Monday, June 20, 2011

Poet Linda Lerner: “Takes Guts and Years Sometimes”

Poet Linda Lerner: “Takes Guts and Years Sometimes”

Interview by Doug Holder

Recently New York City poet Linda Lerner visited the Boston area and revisited my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.” Linda has taught English in the City College of New York system for many years, and has lived the life of poet. Her first priority is her writing and has lived her life to accommodate this, often at the expense of financial security. She has been published widely, and has just released an accomplished collection of poetry titled “Takes Guts and Years Sometimes.” (NYQ Books).

Doug Holder: You lived near the World Trade Center when it was bombed in 2001. How did this tragic event affect your writing?

Linda Lerner: Oh, it definitely did. I had no experience of war like most people in New York. And it felt like I was in a war zone. And for the first time I had an idea what people must go through to see everything destroyed: homes destroyed—people crying in the street. I think it gave me a much broader perspective. My father was born in Russia and escaped at one point because of the Pogroms against the Jews. He often spoke of what it was like to be driven out of his home. Now I knew what it felt like.

DH: After 9/11 you were part of that tragic diaspora. You lived in the Chelsea Hotel for a while, right?

LL: Yeah. The day it happened I was teaching a class at the New York City College of Technology and in the middle of the class the sirens went off. They always go off in Manhattan—you don’t think anything of them—it is part of the norm. And then a student came in late and said a plane hit the World Trade Center. This was a student who was always late, so I figured it was a great story—excuse. But the siren didn’t stop and then someone rushed in to tell us what happened. They made us leave the building. I couldn’t go back home to Brooklyn because the bridges were closed. So a bunch of us spent the night at a colleague’s apartment—sleeping on the floor. We called hotels, but they wouldn’t take us. The Chelsea had a room, and I was there for a couple of weeks. It is a wonderful place—with such a rich literary and artistic history. I have a long poem about my experience.

DH: You have been long associated with the New York Quarterly which published your new collection “Takes Guts and Years Sometime.” The Quarterly is now run by Raymond Hammond. Can you tell us a bit about the magazine, and your history with it?

LL: Yes. NYQ started their imprint in 2009. This was the late William Packard’s idea. He was the longtime editor before Hammond but he got sick. He couldn’t put out the magazine anymore. Hammond has done a wonderful job with the Quarterly—he made it his personal project.

When I got out of college in the 70’s, my background in literature stopped around 1950. I knew I had to do something—someone suggested a poetry class with William Packard at The New School. So I took two classes with him. One was a poetry class, one was literature. I never submitted a poem before. I was new at this, but I gave him a poem. He didn’t think it was a masterpiece (Laugh). I couldn’t take criticism at the time and I never submitted another. But I stayed in the class and learned a lot about poetry. And then I started helping out with the magazine. When I started contributing a few years later he started to take my work. I interviewed Hayden Carruth for one issue. Carruth was a fascinating man. Absolutely brilliant. He smoked non-stop, popped sleeping pills, drank a lot. I was really nervous about the interview because at one point when I started it he said, “That’s a stupid question.” But as the interview went on it worked out very well.
I love the magazine especially its emphasis on craft and craft interviews.

DH: I read somewhere that you said you never compromised for a paycheck. Can you explain?

LL: I never let a job take over my entire life. I always had time to write. I wound up with a series of college teaching jobs that left me with time to write. In the end I may pay for it when I get really old. I never got involved in the politics of a job. I try to do a good job, but I always have to have time to write. It’s hard out there meeting NYC rents, etc…

DH: As a daughter of immigrants (Your father was from Russia) did this give you outsider status or a different view of contemporary American society?

LL: In all honesty it wasn’t until father died in 1985, did I start to identify more with him. As a child I was embarrassed by him, by his accent, his lack of education, by his old fashioned ways. I guess after he died I drew closer to him because he was not around to argue with. It was very hard for a bohemian artist child like me to deal with an old world father.

DH: What steered you to this sort of boho/arist/poet lifestyle?

LL; I don’t know to be quite honest. When I grew up I was the odd person—different. I was always getting in trouble—the black sheep so to speak. I really wasn’t aware of what I was until I got older. The rebelliousness was always there.

DH: Some of your works deal with gentrification in the city. Do you think Jane Jacobs’ vision of the city as urban village, with unique communities—is long past?

LL: I don’t like what has been happening to the cities. First of all the rents are so high the middle class is moving out. They aren’t able to afford it. I remember a couple of years ago I went down to Little Italy and it didn’t seem like the Little Italy I knew. Where I live in Carol Gardens in Brooklyn it still retains some of the old world charm, but it is rapidly changing. Gentrification is taking away from the charm and sense of community.

DH: It used to be easier to live the artist’s life.

LL; Back in the 70’s for an artist to live. My first apartment was in Greenwich Village. It is very hard now. The economy is bad. When I got out of college there were many jobs you could get. I took a civil service job as a social worker. Right now many of my friends are rooming together in small apartments to make a go of it. It’s not like the old days. Young people are moving home with their parents. A lot of the small bookstores have closed—we have the big chains and even they are closing.

DH: Is the poetry scene still thriving in NYC?

LL: Oh yeah. On any given night there are 7 or 8 venues. The scene changes all the time. Even more so now with all the online venues.

DH: Do you think online magazines are as good as print? Does it mean the same thing to be published in both?

LL: People say so but I prefer print. But there are some good online magazines. Everything seems to be moving to the virtual world.

DH: It’s a brave new world.

LL: Yes it is.

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