Christine L. Reed
of Moondance

Lyn Lifshin has written more than 100 books of poetry and she has been dubbed "Queen of the Small Presses" for her prolific publication in most literary magazines in existence. Lyn has also edited four anthologies of women writers and has appeared in nearly every major anthology of recent writing by women. She has taught poetry and prose at universities, colleges and high schools and has been Poet in Residence at the University of Rochester, Antioch, and Colorado Mountain College. She has won the Jack Karouc award for her book "Kiss The Skin Off" and has had a documentary film produced about her, "Lyn Lifshin, Not Made of Glass". Her most recent book is "Cold Comfort" from Black Sparrow Press and is available at most major bookstores. If anyone knows poetry, it’s Lyn Lifshin.

Using the miracles of modern technology, I interviewed Lyn by e-mail, allowing her to fit me in to her hectic schedule. Lyn’s views concerning the life of a poet and the business of poetry hit close to home and exhibit the sheer determination necessary to follow one’s soul, no matter how hard the road may be.

We all have ways of expressing our creativity, how and when did you discover that yours was poetry?

I have been told that before I was three, driving on a back road from Barre, Vermont to Middlebury, I said to my mother, "It looks like the trees are dancing." She had named me Rosalyn Diane thinking it was a very theatrical name. My mother wanted to be an actress, loved the theater, Broadway, and I suppose thought maybe, with that name, I could be one.( Although I wasn't really, I started as a theater major in college, taught children's theater with Frank Langella, etc but hearing of everyone's summer stock or off Broadway experience, I switched to something "practical": English.) When my mother heard that phrase, she thought if her daughter isn't going to be an actress, maybe she will be a poet. Leaves, trees, bark, roots, and branches, heartwood and tangled vines still stud my work. I often write of women who, Daphne-like, merge with trees to escape. I learned to read so early I was pushed from first grade to 3rd where Mrs. Flag read to us each morning. Often it was poetry: Longfellow, Milton, Wordsworth. Then she had us write our own. I can remember the pale rose color and the smell of the apple boughs she brought into third grade. It could have been one of those heavy, spring mornings in New England, the air totally still and damp when she suggested we take the apple blossoms into us, the smells, colors, the movement of petal and stem, the way the flowers connected to bark and how green unraveled out of the underside of darkness. All the details. And in touching and looking, almost tasting the petals, I learned to trust my senses, something I always implore students to do. I have blue books full of poems, many about apples, apple blossoms, apple leaves, an image that has continued, been a part of several titles of my books: PAPER APPLES, FORTY NIGHTS APPLE. One Saturday afternoon I copied a poem of William Blake's and showed it to my mother, told her I had written it. She was amazed. Since Middlebury is one of those calendar-quaint New England towns with one Main St., a white Congregational Church Life Magazine photographers always came to shoot photographs of after a storm, and a Village Green, it's not surprising she ran into Mrs. Flag and told her it was wonderful that she'd been such an influence, that I'd written this wonderful poem with words she didn't even know I knew. By Monday I had to write my own poem with words like "descending" and "rill" in it.

What does it take to be a good poet?

Sometimes I think it helps to be born, as I was, into a family that tends to over react. I've heard my grandmother hardly slept throughout the second World War, worrying so about her sons. My mother kept up the tradition and probably it is something that became part of my psyche, part of why I've written as much as I have. Sometimes poetry seems an overreaction to life, a tendency to "go to excess, exaggerate feelings," as Laura Chester said in the introduction to my collection NOT MADE OF GLASS, only to see them more clearly. Obsessiveness, over sensitivity, stubbornness, all seem connected to being a writer. More important, a poet has to be in love with language, to feel that words can chill, spin you around, make you feel as Emily Dickinson said, "as if the top of (one's) head was taken off." The excitement of moving words around, creating something where there was nothing is central. To continue to write, one has to know that frustration, rejection, lack of appreciation, loneliness and isolation is all part of being a poet. There are so many obstacles in the way of being a poet one must feel they must write, feel that obsession, that passion for language, be in love with the magical things words can do. You must need to write even if nobody will read you, of if they do, won't care about you, appreciate what you've written or reward you. You can write well and find barriers, road blocks. So you have to want to do it because you simply can not not do it. I suppose the same things that are important in any of the arts is important to a poet: perceptiveness, imagination, passion, the ability to take a variety of risks. A poet has to be able to see things from a unique point of view, be persistent, have patience, craft, feeling — something that can't be put in words that lets one shape words into something that will make someone else feel or react, like a garden, architecture, a painting, make someone see what they always knew but didn't know they knew.

Do you feel you have had to sacrifice anything in your life in order to do your work?

I'm always reluctant to advise writers about MFA programs, giving up a job to pursue poetry. At a recent conference of writers from the 50's and 60's, someone made a comment that unlike the past, when many wrote for the love of poetry, now, it is a careerist choice and very competitive, much less fun. Most of the time I can't imagine not writing. I've written as an outsider, not connected to any group, university — it didn't seem important when I started. But there have been times I've seriously thought with so many frustrations connected to being a poet, I could or should totally change my life. When I think of the energy, passion, time I've put into writing and how in any other field, with the success I've had, the devotion I've made to it, I would certainly have for one thing, some financial security and rewards. I've been lucky because things have unrolled in such a way that I've been able to edit anthologies, sell some papers, do workshops, give readings, teach on a limited basis — but it never gets easier. Though the financial state of the country is supposedly good, the money for poetry has never been worse: fewer and fewer magazines review poetry so libraries are less aware of poetry books as well as other book buying institutions and individuals. My readings in the early 70's ALWAYS were paying readings and not that much less than the present when it is not always a given that a sponsor of a reading plans to pay! In New York I never did a reading I didn't get paid for. Poets and Writers, a marvelous, wonderful organization that I can never thank enough for the help they have given in New York funding, is so supportive. But in Virginia and Washington DC — it is quite a different scene.

Besides financial sacrifices, I'm sure some of my poems have upset friends, lovers, family and that is unsettling. I might not have thought of sacrifice as a word connected to writing but as I do, it seems a poet sacrifices a lot: safety: it is always a risk to write a poem. You put yourself out there to be rejected, ridiculed, criticized, dismissed. And I've sacrificed time:-- I never feel I can catch up, have a break from what seems like unending things to deal with — not the writing — that is always a joy and too the reading of other poets — but all the typing, filing, keeping on top of arranging readings, doing publicity — I never realize how much poetry has taken over all my time, energy until I hear it from others who are not always pleased.

Do you spend much time rewriting your poems or do they hit the paper complete?

I spend much more time reworking poems than some might imagine since I am so prolific. Right now as I mentioned, I am typing up about 100 notebooks that go back to 1990. As I type, I revise constantly, try different versions. For each poem I've typed in these last weeks, there are probably 6 or 7 versions. Occasionally a short poem will be almost complete. Or a dream poem might somehow come from the handwritten version to the typed on with little revision. But usually there is a process of many changes. Even after a poem has been accepted, I'm apt to revise it. When I put together the final COLD COMFORT almost every poem was further revised: pared down, tightened, made more clear. I had moved away from using a lot of punctuation, but in revising the poems, almost every poem, for clarity, was more carefully punctuated. Today I will retype an accepted poem I have extensively revised and hope the changes get back to the editor in time. I think Yeats said he continually revised, rewrote all his poems until his death. Often I revise a poem when I read it at a poetry reading. An editor's comment might be right to me. Even a typo can seem "better" than the original. Often, in handwritten notebooks, I have several variant versions of a poem — like the Shakespeare Folio editions — they are all a little different. Because my concerns, observations, feelings, perception, life situations change, from the time I write a poem to when I type it or revise, there can be major changes.

We always seem to look back at our lives and say, "If I had to do it over again...." Any wisdom for poets who are just starting out?

It is such a hard life. It is really hard for me not to be discouraging. It's harder than when I started in the late sixties and early seventies — over crowded and under funded. Poetry isn't read — it's basically written. I did an article in the Writers Digest issue of THE BASICS OF GETTING STARTED IN WRITING 1995 that I am happy to suggest — it has a number of suggested triggers for poems. That is the part that really is all that matters: the writing of poems — learning to trust your senses, memories, feelings, your wildest thoughts, free flowing images as a way to start a poem. I suggest technical and imaginative exercises, preparations that have been magic for me. This is the part that is fun, a joy — and if it isn't for a beginning poet, forget writing. I have met writers who actually think this is the way they are going to be famous! Beginning writers, any writers, might like to check out my autobiography in the reference book THE GALE RESEARCH SERIES. It is called: ON THE OUTSIDE; LIPS, BLUES, BLUE LACE, and appeared early in 1990. My craft interview with Bill Packward in the fall 1998 issue of The New York Quarterly and my Lummox interview, on my web site, all talk a lot about things I hope are useful to writers.

Why is poetry good for us?

I love to read and to write poetry. I buy poetry books all the time and I really love the feeling of seeing things through another's eyes, seeing how words are played with. Like all the arts, good poetry shows, teaches in a way that is also a delight. When I read a poem that just makes me shiver or say "oh yes, exactly" — I love it — like a fantastic movie — I see, move into, feel, and am thrilled. It's often a privilege to feel I've gotten so close, moved inside another's thoughts and blood — poetry does that better than anything else.

I feel I've talked a lot about the frustrations of writing here, more than I usually would: perhaps because of a spring of, lets say strange, readings: not well organized, publicized, well run, a real exception in all the years I've been doing this. So perhaps a few comments from the introduction to my book NOT MADE OF GLASS might show more of my joyful feelings about writing: "like rainbows...bands of colored light, a wreathe around the first and last frames..is what poetry suggests: mystery, magic, beauty, what startles, rivets, what you can't quite reach, intangible, stunning unexpected...a search (that) transforms like colored glass beads on barrettes..." In the end, "I can't imagine any other way to be...poems are like prayers, those s.o.s's, breathless, wild, urgent, intense as longing even if you don't know who will hear, taste or be touched by any of it. Poetry makes one so much more aware of, increases, sensual appreciation, helps one discover the magical in the ordinary, gives on a power, a way to shape, transform, rediscover, catch and hold and, like with dance, a way to feel alive, connected." (From the introduction to NOT MADE OF GLASS written Niskayuna NY August 1989)

Last Updated:
December 27, 2000