Interview with Lyn Lifshin

NG Intro: I’m talking today with poet Lyn Lifshin.  Considered to be one of the most prolific poets in modern times, Lyn Lifshin’s poetry books number more than 125. Her works have appeared in most poetry and literary magazines in the country. Her readings and personal appearances across the country at numerous venues, colleges and universities number more than 1000. Lyn has been Poet in Residence at the University of Rochester, Antioch, and Colorado Mountain College. She is the winner of numerous awards including the Jack Kerouac Award for her book Kiss The Skin Off, and Lyn is the subject of the documentary film, Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass. For her unfailing dedication to the small presses which first published her, and for surviving on her own, apart from any major publishing house or academic institution, Lifshin has earned the distinction “Queen of the Small Presses.” She has been praised by Robert Frost, Ken Kesey and Richard Eberhart. Ed Sanders has called her “a modern Emily Dickinson.” Lyn’s poem “No More Apologizing” has been called “among the most impressive documents of the women’s poetry movement” by Alicia Ostriker.

Nadia: Lyn, I’ve enjoyed your work for close to two decades, and read about your rise over the years, and yes, I’ve heard you referred to as the “Queen of the ‘Small Presses”.  I first ran across your poetry back in the early 90’s when I was publishing Poetry In Motion magazine and I remember I published your work back then and saw your poetry appearing in virtually every small press magazine I was reading at the time—and that was a lot. More recently, with Mississippi Crow magazine, I’ve published a number of your pieces. I have a favorite, I gave it a full-page treatment in issue 4 (Spring, 2007) The poem was titled “The Cat’s Yelp In Black Light”.

Actually Lyn this brings to mind my first question. You are such a prolific writer, do you remember everything you’ve written? Maybe not verbatim, but surely it must be challenging to keep track—even keeping track of all the titles of your books must be daunting. Do you have some kind of system for doing that?

Lyn: There are groups of poems I often read at readings and those I pretty much remember but would not have to get up to read and find I had nothing with me. This happened once. I was invited to read at an MLA conference in Chicago. It was the first time they had a poetry reading.  It seemed very important. I was staying with friends just outside the city. The conference was at The Palmer House. As soon as I was dropped off I realized one of those nightmares was coming true: I somehow had not brought those poems– on sheets of paper– or anything I have written. I couldn’t believe it, panicked, I went into a small room and wrote those poems out—from memory. I was so frazzled I don’t know how I did it but  I managed to and then gave them a great reading.

As for keeping track of so much, it is a challenge. Even when the documentary film about me was being made, the film crew could barely fit into the garage and cellar where boxes and boxes and boxes of carbons, and correspondence— so much that is writing related took over.  More recently I have scanned almost everything, but I have yet to use the CDs. Living between two places is complicated, and being neat and orderly with files is not one of my strengths.

Nadia: When did you start writing poetry? Was it early in your life?

Lyn: I was told that before I was three and my parents were taking one of their frequent Sunday trips from Barre Vermont to Middlebury Vermont on a back road in October, I said that it looked like the trees were dancing. So my mother figured I might become an actress, poet, or do something that would put me in the public eye (she named me Rosalynn Diane because she thought it was theatrical and she always dreamed of being on stage). After her death, a drama group bought many of her clothes from the 30’s and 40’s and it seemed that even though she never got to be an actress, her clothes reflected  where she wanted to be.

Nadia: Most writers complain about writer’s block at some point or another. Because of how much you write and publish, it’s hard to imagine that you ever lack inspiration. Clearly, if you do feel stale, you’ve developed ways to get past it better than the average writer. What’s your secret?

Lyn: I love to be on a writing jag with a subject, to be lost in that world and so immersed, that  little else seems real. I was that way writing about two race horses:  The Licorice Daughter: My Year With Ruffian and with Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness. Several other books came from poems written for anthologies, from getting into a subject and not letting go.  Among them, Marilyn Monroe. Rick Peabody was doing an anthology about her and I knew so little. I’d just moved to Washington DC and felt so much like an outsider.  I wandered around the museums and imagined how Marilyn might have felt, so apart from this world,  yet part of it.  With Barbie—again, I knew little about her and did “Barbie Research.”  Several of my books came about in similar ways: Blue Tattoo, Katrina, Ballet Madonnas, Light at the End: The Jesus Poems, For a collection of poems about Alfred Hitchcock, I wrote obsessively for a month or so and  eventually began to feel burned out, so when I went to Costa Rica, I planned not to write, only to paint. But I couldn’t resist and wrote a few “Why I won’t Write About Costa Rica” poems.

When I lived right in DC, visits to the fantastic museums often triggered poems—and before that I wrote many poems and books about old houses, The Old House on the Croton, Old House Poems, Plymouth, Nantucket as well as a little chapbook with beautiful collages by Eric Von Schmidt, titled  Museum,  based on a trip to the Field Museum. And then, there’s Shaker House Poems, also from drifting thru one of their sites, imagining the life they led—and several other chapbooks and books: Auddley End, Plymouth Women, The Daughter I Don’t Have and recently, a new collection, obsessive as many are, Ballroom.

In the documentary, Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass a typical writing day is quite different from how I write here in Virginia. Lately I write mostly on the metro to ballet. Home in my study I am playing catch up constantly.

Right now I am “between obsessions”, and thinking of updating Gale Research series autobiography. I’m wanting to go back to the source of my writing after doing a reading in the house my grandparents lived in (now a public building). The strange sense of time that’s too wildly fast.

And now with the 300 pages of poems about Hitchcock, and thoughts of a new equine book and wanting to try some poems  triggered by paintings…

Nadia: What would your students say is the best thing about your poetry workshops?

Lyn: For the amount of time I’ve taught, I ‘ve had an amazing number of very successful students as well as writers who came to me after having been turned off, intimidated, made to feel they have nothing to say or haven’t an exciting way to say it, who start to write again. I think I’ve given students a safe comfortable place to write along with the encouragement that they can do it.

Nadia: I read somewhere in one of your essays, that there was a time early on that you wanted to be an actress. How has poetry filled that desire—or has it?

Lyn: Well yes, in many ways. Anyone who sees me read is astonished, says it is so different from the “me” they thought they knew. It is definitely acting. After so many years of giving readings, and appearing totally on top of it, I still am wildly anxious until I start.

Nadia: When and how did the tag, “Queen of the Small Presses” first get attached to you?

Lyn: One of my early books, Black Apples, went into three editions. For the last edition, the Crossing Press publishers used the phrase from out of a review. I believe Warren Woessner was the one who used it first in a review or article. I think that is where it came from.

Nadia: Has your work changed over the years?

Lyn: I think my work changes all the time but not chronologically. Over the years I seem to go back to many of the same subjects, relationships, mothers and daughters, family, nature. And there are tight, compact poems throughout my writing as well as more expansive narrative pieces.

Nadia: I see that most of your poems are written in free verse with short lines. Can you talk a bit about your style, and do you ever write rhymed verse?

Lyn: Recently I’ve worked with form and I’d like to do more, not rhymed as much as using repetition, something of a variation on villanelles. I think I try for a breathlessness sometimes, a feeling of thought being thought-out in the process of writing it—not a completed thought that is written about.  I often use run-on lines to achieve that breathlessness. I do use a variety of line lengths, sometimes just (as in some poems in collections) to not go over a page. I used to type each poem out with maybe 5 to 10 variations of line length and stanza break.

Nadia: Has there ever been a time when controversy came out of your work?

Lyn: Well possibly, but to talk more about it would probably get me in more trouble!

Nadia: I’d love to hear a couple of interesting stories or anecdotes about some of the people you’ve met in your travels over the years.

Lyn: I was thinking about this question and jotted down a list of about 50 writers I’ve met in my travels. Then I decided I felt strange talking about them, felt I’d probably leave out many. In my book due in the middle of December,  All the Poets (Mostly) Who Have Touched Me, Living and Dead. All True, Especially the Lies—maybe there are some stories there.

I did love traveling through Hawaii, spending time at various art colonies, spending weeks in California over the years, sliding from San Francisco to La on midnight flights, getting to Cornell in the middle of snow storms, somehow always going to cold places in winter, scorching cities in July. But always intriguing—lots of strangeness, lots of fun.

Nadia: I will definitely put your newest book on my holiday gift list.

So Lyn, from reading some of the autobiographical material you’ve sent me, I see you knew Robert Frost. Talk a little about that.

Lyn: I grew in Middlebury Vermont, close to Ripton where Robert Frost lived part of the year. He was a familiar sight, wandering around town in baggy green pants and I remember he always had a basket of strawberries with him.  My father, a sullen, silent man, and not very social (taciturn as Frost would say), worked in my grandfather’s department store. Robert Frost came in often to buy these green work pants and he would only let my father wait on him. Who knows what they talked about. These two men, both who seemed lonely and removed to the rest of the world, hit it off and talked to each other. They also kept in touch with cards and notes (I found them after my father died). And one time, my father, who had never showed any interested in me, took a poem of mine and showed it to Frost who wrote on it “very good, sayeth Robert Frost. Bring me some more.” By the time I had more, he was dead. But I kept that poem in a little magazine and it gave me a lot confidence,

Nadia: One article I read not long ago made some comparisons between you and Bukowski. Has anyone else ever done that before, and what do you think about what was said?

Lyn: I was often compared or connected to him. Mostly I think it was because of my frank subject matter—I don’t think people make that comparison  anymore.

Nadia: Besides writing poetry, what are some of your other passions and do you have time to pursue them.

Lyn: I feel very time-crunched lately. I take ballroom dancing classes every night, and ballet 4 or 5 times a week. I love films, Abyssinian cats, painting—rarely, and reading—though less often than I’d love to.

Nadia: Self-publishing is becoming the norm in this fast-paced world with big houses interested only in authors who are famous, or infamous. Do you want to talk a bit about publishing and how you go about it? Are some of your books self-published, or after all the hard work you’ve put in, are some houses taking notice of you?

Lyn: I have never self-published a book. My first book developed out of a too-large submission to a magazine (Lung Socket Review) that was just about to cease publishing. The publisher liked my poems and printed all the ones I sent as an Open Skull Book, Why Is This House Dissolving? I never edited it or had much to do with the arrangement. It was a mimeo press so I was surprised how much attention it got. Probably as important to me as Frost’s encouraging words was a review of this book in Works, an issue that first had an article from Blazek, the publisher of Open Skull Press, saying he wanted “poetry that is dangerous.” That would by itself have pleased me. But it was the review, by John Hopper, who said, “The most exciting poems published by any of the presses I covered were in Lyn Lifshin’s Why Is the House Dissolving? There is an unmistakable—and yet undisguised, femininity at work here that reminds one of Sylvia Plath and yet stands very much on its own gorgeous legs. There is not the mordant urgency of the Ariel poems, that despair so often overpowering, but encountering the woman alone generates such touching felicities I was sorry the poems ran out so soon.” He closed saying, “I do not know what attempt the established houses make to scan small press poets, but here is an excellent example of a fine strong voice whose book, the reverse title page tells us is ‘published in a limited edition of roughly five hundred copies.’ I know nothing of Miss Lifshin’s attitudes toward making it in the Big Time, but somebody with international distribution has a real obligation to give her a lot of bread and a wider audience. She well deserves it” (Works 11, no. 1, spring 1969). The review made me show people the book. Before, I hadn’t.

I’ve been lucky having had so many excellent publishers approach me and the originality and beauty of these books can be seen on Face Book— They are so beautiful and I am grateful. When Black Sparrow began to publish my books in 1997 I agreed to only publish with them. And Didn’t submit to magazines very often during that time. It was a relief to concentrate all my efforts in one direction. I loved working with John Martin. I loved the books he did and the idea that he would publish a new book every two years. It was perfect. And then he made the decision to turn Black Sparrow over to David Godine. Godine did publish the last book Black Sparrow had accepted, Another Woman Who Looks Like Me and I’ve had a number of books published since then and am working on several others.

I suppose I am working the same way I always have: open to publishers, submitting poems. As I said, that is how the first books came. Almost at the same time, just after Why Is the House Dissolving?,  Morgan Press and Baby John Press contacted me and asked to do books. With few exceptions, publishers have contacted me to do a book, often from a large submission. A book that has done extremely well, The Licorice Daughter: My Year With Ruffian was one of the few collections for which I searched for a publishers. A horse book of poems is an unusual mix but in the end this book and the book Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness, have reached a different audience, been successful.

Nadia: What are some of the most memorable reading or appearances you can remember?

Lyn: There are so many. I wish I’d kept a better list of all the readings and workshops I did. I did start a file and I could probably reconstruct a list from old calendars.

Recently I did an especially nostalgic reading in a house that used to belong to, first my grandparent,s and then my uncles in Middlebury Vermont.  From birth, I spent much of my time in this rambling big house with yellow roses and apple trees. I lived there in the months before I was married. One uncle wanted it donated to a college group in celebration of its tenth anniversary.  Though much had been renovated, the upstairs was as it was, with a beautiful Chinese rug and chandeliers. And there were still photographs and some of the special mementos I remembered. Reading there was intense.

Nadia: You were also the subject of a documentary film. Tell us about that.

Lyn: In the introduction to the book, a companion piece to the film LYN LIFSHIN; NOT MADE OF GLASS by the same name, the film maker included a diary she kept while working on the film.  I’ve written about the exciting experience several times— it was a real high. First it felt like my house was being invaded when the crew came with these huge machines. Dollies, lights, cameras, sound equipment.  Strangers gelling the windows, ordering me to stay out of the rooms they were filling with odd metal shapes. By the next day the shoot began. Supposedly, it was to be a normal day, how I work, how I write.  Since I would feed the cat and grind coffee beans and then go back upstairs to write, we started with this, walked thru it,. Instead of grungy sweats I wore a plum velour long sweatshirt and it seemed a great way to start. The cat, Memento, (An Aby) was always hungry and so I knew she would run to be fed and that was how a typical day went. I was told no matter what happened, not to look at the camera but just continue. I floated down stairs, took out the coffee to grind, had the cat food ready and the cat waiting. The crew was counting down: “Lights, camera action” and as the clackers clacked, Memento leaped up, slammed into the coffee beans that scattered throughout the downstairs and ran and hid under the bed. I did just what I wasn’t supposed to do: stared right at the camera. I’d love to see an out take of those first filmed events.

After a few days I got to love having the filmmakers there—I wanted to run away with them. It was like joining the circus. My only regret is that we did not go to Middlebury Vermont to film. My mother had always said she wanted to “fix up things” first and that was a huge mistake, not going. Since so much of what I write about stems from those days, they should have been in the documentary.

After the film was done, the filmmaker, Mary Ann Lynch and I traveled around United States and Hawaii—I’m glad I have it.

Nadia: Our country, and the social environment has changed a lot over the last thirty years. How has that influenced your work?

Lyn: I’m not sure how the social changes have influenced my work. I think the same themes that I started writing about, still are central.

Nadia: I read somewhere that you’ve done dream workshops in relation to poetry. Tell us more about that and how it influenced your work?

Lyn: I taught a few years at Union college and had students keep track of dreams, use them to free flow from, to turn into short stories and poems. It is something I continue to do. My book LOST HORSES is a book of dreams.

Nadia: I’ve noticed that you sometimes will write several versions of the same poem—yet, it really isn’t the same poem anymore is it, once you change a line or two?

Lyn: it is true, they are different. I’m not sure if I’d say they were totally different…

Nadia: Some might call you obsessive, or compulsive, would you describe yourself that way when it comes to your writing?

Lyn: Obsessive, yes probably. I tend to do whatever I do to the extreme: ballet every day, ballroom every night…

Nadia: I don’t write poetry on a regular basis, but it surprises me when on occasion, I write something powerful that has nothing to do with my personal reality or real personal experiences. Does that ever happen to you?

Lyn: Definitely. More often than some might believe.  So many of the poems in All the Poets (Mostly) Who Have Touched Me, Living and Dead, All True: Especially the Lies are pretty wild and strange and well it involves close friendships with Shakespeare and Keats and Plath—nothing to do with reality. And in books that might have a few “factual” things, fantasy, imagination, and strangeness so often take over.

Nadia: Typically, how does the process of writing a poem flow for you? Is there a lot of revision, or do your poems “just happen”?

Lyn: Often I write a version of a poem in a burst, a flow but even then, I might have several images or words or endings that I’m uncertain about. When I go to type something, I still write in long hand in notebooks. It’s an extra step I’d be happy to let go of, but I just somehow don’t. When I am typing, that’s where a lot of revising happens.

Nadia: What interesting things are coming up next for you, and where do you see your work going in the future?

Lyn: I’d be happy for more calm,  and some travel I suppose. I’m working on an autobiographical update, and it would be nice to get a shelf of hand written notebooks typed out—and then there are boxes and boxes of typescripts waiting to be put together, waiting for a home. My archives at Temple University and earlier, at Humanities and Research Center in Austin have so much of my work and yet I never seem to have breathing room for all the boxes, the magazines, the photographs, the posters …

Nadia: Can you offer any final words of advice to aspiring poets?

Lyn: I’m tempted to “not be too encouraging”. There are so many poets and so little space for them.  I guess I’d say, you have to want it more than anything, and that you should read and read.

Nadia: Lyn, I’ve had such a good time with you today. I’ve wanted to talk to you in person and hear your story for a long time. Readers, Lyn’s website is www.lynlifshin.com. Please go there and check out her book

Lyn: Thank you Nadia, I’ve enjoyed this, and thank you for having me.

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