What We Learned from Lewis Warsh
Almost eight years ago I asked Lewis Warsh what poets out there who I’m unfamiliar with should I invite to read at the upcoming Welcome to Boog City 6 Arts Festival. He emailed me back:
there are 4 young poets who interest me & who I’d recommend.
Sarah Anne Wallen
Tony & Dan edit Sun Skeleton magazine
Sarah & Dan edit Poems For Sunday.
Lisa is just great.
Thanks for asking — please keep these guys in mind.
I recently asked the quartet, who studied under Lewis Warsh in the M.F.A. program at Long Island University, to reminisce about their late teacher.
—David A. Kirschenbaum
Daniel Owen: Hi Tony, Sarah, Lisa,
I’m thinking about Lewis as a teacher, his pedagogy, in the classroom or outside of it. You try something and then you try it again and you can keep trying it until you figure something out or you can try something else. This is the first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of Lewis’ pedagogy, as a lesson at least. I can’t think of all that many lessons, actually, like lessons as a delimited thing, something you could briefly summarize or an injunction: do this, don’t do that. That wasn’t his way, of course. It seems to me more like he had great trust in each student’s thoughts and approaches and abilities. You just have to learn how to trust them yourself, and that’s the work of the teacher, being available and attentive to that. And you do this through practice and dialogue and reading and listening and reflection. Like, your thing is valid. Maybe that’s a lesson. And it applies to everyone. So then “good writing” becomes a matter of rigor or attention, doing your thing. So in order to write you have to do what feels right, or interesting, or worthwhile, or compelling to you, keep attentive to the possibilities of who you might be and what you might be doing in concert and conversation with those around you, community. Attending to the work of your friends, your community, becomes as important as attending to your own work. Or maybe, becomes your work, as much as what you yourself are putting down on the page.
I don’t know, does this resonate with your experiences with Lewis as a teacher?
Lisa, Sarah, Tony—resonate? experience? How do we feel about this? What do you think?
Tony Iantosca: You know, what comes to mind most immediately for me, especially in this question of doing one’s thing, but doing so within a community, which becomes its own type of work with its own kind of aesthetic, what comes to mind is Lewis always saying something along the lines of “and then something else happens.” He’d say this in workshops, but also as a dictum tagged onto the end of a piece of advice or speculation about the future. This always stuck in my head, and I think I can see why now. It’s partly because he had this faith in the totally unexpected, unpredictable changes that would always happen, both to one’s own poetry and work, and to oneself and one’s community, if you stay in contact with others and if you remain connected and in common activity with that community.
He certainly thought of himself as part of our community, and welcomed us into his, and so his advice that once you figure out how to do something well in your poetry, you should keep doing it for a while and then do something else, was a way of speaking to that community’s potential. (I feel like his voice is coming through here, “or something.”) I hope it’s not too much of a philosophical leap to say that in this “something else” there was a real faith in difference, in the distinct, and in the fundamental newness of everything you create, even if it resembles something you did before. Also, because of that, he communicated an understanding that we are in a constant state of becoming, like the work we produce, and this becoming is fostered and perhaps accelerated by the community one keeps.
Lisa Rogal: Yes to all of this. Lewis made me feel that what I was doing was worth exploring. One of his more memorable responses for me was: you could write 100 pages of this. In essence, what if you keep doing this for a while? I took it as a compliment, because I think partly it meant, what if you take this seriously by committing some time to it? What if? His comments were always suggestions, not “shoulds,” which is the other thing I want to say about Lewis as a teacher. There was no hierarchy to the thing. No I have the answers or listen to me. Lewis is often referred to as a mentor but I don’t think he liked that label. As far as I could tell, he preferred friend or teacher. Maybe they were the same thing for him?
He was always so interested in us—all of us—as people. His teaching was utterly human. We weren’t students and professor, we were humans in a room and anything can happen in the interaction between two (or more) people. I guess what I’m getting at is: curiosity. Lewis was curious, especially about people. What could happen? Anything. When you go outside, when you try something, when you meet someone. He loved that idea about meeting a stranger and ending up married. The world and our experiences in them are endlessly fascinating. It was such a hopeful and exciting message. And he led by example.
Try something, write 100 pages of it. It wasn’t about the result but about the experience—his assignments for this reason sometimes felt like experiments. It’s more fun this way. Lewis was fun. He was flexible about what might happen. Something unexpected or interesting could happen during class (it often did) and he would go with it. This is why, to me, his classes were dynamic and inspiring. And they were seamless with his life. He wasn’t Lewis the teacher, then Lewis the poet. He brought his authentic self to the classroom and was interested in the same from us. It’s why we were able to become friends through the venue of an M.F.A. program.
Is this resonating with you guys? It’s hard to say quite what I’m trying to say. Lewis was so lacking in pretension and he made it look quite simple what he was doing. Maybe it was simple? Writing about someone after they’ve died has this weight and seriousness that can be hard to get out from under. I’m wondering what Lewis would make of our descriptions of him. Would he find it embarrassing? An image just popped in my head of Lewis sticking his tongue out at me.
Sarah Anne Wallen: I think all of you are getting it right … Lewis was so interested in people, and maybe in what makes a personality. His classes and his teaching were at heart about writing from an authentic self, which is why we got prompts like “the earth is full of jam”—there’s no template for that, no form to imitate … you just have to respond in a way that feels like a poem that you wrote. And so the conversations were really always rooted in discovering what exactly that self could sound like, though not explicitly. Lewis loved that “talk for 5 whole minutes uninterrupted” class … 3 minutes? Each student had to monologue for a set amount of time for the rest of the class, and it was an amazing thing to do and to see. What people choose to share and how they share is all part of what makes a person, and having an awareness of that is, I think, maybe helpful to the poet. I think in saying “you could write 100 pages of this,” he was saying “here you found a way to write that just goes—how deep is it?”, and that’s a little bit like finding something true about who you are. All these little things we save of ourselves and then what others leave that we go on to collect.
—Sarah Anne Wallen
—Sarah Anne Wallen
There was a book of poetry in his office that belonged to Frank O’Hara, and Lewis loved to open the book and quietly point to “Frank O’Hara” written in pencil and make a little face that said tee hee hee this was Frank’s and now it’s mine—I swear I’ve seen him do it a few times. I wonder where that book is, and if whoever has it knows about that face. Legacy. Community. Lewis was very aware of what he might leave behind, and wanted to curate it. Save it for the archives. So much of his work was just his life, being a poet and being alive were sort of the same thing. Lewis printed all of his e-mail correspondence and filed it away (“you’re in there, my dear” he said with a wink), and while I thought doing this was sort of silly at the time, I realized a bit later that you never know what will feel important, you never know where or when you’ll discover that importance, and best to keep a file! I think all of this would be embarrassing for him, but also inevitable.
He was so comfortable and easy to talk to because you never had to question his interest in you. Lewis was curious about everyone. He loved observing people, talking about their histories, their personalities. Experience, being part of a community, recording and saving in the form of writing … I think of Lewis as someone with a huge “paper trail”—he saved everything, and would tell me all the time to save everything. Sometimes it felt like he was giving me things to save for him and for myself, or like he was helping me figure out what to save for myself, or telling me it was all worth saving … He certainly made me feel worthwhile, and he encouraged me to pursue any and every creative idea I brought to him. Not only that, he helped as much as he could. Hence, Brooklyn Paramount, for one.
This is getting hard to write! What else? I’m missing a ton of stuff, I know it. Lewis loved the end of semester readings! He loved being out with all of us students and seeing us let go after getting up and reading, being vulnerable, celebrating. A big one I learned maybe too well from Lewis is that laughter is one of the few ways people can participate in a reading, and I think another piece of that lesson has to do with having an understanding of audience/the reader … one has an awareness of oneself as being read, as one who reads … What else?
Lisa Rogal: Lewis was just the best. I found myself explaining my relationship with him to a friend recently (after he died) and something that came up which was so important to me about Lewis was that he never seemed to be feeding his ego as a teacher. In my experience, this is uncommon. Even in myself as a teacher, I find it’s something you need to watch out for (whenever you are in a position of power, right?). It was easy to take this for granted in Lewis—he was down to earth—but it’s a rare thing to find in someone who has achieved/produced as much as he did.
I loved Lewis’ writing before I met him and I went into meeting him a bit apprehensive (don’t meet your heroes, ya know). But it was never like that with Lewis. He was so open. Everyone was equal. I could tell he was trying to figure me out, wanting to know who this person was in front of him. And that was really all he wanted, not to be made to feel important. That wasn’t interesting to him. Anyone who’s met Lewis knows this about him. I think it goes back to what Tony and Dan said about community. Community is about being open to the people around you, being genuine with those people, letting them in, and, of course, being generous. Lewis was generous with himself, his time, his belongings, his attention, his successes. He shared. And this creates a sense of abundance. There is enough to go around and giving produces more.
Sarah, what you said about his work being his life, this resonates so much for me. He was really a role model for me in that way. In that, this is how one can be a poet in the world. And maybe it means more than just writing poems.
Sarah Anne Wallen: I should say more about Brooklyn Paramount. It was an obvious idea made real in Lewis’ office through getting others excited about making a book as a program. I’m into making books by hand however that manifests and that passion connected to Lewis’s mimeograph days … poets walking around a table collating and all that … people sitting around together getting the books ready is a way to get people together and in on sharing each other’s work, and great conversations and experiences happen in that atmosphere, as they do at readings. Plus, when you finish making the book, you have a reading and also have something real to hand out and be proud of. That was how I got to know Tony and Dan, really! Sitting around putting books together, be it BP or suns skeleton, then eventually poems by Sunday, which is a blatant nod to Angel Hair and United Artists …
Joey Infante! By the Overpass … I was sitting with Lewis in his office when Joey got the call his first baby was coming, and before Joey went to the hospital he ran to tell Lewis! I was there, obviously, and it was such an amazing moment. Lewis said “Go!” and we all laughed and Joey ran. Lewis said “Wow!”
Maybe he was there with us. Dan were you there? And then the call came in? Now I’m questioning my memory.
Tony Iantosca: I remember one day, we were collating Brooklyn Paramount in the writing center because there weren’t any students around to tutor (it was a slow day). We had all the pages splayed out on the floor and we were putting them in order, and Lewis walked in with the sense that he was on a mission—a serious look on his face, like he had something to tell someone. Then, he got to the back of the writing center, where we were collating, and it seemed like he forgot whatever it was that brought him there. He said, with joy, “You’re collating!” He then told us that he used to have collating parties at his place on St. Mark’s, where all of his friends and him would spend the day putting together books or little magazines. It was a sweet moment.
Daniel Owen: That memory of Joey rings a bell, but I don’t remember for sure …
One thing that I do remember is talking with Lewis about getting in touch with someone, I think I was going to ask them for poems for Poems by Sunday or Sun’s Skeleton or something, don’t remember who it was, but I was real nervous about writing to them out of the blue, it must have been someone whose email i got from Lewis, and he shook his head and shrugged in that way, and said “a poet is just a person in a room,” which really stayed with me. This has to do with that humility or generosity that you’re all talking about i think, you can just talk to people, even your heroes, they’re just people, everyone’s a person.
I remember that “the world is filled with jam” assignment, too, it’s come up a lot in recent conversation. Lisa and Sarah, you were in that class too, right? As far as I remember, the assignment was simply “the world is filled with jam.” Is that right?
And then there was the day he asked the class “tree or shoe?” and we went around in a circle answering. Just “tree or shoe?” It’s a good question when you think about it, there’s a lot there. And it was the same class where he gave an assignment to take the B train out to Brighton Beach with a shovel and a pale and then take some sand from one part of the beach and move it to a different part of the beach. No one knows what might happen, but something, he assured us when someone questioned the assignment, would happen. I guarantee you, something will happen, he said I don’t known if anyone did it, though … i think of the brighton beach sand exercise, and these other assignments too to some extent, as a kind of practice that he was suggesting, a way of rehearsing or preparing for writing, but also its own end, a goalless goal maybe, something to do for its own sake, something useless but maybe meaningful, a way of shifting your attention and trained habits of thought to notice things, and connections, to see what might happen if you do. Which sounds so much like poetry. right?
Lisa Rogal: Yes it does—poetics of total attention—he wrote to me once. And he often mentioned this idea in relation to Frank O’Hara, that one must always pay attention. It goes back to Sarah’s point of one never knows what might be important. I think the world is filled with jam assignment, as well as the tree or shoe question, were also ways to invite us to be associative and to interpret. I was in that class, Dan, and I remember several students responding incredulously to his assignments, which I think amused him (it was a mixed class with some literature students, some poets). There was definitely prodding going on, like, let’s see how they respond to this one. It amused me too. But it was about more than entertainment. It was also, where can we go with this open-ended prompt that sounds absurd? The value of absurdity. The value of not knowing for sure what something means. The benefit to a poet of not being directed too much. It was also, you don’t know until you try it. And It was playful.
TONY IANTOSCA is the author of Naked Forest Spaces (Third Floor Apartment Press), Shut Up, Leaves (United Artists Books), and To the Attic (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing). His recent work can be found in the online journal a glimpse of and as a virtual reading for the journal periodicities. He lives in Brooklyn, where he teaches in the English department at Kingsborough Community College.
DANIEL OWEN is the author of the poetry books Toot Sweet (United Artists) and Restaurant Samsara (Furniture Press). His translation from the Indonesian of Afrizal Malna’s Document Shredding Museum was published in 2019 by Reading Sideways Press, and other translations (of work by Malna and Farhanah) have been published in various journals and magazines. Recent writing and translations have appeared in The Poetry Project Newsletter, Exchanges, Jacket2, Counter, Hyperallergic, The Recluse, and The Brooklyn Rail. He edits and designs books and participates in many processes of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective. (http://www.counterpoetry.com/DanielOwenCounter.pdf)
LISA ROGAL (https://cuneiformpress.com/?product=lisa-rogal-la-belle-indifference is a poet and teacher. She is the author of the books la belle indifference (Cuneiform Press), Morning Ritual (United Artists), Feed Me Weird Things (Ugly Duckling Presse), and The New Realities (Third Floor Apartment Press). Her recent writing has appeared in The Recluse and Elderly poetry magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and infant son.
SARAH ANNE WALLEN is a poet living in Brooklyn. She is the author of the full-length collection Don’t Drink Poison (United Artists Books). Sarah makes books of poetry as Third Floor Apartment Press and is co-editor of the poetry magazine Poems by Sunday. Her work has appeared in several print and online publications including Hurricane Review, Fell Swoop, The Recluse, The Brooklyn Rail, and Elderly.