Getting to Know Len Solo and his new book A Symphony of the Ordinary
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I first became aware of poetry when I was a sophomore in college and read a few poems about loneliness by Robert Frost. (Before then, I was not much of a reader. I was an engineering student then, but switched to English, though I took all of the available Math courses.) They really connected with me because I was going through a period of feeling sad and alone, even depressed, and Frost’s poems resonated with me. I, too, then wanted to be able to say well what I was thinking, observing and feeling. About a year later, I wrote my first poem, one that I worked hard on to make it right, to say what I wanted it to say. (It was not very good, though it got published in the college’s creative publication.)
Over the years, I wrote poems randomly and not too often. Then, when I retired in 2002, I decided that I was going to write more poetry and put together a volume. I went back and looked at the stuff I had thrown in a desk drawer over the years but there was not a lot there and what was there needed a lot of work. Over the years, I had kept touch with a friend of mine who wrote poetry. (Actually, he had been a high school student of mine whom I had taught in the late ‘60’s, a man who was gifted with a golden tongue from very young. Over the years, he had shared his poetry with me and I helped him to edit and sharpen them.) I shared my poems with him and he helped me make them much better, commenting that at first “they sounded like rolling boulders.” I had to work hard to learn how to simplify and say things with precision with as few (mostly common) words as possible. From our shared poems, a pattern emerged: they were rooted in the various seasons of the year. I then wrote poems for the seasons that had few poems. My friend and I each had separate poems, some poems of mine that he had contributed much to and poems of his that I had contributed much to for the book. We decided to publish this book of poetry together as co-authors, not saying who wrote which ones. We wanted to title it as The Spirit of the Seasons but there were titles very similar to that on the market so we settled on Landscape of the Misty Eye.
Since then, I’ve written poetry much more often and have published 3 other volumes of poetry: Rooted in Place, The Magic of Light and A Symphony of the Ordinary, in that order. (I’ve also published 2 volumes on education: The Making of an Extraordinary School about the truly remarkable, K-8 public school in Cambridge that I was principal of for 28 years; Education: Back to the Future, about the failings of current education (Mass. ed. reform/MCAS, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top) and how it could be important to go back to the re-birth of progressivism in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, study it, and use the findings to build a new approach to education now; and a short story collection, The Turning of the Dark.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I do not have a routine. When an idea or an image or an incident comes to me (and they pop up at odd times and in odd places), I scribble it down. I write on whatever is handy, but then put them on a piece of long yellow paper from a legal pad. Sometimes these are more whole and complete than others, but I work and work on them, honing the words until I feel the poem is complete. I then put the poem on my computer since I find it easier to edit when a poem’s at this stage. Then, I go back to it over the next few months (maybe, even years) and work on it more, trying to get the words just right, cutting as much as I can, always trying to show rather than tell. I’m really erratic when I write—sometime I write for hours a day, day after day. Other times, I don’t write a poem for weeks. I can only write in my home, not outside of it, though ideas and images come in and out of my home.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
On a day in December two years ago, I was coming back from a long walk when I saw a robin land in a tree just ahead of me, quickly followed by its mate. I said to myself: why is this robin here now, during this season? What’s the reason? As I headed home, this image and the words I’d used spun around in my head and it seemed to me that a poem—a rhyming poem*, what with “reason” and “season” and “mate” coupled with the word “fate” which came in as I walked. When I got home, I wrote the scene down, including the words that were already there. It took me two days to get the essential elements of the poem written then I worked on it off and on for the next few months until I got it to where I wanted it. That’s how I wrote one.
(*Only a few of my poems rhyme.)
Poems come from other places and I’ve written about this in: an essay about how I write that I’m working on. I’ll attach it because you will find it most helpful in understanding how and why I write, plus it answers some of these questions in more detail.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
See the above noted essay of mine on writing that I just mentioned. Hemingway was my father: I learned how to write from him and many of the techniques he discovered I’ve also discovered and use in my writing. Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Donald Hall, Japanese and Chinese writers and scads more: I do not read a lot of poetry now, but over the years I’ve read hundreds of poets from around the world written over the centuries. You learn from them and steal as much as you can that fits into your needs.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? Are there over-arching themes? What was the process of assembling it? Was this a project book? etc.
A Symphony of the Ordinary is built like a house with rooms in it. Frost, in one of his poems wrote about inner and outer weather: I try to capture scenes/incidents of outer weather and, sometimes, how they connect to inner weather. So, the book’s overall architecture is the life of a person: the book is about a character (unnamed) that I show in his youth, then he is followed as he grows older into adolescence, young adulthood, adult and then old age. I try to do this subtly, showing various, mostly ordinary, incidents in his life during various seasons at each of these stages. I try to write using simple words and to have my poems appear plain and simple. If I do this well, the poems then transcend this simplicity.
The title comes from a line from one of the poems, “Ordinary.” The person in the poem is sitting beside a canal in southwest Florida and he relates what he sees and hears as he sits there as the day is ending: a fish plopping out of and back into the water making concentric circles, a basketball being dribbled and shot against a blackboard, a hawk circling on wind currents above, the sun still warm—it’s about ordinary things that, together, magically make the moment extraordinary.
I had some poems left over after publishing the previous volume. Over the next few years I wrote a bunch more. When I had about 120 pages of stuff I printed them out to gauge what I had. What I had seemed to fit into a pattern, that pattern from youth to old age I described above, poems that seem to show the twisting arc of a person’s life. I wrote some more poems to fill out the various stages of this life and saw that I had a book. When I had it all assembled, I went back, cut out some, re-wrote others, wrote a few more before I was satisfied.
Just as an aside, I should note that I paint with oils and I have used my paintings on the covers of all 4 of my poetry books.
Why publish your poetry? Well, I like to see them in a book, see how they look and feel and sound. It gives me satisfaction. I like to share what I write, to see how others react to what I write and what they say about the poems. It’s the same reason why a painter paints.
A poem from A Symphony of the Ordinary:
Lyceaeides Melissa Samuels
He was walking
through a field
wild with scrub oak
and black chokeberry,
the mild sky clear
all the way up,
when he saw a cloud
of tiny butterflies
come fluttering down
out of that sky,
like blue snowflakes
on a windless day.
He followed one
through the weeds,
its wings flashing
with orange crescents below,
and watched it settle
on a purple-blue lupine,
art and nature fused,
a Nabokovian delight
in the summer sunlight.