David Lehman is internationally known as the founder and editor of The Best American Poetry series and as the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry. In addition, he is the author of several volumes of his own poetry and three significant books of cultural criticism. His latest book, Sinatra's Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World, is his insightful homage to one of the 20th century's most influential entertainers on the occasion of Sinatra's centennial celebration.
A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, David Lehman is a core faculty member of the graduate writing program at the New School in New York City.
Stay Thirsty Magazine was fortunate to catch up with David Lehman at his home in Manhattan for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: You are internationally known for your founding and editing of The Best American Poetry series and for your work as a poet, an editor, and an author. Although you have written previously about Jewish songwriters, doing a book about Frank Sinatra is a bit unexpected. What motivated you to write Sinatra's Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World?
DAVID LEHMAN: He has always been my favorite singer and has always fascinated me. As a devoted fan who listens to him every day, I have naturally acquired a bit of knowledge about the man and his world. And as I was writing A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs – and having a wonderful time with that project – it occurred to me that I would enjoy writing a book on Sinatra. It would be a labor of love but it would also be a major challenge because so many words have already been written about him.
STAY THIRSTY: What was it about Frank Sinatra that continues to propel his legacy? From a poet's perspective, do you think that his music will be as durable as a great poem? Will he be remembered for another hundred years?
DAVID LEHMAN: To the last two questions, Yes and Yes. To your first question, he is our greatest singer – the voice, the phrasing, the style. His versions of songs are likely to be definitive. People have felt that way from the start – teenage girls in the 1940s, tough-guy types a mere dozen years later; and as different as these constituencies are, they are absolutely right in their judgment on Sinatra.
STAY THIRSTY: Your first Note in Sinatra's Century is a short vignette that juxtaposes a photograph of the Pope with one of Sinatra. Why did you begin your hundred-note journey with this brief story?
DAVID LEHMAN: Back in the 1990s, I saw the photos when I shopped at the venerable bakery and they made on impression on me. Did you know there's a movie called The Pope of Greenwich Village with a Sinatra song ("Summer Wind") running through it?
STAY THIRSTY: Half way through your one hundred notes, note #50 recounts the critical role that Nelson Riddle played in Frank Sinatra's career. How important were others in helping Sinatra find and keep his vocal message? Did any of the women in his life have influence over him?
DAVID LEHMAN: In my book I talk about many of the artists and musicians who influenced Sinatra's style of singing: for example, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Tommy Dorsey. And of course women had a big influence on him: above all, his mother (a woman of formidable will), Ava Gardner (as muse and as influential actress), Nancy Sr. (FS's first wife and always a close adviser).
STAY THIRSTY: Your last note in Sinatra's Century recounts the epitaphs of some other famous people. Did Sinatra write his own epitaph or did someone else pick it for him and do you think that it captured his real attitude about death?
DAVID LEHMAN: I think it was the perfect choice: optimistic, spiritually affirmative, and obviously self-referential, as "The Best is Yet to Come" was one of his best songs from the Reprise era.
STAY THIRSTY: Sinatra's career spanned almost sixty years. From your perspective, what were his most important contributions to music, to movies and to television?
DAVID LEHMAN: He raised popular song to the level of art.
STAY THIRSTY: Sinatra's role behind the scenes in national politics and with regard to the State of Israel became known over time. How influential do you think he really was?
DAVID LEHMAN: Very.
STAY THIRSTY: What did you admire most about Sinatra? If he were around to celebrate his 100th birthday, what would you say to him?
DAVID LEHMAN: We'd drink Jack Daniels on the rocks and I'd toast him and he'd say "Who the fuck are you?"
STAY THIRSTY: You dedicated Sinatra's Century to poet Amy Gerstler, your co-editor of The Best American Poets of 2010. Why did you choose her?
DAVID LEHMAN: She is a wonderful poet and a very close friend with whom I have collaborated on various projects. She is very creative and I love sharing my ideas with her, including the idea for this book. When she and I were on the faculty of Bennington's low-residency program, we'd sometimes take an afternoon off and drive around in my car listening to Sinatra tapes or CDs.
STAY THIRSTY: What project is next on your agenda?
DAVID LEHMAN: I am working on a manuscript of poems that Scribner will publish. It's called Poems in the Manner Of. From the start I wanted "in the manner of" to be a flexible category embracing homage, parody, imitation, and appropriation, or combinations of these four things. Some poems borrowed lines or an organizing conceit from the poet named in the title. A few poems are translations.