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Doug Holder interviews poet Lyn Lifshin

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Holder interviewed Lifshin in the North End of Boston in the 1990s.

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Lucid Moon Interview #4:

Lyn Lifshin Interviewed By Doug Holder

Lyn Lifshin is commonly referred to as the "Queen of the Small Press". She has written more than 90 chapbooks and books of poetry, most recently, Before Its Light, released by Black Sparrow Press. If you were to check out the Poet's Market, her name would invariably appear as a contributing poet in a slew of magazines. She has edited four major anthologies of women's writing, and gives workshops around the country. Her work covers her feelings about war, sexuality, a woman's role in society, and the whole gamut of life experiences. She has won many awards, including A Bread Loaf Scholarship and the Jack Kerouac award. I met with her before a reading she was to give at the Old West Church in Boston, sponsored by the Stone Soup Poets and Ibbetson Street Press. In the midst of the din of a busy North End restaurant, we talked about her life and poetry.

Q: So Lyn, how does it feel to be back in Boston after all this time?

A: It feels nice, it feels cold actually. I haven't been here for 5 to 7 years.

Q: One might say you had your seminal poetic roots here?

A: My father's family was from the area. We visited this area from the time we were babies. I also spent a short time at Brandeis. I had to leave Brandeis to get married and give my cat a home (laughing). I did drop out. I was engaged to two men, and it was all too complicated. One was at Brandeis, and one was at Brown, so I didn't have time to do graduate work.

Q: I admire your cat poems. I remember one of your cat poems, where you describe laying in bed and the cat would leave you to go out. The cat would be on the prowl like a wild animal. Then it would come back to your bed, like a lover back from a night out. Cats seem to play a role in a lot of your poems.

A: It's hard not to write about cats without being sentimental. I probably write about them, because invariably I have one in the background somewhere. If you view my documentary, you will notice a cat on the desk. They somehow represent living a normal life, a steady presence.

Q: In your new book, Before Its Light, the first section is autobiographical. Is it strictly so?

A: Even though I say my poems are autobiographical, the experience is transformed by the act of writing about it. The first poem I wrote in this section, But Instead Has Gone Underground, was about the day before I turned in a manuscript. I wanted to convey that even if you know all the facts, you still have to remember it still is a poem:

A woman goes into the subway,

And for whatever reason,

Disappears behind rails

And is never heard from again.

We don't understand this.

In the past people would respond to my poems by thinking, "Oh, she must be wild, let's give her drugs", or, "She must be a real bitch, because she writes angry poems." The first poem conveys the fact that even though you might feel you know me, remember I am not the poem. This is a problem. I once wrote a poem loosely based about something that happened in the past, and twenty people said, "I like that poem about me."

Q: In one of your poems, Now I'm Into More Sensible Cars, you were using cars as a metaphor for more sensible men. At this stage of your life, do you feel more comfortable?

A: I think I am. I am presently in a long term comfortable relationship. I guess I'm not sorry for the past, which was unsettled. A lot of great poems come out of the terrible experiences.

Q: Have any poems come out of a staid domesticity?

A: Yeah, in a way. My present companion finds it very hard to hear any poems about anyone I was with before him. I wouldn't mind hearing about his. You shouldn't write about the person you are with. Why mess up a comfortable relationship? You write about what is absent\u2026the attractive man on the subway, with a ring on his finger, things like that. My partner was very upset with some of the poems I wrote. However, he likes when I write poems about him. I have written poems about his heart surgery. When I type them up, I think he'll like them. I do often find the worst things make the best poems.

Q: Someone told me that you can't be polite to be a good writer. You have to be willing to insult your mother, for instance.

A: I think you have to take a risk. I was very close to my mother. We told each other everything. If a poem came out about her and it was unflattering, she wouldn't mind as long as I showed it to her. She would only be angered if I tried to cover it up. My other relatives felt that poetry aired their dirty laundry. They never asked me about it, they never mentioned it. They would have been happy if I went to Law School or something. Nothing as rude or revealing as poetry. Nothing as rude as poetry.

Q: If you were to characterize yourself as a member of a particular "school" of poetry, what would that be?

A: I don't think that I fit into any school. I'm sure that I was influenced by the Beats at one time, but I was also influenced by a lot of writers like Plath and Sexton.

Q: How do the academic folks view you? In a Washington Post article I read they seem to condemn you for being too prolific. Is there something wrong with writing a lot?

A: I may be prolific, but out of many poems there will be only one or two that I will really work on or revise. I use to send out a lot, but it is not until I do a book will I really go over each poem.

Q: What is your philosophy of sending out so many poems? I remember when I was first wrote you, requesting poems for the Ibbetson Street Press, I was shocked about this huge envelope of poems I received.

A: If someone asks me now, I send them a big bunch of poems, but I just don't send them out unsolicited. I guess I sent out so many poems because I never took a creative writing course, and I felt I would never write enough. I skipped a lot of years, and I always did things early, so I had an urgency to get things published.

Q: You are considered one of the major American Poets, aren't you?

A: In 1973 there were two major anthologies that came out with American women poets. I was in both of them. In the early 1970's I was booked for readings, I was getting published, etc. Maybe because I was published so much, or because some of my work wasn't up to par, that I fell off the first track. In spite of that, I was selling my archives for a nice sum.

Q: In your poetry you write about how expectations were pushed on you, particularly around having children. It was almost a crime that a s a young woman, you didn't want kids. Can you talk about this?

A: I think my decision to not have children came from seeing my mother, who was a vibrant woman, fun loving, a free spirit. She went to college and then lived in New York City. She went to lectures, danced all night, enjoyed life. She wanted to marry someone other than my father. She did what was expected, rather than what she wanted to do. She went back to Vermont with my father, something she never wanted to do. She wanted to stay in New York. She basically married my father because he was the right religion. Because of my mother's history, I decided I wanted to follow my own desires, and that did not include children. I really had nothing against marriage. I remember reading this poem about trading your life for a ring. I just didn't want to do that. My mother never wanted children, and when she had them, she did nothing\u2026she sacrificed her life.

Q: The recurrent theme in your poetry is that you seem to be fighting against these traps that are being placed. Am I right about that?

A: I remember my mother-in-law told me that when you are in your 20's you can't have long hair. I fought against that, and the way you wee supposed to dress for academic life. I guess I resisted going to Law School, and securing a more stable profession. My mother was worried some man wo

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