Interview With Author Sydney Lea
- Sydney, what inspired you to write A North Country Life? From my very young childhood, when I was introduced to it by my father and uncle, I have haunted a certain part of Maine, which is still wild and remote. But fifty years and more ago, and for some decades after, I knew and loved a generation of men and women – all of whom would be at least 120 now if they still lived– who scratched out their livelihoods there before the arrival of power tools, let alone electricity. Because they had no means of outside entertainment, they provided their own, generally in the shape of stories, and sometimes poems and songs. I just turned 70 myself, and as I approached that milestone, I recognized that mine would be the last generation ever to have known such people. Because their sense of the kinship between language and the natural landscape, and their narrative impulses, have had a profounder effect on me than anyone or anything – not only on my writing but also on the way I have tried to conduct my life– I felt I owed them this tribute. They needed to be remembered on the page.
- What do you find so fascinating or important about the tales of woodsmen, waters, and wildlife? I guess I just answered that, at least in part. We live, increasingly, in a “virtual” world, one in which our relations with the physical one are more and more oblique; as an inveterate outdoorsman, I lament this, but also as a mere human: I think we lose something vital as our lives become more and more technologized. I am not being anti-technology, not at all; I am arguing only that our unconsciousness of the degree to which we are creatures of nature is a regrettable and even a dangerous thing. If you have a close physical and spiritual relation to nature, for example, you are more apt to treat your environment with reverence, care and concern. In the cases of the old folks I’ve mentioned, the line between nature and human nature was so vague as almost to be non-existent. I’ll never be one of them, but I admired and still admire the state of mind and body they personified.
- You write of people long gone from another century. What are the challenges of bringing their voice to life today? Well, among many others, a huge challenge is to convey just how skillfully they could weave a story, whether it was fictional or real (often it was hard to be sure, and they kept it that way). Related to that –despite the fact that many of them were at best sub literate – was how deftly and effectively they used language. Now I am no Willa Cather or Mark Twain. It takes genius like theirs to use dialect to capture the essence of a local language. We lesser writers must try to capture the rhythms and the cadences of that glorious speech without imitating it, because efforts at imitation often ring so false, and when they do, they imply condescension, assort of Uncle Remus gambit. And Lord knows, that’s the last impression I want to leave. But that’s what A North Country Life tries to do.
- As the Poet Laureate of Vermont, how can we encourage the growth of the art of poetry? I think poets need to get out into their communities more, to take their work and others’ to venues that aren’t –like so many in our time– academic ones. Mind you, I’m happy enough to have those more specialized audiences, but they are not the ones I have in mind as I write. Crazy as it sounds (and I concede it makes no sense at all), I like to imagine those old- timers as my listeners. This does not mean I have to write simplistic poetry; the men and women I have in mind were simply educated, if educated at all in the formal sense of the word, but they were a long way from stupid. I was an academic for over four decades, so I don’t mean to foul my own nest; but too many academics assume that all the smart people exist behind ivied walls. I have made it my mission as poet laureate to visit Vermont’s community libraries, and believe me, there are plenty of smart people, from all stations in life, who show up when I do. I don’t just read. I try to correct the notion, which I may be as guilty as anyone else of helping along, that poetry is this arcane, encoded mode of discourse that you have to have special training to understand. I tell my listeners that I think of poems as one person saying something to another. If the one doing the saying is any good, I believe, he or she does not start with a whole set of symbols and metaphors; these arise from the context of what he or she is saying as he or she says it. If some people find poetry obscure, it’s at least worth asking whether the fault lies not with them but with the poets themselves. I’m old enough that I am not embarrassed to say that there are reams of contemporary poetry that leave me dumbfounded.
- What advice do you have a struggling writer? My advice is simple: in order to be a writer, you have to write. That would seem self-evident. But it is astonishing how adolescent the views of Hollywood and a whole lot of fancy scholars seem to be with respect to how one becomes a poet: that somehow you are star-crossed, that you wake up one day, get struck by inspiration, and boom! you’re William Blake. I like to analogize to sports. Michael Jordan, say, wasn’t Michael Jordan until he had put in all kinds of time practicing his shots and moves. There were likely lots of young men with similar talents; it was the combination of God-given talent and persistence that made him what he was. It’s much the same with writing. Anything you do rigorously for ten years, let’s say, is something that you’ll get better at. Will you be the literary Michael Jordan? Who knows? But you certainly won’t come close by studying it, thinking about it, planning it. What was that ad that Jordan was in? “Just Do It.”
- As the founder of the New England Review, where do you see media coverage of books heading? It is perfectly clear that we are going through changes that rival those brought on by the Gutenberg Bible’s printing in moveable type. I don’t really know much about technology, nor have I ever been much good at predicting the world’s future; yet even I will be presenting a collection of essays (along with my collaborator, the former Delaware laureate Fleda Brown) as an e-book in April. I am clueless as to what this bodes, but I can’t help it: I’m going to find out. In short, we are moving from a print medium to a screen medium. Indeed, in many respects we are already there. Magazines such as the one I founded will, I suspect (and sure it saddens me; why wouldn’t it?) will cease to exist, and so will books of the sort I have been publishing for more than thirty years. Or rather, they will morph into an online/electronic format. A lot of the best have already done so. So both publication and critical and public response to it will follow suit, already have in many places.
Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. Please note, Sydney is a client of Media Connect. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at email@example.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This blog is copyrighted material by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2013 ©