Larry Bradley: Getting to The Real Thing

by Philip F. Clark

Vermont poet Larry Bradley first came to my attention on Facebook — as I have had the pleasure of finding other poets whose work I had not known. As I continued to enjoy his musings and his occasional posted poems, I felt there was a strong, avid, and completely honest spirit to his perspective on such things as the difficulties of writing, the industrious and the un-dustrious problems of writing poetry, and also the simple habits of being human and trying to make a living from such endeavor. His obvious respect for the art, and the craft of form is something rare when combined with an acumen for kindness. Poetry is not easy work; its gifts and returns are often minuscule. But it also rewards constancy: the daily journey to the computer and keyboard (or pencil, or pen, or iPhone) is about finding that place where our writing becomes not just real, but the real thing.

What was the first impetus — person, experience, work of writing — that led you to poetry? At what time in your life did it come to you?

Poetry came somewhat late to me; it actually began for me in college, where I was majoring in English and Philosophy. After years of recitation and memorization of poems in high school by Wordsworth, Whitman, Byron, and Burns, I stayed away, thinking poetry was certainly not the thing for me. In fact, I was an Art major in high school, so I never found time to read poetry at all. Later, in a university English class, we read “Leaves of Grass” and that changed everything for me—seeing it with new eyes, older eyes, perhaps more critical ones as well. I was able to understand the poem in a completely different context, in an almost personal way—which is what most good poetry should do; it should encapsulate us, cocoon us with a meaning we create on our own. No previous piece of work had more of a profound effect on me than Whitman’s poem. At that point, I devoured poetry, enrolled in a Creative Writing course, and discovered a new world for me to live in. Poetry was there, of course, but the workshop was not what I expected and I found I got very little out of it. I realized then that I would make a go of it on my own. I’d save the money rather than spend it on an MFA, where I figured I might find myself in the same situation as I did in that workshop. The right decision or the wrong one? Only whatever body of work I end up amassing can answer that question. I can tell you that my house is completely swollen with poetry, both my own and that of many others who have left their mark on me. Everyday, I silently thank them for that.

As a poet, what is the most important aspect of the art that sustains you? What are the most difficult aspects of being a poet and how do they impact you?

What sustains me in poetry is that you never know where or how a poem will end up. Writing a poem about a kitchen sink backing up suddenly takes you to an entirely different place, some place that had been waiting there all along but could not make itself apparent to you until the kitchen sink poem had begun. I have always admired a good mystery, though I wish I were a bit more mysterious in my writing. After you understand what the poem is truly about, then comes the hammer and chisel to shape it—will it rhyme or be metered? And if so, how? Or perhaps, it will contain fewer restraints. In an age of auto-correct, words always amaze me when they opt themselves out from what I wanted to what a machine wanted instead.

The most difficult aspect Philip, at least for me, is getting the work out there. Over the years it has become gradually easier for me to actually write a poem, but it is the business end of poetry—the submission process, the selling of oneself and one’s work—that makes it tedious and something I would rather have another person do for me if we lived in a perfect world. Deciding where and when to submit what overwhelms me; I become a stammerer who cannot manage getting work out anywhere. Over the past several years, I have not submitted work because of this. But the writing is the thing; the writing is my sustenance, not the number of magazines I have appeared in each year.

The poets who first inspired you? Those who continue to?

As I mentioned earlier, Whitman first taught me what writing could be and what it could do. I think, however, every so many years I go through a renaissance so to speak, so the list of poets who inspire me continues growing. In the Creating Writing course I’d taken in college, I had discovered Anne Sexton, and her work was able to show me the “evolution” of a poet, from formalist to semi-formalist to outright free-versist. No one could generate a simile or an image like Sexton, and she remains someone I go to just for the sheer overpowering quality of her words. Others, such as Merwin and Milosz, and Berryman and Bishop, are always at the top of the list. If you were to ask me whose work I currently most look forward to, I would have to say Carl Philips, Carolyn Forche, Linda Gregerson, Louise Gluck (who reinvents herself with every book and just keeps getting better with age) and Charles Wright (who still, as Helen Vendler once said in a review, sounds like no one else writing today.

What do you explore in your own work–what themes or concentrations of ideas does your work pursue? Do you find that your work is energized by the place that you live: Vermont has an incredible natural beauty across all its four seasons. Or does it not matter where you inhabit at any time, in relation to the poetry you make?

Having lived in Vermont now for 13 years now, there is a tremendous amount of inspiration that cannot help but fuse itself into my work. As you say, it has a natural beauty across all seasons (though there seem to be more than 4 seasons—we also have Mud Season and Black Fly Season) and I find myself, even if it’s sitting on the front porch, ensconced by everything Vermont offers. Of course, much of the natural world shows up in my work, especially in the wintertime. That tends to be when I do most of my writing and so images like “a Kalahari of white” show up in my poems. Louise Gluck once called Vermont the “country / of no summer” and that is, more often than not, true. All year is preparation for the onslaught of winter—hay for the farm, wood for the stove—so one must truly have a “mind of winter” here. However, in the Spring, the large lake in town (5 miles in the US, 35 miles in Canada) factors into my work as well. It supposedly has a Loch Ness type creature living in it, named Memphre. I have yet to see it, though.

Living as close as one can to nearly being out of the country has expressed itself politically to me, and so I find that politics, bigotry, and war have begun to surface more prominently in my work. A reasonable person these days cannot help but be affected by what has been happening in the Black communities or by the strides made in the LGBTQ community, albeit slow ones. More often than not, however, we are not dealing with reasonable people here. I sometimes think the only reasonable people out there are writers; they are the ones who contain the voices we need to hear, not the white boozy-eyed politicians who “speak” to the people, rather than for the people.

I am a great lover of Emily Dickinson, and specifically because she produced almost her entire oeuvre outside of society.  Do you feel that “solitude sustains”? Do you think that the poetry community, through social networking and other online and electronic media has become far too big and too dependent on the disease of celebrity?

As you might know, I, too, am a huge fan of Dickinson, and in many ways I find that solitude does or, at least for me, can sustain. I am very far removed from the writing community and thus much of the writing world in general: no television for over a dozen years, a limited cell phone (which of course were all things outside Dickinson’s realm), etc. What it really comes down to is one’s imagination, one’s sense of a world out there somewhere without you necessarily “in” it. My only true connection to that world is through social media—which enables me to find out the good news happening with the fine works being written by young and refreshing poets today. I am not a shut-in, in the truest sense of the word, but I have managed to shut myself off. Solitude stimulates me; thus, I surrender to it.

Too much has been made of the fact that one needs to be out there in the world, engaged in everything the writing community generously offers. With the advent of social media comes the advent of a new type of salesperson, one who shares the good news regarding their work, which helps generate interest enough to increase sales. That is not necessarily a bad thing; we only survive by some form of generated revenue. The thing I find most irritating, however, about social media is the nature of the Brag: the willingness to share good news regarding poems and poetry, but in a more elevated way rather than in a humbled one. That is off-putting to me, and is the reason I only limit myself to sites such a Facebook to early mornings, prior to going into the office. I think that is a sufficient amount of time for me to spend on it. With that being said, social media is truly my one connection to the rest of the writing world. And, for the time being, I am satisfied with that. Besides, I have never been a very good salesman when it comes to hawking whatever talent I possess, in or out of “the business of words”.

How do you write? What is your spirit space when you are writing your poems?

I tend to be a transient. Some days it will be my laptop in the living room (which, unfortunately, I forget to back up my work on since I am more or less electronics-unfriendly,) some days a pencil, but other times, and these end up becoming the most important times, I will get the old black Royal typewriter out in my library and clatter away. The best thing about manual typewriters is that if you make an error, or the paper is too sloppy with scrawling and arrows and notes, you must re-type the piece in order to get what you want; however, upon re-typing it on a fresh page, changes are made, revisions occur or typos descend and the poem takes on a whole new meaning. No ‘highlight and delete” on a manual typewriter, no spell check, no ease for a writer. That is what I like most: finding yourself somewhere you initially did not expect to head, or literally being able to turn a poem on its head by folding the page, blocking out a line or two, etc.

There was a rather long poem (35 pages) I had written in the 90’s which ended up becoming the poem it turned out to be only by my literally cutting it up into pieces and rearranging them on the plush shag carpet of my apartment floor. After re-typing it out, I realized that the poem ended in a completely different, but much better, spot than I originally intended. That is one of the most intimate reasons why I write. As Charles Wright wrote in the opening lines of his wonderful poem “Sitting at Dusk in the Backyard after the Mondrian Retrospective”:

Form imposes, structure allows—

     the slow destruction of form

So as to bring it back resheveled, reorganized,

Is the hard heart of the enterprise.

I can be hard-hearted when it comes to writing. I expect the expected, but when the unexpected occurs, I become changed by it somehow, “reorganized” by it too often to say.

The argument that poetry is dead is certainly ridiculous; but as a poet what do you think the community needs to create a stronger support system for itself? Are there specific things you believe are detrimental to poetry’s wider dissemination? The obverse of the poet is the poetry critic. Two heads on the same coin. A necessary evil? Or might there be a better way that poets can engage with each other’s work and come to critical assessment that is both necessary and constructive? Who do you feel is doing the best writing in critical areas right now?

Ah, the poetry critic! This could easily turn itself either into a very long response, or a rant and a riff. There are some terrific poetry critics out there, who are also poets themselves: David Kirby comes to mind, William Logan (the maligned—though I do find his criticism to be more often than not refreshing), John Hollander, and then the editors themselves, who are a different breed of critic.

Literary critics, like Bloom and Vendler, are another species entirely. I call them the “heavy-eyed” people. They tend to immerse themselves in a specific work or align themselves with a specific poet or school of writing. I do enjoy reading criticism, however odd that may seem. The critic can offer new perspectives via the writer’s past works or aspects from the writer’s life which may or may not paint a larger portrait of the work being criticized. The other form of critic, who is always positive, is the blurber. I never take them seriously, as they are usually close to the poet in some personal way. It’s really a buddy-system. There are so many career blurbers out there that it makes me smile just to think that they’ve gotten away with it. The book I publish someday would, if I had any say, have no blurbs and no author photo. Make it simple, pure and about the reader’s opinion of the work. Make it a surprise. The reader would not know what to expect between its two covers.

I don’t have any quick answers for what we as a community of writers can do to engage ourselves in each other’s work. I think if we stay as connected as we can to the works themselves, I am hopeful we can become that much stronger and we can dismiss the nay-sayers and those who say “poetry is dead.”

I do believe those who say “poetry is dead” are truly dead themselves to poetry. I am an equal opportunity optimist and pessimist in general, so to hear that phrase saddens me. It makes it sound as if the “word” is no longer a live thing. Of course there is rarely any argument that the short story is dead (Alice Munro contradicts that) or that the novel is dead (Philip Roth might agree, since he has decided to retire from writing, but certainly Stephen King would disagree). For some strange reason, poets tend to be either discarded because it is considered a dead art (though “everyone want to be a poet”) or side-swiped because they are in the way.

Do you have one particular poem that you constantly read and go to? Why this poem? What are you currently working on?

“The Dream Songs” by John Berryman, which I consider one long, mysterious, erratic, terrifying poem taken as a whole. His “songs” have the similar impact on me as Whitman’s poem had 30 years ago. At every turn, I find something I’d not seen before or some turn of phrase that I will spend a day obsessing over. A poem that can do that for me is rare and vital to me as a poet. I also turn to Walcott’s poem “Omeros” for its purity of form and, by extension, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The work of these 3 poets are what have sustained me through a project I have been working on for well over the past decade and a half now. It is a project with no end in sight, and which I will likely be working on for the rest of my days. It is also something I have not seen done before, so Pound’s “Make it new” is a running refrain in the background of my current writing.

There is another project that has just reared its head of late. It is a series of poems about Pennhurst, a “state school” (read “asylum”) outside the town in Pennsylvania in which I grew up. The way it was run and the things being done behind its closed doors led to a Supreme Court decision that paved the way for the more beneficial and benevolent ways in which we treat the mentally or developmentally disabled. Since I have been working in the Mental Health field for a decade now, it speaks to me on a very personal level. My guilty pleasure, however, is Sexton’s “The Ambition Bird”, which is one of the two or three poems I have committed to memory and which says so much about my writing life.

What is the best way, in your opinion, to teach poetry–to get it into the hands of both tomorrow’s readers, and tomorrow’s poets?

I wish I could answer this, Philip, with something profound but I have yet had the opportunity to teach, per se, so I have no real expertise when it comes to that. However, I have in some ways managed to mentor a few fellow poets along the way, some strange ways, and I hope that whatever criticisms or poem-swappings that have occurred between us have either been debated or put to good use. In most instances, I hope they were debated. That tends to pull the poem from the poet in so many ways. Unfortunately, due to the more or less hermetically-sealed Tupperware life I find myself living in, I can only hope that today’s poets become, and remain, tomorrow’s.

How important do you think it is for poetry to address important societal, political, or historical issues?

It is crucial. We should have been addressing them all along. Carolyn Forche’s poem of witness “The Colonel” comes to mind with those ears, those ears. Then I look at this past year, with Claudia Rankine’s long meditative poem “Citizen” being at the forefront of American poetry and having only once won a major award. The political poem has become dangerous territory of late. Perhaps that is why Adrienne Rich was un-sided upon by the Pulitzer committee 4 times for being too political. The truth is something outside of ourselves, and something on which we spend our undiluted time.

Today, a lot of magazines and journals seem to ally poetry of witness with poetry of death. In truth, we all need a bit of death, which is reality, in our lives. However, the poetry of witness, as in Milosz, the poetry of Forche’s Colonel, and the poetry of Olds’ recent work all collapse upon the notion of what can and what should be told. I am all for the telling and the collapsing. Much more dangerous and invigorating that way.

Who were/are the mentors for you that have made a difference in your work and life as a poet?

Most of the mentors I have are all long deceased, save one or two. If I were to consider living poets who were “mentors” to me, I would have to say those editors who have published my poems, and who were poets themselves. They inspire me to be a better writer by virtue of the fact that they have said Yes! to something I had written and have gone on to publish it.

While I was at Bread Loaf, there was so much talent and verve there it was almost over-whelming. I would say that Linda Gregerson, who was leading my workshop at the time, was to me the closest thing I had to a mentor. She is a brilliant woman, truly, and an exquisite poet. To hear her read is something not to be missed. During our one-on-one session, where we both critiqued the poems I’d submitted to get in to Bread Loaf, I had asked her if I was doing the right thing—I mean my desire to write—and she said to me Larry, you are a tremendous poet. You are the real thing. Needless to say I wept, while she patted my leg saying It’s all right, it’s all right. There is nothing wrong with being that. There was such a power in that moment for me, such a necessary thing for me to hear, though it came unexpectedly, and I have never forgotten it. It actually carries me through the days and nights that I force myself upon the keyboard and begin typing.

That is what mentorship means to me: hearing a Yes! from time to time, or having another seasoned poet tell me that I am on the right path, that I should not have been a painter or a plumber, that I answered my calling as impractical as it might be, and can only do the best I can do with whatever that real thing is or means.

The following poems by Larry Bradley were originally published in The New England Journal:

His Illusions
(A cento)
Shadow and act, shadow and act.
John Berryman, #119

Now Apollo,
Now Narcissus

But neither, and yet both

Both gods and men

For the same purpose and effect

Now Bacchus
Now Telemahkos

Forever at war within a single body

All things are in his power
The undying, the ever-new

And now Zeus

Now veteran
Of being immortal

His Narcissism
(A Cento)
Also I love him: me he’s done no wrong
John Berryman, #145

He chose to cherish water

On hearing this, the river
Filled and filled again

Pure, without taint of earth

And with his words, the music
Of his infatuation
Enwrapped him

Pleased by each purling note

And shining like a god
He lacked nothing at all

And facing sunrise
No less amazed
The earth could say no more

Except his name