We invited Sydney Lea to talk about his new collection from Four Way Books, available this month -- a collection that reminds me of why spring is a good time for National Poetry Month: I notice what's new and how hope refreshes itself as we leave the winter house and re-enter a season of obvious growth, color, and fragrance. I've always been drawn to Syd's poems because the narrative in them allows me easy access into the New England landscape (human and otherwise), then bumps me into fresh questions and recognitions. It's great to have his newest collection, and I recommend purchasing it directly from Four Way Books, as a salute to what this poetry press does for us all.
What's the title of your new book and why did you choose it?
My new book is entitled Young of the Year. As so often happens, there was a circumstance in which I said a phrase in response to something I beheld – in this case, a young snowshoe hare in early winter – and then intuited that something in that phrase was asking to be explored poetically. As it turned out, the poem took me to contemplation of my then brand new grandfatherhood, my son and his wife having presented Cora, their own young of the year, with whom I was and am infatuated – as I am by the three grandchildren, who are Cora’s little brother and her twin cousins, a boy and a girl, who have arrived since the composition of that title poem.
John is my least favorite of the evangelists, and yet his assertion of “In the beginning was the word” has a certain, probably heretical, resonance for me. I believe that if I abandon myself to my materials – which for a writer are, precisely, words – they will perform that divine function of creation.
That poem was determinative of the rest of the collection, which ended up being dedicated to those four grandkids. I expected to love being a grandfather, but never as much as I do. Their arrival, combined with my recent retirement from college teaching and certain exigencies of age (though I’m blessed with good health and a surprising absence of aches and pains in my body), led me to contemplate what a lifetime might look like in retrospect. In fact it looks okay, after all, despite some ups and downs, some of them pretty catastrophic, in younger days.
I didn’t think, and still don’t, that I could judge my success as a parent until I saw how my kids raised their kids. They do better than I did at their ages, no doubt; but it feels as though I must have done some modicum anyhow of “modeling” parenthood. And of course the arrival of yet another generation of blood kin fills me with a sense of life’s symmetries, unobvious as they can be sometimes.
Poetry has always been some way for me to make a bit of coherence in my life, and this book feels more coherent to me than the others, merely because it reflects the symmetries I just mentioned.
How does poetry help you (or not help you!) to continue enjoying the choices you've made for where to live, what to put first in each day, who to share things with?
I flat love the natural world, and being in it absolutely every day in all seasons; I flat love the fact that I can open my study door and walk right up a ridge that no one else will have walked up that day – or any other, except during deer season. That sort of daily hiking is my meditation; if I try hard NOT to think of “ideas,” then material will simply present itself to me.
I’m a tree-hugger, sure, but not only that. I live, quite deliberately, among people for whom poetry is scarcely a high priority. I think that enriches both my writing and my life.
It seems to me that too many of us, having affiliated ourselves with the academy, can start to believe that what the people around us daily are concerned about is what everyone is concerned about. We now have poets who are using various critical or philosophical theories as grounds for their poetry. I’m not buying, though I suppose it’s possible I would if I didn’t encounter people every day who could not imaginably care less about theory or any of that other schoolroom stuff.
In fact, when I set about finishing a poem, I like to imagine that these neighbors will read it. I want to address them, and more often than not pay tribute to them. Of course they won’t read it, so this surmise of mine is utterly ridiculous. And yet it is for me an enabling device, and it keeps me honest … or at least I hope it does.