Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Lasky’s Book Thunderbird (Wave). Recorded June 22nd. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Your title could seem goofy, but doesn’t. That poise amid potential vulnerability makes it smart and charming. And you’ve never been shy about your admiration for Plath. So can we start with this title, Thunderbird? Do you enjoy picturing thunderbirds? I personally do.
Dorothea Lasky: A confluence of ideas made me decide on that title. First, I tend to write from the ground up. I finish individual poems without necessarily possessing some book-length idea. Then as I collected these poems, I noticed themes of airplanes, flight, large mechanical birds and different demonic forces—also death and the transference between life and death. My mom’s a professor of Native American art, so I grew up around Native American imagery. The thunderbird of course connects to a Plath poem. But once I decided to call this book Thunderbird, many thunderbirds started popping up. A murder story happened at the Thunderbird Motel. My parents drove Thunderbird cars. There’s the liquor. And some readers make comparisons to the search engine, though that seems less of an inspiration.
AF: With the continued reference to Plath across several books, did you feel pressure to expand or intensify or further elucidate her role in your poetics? Do you ever imagine a nasty review in which someone says, “She did that Plath thing again”? Do you see this ongoing immersion in Plath-infused ambiance as itself an interesting phenomenon readers could consider and appreciate? Or, overall, are you content just to live out the Plath years and let them lead where they may?
DL: I hope if somebody said, “She did that Plath thing again,” I could take it as a compliment. And that otherwise I could just roll my eyes, as I do with many things people say. I started writing poems at around age seven. I stopped for one year, from 14 to 15. At 15 I took a poetry class and read Plath. I began writing again, so I think of Plath as coming at this pivotal time. And my deep love for her continues. I don’t know if the Plath years could last forever, but I’m happy to ride that wave of influence however long and far it takes me. Of course, as I grew older, I started to notice snide jabs and various derogatory ideas circulating about Plath’s work. So a kind of anger started brewing. At some point I decided to spend part of my life trying to get people to see how great Plath is and move beyond the misperception of her as a whiny female. That misogynistic idea needed to get unveiled and cracked open. Scholars needed to take her work seriously. Because those critics with the negative opinion often hadn’t read her poems. They’d read “Daddy” in an anthology, which I don’t consider among her best. To really appreciate Plath, you should read the whole collection.
AF: Do you see changes in Plath reception? Here I think of figures like Frank O’Hara—deeply marginalized as a light, occasional, playful poet (at the expense of some all-important seriousness) for perhaps a generation, before a broader readership recognizes that subsequent New York School poets, Language poets, New Narrative poets all respond productively to O’Hara’s precedent. With Plath, I wonder if developments such as the Gurlesque, with its foregrounding of affect, its strategic deployment of discourses conventionally gendered feminine or associated with youth, help point toward Plath’s ongoing legacy.
DL: Well I don’t see this supposed youthful femininity dominating Plath’s poems. But more generally: Gurlesque conversations provide one form of cracking open Plath’s beauty. Still scholars need to find more and better ways of discussing what happens in her work.
AF: As a potential pivot, how about the mournful tone in Thunderbird, which again has appeared before in your books? Is there an autobiographical context worth discussing? Or we could pick up the smart, careful staging of intimate exchanges between the “I” of the text and the “you” of the reader. How do you see constructions of identity and modes of address changing from book to book? Should we consider the “I” of Thunderbird the same (just a little older) as that encountered in Black Life?
DL: Again, autobiography gets associated with a non-gravitas, non-importance. That’s another conversation. But I do think of Thunderbird as part of something like a trilogy. The “I” and “you” remain important throughout as characters, with poems resembling monologues from a play. So the “I” in these three books does keep developing, not necessarily growing older—more digging down to become a demonic element. Thunderbird provides the culmination of this descent into the demonic (which I mean in the best possible way, not as a scary devil). I mean a metaphysical “I” that can transfer and go beyond, that can turn the autobiographical into the universal and allow readers to connect since it has fused elements of itself and from outside itself. So Thunderbird’s mournful tones suggest the culmination of this death, this becoming supernatural.
AF: Could you describe the demonic qualities of this particular “I”?
DL: Sure, and it’s great you don’t have to hear me repeat this every day, because I love to refer to The Shining. I wish I could find another movie to love as much. I think about Jack who ends up becoming one with the hotel. And Delbert Grady says to him, in that red bathroom scene: “You are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I’ve always been here.” Here a demonic “I” has split and shattered into so many parts that a stable center of identity becomes impossible. The terms “autobiography” or “confessionalism” can’t begin to contain this process. So for Thunderbird, a father died and my father died. That’s true. But the metaphysical “I” has descended and now can take on any costume—of its present identity, of the past, of language’s endless possibilities.
AF: Do you conceive of this “I” changing from reader to reader? Do multiple readers access the same “I”? Does the fragmentary dissolution you described suggest that both an individual and a collective experience can happen?
DL: Yes. I don’t mean this as a cop-out, but both processes take place. The reader always constructs meaning within a poem, which varies from reader to reader. Yet the reader too exists beyond or between past and present, self and other. I can’t help thinking of this as a circular relationship—a radiating connection.
AF: The term “mythic” doesn’t get used much anymore, but what you describe sounds related to how preceding generations applied this term to poetry.
DL: Definitely. I always wanted to become a mythology professor. That dream got dashed by practical reality. Though I did major in Classics in college. I’ve always been obsessed with the beauty of the old story.
AF: Do you like Pessoa’s use of myth? Thunderbird claims to “say things / In the simplest way possible.” Of course we could consider this a direct, straightforward statement—though announcing one’s simplicity doesn’t seem so simple, and echoes Pessoa’s Alberto Caeiro. Or the boastful tone you’ll adopt points back to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Do Pessoa’s or Whitman’s poetics relate to what you’ve said about pushing beyond individual identity?
DL: Yes. Catullus stands out for similar reasons. And I love how hip-hop can become quite boastful. In hip-hop you argue that you’ve got the goods, more than somebody else. You set that up before you say anything at all. So I play with this crazy boastfulness—to balance the vulnerability and sadness and common human concerns. Whitman comes in here, embracing contradiction.
AF: I wonder if we should look at how these abstract principles play out in specific poems. “Baby of air” opens the book like this: “Baby of air / You rose into the mystical / Side of things / You could no longer live with us / We put you in a little home / Where they shut and locked the door / And at night / You blew out / And went wandering through the sea and sand / People cannot keep air in / I blow air in / I cannot keep it in / I read you a poem once.” Basic tensions concerning the relationship between narrative and repetition, between argumentative assertion and a gurgling euphonia, seem to get foregrounded. A compulsive, palpable momentum carries with it a diffused, meditative logic. Plath remains one obvious reference point. But I do hear Gertrude Stein as well, specifically in terms of the relationship between repetition and narrative. Wendy Steiner, the scholar, argues that narrative requires a plausible, consistent character—one that repeats over time, yet also gradually changes. Thunderbird’s “I” often seems to emerge from a Steinian insistence, then to offer a Plath-like quick release.
DL: Gertrude Stein’s an equal player in my poems. I love her. I don’t love the words “incantatory” and “playful,” but those parts of her genius I try to steal.
AF: How does your engagement with narrative change from the shorter poems to the longer sequences, such as “Ugly Feelings”? Do these different forms embody quite different goals?
DL: I don’t know if they do different things. I love the idea of the monologue. I think of this book as a performance, each poem as a performance. “Ugly Feelings” provides more background information on a situation. “Baby of air” presents something more like song. Both help to push the narrative, I guess.
AF: And what we’ve called narrative (which seems an approximation) also gets carried over from book to book—through the continued exploration of why it’s a black life, for example.
DL: I really enjoy doing that. I’ll think of Bernadette Mayer’s A Bernadette Mayer Reader, where she’ll say something like, turn to page 121 to make love. Or one poem in Black Life references AWE. It’s called “Ever Read a Book Called AWE?” That’s my nerdy side laughing to itself. But I do think it’s important to create this bigger cohesiveness. I don’t know what will happen after Thunderbird, since I’m working on a book of plays.
AF: Plays by poets like Carla Harryman allow for further explorations of aesthetics, erotics, the hermeneutics of address. In your own poems, such as “I want to be dead” or “Death of the Polish empire,” death or ghosts seem to serve as distancing mechanisms—prompting further explorations of poetic subjectivity, of poetic temporality, of what it means for us to encounter an “I.” Sometimes in Thunderbird the pronoun “I” seems to get equated with death. When identity crystallizes around an “I,” death often appears as well. Emily Dickinson poems about already being dead, or anticipating death (often as somehow analogous to literary identity) come to mind. Could you talk about death as a recurring motif in your work?
DL: Dickinson seems a great example. Or Alice Notley too. They help shape how death plays out in Thunderbird because only through a close understanding of death does this “I” become a demon who can shed identity and take on any costume. That knowledge, a real knowledge of death, is important to Thunderbird and to my life in general. I think about death as the big equalizer. And poetry always exists between the realms of the living and the dead. These poems already have seen both.
AF: Do you sense that once identity flows into a poem, which gets shut in the book, then something has died? Does that help to describe how poetic life fuses with death?
DL: When you think of a reader, ideally stretching into the future (so far you can’t even conceive of them, yet you speak to them), some sense of death always lurks in that. The poet has to die for her poem to become important. That intimacy only can happen when some person in the distant future reads it. Though I guess “the future” could mean the present, too. But the poet has to hand over that intimacy to the reader, which seems a type of death. That closeness can’t truly happen in life. Even if somebody reads your work then you become friends or get married or whatever: As close as two people become in this lifetime, I don’t think it equals the intimacy that occurs after death.
AF: The Borgesian poem “Time” seems relevant here. Does Thunderbird’s structure deliberately build up to “Time”? Does that piece provide some sort of minor culmination—either in your own trajectory with this “I” through three books, or across a broader tradition of literary meditations and reflections on time?
DL: Hopefully both of those happen. The “I” has to descend more and more, become something demonic, to confront time. Time seems even more abstract than death, since death (or death’s approach) we can experience. For humans to consider time, how we construct it and what lies beyond that does seem a culminating idea. To think this way gives the “I” a kind of freedom, and increases her power. You said you like to picture thunderbirds. I do think of the “I” as this gigantic, beautiful, multi-colored thunderbird that has this freedom, these wings, yet through descent has grown even more beautiful, because she has gained a real knowledge of time and of death.
AF: I know you don’t call this book’s last poem “Hello,” but I think of it as “Hello.” I know it’s “The changing of the seasons is life and death seen gently”—another great title. Could you describe why encountering the word “hello” in this poem becomes a form of life and death seen gently?
DL: “Hello” alerts the reader, almost as if a presence has entered the room. It could be animal, human, supernatural. How does it make its presence known? Our contemporary human way is to say “hello,” to greet, to gently acknowledge another’s presence even while announcing one’s own existence. You don’t say “Here I am!” or “Here’s Johnny” or whatever. You acknowledge reciprocal presence.
AF: And does this relational acknowledgment also acknowledge death? Does the “life and death seen gently” in your title point to some broader reciprocity—suggested by the combined arrival/departure of the seasons?
DL: Here I think of Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me—” and that idea of a gentle, tender, sweet way the death occurs, where it just is what is. It sees no reason to overdramatize itself. It just comes or occurs as a natural force. Whether or not we believe death regenerates anything seems a separate conversation. But that mortal “hello” becomes entwined with an acknowledgment of presence. If you feel yourself getting sick and don’t do anything about it, then you get really sick, and that’s a kind of greeting. You acknowledge the illness’s presence. There’s a gentleness to that—though you don’t feel it as the person sick. There’s the message: this is how things work, you can’t stop it, no idea ever will stop it, and this process will keep occurring right past you.
AF: Death as Dickinson’s kindly, cordial suitor here comes back. Does this relation to death resemble being with someone who always will act appropriately, in any given situation, so you don’t need to worry about making some huge gaff?
DL: I do think of death like that. Of course one could die in painful ways, and I personally hate death. But death will do the right thing. I do think death just lets you enter another space. It doesn’t try to rip you from everything important, or erase your identity and cause you to split into a million pieces and turn to ashes or whatever we want to think. It’s just doing what it does and your conception of certain experiences as so important, that’s simply your misconception.
AF: Does that sound good as an ending for you?
DL: For sure: hats off to death.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, all out from Wave Books: Thunderbird, Black Life and AWE. She is also the author of several chapbooks, including: Thing (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2012), Matter: A Picturebook (Argos Books, 2012), The Blue Teratorn (Yes Yes Books, 2012) and Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Born in St. Louis in 1978, her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, The Laurel Review, MAKE magazine, Phoebe, Poets & Writers Magazine, The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review and 6×6, among other places. Her writing on education has appeared in The Atlantic, Writing & Pedagogy and Science Educator. She is a graduate of the MFA program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, holds a doctorate in creativity and education from the University of Pennsylvania and also has been educated at Harvard University and Washington University. She has done educational research at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Philadelphia Zoo and Project Zero and has taught poetry at Wesleyan University, Columbia University and New York University, where she serves as Faculty Director of their Writers in Florence program.