Jia Oak Baker

Lester Graves Lennon Interview


Lester Graves Lennon’s latest book My Father Was a Poet, published by CW Books in the spring of 2013, is a collection, as Dana Gioia stated, where “personal history and national history become interwoven to remarkable effect.” His first collection, The Upward Curve of Heaven and Earth, was published in 2001 by Story Line Press. Lennon has worked as an investment banker for over thirty-five years and has been an advocate for poetry serving on the board of directors for both Red Hen Press and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Jia Oak Baker had the opportunity to sit down with Lennon in his home in Los Angeles, California, where they listened to Frank Sinatra and conversed about his work as both a poet and banker.


You are a poet but also a fierce supporter of poetry. Can you discuss your advocacy for the art, specifically the organizations where you contribute your time and effort, as well as what inspires you to do so?


Well, currently I sit on the board of directors for the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the advisory board for the English Department at the University of Wisconsin, the board of directors for Red Hen Press, and the advisory board to the Poetry Center at West Chester University. It seems just a way of sharing a little expertise and energy that I have. In a lot of ways, poetry is not what it was—it seems to be continually shrinking, but there is a core beyond which I don’t believe it can shrink. As long as people have a need to be introspective, there is a need that poetry can meet, both in expressing that introspection and in reading or understanding it.


In 2012, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named Eloise Klein Healy as Los Angeles’s first Poet Laureate. You were an integral part of that process. How did that come to fruition and what did you hope Los Angeles would gain from having its own Poet Laureate?


I’ve known Antonio a long time—I knew him before he was an assemblyman. I worked on his first campaign—that’s going back fifteen, twenty years. When he became mayor the first time, I told him, “You know, you have an opportunity now, to appoint the first ever Poet Laureate for the city, and you really ought to take advantage of that.” I sent him a memo, gave him three suggestions, and outlined for him what other cities in California and around the nation were doing. He came back immediately with a positive response. But you know, life got in the way—a poor economy—he had other things to think about. I kept nagging him when I’d see him, “You need to do this.” Then when he was reelected, I told him again face to face, and he said, “I hear you, I hear you. I’m really thinking about it.” We had some talks, it got put off to other people, and then it kind of fell off.  I stayed after it. About a year and a half before his term was to end, he said, “You know, I’m really going to do this.” He got the Cultural Affairs Department involved, and he appointed a task force that I was a part of with Dr. Kate Gale from Red Hen Press and Dana Gioia, poet and professor at USC. That task force still exists. We were charged with giving him three recommendations. We did, and he selected Eloise Klein Healy. I think it was a very positive event for the city—to give poetry a recognized place within the municipality, within the bureaucracy. One of the things I wanted to see and thankfully one of the things that the Poet Laureate chose to do was to bring poetry into the schools. That's another way to keep poetry alive and keep it flourishing--students will get an opportunity to see what poetry can do for them.


Congratulations on the publication of your second collection, My Father Was a Poet. The book is powerful, weaving themes of war, loss, love, and honor, as told by a speaker with great compassion. This is no more evident in the book than in the second section where you oscillate back and forth between “The Father” and “The Son.” There are difficult choices made as a poet in terms of handling perspective and tone. How did you conceive of this section, and how was the writing process for you in terms of writing in the persona of both the father and the son?


The idea came to me at Squaw Valley, maybe six or seven years ago. The very first poem, which is the title poem, I read at a workshop there. I’m not quite sure how it came to me. The photograph of my father that’s on the cover—there’s actually another man in that photograph. A friend, who is a professional photographer, worked on it and edited him out, found parts of a car that matched. You really don’t know there’s another person there, but they’re kind of talking. The photograph used to be in the den, and I would look at it and look at it, you know, because my father was not a bad looking man. At Squaw Valley in the workshops there, it gets you to open up in ways that you might not find in other places, other times. That lake is just an extraordinary gift that the planet gives us . . . the poem just kind of came. So I said, “This guy could talk. They could have a conversation. Let’s see where it goes.” Since almost all of what I do now is in form, I decided the father would speak in iambic tetrameter, and the son would be able to meander more with iambic pentameter. Most of it is in blank verse. There are a couple of deviations into other forms, a villanelle in “Captain, High School Track Team,” and the closing poem of the son, “Sun Time Will Call a Line of Stars from Me,” is a sestina. It uses as its end words, the last poem of the father, which conveniently also has six lines. So he takes the end words of the father’s poem and uses that as the basis for his sestina.


You mentioned you work almost exclusively in form. How does that inspire you?


When I was at Squaw Valley, I surprisingly came up with a new poetry form that I was surprised hadn’t been used before. Sometimes I get a little too proud of myself, and I’ll have a line that begins with a word and ends with the same word to give it emphasis. And so I set out to do an 18-line poem in blank verse in which the first word and the last word of each line were the same. There would be three stanzas with six lines apiece, but at the end of each stanza there would be a little turn in the first word and the last word. Let’s say the first word was “turn.” The last word might be “turning” or “return.” I was talking about war, and I was surprised at the amount of energy that could be created using that form. And then what am I going to call it? And ego won. It’s a Lennon Lyric. I found I could use it for war, for love, and more ordinary things like my fantasy football team.


The poem “The Breaking Men’s Club” captures a sense of fraternity between those who have been broken at the “hard hands of chosen men,” but the poem’s penultimate line offers a rhetorical turn. The speaker states: “We are not broken. What breaks us gives us life.” Can you talk generally about this sense of fraternity in the book juxtaposed next to poems of domestic violence and war?


There is so much pain in life we have to transcend, and for this particular person or that particular group of people, "breaking" another is a choice they make to try to become stronger—to survive. It really is a survival mechanism as opposed to a destructive mechanism, although it is destructive. Sometimes we go into "war" because we put ourselves on a path where we just can’t back away, and sometimes we go just because we want to go.


Donald Hall stated, “I read poems for the pleasure of the mouth. My heart is in my mouth and the sound of poetry is the way in." The poems in your collection are definitely a pleasure for the mouth, as well as the ear and heart. I was struck by the nature of sound in the poems and found myself reading them aloud. Can you share your writing process?


I actually think rhythm is my way into a poem. Dana Gioia said something that stuck with me: “When you read a poem out loud, you are almost as close to the poem as the poet is when he’s reading it." Because the air is moving through the voice box, you get to feel what the poet was feeling when reciting his poetry. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll start reading the poem to see if the flow is what I want or where its pattern or rhythm isn’t how I’d like it to be, how I think the poem believes it should be. It’s kind of haphazard—I’ve spent a year and a half on a poem. There was one poem I couldn’t write; I couldn’t get it for seven or eight years. It was in my first book, and it was a poem about a basketball player who committed suicide. I was trying to get into how this happened, and I tried from my perspective, and I tried from the player’s voice. It just wasn’t working. Then I thought, “What I really ought to do is talk to one of his teammates.” So that’s what I did. I became his teammate, and his teammate had his view of the player. And that’s when the poem got to where it should have been. That process took awhile.


In the collection there are references to great poets of the past: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Butler Yeats, Po Chu-i, as well as Galway Kinnell. Who have been your greatest poet influences in your writing?


Yeats, Whitman, Rilke, Neruda, and Stevens—in that order. In Neruda there’s just a richness of language. It’s like, “What the hell?” In it’s own outrageously glorious way it all fits. It takes you to a place—I don’t know if that’s the place the poet intended you to go, but you wind up feeling quite good about the place you’re in. Yeats, in his way, is like a punch to the gut. Those lines. He would say in a good day’s work, he might get two lines of poetry. You believe it—it’s not that it seems effortless because you know it’s not. The power, the way he uses rhythm, the way he uses rhyme—it really caught me in college. And Rilke is a continuing mystery. There’s a glory in the language. Sometimes, a lot of times actually, you’re not quite sure what he means, but you get a sense. You can give it meaning that way. Like Wallace Stevens said, “A really good poem is one that is just beyond understanding,” though you can take that too far and lose your audience. 


Your day job is as an investment banker, which seems a world away from poetry. Are those worlds connected for you?


Absolutely. What I do as an investment banker is I try to position our firm as a part of a team so we can be selected to do business for municipalities, primarily in California. New York City is one of my clients, the New York Dormitory Authority, the City of Phoenix. There are a lot of folks going after what you’re going after. And it’s my belief that the first rule of investment banking, because there are so many of us, is differentiation. The second rule would be flexibility. Not a whole lot of investment bankers out there who can walk into a client or prospective client’s office and leave a book of poetry they’ve written as they walk out. They’re never going to forget that. Some of them may not care, but some of them will. One of my clients in New York City was being honored, and she introduced me to her mother who had come up for the event. She said, “Mom, this is the only investment banker I know who is a poet.” And there were literally scores of investment bankers calling her. So, that’s one thing. But the other is the creativity and finding ways for form to have a reason, form to have a purpose. So, you’re looking at the form of various types of financial structures and looking at a need that a municipality has and what’s the best form or variation of a form for that municipality. And that’s what you’re doing in a poem. You have something you want to say, you have a group of people you want to reach, and what are you going to do? What form are you going to use to be effective in reaching the people that you’d like to reach? Energy and creativity is energy and creativity. It’s not “this” is for poetry and “this” is for finance and “this” is for home repair. It’s all the same. It’s just how you channel it.


The poems you are currently working on are about “work.” Can you give us a hint about how the poems might be shaping into a collection?


Well, I think the core will be about work. I’m sixty-six years old. I suspect by the time I’m seventy, I will have retired from investment banking. And I will probably have a greater sense of personal sense of freedom and writing about experiences I’ve had. There’s one poem I wrote, ten or twelve years ago, that I read to another friend, who is also an investment banker.  It was directly about another banker, and it was really a revenge poem.  He said, "Are you sure you want to put this out there?" I didn't then, but that poem will probably go into the next book. 


In the poem “Human Craft,” the speaker contemplates the question of purpose and states, “poets in quest constructing form from questions, / cartographers of silence and the void, / charting our edge, skillfully working fear, / making new maps, new markers as we makers / engrave our passage on eternity.” What would be the map or the marker that you would engrave?


At this point, it’s that book. I never read that poem, but I love that poem. It’s one of my favorites.


Jia Oak Baker is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars where she received a Liam Rector Scholarship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DMQ ReviewSoundings ReviewBlue Earth ReviewMojave River Review, and elsewhere. Jia is the recipient of the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award in poetry as well as a scholarship to the New York State Summer Writers' Institute. She currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where she helps edit Four Chambers Press.