Welcome to the Tea Interviews.
I've seldom met an artist, particularly a writer, who didn't tend to gab or spill opinions or offer musings on his/her own work and worldview. Therefore I'm tapping into this common tendency.
(Most of the questions are tailored toward the featured interviewee.)
Tea Interview with Lyn Lifshin (2005)
D: Pearl Buck wrote: "The basic discovery about any people is the discovery of the relationship between its men and its women." Your thoughts on this statement?
L: Something so general, non-specific is not something I can
relate to, let alone comment on.
latest book, , is based on the real-life, early-1970s champion horse. I
find your choice of this subject quite curious. Aside from being a remarkable
racer, Ruffian is undoubtedly ripe for symbolism and - obviously - poetical
inspiration. The fact that her opponent on her fateful day was named Foolish
Pleasure is a poet's wet dream. I'd be
trite to guess about potential gender analogy/allegory, so I'll just ask you
to spiel about your personal attraction to the horse as well as the book in
general. (Did you originate "The Licorice Daughter" as nickname, by
the way? I dig it.)
L: Writing about Ruffian is not something I would have dreamed of a few years ago. Growing up in Vermont, I rode a little, everyone did, but I never could have imagined becoming so obsessed, hypnotized nearly, never supposed she would become such an intense part of my life, especially for a year or so. The same summer of her last race, I had a student with MS who told me she was like Ruffian, would never give up. "You know who Ruffian is, don't you?" I didn't and she explained how the gorgeous horse had broken down, was running on a bloody ankle, grinding dust and earth from the track into her bone, her hoof dangling by shreds of skin. She told me she had been a runner too and nothing would make her give up. That summer I wrote my first Ruffian poem, but it was more about my student.
Then, nearly 30 years later, somehow Ruffian took hold of me
and wouldn't let go. I read all I could about her, day dreamed and dreamed
her. I was on eBay bidding for out- of- print articles, on Amazon trying to find
rare books on collectors items. Ruffian was all I wrote about for over a
year. I loved knowing I would be "with her" even though the story always
ends the same way. Though tonight I am doing a reading for an anthology and
wearing her match race Ruffian, the gender analogy wasn't my first interest,
but for the audience it was the boy or the girl, it was Billy Jean King and
Bobby Riggs. In a quote I haven't been able to put my hands on, someone wrote
something like: one goes to a certain horse for what they are searching for in
themselves. That's still a mystery to me. My whole obsession with her is, and
it hasn't stopped. (At the reading, when I talked about my book, one man
jumped up—oh yes. Foolish Pleasure was her nemesis. Then after the reading
he said, as a man, he was for the colt. I told him that after that hideous
race, Foolish Pleasure did little of importance.)
Yes, the nick name Licorice
Daughter is one I made up. First I wrote a poem with that in the title. It
seemed right. Over the year, writing every day only about her, I ended up with
over 1,500 poems, and so, of course, had to cut many. With the exception of one
magazine that asked to see a group and selected several, no one has seen any
of these poems. Ruffian's own name has its own story: her owners expected to
keep a colt they sold, but after she was born, they had this name and decided
to use it. But even at her first race, that name was hardly known, pretty much
a secret. Instead she had many other nicknames:
BEFORE SHE HAD HER NAME
She was Sophie,
the big sofa,
was black. No
to know her
one knew if
even the clockers
the female, the
one hot walker
still be a stakes
or no name
D: Lyn, I've never seen you perform, but I recently
discovered your RealAudio readings of "Bosnia," "Geese At
Midnight," and "My Afternoons With Dylan Thomas." The Web makes
such long-distance opportunity easily possible, thank goodness. I must say
that I find your voice and delivery to be quite lovely and mesmerizing. You
speak like a breeze-teased chemise, if I may be so mawkish.
Have you considered producing a full-length CD of your
reading (from live sets or studio)?
L: I did a full length, studio
recording of poems, OFFERED BY OWNER, and some parts of the recording were on
POETRY ON THE AIR. Recently someone sent me a CD done from that, and I have
thought of making more CDs from it. Of course the documentary film about
me, LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS, has many live readings of my poems and
there have been some other videos I've been a part of. I was fascinated and
amused by your saying my voice was " like a breeze-teased chemise." In upstate
New York I regularly was a guest on an all- night talk radio host's show. I
might read a poem or two, but mostly it was people calling in and talking with
me and the host from midnight to dawn. My favorite part was doing the weather.
I'd do it in a very definitely breezed teased voice, over the top,
breathless: "It will be a very very hot hot night."
Those nights were so much fun, so light and, yes, so breezy. Free
flowing, crazy nights I really miss
D: Have you ever experienced an instant or a few moments of
inexplicable, unprovoked bliss and euphoric love, contentment and complete
absence of anger and fear? This happens to me once in a while, to the point of
even wanting to embrace and comfort enemies and human monsters, tell them they
were born with purpose and worth, wash away their anguish and hatred. I know
it sounds dramatic and sappy, but do you think such rapture could be evidence
of pervasive love in human hearts that just needs tapped into?
L: I don't know. I probably have
had moments of highs, moments I'm not worried or angry or fearful, but I
guess I can't think of a time I wanted to embrace and comfort enemies and
monsters. Certainly not that (to me really absurd sofa jumping or whatever of
Tom Cruise lately—maybe a publicity stunt or something worse). I used to do
a workshop that included having students list what brings them joy on a
regular basis, the biggest joys in their life, and what would bring them joy.
It's never the huge things, but the small, quiet moments: curling up with a
cat, reading a good book by the fire place.
D: Dr. Francis Schaeffer wrote:
note this curious mark of our own age: the only absolute allowed is the
absolute insistence that there is no absolute."
"There is a higher
law than the law of government. That's the law of conscience."
Juxtaposing these two quotations seems right. Your reaction?
L: They don't seem to disagree
D: The great Stoic philosopher, Seneca, wrote in his essay,
"On The Shortness Of Life": "It
is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much...Are you not
ashamed to reserve for yourself only the tail end of life and to allot to
serious thought only such time as cannot be applied to business? How late an
hour to begin to live when you must depart from life!"
Share some thoughts on life's brevity, if/how humans waste
L: Lately it feels the weeks have
been slamming past much too quickly. I look at the 40 to 60 notebooks to type up
- everything feels rushed, frazzling, frenetic. Sometimes it almost paralyzes, thinking about it. I
can't believe I've been in this area as long as I have, that the time since
things that mattered the most is as long as it is. Then, of course, there is the
question of balance, something I am not good at. I tend to do whatever I do
rather obsessively. I take 7 or so ballet classes a week, and often I feel that I
could be getting more work done, that what ends up being really 4 or more hours
a day or twice a day is taking, gulping, swallowing too much time; but then I
know I'll burn out just working. That too is another question I've asked in
some of my writing workshops: What would you do if you
found you had three months left to live? Since these are writing workshops,
it's not surprising many students say they would write. I do think of that
too, feel a wild need to deal with the boxes and boxes of my poems, let alone
all those not typed yet, hand-written ones. There is so much I want to do, see,
read. It's not that I feel I've wasted time but that I want to do too much.
D: Ayn Rand saw Art as the "concretization of metaphysics." She wrote: "If you see obscene, dismembered monstrosities leering at you from today's esthetic mirrors - aborted creations of mediocrity, irrationality, and panic - you are seeing the embodied, concretized reality of the philosophical premises that dominate today's culture."
She also wrote: "[D]isintegration
is the preface of death to the human mind. Disintegration is the keynote and
goal of modern art - the disintegration of man's conceptual faculty, and the
retrogression of an adult mind to the state of a mewling infant."
I agree with her for the most part, seeing obsession with
non-human subjects, extremely distorted perception, and vulgar - even ugly -
focus (often, not always) as bad art. For instance, I prefer Ingres' and
Courbet's nudes or Klimt's sexy,
female-centric pieces over Schiele's crooked depictions of women. I detest
Picasso, especially Cubism. I also find Pollock to be horrible. Intuitive accident is a flimsy basis for art.
Give me Hopper over Orozco any day!
I admit that I dig Surrealist art by cats like Magritte, Dali, Delvaux, Leonor Fini (her less diabolic work), and I find merit in Andre Breton's writings and dream expression in general. (My appreciation for Dali is primarily in regard to his visual compositions and not necessarily the majority of the scatological and putrescent content.)
I disagree with Rand's refusal to call photography art. She considered photography to be a technical reproduction - rather than re-creation - of reality. I find creative photography to be artistically worthy indeed.
Your reaction/agreement/disagreement on the above
L: I'm not sure I see any
connection between disintegration or any kind of art and the state of the
society. Nor do I look at art in that way. One "very distinguished" prize
winning poet who so often talked about morality, the need for it to be a good
poet (which I am sure he was sure he was), his
actions belied that. I dislike self-righteousness and I don't believe a
great artist is necessarily a good or nice or moral person. As for the art of a
time reflecting that period, especially now, there is such variety,
fragmentation, so many wildly different styles etc.
I agree with you that photography
is art, some of the best art.
D: Have you seen any good/crummy films lately? If so, please
L: Like ballet, films are another
obsession. For the last 20 years of so I've gone to the Montreal Film Festival
so many of my favorites are little known but here goes.
COLD COMFORT (NOT COLD COMFORT FARM) WALK ON WATER, L'AUBERGE ESPANGNLE, BELLE DE JOUR, PEACHES, (a real favorite) RAISE THE RED LANTERN, 13 CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING, DIAMOND MEN, BREAD AND TULIPS, FRIDA, RED SQUIRREL, LE BOIS NOIR, MARIA FULL OF GRACE, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, DELICATESSEN (pretty strange) MONSIUER IBRAHAM, SWIMMING POOL, GOODBY LENIN, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING, RUSSIAN ARK (very different) GOSFORD PARK, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (very lush) THE LADY KILLERS, TALK TO HER, CITY OF GOD, THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS, THE EXPERIMENT, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, FARGO (though I didn't like it all that much at the time) BLUE VELVET, MIDNIGHT AROUND THE WORLD, MYSTERY TRAIN, GOODFELLAS, BARTON FINK, LOST IN TRANSLATION, THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, RAY, 8 WOMEN, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, THE SEA INSIDE, THE HOURS, LIVING IN AMERICA, THE POSTMAN, SMOKE, THE HETROSEXUAL MID DAY DANCE CLUB,, THREE DAYS OF RAIN, ROSSENSTRASSE, LIFE IS TO WHISTLE, I AM DINA, LAWN DOGS, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, ORION'S BELT, BAD EDUCATION, MAD BALLROOM DANCING, MY LEFT FOOT, REMAINS OF THE DAY, THE DEKALOGS, BEING JULIA, MELINDA AND MELINDA, (many of Woody Allen's films), BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, VERA DRAKE (almost all Mike Leigh's films) SECRETS AND LIES, THE PIANIST, MYSTIC RIVER, RAMBLING ROSE, THE CRYING GAME, INDOCHINE, BEING JULIA, LOOK AT ME IN AMERICA, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, BOYS DON'T CRY, EXOTICA. So many many many many others. I love movies.
Here are a few I did
not like or that were disappointing: DANCES WITH
WOLVES, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE (I don't like
cartoons, and this bored me to pieces), CROUCHING TIGER - HIDDEN DRAGON, FINDING
NEVERLAND, AMELIE (everyone else seemed to love this but it was a bit too cute
for me), LADIES IN LAVENDAR (not horrible, but somehow disappointing and fake to
me), BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and PELLE THE CONQUEROR.
One of the most exciting things
was traveling around the country, going to Hawaii and to film festivals with the
film maker who did LYN LIFSHIN: NOT MADE OF GLASS. At the Denver International
Film festival, her documentary on me was shown an extra time since the audience
was so big—it was the same year many writers like Kieslowski (whose films I
also like: RED, WHITE and BLUE) were
shown, ROGER AND ME, SUGAR CANE ALLEY, MY LEFT FOOT, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.
Stockard Channing was there, and many actors, including many in John Cassavetes'
films, like Seymour Cassel. Martin Landau was there to promote CRIMES AND
MISDEMEANORS. It was also where
SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE premiered.
I was so lucky to be able to spend a day driving into the country with
Robert Wise, who at 26 was assigned to edit CITIZEN KANE -- a gorgeous
day with clear sky and yellow aspens trembling. A heady week—we were taken
from place to place in stretch limousines. There were parties, panels, non- stop
film showings. I did some workshops. I love to do a poetry reading and have the
film shown at the same venue (like at The Roxie in the Mission District of San
Francisco). Each throws light on the other. I toured with the film maker, Mary
Ann Lynch throughout the country. Exhausting but so much fun.
D: Can you give us a little peek into your work-in-progress, Poets, (Mostly) Who Have Touched Me, Living and Dead. All True, Especially the Lies? The title alone is gravitational.
The history behind this book is
rather strange. (I am glad you like the title—I do too.)
I had just finished putting THE LICORICE DAUGHTER together and was thinking of sending it out. One small press that had asked me to do a different book suggested I write one about my experiences with a lot of different poets. Risky, quirky, made up, wild, crazy or serious. The publisher gave me an example of something like writing about planting carrots with e.e. cummings. It seemed like a book that would be a lot of fun, lighter and wilder in ways than writing about Ruffian who had truly captured over a year of my life. I got started and suddenly I had many many poems.
I realized that there was no way to be farcical and gossipy and revealing and terribly personal about living poets AND including their names. I mean, I didn't want enemies for life made up of all the living poets. If the poem happened to be really sweet and nice, it would sound cloying, like I was sucking up to the poet. But then I thought if I gave clues but didn't name the poet, not only wouldn't I be sued (I mean I couldn't really talk about X,Y or Z doing a strip tease on the Verazano Bridge, could I? Or to tell secrets, well, that would be awful.) But poems that hinted at who the poet or writer was, composites of living poets seemed like it would be a guessing game, make the poems even more interesting. One poem is called something like "The Poets I Know Best Are the Ones I Can't Write About."
Of course, when it came to dead poets, then I had a lot more freedom: dancing in the woods with Emily Dickinson, having affairs with Garcia Lorca, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald or spending Halloween with John Keats, buying a cat for Carl Sandburg. There are poems about riding horseback with Sylvia Plath, hanging out with Edna St. Vincent Millay and Virginia Woolf, as well as Thoreau, Whitman, Yeats, Edgar Allen Poe who, did you know, really died not of any strange disease but because of his addiction - no, not to drugs, but to chocolate. At least in my poems.
Well, I sent the manuscript in. It
was huge, two priority mail envelopes full. Very quickly it came slamming back:
I WANTED LIVING POETS ONLY, DANGEROUS POEMS, RISK TAKING (great for the
publisher—would I be visited in jail)? And wasn't e e.e. cummings dead?
Already? So there I had the MS and no publisher, but it looks good now!
It seemed fine to write playful,
fantastic, outrageous poems about the long dead poets and writers (D.H. Lawrence,
Ginsberg — that is a "true" poem. And the "unnamed" — I think it might
be fun to try to imagine what poet I read with thought mostly of shopping for
earrings when picked up at the plane and what secret Ken Kesey announced on a
radio show we did he would tell about me. It's fun, though many of the poems
are serious, and I just fell on that title and ran. Wouldn't you want to know
which famous poet was once asked if she was trying to win the Lyn Lifshin look-alike contest?
D: Lyn, I appreciate your endurance of my
tedious questions. And I continue to dig your work - and the light it adds to the world.
Of course, I wish you blessings on your path - and leave the Tea's door open to
you at all times.
Any closing words for readers and Lyn-Heads out there?
It's been fun doing
this — especially thinking about movies — clearly I'm into the quirky, small,
often foreign ones that don't get that much attention. Thank you for you good
wishes, and I can only add PLEASE go
to my web site
Visit Lyn's official site:
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