Dancer with a Pen: An Interview
With Lark Vernon Timmons
Hi and welcome, Lyn…When gathering info for our chat, I came across a reviewer who affectionately referred to you as “mistress of the skinny poem” …How did your sparse, feisty, original writing style come about?
If you look at my first collection, Why Is the House Dissolving, you'll see that most of the poems sprawl over the page, are long and flowing. Nothing skinny, nothing very spare. I do hope they are feisty. I am trying to remember who I was reading then, who my favorite writers were and wonder if I was influenced by them. I'm not sure how the line lengths, the shape of the poems have changed for me. I used to joke that when I was thin, the lines became skinny, only became long and lean when I did. I've heard there are rhythms like waves in writing done near the ocean, rolling, hypnotic,. And a flatness, a sense of wide empty spaces in poems from middle America. But I am not really sure. And there are poems of varying lengths, various line lengths in each book.
With well over 100 published books to your credit, I’d say you are one prolific writer—Do you have any specific writing routine or are you more apt to “wing it”?
The documentary film about me, “Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass” opens with what was to have shown a typical work day for me. In spite of the gelled windows, huge dollies, rooms crowded with cameras and lights and the film crew turning the house into a stage you can see a lot of my writing routine. Every morning I got up, made coffee and fed the cat ( in shooting this typical scene, I was wearing a long velvet sweat shirt, not something faded and old as normal and we had walked thru this first frame, rehearsed it: I'd get the coffee beans out, feed the cat who was kept hungry enough to of course dart to the counter and show her gorgeous ticked Abyssinian fur. Whatever happens I was told just keep going: never, never look at the camera. It worked in rehearsal. The morning of the shoot it was fine -- the coffee beans in a jar, the cat food ready but when they said "lights, camera, action" and the clapper came down fast, the cat leaped up, spilled the coffee beans through out the kitchen and dining room, was terrified and ran to hide the rest of the day under the bed. I stopped with my mouth open, staring at the camera.
That would have been a typical day: I would have taken some vanilla coffee up to my bed and written a few hours as maple leaves pressed against the redwood house and light began to pour thru stained glass. By noon if the mail was there I'd work on dealing with manuscripts, arranging readings-- I did a lot of them-- trips all over the country. Besides teaching frequently around Albany and Schenectady, I taught workshops in my house and was often asked to arrange, to develop workshops to go with the changing exhibits at the New York State Museum in Albany: Mothers and Daughters, Diaries and Journals, Writing Through the Holocaust, (first done for the exhibit “The Story of Daniel”), Writing Through Feelings of War, Women’s Sensuality and Sexuality Writing Workshop, Mirrors: Literal and Symbolic, Writing From the Inside Out and the Inside In, Writing the Story of Your Life, Publishing Workshops, Writing Through the Urban American Landscape, Hair, and Dreams.
I'd use the afternoons to work on preparing some of these workshops. I took photographs of the exhibits at the museum and for the Holocaust workshop, took up to 50 books at a time from January to June to prepare. If I was editing an anthology like Tangled Vines, Ariadne’s Thread, or Lips Unsealed I'd be drowning in submissions and the sorting and arranging and ordering of poems. Always an exhausting experience. If you get a chance to see the film, you'll see me with boxes of fragments of poems, scraps of news clips, shelves of handwritten un-typed up yet notebooks of poems (now, as almost always, I have a backlog of say 50 to 60 handwritten spiral notebooks going back before the early 90's of poems waiting to be edited and typed…)
The afternoons were always packed, always overwhelming. Before online and e mail submissions, my mail box was normally overflowing. By five, I'd get ready to take a ballet class or two and then come back around 9 and work until midnight. Still it seemed I had more time to read and relax than I do now.
When I moved to DC and Virginia, things were shuffled around somewhat. I took and still take ballet most mornings and now often write on the metro. I seem more and more time crunched, more and more breathlessly trying to catch up. Ideally, I'd write early in the morning when I don't take the metro to dance, deal with submissions, maybe get a chance to start typing some of those piles of notebooks and even get a chance to read. Ideally.
Often, I've had or given myself assignments: asked to contribute poems for an anthology or a project, I seem to have to throw myself deeply into the subject and never am able to write one or two poems but need or want to be in the zone, not let go. This spring, with a proposed project with a painter, I had subjects I never would have written about to research first, often the longest part of the work. Only then could I write about: Scheherazade, Enheduanna, Nefertiti, Pachamama, women who were startling and strong in different ways. In the middle of this, I was asked to contribute some poems about Joni Mitchell to an anthology. I still had so much left to work on but I gave myself two weeks to write the poems and one week to type them. That was a real joy of the summer, something I could plunge into. The poems worked as I hoped and will not only be in the anthology but will be their own book, For the Roses, from March Street Press.
I can't really say I wing my writing routine but more that I am obsessed by it and the object of the obsession changes. For a year I've wanted to get to writing an update of my autobiography but other projects seem to keep getting in the way. More and more, my biggest frustration is feeling time slides too fast, that I am always starting ( like right now) more projects while others are still going strong!
Ironically, I didn't take any writing courses in college, afraid I couldn't write enough. At the same time, writing as an outsider, on my own, apart from any university or any poetry circle or group, I think I've had to be more obsessive, have had to be super independent and sometimes it is exhausting.
As accomplished as you are, do you ever have difficulty “finding words”? Any thoughts on how you work your way through it?
Often a handwritten manuscript will have a wavy line near an ending I am not satisfied with. Or there are several different words and I might not be satisfied with any but leave it with question marks to go back to. I try to not over use words that stud my writing, over and over but I know I do. (hair, plum dissolve, roses) On my first college paper the professor wrote something like "be clear and direct-- no Latinate words please" (this, after of course, learning the most complicated words for college entrance tests. I always love words that are sensuous, touchable, have texture, color , sound. In some workshops I have used a bag full of varied objects and had students pull something out to use the feel or suggestion or touch of that object in their writing. The fragility of leaves, the scratch of Brillo, the softness of velvet, the seeming coldness of electrical supplies (ending in one student's amazing mother and daughter poem). I love to find a word or title or phrase or noun or verb someone else has used that I wish I had! I'm sure sometimes it gets filed away so deep I don't realize it isn't mine!
Examples abound in your writing of one-of-a-kind titles—How do you choose titles that captivate rather than dissuade?
Thank you-- I hope I've come up with some startling, gorgeous, unsettling, alive titles! Sometimes it isn't easy and there have been many possible titles and none seem right and then one hits and other times, like Black Apples, it's there right away. I've always wanted to use "velvet" in a title but somehow it's never worked out. But I like words you can see, touch, smell, hold.
In your book entitled All the Poets Who Have Touched Me, you write for, and about, poets who’ve inspired you. How early in life did you catch the “writing bug” and who, if anyone, facilitated that process?
I was told that at three years old, driving from Barre, Vermont to Middlebury, I looked from the car and said that it looked like the trees were dancing. I was named Rosalyn Diane because my mother thought it would be a perfect name for an actress, she thought then, well if I didn't go into theater, maybe I would write. I skipped several grades because I read so early and found myself in a wonderful third grade class with Mrs. Flag. I never would catch up on math and long division but she was truly inspirational. She read us Milton, Blake, Shakespeare and Longfellow. She'd bring in boughs of apple blossoms and have us touch the petals, inhale sweetness, feel the stems along our cheeks and write. I still have several poems called "Apple Blossoms" in those lined blue books in my upstate rooms. And apples have recurred in poems since then, and blossoms too.
I wrote occasionally throughout school, painted more, had an art minor in college. I wrote little. One poem was published in college literary magazine. My father, who I had little connection with-- he was like a ghost moving through our rooms-- worked in my uncle's department store in Middlebury, Vermont where Robert Frost came every season to buy baggy green pants. Though not born in Vermont, my father, like Frost, was like many Vermonters: taciturn, thorny, cold and hardly given to small talk. They hit it off--Frost would only let my father wait on him. Who knows what the two talked about, huddled behind tables of folded jeans and boots. Quiet, sullen depressed men both living in houses with women they rarely talked to. The one amazing thing my father did: he took a poem I'd just published in the college literary magazine and showed it to Robert Frost. Frost gave it back with several comments on it including "very good images sayeth Robert Frost. Please bring me more." I was, of course, thrilled. Before I had any more, he had died. But it gave me hope that when I did start to really write, I could. I still have many autographed copies of Frost's books, cards he sent my father, clippings of his readings, reviews, programs for his talk and for his death service.
What sparked your interest in Ruffian(The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian 2005) and then later, in Barbaro? (Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness, 2009).
I rode a little as a child growing up in Vermont as most of my friends did but I was never horse crazy like so many. The Morgan Horse Farm is near Middlebury and we often drove out in the spring to see the new foals grazing in the fields. Later, when I taught workshops in my house in Niskayuna, one student first needed to check out the layout. She had MS and needed to know if there was a bathroom on the first floor etc. When she came over, she told me she was like Ruffian. I must have looked at her blankly. Ruffian, she almost screamed, you know who she is? the horse that wouldn't give up? And then she gave me the story of the race where Ruffian, injured, ran on bloody stubs and wouldn't stop. She broke down but kept on running, and my student said she had run track and, like Ruffian, after she got sick, she wouldn't give up, would not stop, was training her daughter to run. I wrote a poem that summer, more about my student than about Ruffian. Somehow years later I wanted to see that poem, couldn't find it, decided I had to rewrite it. I wrote several versions and then I was on my way. I read everything I could about the Ruffian, corresponded with several people who had seen her, collected articles, photographs, memorabilia and the book grew. I wrote so much, had to edit the poems severely. But the immersion got me through a difficult time. Publishing the book was not easy: equine presses were not into poetry and poetry presses were apparently not into a book about a horse. Once the book was accepted, around Christmas, a thrilling gift, it has gone on to be my best selling book. I've done readings from it (one with a well known actress and was very pleased those poems truly held the audience better than she did!) But I never planned to write another horse book. I heard the Kentucky Derby the year Barbaro won it riding in the car and something caught me. Still the last thing I planned was another all involving book that took me so deeply into another world. Then with Barbaro's injury in the Preakness, the second jewel of the crown, like so many I kept watch and checked the Barbaro site each day for news and managed to collect boxes and boxes and boxes of letters and articles about that horse. It seemed Barbaro was improving and going to be okay. That is when many excellent books about his miraculous recovery came out. I was still working on my book and then suddenly the horse 's recovery took a bad turn and he died. I spent a few more months (at least I didn't have to write a postscript to my book) and digested the feelings and emotions that were raw. That book was accepted immediately but the production took quite a while: would have been nice to have at the height of the Barbaro obsession.
I did another small chapbook, Lost in the Fog, and though I never thought I would do this, I seem to be working again on another book about another horse…
The grace and beauty of thoroughbreds provides a nice segue to yet another of your interests/ talents: Tell our readers about your ballet background and how it relates to writing.
Ballet. Well today's ballet class has made me question very strongly the wisdom of my ordering a new black velvet leotard last week. I did not take ballet as a child though I always wanted to: a dancer came to Middlebury and taught very briefly. I was a chubby eight year old who fell in love with everything about it and then she vanished. I didn't start ballet until I was an adult and no one who does that can truly dance. It is always humbling. But I've kept at it. Lately the ritual of classes is not what I used to love: a morning class then back to work. Classes every day. Now it is a frustrating long metro ride to a new studio that takes such a chunk of the day. Instead of daily classes I go twice a week . On the day I take two classes I have to get ready at 5 am get the metro at 8 am—I am not back until 3 pm and not back to work until 5 pm. Seems extreme. I also take a lot of ballroom -- which is where the Ballroom book came from, just out last year. Up to fourteen ballroom classes a week, a real high, very intense and sometimes frustrating and I think that comes through!
I got into ballet because I wanted to have a real break from work daily. I did a book of ballet poems. Only a section has been published as Ballet Madonnas. And in addition to Ballroom , there is a chapbook Tango Madonnas. I used to say that getting back to writing after a break and getting back to ballet were similar: a feeling of awkwardness, a need to feel my way back in, to feel comfortable, able to move and leap and jump, stun and astonish.
I see a connection between horses and ballet--their beauty, fragility, how they thrill and mesmerize and how quickly all strength can disappear, how close heartbreak is.
Much of your poetry expresses the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. What other themes in your writing hold meaning for you?
It was on the sloped lawn of one of the historical mansions on the Hudson river that I decided to do an anthology of mother and daughter poems that became Tangled Vines. I'd published enough to know that no matter how good the reviews, poetry books rarely sold that well but more important, it seemed so many strong, exciting poems I'd been reading happened to be about the mother and daughter relationship. Sitting in the raspberry light I wrote up a request for poems on that subject for “Poets and Writers” and then the real work began. I was flooded with poems. Diaries, handwritten poems, poems stapled into notebooks.. all in addition to the poems I already had loved. Drowning in manuscripts, I realized with all my poems, many about my father, other relatives, I had virtually nothing about my mother. We were so close, maybe too close for me to really see her. I wrote a few poems for the anthology and that has been a spigot that never turns off. That is a dominant theme even after her loss. And of course loss is another central theme.
It is an interesting question-- there are still family poems though many fewer, still erotic poems, some themes never go away-- images of waiting on the sidelines to be asked to dance, waiting for my life to begin. A recent book, Nutley Pond, takes the reader through the seasons at the pond beyond where I live. Themes of nature have been a section of most of my collections, as well as poems about war, politics, poems about other people, poems of place. many poems about women in China, Tibet, the Peruvian Andean ice mummy. Many themes from history: women in Plymouth, old house poems about Shaker houses, many various houses in Plymouth, Plymouth women, love poems, poems of place, mad girl poems, Madonna poems, poems about the daughter I don't have, poems about "celebrities" Marilyn Monroe, Barbie, Jesus. etc. Found poems, persona poems, poems based on paintings and photographs… so many themes…
Any projects on the horizon you would like to share?
My book of Joni Mitchell inspired poems, For the Roses, is coming soon as is a big selected and new book from New York Quarterly Books, A Girl Goes Into the Woods . And of course this horse book I am just starting to work on. And the notebooks, maybe 60 plus, waiting on the shelf just above where I am writing, waiting to be typed and live.
“…A last light leaves slashes of scarlet ribbon…She can't let the day go, she is obsessed…
she is carrying the embryo of a poem in her fingers.”
Pirene’s Fountain sincerely thanks Ms. Lifshin for her time
and kind permissions to share her vast and varied work.