Adam LeFevre: Home is Everywhere | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Adam LeFevre: Home is Everywhere 

click to enlarge Adam LeFevre - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Adam LeFevre

I was always word-drunk," says poet, actor, and playwright Adam LeFevre. "I was a good eater at the breast. Words are food. They feel like food, that kind of voluptuous thing in the mouth. That nom-nom-nom."

LeFevre's just-released poetry collection A Swindler's Grace (Western Michigan University Press, 2016) may spark widespread bouts of word-drunkenness. Praised by Marvin Bell ("brainwork and heartwork of a high order") and David St. John ("an unflinching knife-blade of intelligence"), LeFevre's third book is cause for celebration. Though he's published poems in such prestigious journals as American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and his chapbook Ghost Light (Finishing Line Press, 2012) won the Starting Gate Award, his last full collection was 1978's Everything All at Once (Wesleyan University Press).

He's spent most of the intervening decades on stage and onscreen. You may not recognize LeFevre's name, but you've probably seen his face. He's a hardworking character actor, a leading light of the "Oh, that guy" galaxy. TV credits include 12 guest spots on Law and Order ("I was only the perp a couple of times. Sometimes a judge, most often the parent of victims. I did a lot of weeping.") and a phalanx of bartenders, cops, and lovable mooks. On the big screen, he's played everything from Karl Rove in Fair Game to Man in Helicopter in The Dictator; his film debut was John Sayles's Return of the Secaucus 7 (full disclosure: as a multitasking production assistant, I was filmed driving past him hitchhiking).

He's also appeared in Broadway musicals Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Guys and Dolls; Mamma Mia!; and Footloose—commuting from New Paltz. A long-running show can be a grind, but the train ride offers contemplative time. "It's right on the river. Can't beat moving water."

LeFevre grew up in Coeymans, on a bluff overlooking the Hudson. His father was a doctor who made house calls, sometimes accepting produce and homemade sausage in trade for his services. "He really covered a wide swath of territory," LeFevre recalls. "The phone would ring in the middle of the night, and I'd hear him throw on his clothes, go to the refrigerator, swig down some milk—it came in bottles then. The car would start and he'd be off. And I'd lie awake, listening for the sound of tires on gravel that meant he was back."

Ira LeFevre, who later ran Albany Medical Center's ER, had a colorful past. As a Navy flight surgeon turned Marine, he survived some of the deadliest bloodbaths of WWII's Pacific theater. While still in the service, he started corresponding with Helen Rhodes, a spirited young woman who worked for Schenectady's WRGB, one of America's first TV stations. ("There were maybe six television sets in Schenectady," LeFevre says. "She had a hell of a time selling ads.") After the war, he tried professional boxing. (LeFevre: "I think he had three fights. He got his ass handed to him.") Helen covered one of these bouts, watching Ira get pulped by a 6'6" black southpaw. "The harder he hit him, the more Dad stood back and smiled," LeFevre reports. "She said, 'This man is either crazy or very special.'" They married in 1948.

LeFevre calls his father "a man's man, John Wayne kind of guy." But he also recalls Ira watching ballet dancer Edward Villella on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and saying, "Now there's an athlete." LeFevre's takeaway: "He was clearly offering us a buffet of what we could do."

In high school—an all-male military academy—LeFevre played football, baseball, and basketball. He also loved poetry. Smitten by Shakespeare and e.e. cummings, he wrote a sonnet with no capital letters—"the poem of a horny, 14-year-old virgin boy"—for a girl he adored. "It was so full of feeling, and so awful," he recalls fondly.

Recruited for football, he entered Williams College as "a premed and big fat jock." But his dorm advisors were actor David Strathairn and future Secaucus 7 producer Jeffrey Nelson. "I didn't have a chance," LeFevre says happily. The athlete's first role was a natural: Charles the Wrestler in Shakespeare's "As You Like It." LeFevre adopted a pro-wrestling "Nazi Bad Guy" persona, using a German accent copped from "Hogan's Heroes" and flexing his muscles on cue. "It brought the house down," he says. "I was hooked. What power!"

He switched to an English major, writing poems for the college literary magazine (including "Sweet Wet Rosie," an ode to a stripper penned in "a bump-and-grind rhythm") and one-act plays. His first full-length, "Yucca Flats," was accepted by the National Theatre Institute, landing him an agent and a 1973 production at Manhattan Theatre Club.

"I had a very early success, and it's been a struggle ever since," he deadpans. After his Off-Broadway debut, he applied to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It took three tries to get in, and he spent the intervening year caretaking an unheated cabin in Phoenicia and working blue-collar jobs in East Boston with Williams buddy John Sayles. For the next several summers, they joined Strathairn, Nelson, Gordon Clapp, Geena Davis, and other young actors at a summer stock theater in North Conway, New Hampshire; LeFevre supplemented his $65 paycheck by working the graveyard shift at a nearby shoe factory.

At Iowa, he studied with Donald Justice, Mark Strand, and a pre-Garp John Irving, whose Novels class met weekly in the back room of a bar. "Those were the worst of my drinking years," LeFevre admits. "I was never sober for six months. I'd wake up hung over with a headache and cure it with a drink. And I thought, I don't want to be an alcoholic. It hurts."

His father was a high-functioning alcoholic. "High-functioning except at home," LeFevre says. "He'd come home from the ER, and within an hour he was really drunk. He drank gin and tonics. He never abused anybody, he just got quiet. It was like watching him get in a boat and row away."

LeFevre just finished another collection, The Eleven O'Clock Number, which includes a suite of poems about drinking. He pads into another room, bringing back a bound manuscript. Digging glasses from the pocket of his burnt-orange work shirt, he reads several poems aloud with Wellesian relish.

LeFevre earned his poetry MFA in 1975, staying to complete a second MFA in playwriting ("I have two terminal degrees—I'm really finished," he quips). He also taught in the adult education program, where he met his late wife Cora Bennett, then a department secretary. She helped him xerox student handouts and enrolled in his class.

The next years were heady. LeFevre scored a hole in one with Everything All at Once, sent as a blind submission to Wesleyan because he liked their list. He married Cora and moved to New York, sharing a sprawling Riverside Drive apartment with friends from the North Conway theater. LeFevre performed in Off-Off Broadway showcases, painting apartments between gigs; he and Sayles staged a double bill of one-acts at Manhattan Punchline.

When daughter Tate was born, he was galvanized by the need to support a family. He worked in regional theaters "within earshot of New York" while starting to break into TV. He and Cora moved to New Paltz, where their son Isaac was born.

"I began booking some studio films—then there'd be a payday," LeFevre says. For a late-'80s Diet Skippy ad, his workday involved 20 takes of a single shot in which he and a tennis buddy suck in their guts as two gorgeous young women walk by. The commercial ran for two years. "I probably earned $25,000 in royalties," LeFevre marvels. "Then you beat up your ass doing some theater thing for $200 a week."

He still loves acting onstage—he's about to reprise his well-reviewed DC performance of David Ives's "The Metromaniacs" at San Diego's Old Globe—and writing plays. "The stage is a place where language is valued and heightening of language is still acceptable," he says gratefully.

If the language of LeFevre's plays is poetic, his poems are often theatrical, unfurling like character monologues. Even those that appear autobiographical may be full of invention. "They're poems, and poetry is about truth. Its highest obligation is to truth, not to fact." LeFevre cites his poem "Drums," whose speaker finds his old Ludwig drum kit ("Still set up, as if anxious for a gig") while cleaning out his dead parents' attic. LeFevre never played drums, but the poem's old girlfriend is real. "The overall communication is true," he says. "It's certainly true to feeling. It's about feeling, and its failure, the incompetence of the heart to convey its true self. I stand by it as absolute truth."

The poems in A Swindler's Grace span 30 years. "I kept trying to put a manuscript together, but I was never happy with it," LeFevre explains. "I knew what the strongest poems were, but there didn't seem to be any reason for these poems to be in the same room."

Assembling a collection involves spreading poems across the floor, with a lot of trial and error. "It's so important to me not to make it a miscellany. There need to be thematic resonances, musical resonances, with a musician/playwright's drive to find an arc to help it cohere from the first poem to the last." When his publisher's author questionnaire asked, "Who do you see as the audience for your poems?" LeFevre told himself, "Don't be a smartass, but I couldn't help myself." He wrote, "If Joe Sixpack married Emily Dickinson, their child would be the audience for these poems."

If Emily Dickinson married Joe Sixpack, their child might resemble Adam LeFevre, word-drunk in his butter-yellow kitchen with a plate of cookies and a stack of poetry books from the teetering pile in the bathroom. "I enjoy the buffet," he says, beaming. Bon appetit.

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