“A Good List”: An Interview with Brad Leithauser

Even though Brad Leithauser attended Harvard Law and had a career as a lawyer, he never lost his love of poetry, one that began in high school. He then traveled to Japan to work in a law office but wrote while he was there. He never was really as interested in law as he was poetry which made him always write more and more. He became a poet, novelist and teacher. One of his books is called “A Few Corrections”. He was awarded with the MacArthur Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship for creative arts. He now works at John Hopkins as a creative writing teacher.

Caroline Trager 1. What made you decide to become a poet, when you originally graduated from Harvard Law school to become a lawyer?

Brad Leithauser. I got interested in poetry in junior high school, and more interested in high school, and more interested still in college.  In junior high, a girlfriend wrote poetry—a sign of spiritual superiority that I was was eager to emulate.


As for law school, I like studying things—pretty much anything.  I enjoyed my time in law school, but the fact is I enjoyed poetry even more.  For three years, from 1980-3, I edited legal articles in Japan, at the Kyoto Comparative Law Center.  In many ways, that was my favorite job I ever had. I’d get to the office before everybody else and work on poems and my first novel while drinking tea and looking out over the Kyoto skyline.  Those days remain quite magical for me.

CT 2. Writing the “Good List” was there a background behind the main point of the poem?

BL.No real background that would relate directly to the poem.  I wrote it in Iceland, in the winter. I was staying alone in a little cabin, and perhaps the poem reflects a certain amount of cabin fever, of being snowbound out in the middle of nowhere in a very dark month (January).  When I’m alone and isolated like that, I tend to talk to myself and to tell myself jokes that may or may not seem funny when the period of isolation is over. I think you could view “A Good List” as a happy example of such a joke—one that continues to make me smile.  

CT 3. In the poem “Good List” was it based of your personal experience?

  1. Obviously, most of the actions in the poem are invented, often quite wildly so.  But even in poems that are deliberately crazy fabrications, a certain amount of actual experience is likely to creep in.  I’ve been a terrible insomniac for most of my life (certainly since my twenties), and I suppose the poem is something of a cry from the heart from somebody who can’t quite understand why everyone around him seems to sleep more easily and restfully than he does.

CT 4. I noticed that you worked in Japan and traveled a lot. Did those experiences affect the way you wrote your books and poems?

  1. Japan really did change my life.  My first novel was set there, and many of my early poems.  Somehow it was deeply liberating to be surrounded by a culture at once so rich and (for someone like me, who didn’t know the language) impenetrable.  I suppose life is always impenetrable—at least in its most interesting aspects, the ones a writer naturally seeks to write about. But in Japan the impenetrability was so much on the surface for me; every day was a humbling reminder of all I didn’t understand.

CT 5. In my poetry class, we are learning different ways of writing poetry, do you have any tips?
BL.I’ve always been fascinated by poetic structures, and I urge my students to study them.  I suppose there’s a hint of OCD in my love of these structures. I tend to count things—stairs, cars, fence palings, etc.  So an interest in syllable counts and syllabic arrangements comes naturally to me. I feel a special fondness for those modern poets who seem to have a knack for odd and interesting structures—Robert Frost and Marianne Moore and W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice and Elizabeth Bishop and Richard Wilbur.  There are quite a few of them. The richness of 20th century English-language poetry is quite breathtaking.


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