An Interview with Colleen Lookingbill
A lot can happen in the space between a poet's first and second book. Colleen Lookingbill's first book, Incognita, was published in 1992. It was praised at the time by Norma Cole and by Kevin Killian, who called Lookingbill "one of the best new writers around." ("Whoever and wherever she is, I admire her composure and her doubt," wrote Killian.) In the space between then and now, she has been living and working in San Francisco. Her poems appeared in journals including New American Writing, 26, and Ploughshares. With Elizabeth Robinson, she started Etherdome Press, devoted to publishing first chapbooks by women, bringing out first collections by Stacy Szymaszek, Susanne Dyckman, Valerie Coulton, and Linda Norton, to name just a few. She curated a reading series at Canessa Gallery with her husband Jordon Zorker. She's had a successful corporate career, and a life-threatening illness. Her second book, the forgetting of, will be out from lyric& this month. (Look for it at SPD.)
About the forgetting of, Andrew Joron says: "Lookingbill's language resembles that of a Eurydice who has rescued herself from Hades, ascending, with slow and careful steps, once more into the 'gorgeously bleak' landscape of time. Her words hold the hush of revelation, the rush of awakening, the sight of colors never seen before. Offering conundrums 'cured by falling snow,' Lookingbill articulates a quietly fierce, aphoristic form of lyric, one that can withstand the 'shifting cold breeze' of 'fundamental transience.'"
What was the initial spark that led to this collection? Did you have a plan from the beginning or did the book reveal its intentions gradually?
I had a manuscript that I'd tried to publish a year or two after Incognita came out, way back when, but it never went anywhere. I got a little bit discouraged with writing/publishing, and for many years I didn't do much, but there was always a thread of writing going on. Then I formed a writing group with a few of my friends here in the Bay Area and through that group got more focus. I also started experimenting with the visuals. Sari Broner (one of the group writers) was doing really gorgeous art that she brought to group which inspired me to try some of my own.
At some point I realized that I might have enough poetry to do a book. I rewrote some of the poems from the old manuscript and added them to the new work. The writing didn't seem congruent enough for one book, but Susanne Dyckman looked at an early version and suggested parceling out the long prose poem that starts and ends each chapter in this version. That's when the shape really emerged.
Full color illustrations are unusual in a book of poetry. The art in a forgetting of works so well with the writing -- were the illustrations created at the same time as the poems? How were they made?
The illustrations are a combination of scanned assemblages (objects laid out on my little HP printer/scanner), photographs of assemblage art that I created over the years, and these images layered with visual ephemera that I've collected. The process is a bit random, using transparencies and the image program that came with my printer -- relatively low tech, but I like the effect. They were created partially as I went along, then finished after the book was mostly completed.
[You can see three of the illustrations at Otoliths.]
During the past couple of years, you've had cancer. What impact did that have on this book?
The biggest impact of the cancer was that it motivated me to complete the book and get it published. I felt my creative side needed to be given more attention. When I was looking at what makes me happy (I guess thinking you might die gives incentive to assess your life) I felt creativity had been given short shrift in the overall trajectory of my life.
When I read Andrew Joron's blurb, I knew he wasn't probably referring to what you've just come through, but he could have been. Do you feel you've returned from Hell?
I do! I saw George Albon at the Symphony the other evening and he asked me the same thing. I told him now I am back to the normal Hell of life here on earth and that is the Hell I prefer!
Sometimes when people get stopped by severe illness, all they want is to go back to the exact life that they had before. Others feel the need to make changes or even break radically from how they have been living. How has it been for you?
I'd like to make a radical break, devoting my life to the things that mean the most to me: creative play and my work on the wisdom path. But I find myself in a more moderate position. For me that means a return to working a full-time job in good old corporate America. At the same time, I am trying to revise my priorities and make more time for my personal life, for my writing practice and my spiritual practice as well.
When I was first diagnosed, I went to an herbalist over in the East Bay who said that cancer was my new teacher -- one that would be with me the rest of my life. I like thinking about cancer that way: as a teacher, not just a disease. A teacher that reminds me that life is precious every single moment.
Let's talk a little about Etherdome Press. How did it start and what's happening with it these days? When you look at how you want to use your energy and time, how do you feel about having a press?
Etherdome Press published our first two chapbooks in 2000. Elizabeth [Robinson] was the one who brought up the idea to me in a phone conversation and I was an enthusiastic partner.
As I recall, we agreed that the poetry world as we knew it needed more diverse writing published. We decided to focus on unpublished women writers. Our thinking was that women seemed less aggressive in promoting themselves, so we would help them with this chapbook series. Elizabeth and I each edit one chapbook per year, though she got the 2010 books out completely on her own, bless her heart!
The idea of the press still makes me happy, but of course I have concerns about how to work in all the activities associated with publishing. We are both excited about doing a big ten-year anniversary issue including all the women that we have published so far -- that's our ambition for 2011.
What is your writing process like, and what do you revise toward?
My writing process is a little like a trance state using found material and found text to activate my unconscious/subconscious creativity. I'm interested in narrative but ambivalent toward traditional or conventional narrative structures. I have always liked stories and storytelling, but I've never felt that most narrative writing reflects the real lived life. Because I believe that my conscious mind is less interesting than my creative mind, I tend to write away from conscious connections, to see what might come up by leaving those conventions behind.
I think I got interested in poetry initially because it has the aspect of another reality to it -- a reality that words create, but that connects us at another level. Sometimes I feel like the writing comes from my rebellious side -- the side that says, "No writing, not even poetry, can really capture the mystery of life, so why try to pretend that it does?" But it is the unknown and the mystery that make life worthwhile, don't you think?