An Interview with Dorothea Lasky
Dorothea Lasky is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, published by Wave Books, AWE and Black Life. She is also the author of five chapbooks, most recently an educational text, Poetry is Not a Project. Born in St. Louis in 1978, her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Laurel Review, American Poetry Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Boston Review, and A Public Space, among others. She was educated at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Harvard University, and Washington University. Currently, she researches creativity and education at the University of Pennsylvania.
During April through June, 2010, she was interviewed via e-mail by Elizabeth Hildreth. They discuss, among other things how AWE is horrific, the consciousness of Cyndi Lauper, the singularity of Donald Trump’s hair, how periods are fantastic, “staging” versus “containing” a love event, how to play with flat power and wild abandon, and why Dorothea Lasky wants her poems to be large animals.
Hi Dottie! Let me be upfront. I’m embarrassed at how late I am to the Dottie Lasky party. Can I blame it on Bookslut? Okay, I will. Do you remember this review? Maybe you’ve read it? I did. Then I never wanted to read your book. It sounded so awful and unappealing to me. Sorry, Dottie! Sorry, Olivia!
It’s not the reviewer’s fault. I reread it now and the description fits -- kind of. It’s like when someone describes a shoe as red and wet and shiny and glossy and you’re thinking, oh, like a slutty red-hot stiletto, right? And then it’s a rain boot. And you’re like “Wait wait wait,” and you go back and read and you think, “Red, wet, shiny, glossy. Right. Just like this rain boot. It’s just not at all what I was picturing.”
I guess what really threw me too was this idea of the book feeling “Midwestern” and I was thinking it was going to be all, “Look at me, drinking iced tea out of a jelly jar! Sweet mother’s milk, look at that firefly, will ya?” And then I read the poems in AWE and there’s nothing intrinsically Midwestern feeling about them. To me at least. They just feel firmly placed inside of a person, inside of a mind -- not particular to any region of a country.
Wait, here’s another reason I didn’t read your book. I heard from maybe seven or so people: “OMG, Dorothea Lasky’s books are so good, you have to read them, and I was like, “Oh, they must be really bad, so many people like them.” Isn’t that stupid? But it’s usually the case, though, isn’t it? Anyway, now I’ve read both of them. In your most recent book Black Life, you write in the prose poem “The Poetry That Is Going to Matter After You Are Dead”:
You are reading the work of a great poet, possibly one of the greatest ones of your time. If I am standing in front of you right now, you are listening to the voice of one of the greatest poets of your time.
I really feel like I am reading one of the greatest poets of my time. Do you know how big that statement is? It’s so big and yet so true. What if I had never read your books, Dottie? What would have become of me?
Oh, haha, very funny! But true maybe, what would have become of you?
That particular poem you mention is actually a distinct poem in the book that sometimes shocks me in its boastfulness and then shocks me that I could send the book off into the world with a poem like that in it. But I feel like my boastfulness has a long history of poets saying they are the best and then leaving it up to the reader to judge if they are delusional or correct. I am glad you think I am correct.
Even if I am not, I think it is important for people who are doing something to believe they are more than competent -- to believe they are experts, the best, possibly the best that has ever been (in whatever field it is.) I think a lot of surgeons in this way. I remember talking to a doctor once about selecting a surgeon for a potential surgery. The best surgeon for the job was extremely cocky and I was unsure whether this was bad or not and the doctor said, “Well, it is important for him to be confident.” You really do have to be confident when you literally slice into a person -- when life is held in the bounds that you don’t wuss out.
I think of pilots a lot in this way, too. If you are flying an airplane and have upwards of 300 lives in your charge, then you better be confident, actually arrogant, that you can fly that plane. I think arrogance can breed a calm that gets a job done. It is wrong though too when arrogance makes people do the misguided thing (for example, start a war or lead a group of people down a bad path). Now I’m not really trying to compare the work of a surgeon or a pilot with the work of a poet. But there is a kind of arrogance, a kind of supreme power, that when infused with a little real humility and expertise, makes a poem. Because the poem is always about the speaker. Well, at least lyric poems are. And these are the poems I write. And actually, I kind of think all poems are lyric poems, no matter what their style or ideology. So, I think this power is always important.
Yes, I remember that review. I think it is a great review. I remember being up late one night and finding it on the internet. “Wow!” I thought, “This is a great review! Thank you, Olivia Cronk.” And I remember feeling a little better about things in the process. I especially liked that she said my mean poems had a “sweet-ish nastiness.”
But, there was always something about, not that review, but about some other things I read online, that deeply bothered me that readers saw in my work. You mention Midwestern. I don’t know that the Midwestern part bothered me as much as the 5th grade slumber party reference. I noticed a lot when AWE came out that people often talked about my poems as if a little girl wrote them. Like there was something cute and young about them. I never was into that, nor understood where they got that idea. I always thought that the concept of AWE was horrific, not child-like. I always wanted reviewers to be horrified by the poems and they never quite seemed to be. (Are you?)
That’s cool that these seven people liked my poems, but sad that their words kept us from each other. But I do understand why you might feel this way. Still, I am glad this time is over between us.
Should I ask you a question now?
You can ask me whatever you want. My life is an open book. Maybe I saw Cyndi Lauper in the review, and I got the wrong impression? Nothing against Cyndi Lauper. I actually saw her in person once and was star struck. I was in the dressing room at Screaming Mimi’s and I heard this woman talking, and I was like, “Why does that that woman keep imitating Cyndi Lauper? Who does that? It’s so annoying.” Then I came out and stood in front of the mirror, and she came out, and I was like “Oh, okay. All’s forgiven, I guess.” Well, about your poem, I don’t think you’re being boastful. Or maybe you are, but you’re still correct. And I get you about the confidence needed to take 300 humans crammed into a big piece of metal 3 billion feet into the air -- or to cut into a human body. My daughter’s had four brain surgeries and her doctor is this cocky jock -- he’s looks like a taller, blonder Clark Kent. And thank god. You don’t want someone drilling through your daughter’s skull and then freezing up, like “Uh, actually I’m not sure I’m the guy to get her done.” You want someone who’s like, “Step aside. Gotta drill a hole through your daughter’s cerebral cortex. See you in two hours, losers.” Also, I don’t think your work is childlike. You’re hard to get because your words seem simple and of course, they’re just not. Though I can see a lot of bad Lasky knockoff poems coming down the pipe that might have that kind of contrived naivité. It’s funny because my friend raved about AWE and she said she loved Black Life too but found it more depressing. I read AWE and was thinking, “Wow, that’s was terribly disturbing and sad in an uplifting way. Okay, now for the more depressing one.” But I found Black Life lighter. Even with all the dying and the Alzheimer’s. It was more hopeful to me. It felt less desperate. I read somewhere that when Wave decided to do your first book, you felt relief, like someone finally believed in you after submitting that manuscript forever with no luck. That relief seems to show in the writing of your second book. There’s not so much heaviness, not so much searching. Instead of screaming into the canyon, you just picked up the phone.
Can we talk about sex now? Okay, good. I was looking through fiction, trying to find examples of how to write sex scenes and god, there's so much terrible sex out there. But you write these perfect one-line sex vignettes. They're amazing -- chrysanthemums sprouting from breasts, but then, you know, two people eating a pizza together? I'm not explaining it well, but the point is, it's radical, the way you write it so mundane and fantastic at the same time. Here are some goodies:
That One was the Oddest One
[ . . .] Why if they were only all so weird
I would fuck them all night, their dicks hanging out of their mouths
When I am done, little red mouths with no words
Instead no one is so weird
They have muscles
Mike, I Had An Affair
I peered into his crevices
And upon his bed I peered into more
Like the kind of things that the monsters make.
He was a monster, no
He was not a monster, Mike
His skin was soft and wild
So let me tell you a story. The night I’ve always held in my mind as The Sexiest Night of my Life? You know that night, you have one, I’m sure. Well, I just looked back at an old journal and here’s a paraphrase of what I wrote about it:
we ordered a pizza and it was bad but we ate it anyway because we were really hungry and then we watched David Letterman and then we did it and it was kind of awkward for some reason like we were out of practice and then we did it again and i was happy to be with him because I know he’d never do anything weird to me like try to have sex with me when I’m sleeping without my permission
I was like looking down at my journal, so sad for myself like: No. There was NOT David Letterman and pizza. But there was. There had to have been, right? Anyway, then I read this poem of yours.
Never So In Love
Laura was never so in love with Scott
Until they broke up.
She told me how after they broke up, how in love they were.
And how they enjoyed each other’s company
At dinner once again.
And how over two pizzas they marveled
At the ecstasy of their conjoined thoughts.
And how later when they made love
It was the best love making ever.
And oh the tingle of the touch of Scott.
Laura, I said, I have never been so in love
With anyone at this moment
As I am in love with my first love Jason
Who in a small house in St. Louis
Tends to a baby he made with his wife Margaret.
My dog Lucy too she is not so she has never been
So in love with anyone
Until this moment the rat
Has slipped from her mouth’s grasp
And I felt better. I felt less stupid. I guess that’s what good poetry does, doesn’t it? Does good poetry make people feel less stupid? So why do you think you’re good at writing sex? Because you just let it be what it is and don’t try to make it sexy and important?
I am so sorry to hear about your daughter! I hope she doesn’t have to have any more brain surgeries. You must be a very strong mother. I liked hearing about her surgeon though. Yes, I would want a cocky jock operating on my baby, too.
No, this conversation isn’t against Cyndi Lauper at all. Nor is this discussion a little bit against mentioning her in relation to my poems. I couldn’t love her or her instincts more. She is actually a pretty fascinating person to talk about in all of this, because she is actually someone who, in her theatrical greatness, manipulates our perceptions of her as being zany or goofy. Do you ever watch Celebrity Apprentice? I watched every episode this season (yes, I do love Donald Trump, can’t help it, I find him hilariously strange) and watched Cyndi Lauper closely on there. It is funny what she reveals about herself in the shows. During one episode, her team has to groom a rising country music star for an interview and she mentions how she always manipulates her own interviews by saying short, very odd answers. Her consciousness, in my mind the mark of how great of a theatrical genius she is, is what differentiates her from just any old pop star.
I think a lot of what we are talking about here is the need for balance and order when dealing with the uncontrollable, the wild. It is an old story. But when things are out of control, out of whack -- when a plane is soaring through the air at 500 miles an hour (which seems to me inherently a wild act -- to thrust metal and humans miles into the air) or when the brain and body are hurt -- you need a fearless person to be in control and calm. And not to make it too ridiculous a comparison, but in a poem there needs to be vicious and wild moods and then there also needs to be a force which makes you feel like there is something calm and orderly in the poem, too. And this calm order for me isn’t logic (like it might be in other types of writing -- essays, etc.), it is power.
I’m glad that you think there is something less searching in Black Life than AWE. I think that is definitely true. What feels scary about Black Life is that I found what I was searching for and it is pretty bleak.
Ok, let’s definitely talk about sex (can’t help but hearing the Salt and Pepa song here). I’m glad that you like reading these sex poems. To me, sex isn’t always what I am getting at, but I am getting at love, at comfort, like you are talking about in your journal. I think the materiality of life is very, very important and I think that these details in our memories, in our stories, are what make our stories alive. So, I feel like these details (like David Letterman or pizza) are what contain the emotions of love. You know, Jeff Mangum has a great line that I always think of when thinking of writing about sex. He’s describing some horrific love event and he says, “The looks of love were staged.” This line makes me think of what it means to not ground poems in real experience. When you don’t contain these small details, like pizza, in your writing, you are just staging a love event, rather than containing it. It would be better to contain the event and memorialize it forever.
Do you like Bernadette Mayer? I love the way she writes about sex in her poems. She is not coy. I hate coy tones in poems about sex. I hate clever sex poems. Anyway, Bernadette Mayer is genius, not clever. She is matter-of-fact. It is like your surgeon. She’s like “Ok, I am going to write a poem about having sex in a bathtub for ten hours and then I’m gonna end this poem and go eat a sandwich, losers.” Her tone is not staged. It is what it is. Sex and death, I think, are like that. Life is not staged -- it's a real thing. The theatrics of writing a poem, coupled with the matter-of-factness of life, to me is an interesting thing to play with. I like when poems play with flat power and wild abandon.
What other writers do you think are good at writing about sex?
Thank you for complimenting me as a mother. I’m not such a strong mother. I’m not weak either. I do think about my daughter’s brain a lot, a stupid amount, like every 15 minutes or so. Then again, all parents think about their children’s brains a lot. “This calm order isn’t logic, it’s power.” I love that. And also? How nobody who does Donald Trump (like on Saturday Night Live) ever gets the hair right. They try, but it’s just so singular, it can’t be replicated. That’s an interesting point about finding what you’re looking for and it being so bleak. I think just knowing what your misery looks like is positive. I don’t want to say “a gift” because I hate when people say bad stuff like cancer or whatever is a gift. I just mean, it’s good to be like, “Hello, Misery. So I guess you’re the one I’ll be carrying around with me the rest of my life? Nice to finally know you.” Some people never know, or they never recognize, the one misery that informs everything they do, and maybe that’s as sad as “The looks of love were staged.” To frame things in that way is a form of psychosis. I used to have this haunting feeling -- not that my life was being recorded like reality TV -- but that everything around me had been choreographed or scripted ahead of time, and all the objects and people I saw had been put there specifically for me to interact with. In other words, I had these fleeting feelings that I was a medium through which entertainment could happen -- that someone was getting to my life before I could get to it. It was horrifying. I know Bernadette Mayer’s poems less than I should, but I know this poem very very well. Every time I read it, I love it.
As far as who writes good sex? I just read Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. I thought I would be really taken by her sex scenes because everybody always says she’s filthy. And I did like them, but what I liked more is how she describes people. How she leaves out their hair and eye color and compares people to objects, e.g., a stove or a vase. It’s interesting because when you think of your friends, you don’t think of them being “brown eyed” or whatever, you think of their essence. Like when your best friend thinks of you, she thinks of your Dottie-ness. Objects help us make associations, and association is so much richer than mere physical description. I also just read Nick Flynn, The Ticking is the Bomb. He’s not at all graphic, Gaitskill and Flynn couldn’t be more different, but he does a great job describing sex and love between people who are lost or losing. His sentences are long and rangy, the book feels like a dream, like the narrator’s moving forward and backward at the same time, which makes it feel like life and like real thought. Also, Roxane Gay does really good bad sex; she does good complicated love. Her story “Men Don’t Leave Me” doesn’t even have “sex” in it per se, yet it’s just oozing out of it.
What are you working on now? I know you’re finishing up school but are you writing poems, too? And do you write fiction or creative nonfiction, too, or are you a full-throttle poetry woman?
Haha, you are right about Donald Trump’s hair. What’s funny about watching Donald Trump on TV is that he tries to make a joke about his hair a lot -- he’s self-referential and insecure like any good performer. I am not trying to give him too much credit. But he and his hair are singular.
I like the way you describe these writers’ dealings with sex. I like Gaitskill and Flynn here a lot. I particularly like the way you mention how they deal with essence. Writing about any kind of physicality well to me does seem a lot about dealing with the “ness” of things, whether it be by comparing them to objects or dealing with loss. And, of course, objectifying anything, so that it sits square in the memory infused with emotions (in the case of sex, all the complicated emotions therein) is always about loss to me. Your description seems right. And this Roxanne Gay story is beautiful -- I love it. It too has the sense that the object-value of people contains emotions that it is the story’s place (the poem’s place) to make visible. One of my heroes is Lydia Davis. When she writes about sex and relationships, they have the same aspects of object and loss that we are talking about here. But the dryness of her writing is what makes all of these things particularly enjoyable to read. The lack of affect makes the sex in her work pretty incredible.
I love that you mentioned that particular Bernadette Mayer poem. It’s amazing. It always makes me think of a poem by Kendra Grant Malone, called “period sex.” It’s amazing like Mayer’s poem is, too. I love Kendra Grant Malone’s writing. She has a book coming out in September from Scrambler Books that I think everyone should check out.
Anyway, periods are fantastic things. By fantastic, I don’t mean great, mind you. I mean fantastic like events that are seemingly otherworldy and deadpan real at the same time. I think that’s the way sex should always be written about. I think death should be written that way, too. I myself don’t know if I have written about death well -- jury’s out. It is something to work on. Do you have any favorite ways that writers write about death?
You asked me what I am working on now. Right now I am writing a new book of poems that I hope to finish this year. And I am finishing up a doctorate in education, so another big thing is that I am trying to finish up is the field research and writing for that. I don’t think of myself as a poetry person completely per se, but it does seem like that is my natural instinct. A big goal of mine is to write some plays this year. I’d love to be a playwright and put on my plays, which would have very flashy sets, clowns, and dancers. I’d also like to work on some educational-type texts, more curriculum-based or essay-style. I have a little venture into that genre, called Poetry is Not a Project out from Ugly Duckling Presse this year. Some might read it as a manifesto, but I wanted it more to be a text that creative writing students might read in workshop classes. And someday, when I get the time, I’d like to write criticism, connecting poetry to work in other art forms.
A question for you: What are you working on now and what do you like to read most (poetry, or otherwise)? And also, I’d love to know: what is it like to be a writer where you live? I am always interested in how easy/hard it is to be an artist in different regions of the country.
Oh, wait, this Roxane Gay “Mark of Cain” story? So creepy and beautifully written. I would have loved a story like this when I was a teenager for different reasons, you know? Some guy punches a girl in the eye and has rough sex with her? So romantic! What am I working on? I translated a book of poems this summer. Then I wrote a book of my own poems. Now I’m finishing a first draft of a novel. And I'm designing courses for a master of arts in education program; that's what I do full time. As far as what I read most? Poetry -- by a wide margin. Even though I’ve lived in Chicago more than ten years, I took a long break from writing. I didn’t go to any writing events or meet another poet here until last year. My closest friends here aren’t writers. One’s a painter, the other’s a dancer. The dancer, by the way, is the best reader/critic of poetry EVER; she’s like Stephen Burt in an arm band and slave bracelets. My sense is great things with words are happening in Chicago -- and everywhere. I’m just a child; I get bored if there are no strangers and no shiny stuff dangling in my periphery. That’s why I live in a city. And Chicago’s cheap. We lived in an apartment on Augusta and Western for a long time. Then developers bought it. They didn’t exactly tell us to leave, but all the tenants did leave -- except us. After a while, they cut off the water. But they also stopped collecting rent, so we stayed. My husband brought up jugs and jugs of water from his painting studio. Then I’d heat the water on the stove, and the babies and I would take our bath at night. It was like camping. Or India. It was a good way to save money. After that, we bought a place. Now we live by the fish markets on Fulton.
In other interviews, you've named Plath as a big influence. Two questions.
1. If you squint, doesn't the cover of AWE look a little like the cover of Ariel? I kept accidentally picking her book off the bookshelf instead of yours. Did you plan this?
2. People have noted your poems are “confessional” like Plath’s. But Sylvia Plath from what I recall does not “name names” like Dottie Lasky does. At AWP, we talked about a person who did something upsetting to you, and you ended up writing a poem about this incident/person. And you said something like [I’m paraphrasing], “I didn’t think the poem was that mean. I could have used a FULL NAME. But I didn’t.” Then I laughed. Then I looked at your face and realized you weren’t joking. Then I read your poems and I realized you weren’t joking. Why do you use full names; why do you make that choice with certain poems? Also, does ever make for future awkward interactions? Like, “Hey Dottie. Shut up.”
3. One more unrelated question: Can I be “Clown” in your first play? Willing to sing and dance (if drunk).
I like the story of your life these days. It seems very romantic. I understand the idea of getting bored without strangers around. I love the story of you and your family living camping-style in your old apartment, getting water from your husband’s studio. I like life stories where the circumstances, however bleak or however excellent, don’t exactly matter, because the emotion within them is strong.
Also, we should talk about the work you do constructing courses for the arts in education program sometime. I would be very into to hearing all about that. Arts in education issues litter my mind most days.
Okay, three questions, here are my three answers:
1. You are really kind of right about AWE looking like Ariel. I like the way that turned out and I think about it often. It seems fateful because Ariel is one of my favorite books. Except it wasn’t my idea to have the front be white with black. The day I found out that Wave Books was going to make AWE, I was lying in my bed in Philadelphia and I had a vision of 100 very shiny black books with the word AWE in white writing on them sitting on a giant bookshelf. I remember thinking they looked like some sort of austere army, ready to fight. And I wanted the words to fight, so it seemed correct. I conveyed this vision to Jeff Clark, who is the genius behind the book’s design. And then he did what he did, which was more than wonderful. He designed Black Life, too.
2. It’s funny -- I’ve used real names in poems for a long time, but because the audience for them was smaller, it didn’t matter. Like when I wrote poems about people who were nice or mean to me and used their names, then just showed the poems to friends, it wasn’t a big deal. Remembering back, I think I have always done this. I don’t take people’s cruelty lightly and sometimes my only place of power is within a poem. Sometimes that’s the only place in life you can speak freely. I think that’s good though. I think this freedom should always be protected. I remember being in second grade and writing a poem about a girl in my class who was cruel to me and the other students. I used her real name. I never showed the poem to anyone, but it was still an act of revenge. I took back the power from her in her cruelty. It was an overwhelming kind of agency.
It wasn’t until AWE came out that I started to think about the ramifications of using real names. There are a few real names in AWE and a few not exactly real names. I’d say in AWE, I used real names for the people who I truly loved and not real names for people who were more characters in the poems. I think a name is a kind of truth. You were born and then you got a name and most likely, you will die with the same name. Despite all the wild things that happen in a whole life, a name stays constant. And I think this is true even when people change their birth names. Because whatever you are known as is your name. And whatever it is -- the actual word of it is of course pretty random in the scheme of things -- has a charge in the world. A name has the residue of the person. So, in AWE, if I loved a person, I used their real name in the poem, because I wanted the residue of their name (even though it might be only important to me and the people who know them) to carry my love with it.
Black Life was a bit different. And I think this story is from a poem in Black Life. In this particular incident, someone was, in my estimation, a jerk, and I included two lines sort of abstractly about him in a poem about someone I loved. Anyway, so I guess this person assumed these two lines were about him and felt victimized and I kind of did not feel bad for him. By the way, doesn’t this sort of thing happen all the time to people? I really hope there are random lines about me someday in other people’s writing. I’d love to see myself being nice or awful in poems -- it’s a beautiful thing. But anyway, you and I were talking about it and I was like “Uh, how was that that mean? I didn’t use the person’s real name!” (Really, the lines could be about anyone.) And I did mean it completely seriously when I said that to you. Sure, you and I might know who the inspiration might be for those two lines, but how important is that? If I had used a real name, that would have been important. I would have carried his real essence through time and space, made his jerkiness or not -- jerkiness or the very residue of him carry through past our reading of the poem into all sorts of other readings of the poem, where people, not us, would never know who the inspiration was. If I had really wanted to be that mean, I would have used his real name. Also, the poem is not about the person. Would I have changed the poem’s meaning by including a name of an inconsequential person into it? Yes. Using real names is a tricky thing. But I do take it seriously. Frank O’Hara and Catullus are my heroes in this regard. Yes, I think it is a good poetry practice. And yes, I will do it again! Life is always awkward. I would never value a momentary unawkwardness for the sake of a poem. Because I think I think there is a power in it. And a poem is a place in life where any person can be powerful, so why not?
3. Yes, you can be Clown! Can we put on a play where you and I are every character? What are you doing this summer?
By the way, what are you doing this summer? It is almost summer. Maybe it is actually summer right now.
I am hosting foreign exchange students in the summer. That’s how we do things around our house in summer. And writing. I’m with you: I believe in the great power of poems! For that matter, I believe in the great power of awkwardness! I have to. When I play Clown in your play? I will be playing myself. So my friend told me, “Have you ever heard Dottie read? It’s like hearing Moses read.” I haven’t heard you in real life. But I have on the Internet. It’s an experience. It feels a little like you’re screaming these great truths over eight lanes of traffic -- while simultaneously dropping giant crystal goblets off a balcony. Most of the punctuation seems to have been removed, too. You’re the Christopher Walken of poetry. You’re oddly loud and as you go on, you get louder and louder. But you’re also deadpan and you include all these weird pauses and unpredictable starts. Your poetry reading persona feels funny -- in a way that dangerous and crazy things feel funny. In short, it’s fun to listen to. Some people like to read all loud like you, but after a while, it just sounds like running water. It stops working. But not yours. Your noise sounds like an elephant splashing around in a birthing tub. Then someone slugs it in the head with a rubber mallet. Poor elephant! How does your performance relate to your writing? How important is sound to you? Do you read your poems out loud as you’re writing them? Do you scream them in the mirror to yourself and then revise them and re-scream the revised lines? I hope so. I hope you taped it and put it on YouTube, too.
Whoa, Christopher Walken and an injured, splashing elephant -- oh, how you spoil me!
I am glad you like my loudness. Lately, I’ve been wondering if maybe I should stop being so loud when I read and have been playing around with it. Sometimes I’ll read my poems soft at a reading and it feels ok. I don’t think the loudness is volume exactly, I think the loudness is kind of hooking into the beat in a flat way. I always want to read like that, no matter how loud or soft I read in the future.
Sound is very important to me, more important to me than almost anything else in a poem. It eclipses meaning for me. It is meaning. Sound is meaning. The sound of the words in a poem relates to loudness for me. And I think when I read loudly, it is about my own power and intent. It about making my intent known, and the volume and loudness play together in this way. Maybe this was what made you think of an elephant. An elephant makes his intent known by his very size and he is never subtle within his very size. He’s got a really big body and he can’t ever escape it. And only when he is not moving can he be seen as gentle. But the movement of a large animal makes a large sound. And I want my poems to be large animals -- enormous, grotesque, and beautiful animals -- that you can’t help but notice. That you might adore or you might want to take down, but are undeniable. So, yes, I think I do play around with this when I read the poems in a loud voice. I want the poems to be bigger and stronger than I could ever be.
I do read my poems aloud when I am writing and revising them. I tend to obsess about small things -- the way small changes in sound by a small word being added or omitted within a line (for example, an “an” or a “the”) changes a whole poem. Sound is always the first and final judge I listen to. But I’ve never shouted in my mirror. That would be funny if I did and I would for sure tape it for you if I ever do. That might be the wrong act for my poems though. Even though they might seem like they are a lot about myself, that they are me exploring myself, I think they are not as about my self as they seem to be. I hope they are more about as universal a sense of self as they can be and exist this way to other people. At least that is what I am going to keep striving for. I hope when people read my poems they don’t just see me looking at me. Instead, I hope they see me looking straight at them.
Elizabeth, it has been really fun doing this interview with you. I know we have only met that one time, but I think I really like you. Can we be friends? I think I am going to write a play about clowns this summer and you can be the star of every scene (if you want to be).
We can be friends. Honk, honk! Very sincerely, Clown.
Elizabeth Hildreth is a regular interviewer for Bookslut.