An Interview with Lee Upton

SB: We, of course, know and love you as a poet and our prize winner for your stunning work in “The Day Every Day Is”, but you have credits everywhere. You’ve published short stories, poetry, literary criticism, and a libretto (a libretto!). You also have a forthcoming comedic novel set for 2024 release — congratulations! What drives you to so many varied kinds of writing? Do they each speak to the same writerly itch, or do they satisfy different needs, be they creative or professional?

LU: I think I just like to have a good time. While my first and sustaining love is poetry, it’s a wild and unpredictable pleasure to attempt writing in different genres. Each genre allows for different experiences, different sensations, different apertures. It’s like being a perpetual beginner enjoying this wonderful sense of risk. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that experimenting with a new genre is like gaining an extra sense faculty—your perception changes as you’re summoning or warping a genre’s features. That yearning for language and beyond language, reaching forward and backward into history, continually interests me and, I suppose, provokes me. And different expressive modes allow for other ways to enact that yearning. Yet I always come back to poetry as my primary genre. It’s not like I’m being unfaithful or, as I’ve written elsewhere, a bigamist.

Almost always my entry in any genre is through voice, even when writing literary criticism about other writers and trying to find a voice that registers respect and some measure of understanding. What I learn in one genre translates into other genres, but I have to admit it can be frustrating. For instance, trying to enact cause-and-effect in fiction just about keeps ruining me. You mentioned “needs.” I guess I do need to write in at least two genres almost daily: mainly poetry and fiction. At this point, I’d be unhappy without multiple genres in my life.

Lee Upton’s The Day Every Day Is

SB: While I do want to ask you about the prevalence of martyrs, mythology, religion, and legends in “The Day Every Day Is,” what struck me was how you used them. Several poems feature a speaker reclaiming agency in their own story as opposed to what we’ve commonly come to know. What is it about myth, religion, and folklore and this reclaiming of self and story that led you to explore marrying the two in your poetry?

LU: As a child I attended morning Mass each school day, but at home I was perusing a little book about Greek mythology, with reproductions of oil paintings of naked gods and goddesses. The erotics of those images! Those early forbidden stories, so often bloody and ruthless, continue to be resonant, particularly as reflections on guilt and shame and coercion. Re-imagining the brutality of myths—the injustice and horror and the godly indifference of the powerful—is a way to think about human suffering across time. Those stories are about many things, including the desperate search to explain what resists explanation. The myths from multiple cultures keep happening, in a sense, and there are vulnerable personalities that we can disinter from the stories to let them speak.

SB: In many of your poems, there is a conviction on the part of the speaker that telling, forgetting, and rewriting are each integral to any given story. What drew your poetry to this interplay — the natural fluidity of retelling vs. the possibility that every version (mistruths and all) can be argued as concrete and faithful?

LU: It’s like there’s an imp within us that controls when forgetting begins and when forgetting stops. Suddenly a memory once safely consigned to forgetfulness can spring out to catch us. The returned memory may be corrupted, but there it is: this full-blown moment appears reborn. Or not. Years ago, I heard words that were so horrible I forgot them immediately. What I recall is the sensations of pain and the actual experience of forgetting, as if my mind erased the words. Or as if forgetting is an active force and opened a trap door and the words dropped. Something in my psyche protected me, I suppose. What I do remember, in high definition, is the room I was in when the words were spoken—a place to which I’ve never returned. Some of the voices I work with are harsh. The right to refuse what’s offered can be something to celebrate and even a marker of freedom.

SB: Something I particularly loved in this collection were those poems where the core witnesses to violence or death were the nearby flowers — the dog violets eyes fill with the blood of the skinned satyr, a mothers failing vision can only see sunflowers, the famous poet who says “let’s hear your pretty flower poems” and is buried by roses. That said, in the poem “After Blogging About Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’” we’re told that there could never be a tapestry of blooms in that world, that “Tessie Hutchinson cannot have a unicorn.” It also happens to be the poem from which this collection gains its title — The Day Every Day Is. Surrounded by poems full of flowers bearing witness to death and mythological characters given new agency, this poem intentionally has neither. All this to ask: Why?

LU: It’s tricky to write about flowers, given the common prejudice against them as markers of excess sentimentality, as if flowers aren’t just so achingly strange. They’re mysterious and stern witnesses; they remind us of beauty, and those that resurrect annually may recall our own yearnings for sustaining life. As you noticed, flowers don’t appear for the primary character in my poem referencing Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery.” In Jackson’s story, which enacts reflexive obedience to tradition, when Tessie Hutchinson joins her community to perform a ritual stoning she is herself stoned. (It always bothers me that she finishes the dishes before hurrying off to join the townspeople for what will be her own murder.) Tessie Hutchinson won’t see a unicorn or a tapestry’s blossoms not only because of the story’s setting but because of the curbs on her imagination. Duty, loyalty…those have to be re-examined in each context in which we’re summoned to practice them. What partly animates The Day Every Day Is in that poem and others remains a sense of how ideology surrounds us, invisible, conditioning and petrifying what we are able to perceive, let alone imagine. The elasticity of poetry allows for questioning that degree of inflexibility, given that poetry is an especially intensive form not only for paying minute attention but for paying “attention to our attention” and for re-imagining once again what we believe and what we are expected to believe.

As you noted, the title of my collection derives from the last portion of the poem:

How familiar it all is—

choosing what to ignore

and everyone expecting

us to be responsible

and to do our part

The entire crowd waiting

while we hurry

almost forgetting what day every day is

In a possible reading, the collection’s title appears partial: a word is missing. You could supply all sorts of possibilities: The day every day is violent, The day every day is unjust, The day every day ends, The day every day is a lottery… Or the title might be a complete sentence: the day every day IS—if we recognize and grant that each day has its own incalculable presence, its living power.

SB: What do you have going on that you would like to share with us? New projects? Old projects? Latest earworm? Favorite color?

LU: I’m in the process of putting together a manuscript of new and selected poems. It’s time I tried to do that, I think. And there’s the comic novel, TABITHA, GET UP, coming out in May from wonderful Sagging Meniscus Press. Tabitha, Get Up | Sagging Meniscus Press The novel concerns a biographer who hopes to restore her self-respect and pay her rent by doing the impossible: writing two biographies at once. Another novel, WRONGFUL, is forthcoming from the same publisher. It’s a twisty literary mystery dealing with duplicity and envy at two literary festivals and the ways we can get everything wrong, time and again, especially when we’re certain we’ve discovered the truth. I’m working on other manuscripts, and I’d say more about them, but that might doom them—it’s hard to know if anything will turn out. I can write the things, but they might have to stay home with me rather than meet strangers, as hard as I might want them to become more outgoing.

Lee Upton’s books include her seventh collection of poetry, The Day Every Day Is (Saturnalia); Visitations: Stories (Yellow Shoe Fiction Series); Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles: Poems (Cleveland State University Poetry Center); and The Tao of Humiliation: Stories (BOA). She is also the author of four books of literary criticism; a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy (Tupelo); and the novella The Guide to the Flying Island (Miami University Press). Her novel, Tabitha, Get Up, is forthcoming in May 2024 from Sagging Meniscus Press. Another novel, Wrongful, will be out in May 2025. 


Sebastian Agudelo on sociology, place & metaphysics in Each Chartered Street

PhotoEach Chartered Street is, in many ways, both a critical and lovingly hopeful song for Philadelphia. How did place come to be so important in your recent work?
Place in Each Chartered Street is mainly incidental. I do admire poets who’ve given us great, textured portraits of place, particularly cities. Anne WintersNew York, Roy Fisher’s Birmingham and Ciaran Carson’s Belfast come to mind. Though if they inform my work it is rather from long acquaintance and not from deliberate borrowings. The poem “Corner,” looks at kids from a ritzy private school driving a Mercedes going one way and a neighborhood kid in a pimped-up Impala going the opposite way—a spectacle one gets to see quite often if you walk around the time school lets out. The poem argues at some point that any other places would be equally legitimate to explore that rift. So to me the book is not a portrait of Philadelphia—though I’m flattered when readers find the portrait compelling or well rendered. What I wanted to deal with was my neighborhood and its social tensions and by extension the concept being a neighbor. In that context, the different social classes that share the space were more important. It’s a weird place where less than a block walk will take you from that last, high-rise project standing in the city, to eight-room Victorian houses with more than a quarter million dollar price tag. Within that huge range, you also have many property-owning folk sliding up and down different income brackets but somewhat middle class, and each and every one of them has a different claim: you have the conservationists, the guys obsessed with crime, the parents, the dog rescuers. So many of these claims are incompatible. I hope at the heart of the book, the central question is whether this domestic, bourgeois society is sustainable at all, while at the same time trying to write what it feels like to be uncertain and yet reasonably stable while surrounded by instability.

Many of the poems in this collection are quite long and take us in so many directions: from the crack house down the street, to your daughter’s play room, sometimes ending in a completely different place. Could you tell me a little bit about your poetic process, and how these poems come to take their form?
The easy answer is that I like poems to be both capacious and layered. My poems I think are often reconciling or working out different possibly contradictory impulses. I like narrative but find much of narrative poetry to be too anecdotal, so if I’m working in a narrative poem I resist the anecdote and try to short circuit it with other suggestive material. “Testimony” is a case in point, with the Chinese woman whose husband kidnaps their kid. It started as a straight narrative and had the first line from the outset, and it felt like one of those poems where you know you are reading about a victim, so you’ve got to feel something. Then just an OED search sort of opened the poem up and allowed me to place the character in a larger and sonically more interesting canvas. Some other poems begin—or I think I begin them—as well-argued Metaphysical poems. I like how the Metaphysical poem feels more argued than others. What I end up with most of the time though are poems that are too densely packed, crabbed and gnarled, so I try to inflect them with detail to let them breath a bit. “Knowledge,” the opening poem is a case in point. It began as this dense thing where the focus was these two kinds of knowing, the middle-age’s guy and the kids doing homework. It became a lot more interesting as I got the kids to do stuff in the poem.

Each Chartered Street often takes a sociological attitude, critiquing the political and economic tensions of urban life and the broader structures that create them. Your previous collection, To the Bone, shows a similar inclination towards the critical. How did social commentary become such an integral part of your poetry?
I gave a copy of the book to a sociologist, friend/colleague of mine mainly because he had been incredibly supportive at some point and did not expect him to read it. He actually read it and recognized the sociological bend but praised—and I take any praise I can—that Each Chartered Street knew better and different than sociologists because the latter are only interested in models and not in people. I write poems because they help me understand things that I find perplexing. I’m interested in discrepancies between those sanctioned narratives we tell ourselves and what is actually going on. To the Bone for instance began as I was working in and living through a sort of glamorization of food, chefs, etc. Each Chartered Street also tried to tackle the more rosy-eyed versions of community. Within that framework, I try to get things as they really are.EachCharteredStreetAgudelo

In a similar vein: for you, does poetry have a place in the call for social change, and if so, where is it?
No. Not at all. I know people don’t want to hear it, but poetry is too elitist and its audience too narrow for any social change to take place. Moreover, it doesn’t matter in what time zone poets fall—anywhere from formalism to experimental, most poets share similar political values. So to write poems for social change would be like preaching to the choir. I distrust most calls for social change—though I guess I’m a meliorist of sorts, a pessimistic one. Still poetry as a tool for social change seems antithetical to me. If poetry is good at anything, it is good at zeroing in on our ambiguities and sound the emotional resonances there, so ambiguity and social change seem like a recipe for disaster. Not that certainty and calls social change have done any better historically.

To the Bone and Each Chartered Street are both works built from constant observation of your surroundings and imagination of their backgrounds and histories. Any current projects in the works?

I’m writing. I know the evidence is against me but I really don’t work on projects or don’t set to do so in any case. Some poets do like that. If I ended with thematically coherent books, I did so because of my work load. As the poem “Commute” makes clear, I adjunct and am running from place to place. Its not a good thing for sustained writing of any kind. So the reason the two books got written, the incentive to get up and write, was really that I could revisit a single place I’d grown fond of for a few hours every day. That’s more or less what Coetzee says about writing novels.


Sebastian Agudelo is the author of Each Chartered Street (2013) and To the Bone (2009), winner of the 2008 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, selected by Mark Doty. He teaches at University of the Arts and lives with his wife and daughter in Philadelphia.

Kasey Erin Phifer-Byrne is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania and an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she was the 2014 recipient of the David and Jean Milofsky Prize in Creative Writing. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spillway, and other journals.