Updated: Apr 2, 2019
Rod Leith is an American writer, editor, and musician currently residing on Florida’s Space Coast. Born and raised in New Jersey, he feels a strong connection to the state’s literary legacy, particularly the contributions to modern poetry of William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Patti Smith. He studied English Literature at the University of Central Florida and works as an editor for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His musical endeavours have ranged from free jazz to art-folk projects, in which his poetry has always been prominently featured. His work has been published in the New River Press Yearbook 2019.
OSP: Who are your influences and when did you first begin reading and writing poetry?
RL: My biggest influences when I first started seriously writing poetry in my late high school/early college days were Arthur Rimbaud, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Hart Crane, and Sylvia Plath. Lautréamont, Mallarmé, and Novalis figured in early on as well. It’s harder to pinpoint who my key influences are at the moment, although Ithell Colquhoun has cast a massive spell on me of late, mostly through her prose. Yet, her translations of Mallarmé and other French poets are also quite inspiring. I’ve been really taken by H.D., Mina Loy, and Alejandra Pizarnik in recent years as well, but it’s difficult to measure their impact on my writing.
It was in the rebellious context of rock music that I first witnessed and was won over by the visionary power and potential of poetry. People like Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Patti Smith first instilled in me a more serious appreciation of it, and discovering the common denominator between the three—the profound influence of Arthur Rimbaud—was extremely important in my early development. The first book of poetry I ever purchased was the Paul Schmidt translations of Rimbaud’s Complete Works when I was still in high school. The concise and powerful ways that Morrison and Smith incorporated readings of their poetry into songs, such as the Doors’ “Moonlight Drive”/”Horse Latitudes” and Patti’s “Kimberley” and “Dancing Barefoot,” had an enormous impact on me.
With the exception of some of Poe’s work I remember reading early on, I don’t recall being especially moved by any poetry I studied in public school until my final years when I first encountered the more radical and visionary works of Romantic and modern poets, such as Blake, Coleridge, Yeats, Eliot, and Ginsberg. They spoke my language, whereas so much else of what we’d studied previously seemed so stiff and uninspiring. Though, I still always preferred the poets I found on my own—the French Symbolists, Russian Futurists, and German Romantics. It was the thrill of discovery and partly the language barrier that made these writers appear more potent and mysterious.
OSP: How important to you is a sense of place, of geography, of history in your work?
RL: A sense of place is of great importance in my work. So many of my childhood memories that come to the surface when I write revolve around an escape into the wilderness, whether it be parklands, wooded areas on the outskirts of town, or larger stretches of untouched forest. Even though I’ve lived in Florida for many years now, the landscape that most haunts my dreams and waking hours is the foothills of the Appalachians that cut across northern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. There are also the landscapes of ancestral memories that I try to connect with, such as the old mountain passes and trails that early settlers followed into Kentucky and Mountsandel Wood on the outskirts of Coleraine, Northern Ireland, where some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in the region was discovered. New Zealand is also a place that continues to spark my imagination, going back to when I was a child studying maps, daydreaming about remote and faraway places. The importance of geography and history also comes to play in my desire to see my home country through the eyes of precontact Native Americans or early pathfinders and naturalists, such as Daniel Boone and William Bartram, with a yearning to envision the untouched and sacred that’s largely been lost in the subsequent development of the land.
OSP: Describe your process:
RL: I don’t usually follow a set process, but my method often involves drawing from a combination of automatic writing, more consciously composed lines, imagery and ideas from dreams, childhood memories, and the thoughts racing through my head as I’m drifting into and out of consciousness between hours of sleep. I don’t always have a topic in mind when I write. I sometimes grapple onto visions from the ether and see what sort of shape and meaning they might take. When I delve into automatic writing, I either start with a clean slate or I’ll meditate on a particular subject to see what my subconscious reveals about it. Once I feel I have enough source material for my poem or poems, I begin the editing process, which often takes many rounds. I have a tendency to start out with an overabundance of ideas—a mass of marble that I work to carve into something compelling.
OSP: Who would be your five dinner guests from the history of poetry?
RL: H.D., Mina Loy, Ithell Colquhoun, Novalis, and Arthur Rimbaud.