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"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."