“Poems are like prayers, those SOS's, breathless, wild,
Lyn Lifshin - Queen of the Small Press
for The Lummox Journal
urgent as longing, and you don't know who will hear, taste
or be touched by any of it.”
(Editor’s note: This interview
was conducted via email in September, 1997, as Lyn was preparing to ‘tour’
for her newest book, Cold Comfort (Black Sparrow), a collection
of poetry from 1975 to 1995. She makes numerous references to this
tour in her interview, which runs longer than usual, but which I believe
goes farther into the mind of the writer than previous interviews have.
Lyn Lifshin is known as the "Queen of the Small Press." She has
published over ninety books of poetry in the last thirty years and is
still going strong. Not just a writer, she also conducts poetry
workshops and is an avid supporter of poetry. She lives in a suburb
of Washington, DC.)
RD: By way of background, how
did you get started? Was there a single
point/event that inspired you to take up your craft, or was it a slow
LL: I've heard that before
I was 3 years old, driving over a bumpy back road I told my mother "it
looks like the trees are dancing." Though she had named me Rosalyn Diane,
thinking it was the right name for the actress she thought I'd become,
I think she began to suppose that should I not be on stage, I might write.
I was read to every night and I learned to read early. I still have a
scribbled over copy of Now We Are Six, know by heart magical lines from
poems like "Where is Ann" and "Tattoo was the Mother of Pinkle Purr"
and "Alexander Beetle," rhythms and images and moods and stories that
stayed with me.
I grew up in a small town, Middlebury, Vermont and found myself in 3rd
grade at 6: excelling at reading but never then (or since) able to do
math. A teacher, Mrs. Flag, read us poems, had us write poems. I still
have those pencil scrawled poems in blue notebooks: many are about apple
blossoms and trees. Trees became a recurring image, and wood and women
who, Daphne-like, run into trees. Mrs. Flag would bring in
apple boughs or branches of cherry and had us look and smell and touch,
drift into the rose and flesh colors, let the rest of the room blur. Those
images and the images of apples have been in the titles of at least three
books: Black Apples, Paper Apples, Forty Days, Apple Nights. One day,
I suppose high on the poetry she read us and had us read and write, I
copied a poem of William Blake's and showed it to my mother who
knew I'd been writing a lot. I said it was mine. Because Middlebury is
a small New England calendar-like town (whenever it snowed, Life Magazine
would come and take photographs— it was so ordinary for us, we couldn't
understand the big deal) it was not surprising that my mother ran into
this teacher and said how impressed and thrilled she was that Mrs. Flag
had been so inspirational: that at six years old I was writing
poems with words like "rill" and "descending" in them. By Monday, I had
to write my own poem and use those words in it.
Poetry always seemed exciting, the part of English classes I cared about.
But I painted too and dreamed of dancing, being an actress. Something
pushed me, maybe not being popular or a cheer leader — something made
me need to do something that mattered and every year I won the science
contest on the local, state and then national level. But I knew I'd never
be a scientist since I could barely get through geometry and algebra.
I taught theater and ballet in college where I started as a drama major,
but kept being drawn to poetry. I picked Federico Garcia Lorca to do a
long term paper on as an undergraduate and Dylan Thomas for my Master's
Thesis, Thomas Wyatt for a Ph.D. I didn't finish. All the time,
I kept thinking I needed to have degrees so I could write and then later,
wrote because I didn't finish the last one. I thought I'd have my Ph.D.
at 20. My new book, Cold Comfort, has a couple of poems about
the experience leading up to that not happening.
A lot came in the way of my starting to write seriously, obsessively:
school, a few short term jobs. But there was one event that was very important.
It came from my father, a stranger in many ways, someone I wasn't ever
close with. Born in Russia, he had many qualities typical of Vermonters:
he was quiet, frugal, taciturn. Maybe it was that lack of warmth, that
withdrawn, brooding, often depressed mood, that dark coldness that endeared
my father and Robert Frost to each other. I used to see Frost wandering
around Middlebury, Vermont in baggy green pants carrying strawberries.
He brought those pants in Lazarus Department Store, my grandfather's store,
and he would let only my father wait on him. At Syracuse, still afraid
I couldn't write enough to take a creative writing course, I submitted
a poem and got one published. My father, without telling me, got a copy
of that poem and showed it to Frost who wrote on it, "Very good sayeth
Robert Frost." He said he liked the striking imagery and wanted
me to come and visit him, to bring him more poems." By the time I had
more poems, Frost was dead. But his words weren't.
Even when I left graduate school, not at all sure what I wanted to do,
I tried other things first: painted, wondered if I should have stayed
in theater. Then, working at a TV station and having periods of free time,
I began to write, got a copy of the Small Press Review. At the
time, it was stapled and probably cost about $1.95. I wrote to all the
magazines listed requesting a sample copy and got slammed quickly into
the world of alternative poetry. Having left the university with a lot
of anger after being told: why do you want a degree — you're a woman.
And "why not just have a baby." And being asked in my oral exam what I
thought of bedbugs and adultery — feeling sexually harassed (a term
not yet in fashion) — and not taken seriously, partly because I
was so much younger than the rest of the students, I wanted to be in anything
not university connected. I discovered Marijuana Quarterly, The Outcast,
Lung Socket, Ole — magazines with a flair, a wildness — quite
different from the 16th, 17th and 18th century poems I had been reading.
. I felt like someone discovering a new continent— it was amazing and
heady. Every week I had a new favorite poet, a new favorite poetry magazine:
El Corno Emplumado, The Wormwood Review, The Goodly Co., The Outsider,
Trace. I plunged in.
Whether it is ballet or poetry, I seem to do things to excess: once I
started writing, it became everything. I was married and I was fortunate
to be able to start full tilt, without having to think of making money.
So, though it took me a while to dare to write, once I started, it became
my life. I remember when I painted, my mother asked an artist, "should
she become a painter?" He said, only if she can't help herself.
That's what writing became and continues to be.
RD: Somebody once said of creativity,
something like "It's 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration" - tho I think
in today's climate, it's probably 60% perspiration and 30% exasperation.
Tell me about your feelings on your own creative process. Does it
ever surprise you? Since your "day job" may be unrelated to your craft,
do you find that it’s easier or harder to "seize the moment" when creativity
strikes? How do you capture and retain these inspirations?
LL: I really work incredibly hard
at writing. Perhaps I could have done things differently: thought about
connections, networking — I've never done that. I really felt it didn't
matter but lately, especially in the 90's and living in the DC area for
now, it seems so much is political, careerist. It's not the part of writing
that I love or feel comfortable spending time on. But with the publication
of my last book, Cold Comfort, I‘ve felt compelled to do all I can to
get it noticed. My last two books (unlike many of the earlier books and
chapbooks, from mimeo pubs like Why is the House Dissolving to
very small chap books) got almost no reviews. I was shocked. And if a
book isn't reviewed, it doesn't get into any libraries, bookstores — it's
lost. I have a new poem coming out in the next issue of Gargoyle
about going into a bookstore, an independent bookstore, and trying to
get them to look at Blue Tattoo, poems about the Holocaust, and
Marilyn Monroe Poems — two beautifully done books that I think
could have had an audience. The book buyer was rude, dismissed them and
me. Those books were hardly seen. Many of the bigger review
mags don't review poetry as they once did. Rolling Stone and Ms,
two of the more commercial magazines I was often in, no longer publish
poetry and the super chain bookstores have changed book buying and
distribution and sales. One of my publishers told me two of the
biggest review journals said he would have to buy an expensive ad if my
books were to be reviewed. So for me, the exasperation is in the distribution
and publicity. And submitting: someone just asked me, or demanded, that
I write a haiku
bio note and I did this:
Now I don't write haiku but I do feel tired of submitting, dealing with
that aspect of publishing. Yet, I feel grateful to the small press
magazine editors: they have been there for and with me from the start. The
writing part is still a joy, a high. These last six weeks have been odd
for me not to be doing it. As I've said, "in the Eskimo language, the word
"to breathe" and "to make a poem" are the same one." Working on sending
out flyers— I feel I'm not breathing.
in paper I dream poems grow
wings, fly on their own.
What I normally do, or what I like to do, is to write every morning.
The documentary film Not Made of Glass, (available on video or
film for sale or to rent from Women Make Movies Tel 1-212-925-0606; fax
1-212-925-2051; e-mail email@example.com)
catches that. I like not to feel I have to be somewhere else. But
when I'm traveling, or running out to take ballet (my other obsession)
I resent not having the unbroken time stretching out like a quiet beach.
It's ironic that I thought I couldn't take a creative writing class because
I wouldn't be able to write enough, wouldn't have anything to write about.
I clearly remember on a summer vacation in Cape Cod sitting in a room
on a rainy day, desperate to write and not feeling I had anything to write
about. Now, there seems almost too much. Especially when I'm
too busy to catch images and thoughts. Just the last few days about twenty
ideas have surfaced that normally I'd play with, free flow from, turn
into something unlike what they were at the start. But I've been so busy
and I know I won't have the same electricity when I do go back to them.
I always have a notebook. But a strange coincidence the last day struck
me so intensely — normally (and I know I am lucky to have the luxury of
much time that I'm not at a 9 to 5 job, ) it would have been in several
poems that same day. (Just now, I made a list of three unrelated
images, events — I will try tomorrow to see what I can braid them into
on the way to ballet.) When I first began to spend time in DC, I was dazed
by all the museums, all a block or so from where I was, and I haunted
them: The National Gallery, The Corcoran, the Portrait Gallery, National
Archives, The Smithsonian Museum of American history. There wasn't
much that I saw — films, photographs, paintings, lectures
that didn't move into poems: most of the Marilyn Monroe poems reflect
At times, when I'm hired to teach a workshop and have to do a lot of
preparation, I read and take notes: for my first Holocaust workshop
I took books out of the library — 50 at a time, read and thought about
little else. I immersed myself in the period, listened to
films, recordings. And from the atmosphere and the words, my words took
on an imaginary life based on history. I've gone to old houses and
seen where a chair was worn and made up a whole life of a stranger who
must have sat there. Once, at an Ingmar Bergman festival in the middle
of a movie something hit me and I wrote a whole poem on a gum wrapper.
Tiny, tiny print. When I taught a workshop on mirrors, I photographed
all the mirrors and later, free flowed from what I caught. Asked to teach
a course called "Sexuality and Sensuality," I read all sorts of anthologies
and erotica written by women on the subway (often in a different wrapper
— like a cook book for steaks,) and the act of preparing for the
workshop, reading these poems in their steak wrappers, became poems.
For every workshop I teach, with all the preparations, reading, dreaming
and drifting in the subject— poems grow. I save newspaper
articles though don't really go back to them often. Photographs seem wildly
evocative. When I was cleaning out my mother's house everything seemed
full of memories and I made lists of trivial things as I packed and threw
out and gave away. I took photographs to go back to. I keep a dream journal
— sometimes using images or plots from that. When the Peruvian mummy was
on display at The National Geographic, seeing her was chilling and though
I only had a few minutes to look, I began a series of poems. I like
taking real things and putting them in weird places: the ice mummy goes
to meet the Unabomber, Marilyn crawls out of her grave to swim under the
roots of trees to Elvis. Often, being asked to write on a certain subject,
the daughter I don't have, or dick for a day, gets me going on side
streets I'd never have thought of. I love doing that. My Barbie
poems grew that way. It really annoys me to be deep into some obsessive
subject and have to jump in the shower and pull on leotards. The
death of someone I'd been out of touch with in the spring triggered a
whole strange series of poems: the walk from the metro to the ballet studio
somehow got into most of them because I was leaving what wasn't finished
and taking whatever I passed on the way and somehow twisting it in. Unfortunately,
my handwriting is nearly non-legible — so frustrating to try to figure
what I've scrawled on the back of a crumbling postcard. Or half asleep
on a piece of the bed. I love to be surprised by an unlikely subject
being perfect — one thing I heard on the news about women in China in
the garment industry who could only keep one child and knowing it was
more practical to keep boy children, inspired a series of poems. Sometimes
I eavesdrop and start a poem with that. Or a phrase overheard on the radio
seems like a good title.
RD: Do you think of yourself
as a writer, as an artist, or what? When did you begin to make this distinction?
Elaborate on this.
LL: I think of myself as poet.
The little non-fiction writing I've done has been very successful: a piece
I wrote for Writers Digest was picked as one of the best pieces of writing
in 1994 by Writers Digest and Story magazine. And the few prose
pieces and stories have been successful. I'd like to do more but
I end up writing poems! I'm not sure when I began to think of myself
this way: maybe picking poets for my M.A. and Ph.D. Maybe it was a way
to shape and understand experience. I'm not sure.
RD: You obviously believe in what
you are doing, otherwise you would have either chosen a more lucrative
career or a more straight ahead format to gain some respect and admiration
for your craft. Is there a comradery in your particular slice of the literary
world that you can rely on for inspiration, or is it by necessity, a lonely
path? How do you keep your "eyes on the prize"? In your capacity
as a poet, you probably have the opportunity to meet others in “the struggle”;
do you encourage each other, as well?
LL: Answering this today, I
feel so tired: much as I love the act of writing, the last many weeks,
doing mailings, arranging readings — it seems to have little to do with
the creative process. And writing has always been a way, in part, to get
through something. So, the frustration of having to put that aside is
intense. Last night I heard Oliver Stone say that his films, his writing
is "something inside (you) that pushes you." It feels that way often.
I can't imagine any other way to be. Poems are like prayers, those
SOS's, breathless, wild, urgent as longing and you don't know who
will hear, taste or be touched by any of it. Sometimes I wonder how people
who don't write or paint or sculpt or dance or compose music deal with
what seems intolerably difficult, terrible or wonderful. I'm addicted
to writing, even with its frustrations. Writing makes me more aware, increases
sensual appreciation, helps me discover the magical in the ordinary, gives
a kind of power, a way to shape, transform, rediscover, catch and hold,
and like dance, a way to feel alive, connected.
But it’s not without enormous frustration and there are times I wonder,
knowing what I know, if I'd have chosen to do this. I do have friends
who are writers but I also have friends I see more often who are dancers.
I don't really share my work with other writers until the work is published.
Of course the many wonderful editors in the literary world have been my
main support. With my closest writer-friends I can bitch and moan and
complain and know I am not alone in feeling sometimes the work is so hard
and the rewards, the practical ones, often missing. I do have days when
I think if I'd been putting this much energy, time, and passion
into any other kind of work.. When young, talented writers ask my
advice about a writing career, it's hard for me to really be encouraging,
unless they feel they could not do it.
RD: I recently read an
interesting editorial in the Small Press Review that said that
the small press revolution was going to shake up the publishing world,
that the established (old school?) publishing houses were cracking under
the strain of the old ways and due to small presses, vanity presses and
self-publishing, things were going to start popping. What
do you think about this?
LL: I don't know if I agree.
I've never published my own work or been a publisher. Distribution
seems so difficult. Two of my last books, Blue Tattoo and Marilyn
Monroe, were beautifully done, strong books. But, especially
now, like other small press books, it's very hard to get them reviewed,
seen, placed and bought. I hope the editorial is true. It would be refreshing.
RD: You’ve just had an anthology
of poetry published by Black Sparrow (which I think of as a major poetry
house). Was it difficult to get their attention?
LL: By 1975 I had published
a few poetry collections by publishers who had come to me, had seen my
poems or had a submission of mine. I was going through a divorce and maybe
to try to stay sane, I worked on a new manuscript that I submitted to
a new writers contest at Houghton Mifflin. I was very excited because
I was one of two (I believe) finalists. I learned I hadn't won on the
day of my divorce. I was also a finalist in a university association contest
and didn't win that. I thought of all the presses, Black Sparrow was most
right for me, even then and sent the manuscript to them. They
read my poems and said they were booked solid but liked my work and that
I should try again. I waited close to 20 years to try again. I let publishers
who were interested come to me instead. That collection became a
book and record, Offered by Owner. The other manuscript, Glass,
was published by Morgan press in an exquisite edition, like all their
books, but was hardly distributed, though I was given a large number of
copies to sell. In 1993 I wrote to Black Sparrow again and
had some suggestions, told them the poems I was working on: Barbie
poems, mother and daughter poems. Instead, they suggested
a manuscript of poems on various subjects. I began going through
magazines, through out-of-print books of mine and typed and typed and
then began cutting and cutting and cutting. I made about 4 cuts, got down
to 1000 poems. I cut again and again and even up to publication, took
20 more poems out!
RD: Aside from major press/academic-sponsored
poets, do you think that it’s possible to actually make a living as a
poet? Or is it, by necessity, an avocation?
LL: I think it is harder and harder.
When I began doing workshops and giving readings in the late sixties and
early seventies, there seemed to be a lot more art funding for writers
at all levels. New York state has always been wonderful in their assistance
to artists. Poets and Writers Inc. is simply incredible and for many years
they funded my readings and workshops generously. Later, they funded readings
in California and when I first began spending time in the Washington DC
area, they were funding here. But though Poets and Writers is a godsend
when I do readings and workshops in New York, they have cut back in many
other parts of the country. I was shocked in DC to learn that so many
writers read for free — I thought that was outrageous. Very early
in my writing life, I'd been paid. I was flexible, but I was paid. Down
here, it is much harder. Fortunately I have been able to survive but it's
RD: Who do you draw inspiration from
LL: I read and buy poetry books
on a regular basis — often I will hear a poem that I like and rush out
to buy the book. I always have a book of poems on the subway and a collection
of short stories. Since I'm on the subway often, I normally get a chance
to read, although since Cold Comfort came out, I'm so used up doing
publicity, that I've read little. But I have a night stand of novels
waiting. Not reading poems feels as unnatural to me as not writing them.
I'm always reluctant to name a list of writers, sure I will leave many
out. But I admire the writers I've picked (women) in the two editions
of Tangled Vines I edited and in Ariadne's Thread, my collection of women's
diaries and journals. My taste is eclectic, would surprise many.
RD: What type of music do you
like to listen to?
LL: I listen to blues a lot,
classical music, folk music.
RD: Got any new projects in the works?
LL: Normally I'm always writing
(except now!) I have about 150 notebooks of untyped up poems just sitting
in the closet and have a lot of ideas, themes (The Woman who Loved Maps,
The Woman Whose Husband Photographed her Nude 25 Years Everyday at 5 P.M.,
The Daughter I don't Have). I want to think ahead to a new book
of unpublished poems, only. And more than anything, I'd like to
try more prose: it feels so different to do that and its a change
that's thrilling. My piece, "Writing Mint Leaves at Yaddo" was picked
by both Writer's Digest and Story magazine as one of the
best pieces of writing about writing in 1994. What I'd love, after
I tour for Cold Comfort, is to be in a quiet place on the ocean
with a great film theater for off-beat films, good ballet and velvet.
after the too early
by Lyn Lifshin
October snow bending
trees to splitting
after I wrapped
alone, no lights
no hot water
your voice, a
light on the radio
batteries are losing
whatever they had
after phones stopped
then started, without
your voice, your voice
in my room, rivers
in my dream
melting as my
thighs would in
your blue bed as
long as November
stayed swollen with
light until in
hours it would be
come a bell with
its tongue cut out
© 1997, Lummox Journal