by Lyn Lifshin

I always thought I would get my PhD so I could write. But I ended up writing because I didn't. I had skipped so many years in school, I thought I would be 20 when I got it: I had all A's, had finished the course work, passed all the language exams and had written 100 pages of a suitably academic topic: a comparison of the translation of the psalms by Wyatt and Sidney. Mysteriously, these 100 pages disappeared from my office. 

My PhD experience seemed to be going  well until the final oral exam. But there were a few clues to what was ahead. I got a note suggesting I dress in a way that was more professional and dignified and always wear my hair up. This phrase ended up in a poem, one of my most anthologized poems. Once, intent on fitting into the mold, I sprayed my upswept hair with bug spray.

When I applied for an instructorship, I was told no, that "as a woman," 
I didn't have a family to support. 

The day of my oral exam I dressed in particularly conservative mud colored suits, my hair up. The college had gone from a teacher's college to an instant university. ( it was so new they had planted the wrong trees that in months were hitting the ceiling and bending over.) Their prize "catch" a man who had written The Milton Dictionary and Last Words of Famous Dying Men looked at me and asked what I thought of adultery and bed bugs.  It was downhill after that. The exam embarrassed everyone. I was the first candidate for their new PHD program- they even had asked me how long the exam should go on! They decided to give me a written exam a month later, on November 15. I was to identify and correct 75 misquotes from 17th century poetry, say why the original was better. The second half of the poem was simply to explicate a part of Herbert's THE TEMPLE. I  loved 17th  century poetry and had fun with that part. And explication didn't seem like a big deal. I left there to celebrate. The I got a phone call: Yes, I had identified all the quotes but in the second part I was told that being Jewish, I didn't have enough sympathy with English Anglicanism to work in that period. Couldn't I just have a baby?

The best revenge after divorce some ad says is living well. I thought the best revenge for being booted out of where I thought I would spend my life, was writing and publishing well. I had no idea where to start and felt I had to catch up. I had never taken a writing course, had spent so many years in graduate school where I read nothing contemporary. All this time a very encouraging note on a poem of mine from Robert Frost, plus the invitation to show him more (which I didn't have) gave me confidence that sometime I would write.  Turning away from everything academic I began ordering sample magazines from the International Dust Directory, at that time a small, stapled edition where I learned about magazines I'd never seen, including one called The Caller from a funeral parlor that only published poems about death! I was immediately intrigued by the Outsider, a beautifully printed magazine published by Jon and Lou Webb. Five dollars for a Bukowski edition seemed outrageously high but I bought it. Now it probably is valued at over 500 dollars. I was drawn to magazines with names like Lung Socket Review, Open Skull, Outcast, Vagabond, Earth Rose, Marijuana Quarterly, Wormwood, Goodly Co, Apple, Entrails, Hearse.  It was from a large submission to the last issue of Lung Socket that my first book, WHY IS THE HOUSE DISSOLVING 

I still had had no contact with other writers. When I read about a Boulder Writer's Conference I applied. I didn't realize I needed to be recommended by a creative writing teacher. Forgot about it but then, found a scholarship offer in the mail! That summer I won the poetry award there. Still I was completely on the outside. In one later interview I said "I was living like a nun but writing like a hippie." I never considered having a magazine of my own, or needing to network in any way. I probably felt isolated but I thought all writers were. This was in the early 70's and within a few years I had published widely enough to be included in two well known anthologies of women poets: PSYCHE; THE FEMININE POETIC CONSCIOUSNESS. There are 20 poets starting with Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, May Swenson, Denise Levertov and ending with Plath, Sexton, Marge Piercy and me. That same year I was included in Rising Tides which starts with Marianne Moore and Edna St Vincent Millay and as the back cover says, goes to lesser known poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Adrienne Rich and Lyn Lifshin. 

In the 70's and 80's I did many readings  around the country, was the subject of a documentary film that was shown at film festivals, in Hawaii, got several awards, was in many anthologies. It seemed, then, there was funding for everyone. I sold my papers to archives, was offered several poet in residence positions. Though I was publishing chapbooks and books, and these were usually reviewed in places like Library Journal, Choice, New York Times Book Review, more people saw my work in the many magazines I published in. MS 
Magazine and Rolling Stone were great places to publish since their distribution was so wide. In the early 70's The New York Times Book did a front page article about the small independent press scene with a display of lively, off beat, quirky often mimeographed magazines. Rolling Stone did an issue of 100 up and coming poets, an incredible variety.

When I moved to the DC area in the early 90's I was astonished that poets, outside of some establishment settings, ( universities, Shakespeare Folger, Library of Congress etc) were not paid to read. From my first reading at a small college, I never read in New York or anywhere across the country without pay! Often very good pay! Poets and Writers is wonderful. But I was paid everywhere. I was shocked at the fragmented, cliquish scene. I had two books published in 94 and 95, strong beautifully printed books: Blue Tattoo, on The Holocaust, the other on Marilyn Monroe but they were hardly reviewed. In my new book I have a poem about the humiliation of trying to place those books in one of the bigger independent bookstores in DC.  Around that time I heard about a panel called "Ethical Smoozing" and thought it was a joke. But I began to wonder. Publishing and promoting work seemed to be becoming more competitive, difficult. About 20 years after I first approached Black Sparrow Press, after a manuscript in the Houghton Mifflin award contest was one of two finalists but not the winner, and Black Sparrow had said they liked the poems but were over-booked, I wrote them again.

I was thrilled when they published COLD COMFORT in Oct 1997 just after the Washington Post did a magazine feature on me, centering on how I lived as a poet who was really outside any and every group. 

In the last two and a half years I have not been submitting to magazines as I had for almost 30 years. I am sure news of the publication of COLD COMFORT was spread effectively though bio notes in those magazines and I hope news of my latest Black Sparrow book, BEFORE IT'S LIGHT doesn't suffer from my no longer publishing everywhere.

For me Black Sparrow seems for me the best of two worlds: staying an outsider but having a press that is well known, established, well distributed and I hope will be around (unlike many of the small presses who did other books and before I could get more copies, disappeared) a long time.

Have I gotten the best revenge by writing well? I've gotten snide comments like "How many poems did you write today?" and the head of a famous writing conference sneered that I wrote too much, I ought "to make each man, each poem seem like the last one." (As if writing a publishing a lot was like sleeping around)  (Of course he wanted to be one of them) I've been nominated for the Push Cart prize probably 700 timesâ€ďand never won.  I think I'm the Susan Lucci of the Pushcart. But I don't think I could have done it any other way.

Last Updated:
December 27, 2000