Since her first book, Awe (2007) Dorothea Lasky has been crafting poems in simple, supple lines that resound with brazen vulnerability. Her second collection, Black Life (2010), examines the failure of language and the poet’s disquieting sense of estrangement from her own body. “It was beautiful,” she writes, “to be a skeleton everyone in my culture loved.” Still, the poems are animated by a spirit of rebellion: “Readers, you read flat words / Inside here are many moments / In which I have screamed in pain / As the flames ate me.”
The corpse-strewn world of Thunderbird (2012) evokes the poet’s anxiety about deadness and decay, but there is also a consoling sense of community with all the living things to which death binds her: “the vermin under the earth / Who are waiting for me to come join them.” Rome, her latest collection, takes us into the body’s interior, reveling in bloody truths with an equal measure of pleasure and discomfort.
I first encountered Lasky at a reading she gave with the poet CAConrad in Brooklyn, at which, after the event, she stacked bottles of nail polish on the table and offered manicures to those attending. More recently, we met for afternoon coffee where she arrived looking radiant, her red lips matching a dark red sweater. In person she is loquacious and quick to laugh.
Usually it’s just one line that I feel I can’t let slip away. I’m a firm believer in a space where you write—Chris Kraus calls it the “bubble space.” If there’s nobody around, and no distractions, the line can turn into a poem. When the line comes, you feel like it’s out of the blue, but there have actually been a lot of internal processes that have produced it. Because you can’t see them, they probably seem more mysterious than they are. In a hundred years we’ll probably figure out all the connections that produce a line of poetry.
I always want to have poems which, by the end, don’t seem inevitable, and which you couldn’t have predicted from line to line. Because that feels like how life is, how speaking is—memory, too. I do believe that no one knows anything, and that mimicking that in poetry is helpful to forging a relationship with the reader.
I remember hearing one of my teachers talking about Sylvia Plath’s papers, and how you could see she started to make formal choices more and more quickly over time. I’ve found that, as I’ve been writing more, I also want to harness that—to feel what form the poem is earlier on. And then to be open to changing it, of course.
I like to have little ways of rewarding the reader. I like to do that in a book and I try to do that over the course of different books.
The sister character comes up a lot in my poems. And I actually don’t have a sister. That’s what’s funny to me about the way we use the term “confessional.” I like to think of a poet as having a persona that is shape-shifting and changing between poems. It doesn’t have to be the same exact person in every single poem or book. But, in a way, it is this kind of disembodied personality that you get to know more about. The deeper you get into a persona, the more you see the pieces coming together. It’s a kind of confessional mode, but it’s not like writing from biography—it’s a greater biography.
I feel protective toward the poets who have been called confessional. The word has this kind of negative quality—I’ve never totally understood it. It does seem misogynistic. I remember one time in college some stuffy visiting professor said, “What I hate about Sylvia Plath is her pathos.” I think he was saying that it was her particular kind of pathos that he hated, but to me I heard it as, “I hate pathos,” and it felt really sad—sad because it would close off possibilities for poets who want to enter poems from that angle, even if that’s not where they end up going. Pathos is what excites us about lots of things: reality TV, people’s diaries. It’s a great way to get into any art form.
People find poetry hard because we’ve told them it’s hard. There are lots of teachers—because they attended schools that did the same thing—who, when they bring a poem to class, say, “This is very difficult. This isn’t going to make sense.” We do it with a lot of arts, just as we stop we stop thinking of new ways of learning past a certain age. But when you’re not happy, you don’t learn as deeply.
Abject is a really important word.
It really is. Not having dignity can be good or bad. If you have to accept that you don’t have dignity, it’s humiliating—but it’s also beautiful because you can feel at one with things you didn’t feel at one with before. No matter what you do—you can be rich or whatever—there are always ways life will come back at you and say, “There isn’t really dignity, and we’re just animals.” Once you realize that, a lot opens up.
They’re always there. It’s only when they come out that you realize these processes have been happening all along. The inside has its own total control of me and governs everything that I think is myself.
Alice Whitwham is an associate agent at the Zoe Pagnamenta Agency and the events coordinator at McNally–Jackson Books, in New York City.
Photo © Antoine d'Agata/Magnum Photos
Lynne Tillman grew up in Woodmere, New York, and attended Hunter College. Her first novel, Haunted Houses, was published in 1987—a narrative about three girls who, for all their proximity on the page, never meet each other, their adjacent chapters like ships in the night. Conceptually bold, Tillman’s writing is often described as “experimental,” but it is never cold or sterile.
The island had turquoise water and white sand. Every morning Mrs. Tyrannis would wake up and mutter, looking at the color of the water beneath her window, “Is the green blue enough, is the blue green enough?”