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LYN LIFSHIN - SEPTEMBER 1999 FEATURE  

  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE
 
David Lehman
  Tom Disch talks with poet and critic David Lehman about his daily poems. David reads three poems from his upcoming book.

Lyn Lifshin
  A Day in the Life: Lyn recounts the details of her day.

Robert Kendall
  Tales from the Hard Disk: The future of literature online.

John Kinsella
  Familiar Territory: Changes of Tense: the next chapter in John Kinsella's continuing autobiography series.

Lyn Lifshin

Lyn LifshinLyn Lifshin has written more than 100 books and edited 4 anthologies of writing by women. Her poems have appeared in many poetry and literary magazines in the USA. She has taught poetry and prose and won numerous awards including the Jack Kerouac Award. Her new book is Cold Comfort by Black Sparrow Press.

A Day in the Life of Lyn Lifshin

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For several years I've lived between two houses. When I think of a typical day in my glass-and-wood house that no one believes was actually built in the 50's, I think of the light through stained glass, the cat, starved, rubbing against the cobalt, amethyst and jade lampshade, a luscious green shadowy light. Last weekend squirrels woke me up there, already scrambling along the walnut branches. I think of loud rain, nuts crashing against stone, a train in the distance. Now I long for mornings when the cat couldn't wait to leap up to the window, the counter where, these last months, she can only get to if the dishwasher door is open and, even then, she's apt to clunk down in the corner between that door and the cupboard where I spent hours with my mother the night the plane crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, and I saw her bones sticking up out of her clothes and knew what I didn't want to know was coming.

Up in that house, where I am when I'm not here in Vienna (where I'm writing as I so often do on in the metro on my way to ballet), one constant seems that, though I am not in love with cooking, mornings start with grinding coffee beans and feeding or coaxing my green- eyed Abyssinian cat, Memento, to eat one of several cans of food I'll tempt her with during the day. A year ago I thought she was dying. It kept reminding me of trying to tempt my mother to just try this in her last days. In Niskayuna I bring a cup of coffee upstairs, write in bed a couple of hours, the phone off the hook, no voices. Today, looking for a book to fill an order (not exactly a daily ritual, but I do have a list of books available, and since no one can find them in book stores, not even in used book stores, I am glad to get them out), I came across a chapbook diary of my work on my collection of women's memoirs, Ariadne's Thread . In writing a memoir for Gale Research Series for Contemporary Authors, On the Outside: Lips, Blues, Blue Lace, I thought the past became most real for me through letters I'd written and photographs, rather than diaries. But just skimming through this little book called Lobster and Oatmeal (my first choice for the dairy and journal collection), I'm amazed how wrong I was about diaries, my diary: the selections from August 7, 1980, to October 31, 1982, a day before my deadline, make the time so vivid. June 30, 1981 starts: I love this early time of day, phone off the hook, light through the leaves. . . I read this after writing what a typical (good) day is. It's full of things I've forgotten, like a letter from Sylvia Plath's mother about Sylvia's diaries.....where is that now? Somewhere. . .probably, as I wrote on June 30, 1981, in the papers, typed-up notebooks, manuscripts, interviews crammed into boxes. . .

Several years ago Mary Ann Lynch and her film crew came to my house to do a documentary film: Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass. They planned to begin the shoot with what would have been a typical day: get up, grind the coffee beans, feed the cat. Instead of sweats or jeans, I was wearing a long, plum velvet sweatshirt-like dress, now in a closet down there in the room overlooking the pond where I saw a "real" banded goose from Fly Away Home one January and where, in a few minutes, I'll go to feed six three-week-old goslings. That first morning with the film crew, we walked through the morning ritual a few times. But that start of a typical day never got on film. All was ready. The director said, "Whatever happens, just keep on going. Never look at the camera." The windows were gelled, the house was full of huge machines, everything transformed, the beans in the grinder. The crew was a room away, my cat suitably hungry, and we began. "Lights, Camera," and then, just as someone called "Action" and the clackers cut the stillness, the cat leaped up, terrified, into the coffee beans, spilling them, even into the dining room in her escape. I just stood there frozen, staring at the camera, the flecks of cat food scenting the air. Memento hid under the bed the rest of the day. So this daily ritual never got in the film. I'd love to see the out-takes. My cat never did (and still doesn't) like strangers around.

When I was a child, I dreamed of being a ballerina. I wanted long, skinny legs you could see light thru, not plump thighs that would rub against each other as if too shy to stride around on their own. In Middlebury, Vermont, a calendar town of 3000 (Life Magazine always came to take photographs of the white Congregational Church when it snowed), there was ballroom dancing but no ballet until, for a short time, an exotic woman from France who had danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet taught Saturday morning classes. I probably still have the tiny blue and brown taffeta checked recital costume in a suitcase near the fireplace on Appletree. My mother used this valise when she went to college at Simmons and Maryland College for Women, maybe even to elope. I imagine the peach satin teddies, (her nickname) she really bought for the man she couldn't marry and then packed as the spirea and yellow roses were full of June. She was leaving for a marriage (that would happen too fast for her to think about and back out of) to a man from a family of brothers she heard made good husbands. I imagine that night from her stories and from a box of letters that I found recently from the man she left, a trigger for a group of poems in Before It's Light.

My house on Appletree, dark and wood paneled, is full of ghosts and many of them sneak into poems. My mother's pocket book is in the closet, as if after 9 years she'll get out of the hospital bed she died in and want to go out and shop. There are over a hundred boxes, maybe more, of literary magazines from the mid-sixties to now, every letter I wrote my mother, photographs from my first days on Hill St., Barre, Vermont, to snapshots from a week ago, photographs of gone lovers, dead relatives, dead cats. My wedding gown is packed in the garage, along with my baton, softball mitt, my mother's pogo stick, her mah-jongg set, a chandelier that hung in her dining room, shells, smooth glass pebbles from a 4-year-old, now with her own children, all the books I had as a child, my drawings my mother hung on walls. There are drawers of angora and cashmere (they had to be, they were checked, a touch on your shoulder) sweaters from sorority rushing in college, an old doll that turned dark in the sun on vacation. Every shelf, every drawer haunts: old diaries, jewelry, posters, news clips, a black scarf of stars my mother gave me one Christmas Eve, paintings, videotapes of readings, a samovar and tapestries from my grandmother's house. On a shelf in my kitchen there are old ballet dolls, prisms, a chestnut from Versailles, a silver horse yanked from the crushed grill of my Mustang, a "wild women don't get the blues" button. The other day there I saw ivy coming through the floor boards as it did in one of the most difficult years. Nothing in that house isn't throbbing with memories. And there's little in that house that isn't connected with writing, and the garage, too full of paper and magazines and books to put a car in, full, as I said in the introduction to Not Made of Glass, of "musty, moldy carbons, diaries whose wire spiral spines tangle and clot, posters, photographs, workshop exercises."

Here in Vienna, when I'm not traveling, mornings start with that shot that didn't get into the documentary: the coffee, the cat. Most mornings now, though, I am in the shower by 8am and out the door an hour later for ballet. Those classes I longed for as a child I now have nearly every day, though I miss desperately the long mornings to write. But I'm obsessed with dance, too. In planning film shots for Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass, the filmmaker wrote, "the more I discuss with her what other possibilities there are for scenes, the more it comes down to the fact that nearly everything she does, except for ballet and movies, is related to poetry."

Lately I want to pare away everything not connected to work and work to numbness; not to numbness exactly, but to feeling I am getting what I need done so I can go to the pond and feed the geese or photograph herons. Time seems the one thing I can't get enough of. Of course, if I didn't spend as much as 11 hours some days coming and going to dance, I might not feel as if I never could touch down. A year and a half ago, to save time, I stopped sending out poetry submissions unless invited, changing what had been a daily ritual: noting acceptances, sending bio notes, keeping track, resubmitting rejected poems. I was ecstatic when Black Sparrow wanted to do a series of my books. I've been fortunate in having many supportive publishers. Often when I travel to read and teach, people know my work from magazines more than from books even though I've published over a 100 books and chapbooks, and until review magazines cut back drastically on reviewing poetry books, especially small press poetry books, my books were well reviewed. Because I wanted to be sure I had many new poems for a new Black Sparrow book, in January, 1998, I began typing up but, for the first time, not printing out, let alone sending out, poems. There were disks and disks. In late July of '98, asked if I could have a new book manuscript by the end of the year, I began working full tilt on going through those disks. In the past, I'd selected book manuscripts, or an editor or publisher did, mostly from poems that had appeared in magazines, a first edit really. In many ways, this was scary. I had never selected poems no one had seen. Seeing some of these poems quoted in Black Sparrows' just-out catalogue is a relief.

All fall I cut and cut, then I cut within the sections of the new book, looking for variety and strength. Finally, close to the middle of December, after more juggling and more revisions, I got the book in the mail. Though exciting and fun, putting any book or anthology together is consuming. It's like teaching, something I've done a lot of. The New York Museum often asks me to design workshops to accompany an exhibit: The Holocaust, Mothers and Daughters, the American Urban Ghetto, Feelings about War, Mirrors etc. It can take up to half a year to prepare for these workshops, always ending, it seems, with me writing many poems on the subject. (That is how Blue Tattoo, my collection of Holocaust poems, grew, as well as a series of Mirror poems and some still untyped poems about runaway children, the homeless, the disenchanted.)

I was sure I'd have a lot more time once the mail wasn't overwhelming. I want to type up the backlog: 80-100 handwritten spiral notebooks that go back to 1991. But it still seems I'm clawing for time. I no longer keep a diary, don't write down dreams as I always used to. I don't have time to read under the velvet quilt, work, then go out for ballet in the evening, and work again when I get home. Writing has always been only a small part of what takes all my time: there's the typing, arranging readings, promoting readings and books, writing letters. I haven't started using a laptop on the metro, but I am set on getting caught up, or by the time I get to some of the poems, they'll seem to have been written by a stranger, hieroglyphs.

Getting the new Black Sparrow catalogue with its description of Before It's Light reminds me I need to get news of its coming publication, since I'm not publishing so widely and wildly, without the chance to mention it in a bio. Black Sparrow does a small hard cover edition of their books where each author does something unique with a poem. Calligraphy, painting. I used to paint, and for Cold Comfort I watercolored a xerox of a photograph. I would like to try something more ambitious for Before It's Light: oils or watercolors, but I need a stretch of time like a beach with no prints on it. I'm wild for more time to just gaze out at the pond, at the walnuts, let what's outside, like the rush of Otter Falls, move inside. Today, here in this house, in this guava and blood light moving from the water a few feet away turning the walls raspberry, there's less of the past. But in a minute, I'll jump back in the shower for the second and third ballet class today.

* *

It's about 4:15, June 4. I'm back on the metro, the second time today, for this hour trip into D.C. It is obsessive, this ballet and body sculpture binge, but it's better than drugs or booze. Two days a week I have only two hours at my desk between classes. One day, I'm out from 9am to 10pm. Walking past the pond, I thought it would be nice just to read in the shade, get a start on a manuscript I'm getting paid well to look at. But I'm going east on the orange line. As I said, I write a lot on the subway. Once when I was asked to teach a workshop on sensuality and sexuality for women, I read erotica and porn during rush-hour, wrapped the books in other book jackets so people crushed up close to me wouldn't press even closer, seeing Susie Bright or The Story of O. One day the book I was reading wouldn't fit in the jacket I usually used. Only a book on cooking steak worked, and the mix of porn and grilling turned into a few wild poems on their own. One is in Cold Comfort , another will be in Before It's Light.

If I hadn't spent time down in Virginia, I wonder how different my work would be. The first year or so in DC, I went to museums every day. All of my book, Marilyn Monroe Poems , written in a few weeks the first October I was here, came out of what and whom I saw while wandering around the city, reading the paper, missing upstate and feeling, as I always do, even more intensely an outsider. Wherever I went that almost whole month of October, Marilyn or poems about Marilyn followed.

* * *

Riding in, past Clarendon, I'm thinking how I have to plan readings, book signings; there seems never to be a time I don't feel I have to hurry. In high school I pressed myself to win art and science contests. Every year I worked hard on a scientific display, more art than science: a giant papier mache model of the eye, models of carbon molecules. I should just take a break, go to Europe, but no one else can give my cat pills or fuss over her while she's eating. Another project I won't get to today is working to get my papers in an archive. Not only upstate is full of towering boxes of magazines and paper; here, too. The garage, the floor, too many rooms: workshop material, handwritten notes, notebooks, hard copies, fax machines, printers, little red lights blinking in every room. Unless I'm traveling, I hardly need more than sweatshirts, a denim mini skirt, boots and, of course, leotards and ballet slippers, but my closets bulge with too many clothes, too much velvet, and too many unused leotards. I got into ballet when, living alone after divorce, I'd work for hours and forget to eat, living on coffee. After sitting at a desk for hours, I needed more. I started ballet with one class from a bad teacher who billed herself as a several-time Miss Vermont; then I began classes with a real dancer with whom I collaborated: workshops combining ballet and journal writing, performances using my poems, her choreography. Now it's almost daily, but ballet still comes as hard to me as some probably think writing comes easy.

9pm. Waiting for the metro is a great time to watch people. Usually on this trip back, I read short stories; they're dessert. It will be dark when I get to Vienna. Probably there will be oval shapes on the pond, geese in the ripples. I still haven't figured out exactly where the six goslings sleep. My tangerine tree will fill the air with a heavy musk I'll be able to smell before I get there. The moon will come through my mother's pigeon ruby punch bowl and turn her refinished Heywood Wakefield furniture pale scarlet. Those maple pieces that were in my parents' rooms before I was have lived in more houses than I have. Tomorrow I don't have to be anywhere. And now...cut grass wind, clover and roses, the last streaks of garnet and tourmaline past the blood oaks the beaver hasn't touched yet.


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A Day in the Life of Lyn Lifshin
TCR September 1999 Feature

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