Lynne Sachs makes films and writes poems that explore the intricate
relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences.
Her work embraces hybrid form and combines memoir with experimental,
documentary, and fictional modes. In recent years, she has expanded her
practice to include live performance with moving image. Lynne was first exposed
to poetry by her great aunt as a child in Memphis, Tennessee. Soon she
was frequenting workshops at the local library and getting a chance to learn from
poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Ethridge Knight. As an active member of Brown
University’s undergraduate poetry community, she shared her early poems with
fellow poet Stacy Doris. Lynne later discovered her love of filmmaking while
living in San Francisco where she worked with artists Craig Baldwin, Bruce
Conner, Barbara Hammer, Carolee Schneeman, and Trinh T. Minh-ha. Lynne
has made thirty-five films which have screened at the New York Film Festival,
the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of
American Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Wexner Center for the Arts.
Festivals in Buenos Aires, Beijing and Havana have presented retrospectives of
her work. Lynne received a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship. In early 2020, her
newest movie, Film About a Father Who,
will premiere on opening night at the Slamdance Film Festival and in NYC at the
Museum of Modern Art. Lynne lives in Brooklyn. Year by Year Poems is her
first book of poetry.
1 - How did your first book change
your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it
Writing YEAR BY YEAR POEMS did not
just change my life, it was my life. When I turned 50, I decided to reconnect
with every year of my life, so far, by writing a poem that explores the
relationship I had had with something beyond my control, outside my domestic
universe. The personal confronts the
public, and vice-versa. Writing these
poems forced me to carve out precise distillations of these moments in my time
and our shared time.
2 - How did you come to filmmaking
first, as opposed to, say, poetry, fiction or non-fiction?
I have been writing poetry since I
was a child and filmmaking is actually an extension of this desire to process
my bewilderment and occasional understanding of the world that spins around
me. The personal, experimental,
essayistic, documentary approaches I bring to my filmmaking are extensions of
the thinking involved in writing 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?
I adore first drafts and for this
reason I try to write my poems by hand, with a pen on paper. I return to them like an archeologist,
relishing every gesture that I see on the page. With this in mind, I included
many of my first drafts – as images almost – in YEAR BY YEAR POEMS. So far, readers have generally appreciated
seeing these visualizations of the process of writing, moving back-and-forth
between the inchoate first draft to the finished, edited, typed version. My mother was the only person who thought
some of the poems were better and more fleshed-out in the original drafts. I thought this was apt, since her perspective
on my life is probably the most complete.
4 - Where does a poem, work of prose
or film-script 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?
Each poem in YEAR BY YEAR POEMS
begins with a year. In fact, I gave myself the pleasure of inventing a new
graphic font for each of these 50 years, and these designs/ doodles became the
cover of the book. Limitations or
constraints on the writing of a poem actually allow me to work in a more
expansive way. I feel less overwhelmed
by the daunting challenge of trying to say something. In terms of my filmmaking, I have made 35
films, the shortest being 3 minutes and the longest 83. I just completed FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO
which is 74 minutes and will premiere next month as the opening night film at
Slamdance Film Festival in Park City and then at the Museum of Modern Art in
New York City in February. Believe it or
not, I started this film in 1984 and just finished it. The only way I could
find its structure was to create many short films and then to find search for
5 - Are public readings part of or
counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing
I have finally discovered the joy of
reading from my book in front of an audience.
I have never ever been an actor so it did not really appeal to me before. Now, when I am reading from my own book, I
feel deeply connected to the listeners in the room. It is so much fun to watch
people responding. I have recently read or will read at Berl’s Poetry Bookshop,
Topos Books, McNally Jackson Bookstore, KGB Lit Bar, Court Tree Gallery, Penn
Book Center, and Museum of Modern Art Buenos Aires (with a translator). I will
be reading from my book and showing my films at the main branch of the San
Francisco Public Library for National Poetry Month in April, 2020.
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 my deepest concerns stem
from my visceral devotion to feminism.
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?
A writer should stir of up thought
and encourage a fascination with language.
Writers who have found a place in the community should also encourage
others with less experience through workshops that bring in people who have not
yet named themselves as “writers.”
8 - Do you find the process of
working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I absolutely adore working with an
editor, both people I know and trust to be honest and kind and people who care
only about one thing – making the text better. In writing my first book of
poems, I worked with my Tender Buttons Press editrix Lee Ann Brown who had some
uncannily astute suggestions that included line breaks, word choices, finding
clarity, carving way too much explication and everything in between. Working
with her as well as my poet friends Michael Ruby and Michele Somerville was a
gift. In addition, very early on, I
actually hired a graduate student in creative writing to meet with me just a
few times. She would read the poems with such distance and objectivity. It was
refreshing, and I didn’t feel guilty asking her to explain what she thought
since I was paying her.
9 - What is the best piece of advice
you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Read your poems out loud to
yourself. Listen to the rhythm and feel it in your body.
10 - How easy has it been for you to
move between genres (poetry to fiction to filmmaking to multimedia)? What do
you see as the appeal?
Oh, you really ask such insightful
questions. What do I call myself? Am I
filmmaker who writes poems? Can I be
more than one thing? Can I just be an artist? Can I change according to my
surroundings? I think our culture is
actually becoming more open to these permutations. Patti Smith (musician and author) and Tony Kushner (playwright, screenwriter and children’s book writer) are two of my
heroes in this respect. Finding visual
or textual distillations is at the foundation of both my writing and my
filmmaking. In neither situation do I ever call myself a storyteller.
11 - What kind of writing routine do
you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you)
On a writing day, I do what so many
other writers do. I am not particularly ingenious in any way. I go out to a
café, buy a cup of tea (preferably in a teapot) and begin to write. As long as
the music is good and people are not talking on their cell phones, I am happy.
12 - When your writing gets stalled,
where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing feels hampered by
the clutter of my life, I set limits. I frame my ambition by a constraint, like
only thinking about one particular conceit or finding my way to the bottom of
the page. I try, though I am rarely
successful, not to read what I have written as a reader but rather as
co-conspirator with absolutely no taste. Taste is dangerous. So is the
internet, so I try to reject that in any way possible.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of
About twenty-five years ago, I was
visiting the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell in Utah. It’s a very strange and
other-wordly lake, mostly because it is artificial and built by recreation
lovers who didn’t mind filling in a canyon in a naturally arid landscape to
create a place for water-skiers. My
sister Dana Sachs and I were together in the elevator descending to its lowest
level. When the elevator doors opened,
we immediately turned to one another and remarked that this dark, intimidating,
cement space smelled like our grandparents’ home in Memphis, Tennessee, a place
we had not been inside since we were children.
Recognizing that “fragrance” concretized our sensory bond as sisters who
were carrying so many of the same memories.
14 - 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?
15 - What other writers or writings
are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Last week, I finished reading James
Joyce’s Ulysses. It took me six
months and the experience was fantastic and awful, ultimately ending with
ecstasy. The experience was convulsive
and exasperating. I was transformed in a way that was truly extraordinary. I am
a different person now that I have read Molly Bloom’s treatise on her body in
the book’s last chapter; her one-sentence no-punctuation 25,000 word spin
through the sensual made me reel and dream and sing. I would add to that a few other writers who
come to mind today: filmmaker and poet Trinh T. Minh-ha, author and scholar Tera W. Hunter, author Claire Messud, poet Lee Ann Brown, and poet Katy Bohinc.
16 - What would you like to do that
you haven't yet done?
Canadian film director François Gerard completed his highly successful film Thirty-TwoShort Films About Glenn Gould in 1993.
In an interview, a reporter asked him what he planned to do next. His
response was that he planned to do
nothing. Doing nothing for an artist can
be transformative. I envy people who claim to be bored. I do not have a horror vacui. I search for emptiness and find a sense of
tranquility. Ultimately, it is very productive.
17 - 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 did consider being a human rights
attorney, a pediatrician or an anthropologist. I also wish I could cook well,
though I don’t aim to be a chef.
18 - What made you write, as opposed
to doing something else?
Writing gives me so much oxygen.
When you write, you feel like you added one minute to the 1440 minutes in a
19 - What was the last great book
you read? What was the last great film?
As written above, I recently
completed Ulysses, but you know that is a great one. I also was very taken with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts which showed me how to
weave together intimate personal writing with more theoretical
investigations. I return over and over
and over again to filmmaker Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled To Death, which is his opus film that he bravely refuses to
20 - What are you currently working
Ida: The Fluid Time Travels of a Radical
Spirit, an experimental, sci-fi essay film
that will trace the erasure and recent emergence (in the form of monuments) of
the story of activist and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett who spent her early
years in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee and committed her life to nurturing
a spirit of liberation in the face of resounding racial violence. I am making
this film with author Tera Hunter and a few weeks ago we started shooting. It’s
a blissful, intense collaboration.