Written for WC Ltd Industry Newsletter for Poetry
Lynn Lifshin..... the Susan Lucci of the Pushcart with at least 300 nominations,
but no award. With over 100 books and chapbooks, publications in almost
every magazine, inclusion in over 45 national anthologies, and dozens
of awards, grants, and fellowships, Lyn Lifshin has been crowned the most
published poet in America.
A native of New England, who lives between the D.C. area and upstate
New York, Lyn has been a poet at heart since she was a baby. "My
mother told me that when I was a year old, I said, 'the trees look like
they are dancing.' She said she knew that if I did not become an actress,
I would become a writer." While in the third grade (at age six),
Lyn copied a poem from William Blake and presented it to her mother, stating
she had written it herself. Overcome with joy at her daughter's talent,
her mother told the teacher about the wonderful poem her daughter had
written. Lyn, faced with a do or die situation when asked to write more
of this wonderful poetry, began on the path to where she is today.
Three hours on the telephone with Lyn only whetted my appetite to know
more about her. Reading her 5 page resume/bio is like reading excerpts
from the Poets Market with listing after listing of publications, awards,
anthologies, etc. What motivates this woman to write? What does she see
when she looks out upon our world? What does Lyn try to tell us through
the magic she weaves? What do her readers and critics say about her? Question
after question speed through my mind as I attempt to assemble the story
of Lyn's life.
Lyn was born in Barre, VT and grew up in Middlebury, VT. Her father worked
in her grandparents store, where Robert Frost was a frequent customer.
One day, when Lyn was ten years old, Robert Frost wandered in to the store
and Lyn's father shared one of her poems with Mr Frost. After reading
the child's poem, he wrote that he had liked her images and wanted to
see some more of her poetry. "This response made me feel like I could
really do it." Thus... a poet was born.
During her teen years, after graduating High School at the age of 15,
Lyn went to Syracuse to earn her undergraduate degree in English and Fine
Arts. After completing her degree, she moved on to the University of Vermont
for her Masters, writing her thesis on Dylan Thomas. Lyn's goals were
to become a writer and academician. However, being a woman in the sixties,
in a field ruled by men who had definite ideas where a woman belonged,
Lyn hit a snag in her academic aspirations.
She began her Ph.D. at Brandeis, and six months later, moved on to SUNY
Albany focusing her thesis on a comparison of Wyatt Sydney. Barely 20
years old, she continued her Graduate work at Suny Albany as the youngest
person in the program, and maintained A's in of her subjects. Halfway
through her dissertation program, she was assigned a professor who was
known to "never have passed a woman in Ph.D. Graduate Exams".
Day after day her professor badgered her, stating her religious background
conflicted with her focus on 15th through 17th century poets, and that
she needed to tie her long blond flowing hair up and dress the part of
a graduate student. On the verge of abandoning her dreams, she was assigned
another professor, this time a woman.
"I walked into the exam (Ph.D.) completely discouraged and drained....
all I had wanted to do was become an academic scholar. But I had been
so stressed up to this point, I just turned around and walked out of the
It was at this time, after studying only 15th, 16th, and 17th century
poets, that Lyn began reading and studying contemporary poets. Lyn began
writing poetry with a vengeance, and now, 30 years later, she has still
not let up. During the early years of her writing, she did some painting
and worked for a television station writing monthly programs, and a magazine
"I was so filled with anger, and this anger triggered some of my
most anthologized poems. I tend to do everything to an extreme, one thing
at a time. If I paint.... I paint. If I write..... I write. I have boxes
and boxes of notebooks. Right now I am working on putting about 100 notebooks
of poetry which has never been typed up, onto my computer."
At the age of 20, while writing poetry with a vengeance, Lyn Lifshin
spent 3-4 hours each day dealing with her poetry manuscripts and submissions.
For over ten years, she was dubbed the most published poet in America.
Her first acceptance for publication arrived on her birthday in the late
60's with Folio magazine in Birmingham, AL Since then, she has been published
in over 20 issues of Folio.
"I have been in almost every publication there is, and some... multiple
times. My garage has over 100 bankers boxes filled with contributor copies
of publications I have been in. A few libraries have collected some of
my papers and publications and the University of Texas at Austin bought
some of my papers."
Lyn has published about 100 books and chap books of poetry (about 75%
of them being books). Some of her most recent titles include: Cold Comfort
(Black Sparrow Press 1997), Blue Tattoo (Event Horizon Press 1995), Marilyn
Monroe (Quiet Lion Press 1994), Parade (Wormwood Press 1994), Not Made
of Glass (Arista Press 1990) and Reading Lips (Morgan Press 1992).
In addition to writing poetry, Lyn has edited four books: Tangled Vines
(Beacon Press 1978), Ariadne's Thread (Harper and Row 1982), Lips Unsealed
(Capra Press 1990), and Tangled Vines, enlarged edition (Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich 1992). She was also the subject of the Award winning documentary
film "Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass"
From the film's press release:
"The film takes us deep into the heart of this influential writer,
with scenes in her home, at a reading at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs,
at Yaddo, the artists colony, and elsewhere, as the life of a writer is
revealed step by step. Interviews with fellow writers and Editors Ed Sanders,
Janice Eidus, Joseph Bruchac, William Packard, and Yvonne offer professional
and personal assessments of her place in the literature world. This intimate
portrait..... is a testament to her unique contribution to poetry and
to the history and continuing evolution of women writers."
Her work can be found in hundreds of magazines including: Press, The
American Scholar, Green Mountain Review, The Ohio Review, South Carolina
Review, American Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, Massachusetts Review,
Laurel Review, Chicago Review, Christian Science Monitor, The Literary
Review, Ms Magazine, Rolling Stone Magazine, and many, many more....
She has had her works published in over 45 national anthologies including:
Dick For A Day (Random House 1997, on many best seller lists), Changing
the Spirit Within (Beacon Press 1996), Between the Cracks (Daeldalus Publishing
1996), and so on...
"People have titled me the most published poet (among other things),
but I won't hold that title any more..... because I will no longer be
submitting my work. I have had the feeling if I had been accepted by a
big publisher long ago, I may not have submitted so much of my work. I
could have done things differently, but lots of people have heard of me
and have read my work because of all of the publications, especially the
"I have also been called a renegade poet, but I don't feel like
one. I feel more like an outsider who doesn't fit into any group. Here
in DC the poetry community is splintered into lots of different groups...academic
poets, beat poets, black poets, coffee house poets, etc. I just want people
who read my poetry to feel something after they read it.... whether good
or bad. Writing my poetry keeps me sane. It gives order to the chaos out
there, a sense of creating something that matters."
What inspires such a creative woman to not only write so much poetry
over the years, but to also achieve the level and status of numerous publications
and awards such as: The Jack Kerouac Award (1984), Hart Crane Award (1970),
Poetry Prize at Boulders Writers Conference with Judges Richard Eberhart
and Alan Dugan (1969) and the Harcourt Brace Scholarship (1969), New York
State CAPS Grant (1976), five Yaddo Fellowships (70,71, 75,79, 80), a
Macdowell Fellowship (1973), Madeline Jadin Award (1986), Esttersceffer
Award (1987), Writers Digest Award for best writing on writing (1994)
and most recently a finalist in the 1998 Patterson Poetry Award.
"I can be inspired by almost anything, something I read, or a difficult
time in my life. I did a series when mom was ill until she died. I am
living in a nature-like place now so I am writing about nature. Even an
ad or a scientific thing can inspire me."
"When I moved to DC six years ago, I haunted the museums. Different
exhibits inspired poetry. The Vietnam Wall mementoes inspired a series.
I have written family poems from photographs, or poems from articles in
Lyn is frequently asked to conduct poetry workshops and has taught in
hundreds of schools and universities across the country. The local museums
frequently ask her to do workshops which she designs around their current
exhibits. Some of her workshops have included topics such as, "Sensuality
and Sexuality for Women," "Urban America," and "Writing
from the Inside Out."
When asked who her favorite authors and poets were, Lyn stated, "I
hate to answer that question because I feel like I will totally leave
someone out. I always carry books around with me and am currently reading
Mary Oliver, Donald Hall, Bill Matthews, Jane Kenyon, and Billy Collins."
Lyn, unlike most poets, makes her entire living from her poetry. She
considers her greatest achievement to date to be "Getting through
things without falling apart. I haven't lost my sense of writing and I
love words. I have kept my enthusiasm, like that of a child, and my writing
has become known without having to use connections."
Lyn's last book, "Blue Tattoo" is filled with poems about the
Holocaust and was published by Advent Horizons Publications. The Library
Journal and Publishers Weekly both reviewed the book which is currently
stocked at the Holocaust museum in Washington DC.
When her current book, "Cold Comfort" was released in October
1997 by Black Sparrow Press, Lyn stopped sending her poems in for submissions
so she could focus on promoting her book. "I have been putting a
lot of energy into it and am quite tired now." She began working
on the manuscript for Cold Comfort in 1993 and claims this is the only
books she has completely edited herself.
These days Lyn spends her time typing up the 100 or so notebooks of poetry
she has collected over the years. She desires to write a novel and plans
do write more articles. Writers Digest magazine had published two of her
articles, one which won an award for best writing on writing. "I
want to write some prose and continue to write series of books."
With all of her experience writing and with publications, I asked Lyn
to share some of her observations and advice with new poets and writers.
"That is a really hard question. Part of me wants to say it is really
difficult because the field is getting crowded. It's a hard life, less
poetry books being bought these days. I have been real lucky though. (I
would suggest poets) Read a lot! Write, go to workshops and readings and
be prepared to find it hard and frustrating with all the rejections. Some
readers love you and others hate you. Don't write to become famous."
Most poets do write though, with the aspiration of fame and acclaim.
Why does Lyn, the most published poet in the country write? "I have
to write! Only write if you cannot help yourself. You have to do it because
you have to do it! You have to really love doing it because the frustration
is there all the time. One day I found out that the word to breath'
and "make poem' is the same word in the Eskimo language." Lyn
writes because, to her, writing is like breathing. As a result, she has
been able to overcome almost every obstacle in the literary world to become
the "Queen of Poetry Presses."
In regards to her writing, opinions range across the board. I have been
told by Elton Warrick, Publisher of the Poets Guild Quarterly that "When
Lyn is on target, she is ON target. When she isn't, she isn't." In
the August 17, 1997 Washington Post Magazine, several poets commented
on Lyn and her work:
T.S. Elliot was quoted as saying, "The one (Lyn) who spins straw
of everyday life into something fine, finds meaning in chaos."
An editor from a respected national poetry review said, "Not enough
stylistic range, not enough crescendo and diminuendo. She's like a singer
with one octave, when you want two or three."
Dana Gioia stated, "She's become a kind of whipping girl for establishment
poets....because she is an outsider."
Grace Cavalieri claims, "She's bold on the page and on the street.
She uses language with courage. She's like a laser. She pulls people in
because people love the truth."
Lyn Lifshin has always gone against the grain of the norm' and
as a result has achieved an incredible level of success with her writing.
I could have spent all day talking with her as I found her to be pleasant
and open, full of energy and life... our conversation (at first meeting)
much like that of old friends. Though many people may label her a rebel,
she presents life through a refreshing voice of truth.
From Blue Tattoo, 1995
Event Horizon Press
Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240.
WHO HELD THE CAMERA
SO STEADILY, AND WHY?
at the Holocaust Museum.
In black and white
a naked girl,
gripped by the neck
in the hands of a woman
with huge biceps.
A mentally disturbed girl
shortly before her murder.
Near the dangling girl
is a photo in summer --
trees are fully leafed,
dark smoke pours
out of one building.
Down the hall
a young man with glasses
takes aim at a man
in front of a pit of bodies:
the pistol points at the neck
so no shattered bone
will fly his way.
From Cold Comfort
Black Sparrow Press
24 10th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
October 1997, $25.00 ($14.00)
278 pages, hardcover (trade paperback)
ISBN: 1-57423-040-9 (1-57423-041-7).
GETTING MY MOTHER ICE
Nothing lasts long
in this heat
except the dark
of waiting. At
2 am or 3 or
4 I lead her
like a child
with a night
mare to the
the hall. If I
don't get the
right, not too
wet, or hot
or soapy, she
YOU UNDERSTAND THE REQUIREMENTS
sorry to have to
regret sorry that you have
Your hair should have been
piled up higher
you have failed to
final hair comprehensive
you understand the requirements
you understand we are
and didn't look professional
or sorry dignified
and have little enough
sympathy for 16th century
sorry English Anglicanism
we don't know doctoral
competency what to think and
regret you will sorry not
be able to stay
final regret your disappointment
the unsuccessfully completed best
wishes for the future
it has been a
regret sorry the requirements
the university policy
please don't call us
Last updated: December 27, 2000