Interview with Lyn Lifshin, “Queen of the Small Presses”

1)    Lyn: you have been involved in small press circles for a long time, and have even read alongside famous writers. So far, what is the greatest reward of poetry composition for you? Is it more rewarding to see a poem in print or to read in front of an audience?


For me, the most rewarding part of writing, is the writing itself. And, if it on a subject I research, I love the research: whether it’s about the various horses I’ve written about: Ruffian. Barbaro and Secretariat, or the adventures on the Silk Road. I loved reading about the various old historic houses I’ve written about—the houses in: PLYMOUTH WOMEN, THE OLD HOUSE ON THE CROTON, AUDDLEY END, SHAKER HOUSE POEMS etc. I have often done workshops at the New York State Museum (and other centers and museums) and based the workshop on the exhibit. At the same time, wandering around, taking notes, reading books about the exhibit. Among the exhibits that triggered poems and books were MIRRORS (my book Mirrors), THE STORY OF DANIEL, A HOLOCAUST EXHIBIT (my Blue Tattoo), AND MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS (“The Daughter I Don’t Have”  as well as sections in many of my books). And stories about women in war, an exhibit at the museum that triggered many poems of mine. I like assignments: research on poems I might never have written:  HOTEL HITICHCOCK, FOR THE ROSES (POEMS AFTER Joni Mitchell) had there not been a call for poems on that subject—-so many books and chapbooks have been written from request I might never have written. But they ended up as books and chapbooks:

BATHROOMS ANYONE? and JESUS IN THE FLESH  and JESUS ALIVE AND IN THE WORLD, MARILYN MONROE, BARBIE, REMEMBER THE LADIES. And of course one of my latest books, FEMME ETERNA, poems about Enheduanna , Nefertiti and Scheherazade—they came from a planned work with an artist who asked me to write about these woman and then we would do a project together—which never actually came to happen. And my recent MALALA came from being asked to write a poem for an anthology about her when she was first injured. I became fascinated by her, as I did Barbaro when he was racing then injured, and followed both stories as they unfolded. 



2) What do you think distinguishes a poet from other members of the populace?  I actually think many more people write poetry than publish—I don’t know—maybe they are over sensitive, trying to remake what is as they would like it? Not at all sure about this.


3) What moment in your life defined your calling as a poet? I don’t remember when I felt that but I’ve been told that when I was three we were driving on a back road and I said it looked like the trees were dancing. And my mother, who named me Rosalyn Diane, said, “Well, if she doesn’t become an actress (what she longed to be) maybe she will be a poet!”


4) Does being praised by a popular poet like Robert Frost validate or energize your abilities as a writer? I suppose so—I didn’t really start to write much right after that comment but it probably got me scholarships to graduate school etc.


5) What else have you done to subsidize your poetry career? I’ve taught, edited anthologies: TANGLED VINES, Beacon Press (Mother and Daughter poems) ARIADNE’S THREAD, (Women’s diaries and journals) Harcourt Brace and UNSEALED LIPS (Capra Press) given lots of workshops and sold my archives to Temple University Samuel Paley Library)  and at Texas University Harry Ransom Library and I’ve written some articles.


6) Do you think a solid education develops a poet’s skills? Is poetry something that can be taught? Is there a method, or rhyme to the reason? I don’t know—I’ve had nothing to do with all these Doctor of Arts or creative writing courses— they all seem to graduate thousands each year who then go on to teach thousands of other young poets to be like them—maybe that’s over the top but I think it is not what it was working outside academia. But it seems rather cliquish.

7) What moment in your writing career made you most proud? I couldn’t answer that—I have always been excited when a press I admire, and there are many, accept a manuscript! 


8) What sort of thoughts run through your head as you compose a poem? Are there antagonisms or voices? Is there a feeling in the gut before a poem leaves you?  No voices I don’t think –each poem, each group of poems is different—I don’t think there is a gut feeling.


9) Poetry is not the most financially rewarding career. What rewards are there to being a poet? I think the main reward is the act of writing. There are lots of frustrations, disappointments in being a poet. It’s a job I never leave after 9 hours— I wish I could take more breaks. I had planned to  take a real break  after I finished several books at once almost: MALALA, A GIRL GOES INTO THE WOODS, SECRETARIAT, FOR THE ROSES, FEMME ETERNA—my plan was to take a real break and just dance—esp. Argentine Tango—but also all the ballroom dances and to get back to ballet—my second love. But some things got in the way and tho I take dance of some sort almost every night, I’d planned a more intensive immersion in dance. I loved having Black Sparrow as a publisher: the plan was I would publish with no other publisher so I stopped submitting and only worked on a book for John Martin. The plan was a book every two years.


10) Please tell me about your academic background. I grew up in Middlebury, VT and went to elementary and  high school there. Got a BA at Syracuse University, won a scholarship to Bread Loaf School of English, received my MA in English at University of Vermont and did additional graduate work at Brandeis University and University of New York at Albany.


11) Some writers are involved in other forms of art. Do you think it is necessary to participate in other arts to better understand yourself as a poet? I am very involved in dance of all kinds and I used to paint a lot—some of my water colors are on my web site  


13) What is your creative process like? Do you write every day? Does writing flow or is it sometime tedious? It varies—the documentary about me, LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS shows a typical day in the film. But it always changes—when I moved down here to DC and then Vienna, I wrote on my hour metro to ballet at 8 am and then on my return trip – I had two hours of writing and since I got up early, 5:40—I got much done before I went to dance in the evening. Now I’m writing but also want to type up about 60 notebooks I have, hand written and never typed up in the shelf above my desk—going from 1990 to the present…I wish I wrote at the computer. It is never tedious.

14) What is the most bitter and scathing rejection letter you ever got? I can’t remember anything too terrible—one funny one early in my writing career from a prestigious magazine said “you write about politics, love, family—none of these are of any interest to me?!


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