"Never... stop believing in its worth."
An Interview With Larry D. Thomas, by Susan Culver
Note: On April 4, the Texas Commission on the Arts notified Larry D. Thomas that he has been named 2008 Poet Laureate for the State of Texas.  Congratulations, Larry.

Larry D. Thomas has published six collections of poems: The Lighthouse Keeper (Timberline Press, 2001), Amazing Grace (Texas Review Press, 2001), The Woodlanders (Pecan Grove Press, 2002), Where Skulls Speak Wind (Texas Review Press, 2004), Stark Beauty (Timberline Press, 2005) and With the Light of Apricots (Lily Press, 2007).  His seventh poetry collection, The Fraternity of Oblivion, is forthcoming from Timberline Press (Fulton, Mo.) in 2007. 

Among the prizes and awards he has received for his poetry are the 2004 Violet Crown Award (Writers’ League of Texas), the 2003 Western Heritage Award (Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma), two Texas Review Poetry Prizes (2001 and 2004), two Pushcart Prize nominations, and three Spur Award Finalist citations (Western Writers of America). 

His poetry has appeared in numerous national journals, including Poet Lore, The Christian Science Monitor, Southwest Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Spoon River Poetry Review, Puerto del Sol, The Texas Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Cottonwood, Red Rock Review, Louisiana Literature, and The Journal of the American Medical Association

Larry’s website can be found at http://www.larrydthomas.com.

Photo by Carol Rowe DeBender.


SC: You began writing seriously while serving as a correctional counselor in a Navy prison.  What was it about that time of your life that drew you to write?

LT: As I recall, I had spread a blanket beneath a tree outside my apartment in Norfolk, Virginia, to play with my two-year old daughter.  It was almost dusk in early fall, and the birds, huge flocks of them, had begun to soar to their roosting places.  The evening sky was filled with cumulus clouds illumed by the pinks of a brilliant sunset.  For some mysterious reason, I felt compelled to get a pencil and tablet from my apartment, and I wrote the following: “A dusk sky studded / with cotton candy clouds / where myriads of birds / swift in flight / race a fleeting sun / toward infinity.”  And I have written poetry on a consistent basis since that fortuitous incident.

A few months before that experience, I had received my B.A. degree in English literature from the University of Houston, and received my draft notice shortly after my college graduation.  During my studies in literature, I found particularly intriguing my courses in modern American poetry, but had never thought about writing poetry myself until that moment in Norfolk, Virginia.  It was as if I were “called to poetry” that evening, strange as that may seem.

SC: During your career in social service and adult criminal justice, did the people you worked with ever make their way into your poems, as characters or subjects?

LT: Very few of my poems involved the people I worked with in social service and criminal justice, with the exception of some “outlaw bikers” whom I was privileged to supervise early in my career as an adult probation officer (in the mid to late 1970’s).  My experiences with these individuals introduced me to a “world,” or rather an underworld, so unlike the “world” with which I was familiar that it fascinated me.  Several years later, in 1985, I remained so intrigued with the outlaw biker counterculture that it became the exclusive subject of a full-length collection of poetry which I researched, wrote and titled The Fraternity of Oblivion.  Until I retired to write full time in 1998, I wrote only on weekends, so it took me almost all of 1985 to write the collection.  Interestingly enough, it is currently in press at Timberline Press (publisher of The Lighthouse Keeper and Stark Beauty), and is scheduled for release in late summer or early fall of this year.

SC: Do you remember which of your poems was the first published, and who published it?  

LT: My first poem which appeared in a significant literary journal was “String Cadenza,” published in 1982 by the Southwest Review.  Prior to that publication, two of my other poems were accepted for publication in 1977 by The Texas Quarterly (based at the University of Texas in Austin), but the journal was discontinued before my two poems appeared in print.

SC: You’ve been a full-time poet since retiring from criminal justice in 1998.  Can you describe your typical day?  Do you write every day?  Do you have a set time or place to work on your writing, or do you take it as it comes?

LT: I normally write four to five days per week, from approximately ten in the morning until two or three in the afternoon.  I write in what I call my studio, which was once an efficiency garage apartment in back of my residence, and which has no telephone or door bell.  When I write, I sit in a primitive oaken rocker which has no cushion.  I feel that this slight discomfort helps ward off drowsiness which might compromise my concentration.  I always write with a fountain pen on a clipboard of discarded computer paper which has one clean side.

For over thirty years, I have written to the music of Beethoven, which I play at a rather loud but not uncomfortable volume.  I randomly play his entire recorded oeuvre, and have found that any one of his compositions works as well for me as another.  I have become quite familiar with his music over the years, and it seems, at least on an unconscious level, to enhance the power and rhythmic quality of my own art.

When I sit down to write, I rarely have any idea whatsoever of what I will write about that day.  I just focus my attention on the task at hand, and wait for a word, image, etc., to come along around which I think I can “build” a poem.  I work in my studio until I complete at least a first working draft of a complete poem, revising quite extensively as I work.

SC: You’re identified as a Texas poet and you even identify yourself on your website as The Texas Poet.  How different do you think your life – and work – would have been if you hadn’t been from Texas?

LT: That is an excellent question.  Quite honestly, “The Texas Poet.com” appellation of my website was an “accident.”  A good friend of mine used to design websites for a living, and noticed last year that I didn’t have a personal website.  Unbeknownst to me and as a gift, he designed the site, found that “thetexaspoet.com” domain name was available, and purchased it as the site name.  Although his intent in naming the site was honorable, in light of the large amount of my published poetry which is set in Texas, he never thought about the ostensible arrogance  “the” Texas poet would imply.  I am certainly “a” Texas poet in that I am a poet who was born, resides, and often writes poems set “in Texas,” but “the” Texas poet I most definitely am not.  I recently changed the name of my site to simply larrydthomas.com, but will also have to live with thetexaspoet.com until the one year purchase period for the site expires in a few more months.

I find the vast and variegated Texas landscape to be extremely dynamic as a setting for much of my poetry, and have used it extensively in a number of my published poems, especially those of my five published collections.  I say “published” poems because “Texas,” either in its landscape or otherwise, appears in less than ten percent of the body of my written work to date.  I trust that my work will be regarded first as “poetry” and only secondarily as poetry much of which is set in Texas.  As a poet, I am obviously deeply affected by my “place,” and I am quite certain that “place” would have figured prominently in my work regardless of where I had been born and reared.  I sincerely believe that the “local,” for many writers of seriousness, is merely a vehicle through which the “universal” is manifest. 

SC: Though you’ve written on many of the regions of your state, which part of Texas inspires your writing the most, and why?

LT: Although I have written collections of poems which are set in the Piney Woods of deep East Texas and on the Texas Gulf Coast, most of my “Texas poems” are set in far West Texas where I was born and reared.  Although I moved to Houston at the age of twenty and have resided there for the past forty years (excluding my four years of military service in Norfolk, Virginia), there is something about far West Texas from which I can’t seem to escape: the harshness of life in the great Chihuahuan Desert juxtaposed with the stark and haunting beauty so pervasive there.  In the late 1880’s, my grandparents, all four of them, came to West Texas from Tennessee in covered wagons, and eked out a harsh, physical, and simple living from its hardscrabble soil.  Three of them died at the age of eighty-five and the other at seventy-nine, and I don’t know that a single one of them ever saw a doctor for an annual physical.  I attribute their longevity in no small part to the physical difficulties they faced day in and day out on that stark, arid and hauntingly beautiful land.

SC: Your first two collections were both published in 2001.  Can you explain how it happened that you published two books in one year?

LT: My first collection, The Lighthouse Keeper, was accepted for publication by Timberline Press in April, 1999, but was not released until January, 2001.  I had written the collection during the summer of 1996 in a small “getaway” on West Beach of Galveston Island which my wife and I had purchased (and still own) in May of that year, but did not submit the manuscript for publication until February, 1999, to Timberline Press.  In March, 2001, my second collection, Amazing Grace, was awarded the Texas Review Poetry Prize and published in December, 2001.  Amazing Grace, with essentially the same poems but with different manuscript titles, had been a finalist in the 1993 Southern and Southwestern Poets Breakthrough Series competition sponsored by Texas Review Press, a semi-finalist in the 1995 competition, and finalist/first runner-up in the 1997 competition.  Each time I submitted the manuscript for judging, I replaced the weaker poems with stronger ones until I finally “hit the jackpot” in March, 2001.  Persistence, certainly in that case, paid off.  All but six of the poems in the collection had first appeared in distinguished national literary journals, so I was confident that it was a strong collection of poetry.

SC: Your sixth collection, With the Light of Apricots, was published in February as an online chapbook.  What was your inspiration for this collection?  How did the idea for the poems come about?

LT: The idea for the collection came to me after I wrote “Apricots,” from which the title of the collection was taken.  That poem was based upon an actual event my wife and I experienced during one of our many trips over the years to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I enjoyed writing about apricots so much I didn’t want to “turn the subject loose,” so I decided to write a “series” of poems involving apricots in some manner, and see how far I could get with it.  I decided early on that twelve poems would be a good number for the project, and I challenged myself artistically to attempt to “capture” the essence of human experience (or as much of it as possible) through the apricot in that highly abbreviated format and somehow bestow the collection with the resonance and scope of a full-length book of poetry.  Hence, the poems’ “subjects” range from toddlers to centenarians, laborers to the affluent who own “Still Life,” and touch on the pivotal human experiences of romantic love, the death of a loved one, grief, sensuality, self esteem, murder, the lure of the “delectable,” art, the genuine, and I trust a number of other things, while at the same time unfolding through the artistic use of language the nature of this wonderful fruit.  I wrote all twelve poems in succession, one during each of my regular writing sessions.

SC: What made you decide to submit With the Light of Apricots to an online publisher?  How do you feel that the internet has changed the world of publishing, and the world of poetry?

LT: I had published work online in the Red River Review, Amarillo Bay, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Big Tex[t], Sol Magazine, Clean Sheets, Muse Squared, and Open Windows (an online poetry anthology published by Texas A&M University), but had never published online a collection of poems.  I had known for some time that Lily Literary Review was a reputable and selective online journal, and was very impressed with the Lily Press chapbook series.  I liked the excellence of the poetry, the beautiful photography, the stylish formatting of the manuscript, and its availability in PDF format for convenient downloading.  So I submitted With the Light of Apricots.

I sincerely believe that the internet, especially with regard to poetry and shorter literary works, will soon be, with few exceptions, the primary mode of literary publishing.  The reasons for this are numerous, but certainly include the rising expense of print publication and the worldwide and immediate accessibility of literature published online.

SC: What do you hope to achieve through your poetry, and what do you think is one thing that all good poems must do?

LT: I hope that, through my poetry, the reader will see the world in a new and more intensified manner, and experience the sheer joy of language utilized in a “musical,” “imaginative,” and aesthetically appealing manner.  All good poems must first be accomplished in terms of craft and secondly transport the reader to the mystery and beauty at the core of ephemeral human existence.

SC: What advice would you have from your own experience to offer someone just starting out with poetry?

LT: To read voraciously the literature not only of our day but of yesterday as well; to write as if their very life depended on it; to polish their writing as a jeweler would a stone; and to never, under any circumstances, regardless of the rejection which they shall surely face, stop believing in its worth.

SC: What are you working on now?  Are there any more books in the near future?

LT: As I mentioned previously, Timberline Press is scheduled to bring out my poetry collection, The Fraternity of Oblivion (about the outlaw biker underworld), in late summer or early fall of this year.  I recently completed a manuscript of poems concerning the qualities of color.  In addition to poems about the primary and secondary colors of the spectrum, it also contains a number of ekphrastic poems, all of which have been previously published in journals.  I titled the manuscript A Matter of Color and just last month submitted it to a publisher for consideration.

I really appreciate your giving me this opportunity to discuss my work.       

Back   •   Home   •   Next