Interview

Lyn Lifshin

Melusine: You have managed what few poets have, to have a full-time career as a writer outside of academia. Are there ways in which it's easier to be a poet outside of academia?

Do you find it good for your work to have that kind of independence?

Lyn Lifshin: I think when I started everything was different. There was a lot more money for the arts, for individual poets to be funded for poetry workshops and readings, at least in New York. There was so much less red tape, less competition for the grants. I could write or call Poets & Writers – who have always been amazingly supportive to me – and get funds for a visiting poet in hours or days. There were so many less, really few, university poetry programs. That meant that prizes, publishing, connections, access was much less influenced by academia. At that time, it never occurred to me to write in any other way. I think now it is different.

Melusine: You have given many workshops, though. Is this something you enjoy?

Lyn Lifshin: I love the students, and once I am in the workshop, I really enjoy it. But before that, I usually over prepare – especially if it is a workshop on a particular topic. When I lived in New York, I did ongoing workshops with the New York State Museum. When an exhibit opened, I designed a workshop around it. I’d visit the museum many times, take notes, and in the end I’d often have a book of poems based on the exhibit and the preparation of the workshop. For one exhibit, “The Story of Daniel,” I spent half a year reading and reading, lugging books about the Holocaust out of the library, heavy armfuls at a time, and they became my book, The Blue Tattoo.

In Mirrors, a book that came out recently, came directly from photographs, writings, the experience of going through literal and metaphorical mirrors in a mirror exhibit. I did many of my mother and daughter poems, poems about feelings about war – from exhibits at that Museum. Other books, Shaker House Poems, Old House on the Croton, Plymouth Women… all these came from wandering and imagining and dreaming in various museums, preparing for workshops for students.

I like doing a one-day workshop best, one with a theme. I know I’ve gotten excellent work from people who never thought of themselves as poets. For years I had workshops in my house – dream workshops, hair workshops, tasting and touching and feeling workshops. I concentrated on using one’s senses and was always amazed at the work that came out. The mother and daughter theme – one I’ve done with writers and non-writers – produces amazing results. I used to keep banker's boxes full for various workshops with objects, photographs, poems. The documentary film shows one workshop with people touching velvet and suede and Brillo and then some students reading the poems that evolved.

On my resume I list some of the workshops, some already mentioned, I continue to do at libraries, festivals, schools, cafés, nursing homes: “Mothers and Daughters,” “Diaries and Journals,” “Writing Through the Holocaust” (first done for the exhibit “The Story of Daniel”), “Writing Through Feelings of War,” “Women=S: Sensuality and Sexuality Writing Workshop,” “Mirrors: Literal and Symbolic,” “Writing from the Inside Out and the Inside In,” “Writing the Story of Your Life,” publishing workshops, “Writing Through the Urban American Landscape,” “Hair,” “Dreams.”

Melusine: Which aspect of your poetry do you think has changed most since you began writing for publication?

Lyn Lifshin: This is hard to answer. I’ve been obsessed with different themes more intensely at different times. When my mother was ill and dying, I wrote constantly about her. But she is a theme in previous poems and still is. I go through phases in my writing but they are like circling bands in a cut tree: they move away and come back in a circular way. The line lengths change; I use more or less punctuation. The explicitness that characterized my first poems now has changed but I think that has a lot to do with the times. I have some new readings from an older recording on my Web site. Today I would use different words at times, and I do in readings.

Melusine: It's probably safe to say that it's easier, in general, for women to live an independent artistic life today than in the past. But are there any ways you see in which the challenges have remained the same, or even ways in which it may be more difficult today than, say, in the 60s and 70s?

Lyn Lifshin: I think it is harder today for everyone, though there is online publishing that now has the respect I am not sure it had when the first online magazines appeared. I think the cutback in fees for readings makes it unbelievably harder to survive and live an independent artistic life. The increasing numbers of poets, the ease of publishing beautiful books, or publishing online all make it harder than in the past. The Internet, with all its wonders and ease of communications, also seems to diminish the desire for paper magazines. And people become so addicted to the Net. It can take up hours. Even e-mail takes so much time. I’m addicted; I know that I spend so much, maybe too much time writing e-mail. I get the return right off and am back at the Internet magnet for hours.

And reviews: I had my early books reviewed in The Los Angeles Review, the New York Times Book Review, Choice, the San Francisco Review, Library Journal. Now, most of these magazines I could expect a review from, and then a library purchase, now rarely review poetry books. I published regularly in Ms. magazine, Rolling Stone, Yankee, magazines that no longer touch poems. Few national, non-literary publications are interested in poetry. Even the small press review magazines are more limited. And today The Washington Post announced they plan to discontinue their Book Review section! Unreal!

Melusine: You've written a series of poems about the daughter you will never have, and at least one about the son you will not have.

Would you like to talk about this subject, and what it has meant for you professionally or personally to choose not to have children?

Lyn Lifshin: I was told I never was crazy about dolls as a child. I don’t remember that but do remember I wanted to “do something” before or instead of getting married. Become an actress, a writer, travel. An early poem I wrote had the phrase “gypsily free” in it. I wanted to change my name to Gitana, gypsy.

A poem about trading freedom for a golden ring stayed with me and scared me and I resisted marriage. When I gave in, I remember the rabbi said, “You better enjoy this day. After today, it will be your husband and your children.” I cringed. I don’t think I every seriously considered having children – at least until I had done more than I had. After divorce, had I had children to care for, I know I never would have had as much freedom and time to write.

I was so close to my mother, extremely close, but I saw how her children were her life and it scared me. Unlike many mothers, she never pushed me to have kids. My close relationship to her is one of the important themes in my work. After I edited Tangled Vines, an anthology of mother and daughter poems that stayed in print 20 years, the topic became even more central. Later someone was editing an anthology of poems about not having a daughter and that triggered a number of poems about the daughter I don’t have. I’m not sure about any poems about not having a son but I may have written one; I just don’t remember.

Melusine: What things fire you up and keep you fired up during your most creative periods?

Lyn Lifshin: Almost anything fires me up and I hope will always keep me going. Often an “assignment” like poems for anthologies on Barbie, Marilyn, Dick for a Day (this quirky anthology truly triggered many many poems) or magazines doing special issues, for example on “bathrooms in D.C.” or the first 100 days of Obama’s presidency – often what I would never never have chosen to write about pulls me in a new direction, and I love it. When a Cat Dies, The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian, Lost in the Fog and the forthcoming Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness all came from loss and love and wanting to tell a story. It is ironic that I never took a writing class in college because I was afraid I had nothing to write about, would never be able to come up with poems.

Melusine: You're famously prolific, and I hate to bring that up, since it's become a bit of a cliché, but, on the flip side of that, have you ever gone through a dry spell? Writer's block? If so, how did you find your way out of it?

Lyn Lifshin: There are times I feel my work has a certain jazzy, wonderful strangeness and then there are times I feel less sparkle in what I am writing. Hard to explain. Not a dry spell but a stretch with fewer poems I feel pleased with. Often the worst things make the best poems and there have been enough of those.

Melusine: Is there a particular poem or a particular collection that you think speaks most loudly for what you have been most passionate to say?

Lyn Lifshin: This would be impossible to answer. I think the three Black Sparrow books, Cold Comfort, Before It's Light and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me are diverse and show many aspects, as does my new book, Persephone, from Red Hen Press. But I love my horse books, The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian and Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness. Black Apples is one many liked and it went into three editions... It would be like picking a favorite child.

Melusine: What is your revision process?

Lyn Lifshin: I write in long hand, often with variant lines and endings and images with question marks. There are always circles and arrows, and a zigzag means I’m not sure about this part of the poem. Then when I type the poems I revise quite a bit, experimenting with line length – often paring down. And when I go to choose poems for a book, then I really really go over each poem many many times. Usually I am revising, cutting, changing, clarifying up to the last minute.

Melusine: A lot of poets say they write in the early morning, but I have never been able to manage that. Do you have a favorite time of day to write?

Lyn Lifshin: Before I moved down to the D.C. and then the Virginia area, I had a definite schedule for writing, as long as I wasn’t traveling to do many readings, a lot more than I do now. The documentary film about me, Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass showed a typical day pretty accurately (except I didn’t wear a long velvet sweatshirt dress but usually real comfortable old soft jeans or half worn-out sweat pants). I wrote in the morning then. Got up and made coffee, ground the beans and fed the cat and then got back into bed and wrote for a while.

(An absolutely hysterical out-take of the documentary film that I’d love to see was the first day of the shoot. We’d planned to show just that: the coffee, the cat and me doing what I always do. We walked through how I’d have the beans to grind and, of course, when I opened the cat food, the cat would leap to the counter – the background is a shadowbox of tangled mementos and glass and jade and geodes and it was always where I fed the cat. One thing I was told: no matter what happens, keep going. Don’t stop no matter what. So there I was in my purple velvet shirt and I had the beans out and the cat was looking as she should on the counter, and I was just about to start putting the beans in the grinder. It was going so well until they went “1, 2, 3” and then clacked the clackers. My cat leaped up terrified, spilled the coffee beans across the floor and then darted upstairs to spend the rest of the day under the bed while I stood there looking right at the camera agog. There went that scene.)

After writing a while, often most of the morning, I’d get the mail and deal with submissions, readings, acceptances, etc. That took from around noon to four. Almost every night I went to ballet around 5. I liked that. I was living alone and, if I didn’t have other plans, when I got back from ballet, around 9, I still had hours to work.

But since living mostly in D.C. and Va., my writing time is normally almost the opposite. At least kind of. I take, or took, ballet every morning until the studio recently moved. Now it is not every day but a lot farther. What I love to do, and what has worked so well for me, is to write on the Metro. There, even in crowds, I feel peaceful and alone. I’ve written some of my strongest poems on the subway, and so when I miss a ballet class, I don’t get much writing done. I still write at the kitchen table... any time of the day but I do prefer mornings. Sometimes I work nonstop on a subject. This happened when I began to write poems about Ruffian, the beautiful and tragic race horse. I wrote nonstop every day about her, and the book became The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian. It has done better in terms of sales than any other collection. I never planned to write another book about a horse but when Barbaro broke down at the Preakness, I thought I would write one poem. It became Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness, and I wrote every day from that day after the Preakness when he broke down and then through his long, at first hopeful recovery where he became more and more loved, became a part of so many people's day, until his tragic death and the months after. When I put the book together I had way over 300 pages. The process of cutting it down was painful. I never know what to do with those “left over poems.” Single poems about Barbaro or Ruffian don’t seem to work as well. I also have a chapbook from Finishing Line Press about another horse, Lost in the Fog.

When I am in upstate New York, I seem to go back to those old patterns: write in bed. Type at my old desk. Recently I did several long prose pieces that were solicited, again, something I would not have chosen to write about. Prose. They were not chosen in the end by that editor but others have liked them.

Art colonies have always been wonderful, Yaddo, Millay Colony and MacDowell, and I used to notice that many of the poems I chose for collections were written at one of those houses. But I haven’t been to any of these wonderful places in a long time.

Melusine: How do you feel about the explosion of online publishing? Do you see online magazines as on par yet with print journals?

Lyn Lifshin: I think they are becoming more and more on a par with print journals. Between the economy and technology, I’m sure online will become even stronger. I’m a little nostalgic for times when the New York Times Book Review had, as their cover, a huge display of very little magazines, mimeo mags.

Melusine: You also paint and dance ballet. How do art and dancing inform your writing, or are they in separate categories for you where you can escape from language for a while?

Lyn Lifshin: I don’t paint as much as I used to though I did take a watercolor class a year ago and for a while saw everything so much more vividly – it was a sensation I hated to lose.

I’ve done a lot of dance poems: ballet in the past, and Shoe Music Press has published Ballet Madonnas, some poems from a much larger group of poems about ballet. Lately I’ve been writing a lot of ballroom dance poems. That has become an obsession: about 13 classes a week. They can be subjects but they are also an escape! Often.

Melusine: Is there any barrier you would like to cross, professionally, that so far you haven't?

Lyn Lifshin: Well, I think I am the Susan Lucci of the Pushcart awards. I have been nominated regularly and often but I’ve never won. Sometimes I think being so prolific has been a barrier, not a help. And of course anyone would want to win more big and small awards.

Melusine: You live primarily in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area now, in northern Virginia. Coming from Vermont, a place that's always been a haven for poets, do you find D.C. to be a sufficiently poet-friendly town?

Lyn Lifshin: I’ve always felt I’ve been on the outside in many ways. My Web site, I think, has the talk I gave at an AWP conference about that. Though I grew up in Vermont and went to University of Vermont for a Master’s degree, I wasn’t really writing much then. Upstate New York was where I first started. Because Poets & Writers was so supportive, I feel New York was a haven for me. There were other poets but I’ve always worked pretty much on the outside and my contacts and friends and my “haven” was often through the mail. In Niskayuna and Albany I was always being asked to read, teach, give workshops, and I had a very large local following, something I have less of now.

When I first came to D.C., Poets & Writers was still funding the Virginia, D.C. area. They asked me to try to find someone who wanted to pay me to do a reading or workshop. The idea seemed strange to most people here and they expected readers to just read for free. There are many many poets in this area, most with full-time jobs, anxious to read at the many venues for no fee. I was at first appalled and stopped accepting readings for a while. Now I do to promote books. I was asked to join a writing group when I first got here that was very supportive, but when I moved to Virginia, I was too far away. But in the sense that Washington has many many readings and venues, I’d say it is definitely a poet-friendly town. There’s even a Busboys and Poets café, and Miles Moore has run a ten-year-plus reading series at another bar ... and lots of good magazines like Gargoyle come from VA.

Melusine: What's the last movie you saw that really moved you? I am a big movie-crier myself. Do you cry at movies?

Lyn Lifshin: I love movies – I see one almost every week and recently have really liked “The Reader” and “Defiance” – but they are only the ones I’ve seen in the last week or so. Every summer I go to the Montreal Film Festival – I could see five in a day – I’d love to see more than I do. Hmm, do I cry? I’m not sure, but they really move me.

Melusine: You have a poem where you talk about your fear of lighting matches, one that you and your mother shared. I have the same (what I thought was unique) fear. Can I ask, out of personal curiosity, if you've made any progress in this regard?

Lyn Lifshin: Yes, I have made progress: I buy the long wooden ones for upstate NY. Here, it is a gas fireplace!

Melusine: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these. If there's anything you'd like to add here, please do.

Lyn Lifshin: This has been fun – I’d only like to ask readers to visit my Web site, http://lynlifshin.com

It is crazy trying to get the word out about so many new books and I’d love to have many take a look. And if anyone has any ideas how to promote so many at once (I should have gone to AWP this year) do let me know!

Lyn Lifshin has published over 125 books and chapbooks, given over 700 readings and edited four anthologies of women’s writing. Her collection Another Woman Who Looks Like Me was published by Black Sparrow and Godine Press, October, 2006 and was selected for the 2007 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. Also out in 2006 was her prize-winning book about the famous, short-lived, and beautiful race horse, The Licorice Daughter: My Year With Ruffian, from Texas Review Press. Just out are Desire from Word Parade; 92 Rapple Drive from Coatlism; Lost in the Fog from Finishing Line Press; Barbaro, Beyond Brokenness from Texas Review Press; and Light at the End: The Jesus Poems from Clevis Hook Press. Persephone was published by Red Hen, October 2008. For other books, photos, and further information, see her Web site: lynlifshin.com