Lawrence Joseph by Nancy Van Goethem

Interview With Lawrence Joseph

In Articles | Interviews


14 December 2011
Lawrence Joseph, Courtesy of Robert Buchta

merican poet Lawrence Joseph speaks with Daniel Rothbart about his life, work and most recent book of poems Into It, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

DR: What first brought you to poetry as a means of creative expression?

LJ: I began writing poetry as an undergraduate, during my freshman year at the University of Michigan. During my first semester, I took an advanced Introduction to Poetry course. After the course, I felt that poetry was the highest form of verbal expression, and wanted to make poems that would have the same affect on others that the poems I read in that course had on me.

DR: As the descendent of early Arab emigrants to Detroit, how did your experience of two cultures influence your creative development as a poet?

LJ: My grandparents were Catholic emigrants from Lebanon and Syria, and came to Detroit almost a century ago. My mother and father were born in Detroit after World War I and lived in Detroit their entire lives. Being the grandchild of Arab emigrants had no direct affect on my being a poet, but is one of many motifs in my work.

DR: Was the transition from Detroit to Cambridge disjointing? What were the most enduring lessons from your time abroad?

LJ: I received a fellowship to study literature at Magdalene College; I was in the Honors English program at Michigan and already had a substantial background in English literature when I began my graduate studies in English at Cambridge. Ann Arbor and Cambridge are not that dissimilar, both being university towns. Detroit, and my experiences in Detroit, were very different from the backgrounds and experiences of most of my fellow students at Cambridge, which made me see my own experiences more clearly. Being able to live, study, and travel in a foreign country at that time in my life exposed me to certain cosmopolitan intellectual and aesthetic traditions, which, to this day, have remained crucial for me.

DR: How would you characterize the relationship between your professional work as a lawyer and creative writing?

Lawrence Joseph,
Courtesy of Nancy Van Goethem

LJ: I have been a lawyer for thirty-five years, and have, since graduating from law school, clerked for a judge, practiced law, and, mostly, taught as a professor and a member of faculties of law. The kinds of social, political, economic, moral, and practical issues that lawyers deal with have affected the content and language of my work. I’ve written a prose book, Lawyerland, which has as one of its objectives, in the words of Rilke (the book’s epigraph): “Don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law.”

DR: Were you in lower Manhattan during the 9/11 attacks and, if so, how did poetry help you come to terms with it?

LJ: My wife, the painter Nancy Van Goethem, and I lived, and still live, a block from ground zero. When the towers fell, I was in Queens, at St. John’s School of Law, where I teach. Nancy spent the night of September 11 in our thirty-third floor apartment facing the Hudson River, not knowing what had happened. I was able to get our apartment the following morning. We were evacuated from our apartment for eight weeks, staying with a St. John’s colleague and his family in Queens. The poems I have written with subject matter pertaining to the 9/11 attacks were not written to come to terms with that day and its aftermath; I don’t write, and never have written, poems to come to terms with particular events or emotional experiences. Poetry, for me, is language in its most concentrated form. Poetry, among the verbal arts, can best address—to paraphrase Saul Bellow—the mysterious circumstances of being alive, the feeling of what it’s like to be alive during one’s time on this planet. The poems of mine that touch on the World Trade Center attacks are poems about what it felt like to be alive on that day, September 11, 2011, and what it’s felt like since.

DR: With threats against our lives from abroad and the degradation of civil liberties and social tolerance within our society, do you see a more activist role for the poet?

LJ: Poetry, because it is language in its most concentrated form, includes every possible dimension and issue of language. The most activist role of the poet is to most deeply preserve one’s language—in my case, the American language—no matter what one’s social, political, or economic situation is.

Writing Credits: Daniel Rothbart is an artist and writer. A former Fulbright Scholar, Rothbart is the author of Jewish Metaphysics As Generative Principle in American Art (Ulisse e Calipso) and The Phoenix (Ulisse e Calipso). His work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Orsini Foundation in Milan and numerous public and private collections.

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