“That Poetry Could Be Something Not So Insular”: An Interview with Luke Stromberg by John Wall Berger

Luke Stromberg has lived in Upper Darby, just outside of Philadelphia, his whole life. His poetry has been published in many prestigious journals, and he is finally, at forty years old, releasing his much-anticipated debut collection, The Elephant’s Mouth (Kelsay Books, 2022). Stromberg is well known as a long-time organizer of the West Chester University Poetry Conference. He’s also the Associate Poetry Editor for E-Verse Radio, and works as an adjunct English professor at Eastern University and St. Joseph’s University.

A Luke Stromberg poem takes me by surprise with its frankness. His candor leaves us breathless: “Because I was thinking, then, of how I’d keep calling you, / of the thin, plaintive ringing without answer / that summer you left me for another man.” Of his work Juliana Gray says, “Stromberg’s formally dexterous poems explore family history, apocalyptic fantasies, thwarted lusts, and the acute agony of ordinary loneliness.” Stromberg will sometimes seem to be telling us about his life—imagine, as Gray says, “Philip Larkin pulling up a stool in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks”—then shift on a dime into powerful surrealism worthy of Mark Strand: “Last night, I drank until my head / roared with black thunder. / I staggered home, feeling lost. / Two dogs whispered gossip to each other. / Somewhere sirens wailed like ghosts.”

On a warm afternoon, in September 2022, we talked on the porch of my row home in West Philadelphia. While we were chatting, cars roared past, children were singing, and my neighbor the poet Leonard Gontarek walked by and waved. At one point, Stromberg looked at his phone and exclaimed, “The Queen is dead!”

John Wall Barger: Many poets have a figurative cemetery across the street from their houses, but you have a literal cemetery across from your place in Upper Darby!

Luke Stromberg: Yes, Friends Southwestern Burial Ground. I grew up playing in the cemetery, you know? Now it’s a busy cemetery, but when I was a kid there was maybe a funeral a year. It was just this green space in the neighborhood, a cool place to hang out. I was never freaked out by it. I never had superstitions. Now my brother’s buried there. My dad’s buried there, too. Maybe I have more consciousness of the dead people under the earth now than I did. And it’s a Quaker cemetery, very unpretentious. The graves are low to the ground, like “baby teeth,” I say in a poem about the cemetery.

JWB: Your book, The Elephant’s Mouth, is dedicated to your father. You have a poem about his hands. And the great title poem is about his childhood experience at a circus. I love this way of wondering about his interior life: “Whatever my father felt inside that creature’s mouth / I’ll never know. I’ve looked at elephants / Chewing grass or slack-jawed in repose / And wondered: Is it hot in there? Do they have teeth?”

LS: My dad would tell that story to us when I was a kid. I live up the street from where they used to come. It’s called the 69th Athletic Field now, but for years people referred to it as The Circus Grounds. The circus arrived by train. There used to be a train line that ran through the neighborhood, at the back of my dad’s house. He talked about it a lot, how every year the circus would come to town. It was a big part of my childhood. We’d take walks and he’d say, “This is where the tent was.” I always used to wonder, what did he see inside the elephant’s mouth? I guess I literally wondered about it. But there’s also the sense that somebody else’s experiences are unknowable.

JWB: You’re a bit hard to pin down into a certain poetic camp. To me, part of the force of your work is in your willingness to share. There’s an honesty. Your language and craft are strong, but I don’t think of those as your first intention. You’re not fucking around, ultimately, with language or trying to impress. Even in poems that might seem whimsical at first, like “Talking to God,” there are sincere moments like this: “God, let me be noteworthy. / Don’t let me blend in with the wallpaper this time. / It would be nice to be admired, to matter, / To have my own talk show with potted plants, a sidekick. / Let me mock myself on stage before a dark, laughing crowd; / Maybe the floodlights will burn away my insecurity.”

LS: I admire the authenticity and purity of feeling in other people’s work, and try to emulate it. When I read a poem or listen to a song or read a novel, and it just seems real. I respond to that. Truthfully, it’s difficult for me to write. I’m not prolific. I have to be emotionally invested in what I’m writing, to locate the feeling. If it doesn’t feel authentic to me, I don’t keep it. If you feel something, it’s a lot easier to write.

JWB: Your poems feel to me like they’re in conversation with Philip Larkin. “On Not Attending Church” begins, “Church, I’m sad to say, is boring.”

LS: I guess that is rather Larkinesque. There’s something so unpretentious about Philip Larkin. I don’t feel like he’s bullshitting me. And there’s an intelligence there, too, right? But he doesn’t, as he says, “draw on the myth-kitty.” He’s not trying to show off how educated he is by making a lot of classical allusions or displaying his erudition. He seems to recoil from pretentiousness, and I can relate to that. He speaks authentically.

JWB: Can you say more about what you mean by “authentic”?

LS: I think unguarded, you know? Just being vulnerable, or honest, or unapologetically yourself. Not always dressing what you have to say up in some kind of theory.

JWB: Yeah. It’s somewhat like what we want from humans when we sit across from them. We’d like them to be a mirror. If you give me something, I’ll give you something back. And that’s true for the reader, too. If they read something that they respond to, they’ll start to love the poet a little bit. They’ll read more poems, and get excited.

LS: It’s not easy to honestly communicate with the reader. To have a direct exchange.

JWB: Are you a formalist? In your book there’s a sestina, an epithalamion, a villanelle, sonnets. And some lines sound more metrical than others, like this: “This was ‘45 or there about I’d guess / When the circus used to come to town each year. / My father was just a boy then, eight or nine. / Their train would rumble past his house on Guilford Road.”

LS: That’s iambic, certainly. But when I write metrically, I’m interested in the accents. If I’m writing in blank verse, it’s not as important to me that it’s exactly ten syllables and that every other syllabe is stressed. I just want the five beats: five stressed syllables. When I was learning about meter, trying to write in meter, at West Chester University, X.J. Kennedy visited our class and said something that stayed with me. He quoted Duke Ellington: “It don’t mean a thing if it’s ain’t got that swing.” So I don’t get really fussy about meter: it’s just about the beats, right? I think of it more like accentual meter.

JWB: As poets we need to put pressure on the line, to disrupt the prose line, don’t we?

LS: I’m drawn to unadorned language, and conversational voice. But what elevates that and makes it more than prose? Well, one thing is meter, right? I’m definitely interested in the way conversational diction can work with meter.

JWB: William Carlos Williams was interested in the American vernacular, but that’s not exactly your lineage, is it?

LS: My model is more Robert Frost, how he wanted to get the sound of a conversation into his poetry, without abandoning verse. His blank verse, for instance, is rarely strict iambic pentameter, but he allows for variation to create the dynamic of meter playing against conversational voice. That tension is interesting. You hear people saying, about poetic meter, that it sounds unnatural or antiquated. But a lot of contemporary poets that write in meter don’t strike me as false at all. It feels conversational, natural. But the meter and craft are still there. You want to have that musicality, that craft, but to make it seem effortless. It’s really not, but you want to make it seem that way. Still, though I often write in meter, syllabics, or in received forms—and I am most drawn to so-called formal poetry as a reader—about half of the poems in my book might more accurately be described as free-verse.

JWB: There are doubles, or ghostly presences, throughout your book. Sometimes it’s people imagining other lives. Sometimes, as in “Chimes at Midnight,” it’s remembering dead people. In “Talking to God,” the speaker says, “I feel like the understudy for myself.” Throughout The Elephant’s Mouth there’s longing and self-doubt, both of which involve a kind of doubleness: being in the present, yet imagining other possibilities.

LS: That’s true of “The Elephant’s Mouth,” which involves the idea of the “exciting” circus life, which my father did not live. Did he come back to his normal life and wonder, Could I have been something different? We long for excitement. And I often ask myself, Did I make the right decisions? When you live your life, you always doubt yourself. Is this as good as it gets? Is this where I’m supposed to be? I think the ending of that poem, where the father doesn’t join the circus, is ambiguous. Is it sad? Are we supposed to feel heartbroken that the father hardly thinks of the elephant at all? Did he give up on his life? Or is the braver thing to do to accept the life you have? Acceptance is a type of bravery, I think. To be okay with being a normal person and not be some special circus performer, or famous. The bravery to accept normal life.

JWB: Is poetry—the container that is a poem—a good form for thinking about self-doubt, or alternate lives, as opposed to prose, songs, films, etc?

LS: I think so. Yeats said, “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric. Out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” Introspection also dredges up longing. Lyric poems should do that—make us feel something. If I’m going to write a poem, I have to tap into some kind of yearning, or an itch that needs to be scratched.

JWB: In your poem, “The First Obscenity,” you see death, so close, just beyond the lawn: “But only look out past your green kept lawn, / And there it is, unfazed, a grinning fact.” In a way, that’s a figurative way of talking about a domestic scene, to describe how close death is. But death is close, in reality. And, of course, you also have a literal cemetery across from your house.

LS: I didn’t think about the cemetery when I wrote that line. I was thinking that we have this circumscribed existence. We keep things neat. We think we’re safe, but we’re not. We’re vulnerable: to death, or to whatever that could come intrude upon our reality. We don’t like to think it, but it’s there, lingering outside. We create this sort of fantasy world where the unpleasantness doesn’t intrude. So the figurative image, or vision, of the lawn is a way of describing this idea.

JWB: In his essay “On Defamiliarization,” Charles Baxter says, “The truth can get dull. It may fall into a nonnarratable condition. There is an odd, stranger-at-the-funeral sensation in the face of art that is truthful but too familiar, where the author is deeply moved, but no one else is.” Some of your poems start in a literal or “narratable” space, then you take them somewhere uncanny. This is from “New Year’s Eve”: “You wait for midnight like Gary Cooper waiting / In High Noon for a train he’d rather wouldn’t come, / Your friends flushed with drink and smooching on the sofa, / That strange looking year printed on their paper hats.”

LS: I admire poems that make everyday scenes seem suddenly strange. And I like poems that take turns, that start off one way and take us someplace else. When I’m writing a poem, I often wonder how I can take it someplace else than where it seems to be going. Or how it can take me there.

JWB: Your poetic voice also reminds me of Billy Collins—who called your book “a noteworthy debut”—in its sharpness and humor. Regarding your voice, these disarming lines from “The Elephant’s Mouth” are, for me, maybe the most killer of the book: “One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do / Was to let go of my belief—long held— / That I was set apart for something special, / Blessed by distinction like a high-wire trapeze artist.” How do you do that?

LS: Billy Collins seems like a relatively cheerful guy for a poet. He’s refreshing. A lot of poets are super gloomy, and he’s not, really. Sometimes he’s downright funny. He’s like, “I’m a normal guy writing about normal stuff, and defamiliarizing it.” I’m much more angsty. A lot of this book I wrote when I was young, when I was steaming with hormones.

I think you have to cultivate that voice in your work. To say things straight and not dress things up. You have to gain that habit. And to time it. If the whole poem were like that, it wouldn’t have the same effect.

JWB: Like sitting down with somebody who is always telling you a secret. It would get exhausting.

LS: It has to be a surprise. It’s rhetoric. Using the structure of the poem, planning it, crafting it. My first drafts are not like that. You find it while writing.

JWB: Those lines from “The Elephant’s Mouth,” that moment, feels like self-discovery: felt by the writer, and shared by the reader. But we don’t exactly start writing the poem with that self-discovery in mind, do we?

LS: I don’t know where a poem is going while I’m writing it. I put that particular poem away for a year before I finished it. I had to cut out all the crap that didn’t work. Finally, I arrived at those lines through a process of editing and writing and wondering, Where does it feel like it wants to go? You try it in one place and think, Oh, that doesn’t work. You just have to find the right place. Those epiphanies happen after you’ve been working on it for a long time. But they wouldn’t work if it didn’t feel like the poem was naturally going there. You’ve got to try to find a way to get there and make it feel like that was always the plan. As if it just came gushing out of you. But, at least for me, it doesn’t.

JWB: You’re listening to the poem. Not forcing it to say what you want it to say.

LS: Yes. Or just letting it evolve and not trying to tame it. Rhyme can help us do that. Leonard Cohen has a great bit on rhyme. He says, “When you are compelled to find rhymes and to satisfy rhythms, it makes you run through everything you know about the language. It makes you run through word after word after word and test every idea.”

JWB: What is your hope for poetry?

LS: I hope that people read poetry. That it finds an audience not just limited to other poets, or even academics. I hope poetry could be something again—that the general public could turn to. That educated, smart people—who watch great films, read novels, go to plays, buy albums—would be interested in poetry. That poetry could be something not so insular.

JWB: You hear stories about people hungry for poetry. Czeslaw Milosz’s banned book of selected poems sold 150,000 copies in Poland. It’s unfathomable to me that people could be that excited about poetry.

LS: In order to have more presence in our culture, perhaps our poems would need to be less solipsistic. They would need to feel more vital to the moment. And I don’t just mean in a political way. Or maybe we need to bring back some of the things people actually take pleasure in, like rhyme and narrative. Dana Gioia wrote about that years ago. 

JWB: We’re now so oversaturated with information and “free” things. Drowning in free speech. Some beautiful things, like poetry, seem undervalued.

LS: Right. Maybe with the internet, TV, etc, there is just too much competition now. That’s been true for a while. I think songwriters, like Bob Dylan or even Taylor Swift, or rappers like Kendrick Lamar have taken the place of written poets in the larger culture. I remember Bruce Springsteen after 9/11, being interviewed as “one of our great artists,” articulating what we were feeling on his new record The Rising. Shouldn’t that be something a poet does? Dan Rather didn’t interview any poets for the nightly news. Way back in the 30s and 40s, Archibald MacLeish wrote about the poet speaking to the public again, about the poet’s role in clarifying the times and our experiences. Poetry already seemed insular then. But MacLeish was able to touch the world outside of the literary sphere. He was the Librarian of Congress for Roosevelt. He was a journalist who wrote for Fortune Magazine. He wrote verse plays that were broadcast on popular radio. My hope, I suppose, is that poetry could broaden its reach, and people would get hungry for it again.

John Wall Barger’s essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Kenyon Review OnlineThe Hopkins ReviewZyzzyvaThe Mississippi ReviewPoetry NorthwestLiterary MattersThe RumpusRain TaxiJacket2, and elsewhere. His sixth book of poems, Smog Mother (Palimpsest Press), comes out this fall. He is a contract editor with Frontenac House, and teaches creative writing at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram and YouTube.