what we make waiting for death


To kick off Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour (which I am organizing through Upper Rubber Boot Books to celebrate National Poetry Month), I interviewed Lyn Lifshin, one of America’s best (and most prolific) poets.

Lifshin’s publications are too numerous to list here, but her most recent books include Tsunami as History, All The Poets Who Have Touched Me, Living and Dead: All True, Especially the Lies, Ballroom, Katrina, Persephone and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me.


Joanne Merriam: What is your writing process?

Lyn Lifshin: In a documentary about me, LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS, the film makers started the project trying to capture a typical day: what my writing process was and how it connected to what came from that. It was an amazing experience: my house seemed taken over by sound and light people, cameras, dollies. The windows were gelled and huge machines were like odd animals taking over. The first day, oblivious to me, they changed the house to a stage set. The second morning I was to take them through what my ordinary morning was like.

What you see in the film, is pretty close to any day on Appletree Lane. Instead of wearing drab raggedy sweats, I wore a purple velvet long one. On a normal day, I’d get up, feed the cat, grind coffee beans and then go back to bed with steaming cappuccino and wild light streaming through stained glass or snow crystals gleaming and write for a few hours. The director and the camera man had everything set up. We’d rehearsed this early morning ritual– my beautiful Abyssinian cat was always hungry and happy to leap up to the counter to be fed. She was used to the coffee grinder. I was told that whatever happens, never look at the camera. Everything 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 throughout the kitchen and dining room. She was terrified and ran to hide upstairs under the bed for the rest of the day. I stood there with my mouth open staring at the camera. That scene never appeared in the movie. I bet the outtakes are great.

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. Workshops, readings, book signings. Besides teaching frequently around the Capital District, I taught workshops in my house and was often asked to arrange, to develop workshops to go with 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, MIRRORS: LITERAL AND SYMBOLIC, WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT AND THE OUTSIDE IN, WRITING THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE, PUBLISHING WORKSHOPS, WRITING THOUGH THE URBAN AMERICAN LANDSCAPE, HAIR, DREAMS, WRITING ABOUT WAR.

Often I’d use the afternoon to prepare for some of these workshops. I took photographs of the exhibits and the museum and for the Holocaust workshop, took stacks of books, 50 at a time, from the library 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 and prose. Always a very exhausting experience. There are scenes in the film of my sorting through boxes and boxes of ephemera, looking at saved news clips, photographs. Now, in another house, I am still haunted by the back log of handwritten never yet typed up spiral notebooks—50 or 60 going back to the early 90’s. Just waiting.

Those afternoons were always packed. Always overwhelming. Typing up poems, answering letters, arranging readings, dealing with the mail. Before e mail and online submissions, my real mail box was normally overflowing. I’d work by 5 pm I’d get ready to go out to take a ballet class, a great break, and then I’d be back around 9 ready to work until midnight. Still, somehow, it seemed I had more time to read and relax than I do now.

When I moved to DC and then Virginia, things were shuffled around somewhat. I still take ballet many mornings and now write mostly on the metro. I feel more and more time crunched, 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.

Sometimes I’ve had 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 stay 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 for an anthology honoring her. 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.

Other titles that have come from writing poems for an anthology include: MARILYN MONROE: POEMS, BARBIE POEMS, LIGHT AT THE END (Jesus poems), RESTROOMS ANYONE?, THE DAUGHTER I DON’T HAVE, TSUNAMI AS HISTORY.

Joanne Merriam: I’ve seen you referred to as a confessional poet, a feminist poet, and a nature poet. None of those descriptions seem to me to encompass all of your work. Do you object to these labels, or are there any labels you would embrace? Do you think labeling poets in this way is useful?


Lyn Lifshin: I guess I don’t really think it is useful labeling poets. I never felt I fit in any particular category. When I started writing, the political poems I wrote assured readers I was a man. Then because I wrote poems like “No More Apologizing” and also love poems, that confused many too. As if I couldn’t be a feminist and still be interested in relationships with men. When I look at the sections of many of my collections there are always sections like: Autobiography, Love and Erotica, Family, Mothers and Daughters, War, Other Places, Political poems, Nature poems.

Many of the collections are a mix of poems . But I do have books or chapbooks, separate ones, for most of these categories: NUTLEY POND—a series of poems watching the pond behind my house though the seasons, BLUE TATTOO, war poems, many poems about old houses: PLYMOUTH WOMEN, AUDLEY END, THE OLD HOUSE POEMS, THE OLD HOUSE ON THE CROTON and a series of horse books, THE LICORICE DAUGHTER: MY YEAR WITH RUFFIAN, BARBARO: BEYOND BROKENNESS and LOST IN THE FOG.


Joanne Merriam: You’ve written a lot about mothers and daughters, and your mother seems to have been such a force in your poetry and presumably in your life. Can you comment on what that relationship has meant to the development of your writing?


Lyn Lifshin: My mother named me Rosalyn Diane because she hoped I’d become an actress as she wanted to be (cleaning out her rooms, so many comedy and tragedy ash trays, plaques, pins, earrings).

We lived in Barre, a small granite mining town in northern Vermont and drove weekends to Middlebury. Once I said it looks like the trees are dancing. Hearing that, my mother said well if she isn’t an actress maybe she will be a poet.

I was read to often and I took books out of the library when I was very young. I skipped several grades because I could read past my level. In third grade not only did the teacher read us Milton and Blake and Wordsworth but she had us writing our own poems. She’d bring in boughs of apple blossoms and ask us to smell them, rub the petals on our skin, listen to the sounds the stems make rubbing against each other. I still have a poem I wrote in one of the papery blue notebooks, APPLE BLOSSOMS. Strange but apples and apple blossoms have kept studding my poems! Most of the poems I wrote were done in school but one Saturday I copied out a poem of Blake’s and showed it to my mother. She was amazed and since Middlebury is a small white clapboard church town with a village green and a main street, it was no surprise that my mother ran into my teacher, told her how inspirational she’d been, how I had written a poem with words she didn’t even know I knew like descending and rill. By Monday, I had to write my own poem.

Throughout elementary school, high school and college my mother was always supportive. It was as if nothing I did wasn’t extra special, wonderful. In one poem I talk about a photograph of me standing in front of her, showing me off “like a prize melon.”

The first anthology I edited was a collection of mother and daughter poems, TANGLED VINES. It seems the one relationship in a woman’s life that encompasses the most binding closeness, astonishing joy and intense anger. So many strong poems, from Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton to Marge Piercy and Ellen Bass, so many women who have written amazingly about this relationship. I put a request for poems about mothers and daughters in Poets and Writers and then the real work began. I was flooded with poems. Diaries, handwritten poems, poems stabled into notebooks in addition to the poems I already had collected. Drowning in manuscripts, I realized with all my poems, many abut 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.

As the relationship changed and I became more of a care taker, more of a mother, not the daughter, the poems changed too. In her last months I spent most of each day with her and wrote even on the last day. On each separate line of a notebook, there is one first line. I always planned to go back and finish those poems but I never have. I also have tapes of interviews I did with her in her last two years: still waiting. But much of what I wrote in that period is among my strongest work. One poem I wrote about won first prize Writer’s Digest award for nonfiction, Mint Leaves at Yaddo. This is the poem I wrote about.



In frosty glasses of
tea. Here, iced
tea is what we
make waiting for

death with this
machine my mother
wanted. Not knowing
if she’d still be

here for her birth-
day we still shopped
madly, bought her

this iced tea maker for.

For twenty days my
mother shows only
lukewarm interest
in presents or tea,

vomits even water,
but I unpack the
plastic, intent
on trying this

sleek device while
my mother, queen
of gadgets —
even a gun to

demolish flies —
maybe the strangest
thing she got me
can still see the

tall glasses that
seem summery on what
is the longest day.

Soon the light

will go she says
the days get shorter.
I can’t bear
she murmurs, another

winter in Stowe and
I think how different
this isolation is,
this iced tea, this

time that stretches
where little grows
as it did, green
as that mint, except

my mother, smaller,
more distant, gaunt


Joanne Merriam: I’ve heard you called the Queen of the Small Presses because so much of your work has been put out by small, passionate poetry publishers and small press journals. I love small presses too, and have recently started my own, Upper Rubber Boot Books, which only publishes ebooks. What do you see as the role of small press going forward, especially with regards to poetry and especially with all the changes in the publishing industry that have occurred in the past decade with the advent of POD and ebooks and Amazon’s rise in influence?


Lyn Lifshin: My anthologies have been published by bigger presses like Beacon, Harcourt Brace and I think of Black Sparrow, the original Black Sparrow with John Martin, as a medium sized press, but yes it does seem so few of the biggest presses do very much poetry. Sadder, is the fact that the publications like Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly — magazines that always reviewed my books, even when I was just beginning, now are so different. There was a wonderful New York Book Review cover that had tons of small press magazines — and it was before it was easy to make a very professional looking book and many were mimeographed and hand made: the small presses had the most colorful, varied, striking, wild and wonderful covers — so alive — just great. And magazines like Rolling Stone published poetry — I published regularly there — it was one magazine that was in many public places — and people who never normally saw poetry would find it in a waiting room or on a bus and tell me! I miss this a lot.

So many things have changed. Between the burgeoning MFA programs and I suppose the online submission managers — there are so many poets, so many poems filling the air! It is very different. The speed things are happening is astonishing and I think it is exciting but still a little amazing and strange to me. I do have one recent e book out — I need really to know a lot more. I still love beautiful printed books but I certainly see the exciting possibilities.


Check out more poetry-related interviews, reviews and guest posts at Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour!

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