Who Writes Ten Poems A Day
Lifshin is America's most published poet.
And that's why nobody knows her name.
By Mary Battiata
Sunday, August 17,
1997; Page W21
The Washington Post
Dig the hair.
I mean, she wants you to. She's written poems about it. Her fairy-tale
hair. Rapunzel hair, so bottle-blond and bright and unexpected
around her papery, fiftysomething face that when she comes to
the door it's all you see -- flash! -- framing her eyes (huge
and dark), blanketing her shoulders and sledding down her tiny
Tinkerbell back. Wild hair, hippie hair. Ropes of hair. There
should be a tiny prince climbing it, coming to save her. Hair
like hay, hair like straw. Isn't that Rumpelstiltskin down in
the basement, pulling the stuff out of her hairbrushes and spinning
it into gold?
real spinner is this wisp of a woman at the door. A poet. The
one who spins the straw of everyday life into something fine,
finds meaning in chaos, said T.S. Eliot, shows you things that
you never would have seen on your own.
she would be the one to notice the oddball goose paddling out
there on the drainage pond behind the town houses opposite the
Vienna Metro stop. That she would jot its band number on the back
of a notebook.
up if they're really hungry," she says in a whispery soprano.
"They're really strong and when they brush up against you, you
really feel their weight and their muscles. But this one seemed
different. Friendlier. And somehow, to not really fit in with
some phone calls, wrote some letters, consulted the ornithologists
at Operation Migration in Airlie, Va. Bird K721 turned out to
be from the flock of 15 geese that tracked an ultralight plane
from Canada down into the Carolinas, eventually inspiring last
year's movie "Fly Away Home." Bird K721 had been the missing goose,
wintering apart from the rest of the flock, never seen in this
country after that first migration. Until he appeared at her pond.
be that, too. In the wider world, for sure, where poets and their
poems are only faintly visible, like the moon after sunrise, wheeled
out to lend lyricism to presidential inaugurations, and paid a
small stipend by the Library of Congress to insist that poetry
amount of isolation is part of the job. Poetry, someone once said,
is an overreaction to life. A poet exaggerates experience in order
to see it more clearly. Poems don't get written in a crowd.
When we're at
cocktail parties, we're all politicians, W.H. Auden said. It's
only when we're alone that we're poets.
But a poet
can be an outsider even in a flock of other poets.
especially among other poets.
Hey, a poet said
to another poet who said to a writer who said to an editor who
said to me, did you know that the most published poet in America
is living right here in Washington? That's right -- more than
92 books of poetry, more than Robert Frost, than Allen Ginsberg,
than . . . well, you get the idea.
published poet in America?
of published poems. And get this. Almost nobody in town even knows
who is it?
Unless you're a poet, overwhelming odds are you've never heard
her name, and never seen even one of her 90-odd books. That's
because Lyn Lifshin, onetime literary celebrity in Upstate New
York, uneasy Washington transplant, embodies poetry's paradoxical
profile in late 20th-century America.
parsed by poet and essayist Dana Gioia in the Atlantic Monthly
not too long ago, is this: Poetry's importance in American cultural
life has narrowed to the vanishing point at the same time that
its specialty audience has never been larger. That audience, the
product of a two-decade-long boom in graduate school writing programs
and little poetry magazines -- there are now more than 2,000 of
the latter -- is avid. But outside it, the audience for poetry
has never been smaller.
a time, poems appeared on the front pages of newspapers, children
memorized long stanzas in school. Today, aside from an invigorating
vogue for performance poetry -- for poetry slams and cowboy verse
-- interest in the once mighty art is largely confined to those
writing programs and obscure journals, which very few people,
including their contributors, really read.
is full at the moment of people who want to write poetry, but
who for the most part, alas, don't want to read it," says Gioia.
It is that
world that Lyn Lifshin rules by volume. She is known as the Queen
of the Little Magazines. For 25 years, she has been publishing
her poems just about anywhere that would have her. In large-circulation
venues occasionally -- in Rolling Stone and Ms. and the Christian
Science Monitor -- but mostly in the little magazines. Thousands
of poems, mailed out so fast and furiously that the fat envelopes
have been known to arrive on editors' desks with a long hair or
two stuck to the sealing tape. She's submitted her poems to any
place that looked promising, or cool or just plain interesting.
Tiny presses, obscure journals, like the Texas magazine published
by a mortician that only takes poems about death.
achievement has not conferred universal acclaim, or even respect.
plenty of admirers. "Lyn Lifshin's poems stay on my bathroom wall
longer than anyone else's," Ken Kesey once said.
higher you go, the fainter the praise. And among a surprising
number of poets, the name Lyn Lifshin is as likely to elicit a
groan as an admiring word.
poems, is the general line. Too much hair. Too much.
won none of the country's top poetry prizes -- no Pulitzer, no
Pushcart. She has no profile at all in the country's handful of
blue-chip poetry journals, or its prestige magazines -- the New
Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review.
"You write about
nothing we care about," the editors of one such journal wrote
to her once, long ago.
poets, Lyn Lifshin makes her living from poetry alone. She has
no university teaching job. And no other job, either. She does
not sell insurance (Wallace Stevens) or work in a bank (T.S. Eliot).
She makes her living from her poetry. Writing it, reading it,
selling her books, her papers, whatever works.
does it get you, being the most published poet in America at a
time of poetry's great distress? What does it mean to be the Queen
of the Little Magazines when even your fellow poets aren't reading
a year in your best year, and that wasn't last year.
and thousands of poems. But posterity does not award an A for
effort. By what yardstick do you measure a life in art?
salesmen got nothing on this poet. Lyn Lifshin is at Union Station,
waiting in line for the noon train to New York City. She will
travel nearly 12 hours to read for 12 minutes in a basement room
at the main branch of the public library in Englewood, N.J., across
the Hudson River from Manhattan. Where, in front of a small audience
sitting in uncomfortable yellow plastic chairs, she will be introduced
with a flourish worthy of the "Tonight Show," as "the illustrious
Lyn Lifshin! Who's come all the way from Vienna, Virginia, to
be with us!"
in the long beige line of trench coats and suits, she looks less
illustrious and more like some time traveler from "The Strawberry
Statement." The black velvet fisherman's cap is set at an angle,
and her eyes are hidden by dark, wire-rimmed John Lennon spectacles.
She wears a miniskirt and knee-high black boots.
a small suitcase on a little leash. Small but deadly. The thing
must weight at least 50 pounds. (When we try to lever it up into
the overhead bin on the train, it slips back and nearly decapitates
it turns out, is packed solid with copies of her books. Before
the reading she will line the books up on a library cart, alongside
the books of the other poets, in hope of selling some.
know what to expect," she says, apologetically. "I don't know
if this is going to be amateur hour or what. They warned me there
was going to be a poet who tells jokes. They also said there would
be a children's group. And music. It could be anything. I really
New York, the wind outside Penn Station is frostbite fierce. It's
8 degrees. She's standing on the corner, waiting for a fellow
poet's ancient red Saab, to hitch a ride to the gig across the
has been nearly canceled twice on account of snow warnings. It's
starting to flurry now. But at least she knows where she's sleeping.
That's something. In the past, she's been given the top bunk in
the children's bedroom. She's shared guest rooms with pet rabbits.
She's gotten up more than once in the middle of the night to line
a too-soft cot with her own books so she could get a few hours'
headliner tonight. But there's nothing rarefied about this group.
There is a sweet-voiced, gray-haired doctor from Trinidad who
reads poems from his book, Love Massage, while the record player
spins jazz and his brother pounds a tall drum. There is a baby-faced
man in his seventies who introduces his poems with a joke, delivered
in a fake Yiddish accent: "I'll tell you vat happens to me if
I write a poem in the morning," he says. "I go from bed to verse
. . . "
two accomplished poets with poems about life in New Jersey, and
then there's the large, cheerful woman who organized the reading.
She introduces herself as a performance poet, which in this case
seems to have everything to do with pulling on a pair of red leather
kid gloves ("my trademark") and declaiming, with great passion
and at considerable volume, a poem about a friend who died of
There are about
80 people in the audience. Women who chat about leaving their
husbands and teenagers to fend for themselves at dinner time.
Students, writer types and library patrons. Not a bad draw for
a rainy, fogged-in Thursday night in downtown Englewood, which
is quaint until about 8 p.m., after which it feels kind of spooky,
even at the local Starbucks equivalent, where people are bravely
downing coffee and keeping the night at bay.
wakes them up.
a Holocaust poem called "On the Way to the Gas," from a book called
"The woman is
naked,/her damp hair/in strings."
Then a poem
about her thwarted, unhappy mother, who'd always wanted to be
an actress, who lived vicariously through her eldest daughter,
who telephoned several times a day, who always brought her own
bedsheets when she came to visit: "She thinks of my life/ as a
bed only she/can make right."
Then a Marilyn
Monroe poem, "Marilyn Decides to Go Meet Elvis," that begins,
"She was always/good at getting/whoever was near/her skin, so
a/swim under the/earth's skin for/thirty-two years/takes her not/too
far from/Memphis . . ." and ends, "She could/be Norma Jean/again;
they'd/get some new digs/in Grenada or/Hattiesburg, let/the Mississippi/rock
and roll/them to the/sea."
her best-known poem, from her first book, an angry, personal anthem
from the '70s, "The No More Apologizing The No More Little Laughing
Blues." It's a travelogue through all the borders she ever crossed
as she slowly figured out what she was, a "so there!" to the academic
adviser who sabotaged her, the relatives who wanted to know when
she was going to get a real job, the lovers who suggested she
give up poetry for a wedding ring, the unhappy husband, the overattentive
laughed the apologizing/oh i don't want no trouble laugh/over
the years pretending to cook/pretending to like babying/my husband/the
only place i said what i meant/was in poems that green was like
some/huge forbidden flower until it grew so/big it couldn't even
fit in the house/ . . . you know i pretended/pretended pretended
i/couldn't stop trying to please/the A the star the good girl/on
the forehead you know the spanking/clean it haunted half my life/but
the poems had their own life/and mine finally followed/where the
poems were growing/warm paper skin growing/finally in my real
bed/until the room stopped spinning for/good the way it used to
when i dressed/up in suits and hairspray/pretending to be all
those things i/wasn't: teacher good girl lady/wife . . . now when
i hear myself laughing/the apologizing laugh i know what/swallowing
those black seeds can/do i spit them out like tobacco/ . . . nothing
good grows from the/i'm sorry sorry only those dark/branches that
will get you from inside."
bent over a little music stand, in her wine-colored velvet miniskirt,
hair nearly covering her face, voice rising and falling, daring
and insinuating. Offstage, she is vague, faintly blurred. When
she reads, she snaps into focus, she gets hard and bright.
It is almost 11
p.m. when the reading finally ends. She has been sitting in a
chair in the front row listening politely to the other poets for
nearly two hours. Now it's off in search of a diner for the first
meal of the day, then sleep on a fellow poet's fold-out couch.
12 minutes, Lifshin will be paid $250. "My standard fee," she
says. Some bravado there. As a working poet, she refuses to perform
for free. But money is much more scarce than it was when she was
starting out. This is her first paid reading in a while.
were big fans, and the convicts, too, and the American poet-priest
who sent her pornographic letters on Vatican stationery all the
way from Rome, and the student who mailed her dolls and said he
wanted to kidnap her.
has written books of poems about Shaker women, the Holocaust,
Barbie dolls, Jesus, Emily Dickinson.
But early in her
career, until about 10 years ago, there were a lot of poems about
love. And sex. Thinking about it, ruing it, missing it, doing
it. Some of those books had covers illustrated with a photograph
of the poet.
Skin Off is illustrated with a naked doll. Upstate Madonna has
a photo of Lyn Lifshin in fur coat, long hair, high boots. In
Reading Lips, the pages themselves are printed with a pattern
of faint red lipstick smudges.
of an early book, Black Apples, shows the poet with lips glossed,
hair streaming, eyes limpid and rimmed with kohl. Looking a lot,
in fact, like another literary vamp, Anais Nin.
poetry launched her.
"Now a lot
of women are writing erotic poems, with images that are much more
startling and explicit," she says. "But I guess at that point
there weren't that many. The book seemed to jolt people.
really changed. People began writing to me. A convict sent me
a bottle of champagne. People were camping out in my back yard.
I was getting weird phone calls. I'd do a workshop and someone
would call up and say, `I'm in prison, but I'll be getting out
in four years, can I come and visit you?' It was liberating. It
was a way to climb out of a crypt -- a way out of claustrophobic
Middlebury, Vt., where she grew up in one of the town's few Jewish
families. Where her silent, brooding father toiled unhappily in
his brother-in-law's department store before divorcing her mother
Where her unhappy
mother stayed at home, obsessively interested in her daughter's
life and feelings.
the good daughter, a straight-A student, who skipped grades and
won the science prize, a pudgy duckling who wanted to be a swan,
who wanted to be a cheerleader, ride in fast cars, cross the state
line to New York to drink.
her first poem at 6. Plagiarized William Blake, then was forced
by her mother's and teacher's enthusiastic reaction to come up
with something of her own. Her first reviewer was Robert Frost,
who used to buy his green farmer's pants in her uncle's store.
Her father showed the poet his daughter's poem. He liked the imagery,
scrawled, "Very good, so saith Robert Frost," and asked to see
As an undergraduate
at Syracuse University, she tried acting, music, painting. Nothing
touched her like words. The plan was to teach English so she could
write. She wound up writing because she never got the chance to
teach. She was closing in on her PhD at the age of 20 when she
clashed with her adviser ("He said I didn't have the `religious
background' to teach 17th-century English literature"), failed
her oral exam and dropped out. She married, unhappily ("I never
really expected to be happy married; my parents weren't"), worked
at odd jobs -- writing for a local television station, writing
mental health reports. Slipped into depression herself. Until
she sat down one day and wrote two poems. She dropped them in
a mailbox in Albany, N.Y. One was accepted by a little magazine
was a way to try on different ways of being free," she says.
to be wild and daring and, in a way, I could be that way in a
nothing to do with academe, with the professors who told her she'd
better put her hair up, dress like a grownup if she ever expected
to get a job. Instead, she sought out the little magazines, the
ones with the odd names, cool names. Marijuana Quarterly. [Expletive]
You, a Magazine of the Arts. Outsider. The Caller.
a brazen poetic voice and chose a wardrobe to go with it -- leather
pants, sequins and lace. It was a costume, she says now, a persona
she was trying on. But most people failed to make the distinction.
traveled for readings to California, and even when she didn't,
there would be stories that she was summoning men to her hotel
room, like a rock star. There are poets who claim she used to
send photographs of herself with her poetry. In a graduate school
film documentary about her, a poetry editor admiringly recalls
her appearance at one reading "in the shortest miniskirt I've
Lifshin, the wild woman of Ann Arbor!" says a New York editor
who remembers seeing her there in the '70s.
she says. Didn't happen. The miniskirt, yes. But she's never been
to Ann Arbor.
never sent pictures of herself with her poems. It was the editors
of her books who plucked the erotic poems from the rest of her
submissions, and who chose the cover illustrations.
who liked them, the persona and the poems -- frank, and frankly
sexual -- were courageous, pioneering even, a defiant jab at those
who thought lady poets should be pale, demure things in loose-fitting
frocks and pearls. Part of the larger cultural, sexual and political
rebellion. To those who didn't like them, they seemed cheap.
written erotic poems for at least 10 years, and when she looks
back at them now she thinks that most of her sexual imagery was
used with anger, for punch more than for its erotic quality. She's
had trouble deciding where to put those poems in her new collection.
They don't seem to fit.
poetry pinup reputation has been slow to fade.
"In the beginning,
I was so cloistered. I'd never even had a drink. I was completely
isolated from the writing community. So to find I could write
these poems and get this attention -- in a way I was happy about
it. The poems and the clothes were a mask, a performance. But
then it did get old."
"I do think
any poem that's any good should disturb somebody," she says. "It
should make you spit or laugh or hate the poet, even. The worst
thing a poem can do is tell you something you already know."
More Apologizing": "[W]ell when the poems first came/out one woman
i drove to school with/said i can't take this another said/i don't
know this can't be the you/i know so brutal violent/which is the
real/the man i was with moved to/the other side of the bed/this
was worse than not having/babies his mother said they/always knew
I was odd . . . "
poets rarely give each other a bad review, especially if the poet
is head of the creative writing program in the next town. But
in private, poets are given to arias of passionate opinion.
To her fans,
the appeal of Lyn Lifshin's poetry goes beyond technical merit.
content that attracts a very loyal crowd," says Lee Briccetti
of Poet's House, a New York-based clearinghouse and library for
American poetry. "Her marriage, her divorce, figuring out who
thins out as you ascend poetry's Parnassus, until at the most
exalted realms, at the most prestigious poetry journals and quarterlies,
and among the university poets, the disdain is Olympian and scorching.
Some of the criticism is about the poetry itself. And some about
stylistic range, not enough crescendo and diminuendo," says an
editor of a respected national poetry review. "She's like a singer
with one octave, when you want two or three."
late '60s, she was famous for producing poems at an incredible
rate. The problem was, they weren't very good poems. They were
sort of wispy," says another editor.
Lyn Lifshin," groans a leading national poetry critic. "Well,
she's dedicated to poetry. Her work has been abundantly around.
But she's not a blip on the screen -- not the slightest blip on
the screen. There's a difference between poems competent enough
for inclusion in a little magazine and something of abiding inspiration
or something in the vanguard of innovation. She's none of those."
a kind of whipping girl for establishment poets," says Dana Gioia.
"Again and again, someone with a comfortable job who doesn't write
any better will make snide and dismissive remarks because she's
own appraisal is kinder, but in the end, not much more enthusiastic.
It's not that she's too accessible, he says. The idea that you
have to be abstruse to be great died with Pound, Eliot and the
other modernists. There are plenty of poets around these days
for whom accessibility -- clarity -- is part of the ethos.
about resonance. Richard Wilbur, Ted Kooser, Julia Alvarez, Jared
Carter -- these poets, Gioia says, are superb technicians, too.
They use language with real depth and beauty. And it's there,
he says, that Lyn Lifshin comes up short.
always liked about her poetry was its emotional directness and
imaginative accessibility -- I always understood, at least in
her early poems, what she was writing about and what had motivated
her. But I was never particularly impressed by the depth of her
imagination, nor her gift for poetic language. A Lyn Lifshin poem
tends to be a relatively stripped down verbal machine, so it relies
almost entirely on its naked emotional impulse, and for me that's
not enough to make it memorable."
fans, that impulse is exactly what makes it valuable.
"I saw her
read before a large crowd in a barn in Upstate New York once,"
says Lee Briccetti. "This was not a literary crowd. They were
rapt. She casts a wide net, and she wants to speak to a wide audience.
She's not elitist, and that's maybe a reason why there's so much
on the page and on the street," says poet Grace Cavalieri, for
two decades host of "The Poet and the Poem," a weekly radio program
on Washington's WPFW. "She uses language with courage. She's like
a laser. She pulls people in because people love the truth."
in the New Yorker is only one measure of achievement. The one
that matters most, poets say, is being read when you're dead.
And on that score, there is at least one important voice who believes
Lyn Lifshin's detractors are wrong.
month, Black Sparrow, the prestigious and iconoclastic California-based
small press that made its name publishing post-beat poet Charles
Bukowski and other unruly voices, will publish Cold Comfort: Selected
Poems 1970-1996. Black Sparrow editor John Martin is as dismissive
of the New York poetry establishment as that establishment is
of Lifshin. At different times, he says, many of the great poets,
including William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Wallace
Stevens, were neglected by the establishment.
really talented poet who hasn't gotten the right exposure until
now," Martin says. "Nobody would publish Bukowski when I did.
Today he's at a million copies worldwide, in 15 languages. Now
I'm going to do the same for her."
"The leaves, Niskayuna,
the leaves" was the line Lyn Lifshin contributed to a round robin
poem that went around the country nearly 25 years ago. Several
poets still remember it. Niskayuna is the town outside Schenectady,
which is near Albany, where Lifshin still has a house (the house
she got in her divorce). It's almost paid off now.
to Washington a few years ago, to be with a man who came here
for an engineering job. It's been a long, slow adjustment. Up
there, she was a literary big fish -- "really I was the best-known
woman writer in Albany" -- holding workshops, giving readings.
has her answering machine at the Niskayuna house, but lately she's
been forgetting to call it. Someone comes in once a week and waters
the plants and makes sure the place hasn't burned down, or flooded.
But it isn't really home anymore. And here isn't either.
living in Washington, exactly: She's camping out in Vienna, in
that row of new town houses across from the Metro. Formal, beige
brick town houses with curving wrought-iron handrails and big
decks and bigger garages, planted in the middle of a treeless
swath of land that looks to have been part cornfield 10 minutes
ago. So deep into Edge City that the only topographical feature
of note is the one that attracted lone goose K721: a kind of moat-like
storm-water drainage pond, the kind that suburban town house developers
are forced to dig when they pave so much land that the ground
can't absorb the rain.
and no place.
slower in Upstate New York. The scene was smaller. Washington
is a literary big pond, the third most important poetry center
in the country after New York City and San Francisco, according
to Faye Moscowitz, who teaches creative writing at George Washington
University. There are three dozen poets here with national reputations
-- Henry Taylor, Carolyn Forche, Anthony Hecht among them. The
scene is big, and fragmented. There are the poets attached to
the university writing programs -- American University and GW
and George Mason. There are poets who group according to the kind
of poetry they write. Language poets, lyric poets, punk poets,
performance poets, the rhyme-and-meter guys. There are poetry
readings at bookstores, bars and libraries almost every night
of the week.
she'd be reading her poems on the late-night radio, like she did
in Schenectady. She thought she'd be in demand for readings. Before
Mother's Day she sent her anthology of mother-daughter poems around.
into poets at readings now and then. "People are friendly, but
they're busy, you know?
There are lots of different groups and each group is . . ." She
trails off. Shrugs.
more about networking and connections since I've been in Washington,"
she says, gliding downstairs into the kitchen. "Someone here told
me I have to start all over again."
Not great. Especially
since the last few years have been lean.
For a long
time Lifshin made most of her income -- a thousand or so a month,
on average -- doing readings and weekend workshops. They paid
a few hundred dollars each. In the '70s and '80s, there were enough
to eke out a living.
She also began
to sell her papers to universities. A librarian in New York came
and cleaned out her garage, took the boxes of old notebooks home
in his station wagon, catalogued them and helped her sell them
to the University of Texas at Austin for $10,000.
"Sometimes I really
wonder at my chutzpah. They offered me half that, and I had the
nerve to ask for more."
thought. This is great. I'll make a living just selling my papers.
And she did sell a few more boxes, but it's been harder and harder
to make a living ever since. The big bookstore chains -- Barnes
& Noble and Borders -- don't pay poets to read, and now a
lot of smaller bookstores are following suit. The kind of state
arts funding that once paid for poetry workshops at your local
library has dried up, too.
So she scrounges.
She sells her books when she can. Lately she's earned a few hundred
here and there selling poems to people who want to include them
in anthologies. Last year she dipped into savings.
when she's asked to give advice to young poets, part of her wants
to tell them to go to law school or become a chiropractor. "You
know, something that people really need."
is a necessity.
go through periods where I don't have a chance to write, I start
to feel edgy and resentful. It's like my drug of choice. If I
didn't have it, I don't know what I'd do."
poems, she thinks, have come out of rage and rejection.
about my ex-husband and his family I remember very clearly, I
think I wrote it throwing a temper tantrum. I had just found out
he was seeing someone else, and I was definitely inspired by that.
In another period, my mother was dying and writing definitely
helped me get through it."
can trigger a poem. A crack in the wall. The way a man's socks
are drooping. An image in a Bergman film, scribbled on a Wrigley's
gum wrapper on the way out of the theater.
When she first
moved to Washington, not knowing anyone, not having a car, she
took the Metro around town, went to museums, watched films in
the middle of the day, and came home and wrote poems about them.
get on a certain subject and I'll write a lot of poems, and they
won't be very good, but sometimes I have to get through them,
past them, to find out what's there. It's almost like practice.
I go from something physical and then look for the emotional feelings
If a writer
is someone on whom nothing is lost, she qualifies. She has perfect
recall of rhythmic, ticklish lines from childhood books: "Tattoo
was the mother of Pinkle Purr." She can still see the way the
apple blossoms looked out the window of Mrs. Flag's third-grade
class. The way "the flowers connected to the bark and how the
green unraveled out of the underside, the pale rose color, the
heavy spring morning, the air totally still and damp."
she tells her poetry workshops. Learn to trust your senses. Don't
wait until you have something to say. Just write. Start
fast with any thought and let it free-flow. The act of writing
is not just a reflection of what you see but a way to see, to
shape and transform. The deeper you go into yourself, said Anais
Nin, the more you touch others.
writing works like this:
to write every day. She writes her poems out in longhand. Types
them up. Looks for the added meaning she can get by ending lines
in unexpected places.
lays the finished poems out on the floor, decides what to send
where, sometimes makes copies, and mails them out. Just as she
did the very first time, 25 years ago, working from a directory
of small presses she found at the public library.
If a poem
comes back, rejected, she changes the address on the envelope
and tosses it back out again. She's always got poems orbiting.
Poets say it takes an average of eight submissions for every acceptance.
150 notebooks -- 70 pages each -- full of poems she hasn't even
had time to type yet.
Who Writes Ten Poems a Day":
as if the
of her calms
So what's a poem
supposed to do, anyway?
required to make the poet famous, or rich, or to win her universal
love and respect.
therapy. Not just. Not if it's any good.
No. A poet's
eye transforms the landscape, unlocks something inside. Like a
song lyric, a melody, a color against another color in a painting.
Like a gray jar on a hillside in Tennessee, said Wallace Stevens.
person, T.S. Eliot said, "falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and
these two experiences ave nothing to do with each other, or with
the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind
of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes."
So a poet
happened to alight beside a large round drainage ditch full of
water opposite the Metro in Vienna, Va., in a bulldozed plain
stuck between traffic arteries and school bus parking lots, in
the middle of the flat, T-squared suburban sameness that can crush
the sense out of anyone.
sat at her window and saw a goose on the water, and started to
write. About her "pond." Which, through the power of her imagination,
soon became something quite sylvan.
Which had Operation
Migration writing to ask if she would consider adopting a flock
of orphan swans.
a camera onto a tripod, watched the water all winter, waiting
for the goose to come back.
In the meantime
she wrote goose poems. More than a dozen of them: "Walking Past
the Pond at Night, December, Record Breaking Warm," and "Geese
Like a Radio On All Night":
". . . it
was after mid/night when wings/and honks stirred/the lake. A skid/of
webs, flutter/in black silence./The moon revealed/nothing. I shut
the/light off, floated/under blankets like/eel grass, the radio/low,
waiting for their/cries like a woman/listening for a child/in
the next room."
been writing poems about a creature who is half swan, half woman.
wild, but also kind of wounded and hurt and lonely," she says
over the phone late one night. "Really wanting connection and
never feeling right in either world. She's intriguing, but also
kind of threatening, almost human but not human. She's something
that comes into your life and interrupts it -- something that
you might want to tame, but then you find it's taking over.
very strange poems, really. They're coming out in a couple of
never did come back. And she never adopted the flock of swans.
Instead, she wrote. And over time, a shorter stretch than most
poets might need, a different flock of swans appeared. Swans and
geese with more staying power. More real than real. These swans
and geese will live in the pond forever. They have already transformed
it. And it hardly matters what anyone else thinks of them. They
are their own selves, now, and their own reward. Impossible to
is a Magazine staff writer.
1997 The Washington Post Company