Interview

DOROTHEA LASKY
in conversation with MICHAEL DUMANIS

Bennington Review editor Michael Dumanis and Bennington Review editorial assistant Kathryn Henderson held a public interview with Dorothea Lasky on the Bennington College campus on October 15th, 2015. Contributing editor Mark Wunderlich and attending students also participated. In January 2016, Michael Dumanis and Dorothea Lasky met up in her apartment in New York to continue the conversation.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

At a recent reading at Williams College, the poet Fred Moten quoted C.A. Conrad as telling him, “I don’t want to be a poet, I want to be poetry.” Do you want to be a poet, or do you want to be poetry? And what does it mean to you to live a poetic life?

DOROTHEA LASKY

Well, we’re starting out soft here! I thought it would be like, “What’s your favorite movie?”

MICHAEL DUMANIS

What's your favorite movie?

DOROTHEA LASKY

The Little Mermaid. Yeah, I would agree with C.A. Conrad, I feel like I agree with him on a lot of things, especially regarding poetry or pedagogy. So I definitely would agree with that statement that I would rather be poetry than a poet because I think maybe something he was thinking about is that having the identity of a poet can seem very limiting, and that there can be certain paths that can seem very set. Especially when you take on any identity, but maybe the idea of professionalizing being a poet—whatever that could possibly mean—that would be something which wouldn’t allow for a lot of opening of different kinds of experiences or work to happen. So I would feel the same way, especially the idea that when all of poetry might be channeling a lot of different voices that are not your own and making poems out of that, and thinking about past poetry and future poetry, and also language that doesn’t have anything to do with poetry at all is a way for that umbrella to encapsulate all of those things. So I would say I want to be poetry.

KATHRYN HENDERSON

Names of your friends appear in your poems quite often—

DOROTHEA LASKY

This is really like an interrogation! I like it, it’s like, “Whatever you say you will be held accountable for for the rest of your life!”

KATHRYN HENDERSON

It’s okay, because you’re always right.

DOROTHEA LASKY

Well, I mean, I definitely think so! I do feel like that a lot, especially with the idea of putting things online even more, so there’s not a lot of room to make any sort of mistake because then there’s documentation to say, “You disagreed with yourself on April 13th by liking that post,” or something like that.

KATHRYN HENDERSON

So names of your friends appear in your poems quite often. I was thinking in particular of the poems you have written for Laura Solomon. In what ways do you see being part of a community of poets as important to your work, and what role do private mentions play in a public piece?

DOROTHEA LASKY

Well, I think there are two poets especially, maybe three poets, that I really love who reference their friends or people that they know in kind of a contemporary setting that this gesture seems connected to. One of those people is Catullus, and another person is Bernadette Mayer, and another person is Frank O’Hara. So definitely that gesture comes in homage to those people, so that idea of tying to that kind of literary tradition is very important to me. Also I think of it less as defining a sort of community and more as making the poem a form of conversation. When you have casual elements in the poem, the reader will have their guard up less and is more willing to take some of the heavier things you’re trying to do in the other parts of the poem. So if you’re open about saying, “These people in the poem are specific people, reader; I am letting you be a voyeur and see into this personal connection with a real person,” then maybe that reader will trust that persona more and be more willing to be hurt later. That being said, I think that when I wrote the poems to Laura Solomon, she’s a particular person I’m very much in conversation with all the time, I feel like a lot awakenings that have happened to me as a poet were part of being in conversation with Laura, either actually in live conversation or in the space of a poem. So there is lot of indebtedness in that moment to her, and addressing her directly is a way of commemorating that moment with a specific person.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

I’d like to segue to a question I have about persona and the role of autobiography in your poetry. I’ve heard readers occasionally mistake your work for confessional or for autobiographical and presume that because you empoy a first-person “I” in your work, the writer Dorothea Lasky embraces every statement made by that “I” and has had every experience that that “I” has had. Have you heard readers do this too, and could you discuss what role persona false confession play in your poetry?

DOROTHEA LASKY

There’s a poem in my book Awe, where the persona is talking about his/her mother canning fruit, like canned peaches and pears. I told someone once that my mom doesn’t cook and I had someone say to me, “But your mom cans all that fruit!” But my mom couldn’t make a fruit pie, she might buy a pie. And then I realized how much that reader was seeing that “I” as an actual statement of truth by me the person or something like that.That particular poem actually comes from talking to a man with dementia and he was just repeating, My mother used to can this and My mother used to can that. There were all these details. Obviously I just stole his language for the poem. That can happen a lot, to poets in general, because it’s very easy to conflate the “I” with the poet and the persona with the poet because I think poetry as a genre is something very confusing, especially in a contemporary time with the advent of creative nonfiction. There’s this place where you’re supposed to be very truthful to things that are happening and where the “I” is a fleshed-out, weird character, and there are poets like Maggie Nelson and Eileen Myles who are doing hybrid forms of poetry and autobiography. So I understand where that problem can happen, where that conflation can happen. In terms of confessionalism, I’m teaching a seminar this semester called Beyond Confessionalism: Towards the Poetics of an Everyday, which is a really stupid Part Two of that title, because I don't know what “the Poetics of an Everyday” means, but the class tries to read Plath and Sexton through a different lens than just “Confessional Poetry” and then to read Maggie Nelson, Audre Lorde, Eileen Myles, Bernadette Mayer, Hanna Weiner, poets that may be considered opposite of Confessionalism, and it’s really, to me, a life’s work to reinvent that term, because I’ve always thought the term Confessionalism, although it’s not really based in the idea of poetry written by women, is used to label female poets in a way that is very misogynistic, sadly, because there is such a burden for particularly the female persona to be truthful. I’m not exactly sure why that is.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Could we talk about your last two collections, especially in terms of their title? I wanted to askyou about Thunderbird, and how it connects to Sylvia Plath’s lines in her villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song”: “I should have loved a thunderbird instead;/At least, when spring comes, they roar back again.” And I also wanted to talk about Rome, and how you see the city or concept or empire of Rome as an organizing principle for the poems in your latest book.

DOROTHEA LASKY

My mother is a professor of Native American art, so I grew up with a lot of Native American mythology and art everywhere. She collected it, so it was very pervasive. Certain characters in the mythology have always felt kindred to me, and the thunderbird is, you know, one of them, especially the idea that a thunderbird is a controller of the sky. It’s like an alternate Zeus figure. In that book I was thinking a lot about the idea of airplane travel and about how airplanes are still these magical thunderbirds where there’s a sense of timelessness, and space doesn’t exactly matter, and you’re transforming and transferring between states and places. So that really connected to me. Also I had some personal connections to Thunderbird cars because my parents owned two Thunderbirds, and they were both totaled, one by me and one while I was in it, so there was that kind of connection. The Plath poem was actually—I would have felt embarrassed to say this when the book came out but I don’t feel embarrassed now—I was writing the book and I told Mary Jo Bang the title and she said, “You must be connected to the Plath poem,” and I thought, Shit, I’ll just put that in the book. So it just fell into place. When you’re working with a book of poems, you have to find your way into the music or find your way into what the book is, and in that process if you let yourself be permeable to the external world and let it interact with the internal world, there is a point where you find the theme, whatever it is. I don’t believe in setting out to say, “My book’s about ducks, I don’t care what happens, there’s gonna be a duck in every poem,” but instead it’s like, you’re writing it and something happens and you think, “Damn, there’s a lot of ducks around.” Then, you can call the book Ducks because it emerges from the world. So once I decided on Thunderbird, I entered a zone where thunderbird imagery kind of came into my life, flooding in. For example, I read about a murder in a Thunderbird hotel where there was some sort of love affair, a murder-suicide of a couple, and I was really obsessed with it and it happened in a Thunderbird hotel. And Thunderbird liquor, it just kept flooding in.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

And what about Rome?

DOROTHEA LASKY

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve felt connected to Roman poetry. I had Ovid’s Metamorphoses read to me in fifth grade and as soon as I heard it I felt very connected to the immortal voice, that these poets were writing as if time did not matter, as if they were writing towards immortality, and when I was little I felt like that was my calling, to write towards immortality, so Roman poets have always been important—and imagining Roman history and Roman landscape was something so, so important to me as a poet. I was teaching a seminar called “Roman Poets and the Metaphysical I” here at Bennington in 2013, but before I taught it at Bennington, I once taught it at Columbia. The seminar looked at how the “I” in the work of Roman poets was metaphyscial, as opposed to autobiographical or merely abstract. Their “I” was like a shapeshifter that doesn’t necessarily have a set persona and is always changing costumes, an “I” that can’t be completely pinned down through the way it’s speaking. I was thinking at the time about how the personae in the poems of these Roman poets reminded me of the way certain hip-hop artists crafted personae in their lyrics, how they were doing a similar thing. So I taught that class and then I went to Rome for the first time. That first time I went to Rome I only spent three hours there or something, but it was raining and I got into a cab and I said, I’m going to call my next book Rome. And then once I decided that, the same thing happened where things just kept flooding in and I was able to change things accordingly, and I think that’s what happens when you decide on a theme, you can change things, like once I decided to call a previous book Black Life, I would return to the poems I’d already written and add black to them to make them connect, to find little ways to make them more cohesive as a set.

KATHRYN HENDERSON

I was curious about your background in education. You have a Ph.D. in Education and have given lectures on creativity. Could you talk a little bit about yout philosophy about creative education?

DOROTHEA LASKY

My dissertation was on the idea of “small c” creativity, which is a kind of creativity that’s different from “Large C creativity.” “Large C” is the Creativity we think of when we think about Einstein, a genius who changed the scope of his field: he was this person that ostensibly you would see and say, “That’s a really creative person, that what it means to be creative, to come up with the Theory of Relativity.” “Large C” creativity pervades even in classrooms where teachers are so sensitive to the idea of creativity as being an important thought process that they still might think, “In my class I have one or two particular geniuses that are Large-C, and they’re more creative than the other ones,” and “Creativity can be measured like IQ where there are people more creative than others.” “Small c” is the idea that everyone is creative and that you are always making creative leaps in everything that you do. Even when you’re tying your shoes you may figure out a new way of tying them and no, that’s not going to change the shoe-tying field forever, but it’s an important mode of living, because if you give enable yourself to have all these “small c” creative leaps, day-to-day, you’re more likely to have a “Large C” leap. Einstein was only able to have “Large C” leaps, because he was able to have a life flooded with “small c” moments, and there are lots of reasons why he was able to, but the idea is that you have to create classrooms and spaces outside of the classroom where people can live within “small c” creativity environments, and this way there would be more creativity in the world. That has always been my pedagogy, but doing that degree in Education was a great way of thinking and writing about creativity and language.

KATHRYN HENDERSON

Turning back to poetry: when writing a poem, do you start from the beginning and work your way down the page?

DOROTHEA LASKY

Yeah, especially if there’s time for writing poems, like sometimes if there isn’t time and there’s some line, I may write it down because I hope that I’ll come back to it later, but in the most ideal poetry settings, I would start with the beginning of the poem and have enough uninterrupted time in one sitting to write at least enough of it, to get most of it.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Especially in Black Life, but also everywhere, you write rather exuberantly about dying and not dying and the relationship between a persona to the inevitability of dying. Can you talk about how themes of mortality affect your writing in general, and if poetry also affects your thoughts on mortality?

DOROTHEA LASKY

About dying.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

About dying. Which you started to talk about when you brought up Roman poets and the metaphysical “I.”

DOROTHEA LASKY

I just think dying is an important thing to remember. When you realize it’s going to happen.You know, sometimes you don’t exactly think about it, and I think I was maybe twenty when I really thought about dying as a reality and a final thing, and it really took that long for me to think of it actually as it is. As a teenager I had an eating disorder, so I actually came very close to death at some point, and I sort of decided, “I don’t want to die,” and got better, but I didn’t think about death in that moment. When I was close to it I didn’t think of it as a final thing, I just thought about it as something physically happening. So at that age, at twenty, I really thought about the idea of annihilation, to really not be around at all, and about the likelihood that you’re completely meaningless in the universe and your existence is sort of pointless. Having those thoughts was very important, though they’re very depressing. They were very important to me in beginning to live, because you can only really live when you realize there’s nothing really to wait for. I think of poems as an educational space. If I could teach one lesson through them all, it would be that, because I do think that it’s very important, I think it’s the most important thing for all of us to remember.

KATHRYN HENDERSON

In your poems you use everyday language and then warp it to your own ends. In doing so your language gains a startling clarity and directness. Your poems always know what they’re talking about, which makes me wonder, do you ever use constraints when writing your poems to achieve this clarity?

DOROTHEA LASKY

Well, I have done some constraints, some of the poems are based on constraints like trying to keep it four words or less, or trying to keep to a certain amount of lines. They’re never in meter, they’re never metrical constraints, so for the most part I would answer no. If I just think about the warp, it is a conscious choice, but there aren’t any rules to make the language warp in particular ways.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

When you’re writing, how do you think about the line? Do you think about it as a unit, or as away of building? How do you decide where the line begins and where it cuts off?

DOROTHEA LASKY

I think a lot about linebreak. I don’t know if anyone here’s ever played Super Mario Brothers? I’ve never actually played it, but I’ve watched people play, and when you’re watching or playing or observing, when Mario is jumping, he jumps from each platform to the next, am I correct? Well, that’s how linebreaks work. You’re reading the line and you have to jump to the next one, the break is very dramatic, so I think about linebreaks that way, almost as if everything has to be in that line before you make the jump. You could twist and turn to something different, but I don’t like line breaks if they’re a big dramatic thing, like if the line is “I went to the Olive/ Garden,” like that always gets on my nerves. I know that’s a fun trick but like, oh, Jesus Christ. I feel like that’s not being fair to readers, it’s the Big Reveal, so in the line I try not to do that. It is enough where if a bus came and hit you before you read the next line it would be OK but then if the bus didn’t hit you, there would be some reward and the next line would be something cool or something. It’s this idea that the line is something you fling against the wall and so it does have its own elasticity, encapsulated.

STUDENT

I read your essay on color in Poetry magazine, “What is Color in Poetry: Or Is It the Wild Wind in the Space of the Word,” and I was hoping you could elaborate more on new ways to describe color. I also thought you would be the best person to ask, how would you describe color to somebody who couldn’t see?

DOROTHEA LASKY

I don’t know about “new ways.” We think about colors having very set definitions. Like we think about yellow, we think about cheery and sunshine and we use yellow a lot in poems in that way, so it’s interesting for me to think about like evil yellow, like if the room was completely decorated in yellow and it was like a murder scene, that would be very interesting to me. I think it’s about finding the dark side of bright colors, maybe not necessary for poetry, but that’s just something that’s like a deep obsession, something like a clown, an evil clown. But, how to describe color to somebody that couldn’t see? I love the poet Hannah Weiner and I was reading her book The Fast, I don’t know if you’ve read that or any of her clairvoyant journals, but in The Fast, she puts herself under a fast for twenty-one days. She’s somebody who saw the layers of being that a lot of us don’t see, so she was able to see colors in interesting ways, When we think about auras it’s like, “I see your aura” but we don’t actually see anything and say, “It’s blue,” but Hannah Weiner would actually see the auras surrounding us, it was a very real reality to her, and so I think I would maybe read that text to someone who couldn’t see, to begin with, to connect the sensuality of living with what a color could be. If somebody could hear and couldn’t see, I would play them different sounds and talk about how they might correspond to a particular color. I don’t have enough expertise on sound or music to say now what would correspond, but I would probably try to work with somebody who did to find sounds that matched perfectly with the vibrations of colors and then play those for the person. What’s really interesting about colors is when you see a color, it’s the color that didn’t absorb the energy of everything else, so you’re actually seeing the negative of all that energy, which could certainly be translated to a lot of different things, like sound, or it could be translated to tactile things. Again, not being an expert, I don’t really know what exactly that would look like, but I think it would be collaboratively easy enough to create stuff.

STUDENT

I am curious about your Poetry Is Not a Project chapbook because, in I think every workshop I’ve had at Bennington, someone has brought it up in terms of how constraints and forms dictate what we’re writing, and I think I have interpreted the idea of constraint somewhat oppressively. I think I look at it as though as soon as you have any idea that you’re trying to impose onto a poem, like a constraint or a form, that the poem is just like, done, destroyed. So now taking a Genres and Forms class this term, I’m trying to reconcile the idea of writing a form like a villanelle with the impulse to never have a project, the impulse of trying to bring something up from the ground.

DOROTHEA LASKY

What I take issue with is the idea of a project, not the idea of an imposed constraint. When that chapbook came out, the person who wrote the copy for it thought I was against Language poetry or experimental poetry, that I dismissed them as projects. I guess that has always been frustrating for me, because the chapbook isn’t really about that, nor to me is it an attack against writing in a form, nor is it the idea that you couldn’t have this thing where this book is all about ducks. You can have an idea of that sort and write a book like that. I think for me it’s the term “project” that is so bad for poetry because it suggests that the idea you have is more important than the writing you have to do. Well, I think a lot of times in our society we’re expected to have intent, especially in academic settings, to know what you’re doing ahead of time. People don’t always acknowledge that you stumble into things, you discover them by accident, and that the process of creation is very messy and that there are a lot of systems in play made to make you stumble into certain things. It’s not as if you are born and are like, “I’m gonna write these five books.” I remember I had this job interview where they asked me, “What’s your five year plan for your poetry?” and I said, “I’m just gonna write some more poems,” and they said, “Well, you’ve written three books, but are you saying you don’t have any plan?” and I was just like, this is what I’m talking about, this way of articulating your project is very valued, more valued than the work, maybe. There’s monetary connections to that. A lot of times in grant applications you have a project and you’re supposed to act as if it’s all charted out, that nothing will go wrong, when the whole plan is that you want things to go wrong. To me the idea of a project is connected to that, and so it wouldn’t necessarily be limiting to write in form, there’s still space for things to get messy. I owe a lot of thinking to my mom, because she told me nothing good happens unless you make a mess, you have to make a mess, you don’t have to burn the house down but you have to have some space that’s your own where you can make a mess, or you’re going to keep replicating the same structures that have already happened. You have to be able to break stuff apart. Which you could do in a form.

MARK WUNDERLICH

I have a question. I want to ask you about self-adornment. I know you love lipstick, nail polish, jewelry, clothing. I was wondering if you could talk about that and its relationship to your poetic enterprise, because it’s so much a part of yourself and your way of being in the world. I want to hear you talk about it.

DOROTHEA LASKY

So I do come from a family of fashion people. My great-grandpa was a fashion designer and my grandpa was a jeweler, and then on the other side of the family they had a shoe store, Lasky Shoes. They didn’t make the shoes, but they knew what shoes were in fashion that season. (They were actually awful at fitting shoes.) I feel it’s something in my blood. I’m very much a frustrated actress. In high school, especially in the beginning, I always wanted to take acting and dancing classes, but my parents never believed me, they were too nerdy to think that was a good idea exactly, but in high school I was like, “Yeah! I can take acting classes!” and I did and I loved it so much. But the high school acting teacher was sleeping with every student and because I was anorexic I wasn’t interested in that part of acting. At first he would give me different parts, and I was always the Jewish grandmother, and then he stopped, so then I stopped being involved with it and started doing other more nerdy things, so to me anytime I can perform, which can be every day, it’s the most exciting thing ever, which gets translated into clothing. Performance is very, very important to me, in general. It’s the only thing that’s not depressing.

MARK WUNDERLICH

When you say that, is it because performance somehow supersedes the self or gets away from the self? What’s the idea of the performance?

DOROTHEA LASKY

It just elevates the everyday in a really wonderful way. It does give reason to being here, because there’s always something you can construct and adorn and decorate. There’s something you can make that’s all your own, and that’s really exciting.

STUDENT

Could you talk more about the influence of Catullus’s work on your poetry in relation to performance, and about how his work is timeless and so contemporary? I feel like when he’s talking about his contemporaries, it shows what ancient Rome was like, but also we still read it and it has so much to say about us.

DOROTHEA LASKY

Well, I agree with everything you said. I think that’s how I feel connected to him also, this idea that he feels very vibrant and very much in conversation with us. I think of one line from him that I think makes that so is when he writes, “I hate and I love.” I think his gift for putting such strong, intense emotions in his poems will always make him relevant. I think, for me, that’s what will always make poems like his survive, make them relevant. Intensity isn’t something that’s really ever going to go away. It sounds like I’m only referring to poems that have emotions or are about being wronged in a love relationship, and I don’t want to limit it to that, but I just think if you hate and love simultaneously in your poems, you have a better chance of having your poems survive past your death.

STUDENT

I have a follow up to our discussion of performance, and I was really interested when you said you liked to act because when I was younger I wanted to do it but I got so nervous by it that I stopped, and I was wondering what you think some of the similarities or differences are between acting and textual performance, like when you’re not actually reading the poems out loud but when you’re presenting them and putting them forth into the world, do you think that’s a really close connection and does that give you as much pleasure as reading or putting on jewelry, or as much anxiety?

DOROTHEA LASKY

Not anxiety, but thinking of the poem as a performance involves the same sort of enjoyment. There’s something so exciting to me in thinking somebody might actually read this poem, to think that I’m going to read these poems to a group and even if they fall flat that’s still something so much more wonderful than just writing them and never showing anyone. It’s almost how I feel very excited whenever I have something to do, even if I complain about it. If no one ever wants you to do anything and nobody invites you to do anything that to me is very sad because you do have all these costumes for those moments, and it’s the same thing with poems. To me it gets harder, not to be intrinsically motivated, but it gets harder to get the feeling of doing it if you don’t feel that there’s a real audience. But it doesn’t mean there has to be a real audience always but I feel like you have to believe that audience exists. It’s not about “I’m sending this poem to Michael in five minutes, it better be great,” it’s more just knowing that there’s a future audience.

STUDENT

Reading your work, and hearing you mention Frank O’Hara was an influence on you, one of the things I see reading you and then reading Frank O’Hara is a confidence in your voice similar to his, and that confidence bleeds through the poems. I was wondering if you could talk about that, about projecting confidence through your own voice.

DOROTHEA LASKY

Well, Frank O’Hara and I do have the same birthday, March 27th, so we come from a veryconfident stock. I would hope that it doesn’t seem just like confidence, I feel there should be some balance between the two, confidence and vulnerability. I think I’ve stolen some of that from him or from other poets, especially Bernadette Mayer, just the feeling that the poem is the space where you’re writing towards a real person, and so that person doesn’t have to love you completely, but that person is listening enough that there is a sort of confidence to just say what you’re going to say. I think a lot of it connects to the death part too, there’s no need to be silent, because then the idea will just die anyway and dissipate. You should have confidence to say it even if it’s just a bad idea, there’s no point in being nervous.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

When you read a poem you like in a journal, or new work that excites you that a student may have written, or a writer you know may have written, do you feel like there are characteristics that some of these poems have in common? What excites you when you read the work of others? What makes you think, “Oh, I need to read this poem again?”

DOROTHEA LASKY

When I feel that the poem has a personality, and that it’s somewhat of an authentic personality, which doesn’t mean it’s the same person as the poet, as we know, but I think when that is distinct enough in the poem and I can respond to that again as a performance of some sort in various ways, I think that excites me, because I relate that to the poem having a lot of energy, and that’s the sort of thing I like in any art form, a lot of energy or speed, some sort of momentum. For me, how personality is manifested is the most exciting. Also, if it involves everyday language, poems that represent the actual ways people talk, for good or bad, that’s always been fascinating to me. Maybe because I have a little bit of a background doing ethnography, I’m very interested in the ways that poetry can intersect with everyday language and craft it in certain ways.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

That ties into another question I have. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your interest in deadpan tone, and also in the kind of obsessive repetitive direct statement that often seems to drive your poetry.

DOROTHEA LASKY

Deadpan, to me, means the conflation of humor and sadness. It’s something very American. I feel like there’s a very flat affect that’s coated over maybe intense feelings or intense ideas but yet everything sort of feels very concise or condensed in some way. It’s in the way we speak and the way we act and I think it’s very pervasive in American art—visual art and music—and I especially like to use the deadpan lack of affect because it also allows for an equalizing force, and so if you are putting within a poem all these awful things or all these funny things, it forces the person who’s reading or listening to deal with these high and low registers together. I have an interest in comedy, in dark comedy and sad comedy, and the space of the poem as a place where one can kind of make observations about the way the world is, and present it in musical language, and I think that it’s something I appreciate in lots of art forms, but particularly in poetry. I think that my connection to that, either in my own poems or other poems, is that long ago, I did a lot of intense studying of how autism affects one’s use of language. What always fascinated me about people that have autism is that they very often say something that they feel or that is true, and once they say it they don’t say it again. There’s a famous story about an autistic son saying to his mom, “I love you,” then years later she said to him, “Why don’t you ever say I love you,” and he said, “I did, Mom. On March 25th, 1977, we already said that and now we’re moving on.” But people in everyday speech, people that don’t have autism do repeat themselves constantly because they’re always setting up power dynamics and making sure those power dynamics are still at play or if there are certain bonds, whether they’re romantic or friendship or social, they constantly are repeating things that have already been stated, and “I love you” is a perfect example—we need people to say this absolutely constantly even if it’s been said before. I think there’s some part of that that’s in deadpan, that tone is noticing the ways in which we use language with the crazy repetition to mean and not mean the same thing, to describe and not describe, what it’s actually saying. “I love you,” the way we repeat it constantly everyday to everyone we know and it means so many different things, yet the language is flatly the same.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

What is the relationship between poetry and sincerity? Is poetry ultimately an act of sincere expression? I’m thinking about this especially in terms of the poems of yours that read like love poems, or also the poems of yours—especially in Awe—that at first glance seem religious or devotional.

DOROTHEA LASKY

I truly feel that poems are extremely insincere. I certainly feel in those poems that you referenced that those poems are very insincere in what they’re saying. They’re very much masking what they really actually think. That particular persona or speaker in many of the poems in Awe is relatively distant from me as a person in the world. A lot of those poems were written in Boston, where I was living. In Harvard Square there were these preachers that had a lot of religious tracts, and they would preach the good word, and I was very mesmerized and seduced by their rhetoric and the way they can be so convincing and so believable in their devotion to a divine being, which in their case, and I’m sure in many instances, was probably very sincere, but I did take on a lot of that rhetoric for Awe in thinking about the falseness and the beauty of having religious devotion, but I definitely wouldn’t feel that those poems are sincere, if sincere means that it’s the poet speaking their actual emotion about something.I feel like somebody recently said it’s blasé to talk about the differences between the genres, especially because there’s so much hybridity that’s exciting that’s going on lately, but I still do really feel, maybe it’s old school, that a poem is this space where it is a performance and where the persona is, at least in some part, divorced from the poet as a person in some ways like an old-school monologue where it can be a particular character and it doesn’t have to have the same pressures of being a nonfictional “I.” Again, I think poetry and sincerity are disconnected.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

This goes back to what you’ve already said about confessional poetry and the idea that the confession may be a real confession, but it’s not necessarily the confession of the poet or even the speaker, it could be somebody else’s confession, that the confession has a type of psychological honesty, but doesn’t necessarily have a literal honesty.

DOROTHEA LASKY

To me, literal honesty is something that doesn’t....I don’t know, I would always keep that hidden. The actual literal honesty I would try to keep hidden, both in poetry and in everyday life.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Because you don’t see it as what makes art?

DOROTHEA LASKY

Well, I feel like one could make art from it, but for me that can be a distracting place to make something beautiful.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Because the interesting thing is not that it’s true.

DOROTHEA LASKY

Well, the interesting thing is that there’s at least some space where you’re not...like, I just hate being obligated to something, and I feel like literal truth, if that is the goal, like if you’re writing an ethnography, for example, then literal truth, as much as you possibly can, is the goal, and the wonderful thing you’re trying to create. But I think that that’s the great thing about the freedom of being an artist, is that you don’t have to be obligated to that truth so you could make choices that may not be the truth, and they can be not important like somebody in real life was wearing a purple sweater but you’re making the choice to make it yellow because it goes with the poem, and I do believe that’s something really important to preserve, you know, to preserve everyone’s imaginations, being able to make choices that are not tied to something literally being true. I think that all the threads of all my thinking about poetry, whether it’s literal truth or having a plan for a poem or somebody having a project, are really just about freedom, more than these particular ideas. I think any person should feel free to create what they want, because the world, to me, becomes a scary place when no one takes the agency to have that freedom.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Finally, can you talk a little bit about the book you’re working on now, and about the ideas or influences that are driving it?

DOROTHEA LASKY

So I am working on this book that I think is a lot about creativity. I had this instinct where I wanted to get away from the poems of Rome for whatever reason because I felt that they were very much focused on a beloved, and that was interesting, but I wanted to have some movement away, so I’m hoping that the poems I’m working on now are just maybe, I wouldn’t say weirder, though I want to say that word, but maybe less classical in that way, poems that are not thinking about a beloved. Hopefully they have some elements where they’re not tied to making a neat poem. I don’t think I’ve ever written a neat poem, but I would want my poems in the future to be even more not neat, whatever that means. Where they’re not manicured at all. If there was any sort of manicure, I mean someone would maybe say my poems would never have been manicured, but if there were was any sort of crafted sense to my past poems, I would want these poems to extend more, not into a crafted space. I’m in a weird place because I definitely have enough poems for another book, but I also feel this pressure to feel as if the book is done, and I think if I were in this space like a few years ago I might be like putting it together and feeling like it’s done, but some part of me feels like something hasn’t happened yet to make it done.
          I think something else that I want to think about is hybridity, I don’t know if that would happen in this book, but I really would like to write nonfiction stuff and have it be a part of it but I don’t know how to do that in a way that, for me, doesn’t feel cheesy or forced because no matter what I do I just end up writing a book of poems that feels very standard and very conservative in that sense because it looks like a book of poems and it’s a book of poems, and I would love for this book to have some parts that were not.
          And one thing I was thinking of was making a supplemental, like, occult-like text or something that could go with it, where it’s just very strange and spell-like that maybe either could be influencing it or just like within the book, just something so that it doesn’t feel like the other books, not just something where you open it up and you have a bunch of poems and that’s the book. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I feel like I am such a conservative poet in lots of ways, and I don’t know why exactly, and I want to try to work against that.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So do you feel that when you’re writing, you’re really writing books, and you’re not just writing poems from which you later create a book, but actually writing a book made up of poems you are writing for it?

DOROTHEA LASKY

Yes.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So, when you’re doing that, does it happen that you write a poem which doesn’t fit a particular manuscript? Do you find yourself writing poems that don’t belong in the book you’re writing that you save for another manuscript? Or do you focus on creating poems towards the one book?

DOROTHEA LASKY

Yeah, I think I’ve been in a place where I do just start feeling like I’m writing the next book once a book is over, and I wanted to have a space where I was just writing poems seeing where it took me, but it’s just very quickly become a book. So once I know what a book is like what it is going be, then I do start writing poems for the book.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So you ask yourself, what is the next book I’m writing.

DOROTHEA LASKY

Yes, and it’s sort of antithetical to what I believe in, and what I would tell someone to do—

MICHAEL DUMANIS

In terms of projects.

DOROTHEA LASKY

Yeah. I do believe you should write and let things emerge and it’s not necessarily what I want the life of my writing to be, but it does feel like the space that I’m in, or whatever. And in a positive way, it’s like a long cloth and I’m just cutting the particular section of cloth with each book and it’s just one piece.

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So poetry is a long cloth.

DOROTHEA LASKY

Yeah, especially my life. The poetry I’ll write is like one long cloth and I’m choosing to cut it in particular time periods and that’s the book. And so they’re all interconnected in that way, so that is a good thing. Part of me just wishes there was some allowance I gave myself to have more time to figure out where the books could go.

 


DOROTHEA LASKY is the author of four full-length collections of poetry: Rome (Liveright/W.W. Norton), as well as Thunderbird, Black Life, and Awe. She has also written several chapbooks, including Poetry Is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Her writing has appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, and Boston Review, among other places. She is a co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013). She lives in New York City, where she is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University.

 

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