Five Questions: An Interview with Thomas Lux
Born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1946, Thomas Lux is the Bourne Professor of Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He attended Emerson College and the University of Iowa. His most recent books, both from Houghton Mifflin, are God Particles (2008) and The Cradle Place (2004). Lux’s other collections include New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995 (1997), The Street of Clocks (2001), and To the Left of Time(2016). He is also editor of I Am Flying Into Myself: Selected Poems of Bill Knott (2017).
“The Happy Majority,” the poem we discussed in our interview with Lux, was published in our assigned 2009 edition of “The Best American Poetry.” We saw the meaning of the poem as an individual wishing to accomplish different goals before death. We found the poem to be inspiring and connected with similar goals that we hope to achieve. Our interview with Professor Lux allowed us to see his thought process in creating the poem, and what his career in poetry entails.
Katie Wright: When teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology, what is your favorite lesson or discussion on poetry that you have with your class? Also, if you were to teach a high school poetry class, what topics or lessons would you emphasize the most?
Thomas Lux: At both Georgia Tech, or any other place I’ve taught—Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia, UC Irvine, etc.—I emphasize the same things I would if I were teaching a HS class: clarity, imagination, originality (no clichés, ever!), little or no abstractions, very few adverbs, strong active verbs, as much music as possible (the endless variations of rhyme and cadence, the dance between stressed and unstressed syllables), a little mischief sometimes, honesty, revision, revision, revision, and read, read, read.
KW: The Happy Majority starts off with a quote by P.T. Barnum that reads: “before I join the great and, I believe, the happy majority.” Was there a particular reason for choosing this quote? What separated it from other potential starting quotes?
TL: Well, the happy majority, in Barnum’s opinion, are all the dead. The title allowed me to quarrel with, play with, use hyperbole, satire, etc. I use the refrain (oh not to join the happy ones/until some tasks are done.) to say I’m not ready to join that happy majority yet. The speaker, from the outset, states that he believes the dead are neither happy nor unhappy but in the refrain he kind of goes along with it, tongue in cheek. Maybe he’s hedging his bets a little there. He’s saying he has a lot more he wants to do before he dies. Thus, the “bucket” list, which makes up most of the middle of the poem.
KW: When being “drawn to poetry,” was there a certain poem that inspired you? How has this poem contributed to your poems today?
TL: I did get, by the way, to hold my mother’s hand as she passed quietly and also had my hand on my father’s chest as he passed peacefully too, both of them at a great age. It was privilege to be able to tell them how much I loved them and what wonderful parents they were.
KW: The final line reads: “…from the conscious to the un-.” Most readers would assume that the last word- if completed- would say “unconscious”. Was “unconscious” the word that would fit, or were you trying to convey another word? Why end the poem on an unfinished word, and was there a message or deeper meaning that you were challenging the reader to find?
TL: The “un-“ at the end is playfully truncated, and means unconscious, i.e., dead myself, but not for a hundred years—more hyperbole because I was already in my sixties when I wrote the poem! Do you know any 160 year old guys? It’s a poem about mortality (most poems are!) but I hope the reader doesn’t think of it as morbid. Because it’s dealing with mortality means it is burning with life!
KW: At what point would you say that you were “drawn to poetry” ?
TL: I was drawn to poetry first probably in HS, although I didn’t really know it, I just knew that certain poems like Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” or Milton’s sonnet on his blindness, or certain Robert Frost poems, did something to me. It wasn’t until a few years later, in college, when I knew I couldn’t live without poetry. It became as important to me as bread or air. It still is.