Lesley Yalen is a poet and writer whose work has been published in Invisible Ear, Skein, Denver Quarterly, jubilat, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, This Elizabeth, was published by Minus House Press in 2007. She is a member of Agnes Fox Press, a new chapbook publishing collective that's going to knock your socks off soon, and she lives above a neurologist's office in Northampton, MA.
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
First chapbooks are so wonderful, I think, because for many writers that's the first time they've seen their work as part of a cared-for and physically beautiful object. Before "This Elizabeth" it was pretty much all 8 1/2 X 11 print-outs for me. There is a whole additional level of aesthetic engagement added when the poems are laid out and bound in a book. When I first received a box of my chaps, I was just so into how they looked and felt. I kept stroking them.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Actually, I didn't. I started in the MFA program at UMass, Amherst as a fiction student. After a while, I switched to poetry. I've always loved both, and I think it was probably some contemporary lyrical fiction writers I was reading in my mid-20s--Jamaica Kincaid, Amos Oz, Michael Ondaatje-- who got me back into thinking seriously about writing. At some point, though, I just realized that my mind does not really work in terms of story. It works more in terms of sound, idea, and emotion-- and, yes, narrative-- but not story.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My work is always a slow process. I tend to write long, interconnected sets of poems and it takes me a while to figure out what the arc of a given piece is going to be. There's a lot of reconsidering and revising and reconsidering and revising. It's not the poem-as-spontaneous-miracle paradigm, where the poet just sits down and it all comes out like a shining gem. Of course, I often wonder if I'm ruining my poems by overthinking them, but then that's like wondering if I'm ruining my personality by overusing it, and I just can't think about that.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I definitely enjoy giving readings and also going to readings. I'm going to one tonight in fact. I live in Western Massachusetts and we have a fantastic poetry community here. There seems to be almost non-stop readings, often in non-traditional venues (a field, a rare Judaica shop, a living room), and they are often put on by people with creative visions for what a reading can be (I've seen a stand-up comedy routine, an acoustic music duo, and visual art paired with readings all in the past few months!) Readings are the best way to build community among writers. That said, I shake in my boots before I go up there.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Oh god, let's see:
*can there be any truth given the relativity of everyone's subjective perspective?
*if so, what would that truth possibly mean?
*how are my most intimate emotions and experiences intertwined with the political, social, and historical context in which I live?
*how does my position in those contexts affect my vision, my ability to empathize with others, my language?
*what is the meaning of an individual's physical and/or spiritual limitations? In what ways are the limitations assets?
*how can contradictions and paradoxes become a site for unsticking things?
*what happens when I try to think through another person's language?
You know, fun stuff.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Definitely essential. It can of course be difficult because my ego is always involved (read: entrenched) in my writing, but once I get over that I realize how lucky I am to have a not-me person's perspective on my work. What could be more valuable to me than a not-me? Nothing. Especially when that not-me is a caring and careful and engaged reader and writer. I've been very lucky to know and share work with several of those.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I'm paraphrasing my grandpa here: when deciding which room to sleep in tonight, pick the one with the best dreams.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Alice Notley; Marlon Brando; Harpo Marx; the guy who walked the tight rope between the World Trade Center towers; Sam Cooke, Anne Carson, Inger Christensen, Juliana Spahr to name just a few. This week, I am also borrowing Mariano Rivera from my husband.
12 - What do you really want?
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Well, it just so happens that many of my dear friends and loved ones also happen to be the most influential and important writers working today. I'm talking about famous writers like Brian Baldi, Seth Landman, Natalie Lyalin, Joshua Bolton, Lewis Freedman, Marie Buck, Jason Schwartz, Sara Veglahn, Leni Zumas. I am so incredibly lucky that these famous and influential writers just happen to be my friends (and, in one case, my husband.) Their work never stops urging me onward.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Speak/write another language fluently. I've studied Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, but never achieved fluency with any of them. It's the typical American regret, and also mine.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
As uncool as it may be to say it, I think I would have been a therapist. I've always been really into thinking about people's motivations and frustrations and the choices they have as they face the things that come at them in their lives. I also like to sit in a comfortable chair. Who knows, I might still be one someday. Kim Rosenfield is a therapist and a badass poet, so I know it is possible.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: I just read a chapbook called Cymbals by a poet named Ben Estes. So good.
Film: Sherlock Jr., a Buster Keaton movie. I watched it on the Turner Classics network with my grandpa.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A few months ago, I wrote a series of poems which took language from Helen Keller's memoir and explored a relationship to language and self and people and ethics that I imagined as being both hers and mine. That is to say that as I wrote the poems, sometimes I was trying to access her and sometimes I wasn't, and in the end I feel like I created a kind of shared brain for the two of us. I'm doing the same thing now with St. Augustine's Confessions. He is an incredible person to be in communion with (pun intended). He is so meticulous and so heart-wrenching.
12 or 20 questions (second series);