David Lee was Utah’s first poet laureate, beginning in 1997. He recently spent a semester guest teaching at University of Nevada, Reno and living in Silver City. On May 27, he’ll give a reading at 1 p.m. at the Silver City School House, 385 High St., Silver City, and recite poetry during a musical performance that evening at 7:30 at Comma Coffee, 312 S. Carson St., Carson City.
From what I understand, poet laureates get to define their own duties. What did you set out to do when you first got the job?
The governor called me into his office and said, “Do you have an hour?” and he said, “I don’t know what a poet laureate does. Do you?” and I said, “No clue whatsoever.” He said, “I don’t want this to be an honorary position. You’re not a Mormon, but I want you to be like a young Mormon—I want this to be your mission. Your religion really is poetry. I want you to be in every school in the state. I want you to stay busy spreading the gospel of poetry. But there is not one cent of public money [for this], so you’re going to do it by the seat of your pants.” I covered almost every school district in the state, all of the colleges and universities in the state.
Your poems tend to take place in rural settings, but your work doesn’t exactly fall into the “cowboy poetry” idiom. What kinds of audiences do you end up reading and writing for?
I had an editor once upon a time who introduced me, both orally and in print, as saying, “David Lee is the poet for people who think they don’t like or can’t understand poetry.” At first I was a little set back, then I thought, maybe that’s who I want to be. If you look back, poetry was a way to tell stories. … The new book [Bluebonnets, Firewheels, and Brown-eyed Susans, or, Poems New and Used From the Bandera Rag and Bone Shop, published this year], it takes place between 1946 and 1962, which were my formative years, and there aren’t that many people left who were there, and I want to write what they talked about and thought about and reflect their speech patterns as much as I can. That’s what I’m trying to do, be a storyteller and a bit of a cultural historian. … My thought process is to sleep and dream and come up with something that struck me as interesting or idiosyncratic. I usually hold a poem in my head for a long time, a year or a year and a half, sometimes three years. I could usually hold about 14 poems. That was the magic number. Because I was a teacher and administrator at my university, I didn’t have a lot of time for writing. But I usually took two weeks off in August. I don’t write the stories—they tell me what they want to be. My characters talk to me in my dreams. When I sit down to write the poems, I’m just the vehicle.
The announcement for your upcoming reading says it’s for “adults and older teens.” Why is that?
I don’t often choose what I’m going to say and the way I’m going to say it. In my poems, there are a lot of hells and damns and son-of-a-bitches. Though, I have had kids as young as third grade come up and recite my poems, including the language, and I said, “Are you really comfortable saying that?” She said, “Not around my mommy, but around you I’m comfortable saying that.” But I don’t write to be offensive, and I don’t write to upset or offend people. I write to be accurate.