Dave Lucas got his first taste of Quartz Mountain magic while leading a poetry workshop during the 2019 Oklahoma Fall Arts Institute. Now the former Ohio State Poet Laureate is coming to the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO) as a creative writing instructor for OSAI 2021, where he will work with our talented students to help them hone their craft and find their voice.
Lucas’ first book, Weather (2011), won the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. In the years since, he has won a Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize, and was named by Rita Dove as one of “13 young poets to watch.” His work explores the possibilities of language and the shades of lived experience, making space for connection through a taut and precise command of the form.
We talked to Lucas about poetry, teaching and his hopes for the creative writing cohort of OSAI 2021.
Can you start by introducing yourself to readers and talking a little about your background and writing practice?
Sure. I think of myself as a poet and essayist — those are the two different selves that exist within me as a writer. And not far after that, I think of myself as a teacher. I never really expected that to happen, but getting into the writing of poems also meant having to earn one’s keep by teaching. I'm the child of two teachers, and so I always saw how hard my parents worked and thought, “No, that's not for me.” [Laughs.] I had to teach a course when I was getting my MFA at the University of Virginia and I fell in love with it. So, depending on the day you ask me, I'm a teacher first and the other things second. On some days they coalesce in a lovely harmonious way, but a lot of the time it's stealing time from one to do the other.
I really fell in love with writing poetry when I was in college. I had entered thinking I would write novels, but not long thereafter I learned I couldn't write plot to save my life. But I did find pleasantly that the stuff I wanted to do, like the real focus on words, I could do with poetry. So, I sort of had that conversion experience on my road to Damascus when I was in college. I've been writing and teaching ever since. At first, I was trying to support my writing with teaching, then as time went on, the two talked more and more to each other. Now it's hard to separate. I can't really think of myself as one without the other.
You were named Ohio’s second Poet Laureate in 2018. Can you talk a little about the duties of that role and how you approached it?
I think of that role as being a diplomatic role to ease the hostile relations between poetry and the rest of the world. This ties in with teaching, because I think a lot of people I meet — you know, back when we met people — when I say I'm a poet, their reaction is, “Oh, I never really got poetry.” And the thing I want to say to them is, I think you did. I bet you were just taught that you didn't. And so one of the things that I tried to do in that role was this sort of poetry reclamation project, to say to people, “Hey this is all around you, all the time.” I love slang. I love metaphor. I love language itself. And I think other people do, too — even people who don't think of themselves as poets, or even as people who read poems.
Nevertheless, these are people who would happily argue with you over the word for the correct shade of blue in someone's dress, or maybe they’re eager to use the newest slang to identify themselves in a particular way. Every person uses language in a way that is not just instrumental, but also aesthetic. And once we do that, I think we're into the world of poetry. So those are sort of what I would call the philosophical duties of the Poet Laureate. There were other things I was supposed to do that were more logistical, but I don't know if those are more or less interesting. The way I tried to combine those during my time was by writing a column that ended up getting syndicated in some newspapers and online sources. It was called Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry. That was my outreach program.
In addition to your full-time teaching at Case Western, you’ve taught at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine — not exactly the first place you’d expect to find a poet. What can you say about that?
It's interesting to me that while those of us in the humanities constantly feel like we are under attack from every other part of the world — and we probably are — the two places within English studies that are definitely growing are medical humanities and creative writing. And I think it's because the care fields are seeing how important it is. Take for instance some of the stuff that we're seeing, and I say this to my students all the time, around, say, vaccine availability or climate change. It's not the facts that seem to be essential. It's creating a narrative around them that allows people to see why they should care about a glacier melting.
I forget who said this: “We don't live in a universe of atoms. We live in a universe of stories.” Well, it's both! But we need to create stories and language to make us feel more in tune with the facts that are out there. In the case of the people I'm working within those med programs — of course, everybody wants a doctor who knows their stuff, but we also remember the way the doctor calmed us before we went into something that made us nervous. And that's the sort of thing I think literature is able to offer, in a way, because I think it's the best chance we get at trying to understand what it might be like to be someone else.
Yeah, if such a thing is possible. One of the running jokes, of course, is “If reading literature makes you a better person, why is this English department so full of jerks?” [Laughs.] But, you know, we're doing our best.
You came to Quartz Mountain as an instructor for the Fall Institute a couple years ago. What was that experience like?
I loved it for all sorts of reasons. One is that it's always a pleasure to get to talk about poetry with people who care about it. It's especially a pleasure to talk about it with people who are trying to write it, and care about it from that lens, but who also care about it as teachers and are trying to figure out how best to present this to their own students. As I mentioned, I'm the child of two teachers. I think it's the most undervalued professional calling out there, especially at the elementary and secondary levels. So the chance to spend some time talking to people who do that on a daily basis, getting to do shop talk both from the writers’ perspective and the teachers’ perspective, was a real pleasure. It was like bringing those two parts of my life together.
What’s got you most excited about joining the faculty for OSAI 2021?
Well, one thing I’m excited about is being able to actually teach in person for the first time in God knows how long. In any other year, if you asked me this question, that wouldn't be something that would bear mentioning, but it certainly does this year.
But really, I’m excited because these are kids who are encountering writing at the time when we need it most. It’s about the ability to understand and to feel understood, right at that moment when we all, for social and also biological reasons, feel like no one gets us: Our parents don't get us, our teachers don't get us — our friends barely get us. And so one of the things we turn to is the music we listen to, the stuff we read and the stuff we see on TV that makes us feel understood. The chance to do that, to work in those creative ways with kids, is an absolute privilege. But I’m also excited just to get to watch them meet … to see the kid who thinks they're the only weird writer in their school, who then meets up with 20 other weird writers from their own schools. Then all of a sudden, this thing they thought made them weird is the thing that makes them connected to each other. That's pretty cool to see.
Is that what you hope your creative writing students will walk away with — a sense they’re not alone?
I think that's a big part. I mean, I think everybody needs a first writerly community. Everybody also needs a second or fifth writerly community, because the writing itself is so solitary, but the friendships that come out of that solitary pursuit are part of what makes the solitary stuff bearable. The other thing I would say is that however these students imagine their lives in literature — whether someone's going to follow the line of doing an MFA and making a career out of it, or they’re going to write rhyming doggerel for their loved ones, or whether they’re just going to be readers — I want them to come away from this with an enhanced sense of what reading and writing can mean for their lives. My guess is that these kids already have some sense of it, but I feel like what we can do is provide the sort of community where we can create together and those instincts can get confirmed, so they're walking away even more convinced of what they were already starting to believe.