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“The Notion of Life and Art as Constant Performance”: An Interview with Dorothea Lasky

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The following interview with Dorothea Lasky was conducted in 2015 by Caitlin Mohney as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.

Dorothea Lasky

In an interview, you mention that you take your current and future readers into consideration when writing. Can you elaborate on how that manifests in your writing process?

When I write a poem, I am very aware that one day (hopefully) a real person will read it. This helps me to always consider the type of language I am using and how it might convey the emotions or ideas I want to say in ways that are clear or accessible to a wide variety of people. It also helps me limit the use of language that is too internally-driven, because in some ways I am always thinking of how to write towards the external. I feel that because the job of poetry is to make new language, it is important to think about the ways in which this new language could be used by others. And for me, thinking of these readers enables me to write poems with a kind of profound love towards the future.

How this manifests in my writing process is that I oftentimes (especially in past work, but not necessarily in the poems that I am working on now) imagine an immortal beloved who is both real and unreal. This beloved you could be one in the traditional sense of the word—it could be a you that I feel profound love for. Or it could be a you that I feel some profound disdain for, hatred even. Whatever the case, I often feel like it’s important that I display an intense emotion to the you within the scope of the poem. Directing many of my poems to this you is helpful because it allows them to function almost like letters. The you of the poems has the same meaning the implicit you in a letter has—it’s real, informal, and full of complex emotion all at once.

You’ve talked about how readers and critics often label your work as “Confessional” (as they often do to the work of female poets). By contrast, in your essay “Poetry and the Metaphysical I,” you discuss your attempts to write in the voice of a more universal first person. How do you go about crafting this Metaphysical I within the confines of being read as a Confessional poet?

I think that I craft my by assuming that I am not a Confessional poet, as I don’t really consider myself one or find that label as a helpful way to understand my own poetry and many other poets who have had that label assigned to their work. In the essay you mention, I am trying to uncover a new kind of use of the first-person I, which within that piece I term a Metaphysical I.

My definition of this is one that functions as a kind of trickster within the poem—one who might begin in a poem with one identity, but then who quickly can turn into another thing or person many times over within the course of the poem. I got the root of this idea, among many other more contemporary places, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, because in that poem the identity of the speaker is constantly changing and you never exactly know who the speaker is and what his/her/its motivations are. I also like to think of every poem as a sort of performance, and the idea behind this term comes from this as well. If the of every poem a poet ever writes is an actress, then for me the doesn’t change its costume just between poems or between books, but potentially at every line, or even within lines.

I’ve always felt a bit distanced from the term confessional, because it’s seemed too simple and/or derogatory. It seems to me to connote (and not necessarily when it was first coined by M.L. Rosenthal in 1959, but maybe more so as it is used today) that a poet isn’t industrious enough, that he or she hasn’t tested their imagination and then written a poem from this space. There always seems to be this implicit idea that a person should do more than record their everyday life if they dare call themselves a poet, and that poets write poems but that confessional poets write something else. Of course, I vehemently worship the recording of the everyday, of real life and emotion, and think that by placing the bad and good together you have made a poem, not just a confessional poem. But I do think that the taboo of using real life is becoming more accepted, and maybe the term confessional will be retired or changed. Certainly, much loved contemporary poetry has been bridging the gap between nonfiction and poetry (Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts are two obvious brilliant examples of this), and I am excited to see all of the new poems that will be written from this space and/or intersection.

Each of your books has a strong sense of voice; however, in your latest book, ROME, the language seems to have found even greater precision and focus. Do you see the trajectory of your books working in any specific ways?

I agree with you that my voice in ROME has become more precise and focused, and that there might be some reason behind this. In thinking and talking about my first three books, I always frame them as a sort of trilogy, with the speaker of my first book in a kind of state of sublime religious fanaticism all the way into my third book, where I feel my speaker descends early on into the demonic I. I think that my needed to travel in this arc to get to a place where it could be precise, because by being a demon it could do anything it wanted to—or more importantly, needed to. It is my hope that my next books will extend this freedom even further, as I’d love to experiment more with what a poetry book can do in the space of being a timeless object, a subject for divination, and a communicator across many fields of being.

In your essay “What is Color in Poetry, or is it the Wild Wind in the Space of the Word,” you talk about the potential color has for building an image or idea within poems. In your own poetry, how do you go about ensuring your readers see and experience a color the way you want them to?

The things I discussed in that particular essay are extremely important to my thinking about poetry—to my poetics, if you will. I think color is particularly key in helping poets and readers communicate with each other in thorough ways, because of the ability for color to be both viscerally and spiritually wise. It’s true that when I say “orange” you and I might not see the same exact orange in our minds, but there is still some shared experience between us: we both have some idea of what the color orange can do in real space and time. Orange in the many ways it exists as material in our imaginations still vibrates on its own frequency. The word orange and the resonances in all of our brains of the sound of that word and its hue is the very stuff of communion that poetry is made of and/or made to do. And so, colors become the building blocks for building images and ideas in poems—although they are only one small (but obviously significant) way.

In my own poetry, I am not sure how much I want to ensure that my readers see and experience a color exactly how I have intended them to. I am interested in the various ways humans can experience sensual things, even as seemingly basic things as primary or secondary colors, and I think one of the most important things poems can do is to provide a platform for this variability to exist in harmony.

You’ve discussed in other interviews that you approach reading your poetry as a type of performance. Can you explain the choices you’ve made concerning the persona you’ve built as a poet and how they manifest in your public readings?

Very early on in developing my persona, I became aware—as I mentioned earlier—that it was important to me to imagine real people, whether they were alive, already dead, or yet to be born, reading my poems. This sort of attraction to reality is of course no more obvious than when you are reading your work aloud to a group of people. And very early on in giving readings I became aware that, like any performance, doing certain things elicited different responses from people. I began to see how exciting it was to include humor in a poem, because then you might get the immediate feedback of laughter that is sometimes lacking at poetry readings. I began to see the effects that spell-like repetition had on a group of people, in a way to channel moods, ideas, and communion. I began to see how what I was wearing functioned as a sort of costume, even considering how everyday and non-performative my clothes might seem on the surface. And I began to realize how much I appreciated the notion that a poet was a kind of spiritual medium. This notion of persona and poet as mystic or rabbi of the immaterial world conflated with my idea that in a poetry reading the poet becomes different than the person he, she, or they is within the real world.

I guess what I am trying to say is that early on the realization that the poet and the persona of my poems were both performing and transforming constantly into something other than the self became a kind of supreme freedom in my development of both. Others might say that the occult provided and still provides for me a kind of artistic freedom like no other. I might prefer to say that the notion of life and art as constant performance has provided for me a lifelong freedom, which I am deeply appreciative of and that my work is absolutely indebted to.

Dorothea Lasky is the author of five books of poetry, including Milk (2018), ROME (2014), and AWE (2007). She is the co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (2013) and several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (2010). Currently, she is an assistant professor of poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, directs the poetry concentration in the MFA program, acts as a co-faculty advisor for Columbia Artist/Teachers (CA/T), and organizes the university’s summer writing program. Lasky lives in New York City.