The interview Hochman did with Lyn Lifshin in the current issue of Clockwise Cat, which is a special issue called FEMMEWISE CAT.
SOME CATNIP FOR POETRY LOVERS:
CLOCKWISE CAT PLAYS TEN QUESTIONS WITH LYN LIFSHIN
(This interview was conducted via e-mail with Cindy Hochman)
CH: Lyn, it’s very exciting for me to interview you for Clockwise Cat—as you know, I have been a fan of yours for a very long time. Now, since this edition of the journal is called Femmewise Cat, which is self-explanatory, let me start by asking you what the term “feminist poet” means to you, and whether you consider yourself one—keeping in mind that some female poets eschew that type of labeling.
LL: When I first began writing, many of my poems were political, many were takeoffs on the commercials of the day published in magazines like Kauri and Outcast. I was usually referred to as Mr. Lifshin, as if women didn't write about those subjects. Very soon, when I began to write more personal poems that changed: Jon Reilly in Broom Street Magazine Jan 1972 wrote "...one of my favorites is Lyn Lifshin. When I READ HER POEMS I THINK OF THAT BLIND SPOT AT THE BACK OF THE HEAD AND FEEL THAT SHE IS HELPING TO REMOVE AND SUPPLANT IT WITH A KNOWLEDGE THAT MEN AND WOMEN NEED TO SEE ONE ANOTHER AS THEY ARE...HER POEMS...A COMPLETE REVERSAL OF THE MALE-FEMALE RELATIONSHIP AS IT IS USUALLY UNDERSTOOD....MOST OF THE POEMS IN THE BOOK ARE STRIKING ENOUGH TO SINGLE OUT...CHARACTERISTIC OF THE NEW POETRY BEING WRITTEN BY YOUNG WOMEN..DIRECT, VITAL, SENSUOUS....Not long after, MS magazine began publishing many of my poems-- especially poems about women living in different times-- poems often set in Colonial times and later like PLYMOUTH WOMEN, THE HOUSE ON THE CROTON, OLD HOUSE POEMS, SHAKER HOUSE POEMS, REMEMBER THE LADES: WOMEN OF THE REVOLUTION, "The No More Apologizing The No More Little Laughing Blues," Alicia Ostriker's Stealing the Language calls "among the most impressive documents the women's movement has produced." In the documentary film Lyn Lifshin: Not Made Of Glass, Yvonne, the poetry editor of MS Magazine at the time says something to the effect that Lyn Lifshin does deal with men but she doesn't always treat them well! I will have to go back and check the exact wording. So yes, I am fine being called a feminist.
CH: When you first started writing poetry and getting published, were you conscious of wanting to write with a gender-based based slant, or did you just write on topics that interested you, without the female aspect in mind?
LL: No, I don't think I considered writing with any slant, consciously. I think the comment in San Francisco Review of Books hits it right: "Here she is! Might as well stop fighting it. Lifshin is not going to go away....For women, she's an archetype of gusty independence. As a poet, she's nobody but herself-- frightening prolific and utterly intense. One of a kind."
CH: Just thinking about your vast and amazing body of work through the years, one could point to a decidedly female perspective in the topics you’ve chosen to write about. For instance, you’ve written poems about Marilyn Monroe, you’ve taken on the persona of “the Mad Girl” and the Madonna, and let’s not forget that marvel of femininity, Barbie. More seriously, though, you’ve written some very powerful poems about the mother-daughter dynamic and, most recently, you wrote a book of poems about Malala, the courageous young Pakistani girl who got shot by the Taliban for daring to speak out on the education of girls in her country. Please tell us how that book came about—and what was your reaction upon hearing the news that Malala had won the Nobel Peace Prize?
LL: Like many of my books (The Barbie Poems, vol 1 and 2, Marilyn Monroe, Dick For a Day (what women would do if they had one! definitely a feminist book!) Light at the End, The Blue Tattoo, Katrina, Hitchcock Hotel, Women Write Resistance: poets resist gender violence,) the plan was to write a poem or two for the collection. When I decided to edit a collection of mother and daughter poems, Tangled Vines, I did not have a single mother and daughter poem. But in editing and reading and loving so many of the submitted poems, the mother and daughter theme became my obsession-- many books from thenon usually had a section of mother and daughter poems. My Black Sparrow books, Cold Comfort, Before the Light, and especially Another Woman Who Looks Like Me, all have sections devoted to the mother and daughter relationship as does A Girl Goes into the Woods and Persephone. A book slated to be only mother and daughter poems was delayed then cancelled when Black Sparrow wanted to be my exclusive publisher and I was only too happy to just publish with them.
Besides poems requested for anthologies, I've often written (rather obsessively) poems from museums-- often when I've been planning to give workshops on that exhibit: The story of Daniel ended up triggering Blue Tattoo; an exhibit on mirrors, the book Mirrors. I wandered around Plymouth Massachusetts. Plimouth Plantation became Plymouth Women. The smells, the sounds of the ocean, the sense of what those women were feeling and fearing. In the documentary film Lyn Lifshin: Not Made Of Glass some of these poems are intensely rendered with music and almost eerie footage. The huts and mansions in the center of town in The Old House poems, published by Capra Press: just seeing where a chair was worn or light faded brocade brought the women from that past flying to me. "...this dark touching/ some young girl's loose / hair who stopped, put/ mullein in her shoe, to become a/woman in a hurry/ wanting a man/ before earth puts its mouth on her. You can feel the cold in The Old House: Plymouth. "..afternoon, watching the/ sea eat the sun/ candle wax on his fingers/ a/ whole warehouse/ of candles to/ burn for years/ in the west like light from a star. Salt wind blows up/ from the harbor/ frozen reeds creak in the marsh/ He locks the door/ hurries past his/ shop of dragons, jade/ to where the children/ are lighting the oil/scraping names/in the frost/ ashes/blowing back into/ the room, paper
dragons. Branches scraping the moon
with icy antlers.
The Old House on the Croton came from wandering through a museum near Croton on the Hudson. " ..1776/ Franklin stayed here in May/ Washington spent a night/ waiting for the ferry/ No one knew how long they could stay/ The men men worked the mills all/night to make flour/for soldiers/ women oil oiled guns/ Extra locks on the windows/ wire/ Their dreams of the lilac tree in smoke.
Shaker House was triggered by a visit to one of the few remaining Shaker colonies. Auddley End, from a museum by that name in England. Arizona Ruins, a long poem I've often read at readings, from Montezuma's Castle, (I went back a week ago and am working on another series from that same site) My poems in Rapunzel, Rapunzel-- hair poems came from the many times I've done "hair theme poems" workshops and always found students came up with wonderful poems on this topic-- it is such a rich topic and so personal. Once I tried the idea out at Union College where I taught continuing education and it was so successful I kept it, used it often.
Many poems have come from paintings in the wonderful museums in DC-- the first year here I went to five or six exhibits a week and thank goodness, kept a calendar with where and when. There were wonderful exhibits and talks at National Archives, the Portrait Gallery, American Art Museum, many Native American poems from the Canadian embassy, National Museum of History and the National Gallery of art and the Natural History Museum. I still remember the first trip down to DC, before I was sure I would end up spending so much time here, I went to an exhibit of the Jews in Wyoming and wrote about that. A small chapbook with drawings and collages done by Eric Von Schmidt came out of a visit to the Field Museum in Chicago. Sadly, the chapbook, Museum, with beautiful color collages by him was printed in black and white. I do have one color collage in Appletree Lane.
At Syracuse University I had a minor in fine arts and was entranced by a course that studied cave paintings up to the presence. Later I visited as many art museums as I could, especially in dc where I spent much time in the wonderful museums and especially at the special exhibit of painters such as Turner, Hopper, Classical sculptors, Degas, Cezanne, Manet The Impressionists in Winter, The Impressionists at the beach, O'Keeffe, Wu, Vermeer, Alfred Steiglitz, Barbara Morgan, Eva Hesse, Maxfield Parrish, Ansel Adams, Romare Bearddon, Rothko. George Segal, Frederick Hassam. Last month, on a tour of The Louvre, and then Musee de l'Orangerie, I regretted the crowds and that there was little time to just wander and look as I had on an earlier visit, just letting myself merge with Monet's lilies. But this time I did manage to write a poem-- not yet typed up, about Mona Lisa's odd smile and how it came from an uncomfortable feeling with De Vinci's other painting of the other woman (actually, it is a feminist poem) Ginevra de Benci.
But yes, most recently Malala, the young fearless Pakistani girl, nearly murdered for wanting to go to school -- an amazing your woman, young girl really, is such a shining example of Feminism. And like many books of mine, this one started with requests for a submission for an anthology quite soon after her attack when her survival and recovery were in doubt. It was very early in her shocking story. I had heard about the horror of the Taliban attack and began following her almost daily-- reading about her past before having any idea she would recover. As the story unfolded and she, amazingly, lived, I became more and more hopeful, wrote more and more poems. When I first saw live photographs of her she looked good but I noticed one side or her face was usually covered.
I think I was in Barcelona or Paris when I heard she had won the Nobel Prize and of course I was thrilled. She had been nominated the year before but I think it was wonderful that they waited, that she could do more and more to promote the education and welfare of young girls all over the world. The book was immediately accepted by the publisher who had done my book Katrina about the victims of the hurricane. I am donating some of my royalties to Malala's projects. When she left the hospital smiling, it was
a miracle. I still want to know more about her mother who is not only never shown in pictures but hardly written about.
CH: In addition to the female-oriented books you have written and edited, you’ve also waxed eloquent about another passion of yours: horses; specifically, Secretariat and Ruffian, to whom, if I may say so, you seem to have had a close bond. In what way do those books relate to the topic of feminism, or do they?
LL: I've done four books about horses: The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian; Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness; Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle and Lost in the Fog. There always seems to be a mysterious connection between women and horses. For young girls, horses, riding lessons, horse books, horse statues seem tangled in their life and dreams. Perhaps it is the feeling of power and freedom-- the sense of being able to find a path and take it anywhere. Like ballet, something that seems to almost hypnotize young girls, horses are strong and can seem to move in the air, their feet hardly touching the ground but with their strength, these is extreme vulnerability and fragility . Especially with race horses, the kind of horses I've been attracted to and written about. And I can't help but think of my poem about going riding with Sylvia Plath where she is riding her horse: When Silvia rode Ariel/as dark sky began to lose/its ink, she broke for that/ moment out of everything/ holding her as I did with Ruffian/ cantering, galloping/ airborne/ no longer daughter, mother wife. I just googled "horses and feminism" and it seems like a fascinating subject: I just skimmed a few articles and they all seem to definitely connect the two. I will just quote a few comments that seem to need to be explored.
"It was soon time to abandon the practice of side-saddles and corsets and ride astride wearing britches. This was more than a sartorial statement. It was a social one. In K.M. Peyton's novel Flambards Divided, riding astride becomes allegorical for women's emancipation and empowerment. the pivotal "saddle
swap" scene demarcates a progressive model of liberation..The correlation between woman sharing the right to vote in 1928 and sharing the equestrian domain with men is not coincidental. ...In Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, Petrucchio forcing Katherine to ride can be seen as a quasi-rape. The same punishment was employed for shrewish wives and disobedient horses....There is certainly a traditionally precedent to see horses and women as fellow sufferers under the patriarchal thumb....I might even suggest that generally speaking, the horse's redundancy, in conjunction with women's new found liberation, gave women the means to rescue the horse and create a new imagine for it...(fragments from Jenima Hubberstey "Feminism and the Equestrienne" )
CH: Do you think that men read your poems differently than women do? What, in particular, would you like all of your readers to take away from your poetry?
L.L. I'm not sure that men read my poems differently-- maybe different subjects appeal more to them. In today's mail I got a note from a magazine asking me to send more poems about Vietnam--- I suppose that would include Iraq -- any war zone poems. Maybe some of my early poems, erotic poems, drew men in, I just don't know. There were not many people , women, writing as frankly as I did when I began-- and my earliest books got some strong reviews-- many comparisons to Plath and Creeley. The first big review of Why is the House Dissolving got strong reviews in Library Journal and by John Hopper in Works: "...the most exciting poems published by any of the presses I covered were in Lyn Lifshin's Why is the House Dissolving. There is an unmistakably feminity at work here that reminds of Sylvia Plath and yet stands very much on its own gorgeous legs....a fine strong voice...I was sorry the poems ran out so soon." and then when Black Apples came out Bill Katz wrote in Library Journal, "playing the love game in poetry is no easy task. Add dimensions of family past, personalized fragments of the physical world and the effort is as ambitious as it is passionate. Happily it succeeds here, the sum is a triumph."
CH: In the many years you have been involved in the poetry world, have you noticed changes in terms of gender between then and now? Do you think female writers are being taken more seriously these days and are better represented than they were in the past? Did you bump up against any gender discrimination when you were first starting out?
I am not sure--- there certainly are more women writing now and more women's magazines. I do remember one editor of a prestigious magazine telling me I wrote about love, war, family and politics: subjects of no interest to him. But I don't think that was a gender discrimination, just some snarky comment. No, I don't think there was a gender discrimination. (As a graduate student---that was something else)
CH: In your delightful book All the Poets Who Have Touched Me, which is a combination of factual situations you’ve found yourself in on the poetry scene, along with fantasies of meeting poets (some living, some dead) whom you admire, you draw a particularly poignant, almost sisterly, connection to Emily Dickinson, and you also reference several other female poets, such as Sylvia Plath and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Can you name some other female poets, of any era, who have inspired you, and in what way? Also, do you think there’s a connection between the troubled lives of some of these women and their creative bent?
LL: Those three women probably of all the ones in All the Poets Who Have touched me are ones I identify with strongly. I hate to answer that question because I am always afraid I will forget someone or leave someone out. If you glance thru the three anthologies I've compiled, you can imagine, at least at the time, those women were all either influential and I just plain liked. Reading the table of contents of Tangled Vines, my choices now would be quite different as my choices would be different from those women in Ariadne's Thread: Women's Journals and Lips Unsealed: Women's Confidences but I still feel if not influenced I care for their work: Ellen Bass, Judith Hemschemeyer, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Marge Piercy, Anne Sexton, Diane Wakoski, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver.
I probably have been influence by some of these poets--I'm not sure exactly how. Then there are poets who I've really like at different times of their writing career like a student of mine, Alice Fulton. And I like Louise Gluck and Kim Addonizio---I know when I re-read this list I will find it has changed drastically.
CH: Especially on point to the topic at hand, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your latest book, Femme Eterna, just released by Glass Lyre Press. The word femme itself is in the title, and you write about three amazing female poets/storytellers of ancient cultures who had to struggle for some semblance of independence. Can you tell us what made you study the lives of these particular women, and again, were you trying to make a feminist statement? And—as you were crafting your poems, did you see your own life in the lives of these women?
Femme Eterna never started out as a book. Not long ago, Luba Sterlikova, an interesting Russian painter, had the idea that we could collaborate-- combine her paintings and my poems based on them, to explore some of the most interesting women in history. Although I had written about women in the past, from Eve to women in the less distant past, she had paintings of Scheherazade and thought that Nefertiti and Enheduanna and several other women like Devi, Pachamama and the Celtic Bird Goddess-- would be exciting to explore. The project did not materialize. We both had very heavy schedules and projects and travel and the expense of having a sample book produced, a requirement of the contest, was too formidable-- but I became fascinated by the stories of these women and in particular, how they survived with courage, daring and grace.
Before realizing the project wouldn't work, I got to work immediately. Luba already had several paintings of women, a few from the distant past: Enheduanna, Scheherazade & Neferertiti. Pachamama and the Celtic Bird Goddess. I think I had not heard of Enheduanna and read all I could about her and Sumeria, not far from modern day Bagdad. The educated daughter of the King, she was not only to first person to sign her name to what she had written and to my amazement, she was a poet. I imagined her waking early and walking from the palace, feeing the breeze from The lapis blue Tigress, her clothes saffron-perfumed. I could almost smell the dates and olives braided with roses as she pressed reeds into the wet soft clay where she includes a line that makes it clear she is the author, 4000 years ago
Then I turned to Scheherazade who had danger braided in her hair. She took the dare to tell the King a story so intriguing, he would not kill her at dawn as he had many brides before her. Wily and clever, she played the evening rain like a harp, had studied history, myth, astronomy, religion so that deep in the junipers, the king couldn't resist a half told story and he kept her around one more day and then one more until finally he married her. And Nefertiti, the most beautiful of women, posed calmly and beautifully with her many daughters as soft breezes from the Nile blew through her gold necklaces as if they were chimes. The story goes that, in disguise, she served secretly as king. These three women are certainly role models for the women who follow them!
I still have Pachamama-- ready to become a chapbook and the Celtic Bird Goddess, ready to fly into the pages of a book.
CH: Now, here’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask you. Is there such thing as a “famous contemporary poet” (either male or female) and, if so, are you in that category?
L.L. I think poetry is more split into factions and groups--more than ever-- I am sure it has a lot to do with the writing degrees which I've heard in the past sent 2000 new poets out into the world and probably now the number is higher. E books, on line publishing, cliques around various writing departments, poets who have taught and are established for years in one area and are very well known in one location, would have no one knowing who they were if they moved. I am sure editors receive more poems than they ever used to. When I was starting , editors were happy to receive say a stuffed priority envelope (for around 2 dollars). Now there are often limits and people have to use submittable which takes a lot more time. On line magazines can reach many more but I wonder if people read them? I doubt they save them.
I am sure I am not a famous contemporary poet!! I'm an outsider, on the outside and that makes it impossible! I know there are fans who like my work and it is always rewarding to hear from them. So many of my books are out of print though I always have a few copies (usually)and they are listed on my website, www.lynlifshin.com and most or many of the books have sample poems.
I think having a very good literary executor can help keep work from being lost in the future but I don't have that-- and am not sure how to get one. When I lived in upstate New York, taught workshop or all kinds and did many radio and TV interviews and I had very big audiences for my readings, big local following. In upstate New York, I was often interviewed on the radio and TV--commercial and public TV. Frequently I was included in big spreads with well known media personalities: I remember Chris Kapostasy, now Chris Jenson on MSNBC and I being asked about the best and worst Christmas present we received or out thoughts about Mother's Day. Judy Woodruff interviewed me and I remember a reporter crawling under my bed to find just the right pair of boots to go with my chapbook Boots like Love. I truly regret not having bought a copy of an hour long reading I did on WMHT public TV. Later I tried to retrieve it but it had been taped over. But since moving DC and Virginia, --even away from the funding from Poets and Writers,-- everyone is anxious to read. My first fall in DC, Poets and Writers offered to fund my first local reading here (as they had often done in upstate NY) The host said "what??? pay poets to read???" as if it was a weird thing to do.
Now my following is more widespread, less local. It is always wonderful when someone uses my work for a course! Of course many who used my books for festivals and classes have retired.....
CH: OK, one more question for the road. I’m sure your fans are eager to know what you are working on now (and we know you must have a project in the works, because nobody writes as much as you do!) I know I am eagerly awaiting your next endeavor; so, can you give us at least a hint as to what we might expect—and, is the theme by any chance women?
LL: If you could see the shelf over my desk you'd see about 60 never yet typed up notebooks-- most 70 pages-- of poems. They go back to the nineties. Some are themes (the trillium poems and a group of poems for a workshop about urban youth, runaways, hand built houses----and who knows what mix of other poems in these 60 plus notebooks.
I tend to want to type up new poems. And yes I do have a small collection of poems about The Ice Maiden-- the Amputa young teen who was sacrificed to the gods and 500 years later her body slid out from the iced over mountains she'd been buried under. She was on display at National Geographic and I became hypnotized by her. I watched as long as I could . She looks so really, beautiful really. I remember Bill Clinton said he wouldn't mind having lunch with her. At first the museum did not talk about how she was drugged, hit over the head with a strong rock or pipe then buried in the snow. It was supposedly an honor to be picked, only the most beautiful, and fed and pampered, dressed in the finest silks and velvets, what was in store for her was torture. Then left to freeze to death on the mountain top. Definite child abuse.
But I am actually working on three sets of poems relating to recent adventures: poems about Paris and Barcelona, poems about Arizona. Years ago I did a poem I read often, "Arizona Ruins," a poem I'm very happy with. Went back to the same site and some other surrounding sites and have written not another version of the site but I hope a new look at surrounding ruins. But, yes, there is a group of poems about a woman and thinking about it it is definitely a feminist series. It is about "The Little Dancer" the sculpture that Degas made, as he made many sketches and paintings. I never realized what a hard life these "rats" girls rescued from the slum areas and made not only to dance till they were exhausted but there for the use of the rich sexually. A recent musical partly fact and partly probably fiction, from a feminist view point, got me going on poems about the real young women. And I have so many unpublished mother and daughter poems, poems about various women like Rose Williams, the woman who loved maps, many unpublished madonna poems, epigrammatic wry twists, and who knows what is buried in those 60 notebooks.