In her most recent book, Burned House with Swimming Pool (Dream Horse Press, 2011), Lisa Lewis writes openly and fearlessly about a floundering America we’d rather forget exists. In the opening poem, “American Dream,” she writes: “…haunted by terror of getting in over my head with loans / as I had to just to survive for twenty years, / I wonder how wrong she was, since I can’t kick the fantasies, / urge to shop, to spend, American woman / raised to fulfill my place in the system.” This commitment to observe and question social constructs runs through Lewis’s impressive body of work, which includes the National Poetry Series winner, Silent Treatment (Penguin Books, 1998). Known for her long, narrative-driven poems, which often center around some disagreement, some argument related to history or the politics of the body, Lewis also infuses her poems with a brooding, but fine-tuned (and funny) existentialism. More than polemics, she’s interested in our complicities and ambivalence as her speakers face situations as precisely comical, tragic, and inescapable as our own. To read Lewis’s intricate, muscular poems that engage with and challenge both the narrative form and conventional lyric, is to sit with a poet possessed by, as William Matthews once wrote, “the sweet ferocity of excellence.”
Born in Roanoke, Virginia, Lewis grew up in North Carolina and now lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she directs the creative writing program at Oklahoma State University and serves as poetry editor for the Cimarron Review. In this interview we talk about everything from feminist poetics to dressage to the formal and free verse properties of her work.
The Fiddleback: Your work has always been rooted in the post-confessional narrative, but it seems that in your last two books—Vivisect and Burned House with Swimming Pool—you push against the limitations of the lyric “I” by creating a sort of spiral effect that weaves the social, historical, and political elements into the narrative as a means for expansion. Can you speak about your writing goals for these two books?
Lisa Lewis: “Postconfessional”—I don’t have anything against that term myself, but sometimes it seems that the way some people (not you, Jeff) use it turns it into a wasp in the room: you hope it stays near the ceiling where it can’t hurt anybody. In that case, it means something like—narcissistic, sentimental, self-indulgent. “Narrative,” too, has been taking some licks, which is hard for me to understand because to my mind narrative is like air—good luck trying to do without it, and if you think you are, it’s only because you can’t see it. I was reading something the other day, an analysis of an extremely cryptic, painstakingly non-narrative poem, in which the critic just filled in the blanks with his own guesses about the autobiographical (even “confessional”) realities of the poet’s life that he supposed she was really writing about. I’d rather write my own poems, thanks, than something that gets treated by critics like connect-the-dots, so they can have poems, sort of.
Anyway, what I am often doing in my longer poems is giving the “I” room to examine the given situation and the ways in which it draws on, and in, other situations—narrative or argumentative metaphor, perhaps. This story is like or leads to another one; this argument is like or leads to another one; this question, explored, raises other questions. I hope those poems are able to excavate a wider set of possibilities than the tidier anecdotal narrative work that is probably more often seen. I am not reliably content to stop with a single anecdote because my thinking is organized around the lifelong unraveling of secrets and the way new information reveals itself over time. I’m talking, in part, at least, about the mind-shaping consequence of the presiding secret of my existence, my father’s identity, which I didn’t know until I was thirty-five, though I had been told untruths and half-truths and I had done plenty of guesswork. Did I just “confess” something? My impulse to tell is not to get something off my back, to ask for absolution, in the specifically religious sense of the term. My process of (seeming?) “confession” is required to draw on any version of information or understanding available, not simply the personal moment and the emotion that emerged from it. It is to solve the mystery by any means necessary, a different thing from reacting to a momentary occasion, and as much focused on the eternal present and future of thought as on the past of memory.
The Fiddleback: Vivisect in particular relies on long, narrative sequences to discuss, among many things, your mother’s deterioration following a stroke. Did you feel the narrative provided a certain kind of architecture that shorter forms lack when writing about such a personal and emotionally complex subject?
LL: Length has historically suggested seriousness in poetry, and I wanted to make the most of its potential for that subject. To memorialize ordinary women who have not distinguished themselves or who have been stopped from distinguishing themselves, as my mother was, by forced motherhood—this has not traditionally been viewed as a very serious artistic project. We have permission, artistically and otherwise, to observe or be affected—harmed—by the madness of the mother, or to fear her or to be disappointed in her, but she is not heroic and if she falls it may be sad but it is not tragic. I wanted the length of the poems and the information I bring into them, its bluntness, its brutality, its cultural attitude—the impulse, for instance, to “vivisect,” to cut open the living body to watch it live a little while before it has to die—to contextualize this ordinariness in the larger story of women’s losses and the stoicism of women that also typically goes unrecognized because it often emerges from the even more severe lowering of a particular woman. For instance, in my poem “Meridian,” the two characters are women without men or children or, for that matter, meaningful intimacy with other women, geographically and politically isolated, in what we call the “middle of nowhere”—the meridian of social nonexistence, social invisibility, to be seen, and to see, only animal life, which is itself perhaps only as interested as it has to be to get fed. Again, the position of woman as caretaker, which continues whether there are humans to be tended or not. Or in “Tracy and Joe,” the ongoing ubiquitous noise of threat against women, and its culmination in the pleasures of “male bonding,” as if the most immediate way for men to see one another in a positive—even loving—light is to cast a woman beneath them; or in “Vivisect,” the Holocaust, Ravensbrück, where the name given to pregnant women is so contemptuous as to leave no doubt about the ultimate degraded state for a woman—yet the speaker of the poem moves directly from that observation to the assertion of a desire to be pregnant herself. That would not be me; it is not my opinion and it is not what I have ever said or wanted to say. It is, as I see it, the voice of degraded woman herself, who sees herself raped or impregnated or abandoned or all three and declares that she wants it that way. Her attempt at defiance is to do precisely as she is expected or even made to do—and the terrible truth in women’s complicity in that way is for me the very essence of seriousness.
The Fiddleback: I think of lot of readers would describe you as a feminist poet due to the simple fact that you write openly about feminist subjects. Do think that term limits or enhances the work of women writers?
LL: Both at once. There is no art in going through the motions of a perspective handed to you—enforced upon you in the name of moral or biological necessity—that you have not challenged. So in that way some kind of feminism is central to being a woman and any kind of artist. This year we’ve seen so much open display of woman-hating in the public media, American politics, world politics: some of us always knew it was there, but it’s no good getting vindication like that. How could a woman who is a poet, who embraces the challenge of making art from language, not only be a feminist but be very open about it? Yet because our little world is becoming increasingly like all the other little worlds, which is to say, so focused on “the market” that the work must exercise some version of conformity, and women often have every reason to suspect that men do not really want us thinking too hard or speaking too long or loudly about these problems, to be that open is incredibly difficult. And what kind of escape, liberation, freedom, challenge, whatever you want to call it, would it be if one could only write of “women’s issues”? At some point one begins to see the ultimate test of one’s feminism to be free of it; I have often wished for that. Once one has done it, “come out” as a feminist, let the world see that one is not going to pretend not to notice or offer up only the nonthreatening “sexy” kind of feminism—kittenish with the faux aggression of the dominatrix—it’s hard not to be afraid of the accompanying criticisms. The accusation, for instance, of writing for the sake of “therapy,” as if there were nothing that a poet might take pleasure from—“therapeutic” as pleasure always is—in the most antiseptic of the avant-garde modes. It ultimately comes down to the very real fact that men are The Interesting People in the world of the arts. It’s a new male genius every week; a new female genius, when? The attention women poets get these days, obviously in much greater numbers than in past decades, still seems always to stop short of assigning some of the praise that even quite young male poets offer one another freely. Sometimes I think that the reason women haven’t closed the “gender gap” in the arts is because the arts play out sexism not by attacking women but by over-praising men. Women often join in this game for the benefits it gives them, but those are obviously secondary benefits.
The Fiddleback: The poetry game likes to believe it’s inclusionary. Do you feel women are as represented as men when it comes to the business of poetry: publishing, grants, awards, teaching positions, etc.?
A poem can seem more intimate than any other form of expression, and the warning never to speak of religion or politics is ubiquitous social advice. So maybe that’s why the free market as it applies to poetry is none too liberating for the poet.
LL: You’re probably are aware of the organization VIDA, which delighted me by publicizing the results of what they’ve called “The Count,” a process I’ve been carrying out myself for about thirty years now—taking the census in the tables of contents of major literary magazines, how many women and how many men. When I first began my informal “count,” as a grad student in the 80s, a 1 to 4 ratio female to male was about the norm—despite the fact that every grad workshop I took was heavily female-dominated—and some magazines have not improved much since then. Some have, and I make sure that the Cimarron Review is balanced by gender, at least in the poetry; and the prizes are, in general, much more evenly handed around by gender than they used to be. (Though I think that’s more the case in poetry than fiction.) What’s often troubling, and tricky to talk about without offending absolutely everyone, is what women have to say—the idea of “the poet” they must successfully project, preferably while not becoming “confessional”—in order to attract attention. Let me put it like this: the ways that women are likeliest to attract attention, or approval, in daily life ends up making an appearance in the poetry of women too. I have told many a class about a poem I wrote as a grad student with the word “nipples” in it—in a charming little anecdote about a young and foolish “I” who didn’t care to wear a bra under her “eyelet” blouse—and my calculated plan to publish it in a particular (now defunct) magazine; and the success of that plan. To send up that vision of oneself to inform the poetry: we do of course all respond to our idea of The Poet behind every poem, we all know that, and we all avoid talking about it or have no way to talk about it that doesn’t shatter all the usual assumptions with which we approach the reading of any poem. I don’t want to be able to predict what the most “interesting” “subject matter” for me is in the eyes of Everyreader, whether it is sexual or domestic, and I would also prefer to be able to write a “sex poem” if I want to—if that’s the poem that has a reason to be written that is about the urgency of that poem to live, not just to be a kind of business card for the poet-prostitute—without also knowing that that is the one other people are going to be drawn to almost despite themselves. I hate this prison between gender and self-consciousness, gender and the need to write about it in a way that feels something other than calculated, gender and the plan for getting noticed.
The Fiddleback: Though your poems are almost always free verse narratives, many of them also contain formal elements: metrically even lines, blank verse so smooth you hardly notice it’s there. How do you make technical decisions between formal and free verse modes?
LL: My first semester at Iowa, I studied with Henri Coulette, a formalist poet whose rather sad story is documented in an essay by Donald Justice; later that year, I was in Donald Justice’s last workshop there before he retired to Florida. I had known almost nothing of traditional poetic form. In the context of my great good fortune to be at Iowa in the first place, I felt ashamed not even to have learned in my previous life the definition of iambic pentameter. My efforts to bring myself up to speed that year left me with an admiration for the forms, and I teach an undergraduate forms class now almost every year as well; yet I am not, as you rightly point out, a formalist myself. Argumentation seems to me the skeleton on which the bodies of my poems shape themselves, and argumentation and the forms do not necessarily mix that well. So if I am in the mood to write in form, I make the decision right up front, usually before I sit down to write, though not always. There are times when a line offers itself in a formal mode and I have to have the good sense to notice that before I get any farther. But I want it to be a little bit hard to see. I dislike obviousness in form.
The Fiddleback: One of things I always notice in your work is the colloquial, almost prose style of your voice. Even when your lines are descriptive, they’re blunt and free of the flowery Latinates that ruin many poems. Do you consciously keep the language informal, or is it simply a product of your natural speech?
LL: This may be a weird thing to say, but for me it feels more as if the style of the writing informs my speech more than the other way around. I wasn’t much of a talker for a lot of my childhood years and even beyond, really all the way until I started teaching, the best cure for reticence ever invented. I read a lot, often from older literatures, anything from Shakespeare to Coleridge to Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote wildly sentimental books about dogs in the 1930s that someone in my family decided it would be worthwhile for me to read when I was a child; so my original style, if someone who really doesn’t know anything about writing but writes anyway can be said to have one, was fairly ornate. I’ve been in the process of dismantling that for decades now. And my adult self is much more the admirer of clarity and a literal level in a poem that holds up all the way into the metaphor. It seems not that much to ask for, but it’s difficult to achieve and easy to cover up with decoration. I suppose it’s also true that I despise dishonesty above all, so that if the language of a poem seems to me to be directing me away from something—what I should be saying instead, often the thing that is hardest to say—I dislike it.
But whatever remaining taste I have for the ornamental is undoubtedly in my syntax. I like long sentences, complex sentences, better than a lot of poets. I like the rhetoric of that better than many.
The Fiddleback: Back at OSU, we talked a number of times about how the neo-conservative political movement of the Bush-era and the Tea Party had also crept into the work of poets writing safe, quasi-patriotic or folksy poems that appeal to mass readers. Has that changed, or do you still see that ideology finding its way into the poetry?
LL: Poets live in the same world as everyone else, so even though I think we’re supposed to be smart enough not to get dragged down, the influence of even the most execrable political movements is bound to show up somewhere in the way we write about the world. Even the effort to write poetry that resists some of the horrors of our time—for instance, anti-war poems—can perpetuate a view of the soldier, the warrior, that doesn’t differ all that much from the cultural stereotype that motivates young people to offer themselves up as bullet fodder in the first place. Sentimentality is the worst thing about American culture—the most serious and stubborn flaw in the way “we” think. I consider it more or less solely responsible for some of the most appalling stupidity controlling, or attempting to control, our lives, and the more central it becomes to our political existence—I’m thinking specifically now of reproductive rights for women and the threat to them posed by the sentimentalized ultrasound image as well as the unexamined embrace of the concept of the “innocence” of the unborn and the omnipresent implication that the sexual woman, the pregnant woman, is anything but–and I see a lot of pretty weak poetry around that shows not the slightest recognition of any of that. Unfortunately much of it does play out impulses derived from confessionalism and postconfessionalism; it is an attempt to be a poetry of emotional power and depth, and the trouble with emotional power and depth in America is that we are constantly incited to respond emotionally to sentimentality, for political purposes and advertising too, if that can be said to be something other than political itself. There’s less of that problem in the avant-garde poetries, but I wonder how some of those allegedly radical gestures—the “conceptual,” for instance–ultimately position the poet vis-à-vis the entitlement to “speak.” “Concept” is pretty limiting when there’s a lot that needs addressing. And what about poets who seem to be there in hopes that someone who “doesn’t like poetry” will accidentally read some and learn to like it? What is the station of the poet in a culture that has to make her palatable for popular consumption? She can only say what she’s allowed to say; she had better not scare anybody off, and a reading population that happily makes something like Fifty Shades of Gray a household name is easily frightened away from a poem with or without a political edge to it. A poem can seem more intimate than any other form of expression, and the warning never to speak of religion or politics is ubiquitous social advice. So maybe that’s why the free market as it applies to poetry is none too liberating for the poet. To the average person brought up on bromides, we seem to break the rules of social interaction in a way that is so “close” as to be dangerous.
The Fiddleback: You practice dressage—an equestrian sport considered to be one of the highest forms of horse training and referred to by some as “horse ballet.” In “Why There Are so Few Horsemen & the Qualities Necessary to Become One” (from Vivisect), you talk about the ways dressage is and is not related to language, comparing some of the movements to the traditional (formal) and free verse modes of writing. More than a comparison to language, I’m curious if you see the discipline of dressage influencing or informing your craft. Given the choreography, the rhythm of the pirouettes and linear movements, you could even describe dressage as physical poetics.
LL: Certainly I think of the poetic forms when I’m riding a lot: the arena itself is of precise and limited dimensions, marked with letters as points of reference at which to perform the various movements, so that you might count the number of strides from one letter to another at a particular speed or length of stride in order to maintain consistency—as you work with iambic pentameter in a sonnet, or syllabics or accentual meter in another kind of poem. Of course counting strides is important in equestrian disciplines other than dressage, but dressage maintains its status as the most artistic of them, partly because, I think, it requires such heightened attention in a way that is ultimately less “instinctive”-seeming that what goes on when you’re riding a course of fences, for instance, largely because the latter takes place at a faster pace in a larger space. That’s what I did when I was a teenager and the first couple of years I was in college—riding hunters—so the difference when I started focusing on dressage instead—after a very long vacation away from horses altogether because my grad student self could not possibly afford even the cheapest one—was a great revelation. When I was riding at speed, I was never asked to think where each of the horse’s legs were underneath me at any given moment, and learning that that is something you can even do was like revisiting the quiet one occupies when writing, the way it often feels like a process of shifting a powerful concentration inward then outward then inward again. Reading, too, can feel like that. Thinking about this is making me very sorry that these past few years I’ve found it incredibly difficult to maintain an active equestrian life along with everything else I do—though lately I’ve been trying to get back into it because my horses, like me, are not getting any younger. Dressage has been my second art, and I’ve been pleased to be able to write a kind of ekphrastic poetry around it and about it—something you don’t hear about every day of the week. Poetry about art doesn’t necessarily have to be about religious paintings after all! Who knew!
The Fiddleback: What have you listened to or read lately that really blew your hair back?
LL: I am a grumpy reader, so that doesn’t happen to me nearly as often as it seems to happen to some people. But if I haven’t exactly been moved to ecstasy by some of my recent reading, I’ve surely been given something to think about and often to admire or be glad for. I taught a graduate course this semester focusing on the major awardwinners of the last four years—Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award—and it’s been a bit of a crazy ride, everything from Nikky Finney’s wonderful Head Off and Split to Keith Waldrep to Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius—I was astonished by the poignancy and the light touch there—to Kay Ryan to C. D. Wright. Some of the students seem to fear becoming too fond of what they apparently see as the rapidly-becoming-dated; some of them are angry about what they apparently see as that-which-shoves-the-worthwhile-aside; and I find myself often in the middle, grouchy and hypercritical for being stuck there. Maybe I like Nikky Finney and Merwin best of that lot, with a good hard nod to C. D. Wright’s One with Others, which pleases me most for its tough-minded homage to a woman who clearly suffered for her sense of justice and intellectual ambitions—very similar to what I was discussing earlier. I don’t know if I can ever aspire to all that white space in my own work, though. I was reminded of the feeling of reading online—long lines, and a kind of scrolling between. Perhaps this interview could be laid out like that! Or, perhaps not.