January 30, 2023

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“The Joy of the Gamble”: from a conversation with Aspen Matis and David Lehman

Aspen Matis (left): In the book’s poem of the same name, The Morning Line, you write about gambling as an aspect of human nature—and human folly. With intensity and grace, the speaker evokes a seductive image of chance as “abstract art,” observing how “the gulf / is sometimes wide between the odds / set by the handicapper for the morning line / and the bettors at the track / when the horses reach the starting gate.” Why do you suppose that, as the narrator puts it, “[g]Hiking is a natural human instinct”? Are you a gamer yourself, in the truest sense of the word?

David Lehman (below right): Life is a gamble. Even if you don’t realize it, make a bet. When crossing a busy city street, you’re betting that motorists will be sensible and sensible, undistracted, and obey a system of alternating green and red lights. It’s a trivial example, but think about the choices we make when it comes to colleges, partners, relationships, and careers.

When I left academia to work full-time as a freelance writer, I took a big risk. It worked, although the chances were slim at the time. I feel like my life is a gamble and maybe that’s why I don’t play in casinos.

AM: In the same poem, the narrator makes a startling connection between instability and religion, invoking God in “the risk one feels / when one is so deeply involved with another person / that one cannot imagine life without them to live”. This powerful verse concludes, “The inevitability of loss, an often misunderstood aspect/of gambling, is not a deterrent but an attraction.” Why do you think instability is so compelling? Why is risk-taking (like the risk of love) a joyous high?

“The Joy of the Gamble”: from a conversation with Aspen Matis and David LehmanDL: A life without risk, although possible, would not necessarily be desirable. What makes a baseball game exciting for a fan is that the outcome is unknown. It’s happening, it’s real, and it can go either way. If love came with a lifetime guarantee, would it still be love? Would it be love if it didn’t have the fear of loss?

Graham Greene once said that he had not traveled to Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam, Haiti, Africa “in search of material for novels, but to regain the sense of insecurity” to which the London lightning strikes had addicted him. That makes sense to me.

AM: Your words make me wonder to what extent creativity is also a gamble. With that question in mind, what is the biggest role poetry plays in your inner life? Why are you writing poetry?

DL: There are few things I enjoy doing more than putting words together to create something that will ideally outlive its author and bring joy to those in the unknown future.

from the Los Angeles Review of Books, November 27, 2021.

This Thanksgiving season, I want to thank Aspen Matis—for this conversation centered on my book of poetry, The Morning Line—and for the unabashed interviews she conducted for the Best American Poetry blog.