2020 arrives as a leap year, gracing us with an extra day in February. It’s always nice to have more time to read and write and speak with authors. This month it is my pleasure to introduce you to David Lee Garrison, an educator and a writer and a member of the celebrated and well-published group the Greenville Poets.
The poetry of this retired Wright State University professor has appeared widely in journals and anthologies. Two poems from his book Sweeping the Cemetery were read by Garrison Keillor on his national radio show “The Writer’s Almanac.” The title poem from his Bach in the DC Metro was featured by United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser on his website, American Life in Poetry, and read on the BBC in London. Garrison won the Paul Laurence Dunbar Poetry Prize in 2009 and was named Ohio Poet of the Year in 2014. His most recent work is Carpeing the Diem: Poems About High School. He lives in Oakwood, Ohio, with his wife, Suzanne Kelly-Garrison, a novelist, poet, and law lecturer at Wright State.
He has contributed to the local writing community through readings, mentoring, and speaking engagements. He graciously offered to share one of his poems with us for this interview.
On a Line by Thomas Lynch
Life goes on. The dead are everywhere.
They make the floorboards creak like ships at sea,
they wink from glistening streetlights here and there.
They read the book we’re reading, touch our hair.
They walk beside us though we cannot see
or hear their steps. They constantly declare
themselves in letters we have saved. We stare
at those who favor them. The cypress trees
protect their souls like nesting birds. They are
not “in a better place,” they’re here. In air,
in water, earth, and fire. The timpani
of life beats on in death. This world is where
they linger, waiting for us. Say a prayer
for the dead, that they may always be
around us, in our homes and in the flare
of memories, so we do not despair.
They make their way across the river, we
can only see them off. We’re in their care
as life goes on. The dead are everywhere.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, David. I’m so pleased to have another local poet as a featured author. You know, readers (and interviewers) remain fascinated by how writers become writers. Can you share a little of your writing journey with us?
David Garrison: I started writing in high school, in part because I loved literature and wanted to be part of that enterprise, but also because I found it to be a way of dealing with adolescent angst. When I got to college and really delved into the great writers, I was so humbled that I did not write much until I was about thirty, when I went through a divorce, got my doctorate, and began college teaching. In the midst of all those changes, I felt moved to write again, and I have been writing ever since.
J.I.: Poetry is a demanding mistress. Why did you ally yourself with this Muse?
D.G.: Poetry has always appealed to me; good poetry moves me and makes me want to respond. I have published lots of poems, but only one short story, which I wrote in Portuguese! That story came from my experiences learning the language, so the circumstance was special. I have written articles about Spanish Literature, but no prose fiction in English. To tell you the truth, I am not sure why. Perhaps I will someday in the future.
J.I.: Is there a rhythm to the work you produce, a way that the inspiration arrives and sets you on a course, or is it more a play it by ear kind of thing?
D.G.: I wish I could say that I am disciplined enough to write every day, but I’m not. I tend to write in spurts…several poems and then nothing for a while, then another spurt.
J.I.: As a professor of Spanish and Portuguese, you have the advantage of being multilingual. How does speaking other languages enrich or enhance your work? Do you write poems in these languages?
D.G.: I have published a few poems in Spanish and in Portuguese, and as I mentioned, one story in Portuguese. I have also done a great deal of translating, and that has inspired me in many ways. To translate a poem from another language you have to get inside the skin of another poet. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s also a thrilling, magical thing, and I learn from the poets I translate.
J.I.: Both prose writers and poets can identify with certain themes or motifs. Do you tend to write to general or specific themes?
D.G.: I do not tend to write much about nature, although sometimes that plays a part in my poems. Generally, I write about people. I am drawn to those moments in life that bring deep feelings to the surface. Quite a number of my poems are comic in nature, something reviewers have always noticed. I often write about high school, even though that was more than fifty years ago for me. High school is something we never get over, at least I’ve never gotten over it, the good and the bad of it.
J.I.: Do you find yourself drawn to a specific kind of poem — lyric, formal, free verse?
D.G.: I write some formal poetry, but mostly free verse. Then again, my free verse has formal aspects to it. For example, it often has an iambic beat, not entirely regular, but it’s there.
J.I.: If you were to address young students today, would you encourage them to write poetry? Why or why not?
D.G.: I would encourage anyone who wants to write poetry to do so. It’s one of the most meaningful things a human being can do.
J.I.: You do a fair amount of public readings. What do these events offer the poet? The listener?
D.G.: I love giving readings because I like to communicate with a live audience. It means a lot to me to get an ooh or an ah or a laugh. I love going to readings as well, because I am always interested in what others have to say. I have organized many readings because I like to see deserving poets be heard, and that’s why I do Conrad’s Corner poetry on WYSO radio.
J.I.: In what way is poetry evolving or growing? Is there still room for formal poetry in today’s society?
D.G.: There has almost always been a tug of war between formal poetry and free verse, and sometimes one or the other dominates. Both will be around forever, I’m sure. Billy Collins, George Bilgere, Jared Carter, and Naomi Shihab Nye, among others, have done much to make poetry accessible to people who don’t think they like it, and that has been a refreshing change. For a long time poets were abstruse and deliberately hard to understand—John Ashbery and the “language poets,” for example. Maybe some people get that stuff. I don’t.
J.I.: What activities outside of writing do you enjoy?
D.G.: I play a lot of tennis and golf, especially since I retired from teaching in 2009. My wife and I have a little boat and we love sailing. I also play the trumpet and the euphonium (kind of a small tuba). And I read a lot, of course. All writers are readers first. And I love to watch Perry Mason reruns.
J.I.: As a writer, I believe that the act of writing changes me. What changes has poetry wrought in you personally?
D.G.: That’s a hard one. I once heard William Manchester say that for a writer, “to live is to observe, and to observe is to record.” I subscribe to that idea—writing is a deep way of living. I grow and mature as a human being by writing, and I constantly discover and rediscover the world.
J.I: Just for fun: what’s your favorite candy bar?
D.G.: My favorite candy bar is, hands-down, the Kit-Kat. It has lines, like poetry, and the combination of chocolate and wafer is impossible for me to resist.
J.I.: You mentioned that you read a lot. Who are you reading these days?
D.G.: I just finished a wonderful novel, News of the World, by Paulette Jiles. It’s about a trek across Texas in the mid-1800’s. In addition to its fascinating narrative, the book has some beautifully lyrical passages describing the landscape. At the moment, I am rereading Garrison Keillor’s anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times, which has a distinctive range and depth provided by the many fine poets in it. Not too long ago I read and reviewed Jared Carter’s new book of poems, The Land Itself, which is an elegy of the Midwest.
Carpeing the Diem can be purchased through Dos Madres Press at https://www.dosmadres.com/shop/carpeing-the-diem-by-david-lee-garrison/