Dorothea Lasky Black Life Interview

                                  The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

Dorothea Lasky is an American poet from St. Louis who has authored two collections of poetry to date: AWE and Black Life. She is a graduate of the MFA program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and has also been educated at Harvard University and Washington University. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Boston Review, Lungfull!, and Carve as well as among other publications. She has taught poetry at New York University, the Fashion Institute of Technology, The New England Institute of Art, Health Elementary School, and the Munroe Center for the Arts. She has also done educational research at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Philadelphia Zoo, and Project Zero. She is currently researching creativity and education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nazifa Islam: Before I ask any specific questions about the book, I was wondering if you could enlighten me as to what your creative process is like. I know that's probably a question that you've been asked a lot, and it is fairly generic, but I’m curious about how you view the whole writing process.

1. Do you have a specific idea when you start a poem - something you want to accomplish? Or do you start a poem not knowing what the direction's going to be, and just see what happens? Or is it a mixture of both, depending on the poem?

Dorothea Lasky: I don’t have an idea of where a poem will go exactly when I start to write it. I think intuition is extremely important to the creative process and it is intuition that fuels a poem for me. I think it is ok to have an idea when you start a poem, but I don’t think you should be in control of the direction a poem will go to entirely.

2. How do you approach compiling a book of poetry?

D.L.: I view it thematically. So, I try to find themes (colors, images, content) in my poems and arrange a book around these. Sometimes there are larger themes and then sub-themes. In some ways, I see a book as a narrative and I want to tell some sort of overarching story. But less a story with a beginning, middle, and end, than a lesson.

3. In regards to Black Life, did you compile poems that seemed to speak to a certain tone or (set of) topic(s), or was there an initial idea in place for the book which meant writing poems to accommodate that idea?

D.L.: I think that both the poems with a certain tone and the theme of the book happened simultaneously. The line that starts the book and is the title “No Milk/Black Life” comes from a prompt the poet Laura Solomon told me about. She said she and a friend were playing around with the lines and trying to imagine what scene might go with such lines. The scenes they imagined were very bleak. When she told me the lines, I immediately imagined a very sad scene of a mother and son, at the depths of poverty, sitting in a dark room (done up in the colors and mood of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters). In my imagined scene, the mother opens the refrigerator door and there is no food. The boy then says “No Milk/Black Life” and smiles eerily. After I had this vision, I knew it was a great title for the book. I started arranging my already very sad poems around this theme and adding in the color black and the term black life when appropriate. I also wrote new poems with this title in mind.

N.I.: Still in regards to your "creative process": I noticed while reading AWE, that certain poems actually included lines repeated verbatim from Sylvia Plath poems. I'm having a hard time remembering exactly which poems these were, but the quotations "devilish leopard" and "the pure gold baby that melts to a shriek" (or a variation on that line) come to mind.

D.L.: Sure. Yes, you are correct.

N.I.: I'm a Sylvia Plath fan myself, and I found the inclusion of such, say homage, to her in your poetry really exciting. So when reading Black Life I tried to pay attention to whether or not there was any similar repetition of Plath lines. I only picked up on "lemon water" from "Fat" though - which might not actually be at all related to Plath. So I'm curious on a couple of fronts:

4. Whether or not "lemon water" was an (intentional?) reference to Plath's "Fever 103"?

D.L.: Yes. And thank you for noticing. “Fever 103 degrees” is one of my favorite poems. Lemon water seems like such a wretched thing in Plath’s poem. I feel like that is the way Anorexia feels.

5. Whether you purposefully set out to include such references in your poetry, or if they simply come organically and then seem to fit in the poem? Or maybe your writing process is even a mixture of both the organic and inorganic?

D.L.: My writing process is a mixture of both, yes. I think it would be completely misleading of me to assert that my poems have no forethought or structure in them—that they are in fact “inorganic” as you say. But my writing process is largely organic. I believe in the importance of the organic component of poetry very vehemently.

N.I.: I really enjoyed your prose poem "The Poetry That Is Going to Matter After You Are Dead." The first line definitely hooked me - Sylvia Plath is my favorite poet as well - and I felt that your description of who she is as a poet was spot on. The poem quickly moves from discussing Plath to talking about the poem's speaker, and then to discussing what exactly poems which are worth remembering are composed of. Reading through the poem, a couple of questions came to mind:

6. What was your thought process behind constructing the poem as a prose poem as opposed to in more traditional stanza form?

D.L.: I wanted the poem to be relentless and I think prose poems are relentless, because there is no room for line break/breath.

7. Was the poem always a prose poem, or was it at one point a more traditional (aka: composed of stanzas) poem?

D.L.: It was always a prose poem.

8. In your opinion, does prose poetry lend itself to any particular subject matter, or to a specific tone when writing?

D.L.: I think a prose poem is like riding a train that’s gone off the tracks.

9. Is the poem/Can the poem been seen as a plea for the ideals of modernism and romanticism to be more a part of poetry today than they currently are?

D.L.: It can in part, but it is also meant to be a little jab at these ideals as well. I do greatly love the work of the Modernists and the Romantics. I especially love the Modernists.

N.I.: The fact that the speaker discusses his/herself as a poet in the poem - which happens rather frequently throughout various poems in the collection actually - made me curious about your choice to discuss the writing of poetry within your poems. You don't shy away from stating that the poem which the reader is reading - or which is addressing a particular individual or audience - is in fact a poem. There's a transparency between the speaker, the subject matter and even the reader throughout the book's poems.

10. Was this transparency something you intentionally created throughout the book, or something you set out to accomplish when writing?

D.L.: I am interested in what happens when the fourth wall has already been ostensibly broken. How then do you bring the author back in? And, I also see the lifelong process of being a poet as enacting a long-term relationship with your reader. It ebbs and flows, gets more and less intimate, but it is a bond no matter what, and a bond that is effectively unbreakable if you continue to write poems.

11. If so, what exactly was the rationale behind writing poems that were constructed in this manner?

D.L.: To continue to build on what can be done with direct address.

12. Whether or not you did intentionally set out to create this relationship between the poem's speaker/subject/reader, do you think that this relationship accomplishes anything in particular that could not have been done if you did not explicitly state within various poems that your poems are poems?

D.L.: I think the honestly takes away the barrier and the pretense. I think pretense keeps some readers away from poetry unnecessarily. I think that some might interpret this relationship as a call towards something opposite to artifice, but this is not what I meant to do. I hope my poem “Style is Joy” might explain this a bit.

N.I.: I noticed throughout the book that colors and animals kept reappearing, often within the same poem ("Yellowbird" and "Green" for example).

13. Do you find that particular colors lend themselves to particular poems? (A generic example would be that black is appropriate in poems with a more melancholic tone.)

D.L.: I like to constantly see what colors can do. I definitely don’t think that colors have set and/or defined tones (black as melancholic, etc.). Colors lend energy to particular poems. What is a poem without colors? Certainly not one I want to read.

14. Do you have a process by which you decide which color you're going to use in a poem? Is green the appropriate color in "Green" for a particular reason?

D.L.: I don’t have a set process. For that particular poem, I chose that color because I noticed a lot of green in Noelle Kocot’s book The Raving Fortune. And because the poem deals with youth and green has many connotations there obviously.

15. How does the use of animals function in your poetry? Kind of mimicking the above question, why did you choose otters for "Me and the Otters"?

D.L.: Animals are very important in my poems. I wish I could give a really great reason for using otters (other than they are so cute and I used to work in a zoo and watch them). One important reason was a play on “Me and the Others.”

16. Is the title supposed to be a sort of more whimsical rendition of "me and the others"? And did the poem's title come before or after you wrote it? I'm curious because there is no mention of otters in the poem until almost the very end.

D.L.: Hehe, I guess I answered this already. The poem’s title came before and then I put it in towards the end. Sometimes I do that to create unity in a poem. It’s an old trick, I think.

N.I.: Religion, or faith, also seems to play an important role throughout Black Life. It's mentioned in various poems, including "Nuns" or course, and seems to be lauded in "The Poetry That Is Going to Matter After You Are Dead."

17. Would you say that the importance of faith is a theme in Black Life?

D.L.: Faith is very important to both Black Life and my first book, AWE. It is important to Black Life, because the book is a struggle against nihilism.

18. If theme seems like too strong a word, would it be fair to say that the book at least discusses faith in some way?

D.L.: Yes, I think it does.

19. Did you set out to discuss faith when writing, or did it just organically emerge in your poetry?

D.L.: Again, my tendency is to say organically.

*Dorothea Lasky was kind enough to answer my questions via email.

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