Interview with Gloomcupboard blog, May 2008

Q) According to your bio you have written over a 100 books and performed more than 700 poetry readings, how have you maintained your intensity at this stage in your writing career?

  It is probably over 100 books, maybe more like 125. That includes some small books, chapbooks etc.

As for the intensity, I think several things account for that. I tend to overreact to so much—not necessarily a good thing but I do.  Though I started to write as a child and always wanted to write—had a wonderful teacher in third grade, a class I’d skipped into from first grade because I could read, and she had us watching apple blossoms, smelling and touching them, writing about them and reading poets like Milton rather above our level (as well as Now We Are Six)—and I loved writing, I worried in a “real” writing course I would never be able to write enough. I published a few things, one poem was shown to Robert Frost and he wrote on it “delightful imagery—bring me more.” But I only had that one poem and by the time I had more to show him, he was dead. So I kept wanting to write but not writing. I thought first I’d get through college, get my Master’s degree and a PhD. When my PhD plans slammed into all male examiners who wondered why a woman wouldn’t want to just stay home and have a baby, my rage, disappointment and angst made me wild for revenge and that was what started me writing. But I felt I had wasted years, I had all the time reading 15th and 16th and 17th century literature and writing a thesis on Dylan Thomas and starting a dissertation on Sir Thomas Wyatt and had not written anything. So I plunged into writing. I felt I was behind maybe. But then, I’m also obsessive—right now I take 18 dance classes a week: whatever I do I do to the extreme. I have 50 to 60 handwritten notebooks to type up. When one ballet studio closed, I started using that time to type the notebooks non stop, hardly a dent, and just so much mail, submissions, paper to deal with I decided instead to try to clean my desk. The boxes of books, magazines, poems, is like a barricade, a moat

Except from burn out, mostly from typing and dealing with submissions and po biz, the intensity hasn’t changed. Ideally I would only write and someone else would take care of the rest: submissions, putting books together, publicizing books that are out, giving readings, judging contests…    The intensity is there though my obsessions are different.

 Q) I’ve noticed a trend in your poetry where you spend a lot of time writing a number of poems on one specific subject, why do you do this?

This trend is kind of new. I always had subjects I focused on and if you look at three of my Black Sparrow books, they tend to be broken down into sections about: family, love and sex, family, other people, nature and other landscapes, places and political poems. I did other series early on: Madonna poems, Mad Girl poems, dance poems. Some of these books came from workshops I taught at New York State Museum. They would feature a special exhibit and ask me to prepare workshops around their display. Some exhibits I spent a lot of time with and then, immersed in the material, I wrote poems. Some books that came out of these exhibits : IN MIRRORS from a display of literal and metaphorical mirrors, and many groups of poems: mother and daughter poems from a display of Aperture photographs: MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS, poems based on an exhibit called FEELINGS ABOUT WAR, poems from another exhibit DANIEL, THE STORY OF THE HOLOCAUST as well as many many poems based on exhibits at museums in DC: THE JEWS OF WYOMING, many from film series: gypsies in America, Asians in New York… many many more. I have six or seven notebooks for a workshop based on photographs of THE URBAN AMERICAN LEGEND. They are not yet typed.

More recently, a particular subject has haunted me and the obsession has turned into a book. When my 20 year plus cat died, I stayed in and wrote for weeks and that became WHEN A CAT DIES. A startling for me) fascination with the race horse Ruffian held me for over a year and I dreamed, read, gazed and breathed her as if she were my real horse. The book that came from that, THE LICORICE DAUGHTER: MY YEAR WITH RUFFIAN  is a favorite. It drained me and I vowed I would never write another horse book again. But when I learned about Barbaro’s break down it hit me and I thought I would write a few poems. Instead, the series became almost a year vigil in poems. That book will be published in fall 2008, BARBARO: BEYOND BROKENNESS. At the same time, another horse I’d been told to look into, LOST IN THE FOG, another amazing horse, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and the poems I wrote about him will be published by Finishing Line Press as LOST IN THE FOG. Another theme book, poems about the pond behind my house, a series I began when I discovered the real goose from the FLY AWAY HOME and FATHER GOOSE stories of motherless geese taught to fly by following an ultra light plane from Canada down through Virginia and Maryland—a fascinating experience – I became “famous” with Airlie Environmental  as “the goose woman” since not knowing what I had seen, I wrote them the band number of a goose I had seen, the band looking a lot like the bands on the birds in the movie. I just wanted some hints on how to take care of geese and ended up at a big party where I was celebrated for finding the only (at that time) living bird that had flown from Canada to the Delmarva area. The book, NUTLEY POND will be published in Fall 2008 from Goose River Press.

Another book that is a series was one I was asked to write by a press: poems about other poets. I realized that it was easier to write wild and outrageous poems about dead poets, spending Halloween with John Keats, going horseback riding with Sylvia Plath or bar hopping with Emily Dickinson—not write fictional or even real poems about living poets who might not be thrilled. The press that asked for the book was not happy and wanted I guess gossip and scoops so we parted ways and now the book, ALL THE POETS (MOSTLY) WHO HAVE TOUCHED ME, LIVING AND DEAD: ALL TRUE, ESPECIALLY THE LIES will be published by World Parade Books.

I don’t want to do another horse book but I am tempted again….
I like working with a theme—somehow it is easier to organize the book. But I like the kind of mix I have in all my Black Sparrow books too. My Ruffian book has a much different, very enthusiastic but different audience.

Q) You have been referred to in some quarters as ‘Queen of the Small Presses’ and “a modern Emily Dickinson." What do you make of such labels?


Both comments I think are amusing—when I started writing there were fewer woman and I was often compared to Plath or Dickinson. One writer saw me as a recluse I think—I am not! After leaving graduate school I did avoid university publications and looked for the most off-beat small press venues to publish but I think that has changed—I still publish widely in the small presses  and will always be grateful for publishing me first but I think the term fits a little less now. And the small presses are just not as small as they used to be—magazines and presses seem to merge.

Q) You were the subject of a documentary film (Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass) did you notice your own behaviour change when in front of a camera?

This is a fascinating question. One I’ve never been asked before.
I’m sure my behavior must have changed somewhat. I didn’t wear my raggedy sweats to write in but wore a long purple velvet shirt and though the film was a documentary, scenes were staged in a way. (The first shot filmed was supposed to be a typical writing day. Normally, up in NY, I got up, fed the cat, ground coffee beans and went back up to write. We had walked through the scene. My cat was always hungry and seemed simple. She would eat and look like the beauty she was and I’d make coffee. That morning there was one difference. The crew of 5 or 6 was ready, told me, whatever happened, not to look at the camera. Fine. Then they said “lights, camera, action” and at the point the clackers were hit for action, my cat jolted up terrified, spilled the coffee beans all through the two rooms, and headed for the space under the bed where she stayed for the rest of the day. I looked at the camera stunned. The scene is not in the film, only in the out takes)
I probably was a little more careful but I don’t think I acted that differently

Q) You won the Jack Kerouac Award for your book Kiss The Skin Off, slightly tenuous but do you believe that the looming spectre of the beat generation possesses the small press possibly starving originality?

No, I don’t see any huge influence right now of the beat generation. When I started there were so many alternative presses, mimeo magazines, little lively stapled mags but now things seem slick—the line between the small presses and any others that publish poetry and literature more fluid.

Q) It must seem overwhelming for someone just starting out as a writer who has ambitions to make a living from writing poetry. Is it possible? And what advice would you give them?

It would be overwhelming I am sure for someone just starting out as a writer who hopes to make a living from writing poetry. Unimaginable. Even starting and keeping a magazine going seems enormously hard these days. When I started, I was always paid for readings. It wasn’t until I moved to DC and Virginia that I realized many poets work for free! I was shocked. I traveled a lot and read very widely. I taught in my house, did workshops in museums and libraries and taught a few times as an outsider at universities and college. Of course mail expenses were so much less—I did it and I know I could not start and do it all from the beginning again.

For advice, I could never tell a poet they won’t need a “real” other job. It is a very hard time. All the degrees in writing are fine but when thousands of new writers appear each year from graduate writing programs—it gets harder and harder in every way.


Q) Outside of poetry, what arts are you passionate about?

I’ve mentioned ballet and ballroom. I take about 18 classes a week. I have an unpublished manuscript of dance poems, mostly ballet, and now am working on ballroom poems. All the time spent on ballet takes away from work. I used to always go every morning and write on the metro.  Many of my strongest.  I used to paint a lot, oils and water colors. Took a workshop two summers ago—living so close to DC there’s the chance for incredible exhibits. When I lived in DC, I went to museums almost every day. This year I’ve seen Edward Hopper, The Impressionists at the Shore, an exhibit on film, another art I am passionate about. Always go to the Montreal film festival; try to get in a film a week.  Tomorrow I plan to go to the National Gallery and see the exhibit about painters at the Fontainebleau at National Gallery. Though I did some painting at a recent workshop, I do much less than I’d like to.

 Q) Tell us about what you have planned for the rest of 2008? 

I have seven or eight books due out and that will be taking a lot of extra time. I would like to try to catch up on the untyped up notebooks, read more than I’ve had a chance to. Just to get my desk in order will be something—and of course the Montreal film festival.

I’ve never had as many books due out in such a close time—it is just chance I think and great in many ways, but exhausting. Just out are DESIRE from World Parade and 92 RAPPLE from Coatlism. Coming in months: BARBARO: BEYOND BROKENNESS from Texas Review Press, PERSEPHONE from Red Hen Press and NUTLEY POND from Goose River Press. Also due: TSUNAMI (another group of poems on a theme) from Blue Unicorn and LOST IN THE FOG from Finishing Line Press

For information about these books and other recent books and chap books, as well as more interviews, photographs, examples of work please check WWW.LYNLIFSHIN.COM

Last Updated:
May 7, 2011