This post is part of the Candlesticks and Daggers Interview Series run by contributor Sati Benes Chock. For more about the book, please follow the link here.
Excerpt Greg Luce’s Poem “Report”
I inverted the crescent moon
for you so it would point
thumbs up to heaven.
You pulled down the shade.
You recently retired from the National Geographic Society. What did you do there? Did your work there ever provide inspiration for your creative writing? If so, how?
I was a Production Specialist in Pre-press, which involved many different duties: customer service to the magazine and book units, project tracking, and preparation of National Geographic Magazine features for printing. Among many other things, I extracted each story from the InDesign publishing system, converted it into individual page PDFs, and sent them to the printer. I would get occasional inspiration from an NGM story, but the real value of that job for me was that it kept me firmly grounded in the world and allowed me to meet and interact with many different kinds of people doing many different kinds of things. I believe my work reflects this.
Can you tell us a little about how you became a poet? Did you always know that you wanted to be one? Do you ever write short stories?
I didn’t always know, but I became interested and began to write when I was a child. I’ve told this story in a different context, but it’s relevant here as well: The first poetry I was exposed to other than Mother Goose and the usual nursery rhymes, was A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. My grandmother read the poems to me when I was very small. Even before I could read, the world he described seemed very real to me while at the same time, the prosody and language were highly appealing. As soon as I could read I devoured it many times. “The Land of Counterpane” especially spoke to me; though I was not a sickly child as Stevenson was, when I did fall ill, I would lie in bed and play with my toy soldiers. Somehow the fact that this other boy, who grew up, lived, and died long before I was born, engaged in the same sort of play that I did made a powerful impression. I think it must have planted the idea that poetry endures across time and continues to speak over many generations—not that I could have articulated that back then!
I can’t remember when I actually wrote my first poem, but I dabbled in poetry throughout childhood. By the time I got to high school, I considered myself a poet and wrote regularly, terrible poems of course, but in doing so I developed the habit of writing. Further, by then I was reading a lot of poetry, sometimes trying to imitate or write in the styles of the poets I particularly liked. My Senior English teacher introduced me to, among others, T.S. Eliot, the first Modernist I had encountered. When I got to college I prowled the poetry section of the library and read the literary magazines and eventually majored in English with the encouragement of a couple of my professors. I took a Creative Writing class as an undergrad and specialized in writing in grad school. My MA thesis was a collection of poems—still bad, but getting better. I kept writing and workshopping and eventually found my voice, as they say.
I have not written short stories since trying a couple in grad school, but now that I’m retired and have more time, I have several in the works. I’ve been reading a lot of Henry James’ shorter works and it seems to have lit a fire in me.
Who are your favorite poets? What is it about their writing that you admire most?
Walt Whitman. He demonstrates how one can include the entire living world in poetry and he created the first truly American poetry. Also his poetry has a profoundly spiritual—even at times mystical—quality that reaches beyond the literary into a nearly religious dimension. He is the grandfather of all of us American poets.
Rainer Maria Rilke. My remarks about Whitman’s spirituality also apply to Rilke. His poetry is profoundly moving and inspiring. He has not been a direct influence on how I write, but reading him reminds me of how high a calling writing poetry is.
Emily Dickinson. Her intensity and concision have had a profound influence on my writing and her powerful descriptions of her emotional and spiritual struggles give me strength and the courage to write about my own. She is as important to me as Whitman and has had a more direct impact on my poetic style,
W.C. Williams and Robert Creeley. Again, concision and intensity, plus a great command of modern American language. I found my own voice through my reading of Creeley, though I have moved beyond the tiny minimalist poems I first wrote under his influence.
“Report” is a lovely poem, but it is also a mystery. Is this the first time that you’ve combined these two things, or is this something that you’ve done before?
Thank you! I have never written anything quite like “Report” before. I was intrigued by the idea of crossing mystery with other genres, but didn’t really think I had anything to offer. But Kelly told me she really wanted more poems in the book, and she has this way of twisting your arm so that you feel like you’ve had a massage, so I decided to see if I could come up with something. Somehow, the idea of creating a mystery in which one never learns who the perpetrator, victim, or the actual crime are came to me. Once I had that in mind, I felt strangely free to indulge in the semi-surreal language the first speaker uses and to relate odd events and leave out any solution. I like to say it’s the first poem I’ve ever written on commission.
You are an award-winning poet who has published a number of chapbooks. If you could tell beginning writers one thing about the publishing process, what would it be?
First, be very patient and remember that the writing is the important thing. I was 55 when I published my first book, though I had been publishing intermittently in journals for many years. After the first, the others came in relatively quick succession. But it’s absolutely essential not to get fixated on publishing a book. Keep trying but the poems and stories are the real goal. If you are good and persistent, you’ll find an audience.
Do you find that you often return to the same themes in your work? And if so, what are they?
Love, weather, light, birds, the small overlooked phenomena of everyday life. The painter Paul Klee explains one of the functions of art brilliantly: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” I’ve tried to make visible things that are overlooked as people rush about their daily existence. The very first poem in my first book is as close to an ars poetica as I’ve written:
Sunlight falls indifferently
among grass and leaves
and broken glass and gravel
but the radiance is there
anywhere you care to look,
sparks and dazzles
fly out and upward,
daytime fireflies glancing
off the sidewalk and
the puddles and the windshields
and, yes, your own eyes
when you catch glimpses
of yourself in the shop windows.
Recently I’ve had a flood of memories from my Texas childhood and I’ve been trying to get some of them into poems.
Some writers have rituals that they feel helps them with the creative process. Do you employ any rituals, or do anything regularly that helps keep you on track with your writing?
I don’t have rituals, but I do carry several notebooks so I can jot down images or phrases (or sometimes just a title). I also do a great deal of writing on buses and Metro trains. I don’t have a car so I use Metro frequently. Somehow the rhythm and maybe the ambient sounds on those conveyances often enhances my poems. I also like to write in cafes (as I’m doing right now!).
Any future projects that you’d like to tell us about?
Aside from the stories I mentioned above, I am attempting a series of short poems in the voice/persona of a character in one of the stories. He’s an older poet, sharing some characteristics with me, though the story is not at all autobiographical. One of his poems is briefly discussed in the piece so I thought I’d better write it. After that, a couple more came; they are different enough from my usual work to be both baffling and inspiring. I think I have a sense of his voice and sensibility, so it’s an interesting challenge to write as him.
About Gregory Luce
Gregory Luce is the author of Signs of Small Grace (Pudding House Publications), Drinking Weather (Finishing Line Press), Memory and Desire (Sweatshoppe Publications), and Tile (Finishing Line). His poems have appeared in numerous print and online journals, and in the anthologies Living in Storms (Eastern Washington University Press), Bigger Than They Appear (Accents Publishing), and Unrequited and Candlesticks and Daggers (ed. Kelly Ann Jacobson). In 2014 he was awarded the Larry Neal Award for adult poetry by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Recently retired from the National Geographic Society, he lives in Arlington, VA.