Lyn Lifshin: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems

lyn

Lyn Lifshin: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems

by

Okla Elliott and Lyn Lifshin

Okla Elliott: You organized A Girl Goes into the Woods by themed sections (autobiography, relationships, family, war poems, and so forth). How did you decide on these particular themes, and how did poems that might fit in more than one section end up where they did? Also, if poems were written years apart yet fit the same theme, what differences did you find in your own thinking on the theme?

lyn2Lyn Lifshin: Though I hadn’t thought of it until you asked the question, it seems many of my books (all three Black Sparrow books—Cold Comfort, Before It’s Light, and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me—as well as Persephone) are arranged in a similar way with similar themes. In contrast, are the many books that focus on one theme—all the equine books: my just published Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle; The Licorice Daughter; My Year with Ruffian; and Barbaro: Beyond Broken. And many other books are one theme: Malala; Knife Edge & Absinthe: The Tango Poems; Tangled as the Alphabet; Blue Tattoo; Marilyn Monroe; The Doctor Poems; etc. Actually I had not realized until looking thru some titles how the one theme book is so prevalent!

As for how I decided on these particular themes: when I first started writing, I wrote mostly political poems and was referred to as Mr. Lifshin. Later I wanted to show the variety of my work, not just political poems but erotica, family poems, nature poems, love poems, poems of place and of course, mother and daughter poems. (I had written no mother and daughter poems when I edited Tangled Vines, a mother and daughter anthology that stayed in print in various printings and versions for about 20 years—but from that time, it became an obsession for many years) Some poems were triggered by requests by editors doing anthologies: Richard Peabody ‘s Marilyn Monroe and Barbie anthology, got me going on poems that turned into my own books, as did the request for poems about Malala, Joni Mitchell, Dick for a Day, requests for poems about an earthly Jesus—a request for poems about Obama led to a series, as did requests for poems about September 11.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to do a collection of new poems but often the editor/publisher wants to do a best of. For A Girl Goes into the Woods I selected what I thought were the best and strongest poems whether they were new or old. It’s hard to say what difference I found in new and old poems on the same subject. I know sometimes when I read old poems, I change the language but it’s hard to make any generalizations. It’s true some poems could have fit in more than one section but mostly I think they are where they should be! I’m not sure I can give a true answer about how I may feel differently about a certain theme when I wrote it in the past and now am writing about it again. I think it would vary too much from poem to poem.

OE: Your poems “Barbie Wonders about Buying a Coffin” and “Thirty Miles West of Chicago” both touch on childhood and death in quite different ways—the former by playfully personifying a child’s dolls, the latter with a dark and heart-wrenching heaviness. Tell us a bit about these two poems, how you came to write them, and maybe discuss the wildly different styles employed.

LL: As I mentioned, when Richard Peabody asked for Barbie poems, I did intenselyn3 Barbie research not ever having a Barbie doll myself and just imagined her in a variety of situations— enough to do a whole book of Barbie poems. I don’t really remember when or what mood I was in when I wrote “Thirty Miles West of Chicago.” At different times of my life and in different places I seem to write at different times of the day. Somehow I remember when I first began, I stood at the kitchen counter. More recently, I write on the D.C. Metro going to ballet, an hour metro ride going and coming back, or in a cove in the living room in an apartment rented in DC with Janet Reno on one side, a drug dealer across the hall and the owners of the Fifth Column, a night club—they always came back about 3 am, loudly. Always thought they were selling drugs too—but it was income tax evasion or something like that. I wish I remembered the circumstances—I just don’t.

OE: What’s your current project? What can readers look forward to in the near future?

LL: After publishing 5 books this past year and having some of the most stressful experiences in and out of publishing, I planned to take a real break and just dance—Argentine Tango, ballroom. But some road blocks there. But I did get back and took a private class this week. In the shelf above my desk, I have about 60 spiral notebooks—I still write poems by hand and then am always way behind typing them up—now they are howling, waiting for me. Some of them go back to the early nineties…so that is a huge enormous undertaking and not a lot of fun since it’s hard to read my handwriting and the references. But forthcoming in July is Luminous Women: Enheduanna, Scheherazade and Nefertiti, a totally different kind of theme for me. It started off as a project with a painter—selecting women thru history who left an indelible stamp but the plan never materialized and I was left with poems about these three women (and also Pachamama—so I suppose that could be a book on its own) and another small book due in the fall, Moving Thru Stained Glass: The Maple Poems.

***

Thirty Miles West of Chicago

paint chips slowly.
It’s so still you
can almost hear it
pull from a porch.

Cold grass claws
like fingers in a
wolf moon. A man
stands in corn bristles

listening, watching
as if something
could grow from
putting a dead child

in the ground.

***

All Night the Night Has Been

lightening with moths

white behind the walnuts

If a woman couldn’t sleep
and came to this window
in this light her skin
would glow like bones

Clouds over the full moon
even with the wind

What would have been nuts
look like limes
on the white stones,

it sounds like some-
one tapping on a glass
coffin. It sounds

like someone tapping
from within the tree

***

Taking My Mother to the Bathroom

I lead her, a
child waking up
from a nightmare,
dazed by light.
She lags, hurries
then, half cranky,
half grateful.
She wants the
door shut, then
says open it,
wants my hands
the right way,
wash in between
my fingers. She
says the wash-
cloth is too
wet, too cold,
too soapy. The
towels are too
heavy. You don’t,
she spits, cover
your mouth. Go
home, you should
not be here to
see me like this.

***

Lyn Lifshin is the author of over 100 books, and her work has appeared in such journals as American Poetry Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Literary Review, New York Quarterly, and Ploughshares, among many others. The above poems are included in A Girl Goes into the Woods: Selected Poems and are reprinted here by permission of the author.

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About Okla Elliott

Okla Elliott is an Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, among others. He is the author of the fiction collection, From the Crooked Timber, and the poetry collection, The Cartographer’s Ink. His novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement), is forthcoming in early 2015 from Dark House Press, and his book of translation, Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in late 2015.
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One Response to Lyn Lifshin: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems

  1. Sivan Butler-Rotholz says:

    I have had the pleasure of sharing Lyn’s work here on AIOTB before! A great poet! http://asitoughttobe.com/2011/01/08/saturday-poetry-series-presents-lyn-lifshin/

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