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Other segments from the episode on January 11, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 11, 2000: Interview with Andrea Siegel; Interview with David Lehman; Review of the album "The Raga Guide."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 11, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011102np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: David Lehman Discusses His New Book of Poetry, `The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry'
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Some writers keep a daily journal because they find it gives structure to their life and their writing.

David Lehman tries to write a poem a day. It's a practice he started in 1996. He says he hasn't missed a day since August. We invited him to read from his new collection, "The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry."

Lehman is also the founder and general editor of "The Best American Poetry" anthology, and he's the author of the book "The Last Avant-Garde," about the New York school of poets, including Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Coke, and James Schuyler.

Lehman says that writing a daily poem helps him curb his ambition. It relieves the pressure of having to produce a masterpiece each time he sits down to write. Each poem in the new collection is titled with the day it was written.

DAVID LEHMAN, "THE DAILY MIRROR: A JOURNAL IN POETRY": "January 24.

"I was about to be mugged by a man with a chain,
So angry he growled, at the Lincoln Center subway station,
When out of nowhere appeared a tall, chubby-faced Hassidic Jew
With payas and a black hat, a black coat, white shirt,
With prayer shawl fringes showing.

"We walked together out of the station,
And when we got outside and shook hands,
I noticed he was blind.

"`Goodbye,' I said, as giddy as a man waking
From an anesthetic in the recovery room,
Happy, with a hard-on.

"The cabs were on strike on Broadway.
So beautiful, a necklace of yellow beads.
I breathed in the fumes, impossibly happy."

GROSS: Now, had this experience happened to you near the time that you wrote about it?

LEHMAN: I think it happened actually a few months earlier at the Lincoln Center subway station, and I fictionalized elements of it, most notably the fact that the Hassidic man wasn't blind in the -- in reality, although I had met another Hassidic man who was blind, and in contact with whom I felt a certain thrill, I can only put it. He seemed like a very holy person.

GROSS: You've actually come upon the perfect title for your book, and for our listeners who don't live in New York and don't know what "The Daily Mirror" is, or was, why don't you explain?

LEHMAN: Well, "The Daily Mirror" was one of our tabloid newspapers, like "The New York Daily News," and it went out of business as a result of this terrible newspaper strike in the early 1960s. And in a sense, "The Daily Mirror," my book of poems, has a newspaper quality to it. That is, there are a lot of headlines in my poems, and the poems reflect events in the world outside it, like the deaths of great artists or the World Series victory of the Yankees or what have you.

And also in -- I liked the phrase "The Daily Mirror" because it suggests the Snow White story of consulting a mirror on a daily basis, which I think we all do.

GROSS: It also suggests that you're reflecting on your life as if looking in a mirror, you know, in order to write these poems.

LEHMAN: Well, yes, that's true. I think of a remark by Jean Cocteau. He said, "Some mirrors should reflect more before sending back an image."

GROSS: (laughs) A lot of your poems are inspired by songs or quote song lyrics. How do you see your poems as connecting to music?

LEHMAN: Well, one thing that happened when I wrote a lot of the poems in "The Daily Mirror" is that I was listening to jazz at the time, and jazz is a great passion of mine. And I would, following O'Hara's example, write about what was going on at that moment of writing, something that O'Hara got from the Abstract Expressionist painters, I guess, to make the very process of writing part of the subject of the writing.

So I found myself writing about jazz, and my favorites, and singers. And of course I was very moved when Ella died and wrote an Ella obit. And when Sinatra died, I wrote one for him.

I also remember when I was in college reading O'Hara's poems, and I'd never heard of some of the people he would mention, like Miles Davis or Billie Holiday. And I would go out and listen to them, and be very grateful to O'Hara for the tip.

So I thought, Well, I can do that too, I can mention Horace Silver in this poem and Freddy Hubbard (ph) in that one, maybe some younger person is going to discover these great jazz musicians as a result.

GROSS: Why don't you read your Sinatra obit poem? And this was written on May 15, one of your daily poems from 1996. And this poem is included in David Lehman's new book, "The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry."

LEHMAN: "May 15.

"Sinatra, snapping out of the haze,
Noticed me sitting across from him.
`Who the hell are you?'
`Just another fan,' I said.

"On the day he died,
I made anagrams out of his name,
Satin Sin Stain Stare Train Rain Star,
And figured out my last message.

"I mean, what I would say to him now,
`Your goodbye left me with eyes that cry.'

"On the other hand, you left me
The history of your voice,
The record of the American century,
From Roosevelt to Reagan.
You will live on.

"Whenever I need to hear you,
It has to be you, sing,
`I Get Along Without You Very Well,'
Strand's favorite, or
`I'm a Fool to Want You,'
My choice, `When Your Lover Has Gone.'

GROSS: Most pop songs have lyrics that rhyme. Your poems, for the most part, don't rhyme. Do you -- what's the different to you between rhyme in a song and rhyme in a poem?

LEHMAN: Well, I do rhyme sometimes. I'm not sure that there are very many examples, but I know of at least a couple in "The Daily Mirror." And your question's a great one, and a perennial one, how do we distinguish between songs and poems? Is there a value in doing so? Is it just an academic question, or is it really one that we ought to tangle with for philosophical reasons?

It's hard to settle the issue, but I feel comfortable if someone sitting here said that Bob Dylan's songs were poems. And at the same time, I have no need to claim that, you know, my favorite songs, like "Too Marvelous for Words," let's say, by Johnny Mercer, I have no need to think of that as a poem. It's a brilliant lyric. In fact, Johnny Mercer's lyrics are fantastic. But I'm not sure I would call them poems.

And I think I may have dodged your question about rhyme. But rhyme is a great technique. It's a wonderful way to link two lines or two thoughts that otherwise needn't be linked. The fact that the last word of the two lines rhymes is a sufficient linkage. And so that becomes a very useful tool for a poet. Of course, there are lots of other tools or means of organizing a poem.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Lehman. And he has a new collection of his daily poems, and he's been writing a poem a day for several years. The new book is called "The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry."

I'm going to ask you to read another poem from your new book. And this is from September 12. And it's about the year you wrote obituaries for a living. Do you want to introduce the poem before you read it?

LEHMAN: Sure. "September 12" was the day in the late 1970s that Robert Lowell died. He died on September 12. And I think that's the most important thing you need to know about this poem. Otherwise, I should say that most of the details of the poem are completely made up, and I was just on a riff, I guess. But I did write journalism for a living for seven or eight years. So that much is true.

"September 12."

"The year I wrote obituaries for a living
I lived in a small studio in the Village,
Listened to Coleman Hawkins, and walked fast.
I solved murders in my spare time,
Thanks to my buddy, Phil,
A cop on the homicide squad
I had beers with at The Cookery.

"Women were a mystery to me.
For example, there was the night
When Barbara -- not her real name...
Said she'd received a death threat
During a Tarot reading.
It was smoky when I got there.
A candle shone in an empty jug.
The Queen of Swords was curled up
On the couch, throat slit.

"And when I went home with the no-sleep blues,
I had to write 800 words on Robert Lowell,
Who died that day in a cab."

GROSS: Now, is it true that you did write obituaries for a living for a while?

LEHMAN: No.

GROSS: (laughs)

LEHMAN: No, I wrote mainly book reviews for "Newsweek" and feature articles for "Newsweek." But in this particular self-dramatization, I thought of myself doing it in an alternate existence, I guess.

GROSS: My guest is poet David Lehman. His new collection is called "The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is poet David Lehman. His new book, "The Daily Mirror," is a collection of his daily poems.

Now, you have written a lot about poetry, you know, for example, your book, "The Last Avant-Garde," about the New York school of poets, has just been published in paperback. You have founded and are the series editor for "Best American Poetry," for that series.

But you have a book on an unrelated subject that's coming out in a new paperback edition called "The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection." And it's about detective fiction and murder mysteries. And I have not read the book, but I presume that your interested in that hard-boiled style of writing?

LEHMAN: Very much so. And I love noir movies. I also like the classic detective stories of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes.

GROSS: So what appeals to you about that kind of hard-boiled fiction style?

LEHMAN: Well, I like the first-person narration you get in Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammet. I like the way wisecracks are employed. They seem very poetic. You know, if you analyze a lot of wisecracks, you'll see that they amount to a kind of simile or muted hyperbole. But -- and a very interest use of figurative language that also conveys a lot of attitude, in the contemporary New York sense.

I like that very much. I also like the idea that the detective in those hard-boiled novels is a loner by temperament and by instinct, and people are always warning him off the case, and it's not rational that he should do what he does. And all those things are -- make him analogous to the poet. The poet is a kind of a loner. He or she works in private. People are always discouraging you from being a poet, and yet you continue to do it.

So it seems to me that there's actually a -- something very similar in the life of a poet and in the life of a detective, or a spy, for that matter. I think that's one of the attractions I have.

GROSS: And the detective is almost like a writer, because what he's really doing is narrating the whole story as he sees it to us.

LEHMAN: Yes, and reconstructing it. It's a very interesting form of writing, the detective novel. In some ways it's very modern, and in some ways it's an alternative to modernism, because the detective story has to have a real plot. It can't give in to the impulse for sort of terminal introspection that you can get in modern writing. You need a real shape in detective novels.

GROSS: Now, you're the founder and series editor of "The Best American Poetry" series. And in the introduction to the latest collection, you say that you think poetry today is in better shape than contemporary American fiction. So I'm asking -- I'm going to ask you to defend that judgment.

LEHMAN: Well, I certainly think that we are -- we've just concluded a decade where the prestige of the art of poetry has gone way up. There are many causes for that, and it's sort of a delightful thing to notice. When we began the '90s, you had people writing articles like, "Who Killed Poetry?" or "Can Poetry Matter?" And no one is writing that kind of article now.

We have activist poet laureates, we have poetry slams. And so there are so many signs, to me, that the art is thriving. And I'm very happy about that.

Now, the statement that poetry may be in better shape today than fiction is one of those statements that one makes to be very provocative. And I'm not sure there's any way really of measuring these things, and I'm not sure that the statement is, strictly speaking, defensible. But it's an argument that Robert Bly, who chose the poems for "The Best American Poetry 1999," makes in his introduction to the volume.

And I think it's a plausible statement, because a lot of prose that one reads, especially the sort of surfeit of memoirs that we get, are very me-oriented, me-centered. They're sort of terminally self-absorbed. And if -- there's something a little disconcerting about reading memoirs or a fictionalized memoir by somebody who hasn't turned 40 yet.

And I think that in a way, the -- that corresponds to a period in poetry that we had 40 years ago, when poetry was confessional, when Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath were writing their breakthrough poems. And I think poets have moved beyond that, and...

GROSS: Beyond that to what?

LEHMAN: Well, I think we have a whole range of possibilities in poetry. I'm glad to see a resurgence of interest in the New York school, for example. The New York school has placed a high emphasis on (inaudible) -- on communicating pleasure to the reader, and on using comedy in poetry, for example, humor, or in using rare and exotic forms in poetry.

And that's just one part of this, you know, tremendously vital and various nation of poets that we have.

GROSS: Since you just referred to confessional memoirs in a disparaging way, (laughs) I thought I'd have you read a poem that starts in the same kind of tone. And -- let's see, this is on page 79, and let's find out what day it's from.

LEHMAN: It's May 16.

GROSS: Yes, it's May 16. You want to introduce this for us?

LEHMAN: Well, sure. I was flying back to New York from upstate New York, from Ithaca, New York, where I have a son and also have a house. And there was going to be a game show, a poetry quiz show that night in New York. And I was going to be officiating, and I think the "What's that line?" segment, which is something that -- we've done a lot of (inaudible) -- I think that the Nuyorican Cafe and -- under the helm of Bob Holman introduced a lot of techniques, poetry slam techniques, that you can appropriate in a more mainstream way.

And we just did the Poetry Olympics in New York a few months ago, where you had teams representing five metropolitan-area graduate writing programs competing in such events as Bad Sonnet Contest, Instant Haiku, Literary Jeopardy, and Dead Poets' Slam.

So this is what happened on May 16. I flew in and was going to the game show, and I wrote this in the cab on the way from La Guardia to Manhattan.

"May 16.

"Fifty-two degrees, light rain,
And a 30-minute delay at the Midtown Tunnel.
I'm back, giving thanks I'm not in publishing
And don't have to read another memoir
Of a dysfunctional family.

"The difference between me and that homeless guy
Talking to himself on 36th Street is,
I'm going to the Poetry Game Show tonight,
And if somebody heckles me,
I'm going to tell the guy
His works will be read
Long after Shakespeare's have been forgotten...
But not until then."

GROSS: That's a great retort at the end. Have you ever used it?

LEHMAN: No, I wish I had. The -- when I -- I wrote a long essay about poetry slams when they were new, in the early '90s. And Bob Holman invited me to the Nuyorican, and on one of my visits, they were having a Heckler Slam, where the point was that -- to give the award to the one who heckled the most viciously. And I was volunteered to read a poem and be heckled.

And I was heckled mercilessly. And I wish I'd had some retorts prepared. I didn't have any. But I got to write the article, and I had the last word in the article, the end of the article. I could -- I had the journalist's revenge, you know, I knew it would make great copy, all those heckles.

GROSS: There's one more poem I'd like you to read, and this is a poem from November 26. And why don't you introduce it briefly and then read it for us.

LEHMAN: Well, I think it was Thanksgiving, and -- when I wrote this poem, and -- and it ends with a rhyme.

GROSS: Thanks for pointing that out.

LEHMAN: "November 26.

"I used to think other people's lives
Were more real than mine.
Journalists covering a war
Could talk about truth and commitment
In an open-air Jeep, smoking.

"Movie stars could run for Congress
On a rock-and-roll platform,
And I could make fun of them,
But secretly I envied the woman next door
Who went to her office every day,
Where she pushed papers and crunched numbers,
She told me, without explaining what that meant.

"But she felt part of the great extravaganza,
Thanksgiving, Christmas, the works,
In love on New Year's Eve,
By Valentine's Day broken hearted,
While I stayed in my apartment
Searching for words to describe
Feelings that had already departed."

GROSS: I like that poem a lot. Is this expressing something that you felt, that you're kind of detached from the action of American culture, because you're home writing and thinking?

LEHMAN: Yes, I often feel that way. I'm very lucky, I'm one of those lucky people who got to do what he really wanted to do in life, which was to be a poet and a writer and actually make a living that way, and to stay at home and work out of my own office. So I feel very blessed and lucky.

But of course there are days when I sit there and wonder whether I'm not part of that great populace that goes to an office at 9:00 and has its water cooler conversations and leaves at 5. And so I put that in this poem.

I suppose it's an occupational hazard for a poet or an artist who feels linked to the great body politic but also a little separate from it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and for reading some of your poems.

LEHMAN: I can't thank you enough for having me.

GROSS: David Lehman's new collection of daily poems is called "The Daily Mirror." His previous book, "The Last Avant-Garde," just came out in paperback. With photographer Starr Black (ph), he runs a Monday night poetry series at the KGB Bar in Manhattan.

Coming up, "The Raga Guide," a four-CD introduction to Indian music.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: David Lehman
High: Poet David Lehman is the editor of "The Best American Poetry" and on the faculty of Bennington College and The New School. His new book of poems chronicles his attempt to write a poem a day. It's called "The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry."
Spec: Art; Lifestyle; Media

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: David Lehman Discusses His New Book of Poetry, `The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry'
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 11, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011103np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: `The Raga Guide' Provides an Excellent Introduction to Indian Classical Music
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Ragas are the foundation for Indian classical music. There are hundreds of them. Music critic Milo Miles says "The Raga Guide," a new four-CD set and booklet, is the best introduction to Indian music he's come across. He says he needed it as much as anyone.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, RAGA)

MILO MILES, MUSIC CRITIC: I've done very few pieces on Indian music for FRESH AIR, not because I don't get immense pleasure from listening to it, but because I don't know what I'm talking about. I don't know enough about ragas, the basic form of Indian classical, to make meaningful comments on it.

But I'm getting better, and a key reason why is "The Raga Guide." It's a four-CD set with almost 200 pages of commentary. You get a basic skeleton of 74 ragas, just the themes, note sequences, and some fundamental technique and performances that last about four minutes. You can focus in on the tune and not get lost in the elaborations and improvisations that surround it in regular performance.

But more than that, "The Raga Guide" is just such a classy package. The notes are scholarly but not stuffy, and the range of material is exciting rather than intimidating. You hear Ragas with origins lost in the mists of time, centuries old, and some mere decades old, like this one.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, RAGA)

MILES: The ragas are separated into male and female vocals, instrumental performances on the sitarlike sarod, and flute workouts by the living grand master of the instrument, Cara Prasad Charasia (ph). I must also single out singer Sheruti Salbakar Kaptar's (ph) interpretations, which can be vividly playful, somber or sensuous, as needed.

Each raga comes with a clear and consistent notation, a song text if there is one, a history of the raga, and those delightful tidbits about what time of the day or season of the year the tune should be played.

"The Raga Guide" even includes a fascinating series of antique paintings intended to portray the mood of the individual ragas.

Finally, I'd like to note that a little work with this set makes an excellent preparation for digging deeper into live performance of raga. You will never applaud the tune-up again.

GROSS: Milo Miles is music editor of Rock.com.

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Phyllis Myers, Naomi Person, Amy Salit, and Joan Toohey Wesman, with Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing. Research assistance from Brendan Noonam (ph). Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, RAGA)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, Milo Miles
Guest:
High: World music critic Milo Miles reviews "The Raga Guide": a four CD introduction to Indian Raga music.
Spec: India; Music Industry; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: `The Raga Guide' Provides an Excellent Introduction to Indian Classical Music
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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