Interview of Lyn Lifshin

by Tina Hess, 2002

PP: Hi Lyn and welcome. It is so wonderful to be able to talk to you. You are the person I think of when I think of modern day poets. One hundred years from now, I'm sure, your life's work will be studied along side of Emily Dickinson in collections of poetry. Does that make you feel accomplished or is the accomplishment in every poem that comes to life by your pen?

Lyn Lifshin: I hope that my poetry will be read in the future, it would be nice to think that but it's never certain: poets very popular at one time can be forgotten. Others discovered or rediscovered. It's not something I think about a lot. I do have concerns about making sure my archives--- the handwritten manuscripts, correspondence, contributor copies, posters, proof copies of my books, photographs, tapes of readings- all the material that is a record- handwritten diaries and journals- - are safe in a library collection, that they will be available for anyone who might want to do research, write about my work, about me. I know that it is important to have a literary executor who will follow through and that reputations and popularity rise and fall. I know I'm read but since I am pretty much an outsider (my web site, www.lynlifshin.com has a piece I wrote called FEELING OUT THE OUTSIDE INSIDE about not being in any particular group, like some academic, establishment group or regional group) so I don't have an organization, a group that will somehow set up tours, definitely collect my papers etc. And publishing a lot isn't always considered a positive thing by some people.

When I'm writing, especially when I'm on a writing streak (often, not a particularly happy time- when something has happened that has triggered intense emotions- I can be so caught in the high of writing I just think of it and love that feeling. Several things collided recently and I've been in that kind of jag. It's like reading a book that is so intriguing you don't want to ever finish it but can't put it down.

PP: I understand that completely. Dark moods seem to stimulate my creative thought process while extremely good times can block me.

Lyn, you have been compared to Emily Dickinson, as well as to Sylvia Plath. As of date, you have published numerous books, been noted as the most published poet in America, been the subject of a documentary, and have been praised by Robert Frost. You are truly an idol! How did you start out as a published poet? Where was your first poem published?

Lyn Lifshin: My first poem was accepted by Folio magazine, a very pretty, small, nicely printed magazine from Birmingham Alabama. The acceptance came close to my birthday and I was thrilled. That magazine published a lot of good poets, poets who later became much more well known than they were then: Bill Mathews, James Dickey - many. Accepted around the same time, a little later, but published first was a poem called Jonathan that appeared in Kauri magazine edited by Will Inman. Many of the poems he published and many of the poems of mine he continued to publish were political poems but that first poem, a very early one, was imagistic, a love poem looking out at the sand lot behind the house where my study was in a room half underground.

I started writing after I skipped from first grade to third grade. I had always read a lot- books like NOW WE ARE SIX and other books the librarian thought I was a little young for. One teacher read us poetry every morning and had us writing poems. I was much better at that than anything to do with math. One day I copied a poem of William Blake's, showed it to my mother. I told my mother I wrote it. Growing up in Middlebury, Vermont, a small town with a population then of about 3,000, it wasn't odd that my mother ran into my teacher and raved about how exciting it was that I had written this wonderful poem full of words my mother didn't even know I knew. So by the next Monday, I had to write my own poem using words like "rill" and "descending!"

I wrote a little, very little in college and published in the college magazine. I knew I wanted to write poetry but felt I needed something "useful" and wanted to get a PhD degree first. I worked on a Master of Arts degree and wrote my thesis on Dylan Thomas and then went right to graduate school. I didn't write poetry at all but read a lot - especially 16th, 17th and 19th century poetry. I was sure I would have my degree before I was twenty since I had skipped so many grades. How I didn't get a PhD ended up as the subject of several poems. When I left the program, walked out in the middle of an exam, I guess I felt I would prove to them that if I wasn't going to be writing articles for the MLA I would be a poet. Or a painter- I started painting as soon as I left graduate school. Then I took a job at a TV station, began writing poems, typing them during the slow times at work. I found the International Directory of Little Magazines and began writing for sample copies, began intensely checking out the poetry that was being written in small presses I never even knew existed.

PP: I'm glad you found those presses, but even more, I'm glad they found you!

I've read your poem "After A Day We Stay In Bed Until The Sun Is Close To Setting" over and over again. I love it. It is a poem that just grabs me into it. Especially, I like the references to the yester year methods of writing using typewriters and erasable bond paper. New poets today sit behind the glare of monitors and type their words. Do you still prefer the typewriter or a simple notepad when you write your poetry?

Lyn Lifshin: I still handwrite poetry- partly I think because I'm writing at the kitchen table or on the metro... I'd like to be writing poems at the compute since this way I am spending twice as much time typing!- One of the reasons I always have a back log of poems and never can get caught up. Right now I probably have 40 to 60 NOTEBOOKS of not typed up poems. I no longer use a typewriter for anything except to stack poems on. I'm at the computer when I'm not at ballet, my other obsession. In fact, on July 4th I will get a new kitten, an Abyssinian and bought a tree house for her I will keep near my desk since this computer is where I mostly am at home. Having a kitten will be a strange new experience: I lost my 20 year old cat last winter- she was a kitten quite a while ago.

PP: I'm sorry to hear about your companion, but I'm sure that kitten will liven things up a bit!

I've read the poetry on your homepage (www.lynlifshin.com). A good many of your poems refer to your mother. Did she influence your writing in any way?

Lyn Lifshin: I was very close to my mother and not at all close to my father. My mother was supportive of everything I did (mostly- except when it came to relationships). Not that it was not a relationship, as many mother and daughter relationships are, intense and ambivalent: She tried to make me feel I could do anything I wanted to, never pushed me to do the traditional things like getting married, having children. I had not written much about that relationship until I had my anthology of mother and daughter poems accepted by Beacon Press and I realized I had few poems about our relationship. That was when I wrote one that has been anthologized and in some collections: MY MOTHER AND THE BED. I actually wrote it while I was meeting with my editor from Beacon and my mother and I drove to Boston where the poem is set. After reading so many mother and daughter poems, and especially as my mother got older, got sick, the subject became more and more central to my work. Hard to believe when I started TANGLED VINES - I did not have a mother and daughter poem to consider! She continues to be a subject: in my last two Black Sparrow books, COLD COMFORT and BEFORE IT'S LIGHT and in my forthcoming book, ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE ME, there are sections of poems about mothers and daughters. There probably always will be.

PP: Mothers are definitely the most special kind of people. You seem to have been blessed with a wonderful one. It sounds like a piece of her will always live in your work too.

What has been the highlight of your life as a poet? Is there any certain experience or moment that stands out in your mind?

Lyn Lifshin: Having my first poem accepted was exciting. And having my anthology of women's diaries and journals, ARIADNE'S THREAD, a collection of women's diaries, accepted one April 10 was exciting. (My new cat was born April 10 and I may call her Ariadne though I will probably call her Pentimento)

The most exciting thing though was having Black Sparrow accept my manuscript and publish my books. That was by far the most important. In 1975 they had seen a manuscript and said they were interested but booked and to write them again. I waited till 1995 or 96. I was extremely thrilled when my manuscript was accepted because I felt it was a place where my work fit well and I knew John Martin's wonderful reputation, how he was known for keeping books in print and for continuing to publish writers they had published. I loved working with John Martin and everyone connected to his press. That is why one of the saddest moments was getting the news that Black Sparrow would not continue as they had. That was terribly sad news- I had been so happy to have John Martin as a publisher and just as unhappy to learn he had decided to retire. But I am glad that David Godine will continue to print planned Black Sparrow books so my next book, set for BLACK SPARROW this fall, will be published as a Black Sparrow/ David Godine book. From 1996 to the present, because I agreed with BLACK SPARROW not to publish any other books and I even refused chapbooks, I did not publish anything except BLACK SPARROW books.

PP: Your achievements thrill me because I, too, love reading and writing poetry. There are so many that feel that love verse, though, and try to perfect their craft that it brings me to my next question. Is a poet born or can one be taught to be a poet, in your opinion?

Lyn Lifshin: I'm not sure. I think anyone can be taught to write an interesting, unique poem. Whether one becomes a poet probably has more to do with his or her life, the things that happen, how sensitive one is to what happens, how driven one is.

PP: I've read dozens of your poems. Each one seems so natural, like the words fell into place. Do you revise a lot?

Lyn Lifshin: I revise more than you might imagine. When I put a collection together, even after poems may have been published in magazines, I revise and struggle over lines - do many, many versions of a poem: different line lengths, different endings, different words. When I hand write poems, often I have three or four versions of a certain line or image, a different order of lines and almost always when I type them up, I type several versions, different line lengths. Sometimes I have five or six different last lines I print then choose from.

At the same time, I try to make the poem seem as if it was natural, the poem with the thought developing as it is written, not a thought or feeling that is made into a poem. I always like Wyatt because his language has that breathless sense of what he says in the process of it being said- not something already thought out and then presented. I tend to like conversational poems, the thought in progress. But some forms also fascinate me. And my next book, ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE ME, has a couple that are more formal.

PP: I can't wait to read it!

As you are well aware of, there are a lot of cyber poets out there. There are also a lot of places where they gather to critique each other's work and improve their craft. If you were going to critique a poem, what would you look for? For example, what makes a poem good or bad?

Lyn Lifshin: I always go back to the remark Emily Dickinson made: if it feels as if the top of my head was being taken off, I know it is poetry. I feel that way- a poem has to hit me, startle, delight, make me wish I had written it. I tend to prefer poems that are clear and direct but also imagistic, mysterious, surprising. . When I teach I always make sure students know my preferences, biases. Poetry can be pretty subjective. My tastes are varied but some people's aren't and it is a matter of preference to an extent.

PP: I agree wholeheartedly. I know I have read poetry that I have loved that others couldn't seem to read past the first few lines.

May I ask who is your favorite poet? How has that person influenced your work?

Lyn Lifshin: It would be impossible to pick a favorite poet. Actually today I do have one contemporary woman poet whose work is my favorite right now but I could change and I would be leaving out so many writers who I have loved, studied, written papers about, written my graduate school papers on, included in the 4 anthologies of women's writing I edited. TANGLED VINES, (first and second edition) ARIADNE'S THREAD and LIPS UNSEALED.

When I started writing seriously, I read so much and always found a new favorite poet- I still buy many poetry books. I also buy short stories, non fiction: in this area I read a lot on the metro, write a lot going into ballet. I probably was influenced by the writers I studied in depth in college and graduate school- Dylan Thomas, Garcia Lorca, Thomas Wyatt. Someone else might see the connection more clearly than I can.

PP: Do you have a favorite poem(s) that you've written? If so, which one(s) and why?

Lyn Lifshin: I don't think I have a favorite poem - there are some I read more often because I am familiar with them and know audiences usually like them. It's fun to read funny poems or poems with a lot of repetition. I like a lot of my more mysterious poems and probably many of the pared down, very tight ones. COLD COMFORT was the first book of my own poems I edited and I included poems from old, out of print books: many of those are poems I care a lot about. And the poems in BEFORE IT'S LIGHT, mostly new poems, also are poems I picked after probably 6 or 7 or 8 cuts.

But I couldn't come up with a favorite. Sometimes it's hard to separate the experience from a poem about the experience and I could "like it" better for that reason. (Though I hope not)

PP: What has being a poet meant to you in the age where it is not widely read?

Lyn Lifshin: It's been the most exciting and fun experience as well as the most frustrating and at times difficult, annoying, seemingly useless experience. Each aspect is different: reading, writing, publishing, performing, publicizing.... there are so many aspects of being a poet. And all can be great at times or hard and not a high at all.

PP: Has your family been supportive of your writing?

Lyn Lifshin: This is a very strange question. Now I don't have much family. My mother was extremely supportive, proud. I'm glad she was able to see the documentary film about me, LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS by Karista films and distributed by Women Make Movies. I'm sorry we did not go back to the town I grew up in to film segments as the filmmaker wanted to. But my mother wanted to "wait" until the flat was fixed up. Unfortunately she died not long after the film came out and now those very special scenes and times and shots that would have been so important to have in a film, are gone and I feel sorry I didn't insist. The only thing that my mother would be upset about was if I didn't show her a poem, if a magazine came in the mail and she saw or sensed I was keeping it from her. I was often blunt in my mother poems. We were so close, so tangled that she realized no matter how often we fought, we loved each other very much. Others would say, "how can you write about your mother that way?" but my mother always understood. Some of my family probably never liked my work, felt it was airing dirty laundry. My sister once sued me over a poem and within this year, at a family funeral, came up to me, hissed how my writing about the Holocaust had killed, had murdered the victims a second time and that I was a murderer and that could never be forgiven. Not supportive.

PP: Wow, a documentary! Lyn, you are so fascinating that I could sit here and talk to you all night! I'm sure that's why a film was made about you, and it is also why your poetry and words will live on for years to come!

I really do appreciate the time you are taking with me today and I do not to take up too much more of your time. So, my last question is probably a pretty common one: what advice do you have for new poets about writing, rejection, the life of a poet, etc?

Lyn Lifshin: I am asked this often and there's a part of me that almost wants to say something ironic. It is something you have to really want to do and not expect a lot out of. Rejections are on going but it is more than that: I used to wonder every few years why I didn't go to law school, didn't first find something there was more of a demand for: like becoming a plumber. You have to be prepared for disappointment, frustration, - you can't expect to be appreciated, and if you don't really love writing poetry, don't feel you must, probably better to find some other way to use your energy. I think it is very important to realize that it seems to get harder and harder to publish. Of course there are more places and now there is the Internet and I guess that is good. But it's hard: presses shut down, there are more and more writing programs, more and more poets and less and less money. But if you are driven and can't stop yourself from writing, I think reading as much as you can is important. It's also important to buy poets books so maybe when you have a manuscript the presses will have funds to publish your books. And the same is true of small magazines: - most run on a shoestring. For each poet who subscribes, a lot more submit. I wrote an article for Writers Digest for the yearly issue of THE BASICS OF GETTING STARTED IN WRITING volume 16, 1995 that is probably available on the web or in one of their publications. I talk in detail about my experience and give many suggestions.

I was lucky that when I began submitting and doing poetry readings there seemed to be more funding, more openings. Things did not seem as cliquish, better for someone not part of a group or a university. I've always been an outsider (My Gale Research autobiography is called ON THE OUTSIDE: LIPS, BLUES, BLUE LACE). It seems harder and harder now to be able to do that. Still, in spite of the frustrations, I can't imagine not writing. The writing part is what really matters. And if you find that's where the excitement is, the frustrations will just be frustrations. I am obsessed with ballet and I do it because I love it, feel somehow wrong without it. It helps to feel that way about writing poetry too.

PP: You have grace in your poetry, like that of a ballerina perhaps. Your love shines through, Lyn.

Thank you so much for talking with me. It has been a valuable experience, for me, as it will for the readers, to learn about someone who has made such an impact in the modern poetry world.

Please keep writing, and we will keep reading!

Tina Hess 2002.

Last Updated:
September 3, 2002