Thursday, January 21, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lisa Bickmore

Lisa Bickmore's work has appeared or will soon appear in Psaltery and Lyre, Blossom as the Cliff Rose, Quarterly West, Tar River Poetry, Caketrain, Split Rock Review, Menagerie, Sugarhouse Review,, Hunger Mountain Review, Southword, The Moth, Timberline Review, and elsewhere. Her second book, flicker (2016), won the 2014 Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press, and she won the 2015 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize for the poem 'Eidolon.' Her third collection, Ephemerist, was published summer of 2017, by Red Mountain Press (Santa Fe, NM). She is the founder and publisher of the new Lightscatter Press ( She lives and teaches writing in Salt Lake City.

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

I took, or tried to take, my first book, Haste, as evidence that I might actually be a poet. As with most endeavors in art, a belief in one's 'actual' status as an artist, a poet, is fickle, and flickers into and out of focus. What has mostly convinced me of my own 'actual' status as a poet is that I've continued to work on, to write, poetry.

My most recent work is more expansive than my earliest work. I feel I'm testing my own capacity, my ability to take up poetry to sustain inquiry. I think of my poems as working within a lyric tradition, but I'm also urgently interested in what lyric can do with crises of the scope of what we're all currently experiencing: a reckoning with systemic racial injustice and hatred, with reckless abuse of the earth, and more. I’m working toward poems that understand themselves to be a part of the fabric of this world, its beauties and its horrors, that do not merely perform an act of conscience.

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

I tried writing fiction at various points, but I could never find a way for my characters to leave the house. They did have a lot of thoughts, though.

As a writer, I just always loved image, language, music. There are prose writers whose work is rich in those ways, but there's something linear in fiction that I never quite got the hang of. I do have narrative within my poems--just not sustained narrative, where the character has to go do stuff or risk putting the reader to sleep.
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?

Early on, my poems would typically come in a kind of burst. Occasionally, this still happens, but now I find that I build poems a little more slowly. I take notes, do research, fold things in. I stress test poems. I rearrange things. I remove things.  I have a long standing writing group and almost every poem I write gets a look from these trusted readers. I remember reading, when I was a younger writer, Donald Hall talking about a poem taking him five years to finish, and I was amazed at the sheer duration of such a process. Now, of course, I have many poems that I've worked on that long, or longer. It's, of course, a blast to experience a poem that comes to you almost fully formed. But I take much more satisfaction, these days, in the poems I've built more deliberately and more slowly.

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?

The book project I'm currently working on, b o m b, as well as the immediately previous book, Ephemerist (2017, Red Mountain Press), are both more deliberately built as books than my first two. However, for both of these books, I worked on assembling them over enough of a period of time that the first iteration of a 'manuscript' was profoundly different than the final version. In other words, although I was working with a much stronger idea of what the book was doing, what ideas I was conjuring with, the question of whether certain poems belonged, whether they were good enough, whether they were fully formed, was always in play. With both of these books, I had the experience of writing a poem that I knew needed to be a part of the book--that I knew would be a key piece--in a sense writing toward something, as one of my colleagues says. I hadn't done that in the earlier two books.

The first two books, Haste and flicker, were assembled out of poems I wrote over a length of time. The deliberation for these two books shared some features with what I did for the latter two--I still looked at poems with an eye to whether they were finished, good enough, whether they belonged--and I worked on the arc of each sequence within both books. I would say that my first two books have a much more purely lyric mode and focus than the latter two. They cohere, through image and sound. Ephemerist has a stronger sense of project holding the poems together, I think (I like to think?). And this latter book, the one I'm currently working on, the same.

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

I enjoy giving readings, although I always feel conscious of how a reading can tip so easily into posturing and pretentiousness. I try really, really hard not to tax the patience of any audience generous enough with its time and attention to come out to a reading. One way that readings play into a creative process is that getting a sense of how readers experience your poems can be such useful information. It's similar to taking poems to a writing group, only the feedback is gestural, spatial. Sometimes you get verbal feedback too. When a reading is good, there's a beautiful communal aesthetic experience that lingers. In this scenario, I like being the reader, but I enjoy being part of the audience at a good reading just as much.
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?

For me, the challenge is to find opportunities at the level of form and craft, and not only at the level of subject matter, to enact the project of historical change in whatever ways poetry can participate in this project, and to interrogate lyric occasions themselves: to locate, as Danez Smith says, in their “Open Letter to White Poets,” “What frees you [read: me, poet identifying as white] to write odes of the low country of America, to mention the trees and not their wicked history, to write the praise song of night, but not sing of what dark bodies hide cold in daylight?” To identify, in other words, the tricks of the light by which poetry itself has allowed me, and other poets within a lyric tradition, to separate what has been heretofore understood as beautiful from the history that makes such constructions of beauty problematic, and then, to find the poetic means to enact and represent that problematics. I want to engage imaginatively at the site where lyric tradition and history intersect, and to make that engagement sing.

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 like what Matthew Zapruder says about this, in "Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis": that we are all citizens, regardless of what we write, and we all must make time for the crucial work of advocacy and activism. I also believe, though, that it's important that poetry not reinscribe a notion of art as somehow disconnected from our social, citizen selves. I think, at least for myself, my job, my responsibility as a writer is to keep myself open to the world as it is, and that means the whole world. How do I, a lyric subject and citizen, register and record what is happening? And how do I find the poetic means to take that up? I don't imagine myself as doing something radical or new by doing this. I do, though, feel that poetry, like any other social practice, can interrogate itself, can find the ways it has limited its reach, can rewrite those boundaries. Robert Lowell said, "I’m trying to live in history,” in For Lizzie and Harriet (originally in Notebooks 1967-68). “What is history? What you cannot touch.” I read this as a statement of obligation, rather than of resignation: to understand—engage with, write in and through, and thus in some small way transform history—is an unending project.

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

I've worked closely with an editor really only once. With flicker, I had direct comments on my manuscript from the judge who chose it for the Antivenom Prize, George Kalamaras, which I took very seriously and which I used to revise the manuscript. With Ephemerist, I worked closely with Susan Gardner, the founding editor of Red Mountain Press. It's part of her practice as a publisher and an editor to work closely with writers. Even though she felt that my manuscript was very close to finished, we had conversations around perhaps a third? maybe half? of the poems in the manuscript. I definitely think that the manuscript is the stronger for that editorial encounter with a sharp-eyed, thoughtful, patient reader.

My writing group are not outside editors, per se, but they are to a person very strong readers/critics. I rely on their feedback and response to my poems, and have had them read manuscripts in progress to get their advice and perspectives. I rely on them. It would be a tremendous loss for me as a writer if I did not have them. So, to turn the question just a bit, I find the process of getting feedback and using it to be essential.

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

One great piece of advice I received from poet (/translator/Renaissance scholar) Kimberly Johnson has to do with taking a capacious view of writing: 'everything you do is writing--walking around, reading, seeing people, cooking, thinking. Writing is not just typing.' Helpful especially for not getting obsessed with a productivity model of writing, where if you don't have pages or words, you're not writing. Kim also told me that, in a conversation she had with Lucie Brock-Broido once, LBB told her that, between books, she took 1000 days before she began to write again. I love that so much. Not advice, per se, just a story (maybe not even fully accurate, who knows? 1000 days sounds mythic) that indicates that spaciousness in a writing life can be a good thing.  

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose to video)? What do you see as the appeal?

I had a sabbatical leave in 2008 where I taught myself to make video essays. I had been nurturing this hope/desire/idea that I could make a video essay about my dog, Bruiser. I loved the experience, because first I needed to teach myself the most rudimentary building blocks of video texts, but I also wanted to achieve some sort of aesthetic effect. It was learning a new syntax, really, prior to using the language to make art. The specific technical challenges were significant, and humbling, but my poetic life had prepared me to think aesthetically in a new medium, and it ended up being a deeply rewarding experience.

I have found that, for myself, being fluent--more or less, fluency is of course not a steady state--in one genre/medium has helped me to more easily adapt to other genres/mediums. I think of myself as a writer first, so I can write many different kinds of things. For instance, I know my video essays are not polished technically, but I also know that they nonetheless achieve an aesthetic effect. I'm also able, with a fair degree of ease, to do the work of critical and even institutional prose, even if I still deal with the roadblocks every kind of writing encounters: getting started, for instance, or the lowkey despair of wondering if any of it matters, anyway.

11 - 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 necessarily work on poems every day, although I like to set aside periods of time when I can really focus on poems--a few days, a week, when there's a break at school, for instance, or in the summer. I just completed a sabbatical leave where I wrote regularly, most days, and I can really tell when that's been the case--all writing is easier when I've been writing a lot.

If I could have my preferences, I'd wake up to the writing, take a look at it, then take a walk or make breakfast. Then I'd do something with writing already underway--add to a draft, or revise a draft, for instance. I'd save starting new drafts for the afternoon and evening.

I don't usually get to have my preferences, of course, so in that case, I write things down in a digital or analog notebook (at this point, I prefer digital--whatever I write in an analog notebook I just end up transferring to the digital one). I move poems along by adding notes or lines. When it feels like I need to give a draft a big push to accomplish it, i gather my notes and try to figure out a place to start. Wherever I start, it's not usually where the finished poem ends up beginning, but the start of the draft is still the start of the draft--it helps you take that step. I like, I have to say, feeling like I can move this deliberately through a process of getting a draft accomplished. The poem still retains its power to surprise me, even if I move rather methodically through its composition.

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

I read, for sure. Sometimes other poets. Sometimes interviews with poets. Sometimes pieces by people who work in other arts--painters or musicians. I research. And I do something I call side-writing--I talk to myself about the poem, in my notebook. What I think is going on, why I'm stuck, what's not working. What I want the poem to do. This writing-about-the-writing, to the side, sometimes helps me to identify what the problem is, and that helps me think of another way into the work.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

It's definitely herbal/floral--lavender, scented geranium leaf, basiil, rose.  

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?

Music, definitely. I have lots of poems about music, that draw from my love of and understanding of music. In Ephemerist, I have a poem that knits Philip Glass in with Yeats' A Vision, a poem about the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions, and a poem in which the speaker believes that a song she can't quite identify features the vocals of Tom Jones. In my current book project, I have elegies for Prince, David Bowie, and Hank Williams. Making words do the work of embodying music is maybe a fools' errand but on the other hand, I love the way poem-writing and music rhyme.

I also never stop getting a charge from seeing visual art.

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

I read piles and piles of detective fiction. Since I read so much of it, I suppose that means it's important in some way to me. As for writers who are important for my work: Gerard Manley Hopkins; Elizabeth Bishop; Louise Gluck's The Wild Iris; Frank Bidart's Desire; all of Yeats; the King James version of the Bible; King Lear and The Tempest. I also use an etymological dictionary all the time. Don Delillo's Underworld, George Eliot, Middlemarch. Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways. These days, in poetry, I try to read works that are not exactly like mine, as a means of discovery: what else can poetry do?

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

I'd like to write a book of essays. And travel with abandon.

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've long nurtured a fantasy that I could run a wonderful small coffee shop/bakery. I've gone through several iterations of this dream. I used to think, a long time ago, that I could have been a pianist. I was never terribly practical in my aspirations, so I think I'm lucky that I found a profession in teaching and a vocation in writing.

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

I started to love poetry when I was quite small. I had a book of poems for children, now lost to time, that wasn't just nursery rhymes, and then Childcraft's volume of poems. In high school, I started to read poetry more seriously. I had a Sunday School teacher who recommended Hopkins to me, god bless her. I bought a collection of Hopkins and Plath's Ariel as my first books of poetry. I checked out Frost from the library. At some point, I just decided that I wanted to write poetry. So I began to, with only reading, really, to guide me. I wasn't one of the literary magazine kids in high school--I was in the choir. I was lucky, again, to have some good teachers along the way, who helped me find my way to craft, and who put good poets in front of me.  

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

The last really great book I read and finished was Robert MacFarlane's Underland. MacFarlane has the great gift of being a gorgeous stylist while also creating narratives about the natural world. That's a wonderful book.

One of the last films I saw in a theater before COVID-19 shut everything down was Celine Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Incredibly beautiful and moving.

In case you're wondering, the next film I plan to watch is the new Bill and Ted Face the Music.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I'm working on the book I've mentioned above, b o m b. The governing idea of this book is an investigation of the past as a kind of weaponized explosive, and how past faiths, past and present wars, one’s genetic inheritance and the surfacing of illness, the harm we have done to the natural world, all detonate in ways that are simultaneously bewildering and predictable. I consider this manuscript to be nearly complete.

I also founded a new independent literary venture, Lightscatter Press ( Briefly, "Lightscatter Press is an independent nonprofit literary press with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. We seek to preserve and extend the material, tactile experience of the printed, bound text through beautiful, innovative design that integrates digital artifacts and experiences created for and with the printed text." We held a book manuscript competition this spring; our judge, Katharine Coles (author most recently of Wayward and Look Both Ways), selected Anna Scotti's book Bewildered by All This Broken Sky. I've been working with the author on editing her book, and we're nearly to the design phase. We plan to have the book out in the first quarter of 2021. Keep an eye out for it!  

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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