Madonna Who Writes Ten Poems A Day  

Lyn 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? 
     No. The 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. 
     It figures 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. 
     "They come 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 the others." 
     She made 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. 
     Misfit goose. Outsider. 
     Poets can 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 matters. 
     A certain 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. 
     Sometimes 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. 
     The most published poet in America? 
    Yep. Thousands of published poems. And get this. Almost nobody in town even knows she's here. 
     Okay. So who is it? 
     Lyn Lifshin. 
     Lyn. Lifshin. 
     Exactly. 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. 
     That paradox, 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. 
     Once upon 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. 
     "America 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. 
     Yet that achievement has not conferred universal acclaim, or even respect. 
     She has plenty of admirers. "Lyn Lifshin's poems stay on my bathroom wall longer than anyone else's," Ken Kesey once said. 
     But the 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. 
     Too many poems, is the general line. Too much hair. Too much. 
     She has 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. 
     Unlike most 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. 
     So where 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 them? 
     Making $15,000 a year in your best year, and that wasn't last year. 
     Thousands and thousands of poems. But posterity does not award an A for effort. By what yardstick do you measure a life in art? 
     Encyclopedia 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!" 
     But now, 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. 
     She's towing 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 us.) 
     The suitcase, 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. 
     "I don't 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 don't know." 
     Once in 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 river. 
     This reading 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' sleep. 
     She's the 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 . . . " 
     There are 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 AIDS. 
    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. 
     Lyn Lifshin wakes them up. 
     She reads a Holocaust poem called "On the Way to the Gas," from a book called Blue Tattoo: 
    "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." 
     And finally, 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 mother: 
     "well I 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." 
     She stands 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. 
     For her 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. 

     The ex-cons 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. 
     Lyn Lifshin 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. 
     Kiss the 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. 
     The cover 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. 
     The erotic 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. 
     "My life 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 really was." 
     Writing 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 and disappearing. 
    Where her unhappy mother stayed at home, obsessively interested in her daughter's life and feelings. 
     She was 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. 
     She wrote 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 more. 
     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 in Alabama. 
     "Writing was a way to try on different ways of being free," she says. 
     "I wanted to be wild and daring and, in a way, I could be that way in a poem." 
     She wanted 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. 
     She developed 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. 
     When she 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 ever seen!" 
     "Ah, Lyn Lifshin, the wild woman of Ann Arbor!" says a New York editor who remembers seeing her there in the '70s. 
     Wasn't there, she says. Didn't happen. The miniskirt, yes. But she's never been to Ann Arbor. 
     And she 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. 
     To those 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. 
     She hasn't 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. 
     But the poetry pinup reputation has been slow to fade. 
     She sighs. 
    "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." 
     From "No 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 . . . " 

     In public, 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. 
     "It's the 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 she was." 
     The admiration 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 the person. 
     "Not enough 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." 
     "In the 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. 
     "Oh God, 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." 
     "She's become 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 an outsider." 
     Gioia'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. 
     No, it's 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. 
     "What I 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." 
     For her 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 criticism." 
     "She's brazen 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." 
     Being published 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. 
     Late this 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. 
     "She's a 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. 
     She moved 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. 
     She still 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. 
     She's not 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. 
     Two places and no place. 
     Life was 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 thought 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. 
     She runs into poets at readings now and then. "People are friendly, but they're busy, you know? 
    They're busy. There are lots of different groups and each group is . . ." She trails off. Shrugs. 
     "I've heard 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." 
     Wow, she 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. 
     Sometimes, 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." 
     But writing is a necessity. 
     "When I 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." 
     Her best poems, she thinks, have come out of rage and rejection. 
     "The one 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." 
     But anything 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. 
    "Sometimes I'll 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 it produces." 
     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." 
     Always daydream, 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. 
     Her own writing works like this: 
     She tries 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. 
     Then she 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. 
     She's got 150 notebooks -- 70 pages each -- full of poems she hasn't even had time to type yet. 

     "Madonna Who Writes Ten Poems a Day": 
     as if the poems were 
     vitamins she spits 
     out instead of 
     swallowing one poem 
     gets the blue out 
     of her calms like 
     vitamin B another 
     heals makes for 
     good sex supposedly 
     others make bones 
     and muscles 
     stronger cure 
     night blindness 
     protect grow hair 

    So what's a poem supposed to do, anyway? 
     It isn't required to make the poet famous, or rich, or to win her universal love and respect. 
     It isn't 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. 
     The ordinary 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. 
     Lyn Lifshin 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. 
     She rigged 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." 
     Lately she's been writing poems about a creature who is half swan, half woman. 
     "She is 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. 
     "They're very strange poems, really. They're coming out in a couple of different magazines." 
     Bird K721 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 live without. 
     Like breathing. 
Mary Battiata is a Magazine staff writer.  
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company 
Last Updated:
December 27, 2000