AN INTERVIEW WITH LYN LIFSHIN
by Laura Stamps
Lyn Lifshin is a poet dynamo. Her poetry career spans more
thirty years, and in that time her poems have appeared in almost every
small press literary journal and magazine in print and on the internet.
With well over one hundred books and chapbooks to her credit she has
also edited four anthologies, one of which has been in print for over
twenty-five years. Nevertheless, the last twelve months have been a
challenging time for this small press veteran, a period ripe with
unexpected changes and rewards that will affect her extraordinary career
for years to come. After returning from a trip to New York, Lifshin was
kind enough to talk with me about this remarkable year.
LAURA STAMPS: In the spring of 2002 you learned your publisher, Black
Sparrow Press, was closing its doors. After thirty-six years and at the
age of seventy-one, John Martin, the founder and owner of Black Sparrow
Press, had decided to retire. He sold the rights to the backlist of
three authors, Bukowski, Fante, and Bowles, to Ecco Press at
HarperCollins. The remaining backlist and its authors went to David R.
Godine. The news rocked the small press world for months. Lets go
back. How did your relationship with Black Sparrow Press begin?
LYN LIFSHIN: I am always amazed when I hear someone has said I write
publishers asking them to publish my books or chapbooks. In truth, I
often send very large submissions to magazines, and some of these have
become books and chapbooks. Out of the more than one hundred books and
chapbooks Ive published, I have only submitted three that were
uninvited. As a distraction the year of my divorce I decided to enter
the Houghton Mifflin Newcomers Award competition and an American
University competition. For the Houghton Mifflin contest I picked a
variety of poems I called OFFERED BY OWNER. Around the time of the
divorce we were selling one house and buying another, and the phrase
seemed to resonate with many meanings. I was a finalist in both
contests, and learned I was down to, I believe, one of two in the
Houghton Mifflin Award. On July 14, 1975, Bastille Day, the day I got
divorced, I learned I had not won either. I was very disappointed.
These were the first manuscripts I had put together, and I had great
confidence in OFFERED BY OWNER. I decided I would immediately send it
to a publisher I respected immensely and also felt I would fit with:
Black Sparrow Press. Black Sparrow told me they liked the poems, but
were overbooked, yet encouraged me to send more poems later. Soon after
that, Womens Audio Exchange, a book and recording company, approached
me, and in 1978 the poems were recorded and then released in 1979.
STAMPS: Yet your first Black Sparrow book, COLD COMFORT, was published
over twenty years later in 1997. What happened?
LIFSHIN: Why did it take me so long to get back to Black Sparrow and
send John Martin a new manuscript? Its a mystery to me, especially
since I had admired the quality and design of their books for years.
The turbulence of that period, my relationships, my mothers decline,
coupled with other presses asking to do books kept me from getting back
to Black Sparrow sooner, a sad regret. It wasnt until many years
when a class I usually took before ballet was cancelled that I ended up
in an independent bookstore in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. Months
earlier, a rather unpleasant interaction with that bookstore buyer had
led to the poem Trying to Get the Bookstore to Buy my Book,
appeared in Gargoyle Magazine and BEFORE ITS LIGHT. Even though
vowed I would never buy from this bookstore again, I had two or three
free hours that night and decided to look through its large poetry
section for the presses I would want to be published by. Without
question, once again, about twenty years and one hundred books later,
was John Martins Black Sparrow Press books I was drawn to. I wrote
John Martin right away, and he agreed to look at a manuscript. He
suggested using only poems that had been out of print for ten years and
poems that had never appeared in a book. From the moment my manuscript,
COLD COMFORT, was accepted I felt unbelievably lucky and privileged to
be a part of what I considered to be the best of the small presses.
STAMPS: What was it like to be a Black Sparrow author?
LIFSHIN: I was now working with the most responsive, generous, kind,
perceptive people I could ever imagine. I only wish now, when I learned
Black Sparrow was being sold and absorbed by two other presses, that I
had, as John Martin had said too, been sending books for fifteen years.
It haunts me knowing I could have had a solid series of Black Sparrow
books now. Every aspect of working with Black Sparrow was a dream.
Books were in the bookstores that ordered. If I needed books sent to a
university for a reading, I never had to wonder if theyd be there.
my second Black Sparrow book, BEFORE ITS LIGHT, and a book party
planned dangerously close to the publication date, John Martin magically
managed to get the book to me in time. In 2000, when I proposed a
reading of Black Sparrow writers for AWP, John sent boxes and boxes of
books, and generously let the authors sell their own books and keep any
sales. I had hoped, as we had agreed, to only publish with Black
Sparrow and was more than happy with that arrangement. For a few years
I turned down many requests to do books and chapbooks, and for several
years stopped sending out poetry submissions to concentrate on readings
and workshops to publicize the book.
STAMPS: What a shock it must have been to hear after six years with
Black Sparrow that it was over.
LIFSHIN: In the spring of 2002 I was planning poetry parties and
readings for my third Black Sparrow book, ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE
ME. John Martin and I had agreed on this new title for my fall book
instead of my original title, BRUISED VELVET, because he had a novel in
his backlist with a similar title. I always try to do everything
possible to publicize a book: large mailings, readings, parties, press
releases, flyers, trying to be as helpful to all the publishers of my
books as possible. I had just returned from the Austin Poetry Festival,
where I had been handing out flyers for this new Black Sparrow book,
when on May 3, 2002, I received an email from John Martin. He had
wanted to be the first to let Black Sparrow authors know. I was
shocked. As soon as I saw those words it felt like an obituary. I
never met John in person, and yet I felt my life was tied to him. Our
correspondence was brief, often on blue postcards. Michele Filshie and
everyone in the office seemed like friends I had known for a long time.
I understand his decision, and he was very kind to call later about my
concerns. He is a wonderful, generous person. For example, when COLD
COMFORT came out, he sent me the loveliest note from Bill Press about
the book. Later Bill held up a book of mine on the CNN program, THE
SPIN ROOM. I tried to get a tape of that program from CNN. I told John
Martin about it, and though I never received the copy I ordered from
CNN, John sent one to me.
STAMPS: And now there is the new Black Sparrow/David R. Godine imprint.
LIFSHIN: Yes, and I am very grateful that ANOTHER WOMAN will come out
from Godine. I know they are in transition, and patience is necessary.
I recently talked on the phone with Chris Carduff, the new editor who
will be in charge of the Black Sparrow list. He is wonderful about
returning emails. I respect and appreciate that, and look forward very
much to working with him. David R. Godine has an excellent,
longstanding reputation in the small press. His catalogs are lovely,
and I am very excited about that too.
STAMPS: Tell us a little about the new Black Sparrow/David R. Godine
book, ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE ME.
LIFSHIN: John Martin liked variety, and he seemed drawn to poems about
family and relationships. I picked many new poems about love
relationships, family complications, mother and daughter relationships,
and poems about growing up in a small town. I also included poems based
on paintings, especially Romare Beardons pieces, a North Carolina
painter whose work I discovered in the two rich years I lived in the
Pennsylvania Quarter of DC, which is minutes from many major museums.
Along with the fantasy and myth poems, like the title poem, I do have
many poems that seem autobiographical. I am always amused when someone
calls me a confessional poet. The first few years I published, all the
letters sent to me were addressed to Mr. Lifshin. No one had
I was a woman.
STAMPS: That summer, as you were still recovering from the news about
Black Sparrow, Robert Bixby of March Street Press contacted you about
publishing a new book of your poems in the fall, A NEW FILM ABOUT A
WOMAN IN LOVE WITH THE DEAD. How did that book come about?
LIFSHIN: I always liked Robert Bixbys books and his magazine, PARTING
GIFTS, in particular his choice of spare tight poems. It was an August
afternoon several years earlier, and I decided I had enough poems for
another Black Sparrow book. I wanted to send out new poems, something
had stopped doing for over two years when I decided to concentrate on
putting Black Sparrow books together. Traveling around the country to
read, so often I would hear that people knew my work from anthologies
and magazines, and not from my books, even though I had published so
many. I clearly remember sending a few magazines large Priority Mail
envelopes, mostly to editors I knew were open to this. But I also sent
one to Robert Bixby full of poems that seemed spare like the ones he
published. When I received no response, I felt I had offended him with
so many poems, and he had probably shredded them. Then, last summer,
when I heard that he was planning a book of mine from the poems I had
sent as a poetry submission, the timing couldnt have been better.
was just after the terribly disappointing Black Sparrow news, and I was
thrilled to have a substantial new book coming out soon, especially
since ANOTHER WOMAN was not going to be published as planned in the fall
of 2002. Bixby arranged the poems in a narrative format, almost a novel
in verse, and it is beautifully printed and hand-bound. The poems touch
on the every woman loves a Nazi theme, a relationship that
obsessive, the kind many women who have fallen for a bad-news boyfriend
will find almost gleeful, if not a balm. The book is available on
Amazon, and it can also be ordered from my web site:
www.lynlifshin.com. Or it can be ordered from March Street Press.
STAMPS: A month after the March Street book was published you were asked
to update your memoir.
LIFSHIN: In 1988 Gale Research Series, a bibliographic tool found in
most libraries, contacted me about writing an autobiography. I had been
interested in trying a novel or autobiography and felt it would be
somehow easier to write about my past with my mother still alive. Also,
I wanted to write about my grandparents and things about the past only
my mother would know. I loved doing it. I finished the piece in 1988.
Or thought I did. Then I added more in February 1989. At the same time
the documentary film about me, LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS, was
moving toward its premiere. My mother was showing signs of failing, but
I tried not to see. I called the memoir ON THE OUTSIDE: LIPS, BLUES,
BLUE LACE. It made perfect sense to me, because several of my books
have the word lips in the title. I have always loved the blues
what is left out, left to the imagination. And blue lace is an object
use in workshops that often seems to trigger personal memories. In
October of 2002, sixteen years later, I was asked to write an update to
my Gale Research Series piece, though Contemporary Poets is publishing
them now for colleges and high schools, as well as the general public.
The years after the memoir first appeared were years of huge change for
me: my mothers decline and death on August 20, 1990, and my move
Washington DC in 1992, all changes that had transformed my life and
work. The years from 1968 to 1989 seemed an enormous stretch: divorce;
art colonies like Yaddo, Millay, and MacDowell; and almost ninety
books. When I sat down to update my memoir, those years from 1990 to
2002 were so intense, vivid, and memorable. This time I did not work as
I had done with the first section of the memoir by going back through
old letters, outlines, photographs, and diaries. Actually, I no longer
keep a diary, except about my cat. This memoir was, the publisher
requested, to focus on my work and how my life connected with my work.
In keeping with that theme, the update just seemed to flow.
STAMPS: Finally, many of your trips to New York this year have been to
pack your archives for a major sale to Temple University. How is that
LIFSHIN: Its a coincidence, a figurative and literal wrapping up
seems, that when I was working on that first memoir, I had recently sold
a group of my papers, as I am right now. When I began writing poetry it
didnt occur to me to save my handwritten manuscripts. I wrote by
on pads of yellow-lined paper, folded the poem in four, and stuffed it
in a red cloth bag. When I went on a typing binge I unfolded the yellow
pages and tossed each one out. It didn't occur to me to do anything
else until a librarian asked me about selling my archives. It was 1979,
and he had published some of my poetry as letterpress broadsides and
took on the tedious job of filing and sorting my correspondence, drafts
of poems, clippings, and photographs. He used to drive to my house in
New York and load his car with garbage bags of crumpled papers, posters,
and contracts. Then he would contact libraries collecting writers
works. In 1979 I didnt realize the University of Texas at Austin
one of the very best places to have your collections housed. They made
me an offer that was very high. Every few months Id send another
or two and get a generous payment. It was wonderful. Even though my
librarian friend eventually moved on, I continued to sell boxes every
few months, assuming the process would not change. However, with the
move of the archivist who had been interested in my work and the
downturn in the oil economy, everything changed. Libraries nationwide
were buying less. I believe Temple University was the first place I
approached next, and they bought what I had then, including duplicates
of much of what the University of Texas had purchased, which were mostly
copies of books and magazines. They made a couple of purchases. The
last purchase was in 1986. Since then there have been several excellent
curators interested in my archives, including the Library of Congress,
but nothing was ever finalized.
STAMPS: What initiated this recent purchase by Temple?
LIFSHIN: In 1997 I got back in touch with Temple. In August of 2000 the
main archivist came to my house in Niskayuna, New York, and said Temple
would like to buy everything up there. The garage and cellar were
packed, and you could hardly move. Two years later, they made an
offer. For the last month I've worked nonstop in New York and Virginia
labeling, constructing boxes, having bizarre talks with UPS over
shipping charges, pickups, and accounts. Eventually, I hope everything
will be together in Temples Samuel Paley Library: video tapes, diaries,
all the drawings of me by some fairly well-known artists, as well as
paintings and sketches I have done, many handwritten spiral notebooks,
photographs, and so much more. Also boxes of fliers from readings with
Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Bukowski, Gary Snyder, Ai, Ed Dorn, and tons
of phonographs from Yaddo with Molly Peacock, Philip Roth, John Cheever,
and the Papp Public Theater readings. Not having children to leave
anything to, Ive usually selected publishers, editors, and archives
the recipients of most of what I leave. All in all, there were
seventy-three boxes shipped from New York and thirty-six from Virginia,
a total of 109 boxes for this Temple purchase. I still have thirty more
in New York for the next purchase in August. After that I am hoping I
can send a few boxes at a time as they accumulate.
STAMPS: Now that the archives are packed and delivered, what are your
LIFSHIN: Im looking forward to relaxing a little with my delightful
energetic kitten Jete, writing more poems, and waiting for the
publication of my new Black Sparrow/David R. Godine book. I also want
to get back to typing. I still have forty-five spiral notebooks of
handwritten poems never typed up from the last ten years or so, and a
number of smaller notebooks. Spending so much time this year packing my
archives for Temple has reminded me in many ways how lucky Ive been
have had very supportive people in my writing life and in my personal
life. I was so lucky to have John Martin at Black Sparrow Press and now
Chris Carduff at Black Sparrow/David R. Godine. Ive been lucky in
past with wonderful, caring editors like Marvin Malone, Bill Packard,
Noel Young, John Gill, and Bill Matthews, editors no longer alive, and
many who still are. Lucky, too, to have so much energy and the luxury
© Laura Stamps
March 11, 2003