About the Author:
Joseph Lease is the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry: Broken World, Human Rights, and The Room. His poems have also been featured on NPR and published in Bay Poetics, The AGNI 30th Anniversary Poetry Anthology, VQR, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Lease’s poem “‘Broken World’ (For James Assatly)” appeared in The Best American Poetry, edited by Robert Creeley and David Lehman. His latest book Testify was published in 2011.
Joseph Lease in conversation with Claire Chafee
Claire Chafee: Your poems are very accessible and very musical: it’s like you bring us into the inside of the prayer. How do you establish this intimacy with an unknown reader when you are alone and working? Do you feel this connection, or is it an act of faith?
Joseph Lease: I feel the connection, and it’s really joyous. I tried to make both the music of the poems and the stories in the poems both very particular and very common, very shared. My poetry has always been eardriven, so for me rhythmical control answers and embodies the emotion that animates the poem. The music becomes incantatory.
Claire Chafee: There is a generous spirit that guides this new book: generous with your own confessions of frailties, and generous about ours: “don’t / panic” you reassure, “let time wash you, you can swim:” Your faith in the reader becomes increasingly self-evident. You tell the reader: “I believe / you can do this.” Where do you get this conviction, if that is what it is?
Joseph Lease: I really trust readers, and I try to make sure that my poems invite readers in. And during the time I was writing this particular book I really needed that faith, because while I was finishing Testify, my father became quite ill with cancer and I spent a lot of time sitting with my father and my mother in their small, dark house in the Midwest—this house that seemed so full of light and life and possibility when I was growing up. Somehow being in many places at once—being buoyed by meeting new progressive voices and also listening to a fading progressive voice (my father is an old-time Jewish radical who writes about radical energy in American literature)—made the process of writing the book feel uncanny and haunted and also very open.
Claire Chafee: “Testify” seems to me to be a rumination on what we worship (“Airbrushed / Gwyneth at / the Renoir / Hotel / St. Pauli / Girl”) in the private, individual story sold to us as redemption. It’s as though you are taking dictation of the constant thrum surrounding us. This book unfolds as an urgent offering; a challenge to question the notion that private hope will save us from a collective fate.How do you merge these two worlds of the private struggle and the public one so seamlessly in your work?
Joseph Lease: In Testify (and Broken World), I tried to write poems that embody spiritual mystery and the broken but essential promise of American democracy. I explored the idea of “home” while also challenging it in a tender way. I think these poems break open that new ground.
Claire Chafee: The work seems to beseech us to listen more closely to the language we live in the midst of. You dare us to believe it matters. Take the simple directives, “say democracy” and “say a democracy so polarized, say polarized, say paralyzed.” There is an absence of righteousness that is pretty astonishing in a book so bravely political. There is an acceptance of where we turn for faith. “Oh notebook.” The Dow Jones. The “informed democracy.” You even suggest the simplest efforts, “Try saying wren.Try saying mercy. Try anything.” And in the poem, “Try,” there is this sexy departure: “let’s say I was Frank Sinatra’s / toothpaste, let’s say I lead a life of crime—O cream / park your raspberries / on my moon.” How do you maintain this hope in the midst of so much dark fury? You make political critique and analysis of ideology into music, into an embodiment of song and story: how do you do this?
Joseph Lease: I was horrified by the Bush Administration: tax cuts for the rich, the Iraq war, the rise of right-wing hate speech within mainstream American culture, the erosion (or collapse) of American journalism. So anger was a catalyst for me, and I chose to respond with poems—poems that enact a dance: what it really feels like to have a mind and a body, what it really feels like to critique America. I wanted to embody those struggles and transformations and rites of passage in language.
Claire Chafee: There are these beautiful segues between more heightened, imagistic language and the everyday language here. You examine the world of language with a sort of tender democracy: there is great formal specificity, and every word is resonant and beautiful. How do you switch gears so well?
Joseph Lease: I think it goes back to what we were talking about at the beginning. It’s in the music of words. I feel the connection.
Claire Chaffee’s works include Whisper from the Book of Etiquette, Darwin’s Finches, Why We Have a Body, Even Among These Rocks and Five Women on a Hill in Spain. Her work has been produced at Magic Theatre in San Francisco, the off-Broadway Judith Anderson Theatre, and in numerous theaters around the country. Her awards include a Drama-Logue Award, the Bay Area Critics’ Circle Award, and the Oppenheimer Award in New York for Best Emerging Playwright.
“‘Broken World’ (For James Assatly),” in Postmodern American Poetry: A
Norton Anthology (Second Edition), Paul Hoover, Editor, Norton,
forthcoming in 2012
“‘Broken World’ (For James Assatly)” was also selected for The Best
American Poetry 2002.
“Send My Roots Rain” in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology
(Second Edition), Paul Hoover, Editor, Norton, forthcoming in 2012