Lyn Lifshin

Cold Comfort
R.C. Travis
Written for WC Ltd Industry Newsletter for Poetry

Lynn Lifshin..... the Susan Lucci of the Pushcart with at least 300 nominations, but no award. With over 100 books and chapbooks, publications in almost every magazine, inclusion in over 45 national anthologies, and dozens of awards, grants, and fellowships, Lyn Lifshin has been crowned the most published poet in America.

A native of New England, who lives between the D.C. area and upstate New York, Lyn has been a poet at heart since she was a baby. "My mother told me that when I was a year old, I said, 'the trees look like they are dancing.' She said she knew that if I did not become an actress, I would become a writer." While in the third grade (at age six), Lyn copied a poem from William Blake and presented it to her mother, stating she had written it herself. Overcome with joy at her daughter's talent, her mother told the teacher about the wonderful poem her daughter had written. Lyn, faced with a do or die situation when asked to write more of this wonderful poetry, began on the path to where she is today.

Three hours on the telephone with Lyn only whetted my appetite to know more about her. Reading her 5 page resume/bio is like reading excerpts from the Poets Market with listing after listing of publications, awards, anthologies, etc. What motivates this woman to write? What does she see when she looks out upon our world? What does Lyn try to tell us through the magic she weaves? What do her readers and critics say about her? Question after question speed through my mind as I attempt to assemble the story of Lyn's life.

Lyn was born in Barre, VT and grew up in Middlebury, VT. Her father worked in her grandparents store, where Robert Frost was a frequent customer. One day, when Lyn was ten years old, Robert Frost wandered in to the store and Lyn's father shared one of her poems with Mr Frost. After reading the child's poem, he wrote that he had liked her images and wanted to see some more of her poetry. "This response made me feel like I could really do it." Thus... a poet was born.

During her teen years, after graduating High School at the age of 15, Lyn went to Syracuse to earn her undergraduate degree in English and Fine Arts. After completing her degree, she moved on to the University of Vermont for her Masters, writing her thesis on Dylan Thomas. Lyn's goals were to become a writer and academician. However, being a woman in the sixties, in a field ruled by men who had definite ideas where a woman belonged, Lyn hit a snag in her academic aspirations.

She began her Ph.D. at Brandeis, and six months later, moved on to SUNY Albany focusing her thesis on a comparison of Wyatt Sydney. Barely 20 years old, she continued her Graduate work at Suny Albany as the youngest person in the program, and maintained A's in of her subjects. Halfway through her dissertation program, she was assigned a professor who was known to "never have passed a woman in Ph.D. Graduate Exams". Day after day her professor badgered her, stating her religious background conflicted with her focus on 15th through 17th century poets, and that she needed to tie her long blond flowing hair up and dress the part of a graduate student. On the verge of abandoning her dreams, she was assigned another professor, this time a woman.

"I walked into the exam (Ph.D.) completely discouraged and drained.... all I had wanted to do was become an academic scholar. But I had been so stressed up to this point, I just turned around and walked out of the exam."

It was at this time, after studying only 15th, 16th, and 17th century poets, that Lyn began reading and studying contemporary poets. Lyn began writing poetry with a vengeance, and now, 30 years later, she has still not let up. During the early years of her writing, she did some painting and worked for a television station writing monthly programs, and a magazine for subscribers.

"I was so filled with anger, and this anger triggered some of my most anthologized poems. I tend to do everything to an extreme, one thing at a time. If I paint.... I paint. If I write..... I write. I have boxes and boxes of notebooks. Right now I am working on putting about 100 notebooks of poetry which has never been typed up, onto my computer."

At the age of 20, while writing poetry with a vengeance, Lyn Lifshin spent 3-4 hours each day dealing with her poetry manuscripts and submissions. For over ten years, she was dubbed the most published poet in America. Her first acceptance for publication arrived on her birthday in the late 60's with Folio magazine in Birmingham, AL Since then, she has been published in over 20 issues of Folio.

"I have been in almost every publication there is, and some... multiple times. My garage has over 100 bankers boxes filled with contributor copies of publications I have been in. A few libraries have collected some of my papers and publications and the University of Texas at Austin bought some of my papers."

Lyn has published about 100 books and chap books of poetry (about 75% of them being books). Some of her most recent titles include: Cold Comfort (Black Sparrow Press 1997), Blue Tattoo (Event Horizon Press 1995), Marilyn Monroe (Quiet Lion Press 1994), Parade (Wormwood Press 1994), Not Made of Glass (Arista Press 1990) and Reading Lips (Morgan Press 1992).

In addition to writing poetry, Lyn has edited four books: Tangled Vines (Beacon Press 1978), Ariadne's Thread (Harper and Row 1982), Lips Unsealed (Capra Press 1990), and Tangled Vines, enlarged edition (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1992). She was also the subject of the Award winning documentary film "Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass"

From the film's press release:

"The film takes us deep into the heart of this influential writer, with scenes in her home, at a reading at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, at Yaddo, the artists colony, and elsewhere, as the life of a writer is revealed step by step. Interviews with fellow writers and Editors Ed Sanders, Janice Eidus, Joseph Bruchac, William Packard, and Yvonne offer professional and personal assessments of her place in the literature world. This intimate portrait..... is a testament to her unique contribution to poetry and to the history and continuing evolution of women writers."

Her work can be found in hundreds of magazines including: Press, The American Scholar, Green Mountain Review, The Ohio Review, South Carolina Review, American Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, Massachusetts Review, Laurel Review, Chicago Review, Christian Science Monitor, The Literary Review, Ms Magazine, Rolling Stone Magazine, and many, many more....

She has had her works published in over 45 national anthologies including: Dick For A Day (Random House 1997, on many best seller lists), Changing the Spirit Within (Beacon Press 1996), Between the Cracks (Daeldalus Publishing 1996), and so on...

"People have titled me the most published poet (among other things), but I won't hold that title any more..... because I will no longer be submitting my work. I have had the feeling if I had been accepted by a big publisher long ago, I may not have submitted so much of my work. I could have done things differently, but lots of people have heard of me and have read my work because of all of the publications, especially the magazines."

"I have also been called a renegade poet, but I don't feel like one. I feel more like an outsider who doesn't fit into any group. Here in DC the poetry community is splintered into lots of different groups...academic poets, beat poets, black poets, coffee house poets, etc. I just want people who read my poetry to feel something after they read it.... whether good or bad. Writing my poetry keeps me sane. It gives order to the chaos out there, a sense of creating something that matters."

What inspires such a creative woman to not only write so much poetry over the years, but to also achieve the level and status of numerous publications and awards such as: The Jack Kerouac Award (1984), Hart Crane Award (1970), Poetry Prize at Boulders Writers Conference with Judges Richard Eberhart and Alan Dugan (1969) and the Harcourt Brace Scholarship (1969), New York State CAPS Grant (1976), five Yaddo Fellowships (70,71, 75,79, 80), a Macdowell Fellowship (1973), Madeline Jadin Award (1986), Esttersceffer Award (1987), Writers Digest Award for best writing on writing (1994) and most recently a finalist in the 1998 Patterson Poetry Award.

"I can be inspired by almost anything, something I read, or a difficult time in my life. I did a series when mom was ill until she died. I am living in a nature-like place now so I am writing about nature. Even an ad or a scientific thing can inspire me."

"When I moved to DC six years ago, I haunted the museums. Different exhibits inspired poetry. The Vietnam Wall mementoes inspired a series. I have written family poems from photographs, or poems from articles in the newspapers."

Lyn is frequently asked to conduct poetry workshops and has taught in hundreds of schools and universities across the country. The local museums frequently ask her to do workshops which she designs around their current exhibits. Some of her workshops have included topics such as, "Sensuality and Sexuality for Women," "Urban America," and "Writing from the Inside Out."

When asked who her favorite authors and poets were, Lyn stated, "I hate to answer that question because I feel like I will totally leave someone out. I always carry books around with me and am currently reading Mary Oliver, Donald Hall, Bill Matthews, Jane Kenyon, and Billy Collins."

Lyn, unlike most poets, makes her entire living from her poetry. She considers her greatest achievement to date to be "Getting through things without falling apart. I haven't lost my sense of writing and I love words. I have kept my enthusiasm, like that of a child, and my writing has become known without having to use connections."

Lyn's last book, "Blue Tattoo" is filled with poems about the Holocaust and was published by Advent Horizons Publications. The Library Journal and Publishers Weekly both reviewed the book which is currently stocked at the Holocaust museum in Washington DC.

When her current book, "Cold Comfort" was released in October 1997 by Black Sparrow Press, Lyn stopped sending her poems in for submissions so she could focus on promoting her book. "I have been putting a lot of energy into it and am quite tired now." She began working on the manuscript for Cold Comfort in 1993 and claims this is the only books she has completely edited herself.

These days Lyn spends her time typing up the 100 or so notebooks of poetry she has collected over the years. She desires to write a novel and plans do write more articles. Writers Digest magazine had published two of her articles, one which won an award for best writing on writing. "I want to write some prose and continue to write series of books."

With all of her experience writing and with publications, I asked Lyn to share some of her observations and advice with new poets and writers. "That is a really hard question. Part of me wants to say it is really difficult because the field is getting crowded. It's a hard life, less poetry books being bought these days. I have been real lucky though. (I would suggest poets) Read a lot! Write, go to workshops and readings and be prepared to find it hard and frustrating with all the rejections. Some readers love you and others hate you. Don't write to become famous."

Most poets do write though, with the aspiration of fame and acclaim. Why does Lyn, the most published poet in the country write? "I have to write! Only write if you cannot help yourself. You have to do it because you have to do it! You have to really love doing it because the frustration is there all the time. One day I found out that the word ‘to breath' and "make poem' is the same word in the Eskimo language." Lyn writes because, to her, writing is like breathing. As a result, she has been able to overcome almost every obstacle in the literary world to become the "Queen of Poetry Presses."

In regards to her writing, opinions range across the board. I have been told by Elton Warrick, Publisher of the Poets Guild Quarterly that "When Lyn is on target, she is ON target. When she isn't, she isn't." In the August 17, 1997 Washington Post Magazine, several poets commented on Lyn and her work:

T.S. Elliot was quoted as saying, "The one (Lyn) who spins straw of everyday life into something fine, finds meaning in chaos."

An editor from a respected national poetry review said, "Not enough stylistic range, not enough crescendo and diminuendo. She's like a singer with one octave, when you want two or three."

Dana Gioia stated, "She's become a kind of whipping girl for establishment poets....because she is an outsider."

Grace Cavalieri claims, "She's bold on the page and on the street. She uses language with courage. She's like a laser. She pulls people in because people love the truth."

Lyn Lifshin has always gone against the grain of the ‘norm' and as a result has achieved an incredible level of success with her writing. I could have spent all day talking with her as I found her to be pleasant and open, full of energy and life... our conversation (at first meeting) much like that of old friends. Though many people may label her a rebel, she presents life through a refreshing voice of truth.

From Blue Tattoo, 1995
Event Horizon Press
Box 867,
Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240.
ISBN 1-880391-12-0


at the Holocaust Museum.
In black and white
a naked girl,
maybe six,
gripped by the neck
in the hands of a woman
with huge biceps.
A mentally disturbed girl
shortly before her murder.
Near the dangling girl
is a photo in summer --
trees are fully leafed,
dark smoke pours
out of one building.
Down the hall
a young man with glasses
takes aim at a man
in front of a pit of bodies:
the pistol points at the neck
so no shattered bone
will fly his way.

From Cold Comfort
Black Sparrow Press
24 10th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
October 1997, $25.00 ($14.00)
278 pages, hardcover (trade paperback)
ISBN: 1-57423-040-9 (1-57423-041-7).


Nothing lasts long
in this heat
except the dark
of waiting. At
2 am or 3 or
4 I lead her
like a child
with a night
mare to the
bathroom across
the hall. If I
don't get the
wash cloth
right, not too
wet, or hot
or soapy, she
will refuse
demerol, lie
moaning, "I
can't." It
seems those
words are
my words


We are
sorry to have to
regret to
tell you
sorry sorry
regret sorry that you have

Your hair should have been
piled up higher

you have failed to
pass failed
your sorry
regret your
final hair comprehensive
exam satisfactorily
you understand the requirements

you understand we are
sorry final
and didn't look professional
as desirable
or sorry dignified
and have little enough
sympathy for 16th century
sorry English Anglicanism

we don't know doctoral
competency what to think and
regret you will sorry not
be able to stay
or finish

final regret your disappointment
the unsuccessfully completed best
wishes for the future
it has been a
regret sorry the requirements
the university policy

please don't call us

Last updated: December 27, 2000