creatures around him, and the cicada became a roommate and an example of a lifestyle to strive towards. A Korean poet I really enjoy is Yi Kyu-bo. He gets really into the cohabitation of man and creature in a fun way. Kobayashi Issa, the Japanese haiku master, is another good roommate.

That’s actually another, albeit right in my wheelhouse, reason I loved the CHRIST STILL SWIMMING poem: getting to see Jesus with sea creatures, which is something I’ve never seen portrayed in any work of art. Jesus surrounded by jellyfish is an amazing tattoo that I hope to see in my life.

It seems then, that really all three of these poems are really ekphrastic poems. Where’s the better poem for you: in the art that you love or the art that frustrates you?


Date:       Mar 3
From:       Yaddyra Peralta
To:         Dave Landsberger

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

I’m not sure which makes the better poem. I know what makes the better process and in terms of inspiration, I guess I lean slightly more towards frustration.

As I said before, I am not a religious person. My attraction to biblical figures is complicated and something I don’t fully understand. I am not at all attracted to the Christian concept of martyrdom. As a child, however, I loved the idea of Christ and his disciples as a sort of gang. That Christ goes off to a crucifixion he has to face on his own, and that ten of the remaining twelve disciples were said to have died their own separate martydoms in far-flung places–Peter was crucified upside down in Rome and Thomas was said to have been speared to death in India–is sad and lonely in a curious way and luckily there are enough narrative gaps for me to work with as a poet.

VANGELIS OF THE CARIB COAST is a strange poem I never thought would succeed. It is from a series of poems I am working on that attempts to capture the sublimity of discovering the movies in gigantic movie theaters with gigantic screens with large sound. Cat People, Blade Runner, Mad Max, Robocop and Terminator were all films I saw in the years when my parents were also sending me away to Honduras for summer vacation. So these sense impressions–spacey synthesizers and lush highland mountains–came together in a way that still messes with my memories. Because the feelings that these movies and memories still stir in me is nothing short of sublime–at least as the term is used in art and philosophy–something that embodies both the turbulent and the beautiful in an inexplicable way, I am finding these poems to be a bit of a challenge. How do you write that?

I am glad you mentioned Issa because I was trying to put my finger on the tonal quality of your poems. Issa’s haiku—direct, honest, at times, downright cranky–sometimes make the work of the other masters seem like pretty landscape paintings in comparison. Your poems have couches that hate, moonroofs that confuse, and yammering dumpsters. They seem to be of a different genre: the anti-pastoral. Or the urban elegy. Very little romance or white-washing here. I’ve seen this element in your work before, particularly in the work you produced when you lived in South Florida. How is your current environment influencing your work? And in general, how sensitive are you, as a poet, to your living and working environment?


Date:       Mar 15
From:       Dave Landsberger
To:         Yaddyra Peralta

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

I always tell people who aren’t from Chicago that the best thing about it is that everyone who is here wants to be here. People don’t come to Chicago to “make it” or whatever, they come here because they like it, and the winter is a blessing in disguise because it keeps a lot of posers and lazy people away. I think that’s a great environment in which to create. Everybody here is all in.

But Chicago is still this beast of a city, grazing next to Lake Michigan, and it’s stubborn and primal. I work in the Loop on the 36th floor next to the Chicago River, and there are peregrine falcons soaring and stooping outside my window everyday while I make calls, write emails, etc. Everything feels like it’s at work here, constantly. I’m sure Carl Sandburg said this more eloquently 100 years ago. Like in the opening stanza to his poem Halsted Street Car:

“Come all you cartoonists,
hang on a strap with me here
at seven o’clock in the morning
on a Halsted street car.”

It’s a small poem but it gets at what makes things move here to me. First, there’s people going to work at 7 am on that car. Second, the only people who can capture it the right way would be the cartoonists. Sometimes I feel a greater connection to cartooning than to poetry.

Most poems start with an image for me, an overwhelming percentage of them. If not, it usually begins with something I read, like a quote. I don’t really start poems with ideas or arguments or forms, it’s rare. The poem GENTRIFICATION is an example of a poem beginning with an image from my environment, even though I was just passing through a small town in Indiana where I saw the old and the new Pizza Hut next to one another. Images birth ideas in my head, not the other way around. Do you ever see something so often that you feel like you have to write a poem about it? Sometimes I write poems because I feel I owe it to the subject of it. The car wash next to my apartment has been begging for a poem for months.

GENTRIFICATION began as an image but evolved into an argument. And once all that was in place I could settle on the form, which is a haibun.

Let’s talk about how poems begin with ST. PETER IN DENIAL. You have an epigraph in the poem, John 21:18. I’m really into epigraphs at the moment and I was wondering with this poem and you other work, where does the epigraph enter the creative process for you?


Date:       Mar 23
From:       Yaddyra Peralta
To:         Dave Landsberger

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me


Epigraphs have only entered my writing practice in the last two years or so.

The manuscript I am working on includes a few poems based on historical figures. Since I do light research at times, I like to collect interesting quotes, facts or ideas that I come upon–I like finding odd things that are surprising and stir some kind of odd emotion for me. For instance, the fact that Jack Ruby left his prized dachshund in a parked car so that he could go shoot Oswald. The quote is a simple one I found on a blog: “Jack Ruby left his dog in the parked car.” Well, for me any dog in a parked car is an evocative image. Separation. Anticipation. Fidelity. Abandonment. How does one turn a poem that could topically be about the Kennedy/Oswald assassination into one that’s about the intimate dependency between two beings? One that is about the invisible moment when the cord is cut? Either by choice or circumstances beyond their control. I’ve actually not written this poem, but I imagine that if I wrote a poem inspired mostly by an epigraph, this is how my thought process would work.

For ST. PETER IN DENIAL, I had a title–Peter was the disciple who denied Christ three times–and I had the overall concept for a series. I imagined placing 10 of the disciples in parts of Honduras as they neared their martyrdom. I knew I didn’t want them to be fully narrative and I didn’t want to reference the actual method of execution. I envisioned Peter being carried out of caves located in the interior of the country where my mother is from. But because this was random placement, I had no clue as to how I was going to enter this poem. I picked up a Bible, flipped to the New Testament and found the epigraph you see at the start of the poem. I was haunted by that image of being carried where one does not want to go, and that image carried my imagination into the poem. The epigraph works because it doesn’t explain too much. It’s a bit mysterious and open-ended like the poem itself.

I guess I will end this amazing conversation with a question that seems obligatory and maybe boring, but I do really want to know: Who are you reading and why?


Date:       Mar 24
From:       Dave Landsberger
To:         Yaddyra Peralta

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

The fact that you haven’t written that poem about Jack Ruby’s dachshund in the car is great, just so great. I feel like you illustrated even better than I could about what makes epigraphs so magical: they create their own tiny universe simply via innuendo, slight connection, or in dichotomy against the main “body” of the poem. I feel as if they are so, so, useful in that sense, if not for the finished product of the poem itself, then simply for the writing process.

Rather than tell you what I’m reading now I’ll tell you the best thing I’ve read in a long time: “The Peregrine” by J.A. Baker. The book is a daily journal of Baker following a few peregrines on his property in England from the beginning of autumn to the end of spring. It is the best nature writing I have ever read. I cannot recommend it higher.

Thank you so much, Yaddy. It has been wonderful to peek around in your brain.

J. Michael Lenon: A Masterful Biographer Takes on a Literary Heavyweight

When J. Michael Lennon, Emeritus Vice President for Academic Affairs and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, became Norman Mailer’s authorized biographer in 2006, he must have felt like a fighter preparing for the bout of his life.  Yes, Lennon had known and worked with Mailer for decades. True, in addition to being chair of the editorial board of The Mailer Review, he had written or edited several books about and with Mailer. Sure, he was the past president of the Norman Mailer Society. But none of that diminished the task before him.

Over a career that spanned more than six decades, Norman Mailer became the most famous author and the leading public intellectual of his generation. Driven by enormous intellect, and equally enormous ego and ambition, Mailer was one of a handful of serious American writers who became known beyond the usual confines of the literary world.  A national celebrity at the age of twenty-five with his huge bestseller, his World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, Mailer went on to write ten more bestsellers, both fiction and non-fiction.  Two of them (The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song) won the Pulitzer Prize.

In landmark essays like “The White Negro” and “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer engaged with the major cultural and political currents of the postwar era, from the rise of the hipster and the Beat Generation in the 1950s to the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the anti-war movement of the 1960s, as well as the women’s movement of the 1970s. A vastly influential journalist as well as a novelist, he was also a pioneer of the “New Journalism” and a co-founder of the trend-setting New York weekly The Village Voice.

Lennon had complete access to all of Mailer’s papers, library, and massive correspondence.  In Mailer’s final years (he died in 2007 at the age of 84), Lennon conducted more than twenty extensive interviews with him, and over the last thirty months of Mailer’s life, Lennon visited him daily in his longtime home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

The result of this epic research is Norman Mailer:  A Double Life, published in October of 2013 by Simon and Schuster. Nearly 800 pages long (not including the notes), Lennon’s biography has been widely praised for the quality of the research and the writing.  Renowned biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin called A Double Life “ . . . one of the best biographies ever written of an American writer.” In his review of A Double Life for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter writes, “There’s not a paragraph in this enormous book that doesn’t contain a nugget of something you should have known or wish you had known. Lennon has it all, and he has it down.”

J. Michael Lennon

J. Michael Lennon

In the arena of biographers, J. Michael Lennon has emerged a champion.  Recently, we asked him some questions about his subject and his process.

Nicholas Garnett: In writing A DOUBLE LIFE, you had access to a trove of new sources and material, the cooperation of Mailer himself, the Mailer family, plus a three-decade long personal and professional relationship with your subject from which to draw—all of which sounds like a biographer’s dream.  But how did you manage to organize, rather than sink under, the sheer volume of material?

J. Michael Lennon: I have been waiting for someone to ask me that question because organization is a sine qua non for a biographer. My Mailer archive included reviews of his 44 books, hundreds of interviews and profiles of him, 3500 of his letters, my interviews with friends and family, and so forth. Before I wrote a chapter (each chapter covered 5-10 years of his life), I put together a chronological document consisting of excerpts from all of these documents, especially from his letters and my interviews with him. If I needed a brief profile of someone who entered his life during the chapter—Muhammad Ali or JFK or a Provincetown friend—I added that profile. Ditto for events that occurred—the Beatles coming to the U.S., anti-war rallies, the passing of the Civil Rights Act. In short, I assembled a 20,000 to 25,000 word document, and then connected the dots, wrote the connective tissue. It was more complex than that, of course; sometimes I had to take a day and read chunks of books—a bio of Gore Vidal, for example—or research the vote totals in a presidential election, or the boxing record of Jose Torres. A biography is like an iceberg: the final pages are above the water, but there is a lot beneath, 90%, in fact.

NG: One of the responsibilities of the biographer is to present the facts. But we also depend on them to help us make sense of their subject’s life, to provide context. How did you determine when it was time to step in?

JML: Instinct, mainly. If I could delineate a complex event, or explain Mailer’s motives as I construed them, or point out why and how an event would be significant later on in his life (the benefit of hindsight), I jumped in. But sparingly. It is best to let the story roll, and not be intrusive. When I was overdoing it, my editor, Bob Bender of Simon & Schuster, or Mailer’s sister Barbara, or my wife, among others, would point out my error. Sometimes, I would realize that I had not said enough. It is a balancing act. Say too little and the story becomes occluded; say too much and the reader gets annoyed. Reading over every chapter a dozen times, and adding a sentence here, dropping one there, was a necessity.

NG: Over the course of writing the book, did you have any personal revelations regarding Mailer?

JML: There were no gigantic revelations. I knew the shape of his life, and many of the crannies of it, pretty well. But there were empty places in the mosaic, and researching and writing allowed me to fill in the missing tiles, tessellation is the technical term, I think. But there were surprises: he was more depressed and depleted in the early 1950s than I had thought, and actually thought about giving up writing and trying something else. And he had love affairs that I discovered. There was a lady in Chicago that I had not known of, Eileen Fredrickson. She had a 12-13 year affair with him that I learned about after I had begun. She was a dear and shared her memories and letters. I also got a better idea of his finances—he had the IRS nipping at his rear for many years, and until the mid-1980s had trouble paying for the expenses of a large family—nine children and five ex-wives.

NG: At the risk of putting you on the spot, how would you rate Mailer’s fiction versus his nonfiction?

JML: He was a two-hander, equally adept at fiction and nonfiction, like Vidal and Joan Didion. But I think his two finest books are nonfiction: THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG  (1979) and THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT (1968). I am also a great admirer of his 1965 novel, AN AMERICAN DREAM, as well as HARLOT’S GHOST, his 1991 novel about the CIA. He found fiction writing to be much more difficult, if more lucrative, than nonfiction. Remember also that he was a great biographer, and biography is a hybrid, a real life story told with fictional techniques. He wrote wonderful bios of Marilyn Monroe, Picasso, Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jesus Christ.

NG: Do you think your relationship with Mailer influenced the way you presented the material?

JML: Yes, absolutely. I spent a lot of time with him over the years, and saw him almost daily during his last three years. We talked about everything under the sun, and I know his opinions and ideas on many topics. I was, therefore, able to make some educated guesses about how he felt in certain situations. I kept a “Mailer Log” for three years, and wrote down what he said over dinner and so forth. It is 150,000 words in length, and I drew on it a great deal. I had Boswellian aspirations for many years, and wrote down a lot of what he said for decades. I liked the guy, and that comes across, I think, but this side of idolatry. It would be an exquisite torture to write a 900-page bio of someone you hated. He told me to put everything in, and I tried to accomplish that.

NG: Were there any aspects of Mailer’s life with which you were uncomfortable or reluctant to write about?

JML: No.

NG: What do you think the writers of this generation can learn from Norman Mailer?

JML: Mailer was a pro who knew that no matter how successful you are as a writer, you still had to sit down every day and write. Buns on the bench. His discipline was extraordinary. There were not many days that he took off because he had a hangover, or wanted to go to a movie. He believed that writers should have a pact with their unconscious. The writer promises to be at the desk in the morning, and the unconscious, in effect, promises to deliver the material. It works, I can tell you. The other thing writers can learn from him is the value of long-form narrative. It seems that nowadays novels and memoirs rarely get beyond 100,000 words. Why is that? The length of a narrative is an organic consideration; it should be as long as it has to be.

NG: What’s next for you?

JML: I’m editing Mailer’s letters for publication by Random House this fall, another big book. Mailer wrote 45,000 letters, and it took me four years to read them and make my selections. There will be 707 of his letters, written over 67 years, in my edition, which will be about 300,000 words in length.


Top 10 Norman Mailer Books

J. Michael Lennon’s top-10 list (selected from Mailer’s 44 books) isn’t only a great guide, it’s also an example of the astonishing range of Mailer’s talent, interests, and ambition.

1. The Executioner’s Song—An immense panoramic nonfiction novel with over 300 characters that recreates the last nine months of Utah murderer Gary Gilmore.

2. The Armies of the Night—Describing himself in the third person, Mailer draws on the techniques of the novelist, the journalist, and the historian to depict a divided nation. Generally considered to be one of the glories of the New Journalism, the narrative is a sharply observed account of the October 1967 anti-Vietnam War March on the Pentagon.

3. An American Dream—Written month by month for serial publication in Esquire this dread-soaked 1965 novel about a psychology professor who murders his high society wife shows Mailer at the height of his metaphoric power.

4. Advertisements for Myself—This 1959 miscellany contains samples of all Mailer’s earlier work stretching back to short stories written in college, as well as his endlessly reprinted essay about hipsters living in the New York demimonde, “The White Negro.”

5. Harlot’s Ghost—Mailer’s longest book (1310 pages) is a spy novel. Like a long freight train, his story of WASP intelligence agents in war and peace snakes through upper-class American life, international intrigues in Europe, the CIA’s attempts to poison Castro, and its failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis.

6. The Naked and Dead—Set on the fictional island of Anopopei, where a Prospero-like American general attempts to defeat a stubborn Japanese force, Mailer’s novel vies with James Jones’ A Thin Red Line as the finest fictional depiction of World War II combat.

7. The Fight—The definitive account of one the most dramatic prizefights in history, “The Rumble in the Jungle,” Muhammad Ali’s epic championship bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974.

8. Why Are We in Vietnam?—Set in the peaks of the Brooks Range in Alaska, Mailer’s 1967 novel of big-game hunting and communing with the wilderness is one of his briefest, a mere 200 pages.

9. Marilyn—Mailer’s first full-length biography (1973), examines one of Hollywood’s most glittering icons.

10. The Time of Our Time—TOOT, as Mailer called it, contains 130-plus excerpts from his books arrayed chronologically so as to deliver a portrait of the U.S. from World War II through the Clinton Administration.