Dorothea Lasky is the author of Black Life (Wave Books, 2010) and AWE (Wave Books, 2007). She is also the author of several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Review, and The Laurel Review, among other places. Currently, she researches creativity and education at the University of Pennsylvania.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book changed my life, because it made me think of my poems as actually being read by real-life humans. I think until I could conceive of a reader as a real person, it was hard to think the effect a poem I had written might have in the world. For some reason, books do this more than other forms poems can be published in. Plus what a trip—seeing a thing out there and knowing you are the author of it and then seeing that thing in print, being multiplied everywhere!
My recent work has just come out in the form of my second book. It was released this April from Wave Books and it is called Black Life. I think this book is different than my first book, AWE, because it is stranger and darker. It also very specifically documents a sad time in my life, whereas AWE was more a collection of poems from different time periods.
I don’t think the books are that dissimilar, however. Black Life is a continuation of AWE.
The poems I am working on now feel sort of like a continuation, although they both might be different than Black Life and AWE, because some of the poems are more abstract, more conceptual, more detached.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I am not sure that I had a choice exactly. I just started writing poems one day when I was a little girl. I couldn’t make the story of how poetry came into my life any more romantic than the reality—I just started writing poems and never was able to stop. Although I’d love to write fiction or non-fiction, I really can’t ever take a form up like the way poetry exists in me. I naturally think and feel in the space of a poem.
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 writing comes quickly and my first drafts are very similar to the final shape of my poems. Collections of poems are a slower process. I’ll have an idea of a theme after certain themes emerge from groups of poems. Sometimes I’ll think a long time on these themes to make sure they have staying power.
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?
I am not sure if it is either of these two options. I write poems and then from time to time see what ideas are there that might be “book-like.” Sometimes though, the idea behind a book affects the words I use in subsequent poems that become part of collections or the poems I choose with corresponding themes. For example, with Black Life, once I realized that this was going to be the book’s title, I used the color black more in later drafts of the poems. Once emerged, I let the theme (and phrase) shape all the loose edges in the poems. I also incorporated the word ‘awe’ into Black Life for a similar reason. There are places where I mention awe in Black Life, because I liked the idea of a sense of unity between the two books. I’d love to do this with all the books I write in my life—have them speak to each other. They are all part of a piece (me) after all.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I absolutely love giving readings. I especially love talking to people I visit with while giving readings, and especially the students I meet along the way.
I wouldn’t say that readings are part of or counter to my creative process. I think ideally, if circumstances could become right, I would lead a life in which I taught a lot and had the freedom to travel widely for readings. I could see such travel as influencing my creative process more.
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?
I think there are a lot of questions I am trying to answer all the time. I don’t know if I think of poems or collections of poems as answers to questions though. I guess in the old idea of inquiry––scientific inquiry (which I see as an act of exploration)––I am answering questions with my poems. In this vein, a fundamental, overarching question I am asking in my poems is: What is the purpose of being alive? Other questions are: 1. What is our relationship, as humans, to the universe? 2. What is the universe? 3. What is death? 4. Is the spiritual world real? 5. What is love? 6. Why are things beautiful?
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?
I think ideally writers would be valued as a role within the culture that equals any other. I think in America there are various kinds of writers who are valued, like journalists. For journalists, being a writer is a pretty respectable role. I’ve been glad to see how quickly the role of bloggers has been key in the newsmedia. However, I think that certain kinds of writers, poets especially, are maligned within American society. Why I think this is that there is no clear employment pipeline for them. Being a poet for a lot of people is a side job. The same goes for lots of artists. I don’t think it should be this way, as being a poet is an asset for a lot of societal roles. If I were in charge of the way things go, it wouldn’t be like this. I’d create opportunities for artists that valued their strengths.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve worked with Joshua Beckman for both of my poetry books and the experience has been essential and pretty easy. Joshua is an excellent editor for my poems, as he works extremely hard to understand not only my aesthetic, but also the subtle feelings of each particular book. It has been a great gift to work with him.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My dad always told me to “stay loose.” I always knew what he meant: to keep yourself open and never be static in your beliefs or actions. It’s been good advice for me so far.
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?
I’ve never had a writing routine, but I long for one. Sometimes my days are hectic with meetings and obligations and other days I have a million things to do, but I can make my own schedule. If I could make my day any way I’d want to, it would go like this: wake up at 6, drink coffee, go running, read and write poems until 9, work in a governmental office from 10-5, teach a night class from 7-9, go to a play from 9-11, and then go to sleep. Another ideal day would be wandering around a museum for 12 hours and then taking a night walk. That last option is my best writing routine, when it happens. I wish those two descriptions were my weekdays and then weekends (in the museum).
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go to a museum or I make something. Changing my visual world always gets me out of any sort of thinking rut. Color especially punches me in the face and then cleanses my old thoughts. Also, listening to people talk about their relationships (personal, professional, secretive) inspires me because it incites my emotions. So, I really like to talk to people.
12 - What was your most recent Hallowe'en costume?
Mermaid. Old standby.
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?
Everything else you list influences my work in addition to books. For me the list of influences (most to least) would go like so: 1. Music 2. Nature 3. Visual art 4. Science 5. Other books. Actually, the order there can fluctuate, but all of those elements are always important.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Most of my friends are poets. My social life tends to revolve around poetry, which I find to be a good thing. If I know someone, anything he or she writes is important to my life, whether or not I agree or disagree with it. I’d say the most important writings I’ve ever read were: Ariel (Sylvia Plath), One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), Fear and Trembling (Soren Kierkegaard), Break it Down (Lydia Davis), Beauty and Sadness (Yasunari Kawabata), Three Lives (Gertrude Stein), and Three Tales (Gustave Flaubert).
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to go to Japan one day. I’d especially like to hike many mountains in Japan. Also, I’d like to publish a series of children’s books.
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?
I would have loved to have been a dancer and an actress, and later, a politician. Perhaps I still have time for some of those things.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Probably because as a child I spent 90% of my time alone in my room, I was doomed to hone my poetry skills. Not that I want to make generalities here, because there are all kinds of children who turn into poets. But I was a brooding, lonely child and I think that made me a likely poet. I think had I been outside more, or more exposed to training in other forms of expression, I would have been an actress or something more public. I definitely don’t think I would ever chosen poetry rationally, if given the chance to at birth.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art by Eileen Myles. The last great film I saw was 3 Women by Robert Altman.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a new book of poems. I am also working on a play, or a set of plays, although all of that is still kind of mulling around in my mind. I am also finishing up a set of case studies of teachers, which will be my dissertation for a doctorate I am finishing. Something I am going to work on once all of this is finished, or at least under control, is a giant felt quilt, which could be the backdrop for my plays. Or at the very least could be something someone might appreciate as a wall blanket.