Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today William Taylor Jr. reads “The Heart” by David Lerner.
David Lerner is one of those names that I knew I recognized but couldn’t place. So I did a quick web search and I have heard of him. Living in the Bay Area, I heard about this “renegade poet” who overdosed in passing a few years after it happened. It was probably about the time I discovered and fell madly in love with some of da levy’s work. I’m excited to have a second chance to hear about Lerner and really listen. How do you sum up Lerner?
William Taylor Jr.: I first encountered David Lerner’s work in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. I was immediately impressed with the humor and anger of his work, and the musicality of his language. His poetry sang in a way I wanted my own words to sing. I think I discovered d.a. levy around this time as well.
David sprang from the lively Cafe Babar open mic scene in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980’s. There’s nothing really like it in the Bay Area now. These days, crowds at Bay Area open mics are generally supportive, and even bad poetry tends to get a smattering of polite applause. At Babar, if you read something less than stellar you were likely to get heckled or have a pint glass chucked at you. It certainly wasn’t a safe place for sensitive poets. The Cafe Babar scene was about accessible poetry that spoke to the average person. Lerner was very serious about poetry and really did believe it had the power to change the world. That came through in his work. If his work had a theme, I would say it’s that of the individual seeking beauty and meaning in a hostile, indifferent universe.
Sundress: I didn’t even realize Lerner was in The Outlaw Bible. I pick my copy up off my shelf from time to time, but generally end up ‘discovering’ someone and purchasing a book. I’ve found it to be dangerous. Like opening a toll Matryoshka doll for my bookshelf.
Can you tell us more about Lerner’s ‘indifferent universe’? You said Lerner thought poetry “had the power to change the world.”—Who did he speak for? What did he want changed?
William Taylor Jr.: Yes, Lerner has a fair amount of space in The Outlaw Bible. There’s a section dedicated to the Barbarians (the Cafe Babar poets) that includes one of his pieces, and there’s a good sized selection of his work elsewhere in the anthology as well. He was a well-loved figure in the Bay Area poetry community. Lerner died in 1997, and I didn’t arrive in San Francisco until 2003, so I never had the chance to meet him or see him perform. That being so, my impressions of him as a person and a poet are born of my reading of his work, and the things that those who knew him have written and said of him.
In his forward to Lerner’s book of collected poems, Bruce Isaacson, Barbarian and co-founder, along with Lerner, of Zeitgeist Press writes:
“Lerner gave everything to his poetry, even to the point of madness. He sought, through poems, to re-balance the contradictions of power and feeling that warp modern life. He refused to accept the inhumanity that rules society and insisted the world adapt itself to his vision of truth, of justice…like his idol, the poete maudit, Arthur Rimbaud, Lerner expected impossible things from poetry, and many of the burdens of his life resulted from that.”
For me, all of this comes through in his poetry. He hearkens back to the romantic age of poetry, and his work has a prophetic, visionary aura reminiscent of William Blake.
From his signature poem, “Mein Kampf”:
I want people to hear my poetry and
weep, scream,disappear, start bleeding,
eat their television sets, beat each other to death with
go out and get riotously drunk on
someone else’s money
I come not to bury poetry
but to blow it up
not to dandle it on my knee
like a retarded child with
throw it off a cliff into
icy seas and
see if the motherfucker can
swim for its life
When I read David Lerner I don’t feel that he was writing a poem, but rather channeling some ancient truth that burned inside him that he felt we needed to hear.
Sundress: What truth do you think Lerner was getting at in “The Heart”?
William Taylor Jr.: I think the heart, as personified in the poem, represents Lerner’s vision of humanity at its purest and most vital. The “truth” of the piece is the emptiness that blooms within us once our wonder and passion for life gets beaten and worn down as the reality of the modern world takes its toll.
The poem begins, These days the heart is just another/piece of meat…found on charm bracelets and greeting cards/and targets. But the speaker of the poem remembers the heart when it was “a big deal”. He remembers the heart telling him poetry that…shook with/something bigger than beauty. It taught him how to find water in the/desert of your own desires. But as the years went by, it got harder and harder/ for him to get a gig. Eventually the heart tires and fades, explaining, you gotta have something to/break for. Finally, the heart only makes rare and brief appearances before disappearing again, but the speaker remembers when it was the sun in a room/ at night/burning every face.
The poem comes across to me as mournfully wistful, nostalgic for a time when people lived the life of the heart as it was before it was broken and exiled by the pressures and demands of our modern existence.
Sundress: The speaker, it appears, seems to have had a tough go with love: “I caught him in Jersey City on a muggy August afternoon reading a book of poems about suicide and laughing at the good parts.” From what you’ve read and heard about Lerner, what do you think he meant for us to take away from “The Heart”? Should we hear this as a call-to-arms to regain our wonder and passion for life? Or was he lamenting the hard truth of the times, as he saw it: the inability to reconcile the heart, and love, with modern living?
William Taylor Jr.: I think “The Heart”, like the majority of Lerner’s work, shines a light on the constant battle we wage to retain our humanity, grace and wonder in a world that places no particular value on such things. Lerner’s poems are sometimes sad, sometimes angry, often both, but I never feel they are resigned. I think he felt the battle was ongoing, but not lost.
Sundress: How has David Lerner influenced your own work?
William Taylor Jr.: I’m drawn to Lerner’s poetry for a number of reasons, among them it’s musicality and immediacy. His poems are filled with lines that sing of the human condition with great power and humor, they are brash and not tentative. They have things to tell you and they want you to listen. His poems always have a sense of purpose; you never get the sense that he’s just fooling around. I strive for similar things in my own work. His work inspires me to take chances with my own, to use language in the most potent way I can manage to best share my vision with the reader or listener.
Sundress: Which book would be a good starting point for those interested in reading more Lerner? And are there any additional resources online to check out—reviews, interviews, etc?
William Taylor Jr.: As for where to start reading Lerner, the essential book is the collection from Zeitgeist press, The Last Five Miles to Grace. It collects his earlier books as well as strong material that had been previously unpublished.
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
William Taylor Jr. lives and writes in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. His work has been published widely in journals across the globe, including The New York Quarterly, The Chiron Review, and Poesy. An Age of Monsters, his first book of fiction, was published by Epic Rites Press in 2011. The Blood of a Tourist is his latest collection of poetry. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was a recipient of the 2013 Acker Award.
David Lerner, born in New York City in 1951, was a journalist and renegade poet. Part of the “Barbarians” in San Francisco, Lerner co-founded Zeitgeist Press with Bruce Isaacson. He published several volumes before his death in 1997, including I Want a New Gun (1988) and Pray Like the Hunted (1992).