Monday, November 18, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lindsay Lusby

Lindsay Lusby is the author of the poetry collection Catechesis: a postpastoral (The University of Utah Press, 2019), winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, judged by Kimiko Hahn. She is also the author of two chapbooks, Blackbird Whitetail Redhand (Porkbelly Press, 2018) and Imago (dancing girl press, 2014), and the winner of the 2015 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared most recently in The Cincinnati Review, Passages North, The Account, North Dakota Quarterly, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Her visual poems have appeared in Dream Pop Press and Duende. She is the Assistant Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College, where she serves as assistant editor for the Literary House Press and managing editor for Cherry Tree.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Having my first full-length poetry collection out in the world has been both completely fulfilling and frantic. The manuscript has existed in some form for about six years: four years of writing, one year of sending it out to publishers, another year from acceptance to final publication. It has moved from ideas and experimentation to beautiful complete object. Seeing and holding it for the first time as the full package: the beautiful front cover, the generous blurbs on the back cover, a foreword written by a poet I deeply admire who really understood what I wanted to do with this book, then the text and visual poems exactly as I had envisioned them arranged. This perfectly-packaged object is what feels so life-changing, and that it looks and feels so much like all of the other poetry collections that I have read and loved by others. This book has made me feel real in the world in a way that all the individual poems never did. Impostor syndrome can always weasel its way in, of course, but now I have all of these lovely words from poets I greatly admire and respect to remind that I am indeed a real poet.

 I’m still figuring out what I’m writing post-book. It feels a little lonely not to have a “project” that I’m writing yet. I’m a slow writer, so I’m just taking it one poem at a time. I’m still exploring some of the same ideas and then mixing some new ones in as well. But I feel like I really figured out the kind of writer I am with this first book, so I’m continuing along that same path but with new poems and continuing to give myself permission to experiment.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I started writing poems in third grade and fell in love with them then. I can’t say for sure what first drew me to poetry, but possibly it was the pattern-building and the sonic nature of poems. These days, the things I love about poems are brevity and concision, the associative collage of influences distilled into new ideas and images. I love poetry’s transformative powers—making beautiful things out of the strange and monstrous, and vice versa. 

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?

I like to think of my writing process as slow and deliberate. It involves lots of note-taking, reading, research, movie-watching, and time. I have a strange process of revising while I draft each poem, so I really write one line at a time with a lot of thinking in between. I consider the images and associations I want in the poem, the sounds of the words and rhythm of the line, and maintaining those things consistently through to the last word. By the time I have a first full draft, I have usually worked on the poem for several weeks, each line probably revised 2-3 times. I just can’t continue to writing the next line until I feel like I’ve figured out the line before.

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?

With my first book, I knew the poems I was writing were building toward a larger project. Each individual poem was an intentional piece and all the pieces together became a book that I hope adhered into one larger poem-like structure. I think each book will be different though. Right now, I have no idea what the next one will be, but I’m writing new poems one at a time. And once I have a good handful, I’ll spread them out in front of me and try to see if there’s the thread of a book taking shape somewhere within them.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Planning for and giving readings is still pretty new to me. There are definitely parts of giving readings that I absolutely love, especially if I’m reading alongside other fantastic writers that I can listen to and then talk to about our busy, unpredictable writing lives. I love meeting other writers and making those deeper, personal connections. It’s exciting to introduce new readers to my poetry, people who probably haven’t heard of me or read any of my work before. And it’s another kind of thrill to meet and talk to people who are followers of my work. But overall, I am very much the introvert. Giving a reading and engaging in intense socializing for a day or an evening absolutely drains me and makes me crave some writing time by myself. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the writing process, which, in its solitary nature, relaxes and recharges me. But I think both of these things are necessary for a fulfilling writing life for me. I like to be on my own, but I need to feel like part of the outside world, too. I need that connection.

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?

All of my poems are about some kind of transformation—but I can’t really say why. I think I’m still figuring that out, piece by piece, with each new poem. I do have a fascination with how women in particular are transformed by violence, via the saints & martyrs of the Catholic church (my upbringing), fairy tales (an obsession), horror movies and true crime shows (another obsession).

I think the current questions are slightly different for each writer—important variations on the question of our humanity and what it means.

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 the job of the writer is to ask the uncomfortable questions and also to admit that we don’t immediately know the answers. The job of the writer is to remind us to stop and think, to draw connections between things, and to explore the multitude of meanings there. But above all of that, to find beauty and to share it with the rest of us.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It all depends. Most of the time, it is incredibly helpful to get out of your own head and find out how your poem reads to someone who isn’t you, who doesn’t already know all of the references and connections you’re trying to make. It’s hard to know for sure if your poem is successful unless you have an outside reader who can give you feedback that you trust. The ideal scenario is to have an editor who likes and understands your poetry and style, and what you’re attempting to do. It’s the closest you can get to a clone of yourself who can evaluate your poetry with an unbiased perspective and a fresh pair of eyes.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

The best piece of writing advice I’ve heard, that I don’t follow nearly as often as I should, is not to censor your first draft. You have to silence the critic in your head when you’re getting a first draft out because there’s a lot of bad writing floating at the top. But when you get the bad writing down, you can get to the good writing underneath, maybe even hit on a piece of something great.

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 don’t really keep much of a disciplined writing routine actually. I tend to do most of my writing in the evenings after work and on the weekends, but it definitely doesn’t happen every day. I write as often as I can manage, which is never as often as I would like.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I turn to books and movies! Often I’ll return to a favorite for a reread or rewatch. Other times I’ll make a dent in the stack of new poetry collections on my nightstand and hope something shakes loose in my writing brain. I’ve also more recently turned to playing with visual poetry and collage when I’m stuck on a textual poem to exercise some adjacent creative muscles. The other tried and true reset button is going for a good, long walk.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

It’s a very distinct scent—damp soil, dead leaves, and moss are some the things that make the rich smell of the woods on the U.S. East Coast. I grew up in a heavily wooded neighborhood in rural Maryland, where my little brother and I would always play outside either in the woods across the street or the woods behind our house. Now, whether I’m hiking in Delaware or Pennsylvania, or even this summer down in North Carolina, the smell of the woods is exactly the same; and it immediately transports me home. It’s a deeply comforting smell.

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?

Absolutely! So much of my inspiration for poems comes from folk and fairy tales. But more recently, I’ve been writing poems in conversations some of my favorite horror movies—and it has been so much fun! In my new poetry collection, Catechesis: a postpastoral, there are two different sections of horror movie poems in which each poem borrows for its title a line of dialogue from the films. One is about Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and the other is in conversation with Ridley Scott’s Alien. Since the movie-lines-as-titles come before the poem is drafted, they serve as the jumping-off point for the rest of the poem; and the poems themselves tend to go in some really interesting directions. I had so much fun with these poem series that I’ve also recently started drafting some new poems in this same style, using Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I think the texts that have been the most important for my work are folk and fairy tales—I try to infuse a little bit of them into every poem I write. The other writers who have been most formative for me as both a writer and a reader are Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, Kate Bernheimer, Neil Gaiman, Jorge Luis Borges, Elizabeth Bishop, Shirley Jackson, Matthea Harvey, Madeleine L’Engle, and so many more.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to find some kind of work-life-art balance, but I think that’s definitely more of a long-term project.

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 really enjoy graphic design work and letterpress printing, both of which I’ve picked up through years of experience rather than formal education. I do some of this for my current job and also a little freelancing, but I’d love to do more.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I really can’t say. I just can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. It’s the only way I know to go through the world and find some semblance of wholeness.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

This past year, I’ve read Brute, by Emily Skaja and The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson—both of which were phenomenal. This summer, I’ve been rewatching some classics that I love: Rosemary’s Baby and An American Werewolf in London.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Recently, I wrote my first lyric essay about my obsession with true crime shows. I’m hoping to write another essay soon. And, of course, I’m still writing poems—figuring out what the second book might be.

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