Forge On-line Interview with Lyn Lifshin

How long do you think about a poem before you begin to write it?

There is really no answer to this question.  I might hear a phrase, see an image, go thru a museum, see a photograph, catch a song. I could jot it down in a notebook but if I am home and can work on it it might be immediate. Often  I write poems based on dreams and the faster I can get to them, bits scribbled in the dark, the better. Other times maybe I might have an old old notebook of things from the past and the poem  or the trigger for the poem, could be there for ages. I don’t think any two poems happen in the same way

Do you carry and use notebooks?

Absolutely. I write a lot when I am taking the metro from Virginia to Maryland to ballet and when I was taking more classes,  most of my writing was done in my hour and a half commute. I carried notebooks and books. I got more writing and reading done. I hope to get back to that. Most of my notebooks I date:  when I wrote them and when I typed them up and then pack them off for my archives. The earlier notebooks are in the Harry Ransom collection at University of Texas  at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin and later ones, to the present, are in the Samuel Paley collection at Temple University.  These are usually 70 page spiral bound notebooks.  I tend to keep the notebooks I carried around Europe – to Turkey and Spain –assorted sizes--I have them going back to a little plaid notebook I bought in Italy, to some I used in Turkey to last year’s notebooks in Spain—in Barcelona and Paris  But I always have a notebook on the nightstand for dream images and poems and in the car on any trip. I can remember writing a poem for a request for an erotic anthology—taking my pen out in the dark of a movie theater and writing it or most of it on spearmint gum wrappers. It is frustrating:  it takes me more time to type and revise and print most poems than to write them

 Do you work with pen and paper, or the computer?

Usually I write with ball point pen on a spiral notebook.  I revise a lot when I type them up. Hopefully I can read my writing. Right now I have around 60 handwritten 70 page notebooks going back to the 90’s not typed on the shelf above my desk. I worry I won’t be able to read my hand writing when a lot of time has elapsed.

When revising, what are elements that you look to remove or build upon?

Usually it is a matter or cutting, paring down, cutting out. One of my strong poems was “revised” by an editor who suggested I cut out the last two lines—it’s that kind of thing

When writing, do you read your poems out loud? If so, what are you looking for?

I wish I did read my poems out loud more than I do. I should. For my last reading, I pretty much memorized and often revised my poems as I walked about the pond each morning.  It helped immensely.  At times I change the poem as I read it. I had planned to read all new poems. It helped so much to become comfortable with the  new poems but it also helped in revising poems—cutting, changing—eliminating  and of course it helped listening to and hearing the musicality, what just sounds startling, exciting, right

Looking at your manuscripts, it seems like you write a similar poem several times, I think this is a great idea since you keep getting at your thought without revising the same poem over and over. Is this a typical method for you? How did you develop it?

In the past I often wrote up to ten versions of a poem—mostly experimenting with line length and even cutting  the endings off. I ended up with boxes and boxes of versions of poems and the inability to type up and submit a manuscript with so many versions. I no longer do that.

 How would you describe your poetry?

I hope to evoke an emotional response—to have the reader feel it’s something they had felt but didn’t realize they had until reading my poem. I hope my poems startle and surprise.

Who are some of the poets that have influenced you from early on, through the years, and currently? 

 That is impossible to answer. I know I’d leave many out. In Poet’s Book Shelf edited by Peter Davis and published by Barnwood Press I was asked, along with many others, to list writers I feel are essential. It is an interesting book, interesting to see who different writers come up with. Also you can tell some writers I like from the three or four anthologies I have edited and published: TANGLED VINES,   first edition Beacon Press and HBJ second edition, ARIADNE’S THREAD, Harper and Row and Lips Unsealed, Capra Press.

Do you read novels? If so, can you name some of your favorites, or one you are currently reading?

I love reading novels—recently, between not being on the metro as much as usual and also reading a lot for researching the various recent books (MALALA—the young woman from Pakistan. All the horse books—each one required a lot of research. (ALL FROM Texas Review Press): THE LICORICE DAUGHTER: MY YEAR WITH RUFFIAN; BARBARO: BEYOND BROKENNESS; and SECRETARIAT: THE RED FREAK, THEM MIRACLE. For FEMME ETERNA, I had to research Eneduanna,  Scherezade and Nefertiti. Before that I wrote a book on tango and read a lot of novels about Argentine Tango before I took a tango class. Now I am taking Argentine tango classes and but not until way after the book, KNIFE EDGE & ABSINTHE: THE TANGO POEMS, was published. I’ve read a lot fewer novels and non fiction than normally I do. ( And truly miss it) I have been reading memoirs and fiction by Jon Katz.—I want to get back to more of that too.

What are some of the best ways that you’ve found to improve one’s poetry?

Hard to answer—I suppose  revising etc.—but that doesn’t seem like a very original answer…maybe have others read it, something I don’t do—I will have to think more about that


Lyn Lifshin, 2015 for forgejournal.com/forge/