Helen Luo E-Interview with Lyn Lifshin

Luo: Do you remember the first poem or literature – I guess you can say your first literary love - that really moved you? Does the poem/literature still affect you the same way?

Lifshin: I was told that before I was three, making one of our frequent trips from Barre, Vermont to Middlebury Vermont, I said it looked like the trees were dancing. My mother, giving me the name Rosalyn Diane, thinking it would be a great stage name, then probably sighed that at least it would be a good name for a poet.

I am not sure how early I was read poems but I clearly remember one of my favorite books, one that still is, was Now We Are Six.  I am back in Vienna, Virginia but I can see exactly where it is in my house in Niskayuna, New York: My reverence for the poems in it seem suggested by the fact that the book is in very good, hardly scribbled on condition and I know I got the book when I was around four or five. I loved the story of Alexander the beetle, and Tattoo and Pinkle Purr the cats and Anne who goes off to dream in to me amazingly beautiful meadows.

I skipped from first grade to third grade very quickly, probably because I had been reading for quite a while. (as a result, anything to do with math has been a disaster for me! My third grade teacher, Mrs. Flag, spent a lot of time reading poetry to us: Blake, Milton, Frost. And she had us write: she'd bring in boughs of apple blossoms, leaves, stones. I have a notebook of poems I wrote that year still. She was so inspirational that one weekend, I copied out a poem of Blake's and told my mother I had written it. Since Middlebury is such a small town it was not surprising that my mother ran into this teacher and told her how amazed she was that she had caught my imagination so, that I wrote a poem with words she didn't even know I knew like "rill" and "descending" and "nigh." So by the following Monday I had to write my own poem with those words in them.

In college I felt I would never be able to write enough to take a writing class but I did fall in love with Federico Garcia Lorca and Dylan Thomas, the poet I picked for my Master's thesis. I hardly wrote much, not sure I had anything in my life worth writing about.  I did have one poem that was published, the only one. My father, someone I was never close to, worked in my uncle's department store where Robert Frost came to buy baggy green pants every once in a while. The two were taciturn, hardly friendly, silent Vermonters. One day my father gave Frost a copy of my poem. Frost wrote "Very good poem, saith Robert Frost. Good images. Bring me some more." By the time I had another poem, Frost was dead. But it gave me some confidence and I'm sure helped get me several scholarships to graduate scholarships.

In graduate school, working on my PHD after my Master's degree, I selected periods I knew the least about . 15th, 16th and 17th century British literature and Shakespeare. I loved Wyatt and wrote about 100 pages of my dissertation on a comparison of him and Sir Thomas Sidney (that disappeared mysteriously).

When I walked out of my last qualifying exam, just walked out, I began to read what was being published right then --everything in the alternative magazines especially where I discovered Bukowski, who amazed me by saying what he said so directly. And I read Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath; in different ways I am sure both influenced me: Plath's tight spare style, and Anne Sexton's startling honesty. I hope they will all still affect me in the same way. (After a pretty long long hunt, I found the book Contemporary Poets on Books that Shaped Their Art edited by Peter Davies and the poets I listed with individual books are: Sir Thomas Wyatt, Federico Garcia Lorca, John Donne, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, The Bible and Walt Whitman. I suspected I might have left Sexton out and I did.)

Luo: Why did you choose poetry as your medium as opposed to novel writing? Or even why poetry over any other form of the arts?

Lifshin: Before college, I painted and won many painting awards as well as science fair contests. I always won on the local and state level and sometimes on the national level. I did exhibits on carbon, dentistry and the eye! Of course they were more like art projects really-- a huge papier mache model of the eye filled with bottles and bottles of Vaseline-- it covered many tables and went up in flames soon after. Painstakingly, I did about 100 pages, copied, of the slices of the eye in bright oils — very pretty but not a research project. The art projects that won awards (as well as a poster about never touching broken dangling wires) were group scenes: a group of children singing, people at the beach, a café with folk singers and a ballet class. I started college as a drama major and when I heard all the summer stock experience and off Broadway parts many had had, I switched to something "safe"— becoming an English major. But I had a minor in fine arts and radio and television. I loved how Black Sparrow always had a few special editions of each book for the author to draw or paint or do something very unique with.  I was given oil paints, hoping I'd get back to that but so far all I've done is take some water color classes-- some of those attempts are on my website www.lynlifshin.com.

I started a novel: one about the several generations of my family — came across a few pages of it and also always thought I would somehow use my poem Tentacles, Leaves as an outline for a novel or short story: reading it, others have wanted to.

Luo: What drew you into editorial work for poem anthologies? Was the position by choice or by request? How was the process any similar or different from your work self-editing process?

Lifshin: I clearly remember the moment I decided I wanted to try to do an anthology. I was waiting for a friend who had a late night shift at one of the Roosevelt manor homes on  the Hudson River. It was a beautiful early summer evening, probably June, and though I had published a few books already I thought it would be nice to try something a bigger press might be interested in with a bigger distribution and maybe even some money. I wanted something that could be a gift book but also have excellent poems in it. I had been reading someone's extremely moving mother and daughter poems and I decided that would be the topic. I didn't explicitly ask for poems only from women, and one man, now well known with an androgynous name, sent poems I picked but then thought no, I couldn't include. One notice in Poets and Writers and I was swamped with manuscripts. Some sent handwritten. hardly legible copies. Mimeographed pages — but it was exciting. In the documentary film about me, Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass a novelist who read some entries for another anthology with me said I could not bear to cut any, that I thought of them as my own babies!

I was very lucky. The first publisher I sent the manuscript to was pregnant at the time with her first child, a daughter, and she was immediately receptive. Within days or weeks, I got a note or call that Beacon Press was interested. How hectic my life was then: I had been down in Hudson, drove to my house and got a call from someone wanting me to go to Boston and I thought why not: I could meet the woman who would later become my agent. I was on the road constantly then. She loved the book, named her daughter Ariel, the name of the first poem in the collection. Later she placed Ariadne's Thread with Harper and Row and though in the end I had to find a publisher for Lips Unread, I worked with her on that too. We are still friends though poetry books just do not work with agents.

Someone said if you do one anthology you have to be a little crazy but if you do more than one, you are definitely insane. (As I am writing this, I think of another idea for an anthology but I just think I will let it slide-- one I had considered doing, and mentioned to a woman who has done many, was taken up by her and I have to say I am glad she did it!  It is a great, beautiful one about horses and women. Maybe she already had the idea).

Luo: What are some of the past and current challenges you’ve experienced as a female poet?

Lifshin: While I had plenty of challenges as a woman in graduate school, those "well why don't you have a baby " comments and "you're a woman, we need to keep these fellowships and assistantships for men who have families" remarks, I don't really think I have had that many challenges as a female poet.  When I started, there were many fewer women writing and publishing, and even fewer writing anything like I was. Two major anthologies of women's writing came out when I had been publishing less than five years and I was, to my amazement, looking back, published in both of them. In Psyche: The Feminine Poetic Consciousness,  there are 20 women writers. Here are some: Emily Dickenson, Elinor Wylie, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, May Swenson, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Kiser, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Marge Piercy, Diane Wakoski, Margaret Atwood, Lyn Lifshin, Erica John, Nikki Giovanni. So considering I had first published Why is the House Dissolving late winter four or five years earlier, I feel I was lucky and maybe even helped by being a woman writer.

That same year Rising Tides also came out with an introduction by Anais Nin. This is what the back cover says:  "Here at last is a comprehensive collection of the female voices in America. This anthology includes  the work of seventy poets ranging from such established names as Marianne Moore and Edna St Vince Millay to more recent and less-known poets as Nikki Giovanni, Adrienne Rich and Lyn Lifshin……

So that was very exciting.

However,  what has been and is a challenge is working so far outside the establishment. Not being connected to any university group or clique or even a local one — it does seem in every area there is a group of very supportive, connected writers. I am not in any group like that and I often notice this when I travel around the country. So this is a challenge. Though I won several awards when I was a beginning poet, several fellowships — had the only two panels I proposed accepted for AWP not that long ago, I am still really an outsider. In some ways it is good, relying on the kindness of strangers. But I have never won a Push Cart or had my poems read on Garrison Keillor!!!…. Being an outsider is definitely the biggest challenge. It is great to have my books used in various classes--- I'd like that to happen more but with more and more graduates of writing programs looking for more and more jobs and often being hired by those they have studied with, that is not that likely. It would be nice to just have more of the  support that those in the academic world have.

Luo: What would you like to see the literature and publishing realms accomplish in the future? Are there any movements or changes you would like to be made?

Lifshin: This is a question I have rather vague feelings and thoughts about. I keep hearing  ebooks are the way to go and I suppose they are.  But I am just not sure how I feel about this. I feel quite apart from some of the movements and I can't imagine feeling  otherwise.

Luo: Thank you again Lyn!