An Interview with Lyn Lifshin
By Andrew Lundwall on Friday, April 25, 2003 12:02 am
Andrew Lundwall: Lyn, in terms of your poetry, could you elaborate on your vision? What do you seek to accomplish as a poet, as a writer? Do you consider yourself to be an integral part of 21st century literature and why?
Lyn Lifshin: Vision is one of those rather abstract lofty words I don't really connect with poetry. I write poems that I hope will move people, let the reader feel someone else feels as they do though they never realized that. I hope the reader will find the poems let them see things in a different way and also in ways they might have felt but never quite understood that. The idea of Horace's that literature should teach and delight is interesting, "teach" in the sense of revealing, showing, connecting in a way that is startling, stunning, delightful. Even more I like Emily Dickinson's quote, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?" As for feeling part of the 21st century, that is something I never have thought much about. I suppose one is always a part of the time they are writing the events, values, words, the history of the time one moves through that makes one part of their times whether they rebel against it or celebrate it or ignore it.
AL: Lyn, could you explain your title "queen of the small press"?
LL: "Queen of the small press" is a rather strange title that was almost accidental. Black Apples was published first by The Crossing press with a yellow cover and a drawing of a pumpkin or a pumpkin-like house, pale yellow, definitely not slick. It sold out quickly. The second edition was beautiful and had a shiny harder cover that also sold out. The 3rd edition had a papery cover with the same photograph as on the second edition but not shiny, not quite as beautiful. I suppose to jazz the 3rd edition up, John Gill took a line from a review by Warren Woessner, the "Queen of the Small Press" for a little embellishment, in the same way as he added 13 poems from earlier books and an introduction by John Gill as well as review statements from Warren Woessner, Victor Contoski, Alan Dugan, Richard Eberhart, and others. Later, one publisher wanted to make one book cover look like a romance novel. I said no as I did to another small press publisher who wanted to call a book Undressed and have me on the cover in bib overalls with nothing underneath. I nixed that too.
AL: Lyn, do you believe in inspiration? Or would you define the need to write as an instinctive, gut-driven process — something born of the nerve-endings?
LL: I'm not sure about inspiration. Sometimes something will seem to demand to be written about. But often it takes several attempts to try to get it. Auden I think said if he had to choose whether to work with a student who felt driven to tell what he felt or someone who liked to play with words, he would pick the latter. I think poems, for me, come both ways. Recently I wrote a series of poems because someone asked me to, about the adoption of a new baby, not something I would normally write about. Assignments often work well: the most unlikely subjects seem to lead to good poems, probably because they are new and fresh subjects I've never thought about. Several of my books came about in that way: Marilyn Monroe Poems came from poems I wrote for Rick Peabody's Mondo Marilyn, Jesus Alive and In the Flesh, from a request to submit to a Jesus as a pop icon anthology that came out just recently as Sweet Jesus. For another anthology, Dick for a Day I wrote a number of poems and many of them are sprinkled through my last two Black Sparrow books, Cold Comfort and Before It's Light, as well as my forthcoming Black Sparrow/David Godine book, Another Woman Who Looks Like Me. Other "assignments" have led to poems as varied as The Daughter I Don't Have to poems about condoms. In my new book there are many poems based on paintings, also a request. I've often written poems about historic sites such as Shaker House Poems, The Old House on the Croton, The Old House Poems, Arizona Ruins Auddley End... so many that often I feel, in a new environment, a pull to try a poem based in that setting, that history. It's definitely a mix. When I go to teach I often do some exercises where the writers pick words and have to use them in a poem -- it frees the imagination at times to write about what you didn't really plan to.
AL: When you think of the word "hermetic" what immediately comes to mind?
LL: Probably because we have a Hermes store nearby, when I hear "hermetic" I think of Hermes the god who the store must have also been thinking of: his elegance and eloquence and his being a leader of commerce. I think of how Hermes guided the dead on their way. And I think of Ira Herman who invited me once to read with Ken Kesey who was also eloquent, now dead, quite magnetic and magical when he wasn't. I think too of Emily Dickinson, not only for being separate but because of her poems, separated by fusion, air tight. And who could not think of cookies, hermit cookies, spicy, sweet or Emily's tropical birds, darting from petals to stamens to petals, alchemical. Writing this, I am also reading Millay's letters, how on March 4, 1926 from Steepletop (where I spent one September, feeling very isolated) she wrote to Edmund Wilson saying "we have been snowed in. I mean hermetically 4 weeks today, Five miles on snow shoes.... to fetch the mail or post a letter."
AL: What poets past or present have influenced your work the most and why? Also, what are your thoughts on surrealism, surrealist literature?
LL: I wrote my Master's Thesis on Dylan Thomas so I must have been somewhat influenced by him though I don't see it myself. I did an undergraduate thesis on Federico Garcia Lorca. My love of repetition, ominous beauty likely was influenced by his poems. And I worked on my PhD with a major in 15th, 16th and 17th century English (British) poetry. My PhD dissertation, which I wrote 100 pages of, dealt with Wyatt, Sidney and Donne. I know Wyatt's ragged, thought being thought-out style, breathless, not seeming to be polished and carefully written down, like the poems of Sidney, appealed much more to me. I think he as if I was just thinking the thought out, influenced my poems, often breathless. When I left SUNY at Albany, I had read very little contemporary poetry and plunged into writers like Sexton and Plath and probably Williams. I easily remember reading Sexton's “The Double Image" in a parked car in snow and being so taken by the emotion, that startling, personal quality that was so stunning, so moving. Not knowing that much about other contemporary writers, I took out many, many library books, discovered Paul Blackburn, Creeley, Wakoski, Piercy and began ordering small press books and magazines. There I discovered poets quite unlike Dryden, Pope, Donne and Herbert, poets in the meat and mimeo school like Bukowski, DR Wagner, Steve Richmond, DA Levy. Every time I read a new magazine Wormwood, Goodly Company, El Corno Emplumado, I discovered wildly exciting poets. It was a wonderful and powerful set of discoveries for me. New York Times Book Review section had a cover photograph of many of the small and smallest press magazines. I found there was a program of poetry every Tuesday around noon on a PBS radio station and I always took the phone off the hook and listened. When I worked as an editor at a local PBS TV station I was fascinated by a series of programs called "USA Poetry" with writers like Ed Sanders, Michael McClure, Anne Sexton. I was enthralled. Soon I was included in an issue Rolling Stone did of 100 up and coming poets. I'm sure, too, I have been influenced by so much of the poetry by women I read in my several versions of Tangled Vines, a collection of mother and daughter poems, as well as women writing in two other of my anthologies, Ariadne's Thread and Lips Unsealed. I was a fine arts history minor in college and of course studied surrealism in art and a little in literature. I've certainly been influenced by their influence on American poets like Bly and the poets he published.
AL: Lyn, when did you start writing? What was the drive, the catalyst that made it inevitable that you write?
LL: I started writing when, at 6; I skipped from first grade to third grade because I read at an advanced level. As a result, I never learned long division, was always lost in math. But I loved to read and write. An excellent teacher, Mrs. Flag, read us Longfellow and Keats and had us write our own poems. She would bring apple blossoms and boughs in and have us look and touch, smell and taste and then write our own poems. I have blue thin notebooks of poems from then many but the poem that I had to write is the one I remember best. I grew up in a small town, Middlebury, Vermont, and we lived on Main Street. One weekend I copied a poem of Blake's. We were reading him at the time. I showed it to my mother, told her I wrote it. In a town of 3000 it wasn't surprising my mother ran into that teacher, excited, said what an inspiration she had been, how I used words she didn't even know I knew. By Monday, I had to write my own poem and it had to have "rill," "nigh" and "descending," in it.
AL: In terms of literature and psychology, do you believe that your subconscious leads you when you write? What are your thoughts on the psychological aspects of writing, literature?
LL: I do think the subconscious is connected to what I write. I used to say once I wrote something it became true, then it happened. In some workshops I have had students use dreams and dream exercises, day dreaming to let poems be triggered. And I've often written poems based on dreams. I suppose many images come from the sub- conscious, the strangeness in some poems, the stories I have no idea where they came from, the surreal. The title poem of Black Apples is a poem called "The Dream of Black Apples, War". Somehow it came quickly, quietly from a dream and anticipated much that did happen later. The connection is one that is fascinating. I recently read that the predisposition to suicide can be determined by the use of some pronouns over others. I always want to read more about how memory works especially after editing my collection of women's memoirs, Lips Unsealed. I think it is very tangled with the subconscious I don't think any of the arts is separate from it.
AL: What's your favorite curse-word?
LL: My favorite swear word is one I probably never used but would love to. In college my roommate, from Rochester, with a definite Rochester accent and knowledge of Yiddish was always trying to teach me phrases that were very stunning but I could never quite say them right I think. I loved one, it sounded like "Vergo Harvit" or something like that and it meant drop dead I think very piercing word sounded like what it meant. But I never quite got it right.
AL: Thank you very much for allowing me to conduct this interview. Do you have any thoughts you'd like to share before we conclude?
LL: Well one important thing to me is that everyone know if they don't that Black Sparrow Books now will be published by David Godine press as Black Sparrow/David Godine Books. Their new spring catalogue is just out with their back list and my new book, Another Woman Who Looks Like Me, will be published by them soon. They can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org phone is 800-344-4771 and fax is 800- 226-0934 and published recently is my new book from March Street Press and you can order that through Amazon.com or contact the publisher at email@example.com and still available is a documentary film about me called Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass distributed by Women Make Movies. Telephone is 1-212-925-0606 Fax is 1-212-925-7002 and e mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And my web site with lots of everything is www.lynlifshin.com
This interview originally appeared in the literary webzine, Tin