This interview first appeared on PoetryCircle in 2006, shortly after the site was founded.
PoetryCircle: Lyn, you’re probably as prolific as any poet writing today, and I could have said that just as easily twenty years ago. To what do you attribute your energy when it comes to writing poetry?
Lyn Lifshin: I tend to react strongly to events, feelings, people. Ironically, in college I never took a writing workshop or course: I thought I wouldn’t have enough, have anything to write about. I have a poem about that in Cold Comfort, “Writing Class, Syracuse Winter.”
When I was very young, my father showed Robert Frost a poem of mine. Frost liked it and asked me to bring him more: I had no other poems but it gave me the feeling I could write more but at the same time, I was a little nervous, felt I never could write enough to actually take a course.
PoetryCircle: How has your approach to writing the poem changed over the years?
Lyn Lifshin: I’m not sure my approach has changed much. By that I mean I used many approaches. I wrote an article for Writer’s Digest about things that can or have triggered poems in me; photographs, newspaper articles, a certain word, music, an event I have no other way to deal with, dreams, museum exhibits—anything can and has led to a poem: eavesdropping, a line in a letter, something scrawled on a calendar, check book stubs. It is endless and for me; my approach really hasn’t changed. At least I think that is true.
PoetryCircle: You seem to send editors many “versions” of a poem that is written around a single experience. What’s your intention in doing this?
Lyn Lifshin: In the same way that Monet and Cézanne painted the same scene over and over, always a slight difference, the way light hits, the angle, the feeling the painter had, I’ve felt if I’m drawn to something wildly, I often can’t let it go with one poem.
In fact, in my new Black Sparrow David Godine book, Another Woman Who Looks Like Me, there’s a poem about writing poems about someone gone, “White Trees in the Distance,” about needing another notebook before I can let the lost person go.
I used to type the poems in many ways, many varied line lengths, but I do that a lot less now. So many of my poems have come out of requests from people doing anthologies and then became books, like Marilyn Monroe Poems, Jesus Alive And In The Flesh, Barbie or poems written in connection with a workshop, especially workshops at a museum like New York State Museum: In Mirrors and Blue Tattoo come from writing several poems on the subject the workshop was about.
PoetryCircle: As poets we all get criticism of our work in different forms. How critical are you of your own work?
Lyn Lifshin: I hope I’m critical of my work. I am especially when I put a book of poems together. That’s when I do extensive, often seemingly unending revision.
PoetryCircle: What’s your approach to putting together a book of poetry?
Lyn Lifshin: Books have come about in different ways. Many of my early books were actually put together by the publisher from large submissions of poems.
My first book, Why Is The House Dissolving, came from a large submission of poems to a mimeo mag edited by Brown Miller called Lung Socket. It was about to stop publishing but my poems were sent on to Open Skull Press, edited by Doug Blazek, and he picked most of those poems, asked for a few others and that was the book.
At about the same time, Morgan Press took a submission to publish Lady Lyn. Many of my early books and chap books came about in that way: Leaves And Night Things, 40 Days, Apple Nights, and Moving By Touch are a few.
Black Apples was another book I really didn’t edit. John Gill, who edited New America and Canadian Poetry, liked my work and asked to do a book. He picked many of the poems he had already published in that and chose from a large number. I gave him a large group of poems and that became Black Apples.
Bill Matthews, who had published my work in his magazine Lillabulero, had wanted to do the same thing, do a book of mine for his series. He always asked me to send him about one hundred poems at a time for the magazine, and he would chose and edit and revise the work he published.
I’ve done a lot of series of poems. Many of the poems about old houses, for example: The Old House Poems, Plymouth House Poems, Shaker House Poems, Auddley End Poems, The Old House on the Croton were done by visiting the sites with the thought of doing a poem series about the house, blending facts with imagination.
After I had published many seemingly personal poems, I was drawn to something that seemed less connected to my life, left more room to imagine others. Blue Dust New Mexico, North, Museum came out of the interest. Often if someone is doing an anthology, I will write poems for that: Mondo Barbie, Mondo Marilyn, Jesus Poems, Dick for a Day—I doubt I ever would have written about any of these subjects but when I did, I wrote rather obsessively and then, as in the house poems, the series became a book. These include Marilyn Monroe, Barbie, Jesus Alive and in the Flesh, as well as a longer book on that theme. And many of the Dick for a Day poems have been in collections.
I’m not sure but possibly the first book I put together was Offered By Owner. I did select those poems and sent it to Black Sparrow many years ago. John Martin said he liked it but he was over booked, and he asked me to send poems again in the future. I waited I think over 25 years. Meanwhile, the book was published as recording with a book to go along with it.
At the same time I realized I had many poems that had an image of glass in it, and those poems became Glass. I suppose I did some editing, but it was not hard to choose since the subject narrowed the book down.
I used to teach often at the New York State Museum and did many workshops. For them, I would visit the exhibits and plan a workshop around what I saw. I also took notes often and poems from this experience include In Mirrors andBlue Tattoo, and a group of not-even-typed-up poems about inner city life, waiting in notebook since the early 90s.
PoetryCircle: Did the preparation of your work for your Black Sparrow books differ in any way from the methods you used before?
Lyn Lifshin: The very first really intensive editing and arranging I’ve done for my books began with the first of three Black Sparrow books. When John Martin said he would like to see a book, I overwhelmed him with 1000 poems. He told me that was way too many but if I could narrow this down to 300, he would definitely be interested.
This was the most lengthy and careful and on top of the poems selecting, arranging, and cutting and adding I had done and have continued to do for my longer books. I decided to divide the book into various sections, went through Xeroxes of poems published in various magazines, trying for variety and continuity. That was and is hard. For each of the three books–Cold Comfort, Before It’s Light, and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me–this arranging and revising and adding and subtracting has usually taken 4, 5, or 6 months.
And the same is true of a Selected Poems I am working on now. But even now, many of the chapbooks, (and there have been a great many since while I was publishing with John Martin, I did not do anything except books for him since it looked like this would be the way it would be) have been chosen by the editor and publisher from large selections I have sent.
PoetryCircle: You sometimes work intensely on a particular theme for a while, don’t you?
Lyn Lishing: Sometimes. One of my most recent books, The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian, I wrote as a series of poems about the amazing filly with the idea of making a book about her. I fell in love with her and wrote the poems for about a year. I wrote almost nothing else. When done, I had around 1500 poems. None of these were submitted since I felt the poems were part of a whole. when I put the book together I had to cut severely. Actually, I wonder what I will do with the probably 1200 or 13 or 1400 poems remaining. They seem to work best as a group but it is hard to think of them never leaving the boxes they are in.
PoetryCircle: Lyn, are you doing much work in the classroom these days? What are your feelings about teaching poetry?
Lyn Lifshin: Since I am spending so much time in the DC and Virginia area, no, I have not done as much teaching. I used to teach at various universities so often, at museums, in my house, travel to do workshops—I usually liked doing workshops on themes: diaries and journals, writing the story of your life, mothers and daughters, feelings about war, mirror workshops, working through the Holocaust, publishing workshops( I like them less) writing that had a theme: writing from the inside out and the outside in, inner city writing, workshops on hair, senses, names…not just poetry critiques. I never took a writing workshop—I think the communication with others is good, the contacts invaluable. I suppose when I won a scholarship to Boulder writer’s conference (where I won the poetry award) and saw how the year before when Dickey was there all the poems sounded like him and the year I was, they all sounded like Alan Dugan, made me wonder.
PoetryCircle: To someone who might be just on the verge of calling herself a poet and committing to the literary life, what would be your advice?
Lyn Lifshin: I could be flip and say be sure you keep your day job. No, it’s been hard, especially with so many writing programs and so many new poets every year (2000 I read somewhere) and the funding mainly or a lot of it to universities, and how taste changes, it’s so competitive. I don’t know. I heard Creeley say when he started with Black Mountain writing poetry was fun, was a communion but now it’s a business, a profession.
My advice would be to read and read and read and just keep at it…everyone can publish because there are so many very different kinds of poetry being published and now it’s easy to self publish. When I thought of going to college and being a fine arts major, an artist told my parents that I should get into art only if I couldn’t help myself. I guess it’s the same for poetry.
PoetryCircle: Thanks, Lyn.
Interview conducted by Jay Dougherty for PoetryCircle. Copyright 2006. Contact PoetryCircle for permission to reprint in whole or in part.
About Lyn Lifshin
Lyn Lifshin has frequently been referred to as “Queen of the Lit Mags,” and with good reason. Her poetic presence on the poetry scene of the past 40 years has been hard to miss—a testament to her talent, creativity, and dedication to the craft.
We’re thankful that Lyn has s been an enthusiastic supporter of PoetryCircle from the beginning.
You can read more about Lyn on Wikipedia.