Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Poet Lyn Lifshin has published over 140 books and chapbooks and edited three anthologies of women’s writing, including Tangled Vines, which stayed in print for 20 years. She is known for the variety of her work, from Cold Comfort, Before It’s Light, and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me, to the equine books, The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian, Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness, and Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle, to books about dance, including Knife Edge & Absinthe: The Tango Poems.
Lyn is the recipient of many awards including Bread Loaf scholarships, The Kerouac Prize and a New York State Caps grant. She has given readings and workshops around the country and enjoyed fellowships at Yaddo, the Millay Colony and the MacDowell Colony.
Her forthcoming books include Degas’ Little Dancer and Moving through Stained Glass: The Maple Poems.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED AS A POET?
I was told that at three, driving in the car, I said the trees looked like they were dancing. By third grade, I was writing poems. Later, my father worked in my uncle’s department store and Robert Frost, often carrying a box of strawberries, would stop in, only letting my father wait on him. Both were rather cold, solitary, taciturn men, which is probably why they gravitated towards each other. Besides many autographed books, there were Christmas cards and notices of readings and articles about the poet. But the biggest treasure? My father brought him a poem of mine and Frost wrote on it: “Very good imagery. Bring me more.” I didn’t have any more, and by the time I did, Frost was dead. But his comments gave me the confidence that I could write.
I began to write seriously when I walked out of my doctoral degree written exam. Many of those early poems were about the experience, “Orals” and “You Understand the Requirements,” and my book Doctors has a section on the professors in the PhD department. After leaving graduate school and wanting to be as non-academic as I could, I worked at a radio and TV station for a while—two weeks of hectic time and then a slow two weeks. Mostly I read, but I had time to start a few poems. I sent out two versions of the same haiku and the second submission was accepted. Why Is the House Dissolving was published by Open Skull Press and widely and wonderfully reviewed. Shortly after that, Baby John Press published Leaves and Night Things, Cotyledon Press published Moving by Touch and Lady Lyn came from Morgan Press.
One especially happy development for me was when Black Sparrow Press took me on. I was thrilled! Not only did they have a super wonderful reputation, but they had wonderful distribution. John Martin asked that I publish only with him, and that was fine with me. The plan was to publish a large book every two years and I’m sure it would have been a great experience but he decided to sell his business to Goddard. They did publish my already accepted book, but it wasn’t an ongoing connection.
But I don’t ever mean to say I have not had wonderful publishers before and after—I have and still do. My most recent book just came out from Glass Lyre Press and no one could have been better to work with than the publisher, Ami Kaye. I am very grateful to all my publishers.
HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
It was a different time back then. I was compared to Plath and Creeley and sometimes Bukowski. There weren’t that many women writers and certainly not the enormous influx of writing schools and writing degrees with their own cliques around them. Basically, I began writing as an outsider, on my own. I was asked to read all over the country, invited to contribute to anthologies, featured in many of the small press magazines, featured on the cover of New York Review, and published regularly in Rolling Stone and MS magazines. There was more joy in publishing then, I feel, though I can’t explain it. Now it is more what Maxine Kumin called “Po Biz”—connections, of all kinds, matter more.
Readings are different too. There weren’t as many readings back then so if there was one, it gathered a big audience. Now in my area, there are probably 10 to 15 readings every night!
WHAT ARE YOUR LATEST BOOKS?
For the Roses: Poems Inspired by Joni Mitchell
Knife Edge & Absinthe: The Tango Poems
All the Poets Who Have Touched Me, Living and Dead: All True, Especially the Lies
Tangled as the Alphabet – The Istanbul Poems
Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I used to write a lot on the metro going to ballet most days. It was good—I got a lot done before 9 AM! When I lived in NY, I used to write at the kitchen counter.
Right now, I like to write at the kitchen table by hand in spiral note books. Then (often years and years later) I type them. I have about 70 from early 1990 to present waiting on the shelf above me! It seems to take me longer to type them than to write them.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
If you get to see the documentary film about me done by Mary Ann Lynch, Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass, you will see a typical day. But the last few years there really haven’t been any typical days. In recent months, I have been in Paris, Barcelona and Arizona, always taking notes that I hope will become poems (some already have).
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Dealing with too much paper! When I was still high on John Martin’s idea of a book every two years, I announced I was no longer going to submit to magazines unless asked. I loved that! It was pretty exhausting dealing with piles and piles of mail—a big part of the day was spent sorting and answering and resending out poems.
Now, getting blurbs can sometimes be tough as many of my original favorable critics (including Bill Katz of Library Journal, a great place to be reviewed) are no longer alive. And a great many of my supporters no longer teach (and use my books in their classes).
Also, more bookstores close each day so no one can just browse and look for something interesting. And there’s less impetus to purchase books at readings knowing you can just buy them off the internet later if you feel like it.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
Too many to list without leaving someone out!
In my three anthologies, Tangled Vines: Mother and Daughter Poems, Ariadne’s Thread: Women’s Diaries and Journals, and Unsealed Lips: Women’s Confidences, you will see some of the writers I’ve liked over time.
Thank you, Lyn Lifshin!
— Nicole Melanson
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