Tom Sleigh published his first collection of poems, After One, nearly 35 years ago. Now, 10 books later, he is considered one of the nation’s finest poets. Reviewing his most recent collection, Station Zed, in the Washington Post, Elizabeth Lund says Sleigh has the “ability to craft compelling narratives with his pied-piper voice.” Among his numerous honors are the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Shelley Award, and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is currently director of Hunter College’s creative writing master’s program.
Even after decades, Sleigh says, the act of creating a poem remains something of a mystery. He sits down each morning and after some reading and staring out the window, “I sort of hunker down and drift and listen for whatever voice comes along…a phrase will come to me and once it starts to show me the way, I follow it as faithfully as I can: it’s all very intuitive.” When writing, he says, he’s acutely aware of sonic patterns announcing themselves as the poem progresses.
“I can work for hours on end, day after day, once the poem asserts itself,” he says. “It’s the most fun I have all day: to be in the zone of writing is to be elated and alert to chance and a little bit high.”
Sleigh is the featured guest at this semester’s Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, being held tonight at the Castle. He will read some of the poems from Station Zed, as well as from a new poetry collection, House of Fact, House of Ruin, and pieces from a new collection of his writings about refugees, The Land Between Two Rivers: Poetry in an Age of Refugees, both to be published by Graywolf Press next winter.
Poet is only one of Sleigh’s professions. He is also a dramatist (he’s written five plays), a translator (Euripides’ Herakles), and a journalist who has reported from war zones and covered various refugee crises in the Middle East and Africa. While acknowledging that the work in one genre informs the others, he thinks of himself primarily as a poet.
His side career as a journalist began by accident. After the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war, he and several other poets, scholars, and translators were invited to Lebanon by the Trans-Arab Unity Foundation to meet with Lebanese and Syrian writers and to view the Palestinian camps firsthand. He’d agreed to do an article about the trip for Virginia Quarterly Review. As soon as he landed in Beirut, a bomb exploded, and the violence escalated daily. Since that first article, he’s gone on to write other long-form pieces, most recently one about Syrian refugees in Jordan for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Sleigh says reporting from war-torn countries has made him “a hugely different person” from a decade ago. “If you see mass starvation up close or see what a bomb or a bullet does to the side of a house, let alone a human being, or experience the way a blast wave travels the way water travels, following the path of least resistance, so that some windows get shattered and others don’t, that changes you.” He’s never been on the ground during “an officially declared war,” he says, having “only seen, and at a distance, the more intimate, gangsterish, militia-against-militia kind.”
Sleigh recalls how he used to go with his uncle to yearly reunions of the 101st Infantry Division, even accompanying the veterans to Alsace-Lorraine, where they’d fought in World War II. “The clarity of their memories was astonishing,” he says. “They could pinpoint where they dug a foxhole 40-odd years ago or recognize a field they’d been ordered to run across while a German machine-gunner’s bullets kicked up divots at their feet.”
Illness, as much as war, has informed much of Sleigh’s adult life, and by extension, his writing. He’s lived with a rare chronic blood disease for decades and has nearly died from the condition several times. Poetry, he has said, became an act of preservation or self-preservation for him.
“Over the long haul the illness has made it almost impossible to think about the future in any real way,” the 64-year-old poet acknowledges. “Yes, I plan ahead, but I don’t really have much faith that I’ll be around to see the outcome of all that planning. So it raises the stakes: you have a limited amount of time, your health could deteriorate at any moment, so you feel a constant pressure to live as fully as you can ‘throughout the whole range’ of your ‘faculties and sensibilities,’ as Hawthorne once said.”
As a teacher, Sleigh says, he’s always urging student to “read, read, read, and keep an open mind—if X or Y dismisses someone, make a pact with yourself to read that poet and make up your own mind. You never know what will prove useful.”
He encourages young poets to be on a first-name basis with the poets of the past: “If you’re not…you’re doomed to get stuck inside the taste of your own generation,” he cautions. “The community of the dead is just as alive and present—and above all, useful—as any living writer.” Last, he says, he advises young writers to limit their time on social media. “Self-promotion is a delusion as much as ‘splendid isolation.’”
Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, says that Sleigh’s work is particularly relevant given what is going on in the world today.
“Tom Sleigh’s poetry is unsurpassed in the depth of its political understanding,” says Pinsky, a former three-time US poet laureate. “His most recent books, Station Zed and Army Cats, bring a passionate, tragic comprehension to the material of our headlines, war and terrorism, perceived in the brutal intimacy of their surface and in the immense, tragic context of history.”
The semiannual Lowell poetry reading features both an established poet and a recent graduate of the Creative Writing Program. Sleigh will be introduced at tonight’s reading by Laura Marris (GRS’13), whose work has appeared in The Cortland Review, The Common, and Washington Square Review. She plans to read new poems from a collection she’s currently working on.
Marris says she learned the power of spoken language early. “Whether it was the power to talk my way out of trouble, or create a mood, or make someone burst out laughing, I was captivated by language as a vehicle for personality. I was five or six when I started to write rhyming poems and I never really considered stopping.” While she no longer writes in rhyme, Marris says she’s still interested in musicality, “how sound can amplify the meaning of a line or place a particular emphasis on a word.”
Like Sleigh, Marris is both a poet and a translator. She recently translated Louis Guilloux’s novel Le Sang Noir (Blood Dark) (New York Review Books, 2017) and La Cache (The Safe House) by Christophe Boltanski (University of Chicago Press).
She discovered translating when she took a translation seminar at BU, and she continued to pursue it while studying in Brittany, France, on a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship. There, she contacted Breton poet and playwright Paol Koenig, whose poems she had translated. After finishing an MFA, she got her first big project—translating Guilloux’s 600-page novel.
Marris says her translation work makes her a better poet, and vice versa. “Translation offers an opportunity to apprentice myself to writers I deeply admire. There is no closer way to study someone’s work than to translate it,” she says. “I think poetry requires careful attention to the valences of different words, which is quite helpful as a translator. Poetry also helps me to communicate the rhythm and timing of French in English, even if I’m working on prose.”
She credits Pinsky with creating “a warm and rigorous environment in which we could approach the craft of poetry,” and says that BU has given her a whole community of writers and teachers whose work she admires. “I’ll always be grateful to BU, not only for the opportunities it has given me, but for the continued, practical support of a writing life.”
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading with Tom Sleigh and Laura Marris (GRS’13) is tonight, Thursday, April 13, at the Castle, 225 Bay State Rd., at 7:30 p.m. The event, presented by BU’s Creative Writing Program, is free and open to the public. A book-signing and reception follow.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading series is funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.