An Interview with Lyn Lifshin
1. The series of poems is intimate and sincere. What are the inspirations behind these pieces and did you find writing these poems a cathartic experience?
I always try to make anything I write seem tremendously personal and true. In a new collection, ALL THE POETS (MOSTLY) WHO HAVE TOUCHED ME, LIVING AND DEAD: ALL TRUE, ESPECIALLY THE LIES, I have poems about riding horseback with Sylvia Plath, a romance with Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern, spending Halloween with John Keats, musky nights with Garcia Lorca and running through damp wet grass with Emily Dickinson in our white but not prim dresses. I am always pleased when someone asks what was Dylan Thomas like and did Plath ride well. On my web site, www.lynlifshin.com, I have an essay called "So You Think I Wrote About You" that might be of interest. When I wrote the poem "Tentacles, Leaves," about a poet who staggers out of California to come east with broken shoes, 30 poets wrote me, sure I wrote about them. Any poem I write, even the least seemingly personal, is cathartic. I'm a little obsessive. If time goes by and I don't write, I feel wrong.
But, especially with the mother and daughter poems, I think I could not have chosen to not write them. I feel some of my strongest poems are mother and daughter poems. I had not started writing them, until I edited TANGLED VINES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF MOTHER AND DAUGHTER POEMS. Then I began to write many and they continued through the time of my own mother's illness and death and later too. Yes, they were cathartic to write: on the day my mother was dying I sat by her bed and wrote titles on every page of a spiral note book, filled the book. I never went back to write the poems.
But to this day, many years later, she comes back as a subject. Often I am stunned, can't believe it has been this long since we talked, this long since she complained that I wore my hair wrong or my dress was too short or I was too nice to men. I write a lot on the metro going to ballet classes, a two hour ride coming and going. Lately it often seems the only place I have time to write. Yes, unlike some of my poems, unlike recent poems promoted as "true stories," the mother and daughter poems tend to be. In her last months on her birthday she was amazed, received too many cards. But then, what do you get the dying? And when she said, "why don't you save them for another time," it stung. My third Black Sparrow book, from Black Sparrow at Godine, focuses a lot on my mother's life, our relationship, and then, after her death, looking back. Here are some of the sections in the book: Slippery Blisses; a Love of Blueness; from Another World; The days Between; Interlude; Flickering Light; Returning in Autumn; Things Behind the Sun; Darkness in the Light; The Wind Won't Carry Us. Glancing through, I am amazed that each section, with a few exceptions, is full of poems about my mother.
I think the image of a parent, a mother becoming what they were not, becoming smaller, dissolving, becoming frail, is an archetype and it haunts almost everyone. In "When My Mother Felt Like a Balloon Getting Smaller" -- so many things triggered that poem but I did think of how when she was not even that old she could sprint up Beacon hill in 5 inch heels. When, in her last months she had to sit down in the mall in what she called her "old woman's shoes," it was shocking.
Last Halloween, for a costume party, I decided to buy a sexy Spanish costume. It reminded me of the one my mother made for me. She didn't sew much or like to do it but for me she took a white long dress, dyed it red, pinned and made it into a pretty costume tho I always felt too plump in it and I think the Halloween parade was on a very cold night so it probably was covered up! Unlike most poems this one takes few liberties with facts. (In the end, I did not wear the new costume this last fall or go to the party!) (Maybe another poem in that).
2. Do you find it easier to write when you have such intense, personal involvement and emotion to pull from, or is it more difficult
I am not sure I would find it impossible to write about any subject. In fact, I like assignments: several of my books have come out of a suggested, requested subject, for an anthology, for example. Rick Peabody was doing anthologies on Marilyn Monroe and on Barbie. I had nothing on either subject, would never have chosen to write about either. But when asked, I not only wrote poems for them (or hopefully for them) but ended up with MARILYN MONROE POEMS, a book of my own and BARBIE. I really knew nothing about either. I had just moved to DC when I was writing about Marilyn and roamed the amazing museums and made up poems imagining what Marilyn would have been feeling and thinking. Marilyn Monroe fan clubs later were amazed at the facts they never knew. For Barbie, I did serious Barbie research. I did the same thing for requests for Denise Duhamel's anthology for Jesus poems and recently, my beautifully illustrated collection of Jesus poems, LIGHT AT THE END came out, a rather wild book. The request for poems for the anthology DICK FOR A DAY, led to several poems in my various Black Sparrow books. So for me, something I would not have chosen to write about is a wonderful trigger. Even if the poem doesn't end up in the anthology I wrote it for, like "Condom Chain Letter" it is usually a strong poem and gets me out of the trance I might have been in. When asked for poems for a collection about not having children, I wrote a series "The Daughter I Don't Have"-- so many of these suggested or requested poems have ended up in collections.
The poem, "The No More Apologizing, the no More Little Laughing Blues," is one poem I remember writing not in any "tranquility recollected" but in the middle of rage. And it worked. It is a signature poem. There was certainly a lot of emotion to draw from. But another signature poem, "Arizona Ruins" was written later, calmly. Both are central pieces.
But as I said, I do feel some of my strongest poems are mother and daughter poems. They are almost in a different category. When she was young and strong, I could explode at her wanting more closeness, less boundaries, more time together, more accountability than I felt was ok. But as she began to age, the poems I wrote in anger and frustration, evolved. She always was supportive of what I wrote, even if not flattering to her. The only thing I could do to upset her was to have a magazine come in the mail when she was visiting and somehow try to hide it, worried she'd be offended. Whatever I wrote, she knew I loved her.
I think the emotion, the strangeness of the last days, the intensity, the fact I was pretty much isolated with her for much of the time when I would sit with her for hours talking, jotting things down, capturing her words made it easier to write. In her last two years, I interviewed her. I have 12 tapes that I have not yet listened to. It is probably time to.
3. These three selections are composed with the coherency and voice of a self -reflecting, yet still searching young woman. Does addressing these sentimental moments through poetry serve as a coping mechanism in dealing with loss?
As I said, I think all writing is a way to cope-- even poems that are seemingly not personal. When I wrote THE LICORICE DAUGHTER: MYYEAR WITH RUFFIAN about the famous race horse, I spent a year living, dreaming, fantasizing her. It was an extremely essential way for me to cope at that time. She became my world. And when I wrote about the race horse, Barbaro, injured in the Preakness, nationally watched for many months as people hoped for a recovery, I was in that zone.
But probably my mother and daughter poems have connected with even more people. I get many letters about how my poems helped not only me get through some terrible times and loss but have helped others too. I think that is why TANGLED VINES stayed in print over 20 years and still sells!! In teaching workshops, I find that it is almost impossible to have students not write good poems on the subject: it is the most intense, most ambivalent relationship and I think that mix almost guarantees something interesting. In the most adoring poems, always a sliver of darkness. And in the most angry, something that suggests the daughter still wants connection. I get some of the best writing in this workshop. Writing about this reminds me that before John Martin at Black Sparrow took my first book and I agreed not to publish others, a press had a collection of my mother and daughter poems but it kept being delayed and delayed. At that point I wrote that I had agreed not to publish with anyone else for a while and withdrew the book. Time to look at it and listen to the tapes of my mother. My web site has so much more, photographs of us together, an award winning piece that won a Writer's Digest award: WRITING MINT LEAVES AT YADDO and many poems. www.lynlifshin.com