Dave Lucas is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at University of Michigan. A native Clevelander, he returned to the area to complete his dissertation remotely and run the Market Garden Brewery Reading Series, which highlights the work of local writers. His first collection Weather (University of Georgia Press, 2011), among other things, examines what it means to be part of Cleveland and, in a broader sense, the Great Lakes region. Over the past month, Lucas took some time to answer a few questions for me over email.
You were born in Cleveland and, after some time away from the city, live there once again. Especially during the first half of your debut collection Weather, with poems such as “Midst of a Burning Fiery Furnace,” “Lake Erie Monster,” “At the Cuyahoga Flats,” “River on Fire," and “Midwestern Cities,” you engage the idea place and location frequently. Could you address how Cleveland, and the Rust Belt in general, affects both you and your writing.
I should begin by saying, however naïve or antique this may sound, that I believe wholeheartedly in the idea of poetry as a language of incantation, of mystery. For me, one of the marvels of poetry is that poetic language can conjure a place as one sees it, remembers it, or even as one wishes it to be. I think of Walt Whitman’s (or Frank O’Hara’s) New York, Derek Walcott’s Caribbean, Alice Oswald’s Devon, Annie Dillard’s Tinker Creek.
I feel that I am both from and “of” Cleveland. The Cleveland of Weather is a poeticized, mythologized vision of the real place—whatever “real” might mean. I wasn’t alive to see the river burn, for instance, but the idea strikes me as an image out of Exodus or Revelation. The narrative of the Rust Belt in my lifetime—you hear it in the name itself—has been a story of smaller-scale apocalypse and exodus. I hope that the poems in Weather emerge from that narrative but also serve to transform it.
Finally, I find especially apt the perhaps inevitable analogy between poetry’s reputation as a dying art and Cleveland’s reputation as a dying city. I want the poems in Weather to strike against this idea; I want both the art and the city to be, as they are for me, in the present tense.
With regard to your collection striking against the idea that both poetry and Cleveland are dying, I wonder how you explain some of the lines toward the end of the collection. For instance, in the poem “The New Poetry” you write:
The new poetry will cough of blood...It will eat its own young.Like an ancient star, it will snuff outbeneath its own densitythough we wheel ships by its light. (61)
These lines don’t, necessarily, offer images of life; in fact, coughing up blood, eating one's young, and a star whose light has been snuffed out are all rather deathly. How does this excerpt speak to or against the promise of life and living in the present? Do you see a tension between these forces of life and death at work in your collection and in the city itself? Also, Cleveland (and, to a certain extent, the entire Rust Belt are) affects the poems in your collection, but do you think poetry affects the city (or region) in any demonstrable manner? How so?
I suppose I don’t think of those images as exclusively of life or death, but as of some muddier space between the two. I think you locate those images as I think of them quite accurately indeed when you speak of a “tension between these forces.” That’s the animating tension for me, the old “in the midst of life we are in death” that animates not only poetry but just about everything.
That said, the poem you mention was born of a certain wariness of mine of (and weariness with) declarations of the new or next. Death to this and long live that and so on, a kind of poetic junk food (to which I’m as susceptible as anyone else). But the New Thing, when artists declare it, often tends to resemble some recalibrated version of the old thing. My “The New Poetry” is a cheeky answer to Charles Wright’s “The New Poem,” and the lines you quote represent the uneasy tension of earnestness and self-satire from which the poem emerged.
As to whether poetry affects this region in a demonstrable manner I am agnostic. I do think that, as is often the case for those who live in places subject to frequent ridicule or simple indifference, the poetry of popular music gains a particular power to affirm what it might mean to be a Clevelander. I notice an apocalyptic strain in much of the music and lyrics of the region, especially since the decline and fall of the Seventies and the rise of phrases like “Rust Belt” or “Mistake by the Lake.” I see this from Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs to the Pretenders to Trent Reznor to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, all of whose music has reflected and amplified the sense of a world on the brink, in the midst or the aftermath of falling apart.
In general, I am less comfortable with Shelley’s declaration that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world than I am with Oppen’s variation, that poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world. When I say I don’t see poetry—in the Norton Anthology sense of the term anyway—affecting the city or the region in any demonstrable way, it’s the word demonstrable that trips me. I do believe that poetry can change persons. I say “persons” instead of “people” because I think such changes happen slowly, individually, and often enough without our knowledge. That Auden line that poetry makes nothing happen gets thrown around too often without regard for what he writes next, that poetry itself is “a way of happening, a mouth.” Of that I am absolutely confident.
The title of your collection is Weather and, to some extent, the change of seasons appear to dictate (or at least influence) its overall trajectory or rhythm. Could you speak toward the relationship between your book and the natural world (i.e. atmospheric conditions and/or seasonal changes)? How did you decide on the title? How do you see the your current work relating to or veering from these thematic preoccupations?
My editor used to joke with me that in titling a book Weather I was asking for a reviewer to pan me in two words: “Or not.” I’ve avoided that, so far at least.
As you mention, the poems in Weather are concerned with atmospheric conditions and seasonal changes, but I hope they are similarly attentive to the epochal seasons of geological and human history. These are thematic concerns, but they are also the sources of vocabularies that I find irresistibly musical—of meteorology and alchemy, history and myth. So in the title “Weather” I am also thinking of the entropy, decay, wear and tear to which we all are subject, and which the place where I live seems to betray more famously than others might. And that puts the other valence of the word in greater relief—that “to weather,” of course, is to endure. (Which, along with the pun my editor suggested, on “whether,” seems especially apt for a first book, I think.)
My current work is the writing of a doctoral dissertation on contemporary poetry, so it’s difficult to trace the thematic occupations from my first book of poems into this current project. But I have been spending a great deal of time and energy reading and reading about four remarkable contemporary poets—Adrienne Rich, Mark Strand, Derek Walcott, and Charles Wright—so I’m curious to see how they will influence the poems I’ll write next.