An Interview with Lyn Lifshin
by Nathan Leslie for Word Riot, 2011
Lyn Lifshin is certainly one of the hardest working contemporary poets. In addition to writing more than 100 chapbooks and books of poetry—including most recently, BEFORE IT’S LIGHT, released by Black Sparrow Press—she has edited four anthologies, and actively gives workshops and readings around the country. In addition Lyn is the subject of the documentary film LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS. In 1997 Black Sparrow Press published an extensive collection of Lifshin’s life’s work entitled COLD COMFORT. This year Black Sparrow Press will also publish ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE ME, a new collection of poetry. As a result of her publishing prowess, Lyn is often given the nickname, “Queen of the Small Presses.” I recently had the chance to chat with Lyn about her work and her life.Leslie: Hello Lyn. I've been a fan of your work for years. It is wonderful of you to speak to me about your poetry. Recently I have been rereading COLD COMFORT, which is really a powerful collection of your life's work. How the new collection is coming along? How does your new collection compare to your previous work?
I REMEMBER BEING LOVELY BUT
Well, in the botched version it goes from “I lost two in/ the camp and if this/ one dies I’ll kill/once you became a/ mother......Those lines, that twist made the poem and without them, it just is not the right poem.
Leslie: I'm also always struck by the honesty and directness of your work. It seems as if, perhaps for this reason many readers are deeply affected by your poetry. Do you see poetry as a kind of Truth-telling?
Lifshin: My poems do give a sense of openness and directness. I want that, even when it is a mask. (For example, the Haifa poem is not my story, it was partly told to me, partly made up. It’s a good reading poem. Several times though, someone has come up to me in tears and said I’m so sorry about your mother... I hate to tell them it’s not me, not my life, not my mother and yet I don’t want to let them go on thinking it is.) One result of this is that some people assume my poems are true, factual, that everything I write about actually happened. Sometimes it’s amusing. Some asked if I really knew Emily Dickinson after a poem where I talk about our escapades in the trees, about sneaking away from her father. I want the poems to feel true, be emotionally true. Sometimes they start in literally true incidents and then take off into fantasy. Sometimes they are triggered by other people’s experiences, something I’ve read, a sliver of conversation on the metro. I think many of my poems feel so true that readers feel free to share their similar feelings and experiences with me and that’s usually positive. I think it makes them even more open to my words.
In recent weeks two less desirable requests resulted from this sense of honesty (so often a fictional honesty). I reacted with horror when a writer I knew well told me of his plan to use my archives at The Humanities Research Center in Austin to explore my letters and diaries and compare the literal events in my life to what I write about in my poems. I was so upset, angry, panicked I immediately called the archivist and said I wanted nothing to be copied or leave the library. I e- mailed the writer about my extreme displeasure. He was wonderfully understanding, said of course he wouldn’t: he assumed because I am seemingly so open in my poems. I was shocked but apparently this seeming honesty and directness makes readers believe the poems are true. Good and bad. After being so distraught, I remembered my diaries and my letters are not even in my archives: I have kept them both for now.
A publisher recently asked me about writing a series of poems about writers as if I knew them. At the time she suggested they could be true, absurd, ridiculous, funny, crazy. I had just finished my Ruffian book and this seemed a good way to break away from my horse daze. I’d done a few poems about poets When I started writing about contemporary, living writers, there was no way I could use their names, write about things that might be embarrassing or unpleasant to them and often anything personal and in print is. I cringed. They were “true” events but not true to me as a poet. I felt more free with Shakespeare and Poe and Yeats, Keats and Shelly. Then I could take off and write very wild poems. I could not say much about the poets I know best, only a poem title, “The Poets I know Best are the Ones I can Never Write About.” The manuscript was rejected, unread, with the note “this is not what we agreed on. I want only living poets, with names, risky poems about your intimate involvement with them.”
Well, there was no way I could ever write that book. I feel the poems I wrote, many a composite of several living poets, with a dash of imagination, are much more interesting. If I wrote about Jane Doe and I tipping cows in Nevada, it would be untrue and silly and maybe libelous if it happened to be true. At least embarrassing and probably hurtful. This kind of “true” poem will never come from me. But I want the poem to feel true in the sense they are very believable, touch what others have gone through whether they are totally true, stem from some experience or in fact are absolute lies and fantasy. That is what intrigues me so about personas, masks that let me be a woman in Plymouth, a mad girl, Madonna, Vietnam vet, an Inuit, Native American, stripper, Tibetan woman, a woman in a Chinese factory, Peruvian mummy, the Unabomber’s girlfriend, Lorena Bobbitt,, Shaker women, women in history from Eve on. Obviously these poems are not literally true but feel true I hope. I remember an interview Sharon Olds did: her poems have a feeling of stark trueness and she explained what seems true is never totally autobiographical, is not true in that it happened as it does in the poem. What she said was just what I felt and I wrote her.
One of my favorite comments about my work, (along with his comparison of me to Joe Montana,) comes from Bill Packard in the documentary film. He was doing a book about the process of writing and had some of my work sheets. He was speaking about my poem “Rose Devorah,” where I talk about using an exercise that involves scribbling and drawing and how I wrote a number of words down, stream of consciousness based on the drawing and the name I picked and the colors and how I let myself dream about a made up person who I imagined coming from the images a little like the way dreams often grow out of the things you might see during the day but then emerge in a new strange way and he said what he admired was how my poems are spun out of the free flow of words, with the suspension of the mind and that the poems, strong realities, are pure imagination.
Leslie: Let’s talk a bit more about labels. You have been referred to as a confessional poet, a feminist poet. What do you think of these labels? Do you think they get in the way of understanding your work?
Lifshin: When I first began publishing, most of my poems were political or socially conscious poems. I was always referred to as Mr. Lifshin. Those poems in Outcast, Kauri, Poetry Newsletter – magazines with a political bend– always sent acceptances addressed to Mr. Lyn Lifshin. It wasn’t until my first books appeared with photographs and I published more love poems and erotica, that any one realized I was a woman. I am surprised, with collections like BLUE TATTOO, SHAKER HOUSE POEMS, LEANING SOUTH, THE OLD HOUSE POEMS, THE OLD HOUSE ON THE CROTON, NANTUCKET POEMS, NORTH, PLYMOUTH WOMEN, MORE MADONNAS, THE LICORICE DAUGHTER: MY YEAR WITH RUFFIAN and many poems like “Arizona Ruins,” “Erie Canal,” and all the poems about the real banded goose from the film FLY AWAY HOME, I would be thought of either as a confessional poet or really a feminist poet.
Some people have thought of me as a nature poet. I wrote the goose poems after I saw her, goose # K721, my goose on the pond behind my house the January around the time the film played. There was an article in Washington Post about the real science behind the film, about the research at Airlie Environmental Center. Since I’d been interested in the geese and hadn’t found a book that told me much about them, when I saw that one bird and saw the band looked very much like the ones on the geese in the Post, I wrote them, wondering if they could suggest books to read. In days I came home to find my answering machine filled with urgent messages: “call Airlie immediately, any time of the day or night. Very important.” I discovered I had seen the first of all the motherless goslings who had learned to follow a light plane in the shape of a goose for Operation Migration, an attempt to teach orphaned geese to migrate from Canada to the southern Atlantic states. Bill Sladen at Airlie Environmental Center invited me to come for an afternoon with Bill Lishman, the man who the film was based on, who was featured on 20/20, as well as his book, FATHER GOOSE. From then on, I’ve been known as the Goose Lady. Most of that winter and spring I wrote goose poems, pond poems. For years I’ve waited around January 21 for her to return.
I suppose by writing about sex and relationships and at the time, being one of the few women who did (in the documentary film about me Bill Packard says, yes, I do talk about subjects that might be sensational but that I do it in such a lyrical way, they become somehow very different) does make me somehow more out there, more free, maybe more feminist, more of a feminist leader than I feel to myself. Someone called me one of the most misunderstood poets but I’m not sure for what reason. When I read a poet’s poems, I never think of labeling him or her.
Leslie: How important are your own experiences as a subject for your poetry?
Lifshin: After the early political poems, I wrote many family poems, mother and daughter poems, poems about relationships. Having spent a year and a half on Ruffian and then a month or so on poems about poets, it feels my own experiences have been much less important lately as a subject for my poetry than at other times in the past. I suppose it is a phase though, that I will always write poems triggered by experience as I will always write poems based on what I read, dream, on music, art, photographs, eavesdropping. I wrote about some of the things that have triggered poems, suggestions for beginning poets for Writers Digest, their THE BASICS OF GETTING STARTED IN WRITING, 1995. I talk abut many things beside personal experience that are important triggers for my poems: check stubs, old clothes in a drawer, someone else’s words, postcards. I’ve a page of suggestions in that article– a few include: keeping memento s, tickets, play bills, writing dreams down, drifting through old jewelry, watching how the light changes, reading books in science, geology, astronomy, mythology...etc. Not personal experience based triggers and I try to use these too.
Some of the mother poems in COLD COMFORT and BEFORE IT’S LIGHT, about my mother’s last months, were written in those last days I spent with her. “Mint Leaves at Yaddo,” was the poem I chose when asked to take a poem and talk about it’s creation for Writer’s Digest. It appears in the September 1994 issue and the non fiction piece won several awards. For anyone interested, it is a very detailed look at how that poem did come from my own experience but was shaped into the poem it became. By contrast, on the last day of my other’s life, sitting with her, I filled over one notebook with the beginnings of many poems connected to what was happening. I never went back to them. They remain as opening lines.
Leslie: When did you move to the Washington, D.C. area? Has that move influenced your work at all? How does place influence your poetry?
Lifshin: Though I am spending time in the Washington DC area, my home is still Niskayuna. I’m a New York resident. I live between the two places. But it was September 1992 that I first came down here. At first I felt quite isolated, estranged. The timing was perfect for me to imagine Marilyn Monroe having similar feelings. As I said, much of the MARILYN MONROE was written wandering DC in those first few months here. Living right in Pennsylvania Quarter, with a view of several National Monuments from a round window I could watch the sunset from was heady. Lots of well known political figures lived in the apartment on the same floor and seeing someone like Janet Reno seemed amazing at first. Being 5 or 10 minutes from National Gallery, Archives, Museum of Natural History, American History Museum, Portrait Gallery was exciting. I kept a calendar of where I went that first year: I made five or more museum visits and much of what I wrote that fall was based on things I saw there.
The second day I was in town I wandered through a fascinating series of photographs, “the Jews of Wyoming” and later wrote poems based on those photographs. At least two or three times a week there were films at the Portrait Gallery, films about Chinese Americans in the thirties and forties, films about gypsies that I turned to poems as I did exhibits of the Inuit art and weaving at the Canadian Embassy, classical sculptures at National Gallery, films on many artists and so many talks and exhibits at the Building Museum. One of the most interesting was about the houses the homeless built and a talk and slide show about the tunnel people, poems still in notebooks waiting to be typed up. If I got out the calendar of that year I could list many more exhibits that inspired not just a poem or two but series of poems. The exhibit of things left at the Vietnam Wall was poignant as well as several talks at National Archives about Vietnam and WW2. Not many of these poems have appeared in collections. There probably is a book of poems from museum visits that one first year. Besides writing and reading on the metro, many poems have grown from the metro experience, the people on it, the overheard conversations, the Asian man singing the Bible, the man with shaking hands asking a woman if she wanted her photograph taken, the tourist trying to make friends with strangers, imagining DC as a small Midwestern town and talking to everyone until for a few minutes it was. Then there was the Compliment Man who I read about in the Washington Post and then was “graced by” in Dupont circle. So many characters and such variety in the city. In Virginia, the strangeness of the metro five minutes away and still deer, raccoons, hawks, mallards, snow geese, geese, snakes still seem startling.
Leslie: How do you like living in the Washington area? Have you found the Washington literary scene to be nurturing?
Lifshin:What I like most about the DC area is the ballet scene, the warmer weather, the diversity. I like those things immensely. Though I grew up in Vermont, I’ve never liked snow and having access to so many good dance classes is wonderful. And since I drive little in traffic, I love being so close to the metro.
I had different expectations about the literary scene. For years I had read and done workshops on a regular basis all over the country. In the New York Capitol district, I taught part time at several colleges and universities, did workshops at museums. I did a lot of radio and television, was often interviewed in the local papers. Putting together publicity material fo the new Black Sparrow editor at Godine, I was amazed at how often I was written about along with other local celebrities. The documentary film about me: LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS opens with an event, BRING BACK THE STARS featuring well known local personalities in sports the arts, politics including Bill Kennedy, Maureen Stapleton, John Ashbury, Jeff Blatnick (Olympic star) and Jenness Cortez. On Mother’s Day or Father’s Day the papers would call me and ask for a comment. I had a very loyal and large following and my workshops filled quickly. Some of my students went on to become very successful: Alice Fulton., Frannie Lindsay. I expected when I got here I would simply have a new audience. My book of Holocaust poems, BLUE TATTOO, came out and the Holocaust Museum carried it. But I found and find the area’s literary community fragmented: the slam poets, the academic poets, a number of local poetry groups very loyal to their group. I have met many wonderfully supportive poets and have done a number of readings. There are always interesting poets in the area and passing through that there is always something exciting to look ahead to. I seem, though, to have more friends and contacts in the dance world. My poems have had dances choreographed to them. When the Washington Post Magazine did an interview with me, really an article on me, thanks to two very supportive poets in the area, I was often recognized by strangers in restaurants, on the street– that was amusing and fun. And Rick Peabody’s Gargoyle, an excellent, long running exciting magazines always has some special reading on its appearance that’s always exciting, always a pleasure.
Leslie: In the past you have expressed some frustrations regarding the lack of support (both financial and otherwise) poets receive these days and also how much promotional and marketing energy poets are forced to spending in service of their work. I was wondering if you might like to comment on the current poetry scene at large.
Lifshin: I think I am more resigned to this being the way it is than when I first was surprised by some of the changes. I was lucky to start publishing at a time when there were few poets, especially women poets. From my first reading for Bill Matthews at Wells Colleges, I was always paid. Living in New York, Poets and Writers was an incredibly supportive, wonderful organization that backed many readings, helped me invite poets to read in my workshops in my home. It never occurred to me not to get paid. I was lucky, too, to have many wonderful publishers when I started, book publishers like the Crossing Press and all the other eclectic, small presses. Rolling Stone and Ms Magazine published my poetry on a regular basis, giving it a wider distribution. The New York Times Book review had a front page article on the small underground presses with a big display of colorful, wildly creative artistic and literary publications, all unique. Rolling Stone did an issue of 100 most important up and coming poets which I was happy to be included in. It was a very different time. With the exception of my sending a manuscript to Black Sparrow in 1975 and being told they liked it but they were over-booked, told I should send again, I never submitted a manuscript: most of my books and chaps came from (overly) large submissions to magazines. It wasn’t until I was living in DC, a night a ballet class was cancelled and I thought maybe I should consider a larger press that, looking through books in an independent book store near the ballet studio and skimming again through some gorgeous Black Sparrow books, books I felt my work was compatible with, that I wrote them, asked if I could send them a book.
While I was being published by John Martin’s Black Sparrow, the plan was that they would publish a new book every year or two and I would not publish with other presses. All was fine. Now I am thrilled that my Ruffian book was accepted last month, that Plan B is to publish THE DAUGHTER I DON’T HAVE, Red Hen is doing PERSEPHONE and several chapbooks are in production. I hope my ANOTHER WOMAN will also be out very soon. It’s true there are new trends in poetry, many (2000 I heard) new graduating MFA students a year, all hoping to be published, makes things harder but I’m satisfied and want to just get my best work out.
Leslie: Do you pay attention to criticism or negative reviews your books might get?
Lifshin: Oh sure, but, as Yvonne, the former poetry editor at MS Magazine says in the documentary film, “Lyn takes the rejection and moves on. Puts the poems in another envelope, sends it back out and doesn’t dwell on it.” I consider negative comments and try to learn from them.
Leslie: Many reviews comment on the fact that you have been published so widely-so much so you have received the nickname "Queen of the Small Press"-and some have even criticized you for this--for being too prolific. What do you make of these kinds of remarks?
Lifshin: Ed Sanders is asked that identical question in LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS and this is what he said, shrugging his shoulders, shrugging it off: “Well, yeah. Given 70 to 89 years to live why not write all the spirit gives us to...you can receive dictation from the sky. Rilke’s DUINO Elegies were and TS Eliot’s Four Quartets too... later Charles Olson revved up and discharged.” He went on to say writing is “like a drag race, you’re given 6 seconds to get up to 80 mph.” Maybe I thought I’d spent too long in graduate school working on degrees. So when I was free, the poems came explosively. I’ve felt from the poems published widely in magazines, I could pull the best together for a book. The “Queen of the Small Press” came from a comment by the poet Warren Woessner and The Crossing Press put it on the 3rd printing of BLACK APPLES and I guess it stuck. I know some people think publishing a lot is like sleeping around. But others admire it.
Leslie: Do you have a typical writing schedule these days? How important is it to you to write everyday?
Lifshin: Lifshin: The year I was writing about the licorice filly, Ruffian, a difficult year, I started every morning writing about her. I usually get up around 5:30, read E mail, feed my Abyssinian cat, Jete. As I write this, I’m thinking how similar, in many ways, my daily schedule is to what it was when the documentary film was being made, how it was portrayed in that film where the “typical day part” was the first scene shot. At the time my house felt it was invaded by strange machines and preoccupied, alien strangers with their lights and gels and sound tests and checks. The night the crew moved in I felt occupied. In the morning, the plan was to shoot a typical day. And except for wearing a floor length sweat shirt instead of grubby sweats, it was. Though a documentary, we did a walk through. I was to get up and come downstairs, feed the cat, a different Abyssinian then I have now, Memento, the subject of WHEN A CAT DIES. Then I was to grind coffee, one of the few things I “cooked” then and now before going back upstairs to write for a few hours, do the mail and go off to ballet unless I was traveling or teaching or doing one of my 4 anthologies. In spite of our rehearsal, that day it didn’t go as smoothly. I had been told whatever happened to just continue, never look at the camera. Well, I came downstairs, had the cat on the counter with her cat food and the coffee beans nearby. My cat was hungry and nibbled on the food. She was used to the sound of the coffee beans being ground. We were ready to roll. The crew called out “Lights, Camera, Action and then the clackers clacked. At that point, the cat, terrified by that noise, leaped up, spilling coffee beans from the kitchen into the dining room while I stood there, staring right at the camera, frozen as Memento bolted upstairs to hide under the bed the rest of the day. The out takes must be hysterical. That scene was postponed, never re-shot. Here, after I feed my new Aby, Jete Pentimento, I come down and try to write at the kitchen table an hour before I get ready for ballet. Then I walk past the goose pond to the train, hope it’s not crowded and I can write or read that half hour or so to the studio. Home around noon, I might try to get some writing done but after the mail comes around 2, and after I’ve dealt with e- mail, the afternoon can be gone. If I go into DC for another night ballet class– it’s an hour almost– it is always a good time to read or write. When I’m dashing in and out to ballet I use time more efficiently.
Then of course there is the typing. I wish I wrote poems at the computer but I don’t, I write most things except e mail long hand. I always have a stack of note books to get to, some go back to the mid or even early 90's. If I’m writing for an anthology or for some project, I type that first of course. The documentary film throws much light on the way I live even though now so much is different. By the weekend, I’m ready to escape in some film, another addiction and (often) joy.
Leslie: How important is revision to your work?
Lifshin: Revision, in spite of the seeming spontaneity of my work, is very important. Especially when I select and arrange poems for a book. When I was finishing COLD COMFORT or BEFORE IT’S LIGHT I often went through 10, 12, 15 versions of what had seemed an already finished, often published poem. I of course try to keep them fresh and spontaneous but I do rework and rework. Even in the first typescript I’ll often have 5 or 6 versions of the poems, different forms, different endings. Lately I find I need to take more and more away. In this big new group of poems, I see enormous need for revision in front of me: now they seem like prose and I want them to be poetry, not prose poems, not prose. There’s a lot more to do!
Leslie: I know you love ballet and take ballet classes. Is ballet ever an influence on your poetry?
Lifshin: Ballet is important to me, physically and mentally. I’m obsessive about it, plan a lot around it, am pretty frustrated when kept from it by an injury or other plans. It’s one reason I don’t get to as many readings as I might otherwise. I did a book of ballet poems that was to be published by a Chicago Press. In spite of several meetings with the publishers, it never came out. I keep thinking some of the poems will appear as a section in some book but few have. Still, maybe sometime. There’s definitely a chap book there at least. One dancer-teacher from New York City ballet was such a good story teller I couldn’t resist keeping his words in poems. I haven’t written about ballet lately except in THE LICORICE DAUGHTER poems where I was taken by some of the similarities between race horses and dancers: strong, temperamental, fragile, magical and, one injury and it’s over.
Leslie: Are there projects you would like to pursue down the road? Where do you see your work going in the future?
Lifshin: I usually say when asked this that I’d like to write prose, a novel. But I’ve said it so long and done nothing about it. For the Gale Research series I’ve done a lot of autobiographical, memoir pieces. I wrote more than was used in the first longer piece and also for the later update. So I have thought of working more with that, a fuller memoir or an autobiography. I’m not sure. For now I want to promote the forthcoming books, revise the collections I need to, try a manuscript for a press that’s asked me to and work on a selected or collected poetry book. And type up the stack of handwritten notebooks. I’m excited about promoting THE LICORICE DAUGHTER, hoping to reach a very different, wider audience and happy to be reading pieces about her, not poems about me
Leslie: Can you offer any final words of advice to aspiring poets?
Lifshin: A part of me always wants to answer, (or almost can’t help but answer) with something cynical. I painted as a child. When my mother asked an artist, a painter, what he suggested for me and he said something like “if she can’t help herself, if she can’t live without painting, then you have to.” It’s the same with poetry. You have to do it because you can’t help yourself and you have to know there’s frustration, rejection, isolation as well as the high of writing. If you can’t stop, you have to go for it. You should read a lot, have a day job, be ready for disappointment and plunge in.
About the author:
Nathan Leslie: I have published two collections of short fiction, most recently A Cold Glass of Milk (Uccelli Press, 2003). My third collection of fiction will be published in the fall of 2005. Aside from being nominated for the 2002 Pushcart Prize, my stories, essays, and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in over one hundred and twenty literary magazines including North American Review, Word Riot, Chattahoochee Review, Sou'wester, South Carolina Review, Fiction International, Gulf Stream, Tulane Review, Santa Clara Review, StorySouth, and Orchid. I have also written book reviews and articles for numerous newspapers such as The Washington Post, The Orange County Weekly, The Kansas City Star, The Orlando Sentinel, Rain Taxi, and many others. I received my MFA from The University of Maryland in 2000 and I am currently the fiction editor at The Pedestal Magazine.
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