'An astonishing life' Poet Leslie Norris
A national treasure in Wales, is retired but still writes at Orem home
As a teenager, he sent his poems to Watkins, a poet he admired. After one of the bookstore meetings, Watkins took Norris aside and told him he didn't work hard enough on his poems. As Norris recalls it in "Crossing Borders," Watkins told him, "You really just scribble them down and you never look at them and read them properly. Put them in a drawer for six weeks and preferably for six months and take them out and those that are dead throw them out and those that have a spark of life, work and work and work and work until there is nothing more you can do with them. And then if there is not a mark of that work, if the poem seems to be completely spontaneous . . . then you've got a poem."
At first Norris thought the advice was ridiculous, but it later took hold. He views the time of laboring over his poetry on paper, in long hand, with a certain reverence.
"I am seeing the world more clearly," he says. "I come back and polish it, making it smaller and smaller. It's also incredibly oral and highly musical. I can hear the pattern of it. Sometimes I forget the words but remember the tune."
There are times when he works straight through meals or notices that he has changed into his pajamas and can't remember doing so. When he is finished he reads the work aloud to himself. Once a cop saw him walking on a road at 2 a.m. with a sandwich in one hand and his latest poem in the other, reciting it out loud to himself. "What are you doing?" the cop asked.
Pointing to the brick wall of his house, Norris says, "I like a poem to be like that wall, linked hard, with each word so important that it couldn't stand without it."
After a day's work he reads his poem, then takes it to Kitty. "Is this any good. Is it worth going on with?"
Ask Kitty what Norris is like when he feels a poem coming in, she says, "Horrid. He is a sweet man. He's always about the house singing. But when the poem is on the way, he is a bear. He's grumpy. I don't think he tastes dinner. But I'm glad because of what's on the way."
The process of polishing, as Watkins once urged, never really ends for Norris. "Even when I am doing a reading," he says, "I'll think you were wrong there. I can see a weak word."
After eight decades of writing, he still marvels at the process of it all. "The poem is the total mystery," he says. "You don't know what's going to start it. If someone asks me to write a poem about something, I can do it, but it's not really a poem. The gift doesn't exist if you make it up. I have to be given these poems. I think they're floating about somewhere. My job, my duty really, is to receive them and make them as clear as I can. . . . I'm sure there are a finite number of poems in the world."
"Time," he concludes, "will decide if it's any good, or if it's even a poem at all."
"Still," he adds, "I don't really know what makes them poems, you know."
He is collecting the Christmas poems he has written annually for friends at the request of an English composer who wants to put them to music. He is doing some work for BYU. "And I am waiting for other poems to come to me," he says."It's an astonishing life," he says during a quiet moment. "It doesn't seem like a career. Whatever I have done, I have devoted it to poetry."
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