An Interview with Tom Sleigh
by Allegra Wong
The following is excerpted from Full Circle Journal and can be read in full there.
Tom Sleigh’s poetry has been described by Seamus Heaney as “hard-earned and well-founded. . . . [I]t refuses to cut emotional corners and yet achieves a sense of lyric absolution.” Sleigh is the author of five books of poetry, including, most recently, Far Side of the Earth (Houghton Mifflin, April 2003), and The Dreamhouse (Univ. of Chicago, 1999), which won the 1999 Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Award. He is the recipient of a three-year Individual Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he is currently a Writing Committee member.
Sleigh’s translation of Euripides’ Herakles was published by Oxford University Press in January 2001. Rubber, his new play (excerpted in AGNI 57), was produced last summer as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York City and selected to be part of “Best of the Fest” by the festival sponsors. (2003)
Allegra Wong: I understand you were born in Texas and lived there until first grade. Next you moved to Utah and lived there until you entered seventh grade. And then you moved to California (San Diego). Would you recount some of your earliest experiences with poetry in each of these landscapes of childhood and adolescence?
Tom Sleigh: I suppose my first source of poetry was the twin babble that my twin brother and I spoke when we were babies just learning to talk. We didn’t speak English for a good year and a half—which caused my parents considerable worry. What, were we idiot-savants (or just plain idiots), locked into our own microcosm of twinness? And then my mother—who has been known to tell “a stretcher,” as Huck Finn would say—recounts that one morning she came into our bedroom, and overheard us in Beckett-like colloquy, speaking the first English words she remembers us saying—not mama or dada—but my brother Tim, shaking the bars of his crib, calling, “Dean Martin!” while I called back, “Jerry Lewis!”
Martin’s and Lewis’s voices were so much a part of my ear because my parents ran a drive-in movie theater in a small East Texas town, out in piney woods country. You could always count on Martin and Lewis to bring in the cars on weekends. I went to the drive-in movies every night while my mother worked the snack-bar, and my father the projector. We had an old green Plymouth with a huge window well in the back seat. My twin brother slept on one side, and I slept on the other, while my older brother curled down below on the car seat. I always fell asleep just as the movies began at dusk, and the voices coming through the car speakers were like the voices in my dreams, the two intermingling to make a kind of poetry: especially since I thought the voices in dreams were the voices of dead people come to tell you things that you were forbidden to hear during the day.
I think my first experience of a poem proper occurred when I was out visiting my grandfather in Kansas. He was a dry land wheat farmer, orphaned at eleven, and largely self-taught. I remember his bald, high-domed forehead gleaming while he recited “The Face on the Barroom Floor.” He performed it with verve, and clearly enjoyed playing up the melodrama. He then launched into what he called “the bear dance”, which meant he shuffled in circles in the middle of the living room—his own kind of performance poetry, accompanied by the whirring racket of locusts outside in the windbreak junipers and my mother tinkling out a little show tune on the upright piano. I know this sounds vaguely “folkloric”—the rude, goodhearted prairie sodbusters doing their thing of a Saturday night. But he was thoroughly enjoying himself, as was my mother, and they both were aware of the figures they cut: you could almost see them winking at themselves in the mirror, as if to say, Oh yes, we know how absurd we look—but why shouldn’t we look absurd!
I think of the bear dance and it reminds me of one of my favorite paintings—a group of bears up on their hind legs dancing in the forest, but still perfectly like bears, nothing sentimental or anthropomorphized in their depiction: they have the same kind of elegance and artifice and creaturely strangeness as you see in Watteau. And they look far more at home in their dancing than Gilles does in his Pierrot clown whites. Poetry has always seemed a little like that—animal grace in clown whites.
And then in Utah, I remember my mother reading aloud to me from the section in Thoreau’s Walden about the ant war. I was completely astonished by ants being talked about in that way—satiric and precise and more horrifying than any first person account of the carnage of human war. But equally vivid for me is the strange intimacy my mother felt for the book—a dimension of her character, which moved her outside the category of “Mom” and into the category of “Weirdo.” How I longed to understand her pleasure in the words, and how baffled I felt by her privacy inside them. What added to the strangeness was my mother’s line-up of wigs on her dresser: three expressionless Styrofoam heads looking down at us while she read, as if she had more personalities under each of the separate “do’s” than I’d ever imagined.
I owe so much to my mother: she was a high school English teacher, and a kind of one-woman renaissance in a spectacularly conservative, Mormon, mountain town. She taught Lord Jim, which created a scandal one spring semester—Lord Jim, for God’s sake! Could it have been that Jim acts like a coward, and explorations of cowardice weren’t good for us tender-minded, James Bond/gonad-obsessed little blighters? Or was it that Jim was a skeptic, an incomprehensible person to others and himself, that made him such a threat? Not likely. Anyway, Lord Jim! was a battle . . . and then we moved to San Diego.
The poetry there was the drug lingo I picked up: dude, spade vein, hero (for heroin), lids, keys, dope, weed, Acapulco Gold, Panama Red, Thai sticks, stoned, high, wasted, rush; and then an arcane doper/surfer vocabulary which described various gradations of cool and uncool: bitchin’ girl, bitchin'’ guy which meant you were hip; a woody, meaning someone who was clodhopper stupid and jejune; and hard, which signified egregious uptight mindless aggression. And then I remember coming across a bookstore in La Jolla called The Unicorn, and picking up a book of poetry—blither by someone named Prather—sensitive notations about falling leaves—that I couldn’t fathom. I realize now that he was a middle-aged man writing about middle age as if it were interesting: even then I suspected the writing of sentimentality, but the tone was new to me—serious, intimate, introspective—qualities which I found alien even as they attracted me.
But my first real experience of poetry was going to Othello with my mother. We read the play together before we went, and I remember loving and hating Othello: hating him for bragging about himself after he killed Desdemona, and loving him for his torment and sense of high purpose: in other words, Othello was as much an adolescent as I was.
AW: When and why did you, a Southwesterner, become a Cantabrigian (and a New Yorker)?
TS: I came to Massachusetts to be part of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I was about 25 or 26 years old. I’d lived in Baltimore and gone to school at Johns Hopkins University for two years, and during that time I’d been to visit my brothers in Boston, who were attending the Berklee School of Music. So I already had a sense of the city: a run-down glamour around Beacon Street and the Charles Street Jail. My brother worked in a sandwich shop called The Yellow Submarine, and in those days it was a clearing house for all sorts of drugs. My brothers and I dropped acid on the night of the Perseids and stayed up all night walking along the river, then sitting on the roof of their apartment building on Hemenway Street and watching the meteors fall until dawn. Wordsworth’s sonnet about the view from Westminster Bridge captures that night: “. . . silent, bare / Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky; . . . / The river glideth at his own sweet will . . .” Of course, LSD made the whole thing more raucous and raunchy, but the reflection of the MIT dome in the Charles made the sweetness of that moment part of the “sweet will” that drugs could on occasion grant you.
AW: Who are your literary fathers?
TS: I’d have to say that Browning for his technique; Wallace Stevens for a certain quality of gravitas, what Keats feels near his death, when he said he was living a sort of posthumous existence; Philip Larkin for his sense of extremity; Pound for his fluidity of conception and hardness of execution; Baudelaire for his music and intense scrutiny and affection for street life; and Bishop and Lowell for their immersion in the physical world, would be my fathers and mothers.
AW: Do you consider yourself a certain type of poet? Do you find yourself belonging to a certain school or writing in a certain style that groups you by name with other poets? If so, which school or style?
TS: I’ve always felt to the side of the schools that were prevalent. I was interested in a sort of highly wrought, formal poem when Deep Image was the period style. Then when New Formalism came along, I was far too interested in the sort of highly cadenced free verse of Basil Bunting to fit with that program. I want to be the kind of writer who can draw on Ginsberg and Merrill, Duncan and Gunn. I prefer Mina Loy to H. D. The debate as to whether poetry should be referential or non-referential, whether to be a Constructivist or an Expressivist, is an interesting one, but not very helpful when I sit down to write. I believe with Randall Jarrell that poets are rather helpless, that their subjects and orientations toward language choose them: will has never seemed a substitute for imagination, and without imagination you have nothing. Best not to know too much all about it.
AW: For whom do you write? Mary Oliver’s stranger in a distant country hundreds of years from now? Perhaps Liz Rosenberg’s “insomniacs, grievers, depressives, lonely-hearts, hopefuls, and children . . . and giving voice to what is already in them that needs a voice”?
TS: Proust once said that he wanted to write the truth about the lives of the people he’d known, even though it was most likely a truth that they wouldn't want to read. I don't think he meant that the truth would reveal ugly things about these people—only that they weren't interested in living through words what they lived in mind and heart and body. I don’t believe in the idea of writing for posterity—it seems patently ridiculous and grandiose. Posterity? Ay yi yi! If I write for anybody, it’s for my friends, to please them, bug them, to give us something to talk and joke about. On the other hand, I write because I want to keep the language in “an interesting state of repair”—a phrase by Ed Dorn that I came across in an essay by Donald Davie. I want to write in a way that can’t be pinned down, that isn’t about “finding your voice,” but finding a voice for one particular poem. My sense of an audience is pretty sketchy, and I want to keep it that way—though I'd say that Cavafy and Thom Gunn are my ideal readers.
AW: What is your advice to a young poet, and by young I mean someone of any age who is young in the discipline of poetry. Would you advise him to follow your path? And what has been your path?
TS: Read, and read in such a way that you become on a first-name basis with all the great poetry in English. There’s no substitute for walking the terrain of English verse: most younger poets have an aerial view of their art, or else they think that reading poetry in translation is the same as reading in their mother tongue. The language you’re soaking in is the translator’s English—read Sir Thomas Browne’s wonderful strange English, and any page of any translation, and you’ll see the difference. Think of yourself as a language sponge, something like Augustine’s conception of God’s omnipresence, soaking in every form of contemporary speech, from rap to advertising to government double talk. But also cultivate your vertical sense of the language, it’s historical density, the way each word has its own separate fate.
AW: Twenty years ago, Houghton Mifflin published After One, your first volume of poetry. This April they have published Far Side of the Earth, your fifth volume of poetry. What is the texture of your new volume?
TS: I started writing these poems after a serious bout of illness. Whenever I am ill, it inspires a certain kind of paranoiac intensity that makes me see in small things large metaphysical and historical correspondences. For example, in the poem called “Newsreel,” the speaker is reliving a version of the entire Cold War era, from the doomed glamour of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe to Communist-inspired paranoia of the Other as evinced in monsters from outer-space movies, to middle-class Americans’ fetish obsession with their cars, to the fear of nuclear Armageddon, also a feature of outer-space movies. And the poem also plays with systems of representation, and how they break down, and how they generate meanings wildly at odds with their apparent ideological ends, as in the conclusion of the poem when the projector stalls and everything is obliterated except for a hair projected on the screen.
And this illness-induced paranoia became something of a first principle for all the other poems, perhaps culminating in the poems which obliquely refer to that “World Trade Tower thing,” as lots of people in lower Manhattan took to calling it a few days afterwards. During the writing of this book, I felt a sort of metaphysical drift in the air that tended to point toward a Rimbaud-like reality at once sublime, atrocious, and banal. I no longer feel that intuition with the force of delighted and maybe terrified conviction that I did. If it was a delusion, it wasn't the kind you need to be treated for.
In Far Side of the Earth, I was also pursuing what I thought was a perceivable connection between historical fact and a personal sense of Fate: I guess you could say that the world was less of a collage and more a symbolic whole, without my ever actually thinking that that unity was anything objective, like a car.
I also spent a lot of time reading Plotinus, in Stephen Mackenna’s beautiful translation, as well as reading in depth about war as a social phenomenon, colonialism in Africa, and a lot of Beckett. I was also deeply affected by living in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the multiple layers of sensation that overwhelm you as you walk the streets. I think my poems show something of that complex layering of experience in their obliquity and slightly hallucinatory intensity. And a trip I took with my uncle, and some of the other old soldiers he fought with during World War II, back to Alsace-Lorraine, where we went around to various towns and fields and completely unmarked places of battle, deeply affected my sense of historical time: I saw how a certain kind of historical rhetoric tends to enforce historical amnesia, and that it's almost impossible to keep the aura of memory from being contaminated by it. In contrast, my uncle’s stories were anything but polished anecdotes, but they were amazingly vivid, quirky, and open-ended in terms of what they might mean. The poem “For Robert Owen Sleigh” came out of this trip. And several trips to the Azores, volcanic islands off the coast of Portugal, gave me a sense of geological time which becomes a metaphor for emotional processes in many of the poems, particularly “I Came to You.”
I spent a lot time hiking the rims of the dead craters of the twin volcanoes on Sao Miguel, which are shallow lakes now; and in exploring the still active thermal tide pools, where I went swimming almost every day. The sensual pleasure of those experiences also makes it way into the poems. Finally, a trip to Cuba let me see the Cold War as it played out on the other side: to see Che and Fidel through a different lens, in which US foreign policy pushed them farther toward the Soviet Union than they had any desire to go. When you walk around Havana, there is absolutely no advertising of any kind, except for slogans advancing the Revolution. So the politics of my childhood caught up to me as an adult, and effected poems concerned with war, such as the poem “Nomad.”
AW: Rilke said of Cezanne: “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.” How might we apply this to your life and your poems? What dangers have you experienced?
TS: Drugs; a potentially fatal blood disease that I’ve lived with for almost twenty five years—I’ve outlived the mean by fifteen years; and my own, completely unoriginal self-destructive impulses. I love Rilke’s poems, but his views on art often leave me wanting to take a shower: he can be so affected and grandiose and silly sounding—especially when you think of an old curmudgeon like Cezanne, who saw danger in not getting to work, in not having something constantly to work on. On the other hand, as Eliot once said, “The bottom is a long way down.” And I hope my poems swim down as far as they can, stick their heads in the muck, open their eyes, and take a good look around.
AW: Dangerous and dark work also comes from love. What loves have you experienced?
TS: I once spent a night high on LSD on a beach in San Diego pretending to be a seal among a pack of seals. They stank, had awful dog breath, and were nicked and cut, with welts here and there on their mottled gray and black skin. I loved these seals as I love my brothers and my family: for all their creaturely, bodily, three-dimensional fragility and potential for harm. And sometimes in the city I get a sense of human bodies as being distinctly animal, and I feel a great sense of joy in that, though I often wonder if I'm losing it. And my wife’s brilliance as an artist, her beauty and kindness, also make me aware of love's dimensions.
AW: You read deeply about war as a social phenomenon during your writing of Far Side of the Earth. Would you expand upon this?
TS: I’ve been fascinated by war for many years—partly because I grew up during the Vietnam War, and partly because it serves as an objective correlative for the vagueness of “history.” War seems to be one of the most important grids against which we measure what it means to be human at any particular moment. I think the abstraction of war to a civilian population versus the physical terror and elation it inspires in combatants, and the way those two things get registered by a culture, exaggerated, erased, glorified, demonized, is crucial in knowing exactly what a culture has learned to value. Also, you can't avoid the starkness of war, no matter how apolitical you think you are. It invades your consciousness and can't be shut out. And so war is one of the central themes in Far Side of the Earth.
AW: I have seen the drawing referred to in “Child’s Drawing: ‘Child Holding a Ball at a Funeral’” (The Chain) at the Jewish Museum in Prague. How is the boy in this poem similar and dissimilar to the boy you once were? What is the memory link between individual life and history here? Or is the poem “simply” an example of “negative capability”?
TS: To a certain extent, the boy in the poem is a displaced alter ego, but only the author would be interested in that. More importantly, the poem tries to record the wildness and strangeness of a child’s pleasure in playing with balls and how that pleasure turns into a confrontation with history as embodied by a Nazi. The human body is always the site of historical trauma. That’s why so much energy goes into the myth of history, of making history seem like a force above and beyond human actions. It’s difficult to stay sane if you reject history as a notion, and instead focus on the depravity of human beings. Look at Dostoyevsky. Look at Tadeusz Borowski, the Polish concentration camp Häftling, who wrote This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and who features prominently as beta in Milosz’s The Captive Mind. Look at Primo Levi. In a way that is much less extreme, think of how people reacted when they heard that there was a sniper loose in Washington, D.C., and began to consider the prospect that he could be coming to a city near you. No wonder we rely on history to do our dirty work.
AW: What was the storytelling like in your family as you grew up? Were you told legends and fairy tales? Which ones? Or were you told family folklore (family stories, cures, recurring dreams)? If so, what are two or three pieces of folklore?
TS: Storytelling was the province of my mother—but she read aloud to us more than told us stories. My first book was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, which she read to us. My grandmother told us stories, one outrageous one about a bunch of rattlesnakes that crept into a milk tank and got so hot they filled the tank up with snake sweat and drowned. And my grandfather told stories, one about being in jail and participating in a kangaroo court in which he was the defendant and the jury. He acquitted himself, but still spent the night in jail.
AW: Are you living the double life of the artist at all times? Are you keenly aware of that “other Sleigh” as Borges was aware of that “other Borges,” the public figure about whom he reads with mixed emotions: “It’s the other one, it's Borges, that things happen to.”
TS: Not really. Nor was Borges, I bet. Whatever creature I am when I’m writing poems, I don't want to know too much about him.
AW: How does your work as a dramatist play off of and feed into your life as a poet?
TS: Playwrighting is not for control freaks, and all poets are control freaks to a certain extent, including Allen Ginsberg. After all, the poet is his own little theater, a combination director, writer, actor. But theater is mainly collaborative, and you are almost always part of a team. It does no good to insist on the sanctity of your words if the actor who’s performing them can’t make them work. So you go back and rewrite. I love the high you get working that way, but it’s a medium that’s not for the faint of heart. Pressure pressure pressure is the name of the game. Never enough money, never enough time, and always the sense that something could have been done better. On the other hand, the process of making a play is completely absorbing, and when a play works in front of an audience, it's a complete high.
AW: What does the future hold for Tom Sleigh?
TS: More scribbling, I hope. Reading. Drinks with friends, preferably between 4:30 and 6:30 at Buswell’s on a soft day in Dublin. Protest marches and anti-war work for the foreseeable future. Miles and miles of swimming in ponds, oceans, and pools. And then more scribbling!
Full interview available at Full Circle Journal
© Copyright 2002/2003 Full Circle Journal, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Allegra Wong is editor-in-chief of Full Circle Journal and a modern autobiographer. She has done extensive graduate work in English literature at Harvard University, where her research focused on modern autobiography, the creative process, and the lives and works of artists. Ms. Wong's poetry and prose have been published in numerous literary journals, and her literary memoir, The East Window, is under review for publication. She is currently working on a second literary memoir and a book of interviews with artists. She teaches at Writers On the Net. (2003)