A Lyn Lifshin Interview
by Cheryl A Townsend

    Lyn Lifshin and I were scheduled to read at the Vienna Borders 
    on the afternoon of this interview, May 13, 1995.   We were drinking 
    coffee on the fold-out sofa-bed in the lower level of her condo, waiting 
    for my pants to dry.  The very pants I had planned to wear for our 
    reading and her cat, Memento, had urinated on during the night as 
    I slept.  Lyn apologized profusely.  

CAT: Lyn Lifshin, why poetry? 

LL: Oh, to save my life. Like ballet, it keeps me a little saner than I'd otherwise be. Well I heard that before I could really talk much, when I was about 3, I was in the car and I said it looks like the trees are dancing. So my mother, who had named me Rosalynn because she thought I was going to be an actress, decided if I wasn't going to be an actress, at least I could be, maybe I'd be a poet. I skipped a couple of years and it is a subject that I really like like and all the words with all the stuff and it was, you know, I could never figure out math and long division. It just seemed natural. 

CAT: So your mother predestined your... 

LL: I think in a weird way she did and also, well, we had other books around. We had art books and we had music, but we did have things like Now We Are Six and some children's poetry books and those were the things that I really liked. Plus, I had a third grade teacher who always read us things like, oh, Longfellow. The one about the father reading to the 3 children. I always liked the poetry that was read in school better than short stories, so, it really was something I kind of grew up with, but didn't really get started yet until a bit later. 

CAT: Your latest book, Blue Tattoo, how and why did you get involved in it? 

LL: Well it's kind of funny because even though I grew up Jewish, I never in my earlier poems, ever wrote anything much about it. I made very little reference to it and my sister, who had much more of an interest in the Holocaust, was always reading these books, and I used to think at times what was she thinking so much about it. It didn't seem anything that really concerned me that much, and little by little I began reading a bit more. But I think it really started in the spring of '92 when I was asked to teach a Holocaust workshop. I had to read an awful lot. I started in January and the workshop was in June. I read constantly about it and went to different talks and to exhibits and mostly, the poems really came out of that. Just getting really involved in that, I think. 

CAT: Where do you get your inspiration for your poems? 

LL: Oh boy, almost from everywhere. It could be something on the news, something I'm really angry about, something I'm jealous about. It could be almost anything. Living in this house, I never would have thought I'd write about geese or anything, but this winter, I found that that became the subject of the poetry. When Rick Peabody was doing his anthology on Barbie, I didn't even know what a Barbie doll looked like, but I just decided I would try and I ended up writing a lot of Barbie poems and I think Morgan Press is going to do a collection of Barbie poems. The same thing goes for his idea of the Marilyn Monroe anthology. I had never written anything about her. At the same time, when I heard he was doing other things, like James Dean and Elvis, I didn't get into it because it seemed like more interesting to get into a women's mind than a man's. But the poems come from everything. I think I do overreact to things and because of that I'm usually a little on closeness to being on the edge of just feeling too many things and reacting to too many things, but, in a way, that's helpful for writing because I'm sure I could go in a room and just say take the first 10 objects and write about them. But, other poems do come more out of feeling and often anger, rage, loss. 

CAT: Have you ever been stalked? 

LL: Yes, I have. I've been stalked occasionally by different people who have read my work, but that really hasn't been a problem. I was stalked by a student who had never read my work, but in some way had a fantasy about me as his muse, that he could only write in my workshops and this went on, believe it or not, for a period of, I think, about 17 years. He seemed pretty harmless and kind of polite and quiet. I did deal with the police. I had him removed by the security from the workshop at a talk I was giving. Occasionally I still hear from him. I'm always happy when he's fallen in love with somebody because then he stops bugging me, but in his mind, he's fantasized something only when he saw me in the role of the teacher. When he actually read my poetry, I don't think he really liked my poetry. It's cooled down a little bit. I hope for good. 

CAT: Do you have any idea how many poems you've had published? 

LL: Not really. Actually, no. I have been writing non-stop since the late 60's, taking time off if I'm editing a book. I don't write or if I'm away, sometimes I don't write. But even when I was taking care of my mother, who was ill, I did, for part of that time, quite a lot of writing. I really don't know, but if you went into my garage, you'd have a sense from looking at the boxes. A lot of them are sort of my preparations for other poems and a lot of them are things on the same theme, like a lot of poems on depression, or poems about VietNam Nam, or Mad Girl poems, Madonna poems. So, it would really be hard to say, there haven't been too many times, except when I'm working on a book, that I've really stopped writing. A lot of these poems get sent out and they're never seen again because they don't get returned or they get accepted and they don't get published. It's been one of my pet gripes that a lot of magazines, even though I put on it "Please return anything unused", they say their policy is just not to return poems. Because I have so much out in the mail and I'm living in two places, it really creates a problem. 

CAT: What is the persona of Madonna? 

LL: Well, Madonna poems really are based more on kind of a wittiness that's often like an extended poem, whereas the Mad Girl is somebody who is more like a dream figure. It's a more outrageous, more daring, more unrestrained version than I can imagine it being. So the Mad girl, I think, is kind of real exageration of some of my dreams or some of my fears or some of my experiences. But Madonna's tend to be more, a lot of them, especially the short ones, they're really more playful and mostly a play on words. I think Madonna is really sort of clever and funny and I don't see any connection between myself and Madonna. 

CAT: Would you like to? 

LL: Sometimes. Maybe. Yeah. (laughs) Not always. But both the Madonna poems and the Mad Girl poems are really a way to say more outrageous things than I would from either an "I" or a "she" point of view. They're freer too. Sometimes if I really have a feeling and I'm not writing something that I'm real interested in, I might take just a dream and put the Mad Girl in it. Those are just so pure fantasy and pure imagination, maybe coming from me, but the action in them are just much wilder. 

CAT: Have you ever kissed Paul Weinman? (Outrageous laughter from both) 

LL: I don't think so. No, ummm. I never kissed him. No. He interviewed me for a job once, before I knew he wrote poetry or before I wrote poetry. I thought he was awfully nice. I didn't get the job, he said I was over qualified. The next time I think I saw him was probably when he was on the steps of the Capitol. I think he was MCing a reading to welcome the spring. We all had to be careful of our language and Paul, I remember, he tore off his shirt and he had, I think, Love or Peace on it. But no, he did not kiss me then or any other time in my life. (Still laughing, me even more so) He did come to visit me at Yaddo once. At that point he had written a bibliography on some Iroquois Indian and he came up to visit. No one was supposed to have visiting hours as early as he came. I really didn't know who he was at the time because I really didn't know him very well, but, there was no kiss. (Laugh) 

CAT: What, if any, single poem best personifies you? 

LL: Well, I don't know if it best personifies me, but I suppose "No More Apologizing" is the one that I tend to read more and people know. It's again, like so many poems, like a mask because even though I talk about no more apologizing, as you know, I'm always apologizing. I apologize for the cat peeing in your suitcase. (Uproarious laughter) I guess that's what I would like to be like. That would sort of epitomize me as I would like to be. Somebody who doesn't apologize. 

CAT: How do you feel about the Androla/Weinman spoof? 

LL: Oh, I took that in good humor. It didn't bother me. 

CAT: Do your mailmen hate you? 

LL: (laughs) I had the most wonderful mailman in Schenectady. He was just the most obliging, wonderful person who would keep certain mail in Schenectady, send me some. Down here, I've never seen the same mailman twice, so, I would imagine they might. Actually, now we have two mailboxes. The mailman in Schenectady was just wonderful, he's just taken a new job, so I don't know. I've never really complained, but they squeeze the mail in so tightly and everything gets a little ruined that way. 

CAT: What publication are you most proud of appearing in? 

LL: Oh, that's really hard. I don't think I could answer that because I'd be bound to offend all the other people. 

CAT: Okay, Well then is there a magazine that you have not appeared in that you tried to? 

LL: Ummm, I've been in almost every magazine except I have not been in Poetry. I've sent a group of poems recently. Every five years I send them some poems. I think it was Joseph Parisi who told me one of them came very close and he would like me to send again. I have not published there. There are other magazines I wasn't sure I had published in, but people have said they've seen me there. That's the one I know, as far as I know, that I've never been in. I've been in so many different kinds, everything from Rolling Stone and Miss and Yankee and Christian Science Monitor to other magazines that are more underground. I still remember my first publication and I suppose in a way having someone like Marvin Malone at Wormwood, who was very supportive from the beginning, is really important. Actually, it would really be hard because I think write so many different kinds of poems and I think some of them are just not fit in certain magazines. I've been published by a lot of magazines that I know the other people wouldn't publish those particular poems. It would be really hard for me to say that because I'm always glad to be in some of the livelier, smaller underground magazines and also, it's nice when it comes in. People used to feel a lot when Rolling Stone published poetry. It was always nice because they had a wide distribution. I won't name this magazine, but there is only one magazine I am sorry to have been in. One or two. I won't name them. They were like in my early 20's. Most of the time, I feel really grateful and happy to be in there. 

CAT: Any memorable meetings with different poets or different people? 

LL: Yeah, probably a million of them. Let's see. I've read with Bukowski and since I have really admired him as a poet, it was a pretty interesting day. It was almost a day or two because we were both at the same festival. I never knew what he would say about anybody, so I was pleased when he did say something complimentary about my work. That was kind of interesting. One of my earlier readings I read with Maxine Kumin. I was really amazed at how generous she was when I worked on some anthologies. One of the things I've always found is the best known writers are often the easiest to work with. I met a lot of people at different artist colonies. It was always interesting to meet for various reasons. I read with Ken Kesy for awhile at a 3 or 4 day festival. I was glad when he told me that my poems in Rolling Stone stayed up on his bathroom wall longer than anyone else's. That was one of those moments I remember. In an artist colony, especially when I first went, when I was younger than most of the people, it was really quite a thrill me to meet people like Richard Eberhart, who became a very hot poet supporter and Alan Dugan. Especially for the beginning writer, it was always exciting to meet a lot of well known writers. I'm sure I've left out a lot of people that I've read with. I've read with, oh, let's see, there are so many writers that I've read with that I really don't know. This last October, at this festival where there were 300 writers who were in an anthology, I had never met Diane Di Prima and I had met her there. I read with Robert Creeley and just a few people who's work I had been reading for so long. Gary Snyder. It was always kind of exciting to read with them because they were people that were so, you know, I had read them for years before I started writing. There probably are other people. Of course it's always fun to read with people I'm friendly with or whose work I really like. Sharon Olds, who invited me to read before she had published very much. It was exciting to have met her first and then later to come across her poetry. One of my very first readings was with Diane Wakoski who is really such an excellent reader. It was a little intimidating because she was such a good reader and to read for any time with her. Ginsberg was really nice to read with. The people who I have read for so much longer that when I read with them, it was like pitter-patter. It was exciting. I've probably left out some people. Those are some that quickly come to mind. I haven't gone to artist colonies for quite a long time. I don't think I've gone since 1980. I've read and been at different festivals. I think I've been at a lot of festivals where there weren't that many poets, where there are a lot of non-fiction writers, and even though I was interested in their work, it wasn't as I expected. 

CAT: You came close to meeting Anais Nin at one time, didn't you? 

LL: Yes. Well, actually I met her on the stairway. 

CAT: (In envious awe) You met her? 

LL: Yes. I was invited to a book signing party of Richard Eberhart's at Gotham Book Mart and as I got down the stairway, (the stairway was very narrow), a woman and I got kind of stuck on the stairway. I don't know if we just said "Hello" or "Excuse me". We didn't have a real introduction, but when I got to the top, someone said "Did you know who that was?" and that's who it was. I met her but I didn't know that I met her at the time. 

CAT: If you darkened your hair, you could pass for Anais Nin. 

LL: Some people have told me that. I have some pictures where my hair, which is naturally dark, some actually look like Audrey Hepburn. I have a high school picture that I look like Natalie Wood. 

CAT: It's the doe eyes. 

LL: I haven't been told that lately. I was really sorry that I didn't really realize who she was. I'm trying to think of other people, well, I used to see Frost. I never, although he wrote something on one of my poems, I never actually, I don't believe I ever had actually met him. I saw him often. He was often wandering around Middlebury, where I grew up. I never actually met Kerouac, but when I was in college, he came and gave a talk. I suppose, in some weird way, he was sort of an influence. I used to go to readings a lot because I grew up in Vermont, Middlebury, and that was close to Bread Loaf's School of English, so I could often go there and just listen to different people. I heard a lot of writers there and I did a workshop there, but It was basically more of an English Literature theme rather than a poetry workshop. I did get a scholarship to Bread Loaf. I'm not sure if Maxine Kumin was there that year too. Somehow I think she wasn't. 

CAT: What was your best and your worst reading? 

LL: I can't really tell the best reading. There's a number that I felt halfway satisfied with. I did a couple, fairly recently, at the Albany Museum that I was really happy about. I did some at the Whitney Museum. That's funny, I can't really think of any that really stand out, but usually I feel pretty satisfied. For example, I just did one recently with a lot of the people in Rick Peabody's Marilyn. I was reading poems I have never read and I felt that really went well and I was pleased with that. Most I don't remember, but I can remember a couple that I felt were really bad. One was bad because there was a fire drill right in the middle of it. It was just a total fire drill and people just went out. Also, I did a reading in a series with Bly. That was another interesting person to meet. He did my horoscope and told me all sorts of things. That reading was also a little bit strange because there was a guy in the audience who apparently was rather disturbed and he kept the reading on hold for about 2 or 3 hours. I don't know what his problem was but people worried that he might have had a gun. So, that reading was delayed and, actually, the doors were locked. I hate to read in places where it's really loud and interrupting. You can't really hear or the microphone sizzles and cracks. I did a reading that was taped and put on a video disc at Morristown Community College. That one really, from what I've seen of it, worked out well. Also, for the documentary film about me, I did a reading at Caffe Lena and I felt that was a good one. I did another reading, one of my other early readings, when I did not get any sleep for about 4 days and that was probably my worst reading. That was in, somewhere in Maryland, I think. 

CAT: Is that where you were drinking the wine? 

LL: Yes, I had something to drink and I had some sleeping pills. I read slower and slower and slower and it was really not a very good reading. I used to feel nervous before a reading, but now it's usually just a cup of herb tea. I think the readings have improved. 

CAT: So, you don't have the Bukowski throw-up-before-you-read syndrome? 

LL: No. I stopped even having a glass of wine, probably about 5 or 6 years ago. 

CAT: After the earlier incident? 

LL: I think that was the sleeping pills that had not really worked. I think that was my worst. Sometimes I'll feel the audience isn't with me or sometimes that great. I don't really notice that much of a variation. 

CAT: I've read somewhere, in an interview with you, that you paint? Do you still? 

LL: I used to. I really haven't done much. If you look up in my study, there's a really old high school painting that I did. Then I did a lot of watercolors and more abstract things. When I was teaching one of my workshops, I actually had the poetry students writing a painting and sketching for a couple of weeks and I did along with them. I really enjoyed it, but I just haven't done it lately. It's like playing the violin, which I I used to do. I would really like to get back to it, but I spend so much time with ballet that there just doesn't seem to be any time. That's probably why I always feel sort of a rush, that I'm rushing. I'm sort of obsessive both about ballet and about poetry. 

CAT: Both good stress relievers. 

LL: I hope so, except the rush to get to them. 

CAT: Yeah, the rush to get to them, the rush to get them done. 

LL: Right, the rush to deal with the mail and not let it pile up. If you go away for a week you probably feel "Oh God, why did I go away?" 

CAT: My final question. Do you like cheesecake? 

LL: Ummm, yes I do, but it's not my favorite. What I really love are pralines and I like ice cream. I kind of exist on a lot of sweet things, but I like cheesecake too. Do you? You do. 

CAT: I'm a cheesecake fanatic. 

LL: What do I really like? This friend of mine, who I couldn't get in touch with, she's from Louisiana, she made pralines for Jordan and I the first year she was in town and they were just wonderful. And then this last year, this is one of my secrets, she gave me a little box of them for us, but I didn't share with him. 

CAT: Ooooh, I'm putting that in the interview and I'm going to give Jordan a copy. 

LL: There's still some foods that I really like. I love coffee. I could skip 3 or 4 meals, but the pralines, that was something else. Even though they were a different kind and I actually liked her first ones better, she's promised to teach me to make them. I really don't cook. I don't like cooking particularly, but just to have those pralines. Or maybe I could just go to Louisiana. 


Last Updated:
December 27, 2000