Forge Interview with Lyn Lifshin

By Tim McLafferty

TM: How long do you think about a poem before you begin to write it?

LL: I might hear a phrase, see an image, go thru a museum, see a photograph, catch a song. I could jot it down in a notebook but if I am home and can work on it it might be immediate. Often I write poems based on dreams and the faster I can get to them, bits scribbled in the dark, the better. Other times maybe I might have an old notebook of things from the past and the poem, or the trigger for the poem, could be there for ages. I don’t think any two poems happen in the same way.

TM: Do you carry and use notebooks?

LL: Absolutely. I write a lot when I am taking the metro from Virginia to Maryland; and when I was taking more classes, most of my writing was done in my hour and a half commute. I carried notebooks and books. I got more writing and reading done. I hope to get back to that. Most of my notebooks I date: when I wrote them and when I typed them up and then pack them off for my archives. The earlier notebooks are in the Harry Ransom collection at University of Texas at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin and later ones, to the present, are in the Samuel Paley collection at Temple University. These are usually seventy-page spiral-bound notebooks. I tend to keep the notebooks I carried around Europe—to Turkey and Spain—assorted sizes—I have them going back to a little plaid notebook I bought in Italy, to some I used in Turkey to last year’s notebooks in Spain—in Barcelona and Paris—but I always have a notebook on the nightstand for dream images and poems and in the car on any trip. I can remember writing a poem for an erotic anthology—taking my pen out in the dark of a movie theater and writing most of it on spearmint gum wrappers. It is frustrating: it takes me more time to type and revise and print most poems than to write them.

TM: Do you work with pen and paper, or the computer?

LL: Usually I write with ball point pen on a spiral notebook. I revise a lot when I type them up. Hopefully I can read my writing. Right now I have around sixty handwritten seventy-page notebooks going back to the 90s on the shelf above my desk. I worry I won’t be able to read my handwriting when a lot of time has elapsed.

TM: When revising, what are elements that you look to remove or build upon?

LL: Usually it is a matter of paring down, cutting out. One of my strong poems was “revised” by an editor who suggested I cut out the last two lines—it’s that kind of thing.

TM: When writing, do you read your poems out loud? If so, what are you looking for?

LL: I wish I did read my poems out loud more than I do. I should. For my last reading, I pretty much memorized and often revised my poems as I walked about the pond each morning. It helped immensely. At times I change the poem as I read it. I had planned to read all new poems. It helped so much to become comfortable with the new poems but it also helped in revising poems—cutting, changing—eliminating and of course it helped listening to and hearing the musicality, what just sounds startling, exciting, right.

TM: Looking at your manuscripts, it seems like you write a similar poem several times, I think this is a great idea since you keep getting at your thought without revising the same poem over and over. Is this a typical method for you? How did you develop it?

LL: In the past I often wrote up to ten versions of a poem—mostly experimenting with line length and even cutting the endings off. I ended up with boxes and boxes of versions of poems and the inability to type up and submit a manuscript with so many versions. I no longer do that.

TM: How would you describe your poetry?

LL: I hope to evoke an emotional response—to have the reader feel it’s something they had felt but didn’t realize they had until reading my poem. I hope my poems startle and surprise.

TM: Who are some of the poets that have influenced you from early on, through the years, and currently?

LL: That is impossible to answer. I know I’d leave many out. In Poet’s Book Shelf edited by Peter Davis and published by Barnwood Press I was asked, along with many others, to list writers I feel are essential. It is an interesting book, interesting to see who different writers come up with. Also you can tell some writers I like from the three or four anthologies I have edited and published: Tangled Vines, first edition Beacon Press and HBJ second edition, Ariadne’s Thread, Harper and Row and Lips Unsealed, Capra Press.

TM: Do you read novels? If so, can you name some of your favorites, or one you are currently reading?

LL: I love reading novels—recently, between not being on the metro as much as usual and also reading a lot for researching the various recent books (Malala—the young woman from Pakistan. All the horse books—each one required a lot of research), I’ve read a lot fewer novels and nonfiction than normally I do, and truly miss it. For Femme Eterna, I had to research Enheduanna, Scherezade and Nefertiti. Before that I wrote a book on tango and read a lot of novels about Argentine Tango before I took a tango class. Now I am taking Argentine tango classes and but not until way after the book, Knife Edge & Absinthe: The Tango Poems, was published. I have been reading memoirs and fiction by Jon Katz—I want to get back to more of that too.


Lyn Lifshin has published over 130 books and chapbooks including three from Black Sparrow Press: Cold Comfort, Before It’s Light, and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me. Before Secretariat: The Red Freak, the Miracle, Lifshin published her prize winning book about the short lived beautiful race horse Ruffian, The Licorice Daughter: My Year With Ruffian and Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness. Recent books include Ballroom, All the Poets Who Have Touched Me, Living and Dead, All True, Especially The Lies, Light At the End: The Jesus Poems, Katrina, Mirrors, Persphone, Lost In The Fog,  Knife Edge Absinthe: The Tango Poems.  NYQ Books published A Girl Goes into The Woods. Also  just out: For the Roses poems after Joni Mitchell and Hitchcock Hotel from Danse Macabre. The Miracle and Tangled as the Alphabet—The Istanbul Poems from Night Ballet Press. Just released as well: Malala. The Marilyn Poems was just released from Rubber Boots Press. An update to her Gale Research Autobiography is out: Lips, Blues, Blue Lace: On The Outside. Also just out is a dvd of the documentary film about her: Lyn Lifshin: Not Made Of Glass. Just out: Femme Eterna and Moving Through Stained Glass: the Maple Poems. Forthcoming: Degas Little Dancer and Winter Poems from Kind of a Hurricane Press.

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