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The Poetry Kit Interviews Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch was born in Detroit in 1948 so he's going fifty in October. He was educated by nuns and Christian Brothers and then went to university and mortuary school from which he graduated in 1973 and took over the funeral home in Milford, Michigan in 1974 where he's been ever since. In 1970 he went to Ireland for the first time, to find his family and read Yeats and Joyce. It changed his life. He has returned many times since then, and now owns the small cottage in West Clare that was the home of his great great grandfather, and which was given as a wedding gift in the 19th century. He spends a portion of each year there. He married in 1972 and divorced in 84. He has a daughter and 3 sons. He married Mary Tata in 1991.
His first book published by Knopf in 1987 was Skating with Heather Grace. In 1994 he published Grimalkin and Other Poems with Jonathan Cape. In 1997 he published a collection of essays, The Undertaking -- Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, with Cape and W. W. Norton in the States. That collection has been translated into several other languages. In 1998 he published Still Life in Milford, with Cape and W. W. Norton. A new collection of essays, Bodies in Motion and at Rest, will be out in 2000.
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry to publish in 1980. In university during the late 60's, I wrote two poems published in a university magazine. The next poem I wrote was in the first months of 1980.
Was it your visit to Ireland that provided the first spark?
Well, I first visited Ireland in 1970. And began writing poems a decade later. I think that being a father ( My children were born in 1974,75,78 and 80) and being a funeral director gave me a sense of wanting to put something on the record.
Do you come from a literary family?
No, I do not come from a literary family. I'm the only writer in the crowd.
What were the books\events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?
I always read poetry. The poetry of Yeats and Berryman and Roethke and Edna St Vincent Millay and Edwin Arlington Robinson and Emily Dickinson and many many others. As for events, the first poem I wrote and published was called A Death and it was an effort to say something about the death of a young woman I'd known since childhood who died of a brain tumor. I knew her family. I was the funeral director involved with her burial -- had been for some years by then. So I suppose poetry, language, the shaping of it, was and remains for me an effort to make sense out of essentially senseless situations. I sent the poem to Poetry Magazine in Chicago. John Nims was the editor then. He took it.
What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes and techniques?
Well the themes for me were and remain sex and love and grief and death -- the things that make us and undo us, create and destroy, how we breed and disappear and the emotional context that surrounds these events. The rest, in some way, is all attached to these. As for technique, I'd say that form or atleast a formal constraint or challenge has always been good for me. I'm lazy but generally task oriented so having a hoop to jump through means eventually I'll make the effort.
Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?
I write every day but most often not poems. I keep a journal, have for many years. I write essays and reviews and tiny bits of fiction. Usually a poem takes shape accoustically -- a line or a pair of lines will repeat itself in my ear. I go wherever the voice takes me. And sometimes its years from the first line to the next. Sometimes only minutes, but I hear it before I begin to think it. I say it before I begin to write it down. And most days I walk, an hour or two, and most times these walks deliver something that sounds like me to myself. Of course walking has its own meter, loosely iambic, a kind of metabolic code by which your breathing and your heartbeat and your pace begins to sound like the sound of the line in your ears so a close look at my poems will turn up this line of ten or twelve syllables that sounds like footfall. If I were assigned poems I suppose I'd write more of them but it is entirely voluntary and for the most part ignored in the market sense of the word so the language to me is most intimate, most important, most sublime and most satisfying when it gets done.
Is this always the case? "One of Jack's", for instance, which appears in "Still Life in Milford" seems to be an entirely 'found' poem. And there are others that seem as if they've come from prose sources - things you've read maybe, particularly about your Irish ancestors.
"One of Jack's" is entirely found -- in the transcription of postmortem notes of one of Jack Kevorkian's1 victims/patients. I was doing some other research in these files (I come from the same county as Kevorkian and am often at the Medical Examiners office there) when I came across this stark and flawless language. It strikes me that after all the archbishops and politicos and true believers have their say on the ethics of the matter of euthanasia, bare fact sounds very compelling and very challenging. As for the Irish Ancestors, most of what I've written in The Moveen Notebook is personal history or family history as told to me by Nora Lynch. Others, like "Bishop's Island" are my own imaginations. It is true, however, that reading anything often incites images or notions for poems.
How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?
Partly because of my work and my geography -- I'm in a small town in Michigan -- I've only ever been part of a workshop once, very briefly, a few months, with some poets at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That was useful and fun and they remain great friends of mine. But for the most part I've worked alone and relied on editors and rejection slips to shape my work. So I'm probably not the fellow to put this question to because I haven't much experience with workshops. I've taught a few workshops and always caution the participants to be aware of the duty of all workshops to "work" on a poem when very often the best thing to do is nothing at all.
How do you decide that a poem is finished - that the best thing to do now is nothing at all?
Well, the acoustics are very telling. If it's made well, it will sound it. Poems seem to have a life of their own. They tell you when enough is enough.
Who do you write for? - Do you have a particular audience or person in mind? After all, it seems to be true these days that less people read poetry than write it.
I have in mind a perfect listener -- someone whose ear is tuned as near to mine as I can imagine. Sometimes I think I know who this is. Sometimes I think she hasn't been born yet and I keep hoping that poems, or a poem or a line from a poem that is recognizably my voice will survive long enough for this person to give it a listen, well after I've gone quiet.
Which of contemporary poets do you most admire?
Michael Heffernan, Seamus Heaney, Matthew Sweeney, Jo Shapcott, Alice Fulton, Robin Robertson, Carol Anne Duffy, Richard Tillinghast, Dennis O'Driscoll, Christopher Reid, Paula Meehan, Keith Taylor, Don Paterson, Norman MacCaig, this list is going to get very long -- Macdara Woods, Eilean NiChuilleanain, Mary O'Malley, Ruth Padel, Lavinia Greenlaw, Philip Casey, Robert Hass, Billy Collins, Paul Muldoon, Richard Howard, Kathleen Jamie, I'll stop there for the moment, but there are more.
Your work as a funeral director obviously comes through in your poetry, as does your Irish ancestry. Does that make you a two-track poet - or are we liable to see other facets of your life in future writings?
Well, I never thought of it that way -- I think I'm really a one track poet, and the track is language, the possible applications of the language. In terms of subject matter, I think of my themes as sex and death, but then what poet doesn't. Everything happens between those two: life, memory, love, fear, history, longing, loathing, desire, everything. But poetry is a way of language, it is not its subject or its maker's background or interests or hobbies or fixations. It is nearer to utterance than history.
1. Jack Kevorkian: Controversial Michigan pathologist who has, since 1990, been involved with the death of over 100 people in what he calls "assisted suicide", by use of a device designed to deliver a lethal dose of potassium chloride.
© Thomas Lynch, Ted Slade 1998