Liz Meredith interviews Tom Sexton: I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets

In late May, the New York Times reviewed former Alaska poet laureate Tom Sexton’s twelfth book  I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets. In the article, writer Dana Jennings describes Sexton as “another modern monk seeking refuge in Asian poems.”  Honoring his years in Alaska, his life in Maine, where he spends every other summer, and his interest in Chinese poetry, the Times says Sexton is” an atavistic avatar of how to look hard yet write simply.”

You were Alaska‘s poet laureate from 1995-2000. I’ve always wanted to know: How does one 
become a poet laureate? What are the duties?

The poet laureate was recommended to the State Arts Council by the former laureates and approved by the legislature until 2000, when it was changed to state writer.  I was the last laureate chosen in the traditional way. .. There were no designated duties when I was poet laureate.

So last spring, you find out the New York Times is mentioning your work. How exciting! What was that day like?

I found out about the New York Times review when I was at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. I was chosen to open the Festival, so I was already walking on air when I found out about the review.

Which poem in this book are you most proud of? Can you give us a few lines of it, and explain what inspired it?

I’m most proud of “Snow.”  I feel it’s a perfect fusion of form and content. All of the elements work together. To me, the rhyme scheme and sound patterns are flawless. The Hudson Review used “Snow” for its Christmas gift to subscribers last year.

Even though it’s still Fall, a dense-wind
driven snow has been falling since dawn.
It rises and falls like the wings of a swan,
an image from a fairy tale that begins:
Once upon, but I’m too old for that now,
so I watch it falling beyond my window.
When it slows, I go out to see how deep
it is. It’s as light as down, as light as sleep.

So much of your writing is about Alaskan wildlife. Imagine that you had remained in Massachusetts instead of moving to Alaska forty years ago. What do you think your poems would be about?

If I had stayed in Massachusetts, my poetry would most likely be more urban, but even as a child I was drawn to nature. I do have three books about growing up in a mill town, so many of my poems are not about either nature or Alaska.

What advice do you have for the aspiring poets of tomorrow, who are often told that there’s no market for or money in poetry?

I was very fortunate when the University of Alaska offered me a position way back in 1970. At the time, I had no idea what I was going to do. When my mortgage was paid off and I had enough money to maintain a modest lifestyle, I retired so I could spend my time writing. I have a very understanding wife. I guess my advice is don’t make money or fame your objective. Focus on your writing. My goal is to write one poem that will last.

Tom Sexton’s collection of poems set in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts titled Bridge Street at Dusk will be published next year by Loom Press.

1 thought on “Liz Meredith interviews Tom Sexton: I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets”

  1. Marybeth Holleman

    Wonderful interview, Liz, thank you. And kudos to Tom Sexton, such a very fine poet.

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