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  • Below the Real World
  • William Walsh (bio) and Laurence Lieberman (bio)


Over thirty years ago I was introduced to Laurence Lieberman via his poem "The Coral Reef" in a contemporary American literature class. Even if you've never been diving before, there is an excitement to Lieberman's underwater action—the peril that lay beneath the surface—death waiting in all its beauty, all the metaphors for so many things in life, and within the poem there was the draw of the ocean depths, the documentary of salt-water dangers, the risk when entering a world where he/she doesn't belong, the seeming inability to pull away and return to the surface. As an experienced spearfisher, Lieberman understood the jeopardy of taking one long breath "… to go deep, to die into life, to lie there in rich / corrosion … breaking down and entering every canal and cell … to every pocket of life." Lieberman knew better than most that when entering that "pocket of life" it makes one's life more interesting and survivable. As James Dickey said: (paraphrased) If you ever get bored with your life, risk it. Lieberman, who is a Dickey scholar and was Dickey's friend, understood this. There is no life without risk, and the greatest pleasure may be found from the risks taken. For Lieberman, it is as simple as returning to the sea, to the primal urges of giving up all that is man in order to be, in the truest sense, a part of the ocean.

Laurence Lieberman has published fourteen books of poetry, several books of essays, and regularly contributes to the American Poetry Review. His most recent collection, Divemaster: Swimming with the Immortal, was published by Sheep Meadow Press in 2016. He is the recipient of the William Carlos Williams Citation from the Poetry Society of America, and as Dave Smith wrote of Lieberman, "He has the grace to make his voyage into the eye of the world and back a communion for the reader." Included among Lieberman's many books [End Page 89] are Carib's Leap: Selected and New Poems of the Caribbean (2005), Hour of the Mango Black Moon (2004), Beyond the Muse of Memory: Essays on Contemporary American Poets (1995), New and Selected Poems, 1962–92 (1993), God's Measurements (1980), and The Osprey Suicides (1973). He is the founder and longtime editor of the Illinois Poetry Series (1971–2009) and taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from 1968–2008, where he is currently a professor emeritus of English.

This interview was conducted following Thanksgiving 2015, over the course of three rainy, cold days. We met eight times, and depending upon our stamina, from one to three hours each time. This is one of the longest interviews I have conducted, but I knew going into it what was in store, especially when Larry said, "Let's just keep going until we're tired."


William Walsh:

You grew up in Detroit in the middle of the Great Depression.

Laurence Lieberman:

That's true. My parents were business people and had a variety store, a five-and-dime store. They were not literary people at all. My father didn't even graduate from high school. The question is how did I get into what I have been doing my adult life. (laughing) I had a cousin who was close to my family and was a piano teacher, so she was my piano teacher for about seven years, from nine until sixteen. Years later, she bought the house from my parents, the house where I grew up in Detroit. It was a sweet thing for me because when I visited her, I was visiting my house. She was very much involved in the arts and literature and had a number of friends who were authors. I met many of them at the house, which was at a time when I was beginning to write creatively, around 1955. In college, I had a creative writing teacher, Robert Haugh, and the class he taught was fiction writing. One summer I wrote a bunch of stories and a short novel while at the University of Michigan. I was...


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