February 12, 2016

from A CONVERSATION WITH LESTER GRAVES LENNON

Photo by Deborah Lennon

Lester Graves Lennon was born and raised in New Rochelle, New York. He is an investment banker, who, during his nearly 40-year public finance career, has been involved in the issuance of more than $250 billion of municipal debt. His first book of poetry, The Upward Curve of Earth and Heavens, was published by Story Line Press in 2002. It currently can be found in 70 public and university libraries including the Los Angeles Public Library, Yale, Oxford, and the University of Wisconsin, where he received his B.A. in English. His second book of poetry, My Father Was a Poet, was published by WordTech Communications in 2013. Mr. Lennon sits on the boards of directors of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and Red Hen Press. He serves on the advisory boards of the West Chester University Poetry Center and the English Department of the University of Wisconsin. He is a member of the Los Angeles mayor’s Poet Laureate Advisory Committee and the selection committee for the 2016 Poets’ Prize. Lennon lives with his wife and daughter in the Los Angeles megalopolis.

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Note: The following is excerpted from an 14-page interview.

Fox: It’s doing different work, exactly, which is interesting in and of itself. Tell me about Squaw Valley, what’s your experience there?

 

Lennon: Well, you notice in my latest book, I give acknowledgment to Squaw Valley and what it’s meant, because I would say at least half of those poems started at Squaw Valley. It’s just something about … my wife and I went up before starting out at the conference. She wanted to go for a week, somebody was letting us use their cabin, and I’m dragging. But then going up the long way, 395 from LA—and that was when the Truckee River was full and mesmerizing—it was just the nicest, invigorating, renewing, refreshing kind of place. And then I saw there was this Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and they did a poets workshop—and the lineup. If I remember the first one correctly, it was Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Brenda Hillman, Galway Kinnell, and Cornelius Eady. It was just extraordinary. That must have been 1999, and I’ve gone every-other year since, on the odd years. So this year was my ninth and quite possibly my most productive time. Now I sit on the board of directors, and feel privileged to be able to do that. I find the place extraordinary, and that Lake Tahoe is just supreme. 

 

Fox: Yes, we used to have a house up at Lake Tahoe. Beautiful, beautiful place. How do you feel your writing is affected by being with other poets and teachers at Squaw Valley?

 

Lennon: It’s one of the few times that I am around other poets. So much of what I do is alone. Not talking to other folks about writing, I’m just doing it. But I can remember what certain people say. Lucille Clifton said something one day that just stayed with me. I had some kind of ragged line—I mean ragged in terms of angry and cutting without purpose. And she said, “Don’t add to the chaos.” That’s always stayed with me. It was like, well, was what I was putting on paper adding to the chaos, or was it in some way helping to shape it or channel it or quell it, or redirect it into something more positive? 

 

In another workshop—workshops can get pretty intense. But what I like about Squaw Valley, there’s no, “You really shouldn’t have said this here, that’s just not working for me.” At Squaw Valley you concentrate on what’s working. You say, “I like this. This really moved me.” If there’s something you didn’t like, you don’t talk about it in the group.  You’d save it for a personal talk if the poet was willing to hear you at a later time. So there’s a safety there. And it’s encouraged by those who lead the workshops. One day a woman was reading a poem in Lucille Clifton’s workshop, and she broke down, because of the material with which she was dealing—and no one really did anything. And Lucille said, “In my workshops we do not leave each other alone.” And you know, folks started to show their concern and encouragement. That’s Squaw Valley, we don’t leave each other alone; we reach out. 

 

Fox: How would you differentiate the community at Squaw Valley, for example, with your regular business world? 

 

Lennon: Well, I’ve been able to incorporate poetry into my business world more than I thought was possible. I’m an investment banker. I am out there trying to differentiate my firm from other firms. In doing that you want to differentiate yourself from other bankers. The thing about being creative is it’s just energy—not just—but it is energy. And it can be used anywhere. It can be used to help you craft the line; it can be used to help you craft a presentation; it can be used to help you write, because you want to think of something a little different, that other folks might not have considered. In poetry you need to listen. You need to listen to what other poets are saying. You need to listen to the feedback you’re getting from an audience. You need to listen to yourself. And when you go out and give a presentation, you need to listen to what the client is saying, even if he or she isn’t saying it verbally, but giving unmistakable nonverbal clues. And you need to figure out ways of making what you’re doing stand out from what you suspect other folks are going to do. 

 

I’ll give you a perfect example. We were competing for business from a client, and I had a little bit of history with the client. In summing up, I had a senior VP with me, a friend who I hired, and we’re in the room and we had other folks with our team on the phone. I started talking about having history going back twenty years, and I recalled the first black president of the board, and brought up his name, and then I started talking about going to South Africa. I said, “So I travelled to South Africa, and went to Robben Island, sat in Mandela’s cell, went out to the rock quarry where he worked, got two pieces of the limestone, and I kept one, and I gave one to the president of the board.” All the sudden there’s this connection no one else is going to get, and when decision time came, we’re one of only two firms that were selected. So the senior VP’s sitting next to me and he said, “Man, I didn’t know what you were doing. I didn’t know if you’d had a stroke …” [Fox laughs] “I didn’t know where you were going with this.” And the senior folks on the phone were saying, “We didn’t know if we should hide under the table. You started out in South Africa and you brought it around.” And that’s what a good poem does. You know where it is, and all the sudden it gets to a point where it’s like, “Damn, I didn’t know it was going there.” That’s what you want, you want that surprise in a poem (sometimes), and you want that surprise in a positive way in reactions by clients. 

 

Another way poetry helps me: I can guarantee you there’s not another investment banker in California who walks into a meeting and can leave their poetry book on the table. [Fox laughs] All the sudden you have immediate differentiation. “Oh that’s the poet.” Hopefully they don’t read it [both laugh], but it works. 

 

Fox: So are you saying there’s more to investment banking than basis points?

 

Lennon: Indeed. Because everyone knows basis points. 

 

Fox: [laughing] That’s true. I heard that you had a hand in establishing the poet laureate of Los Angeles position. How did that come about? 

 

Lennon: Actually, it was my idea. I heard Luis Rodriguez read at Vroman’s in Pasadena about eleven years ago, and thought the man should be poet laureate of Los Angeles. I’d known Antonio Villaraigosa for a long time and actually volunteered on his campaign when he first ran for the State Assembly. About a month after he was first elected mayor I sent him a letter saying he should be the mayor to appoint the first poet laureate for the city, together with a list of cities and states that already had one and three suggestions for him to consider. I also volunteered to sit on a committee if he appointed one. The next time I sat down with him I brought it up. Every time I saw him I mentioned it. This went on for seven years through his re-election. Finally, as he approached his last year in office, I brought it up again. He said, “You’re right, and I’m going to get a good one.” And he did. I was honored to be a part of his Poet Laureate Task Force, and we provided him three candidates. From that selection he made the excellent choice of Eloise Klein Healy. When he introduced Eloise at the Central Library I was gratified that he acknowledged me as the person who gave him the idea. And to show how interestingly circles can close while still expanding, the next Poet Laureate Advisory Committee, on which I also served, gave Mayor Garcetti four names to consider for LA’s next poet laureate. He selected Luis Rodriguez.

 

 

Fox: What part of poetry do you enjoy the most—the writing, the reading, leaving your book to surprise people? 

 

Lennon: I like what I do the least, which is reading. I don’t do a lot of readings, and I’d like to do more, to get that immediate connection with people. 

 

Fox: That’s important. You’ve talked about writing a revenge poem, which you haven’t published. 

 

Lennon: Well, it’s about not adding to the chaos. There was a guy that pissed me off, and I wrote a poem that really savaged him. It was in business, and I didn’t like the way he did business. I just went after him hard. I thought about publishing it, talked to a friend in the business, and he said, “No, don’t do it. You can never take it back.” I’ve had a history of doing that. I used to work for Berkeley Unified School District, and I had been very fortunate to have a very good supervisor, one of the best I’ve ever known. And he was replaced by an insecure person who was threatened by other peoples’ competence levels, and what she wanted to do was to get you in boxes that she could understand. We were in a meeting one day and she said, “What we need to do here”—and she meant to say salvage—“what we need to do here is savage the department.” [Fox laughs] I just had to leave. I wrote a letter, and the secretary came to me literally shaking, and she said, “Do … do … am I … do you want me to type this?” And I said yes. Some of my officemates looked at it and said, “Please don’t give this to her, because it will just make it worse for us who have to stay behind.” So I didn’t. And in that sense, that poem … let it go. 

 

Fox: I know a poet who tells his wife to be careful because I’m the poet and people are going to think of you the way I write about you, the way I think about you, and not the way you really are. 

 

Lennon: Well, if you have readers. [both laugh]

 

Fox: The cover of your recent book, My Father Was a Poet, is a photo of your father. Tell me about that. 

 

Lennon: Well he’s standing there and he and this guy are having a conversation, and the first thought was, because the heart of the book is this conversation between the father and the son, was to Photoshop me in. But it just didn’t come out right. Just didn’t look right. But we didn’t want the other guy in there, because we didn’t want folks to think, “Well, who’s the father?” So we took that out. Sometimes that’s what poetry is. Sometimes you’re talking to someone, but maybe you don’t see that person. Or, with an audience, you don’t see the audience before the poem is written, but you’re writing to an audience. So you’re having that conversation. 

 

Fox: Did you share your poetry with your father?

 

Lennon: No.

 

Fox: How would you characterize your relationship with him?

 

Lennon: Difficult. I had two fathers. I had one who before he went blind was as good a father as you could think of having. And then I had one after who saw his life (no pun intended) just fall apart. He was a dean of a small college in Mississippi, he was in line to be president, went blind, had to come home, had to redesign his life. He had to cut back on what his dreams for his life were going to be, and he became a difficult person. 

 

Fox: That’s a big change. 

 

Lennon: Yeah. 

 

Fox: When do you write poetry, do you write every day, when you’re inspired? Mostly at Squaw Valley?

 

Lennon: If I were to wait for when I was inspired, it’d be sparse work. There are times when I don’t write. I got back from Squaw Valley in June, and I don’t think I started writing again until late July. There’ve been times when I’d go six months, a year, and didn’t write, and I would feel near-suicidal. It’s almost cliché, but it’s true: Write or die. So I choose to write. You’re gonna die anyway, but I choose to write now. 

 

Fox: Tell me about being published, when were you first published, other than elementary school? 

 

Lennon: Now I go back to my wife, 1995, 1997, something like that. I came in one day and showed her a book and said, “Can you believe it? Can you believe this person is published and I’m not?” And maybe I said it one time too many, because I felt it a lot, and what she said, in a nice way, was, “Quit your bitching and treat getting published the way you do getting business. You go to conferences to meet clients—go to conferences, meet poets, put yourself out there.” So the first conference I went to, which I believe was ’97, was in New Mexico, at a small college whose name escapes me. But what won’t escape me is that I went to a breakfast. There was a seat next to me that was empty. And all of a sudden this big Irishman comes in, sits down—it’s Robert McDowell, who was then the publisher of Storyline Press, and five years later he published my first book. 

 

Fox: Wow. I think that’s true for any writer. There’s so much more to it than writing, you have to promote your work. 

 

Lennon: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Fox: And how about being published in poetry journals?

 

Lennon: I don’t send out a lot of poetry, aside from the New Yorker, which now and again over the last twenty years or so I’ll send something to them out of sheer obstinance and get the inevitable rejection without comment. Once I got a “Good luck” scrawled across the top of the page and that was a good day. Sometimes folks will say, “Well, can we publish …?” And I’ll say okay. But do I usually send things out? No, and I probably should …

 

from Rattle #50, Winter2015