Quick Study:

A Correspondence with Lyn Lifshin

by the Editors of Borderlands


Remember those courses at school where you kept in touch with a professor
via snail mail (before e-mail was even an option)?  Well, we've tried the same 
process with our current interview.  Fresh from The Washington Post's 
recent profile inquiry, the poet Lyn Lifshin generously agreed to answer our 
questions and provide the readers of Borderlands with some additional 
information on her new book, Cold Comfort: Selected Poems 1970-1996 
(Black Sparrow Press), a book which Lyn says, "I feel I have been working 
on for much of my writing life!"  Since August was a very busy month for both 
Lyn and us, a postal 'correspondence' seemed the best way of initiating 
Q&A.  We had our doubts about the logistics of the ensuing dialogue.  
Yet, in the final analysis, there was nothing quite like opening a fat bundle 
of reading material and sitting down to peruse at leisure.      

First, a bit of background.  Lyn Lifshin has been published widely.  Anyone 
researching poetry publications throughout the country will find her name 
mentioned almost as often as the word poetry.  Her work has appeared 
in publications ranging from American Scholar and Ploughshares to Ms. 
and Rolling Stone.  She has published close to one hundred books and 
chapbooks and edited four major anthologies of women writers.  Ms. 
magazine listed her book Tangled Vines as one of the sixty best books 
of the year and a prose piece titled "Writing Mint Leaves at Yaddo" was 
acclaimed by Writer's Digest and Story magazine as a significant piece 
of writing about writing.  Lyn has also been the subject of an award-
winning documentary film, Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass, of which 
NYC photographer and critic Mary McCarthy (Chiron Review) declared, 
". . . for its passionate defense of poetry and the written word . . . 
should be required viewing in every school in America."

Lyn's high-powered entry into the literary scene began sometime in the 
late sixties and over the past twenty-five years she has embraced a 
myriad of subjects including women of various cultures and ages, 
celebrities/cultural icons, Holocaust sufferers (Blue Tattoo), Vietnam 
veterans, and daughters she doesn't have.  She has won numerous 
awards including a Bread Loaf Fellowship, The Jack Kerouac Award, 
and a New York State CAPS Grant.  She also performs readings, 
workshops, and talks throughout the country and has been poet-in-
residence at a variety of colleges, libraries, and centers.

According to press reviews, Lyn's work has been compared (at one 
time or another) with the writings of Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, 
Robert Creeley, and Charles Bukowski.  Her work has won praise 
from such esteemed writers as Robert Frost, Ken Kesey, Richard 
Eberhart, Alan Dugan, and Ed Sanders.  Think of descriptive words 
such as gutsy, sexy, prolific, warrior and you'll know how a variety 
of critics choose to define this "sharp and wry social critic"
(Publisher's Weekly).

Seems like a legend in her own time, huh?  Actually, our first 
impression of Lyn coincided with her submissions to Borderlands.  
Lyn was that 'crazy' woman who submitted more poems than we 
could stuff back in her SASE and who placed stamps in almost 
every place but the correct one on each envelope. We mentioned 
this to see if she would respond . . . .

    LL: Well, that quote of mine about how the word for "to make a poem" in the Eskimo language is the same as the word for 'to breathe' seems to be my way of writing. I do tend to write a lot. That part is still joy, pure joy. But dealing with all the writing -- that has really become problematic. I have 150 notebooks that haven't been typed . . . . 
    Borderlands: And so many submissions. Did you always write that much? 
    LL: In the beginning I thought I could never write enough! I was afraid, for this reason, to take a writing workshop in college. I sat in on a workshop that Allen Grossman taught at Brandeis where I was working on my degree, but I was timid about showing anyone my work . . . . In a fantasy world, someone else would deal with the submissions. 
    Borderlands: And yet you've published an extraordinary amount of work. Do you consider yourself an exceptional poet? 
    LL: It's hard to know how much I've published. I have about one hundred collections and most of them are not chapbooks but bound books. Usually, for most books, I've been approached by a publisher or I have sent poems and they have decided to do a book. As far as being exceptional -- people who like my work have said that. I think each writer is unique. 
    Borderlands: Your work has received a lot of publicity, including comparisons to other writers and feedback from legendary writers. Could you talk a bit about your reactions to all this . . . maybe starting with your contact with Robert Frost. 
    LL: My father, who I was never really close to, showed an early poem of mine to Robert Frost and Frost wrote 'very good saith Robert Frost,' and he seemed to like the imagery. He asked me to come and bring him more but I had almost nothing more and he died soon after that. I think something in my father's personality clicked with Frost's -- cold, quiet, difficult, taciturn men who didn't show emotion easily. My father worked in my grandfather's -- and later my uncle's -- store in Middlebury, Vermont, where I grew up. Frost would come in, buy green baggy pants, talk to my father and then my father would shorten or alter the pants and they'd talk again. A number of notes and cards were found in my father's closet after they both had died. 
    Borderlands: Did Frost's comments have a big impact? 
    LL: Probably since I was so young, that praise gave me some confidence. 
    Borderlands: Ken Kesey said: "Lyn Lifshin's poems from Rolling Stone stay on my bathroom wall longer than anybody else's." 
    LL: I did a week's residency with Ken Kesey but don't know him well. 
    Borderlands: So, in general . . . 
    LL: Neither the praise nor the criticism has had a lasting effect. As for the comparisons, I think I'm more like Plath and Creeley -- especially the pared-down poems. As for Buk -- who I once read with -- I think the fact that early in my writing I wrote poems then considered frank, direct, explicit and maybe at times startling, reminded people of Bukowski. 
    Borderlands: Can you mention some authors whose work you admire? Any contemporary poets? 
    LL: I read and enjoy reading many contemporary poets constantly. I'm almost never without at least three or four poetry books in my bag and I buy poetry on a regular basis¥often hard cover because I can't wait until the soft version comes out. I listen to the daily Garrison Keillor program and discover poets I might not otherwise have read. My taste is quite eclectic. Some of my favorite poets would probably surprise readers. As an undergraduate, I wrote a long thesis on Federico Garcia Lorca. I wrote my master's thesis on Dylan Thomas and did Ph.D. work on Sir Thomas Wyatt. I'm always afraid to give lists of authors I love because I am sure I will leave out many writers. If you look at the four anthologies I've edited (Ariadne's Thread, both versions of Tangled Vines and Lips Unsealed), you will have a sense of many of the women writers I especially admire. I also like William Matthews and Edward Hirsch, but there are too many people to list. 
    Borderlands: Do you read many journals? What would you generally like to see more or less of in these various publications? 
    LL: I read a lot of poetry and a lot of the wonderful magazines like Borderlands. I owe my being known as much as I am to the alternative magazines and university publications. I didn't come from a university writing program so I began writing in isolation and they were -- are -- my main critics and supporters. I always enjoy writing to editors separately and I usually respect their comments and suggestions. 
    The recent deaths of John Gill and Marvin Malone hit me tremendously. John Gill had published one of my earliest books and his editing and publishing of Black Apples and Upstate Madonna, as well as his inclusion of my poems in his magazine and anthologies, was important. So many small press editors and publishers have been more helpful than I often get to say. 
    Borderlands: Somewhere along the line, you were dubbed "Queen of the Small Presses." 
    LL: When I first began writing, it was so exciting. Each magazine introduced me to an explosion of new words, feelings, risks. Really, though now I have more mail to plow through, more paper to clot the doorways, things aren't that different. 
    Borderlands: You sound very positive about the publications you've read. There must be some criticisms. 
    LL: There are so many magazines I really admire, often for very different reasons. It's hard to say what I would like to see more of. Often, I like to see more than one poem by a poet. I'd like to see a few more reviews, though not at the expense of poetry! When I first began writing, I sent a postcard to each magazine asking for sample copies. I adored the wild variety: the gorgeous magazines like The Outsider, December, El Corno Emplumado, and the wildness of Lung Socket, Out Cast, and so many of the underground mimeo mags. I'd just left graduate school and was not real thrilled to be leaving. Now I am pleased to be published in university magazines. So many are so beautiful. 
    Borderlands: What does it mean to be a 'poet?' A 'writer?' Laura Chester once quoted you as saying, "Perhaps poetry is an overreaction to life." 
    LL: I felt that I often overreacted to things, and that a large part of my poetry was connected to this. I always liked Emily Dickinson's definition of a poem being something that made "the hair on her head stand up." I suppose a poet is someone who does that in a variety of ways. I think of a "writer" as more of a storyteller. Really, both are both. I think obsession has something to do with what makes one a writer rather than someone who sometimes writes. A passionate, intense, often hardly sane obsession. 
    Borderlands: You've taught writing workshops. Are you teaching now? What do you value in a good teacher/workshop/program? 
    LL: I'm not teaching right now. I've taught short-term workshops and semester courses but I have not held a university position. I came close to finishing my Ph.D. in English literature. Had I done that, I wonder if I would have finally started writing at all. I prefer now to do short, intense writing workshops. I think I'm a good teacher, and I do like to teach whenever I am asked! I've had a number of very successful students, including Alice Fulton, Katharyn Machan Aal, and a number of poets in the upstate New York area, which is my real home. Many of them publish widely. 
    I think teaching is incredibly hard -- draining. One has to keep up the excitement, intensity, the thrill of doing it. I think I would burn out if I taught full-time. I think a good teacher should make the writing atmosphere comfortable, supportive, exciting. I take a lot of ballet classes and find bored, nasty, overly critical teachers hardly helpful. I feel the same way about anyone working with writers. Often students come to my workshops telling me some professor has told them they have nothing to write about and shouldn't even try. That is amazing. At the same time, honesty and a realistic approach to what and why anyone is in a workshop to begin with is important. It is not easy to be encouraging when someone wants my advice about leaving a job and going back to school with the idea of writing and teaching. It is a difficult life. 
    Borderlands: When did you begin teaching? 
    LL: I began teaching writing when a library in Albany, New York, asked me to. 
    Borderlands: You've written that 'details make the lie more believable' when confronting students. You've also written, in regard to public readings, ". . . the poems come first, then reality happens." These distinctions seem especially relevant considering your early experience with poetry in the third grade. Your mother thought you had authored a poem actually written by William Blake. She loved how you used words like rill and descending. Ironically, that brings us to the question of research. You write about so many different personas, subjects, situations. How does research tie in with your writing? 
    LL: I have a small book about how I prepared for the poems in Blue Tattoo. I carefully researched the lives and times of many in the Holocaust for over half a year. I would come back from a trip to the library with fifty books. The poems on the Holocaust were the most extensively researched of all the work I've done. Then, for my Marilyn collection, I visited museums while I was in the Washington D.C. area and imagined her in many of the places. For the Plymouth women series and other historical collections . . . I visited the sites, read about the times and people, but also relied very heavily on imagination. I never had a Barbie, so I even had to research her a bit! 
    Borderlands: Could you comment on two things here: first, your frequently mentioned kinship with Theda Bera, and second, a quote by Tony Moffeit. He wrote, "It is the era of the performance poet, and Lyn is one of the best. She becomes another person in her poetry performance. In fact, she becomes other people. She takes on enormous power with her masks. She is in touch with another reality, like all great performers." 
    LL: I never thought of myself really as a performance poet, though I know many have. In ways, being able to write has been the chance to act that I longed for in college where I started as a theater major. I've been doing readings for a long time and I'm told I'm a good reader but I still get nervous. 
    Borderlands: You've mentioned your love for space around "things in closets, in my house" and how you try to punctuate lines or words in a reading with silence like "white space on the page." 
    LL: I've never learned the knack of being real casual about it. Some poems are better reading than others, yet often someone in the audience will request a poem I don't normally read and then I find it works well. I'm definitely extremely interested in invitations to read. 
    Borderlands: You've written, "Readings really are an offering and like all offerings there's some panic that what's being offered might be refused." 
    LL: More and more, it seems like writers at all stages of their career have to give readings. 'ne of my first readings was at the Yaddo art colony. Diane Wakoski was there and asked me to join her in an informal reading in one of the grand, leathery, stained-glass rooms. I was thrilled and nervous. During the reading, a well-known guest kept making very favorable comments about Diane's long, narrative poems -- pieces that wrap you up and take you close and carry you around. Then I would read one of my short, few poems and he would either say nothing or something scornful. It was a horrible first reading. I swore that night I would either never read or write again or I would write a long poem like Diane's. That poem is included in my new book. 
    Borderlands: You wrote about another 'guest poet' adventure in the poem "Poetry Reading," which ends with "bad water, bad bed, just room and a banana." It seems this was also a bittersweet experience. 
    LL: That incident was a real and recent but an atypical experience! It was one of those times I had a gut feeling I shouldn't say "yes" but did. Most of the time it's just the opposite. I wish I kept records of all the places I've read. But I remember a lot, like the time I was put up in a fancy suite after traveling all day. There was nothing to eat, no soap or toilet paper, and the many color coordinated towels were not edible. 
    Borderlands: Can you talk about the reception of your work in other countries? 
    LL: I know my work has been translated into German, Italian, and French. 
    Borderlands: Do you travel often? 
    LL: I don't really travel that much. I usually do have a notebook with me and write often on the subway or on trains. Camping Madonna at Indian Lake is a tiny chapbook written on a rainy camping trip. Cold Comfort . . . contains poems from various places: New Mexico, Chicago, Quebec City, New Hampshire, Vermont, Berkeley, Hawaii. Actually, the longing to travel is something that I've been talking about these last weeks and your question makes me even more clear about that. 
    Borderlands: So the act of writing itself, wherever you happen to be, is the most important thing. 
    LL: The best part when I first began and the best part now is the act of writing. I like to write in the morning, have time to make coffee, read a little. Then comes the typing. I still write longhand in notebooks. Today, what seems ideal would be a cottage on the ocean with a ballet class and a body sculpture studio nearby and time to do whatever I do leisurely . . . poetry, ballet, films, a little shopping¥I love Betsey Johnson clothes . . . watching my Abyssinian cat, Memento, who has been staggering over the keys. 
    Borderlands: Many of your poems seem biographical. Is this true? Do you write more for others or yourself? 
    LL: Even what seems biographical is something more. Someone included me in a group of women poets who make myths of their lives and I think that is as close as I come to being autobiographical. Some real event will trigger a poem. I'm usually glad when someone assumes a story is real but sometimes it's unsettling. Stories about poets -- all sorts of things -- flourish. I was said to be seen in places I've never been . . . Of course, there are aspects of me in the mad girl poems and in the Marilyn poems too. I always write for myself. 
    Borderlands: You once wrote, "I always find titles the hardest part of writing a book." I find this difficult to believe when I scan through the table of contents for Cold Comfort . . . and see titles like "The President's Thighs Hide Out in the Rose Garden" and "Why Aerograms Are Always Blue." You find a wide variety of themes and then re-explore in a number of poems. 
    LL: I really love to take a certain theme and go back to it in a number of poems. It's a little like Monet painting the same scene in different light. It's as if one poem triggers another and there is a kind of energy I love to be in the middle of. 'ften, an editor requests a poem on a certain subject. That is how I did a series of poems for the anthology, Dick for a Day. The mirror series came when I did a workshop and was asked to plan something to go along with an exhibit of mirrors at a New York state museum. Sometimes just hearing about something can do it. Like the photographer who photographed his wife nude for twenty five years every day at 5 p.m. That just seemed so intriguing. 
    Borderlands: Tell us a little about the circumstances surrounding the documentary film . . . Not Made of Glass. What are some other projects you've been involved in? Have they affected your work as a writer? 
    LL: The filmmaker Mary Ann Lynch (. . . .Not Made of Glass) is a feminist and I think she saw my work in that light. She wanted to explore a side of me and my intense work schedule that many might not see. She had published my work in a magazine of poetry and photographs (Combinations) and had done covers for Marilyn, Raw 'pals, and Blue Dust, New Mexico. 
    I have been in a number of other film projects like in/word/out and, for awhile, videotapes of poetry readings. I am included in an anthology of New Jersey readings on disc and I've been on television. A local PBS station aired one of my earliest readings and, to my regret, I did not get a copy. But I don't think any of the film or television projects have had any affect on my work. 
    I often teach a publication workshop, working with different writers through the mail at an hourly rate, and when I'm familiar with a writer's work I often suggest magazines and publishers. I've edited four anthologies of women's writing: Tangled Vines (a collection of mother and daughter poems), Ariadne's Thread (re: women's diaries), and Lips Unsealed (memoirs, autobiography, confidences). In 1992, a new expanded version of Tangled Vines was released by a new publisher. 
    Borderlands: The word borders has received a fair amount of attention in our editorial meetings lately. Could you briefly describe any borders you have dealt with in your life/work? 
    LL: Borders. I think immediately of a poem I have about borders, about the whole book Blue Tattoo, about those trying to escape the Holocaust and desperately trying to get across borders. When it comes to my own life, that's an interesting question. I tend to like borders: trees growing thickly around my house, my face bordered by long hair and dark glasses. Even the poems, in a way, form a border, a mask -- let you see a bit but not that much -- certainly not everything. 
    My relationship with my mother was so close, there were almost no borders. I grew up not far from the Canadian border and also close to the New York state border where the popular girls were taken across to get a drink since you couldn't buy wine in Vermont until you were twenty-one. 
    The dictionary has many definitions for "border." Somehow, aspects of all these definitions seem to connect with poetry, with my poetry. A recent series of mine is called The Woman Who Loved Maps. 
    Borderlands: Laura Chester, editor of Rising Tides, wrote that you are, "Made of flesh and word." We're borrowing these next two questions from another interviewer, but could you answer them just the same? What is your favorite word and why? What is your least favorite word and why? 
    LL: I don't think I have a favorite or least favorite word. I remember being told not to use the word vermilion but even that snuck into a poem recently. 
    Borderlands: How would you complete the following sentence? I am a poet of the future because . . . 
    LL: I am a poet of the future because . . . hmmm. That is a little hard to say. I guess I'm always trying something new, poems from different personas, poems that try to outdo what I've already written. And when I say "poems" I also mean to say "writing in general." I write a lot less prose but I hope to do more. The little prose writing I've done has been very well-received and I'm often asked for more. 
    Borderlands: And your opinion on current responses to poetry in general? Public readings? 
    LL: I think the current response to poetry -- any response to poetry -- is positive. Poetry probably will never be popular but I think the readings are good and if they get people to buy and read poetry, that would be super. Each area of the country is different. For the poet, readings are a time to get immediate feedback, contact, to be available to an audience. And for those who come to listen -- often writers themselves -- it's a time to experience writers they often have not read, a chance to see all ways to approach a subject, to talk about publishing, share frustrations, meet other writers. 
    Borderlands: Earlier in the interview you mentioned ballet. Care to make a comparison between your writing and your dance? 
    LL: I keep going back to the ballet classes I take almost as obsessively as I write. I am not a dancer. I do it out of love and some weird pull toward the beauty of it. I want to be encouraged, corrected in terms of my own abilities. The worst ballet classes are when a dancer pits students against each other, makes it super-competitive or worse, looks at the average student as if he/she might get sick if they see another poor pirouette! The dance teachers I've learned most from are the ones who keep things moving, fun, at the same time we are all treated seriously in our love for what we are doing even though most of us will only take classes, never perform. 


    The Editors, Borderlands, Aug/Sept, 1997 
    Borderlands Website

    Note: Link (http://www.fastair.com/borderlands) -- is no longer working and needs to be found.


Last Updated:
December 27, 2000