'An astonishing life' — Poet Leslie Norris

A national treasure in Wales, is retired but still writes at Orem home

Published: Sunday, April 18 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

I knew and perhaps

understood how water

changed in winter,

what happened to molecules,

how the structures

of elements could petrify

In a night from bounding liquid to

an obdurate smoothness.

Not any longer.

All that's confusing now.

I am content to

watch the world turn cold

with its old grace. — Excerpt from "Bridal Veil Falls, Early Winter"

"I'd never heard of Provo," he says. "I had never seen anything like that. The snow was dirty by the roads. There was not a bit of green. Kitty said to me, 'Do you think you can make it for six weeks?' But there it is. We've been here all these years. Although it is a beautiful place, it is mainly because of the people we are here. They have been very welcoming. I don't think there was another gentile on the staff when I came."

Years later, they sold their house in Sussex when they realized they were here to stay.

"The students were very much a revelation to me," he says. "They are able and hardworking. There was no tension as there was in some universities at that time. If I made an assignment, it would be done. It was a pleasure for me to go to school. What I taught in my classes was more intense than I had taught previously. Some of it had been part of my doctoral classes."

"We've never had to worry about money because of BYU," says Kitty. "It subsidizes Leslie's poetry. It's been wonderful. Without BYU, I don't know what would have happened."

In "Crossing Borders," Guy Lebeda of the Utah Arts Council says of Norris, "He perceives more of the experiences of life. He has antenna for receiving information that you and I don't have. He's living the most intense life that I know of."

Norris, who was held spellbound by the mere touch of a sandstone wall and the clouds rolling overhead, still has his antenna up and working. Once he was out in the yard when he heard a small boy next door talking to his dog. "There are three things I want you to remember," the boy told the dog. Norris rushed over to the fence to hear what the boy would say. From that experience came a children's book, "Albert and the Angels."

Ask Norris about the creative process and this is what he says: "I think I do most of my work walking about. I let my mind go. Most of my work is waiting really. I wait for the poem to come in and be ready and welcome it. But I train for it. I study every day."

His study consists of reading. These days he favors Yeats, Wordsworth, Henry Vaughn. "He reads for pleasure what other people read for penance," says Kitty. "It's not accessible to most people, but nothing's inaccessible to Leslie."

He used to write daily, although he claims much of his work was tossed in the garbage bin at the end of the day. Kitty would come in to the office later and read through the stuff, and, if Norris is to be believed, threw it back in the bin.

These days he writes most of the poem in his head and lets "the image breed. Then I get a couple of lines and come home as quickly as I can and write. Sometimes it's gone. If they are really strong signals, the thing will come back strong. Now I'm getting signals from parts of the poem I have not gotten to yet. I'll write them on the side. I'm getting all the images. Then I get the last one when I know I'm not going to get anymore. Now is the time of labor."

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