Tuesday, February 17, 2004

David Lehman - New York, NY

It's 28 degrees in lower Manhattan and we're eating gigantic chicken wraps inside our rented Ford Escape (where it's a balmy 38 degrees). We got the wraps at a funky convenience store where I mostly am amazed to see cigarettes selling for $7. Where are we, on the moon?

I can see my breath as I open my mouth to finish off the wrap. We're here an hour and a half early because I'm a gigantic boob who insists on driving everywhere, even Greenwich Village. I'm a westerner. I love cars. I love pushing the tin back and forth. And besides, this whole trip has hinged on a manic devotion to living on the highways and roads of America. So instead of taking everyone's advice about the A train, F train, whatever, the 6, the 4, etc., I've circled the soda-straw-narrow streets near Washington Square Park for forty minutes before finding a perfect parking spot right near the Blue Note - a decades old jazz landmark that I go up to and touch with my frosted bare hand.

I'm here to see David Lehman, the man who - I'm willing to bet - reads more poetry than anyone else in the country. For more than a decade he's been the series editor (the only series editor) of Best American Poetry, a sprawling and crucial collection of the year's best work (chosen in concert with a guest editor).

Lehman also is widely known for an experiment he started in the late 90s of writing and finishing a poem every day. This experiment yielded two phenomenal and well-received collections, The Daily Mirror and The Evening Sun.

A lifetime New Yorker, Lehman sometimes splits the city for his house in Ithaca. But he spends the majority of his time right here, in a tiny book and manuscript-filled apartment. While we chat, Lehman shows me a dozen scraps of paper with ideas and lines for new poems, some on the back of envelopes, some on the back of a memo, even some in a small orange notebook he carries in his back pocket.

He opens a door to a small patio to let refreshing but chilly air in. Then we talk about his work and he takes on my questions. At one point, Lehman picks up one of his books and starts flipping pages, reading out lines that reinforce his answers. He gets into one that I love and he reads the whole thing. Halfway through, the phone rings, so I ask him to start again so I can - selfishly - get it all on tape for myself.

His work can be sharp and snappy, tight lines, no punctuation, vital, moving. But other poems stretch out, become floating narratives. Lots of women and men and the troubles therein. Always quietly, subtly funny. Crack across the knuckle realiztions abound.

He teaches, advises his students, is putting together the new edition of Best American Poetry, and completing a new book of his own. He confesses that he's a workaholic, but says it with a grin. I ask him if I can get some pictures of him on the street before I go.

We head out into the cold, Lehman walking behind me. When I turn to start shooting, I'm delighted by a jaunty hat that Lehman has put on. I get him lined up with MacDougal street behind him. Some guys are replacing a window beside us. Ten feet away some workers are carrying boxes of lettuces into a small restaurant. As always, I'm just a little breathless in New York's energy. A cop car brushes so close past me that I can feel the wind of it. Someone is hollering at the UPS guy. Tourists click cameras at the distant Empire State Building.

In front of me, Lehman looks right at me, gives a charming lopsided grin. I figure I better start shooting before he goes back to work.