Never say sorry or common words again:
Interview with Robert Lundquist
My Father was a boxer. He taught me how to box when I was nine. This commonality, and the need to impress him, informed a great deal. When Charles Bukowski at an event asked me to ‘take it outside’ over a girl, I said okay. I was 21 and shy. Everyone at the party kept telling him not to ‘go outside with this kid’ because I knew how to box. His face truly looked like it had been run over by a truck. We went outside and I thought it could get really messy. I said, how about we share a drink instead.
Fighting is something I am fundamentally against. I was a war-resister with the threat of a two-year jail sentence. At that time, I lived in the library of a man who taught Spanish poetry. The walls were lined with books of poetry. Lorca was the one I read the most.
I am tapping my ten-year-old factory boots as I transcribe this. Recalling Robert Lundquist’s work, I came to an understanding with that I could only do so in this fashion, through rearranged fragments pieced together from our interview. Writing about a poet as a poet can put you in a loop, their work and their life co-mingling as you try to find form in the content of another’s existence. This is fundamentally flawed logic. We are not our work. We are not our biography. Our work is practice, its own entity, and in the case of poetry, its own language.
“The two elements the traveler first captures in the big city are extra human architecture and furious rhythm”, writes Lorca. “Geometry and anguish.” The same might be said of Lundquist, who has lived what can seem like five lifetimes if you try to measure. But it would be too easy, not to mention misleading, to push a person’s biography on their work: I am not here to measure anything or anyone. Rainer Maria Rilke was a regular visitor to Auguste Rodin’s Paris studio. He would recall it as “a flurry of plaster.” This is Robert’s flurry of plaster recounted.
On poetic form, Lundquist tells me that it is something he observed in other poets, then engaged with on his own terms. He softly utters the phrase, “It is a rhythm.” Afterwards he jets in that he had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a child and that perhaps it had neurologically manifested in his work. He would tap in repetitions and numerical sequences. If it ended on an odd number, the task had to be repeated. It may be what some people call instinct, but it is more the case of deciphering the right patterns, creating a hierarchy of words and space to create a composition.
From his poem ‘TITA’S PAIN’:
Tita’s pain is a sky without wings
birds inside too small to remember,
inside a morning too lonely to
imagine: a morning full of prayer to
be touched, a mourning full of tears
a morning without
imagination, a morning,
where all of the animals that share her
skin scratch the light in her eyes-
Much like his writing, Lundquist sways between fierce-edged intellect and modest conclusions. His tone significantly lowers when I ask about his beginnings in poetry: “It was an understanding. And I was told not to do it.” At 20 years of age, his work concealed in its maturity his youth. In fact, his writing dripped with aged, gut ideas. Lundquist was drawn into the light of poets of that era as a prodigy. Again, he almost whispers that he was in The Paris Review at 21. He tells me that he didn’t entirely agree with everyone’s assessment, that he favoured other poets’ work.
Lundquist grew up in Downtown Los Angeles and has a life-long relationship with its history. “My history with LA is knowing everyone on 5th Street,” he tells me. “My grandmother was a waitress at Union Square and that is why I am truly tied to it. She was the most loving force in my life. The closest I have ever come to living on the streets was living in a back-garage room when my alcoholism was so bad, I had let it destroy all of my relationships.
“Some of my friends who were alcoholics had to tie their shoes around their waists at night. I never had to do that. But alcoholism overtook my life. Some of my poems from the seventies come from when I worked in social detox. In the seventies that was how you did it. You went and detoxed with no medical help. You just held people while they had seizures, while they screamed.”
In my head I hear Nick Cave waxing philosophical as I check my voice recorder. I want to abandon the recording so that Lundquist’s words, which feel like something sacred when he speaks, can hang in the air alone. Cave often tells a kind of truth that makes you feel guilty when you thought you knew best what the truth was.
Lundquist propels on, self-decided, to speak very starkly about his alcoholism. He expands on his own Cave-kind of truth. You feel afraid of the confession, you feel afraid you will weep, you don’t know how you could take any kind of notes on this reality. He told me that, amidst his success as a young writer, the pressure gnawed at him, the pressure to write a particular kind of poem which he could not. It led him to drinking—and drinking led him very far away.
One of Lundquist’s most beloved poets is Paul Celan. He told me that he read Celan obsessively and continuously, and that he labored over his work with an exhaustive ardor. The subject of his own Celan poem—a poem transcendental by any standard—is that of his exchange with Heidegger. Lundquist recounts that he was unable to write for ten years after this poem, since he felt all the work had been done.
Lundquist believes Heidegger was a critical part of Celan’s final destabilization. Heidegger was a worshiper of Celan’s work. He was also a Nazi party supporter. Celan’s family was lost in the Holocaust and he himself had survived it. He found himself on his knees, forced into correspondence to beg Heidegger to confess his crimes, to confess his role as a Nazi.
In a tined tone, Lundquist states, “Celan stabbed himself in the heart and missed. That’s how much pain he felt. I don’t think a lot of people realize that his relationship to Heidegger was what may have been his ending. He went to Germany to read and deeply wanted Heidegger to answer for his role in the Nazi regime. He never did. Then, finally, Celan walked into the Seine.”
From his poem ‘THE SOMETHING MORE. A SIMPLE EXPLANATION.’:
Can you imagine Celan waiting for The Something More from Heidegger?
with all his heart
for a heart speaking from the heart-
as a clearing in the forest speaks
After the trees have
clears the forest
of light broken.
In a foray on repetition, Lundquist recalls a poem by a woman that has three lines in sequence. The form repeats and he gestures with his hands as he recalls the poem. And at the last line, he drops his hands and looks directly at me as he recites, “will he be gentle, will he be kind.” His eyes well with tears. I swallow my own. I become aware that he is answering my formal questions with moments of poetry. Lundquist leaves a kind of residue in your mind and heart; it is more an offering of a dove’s pillow than a rough, soot covering.
This is the ‘something more’ I am willing to write. Robert Lundquist has left us with a space in history he is quietly occupying. His work is its own entity and I will let it rest in that place to speak on its own, the shadow of his words a ghostlike quality in my mind.
Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at dawntime and noontime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
– Paul Celan
Interview by Brit Parks.
To buy AFTER MOZART (HEROIN ON 5TH STREET) by Robert Lundquist, visit New River Press.
Read more by Robert Lundquist on The London Magazine’s website.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.