Interview with MYTHOLOGIES poet, David Lehman

David Lehman, poet, author of Mythologies and editor for The Best American Poetry series.

We had the chance to ask Mr. Lehman a few questions about Mythologies. Here’s what he had to say:

1. What was the first myth you remember learning?

The Garden of Eden, though I learned it as gospel truth and not as myth. From Greek and Roman antiquity, which my father loved, I remember his telling me about Demonsthenes, the celebrated orator, who is said to have overcome a speed impediment by stuffing pebbles into his mouth and trying to outshout the sea.

2. Did you realize anyone would think your poems are performable? Have any of your other poems been performed?

Some of my poems have been set to music, and one has been the basis of a short video, but I never imagined that my poems would be performed as a dance! I’m thrilled at the thought.

3.How did the stanzas of Mythologies “come out”–one after the other? All at once? Roughly how long did it take to create the poem in its entirety?

It took years to write Mythologies. Drafts of some segments were written back in 1978 and ’79. Already in 1982 or ’83, the title “Mythologies” had occurred to me. I wanted to weave a coat of many colors out of stories, myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales. But not until late 1986, early 1987 did I hit on the right form and the right length — a sequence of sonnets consisting of seven couplets each. Feeling inspired, I went back over drafts of poems, fitting them into this form, and I wrote new sonnets. Everything gelled that winter and spring. Suddenly there were twenty-two of them. I showed them to Jonathan Galassi, then poetry editor of The Paris Review. He liked them and “Mythologies” was awarded the magazine’s 1987 Bernard F. Connors Prize. I added the final eight sonnets in a burst of inspiration, the kind you get when you finish something long-contemplated and full of obstacles and challenges.

4. What are you working on now?
I’m preparing a volume of “New and Selected Poems,” which Scribner plans to publish in 2014. It’s a demanding project, and a tricky one, because you have to choose among your published collections and also among poems never collected in a book. And then there are the new poems — l would rather write new poems than write anything else. Because I am working on my “New and Selected Poems,” I have reread “Mythologies” a few times recently.  I read a selection of them at a poetry reading at the KGB Bar last spring.

Photograph by Jennifer B. Hudson:

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