The Return of David Lee
Utah’s former Poet Laureate talks about his life, work and travels since retiring.
by Barry Scholl
Dave Lee is angry, though not for the reasons one might expect. As he prepares for an October 11 reading at Westminster College in a fundraiser for the Entrada Institute, the former Utah Poet Laureate is being assailed with the strains of senior-citizen karaoke from the clubhouse at the Oregon RV Park where he and his wife, Jan, spend their summers.
"I’m tired, desperately need a beer, and am sick of hearing a 75-year-old man try and sing Neil Diamond songs. I think situations like this is why we invent words like scumsuck or shitload," he confesses, with equal parts exasperation and brio.
Lee, of course, is the poet and performer who gained considerable renown and notoriety, if not well-deserved fame and fortune, lovingly chronicling the travails, foibles and fragile victories of certain rural citizens in an environment that looked more than a little bit like southwest Utah, where Lee lived and taught English for more than three decades.
But following George W. Bush’s election in 2000, Lee’s work took a hard turn away from the tropes his audience had come to know and love-gone were the pigs, the café, the knowing depiction of rural life. In their place was an edgy but still reflective voice that seethed with rage and disbelief at what we humans are doing to one another and our environment. The works were powerful and moving, marked by an almost evangelical conviction of purpose, but they were probably not what his audience had come to expect from the avuncular, silver-haired poet.
With the end of the Bush era in sight, Lee seems far happier personally. He’s reading a lot, going back to favorite poets Bill Kloefkorn, Eleanor Wilner, Leslie Norris, and Lance Larsen, Gailmarie Pahmeier, Arlitia Jones and Diane Gilliam Fisher; fiction writers Robert Boswell, Cormac McCarthy, T.R. Pearson, and Rob Van Wagoner; and nonfiction authors Craig Childs, Lewis Thomas and the late Ellen Meloy.
He also confesses that he has returned to writing narrative poems, some of which he will debut in Salt Lake City, for the first time since 2000. So can fans look forward to a reappearance by the redoubtable Wayburn Pig? Lee isn’t saying, but he is promising a few surprises on October 11 at Westminster College-and presumably no karaoke renditions of "Crackln’ Rosie."
Q: You left Utah in 2003. What have you been doing since?
A: Prior to retiring we put our house up for sale, got a buyer and bought the archetypal fifth wheel R.V. and proverbial pretty good pickup, then we hit the road. For the first three years we traveled pretty much non-stop from Mazatlan to Alaska, Florida to Washington and points between. Two years ago we bought our huge 3-acre ranch outside Bandera, Texas, in the beautiful hill country. That is our winter digs and we have a summer leased lot in Oregon where our R.V. is parked. I’ve spent a lot of time reading, especially nonfiction, and I’ve pretty much written my tiny brains out. I completed Stone Wind Water, a manuscript of elegiac landscape meditations for Ken Brewer, Leslie Norris and Ellen Meloy, then I started on another project, a return to the narrative mode after my big brother Bill Kloefkorn played his trump card and demanded that he and I do another book together. After muddling for months, last December it was very much as if I pulled the cork out of the bottle and the genie came out roaring, wondering where the hell I’d been and to sit, pardon, set down and shut up, she had a lot to catch me up on. It was my Navajo winter, a time of stories from the past. I finished my half of the book with Kloefkorn (taken by Logan House and titled A House Made of Time), then just kept right on scribbling; Wood Works Press accepted a triptych chapbook manuscript, Texas Wild Flowers, and I’m working on putting together a full-length manuscript that I’ll think about sending out next year or the year after, the iron clad tentative title is Living Without It.
Q. What role does politics play in your art? I ask because, until recently, you weren’t considered a particularly political poet.
The Bush years have been a very different and difficult experience for me. The narrative mode pretty much dried up, as did any sense of humor in my writing. Who can think of humor in the face of our present standing in the world, our economic straits, our loss of personal freedoms, Iraq, and intellectual malaise, compounded by the fact that for some reason I cannot comprehend, 27% of the people in the U.S. of Bush think our president is doing an acceptable job in his position? On the other hand, I turned to the lyrical mode eight years ago because I wanted to work out my own theological/philosophical/environmental beliefs, and I thought the best way to map the process would be through writing. I wanted to try and figure out who I am, what I believe (and don’t believe), and how I want to face the inevitability of old age and death-and what I want to leave as my spiritual credo. I wanted to do something new, something different. I also wanted to write a book that would lovingly be my farewell of sorts gift to the state that has been my home for over half of my life, and I wanted to pay homage to the place that molded my adult mindset and philosophical ethic.
I also returned to the narrative mode because some of my closest and dearest friends (including my wife and mother) asked me to consider a return to that form. Also, seeing that I am a person who very much believes in the muse, when she came back and demanded that I listen to her, I had no choice but to hang on to the skirt of the whirlwind or be blown away by it.
Q: What did you learn about art, or about yourself, during the era when you were taking a break from narrative poems?
The eight years away from narrative work were an introspective and self-defining period of my life. The six years prior to my retirement were perhaps the most rewarding years of my life, but they were also the hardest period. I was Utah Poet Laureate for those six years and I was also a full-time professor of English and chair of the largest department at Southern Utah University; at the same time I was attempting to maintain my role as a full-time member of my family and do a decent job as husband and father. Those years pushed me to the boundaries of my energy level and I ended that period very burned out and physically weak. My retirement was a godsend and perhaps even a lifesaver. So, the period between then and now has been a time of assessment and reassessment. Because I also had to deal with the deaths of three of my closest, dearest literary friends (and the adjective is actually not necessary at all), it was a period of pain and introspection. My sense of personal grounding was intensified, as was my theological view of animism and polytheism. All that took me in directions I had never particularly anticipated-but it also gave me an alternate sense of approach and direction as I returned to the narrative mode.
Q: Where do you find inspiration for your art?
I don’t think I find inspiration for my art. It finds me. I see myself only as a receptacle, a vehicle the poems pass through. When I’m writing the narrative poems, the characters come to me and sometimes whisper, sometimes scream their stories. I listen to them and when they’re finished, try to write an honest version of the story they told to me. Very little of what I write is premeditated; more often, it is something given. The same happened while writing the lyric landscape meditations: I walked a lot, thought a lot, probably felt sorry for myself a lot, read a lot, but rarely during that time did I come up with poems. But in sleep the poems came to me. Sometimes the images told me their tales; sometimes I saw, felt, heard the images and the Voice assembled the perceptions into direction. In that light, I really can’t take much credit for what happens or how it happens. As an addendum I should mention that something I really came to love happened with these poems: often other writers came and told me how they reacted to what I was seeing. They would give me a line, or sometimes lines, of their work to use as epigrams for my poems, and in that light the poems became dialogues between those authors and me.
Q: How do you think your work has changed since you left Utah?
I think my narrative work has softened. The language is not so harsh, invective is not so prominent, there are fewer streaks of blue language. I won’t attempt to assess the poems that came; they, frankly, may not be worth spit or beans, but I had a great lot of fun writing them. It was like going to a reunion with old, dear friends. This book, or actually these books, are set in Texas. They have some of my Utah characters in them, but they now live in Tejas, drink Lone Star beer and eat greasy food, and they are not a bit intimidated by the act of living and they don’t apologize for what they say or do. The book begins with the great dust bowl drought of the late ’40s and runs through the early ’60s, which is to say, my earliest memories through the time I first left my birth state.
Q: Finally, what do you think is the greatest public misconception about you?
That I’m famous. I want to go on record as saying I’ve never ever never felt famous in any way whatsoever and besides that I think the term Famous Poet is the second best oxymoron ever created. (If you responded by asking what’s the first, it’s obvious: financially independent child.)
Barry Scholl is a Salt Lake City attorney and former magazine editor. He spent three years as a CATALYST staffer.
David Lee will appear Saturday, October 11 at the Gore School of Business on the campus of Westminster College of Salt Lake City in a fundraiser for the Entrada Institute. Advance tickets can be purchased online (www.entradainstitute.org). For more information, call 435-425-2118.