Thomas Lux:
Poetry for the people

An interview by Daina Savage,
January 1998

Thomas Lux wants to write poetry so well-crafted that even your housecat can feel it.

"I want my audiences to have fun, enjoy it, be moved by my poetry," he said. "And I want it to be understandable by dogs and cats -- so that anyone who has never read poetry can relate to it."

When he reads to a live audience, he wants to hear the people laugh out loud.

"If you have an art form that is not accessible, if you can only get it if it's explained by other people, it becomes snobbish and elitist and people aren't going to be interested," he said. "That's one of the reasons people hate poetry, why it has such a small audience. And that angers me because it takes poetry away from the people."

Lux said he tries to counter that aesthetic in his work, which is replete with observations on the simplest things. He writes poems about a piece of endive in a salad, a torn window shade, an unopened jar of maraschino cherries in the back of a refrigerator.

Although his subjects may be of the everyday world, their simplicity is deceptive.

"Poetry is the most exact, precise kind of writing there is," Lux said. "It takes a great deal of attention to get more out of fewer words." The key to writing good poetry, he said, is editing and rewriting. He often reworks a poem 30 to 40 times over a period of weeks, months or years to get it right.

"What you leave out is just as important as what you put into it," he explained. "The most difficult part is to learn to be objective about it."

Lux credits his first instructor, Helen Chasin, with teaching him this. "She was a poet herself, and she taught the way writers write -- very basic, very nuts and bolts," he said. "She was tough and encouraging, and invaluable to have as a first workshop teacher." Her emphasis on craft stayed with Lux during the past three decades of his writing career, even though he came to his concerete, specific style gradually.

Lux calls himself a "recovering surrealist," and he has chosen not to include his first two volumes of surreal writing in his latest book of collected works. "I've gotten better and less arbitrary and care about the reader more than I did as younger poet," he said. "I'm much more interested in being understood now."

When he teaches poetry, he said he tries to "dispel the notion that poetry is something that just comes down your arm and you write."

"Everybody knows that for a ballet dancer, in order to make a gazelle-like leap, you have to practice for years to do that. For a piano player, it takes years of practicing to make it look easy. You can't sit down and just play. But people think because they have language, if they have feelings and they put them down, they have a poem."

In working with poets, he tries to help shape these feelings with editing and rewriting.

"When I teach, I do very close, specific readings of poems, talking about the poems line by line, talking about what works and why," he said. "I think poetry can be taught. You can write clearly and lucidly without compromising creativity. It's important that I make this clear that there is great pleasure in this labor. It is not tedious, because along the way, in the process of rewriting, you make discoveries. Anything good does not get made easily."

Lux is a member of the writing faculty and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. A core faculty member of the Warren Wilson MFA program for writers, he has also taught at the universities of Michigan, Iowa and California-Irvine.

A former Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, he received the $50,000 Kingley Tufts award for his sixth collection Split Horizon. His most recent book, New & Selected Poems 1975-1995, brings together 131 poems from his four latest collections as well as 19 previously uncollected poems.

[ by Daina Savage ]

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