David Lehman is one of the most prominent editors, anthologists, poets and literary critics in contemporary American literature. He is the author or editor of myriad collections of poetry and was the founding editor of TheBest American Poetry series in 1988. Lehman’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and he has received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award.

Stay Thirsty Magazine had the pleasure of visiting with David Lehman at his home in New York City for this Conversation about his newest work, Playlist.

STAY THIRSTY: Your latest book of poetry, Playlist, is in fact one long poem organized by days from November 20, 2017 through January 15, 2018. How did the idea for this structure come about?

DAVID LEHMAN: On that November 20 I was driving around my neighborhood in Ithaca, where my wife and I have a house to which we like to go, leaving the metropolis behind. I have satellite radio in my car, and I like moving among four or five channels, from jazz to classical, from Big Band swing to solo vocalists. Music is a great subject for poetry and can provide the reader with a soundtrack for the day. After writing a few poems largely centered on the music, I decided to write one a day, to see if the impulse could sustain itself and renew itself daily. The daily poem and I are old friends, and it was fun to go there.

STAY THIRSTY: Why does the duration of the poem cover those specific days?

DAVID LEHMAN: I was mindful of A. R. Ammons’s Tape for the Turn of the Year, his long poem in daily installments typed on narrow adding-machine tape from December 6, 1963 to January 10, 1964. For nearly thirty years Archie and his wife lived in a house near the intersection of Hanshaw Road and The Parkway, which is less than a half mile from where Stacey and I live. So it was not only the music, but the sight of Archie’s old house and the memories it evoked that inspired me. Archie is the poem’s tutelary spirit.

STAY THIRSTY: Your poem references music, movies, people and events, often from the mid-twentieth century. What is it about that period of time that so attracts you?

DAVID LEHMAN: The music and movies of the 1940s and 1950s are superior to those of our own time. I value what you can see and hear in those old films and songs: wit, romance, glamour, style, a belief in outmoded virtues such as honor and heroism.

STAY THIRSTY: Radio has played a character role in your poetry in the past and, in this poem, you credit Channel 71 on the Sirius radio network as almost a tour guide to the past as you drive from Ithaca to New York City. Of all the electronic media, you seem to be most enchanted with radio. Why?

DAVID LEHMAN: The radio – to use McLuhan’s categories – is a “hot” medium in the sense that it requires the reader to participate in a way that television does not. If you listen to a ball game on the radio, you feel impelled to visualize the stadium and the action. You’re more involved than when you watch the game on television or on your computer via an Internet server. Sirius 71, (“Siriusly Sinatra”) is excellent as are “Real Jazz” (67), “40s Junction” (73), and “Symphony Hall” (75).

David Lehman

STAY THIRSTY: From classical music to jazz, from Hoagy Carmichael to Nat King Cole, from Louis Armstrong to Ira Gershwin, and from Beethoven to Schubert, music appears to be the superhighway into your soul. What sparked your love of music and if there were three songs that most represent who you are, what would they be?


The Lady is a Tramp
Our Love is Here to Stay
Too Marvelous for Words

The first because of its superior irony; the second because of the marriage of lovely music and simple but lively lyric; the third because of the melody and the wonderful bridge crafted by Johnny Mercer: “You’re much, too much, and oh, too very, very, / to ever be / in Webster’s Dictionary.” Three of the best versions of the song are those of Jo Stafford, Doris Day, and Helen Forrest. May I mention two other songs? Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” a love song suffused with melancholy, and Jerome Kern’s “Make Believe,” a soaring ode to love at first sight and to the power of the imagination.

STAY THIRSTY: You dedicate this book to your friend A. R. (“Archie”) Ammons with a deep reverence for his person and his work. How influential was he in your growth as a poet and have you had the same impact on any young poets?

DAVID LEHMAN: Archie was a big influence. I like to draw an analogy between Ammons’s long poems and the paintings of the abstract expressionists. In both cases there is an emphasis on motion, movement, process; the poem or painting seems to be “an arena of impulses,” in Harold Rosenberg’s phrase, or a chronicle of its own coming into being. Archie found a way to put himself on paper directly, in language available to anyone. He also had a direct relationship with the wind, mountains, rivers, brooks, waterfalls. A true romantic, he allowed the wind of inspiration to blow through the trees like the Aeolian harp in Coleridge’s poem. All of these things appeal to me.

I hope that through my teaching and my writing I have had a positive influence on young poets. You never know what history has in store for you. It is possible that you’ll be ignored soon after you die. It is also possible that you will enjoy posthumous fame you never anticipated.

STAY THIRSTY: Why does the color blue keep appearing in your poem?

DAVID LEHMAN: That may have less to do with the color than with the word. Think of the meaning of “blue” in “My Blue Heaven,” “Blue Skies,” “Blue Moon,” “Saint Louis Blues,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “in windless depths of blue tranquility” (Edith Wharton). You can be blue (sad), can have the blues, can aspire to the azure of immortality. The other colors have their virtues, too, of course, perhaps green above all.

When I make paintings, drawings, or collages, my favorite color is probably yellow.

STAY THIRSTY: If you were to leave the reader with one thought from Playlist, what would it be?

DAVID LEHMAN: What I told the faceless friend who asked me for one piece of advice: listen to Count Basie’s “April in Paris,” and write. Or dance.

David Lehman    

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.