INTERVIEW WITH TIGER'S EYE SEPTEMBER 23, 2003
WE LIKE TO START THE INTERVIEW WITH BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION. CAN YOU GIVE US A THUMBNAIL SKETCH OF LYN LIFSHIN?
When my mother was a teenager, her mother was in such a terrible car accident that the newspapers in Vermont ran an article about my grandmother's death. Though not Catholic, my grandmother was rushed to Bishop de Gosbriand Hospital in Burlington, Vermont where the nuns said "you pray in your way and we will pray in ours." They brought my grandmother her friday night candles and the nuns prayed in their traditional way and my grandmother recovered. My mother swore she would have her first born baby at that hospital out of gratitude. I was born there in Burlington, Vermont on July 12. We lived in Barre, Vermont, a northern granite mining town for my first three years and then moved back to where my mother grew up, Middlebury, Vermont so my father could work in my mother's father's store. Not the best idea probably but one that led to my father becoming friendly with Robert Frost. Later, my father showed Frost my poems and Frost wrote some strong, positive comments on one. That gave me confidence I might not otherwise have had.
We lived in two rented houses in that small town until we moved into an apartment. For much of her life, my mother tried to get my father to want to buy a house so my sister and I would have a yard, a place to bring friends to. She never succeeded in making my father find that that important and the apartment was her last home.
Because I loved to read and learned to read before I went to school, I was considered "bright" and skipped from first year to third grade in a year. I kept skipping grades as a result of my reading ability but (maybe as a result) I never learned math. But even in third grade a teacher, Mrs Flag, read us much poetry and had us write our own poems. She would bring in apple blossoms and have us smell them, taste them, touch them. I still have many apple blossom poems from that time. Often I've told the story how one day I copied a poem of Blake's out, showed it to my mother, told my mother I wrote it and, since Middlebury had a population of about 3,000, it was not surprising she ran into that teacher, said what an influence she had been, so stimulating, how I'd written a poem with words my mother didn't even know I knew (rill, nigh and descending). So, by the following Monday I had to write my own poem using all those new words. Long before school I loved poetry: my copy of NOW WE ARE SIX, with its poems of Pinkle Purr and Alexander Beetle, and Where is Anne, you can see has been well used.
I was always the closest to my mother "like siamese twins" my sister would later say. I think some or many of my strongest poems are about her — rebellious poems when she and I were younger, sadder poems as she aged and became sick. She has been dead since August 20, 1990 but she is still a big part of my writing and dreaming life. My father was distant, quiet, aloof — a difficult, craggy often taciturn and probably not happy man who often I feel I never knew. But there were uncles and aunts, a sister, cousins.
I am a writer. I've taught, edited, written for magazines but mostly I am a poet.
WHERE YOU LIVE
I live between places, a tree-covered house in upstate New York and a place in Virginia on a small pond where, before the trees grew up, I actually saw one of the "real" geese from FLY AWAY HOME, the popular film based on Operation Migration, a scientific project headed by William Sladen to teach motherless geese to learn migratory patterns by following a small craft plane. I had seen the film, then, very soon, a banded goose. Intrigued and wanting to know more about geese, I thought Airlee Center, where Sladen worked, would have suggestions and information about geese. I had no idea that my "discovery" of this banded bird would be so important to them: no goose from Operation Migration had been sighted in United States and I suddenly found my phone machine full of messages like these: "Urgent, call at any time of the day or night." " We must speak to you immediately." Since I had seen that first goose, and the film maker happened to be in the area for a fund raising project, I was invited to be a guest: I was known as the discoverer of K721.
For a long time I 've waited in January for "my goose" to come back but so far, she hasn't.
BRIEF LIST OF PUBLICATIONS OR COMMENTS ABOUT PUBLICATIONS
Since I've published over 100 books and chapbooks, it's always hard to pick a favorite or say too much. Many of the early books were chapbooks and I wish I had kept extra copies of the many, many many that are now out of print. I was happy to find that two of the books from Wormwood Review, thought to be out of print, did turn up after Marvin Malone died and his daughter went through some forgotten boxes. So I do have some copies of both PAPER APPLES and PARADE. But many of the smaller books are either gone or I am down to one or two copies. Now I try to keep some, never knowing in this crazy world of publishing what will happen. I have seen some of my books for sale at extremely high prices, books ranging from 6 dollars to 90 dollars— the same book! WHY IS THE HOUSE DISSOLVING was my first book and of course I'm fond of it: It was during the mimeo magazine revolution and it got well reviewed, strongly reviewed even though it was stapled, had poems at times going in different directions (physically) on the page! I was compared to Creeley and Plath. Later my Crossing Press books were well reviewed and fairly well distributed. One sadness with them: I was learning to get extra copies. There was a glitch in getting together with John Gill, the publisher, just before he moved from upstate New York to California: All remaining copies of both BLACK APPLES and UPSTATE MADONNA were simply dumped, destroyed. To my horror, Totally unique are the several books done by Morgan Press. Hardly distributed, always gorgeous, some letter press, always in a limited edition, they definitely are collectors items. I heard from one person when he wanted to get a copy, buy copy, he was refused, not "qualified" to have my poems!. Ed Burton would give each author copies and though I have very few of the first four books he did LADY LYN, NORTH, COLORS OF COOPER BLACK and 40 DAYS, APPLE NIGHTS, I learned to keep more of the books they did more recently. Later Morgan Press did three simply breathtakingly beautiful books; PLYMOUTH WOMEN, READING LIPS and GLASS. They are all collectors items because they were virtually not distributed. Each is uniquely printed: GLASS has a piece of glass on the cover. READING LIPS has an imprint of lips folded inside out so a faint outline shows through every page. PLYMOUTH WOMEN has gorgeous illlustrations. Anyone who has seen a Morgan Press book knows how lovely they are. Burton was planning to do several others, a book of mad girl poems, Barbie poems, poems with the theme of blue— many books, when he died suddenly and young recently. There will be no more Morgan Press books. More recently Event Horizon published BLUE TATTOO, a collection of Holocaust poems and Quiet Lion did MARILYN MONROE poems. And JESUS ALIVE AND IN THE FLESH, a chapbook, is still available from Future Tense books. COLOR AND LIGHT is still available from Lilliput Press. I have copies of NOT MADE OF GLASS, the book that accompanied the award winning documentary film, LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS. This past fall, March Street Press published A NEW FILM ABOUT THE WOMAN IN LOVE WITH THE DEAD. I had always thought my Black Sparrow books would remain in print forever but now with a new publisher doing BLACK SPARROW, I am not sure. But they are available now. There are two out, COLD COMFORT and BEFORE IT'S LIGHT. My third Black Sparrow book is coming this winter, ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE ME. My Black Sparrow collections contain a variety of poems, — good selections of the different kind of poems I do. Gale Research series, in all libraries, has published autobiographies of me and just this past summer, an updated autobiography, all have a more complete list. My web site, www.lynlifshin.com has other books, listings, lots of information.
HOW AND WHEN DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN WRITING?
As I said earlier, I was read poetry at an early age and liked it immediately. I still have my pencil marked copy of NOW WE ARE SIX. I read very early and as I also said, in third grade had a teacher who encouraged us in a wonderful way. Each morning started with her reading to us. "The Children's Hour" was one of my favorites. She read a lot of poetry, including Milton, Blake, the author I mentioned stealing a poem from! We wrote poetry on a regular basis and I still have some of those blue books we filled with poems, my favorite part of the day I think.
I always wanted to write. But in college, I felt intimidated, thought I couldn't write enough, was afraid of criticism and competition. But I loved to read poetry: Wyatt, Donne, Lorca and Dylan Thomas. I wrote my Master's thesis on Dylan Thomas, a senior thesis on Lorca and began my PHD on Wyatt, Donne and Sidney.
YOU ARE SO PROLIFIC AT WRITING POETRY, WHAT ARE THE MECHANICS OF COMPLETING EACH POEM? DO YOU USE PAD AND PENCIL OR COMPUTERS?
I wish I did write poetry at a computer: it would definitely save the time and trouble reading my hand writing which is sometimes so atrocious I use up lots of time trying to figure the poems out. (I have though begun answering interviews at the computer — a real improvement. I do write poems, still, by hand in a spiral notebook. I don't have favorites but what I hate are leaky pens and some of the new line notebooks with sheets that tear off if you just breathe on them. So many of my ballpoint pens are old and constantly run out of ink so I'm always filling my pocket book, desk, night stand and the kitchen with them only to find I have to go through 10 till I find a good one with nice dark non smearing ink!
Often I write a poem with several variations, several possible image, endings. Often there are question marks, zig zag notes meaning I'm not sure, possible variations in each poem as to just where to end the poem, When I type the poem, I often type several variations, variations of line, words, spacing. Spell check is good but I think for me it has, I admit, made me less careful about proofing poems. The extreme revision comes when I pick poems for a book. Even though I have revised a poem several times before that, when I go to include it in a book, I revise and revise and revise and revise.
WHEN DO YOU WRITE (TIME OF DAY, WHEN SAD, BALL GAME ETC) AND WHERE
The pattern of when I write changes. In upstate New York I usually (when I wasn't traveling or teaching) had mornings free so I wrote in the morning after feeding the cat, often in bed with a cup of just brewed coffee. I worked all morning, had the afternoon often to deal with mail, too a ballet class, and came back and wrote or worked more. Or watched films. I taught a lot then so some evenings I had workshops in my house, I often tutored students there as well as teaching in various colleges and universities in the upstate New York area. I also did many workshops, connected to exhibits, at The New York State Museum and I did workshops with a dancer in her studio.
In Virginia, I take a ballet class most mornings which means I can write a little in the morning (too little) at the kitchen table before I leave but that's very little time for me. I write on the metro a lot. I often take ballet at night too and have a longer metro ride with a bit more time to write. I liked my time to write better up in NY but here there's so much ballet. When asked for poems for the anthology DICK FOR A DAY I didn't have any. But I wrote many poems about that on the subway and often used book jackets to camouflage what I was writing and reading as I did when asked to teach a workshop on sexuality. In the morning everyone is so serious and is usually reading a Washington paper. Anyway, one book I was reading for one workshop was rather explicit and so enormous almost no cover would fit so I had to use a cover from a steak cooking book. Just doing that became the subject of a series of funny, successful poems. One is in COLD COMFORT and another is in BEFORE IT'S LIGHT.
I write whatever mood I'm in. I like assignments: someone asking for poems on a subject or getting obsessed with something I've never really written about, as now I'm writing horse poems. When I'm traveling I take notes— sometimes they become poems as some did recently on a trip to Paris, (including at least one you have picked) though on my first trip to Europe I wrote a lot more travel poems than this time.
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU GIVE TO YOUR WRITING? DO YOU WRITE ON A DAILY SCHEDULE OR IN CLUSTERS?
I give too much of my time to writing. I know it but I'm not sure how to change it. It's not just the writing aspect but typing, submitting poetry. Because I am not attached to a university or to any particular group, I don't see how else I can get my work out without submitting it and publishing as much as I do, so though at times it feels frustrating and at times I get very tired of doing that. I did take a break from 1997 to about 2001. I think of doing something like this again. Soon. But on the other hand, I have my new book, ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE ME coming out and I do want people to know about it. So having that in a contributor note and also giving many readings seems necessary.
Then there is dealing with archival material. It's wonderful to sell boxes and know all that material is safe. In the past I edited several books, taught more than I do now. Teaching takes time and traveling to teach and do workshops—so I can't of course write without interruption. And those ballet classes take a lot of time. But I do write pretty regularly, very regularly. Sometimes if I'm working on a particular theme, I will write even more intensely. On the other hand, when I am editing and putting a book together, that seems to take all my time ane energy and I write little.
DO YOU WORK TOWARD GOALS OR LET IT FLOW?
I think I don't really think about goals so I guess you'd say I let it flow. But once poems are written and typed, I do hope they will find a home.
WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE POET? WHY?
It would take a book to answer this! At different times so many poets have been "favorite." I buy many poetry books and any list I'd make off the top of my head would leave too many out.
DO YOU CHOOSE SUBJECTS OR DO THEY CHOOSE YOUI think both: if someone is doing an anthology or asks me for poems on a subject, I always like that because it leads me to something new and fresh, something I might not have thought to write about. At the same time, there are poems with themes I go back to— family, nature, relationships, mother and daughter poems.
HOW IMPORTANT ARE REVISIONS TO YOUR POETRY
Very important, especially when I select poems for a book. Then I go over and over and over the poems and keep changing them. Otherwise I often have several versions of a poem, print them out, pick from them. I revise a lot more than many realize.
DO TITLES COME EASY? HOW IMPORTANT ARE THEY IN POETRY?
I often use the first line for a title of a poem. I've been known to use the same title several times which probably is confusing: like several poems called TUESDAY or LATELY. I like titles that are mysterious, intriguing, don't give too much away. With books, yes I have spent a lot of time with titles. The last book, BEFORE IT'S LIGHT, did take time. Then my publisher at Black Sparrow then came up with four poem titles and this seemed perfect. I have titles I also like that have never been used, hope they will be.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR MUSE, THE THINGS THAT INSPIRE AND INTRIGUE YOU
I never think of having a muse. On the other hand, almost anything can inspire me: a half heard conversation, someone else's poem, paintings, trips to museums— I love doing that and much of my book MARILYN MONROE POEMS involve trips to various Washington DC museums. My new, coming book, ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE ME (Black Sparrow-Godine) has a section of poems based on paintings. I like to people watch, I often use old photographs to trigger poems, have tapes of my mother talking with me in her last years it still feels too close to go to but eventually I probably will listen and I'm sure poems will come from that, as they always have for many years from her. I've written a lot about loss, about family. A packet of old letters found in my mother's house led to a big selection of BEFORE IT'S LIFE, "Stories that Could be True." Cleaning out her apartment was a rich source of poems: every article there, everything she collected, what was in her drawers and closets. in shopping bags, in her dresser, what I brought for a garage sale— her old phone books, batteries, hats, knives...any and everything seemed to trigger poems. Everything
DO YOU ASCRIBE TO THE THEORY THAT A POEM IS ONLY HALF WRITTEN BY THE AUTHOR WITH THE READER WRITING THE OTHER HALF FROM THEIR OWN INTERPRETATION?
An interesting theory I had not thought about. I think the writer has a lot more "responsibility" but it does help to have a reader who is open to what you've written, shared some of the same things, or wants to share them.
YOUR POETRY IS VERY SENSUAL, YET IN SOME THERE IS A DEFINITE EDGE. WHAT DO YOU FEEL THIS JUXTAPOSITION LENDS TO YOUR POETRY?
I like thinking the edge makes the poem more interesting. I don't exactly think about it though. I guess I feel "a definite edge" in a lot I feel. I have been told the musicality in my poetry lets me get away with saying what might sound crude or too blunt. Maybe the edge lends mystery to the love poems, the erotic poems, a kind of twist? I'm not sure but I do think I want to keep doing this.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU DIDN'T WRITE?
If I could be successful and do what I wanted I'd love to dance, be a ballet dancer. But though I love it, even if I had started at 3 years old: I don't have the natural ability or talent. I painted and played the violin and liked both. But after some of the frustrations of the writing world, I might pick something totally different: become a lawyer. At least pick some kind of job where unbelievably hard work meant success? Does that sound jaded??
In Fog, a Grey Rain Tuesday, the Oaks Go from Ruby to Dry Blood
I think of Patrick's words
I do think I have often been attracted to inaccessible men, intrigued by loss (I began thinking of this just recently again when I find myself obsessed with the race horse Ruffian who died very young almost 30 years ago — I've just filled three notebooks with poems about her and I think the loss, the "what might have been, the its-over-too-soon" is somehow compelling, mysterious. As Diane Wakoski said in a poem, it's not the man who you live with, are so familiar with but its when you catch the eye of a man on a train with a ring on his little finger and you dream and make up a whole life time with him that is exciting: it's the imagination.
Paris Rain Alleys
This poems is totally connected to a specific incident. It's almost "reporting." I was in Paris on a rainy night in an alley and in one little grocery store a man distracted, or tried to distract a number of people, some French, some tourists, tried to sneak up in front, asked for money, seemed to want to make a commotion so he could run off with a loaf of bread. And he did!
When I Was No Longer My Leather Jacket
something he'd picked up
felt about salt. Before I
These are all new poems you've selected; sometimes I feel too close to actually "know" what I mean or was doing! But I can be obsessive! The "incident" in the poem anyway, made me realize in the eyes of this person I was my jacket and the jacket became a metaphor I guess for what might have but didn't, what started to but stopped. Sometimes I think metaphors just make themselves. Re-reading this I see how "on the rocks" could have had more meanings, been a metaphor that could have been strengthened.
I don't consciously think of using metaphors. It's as if they somehow happen, grow to be metaphors out of something that seems ordinary.
After the Fourth Opened Can
my cat gives approval,
will eat and I rush with
I think it is incredibly hard to write about animals without becoming sentimental, very hard. At times impossible. When my twenty year old cat died a year and a half ago (on the same day of the month Plath died), I was devastated and stayed in for a whole week and for about 11 weeks only wrote poems about that loss. Most I felt were tight and interesting but I had trouble avoiding sentimentality. Some have been published. One magazine did an interview and wanted to publish poems I had trouble publishing so they printed many of those poems, I must have written a few hundred. I did write three poems that appeared in BEFORE IT'S LIGHT about that same cat when she was alive and they managed to avoid being sentimental. But it is hard, I hope I have done it with my horse poems. I started writing them when Funny Cide was trying to become the first Triple Crown winner in quite a while — no that isn't true — I did a number of poems about Charismatic — and they were not sentimental. Then I remembered an old Ruffian poem I wrote many years ago. Only it was really more about a student of mine talking about Ruffian. But I thought of doing a horse anthology, suggested it to a friend who ran with the idea. I was ambivalent about doing another anthology (I've done 4 ) and knew I'd be busy with my new book, and working to try to promote it etc and so I was glad she decided to do it. But I am doing many Ruffian poems as I said and I hope they are not sentimental. Your comment is interesting because of some of my early pre-anthology poems about this one horse, Ruffian, my friend-editor said she felt I had identified too much with. It definitely is a dance. you are right. In COLD COMFORT, my first Black Sparrow book, I did include a poem about my aunt holding her cat to her when her son died and I believe it works and is not sentimental. When I tried to write one about her and her cat when her husband died, it somehow did not work as well
Though I Didn't See It
when I hear Paul
YOU HANDLE THIS GRACIOUSLY. HUMOR IS HARD TO CAPTURE IN POETRY, YET YOU HAVE DONE JUST THAT. PLEASE COMMENT ON WHY THIS INCIDENT BECAME A POEM
I overheard someone talking bout Paul McCartney's wife on Larry King and saying how weird it was. Having known an amputee who made every effort to joke about how he lost his leg in Viet Nam and trying so hard all the time to make others comfortable with it and remembering how he said with twinkling blue eyes that with a leg off you could get closer, I had to write this poem! I think what is unfamiliar is scary, weird, peculiar and I think I tried to make it more "ordinary" through writing about it, as the man I knew did by talking about it