Lyn Lifshin




Where and when were you born?


I was born in Burlington, Vermont in a Catholic hospital, something my mother had vowed when my grandmother, pronounced dead after a car accident, was nursed back to health by the nuns. They always said, since we were not Catholic, ďyou pray in your way and we will pray in ours.Ē  So since everyone was so grateful, my mother went through with her promise.




Could you tell us something about your background?


My mother had gone to Simmons College and graduated from Maryland College for women. She wanted to be a librarian or dance but she ended up getting married to my father who had come from Russia with little advanced education. He was probably around 10. I have a wallet with his birth certificate and the town he came from. But tho we lived in the same house, he seemed to float through rooms, was hardly there with us.




Were either of your parents or grandparents (or any other relatives) writers?If not, were any of your relatives actively interested in literature?


My mother read a lot, there were millions of books in the house and Iím sure I had a library card by three or four. A great uncle wrote occasional poems for special events Ė these poems were published in the local newspapers in Rutland Vermont and I have them in New York in a blue scrapbook.




Are any of your siblings writers or involved in a creative profession?


This question has so many bizarre ramifications - it would take a book to answer and also a rather unpleasant one so I will leave it blank.




What was the first poem (or who was the first poet) that turned you on to poetry?


When I was very young, I was read "Now We Are Six" and I loved it!! I still remember fragments. Because I was good at reading (not good at math) I was skipped from first grade to third and then continued skipping. But my third grade teacher was so influential. She had us reading poets from Milton to Blake. We started the morning with poetry. I could daydream. Iíd let myself merge with the pale pink petals that made their way into several poems I wrote at 6 and 7 years old. ďApple blossoms toss and sway in the open breeze/ it seems as if they want to play/ high among the trees. Pale pink blossoms floating high, fragrance they do bring/ birds among them often fly/ see songs they do sing.Ē I donít know if itís coincidental that apples and apple trees became not only a leitmotif in so much of what Iíve written since, but have even found their way into the titles of my books: Black Apples; Forty Days Apple Nights, Apple Tree Lane, Paper Apples, Apple Blossoms.




What age were you when you first began writing poetry, and did you receive any encouragement?


I was about six when I began to write. Partly because of Mrs. Flag, I started to write seriously. I had to. One Saturday I copied a poem of William Blakeís and showed it to my mother, told her I had written it. She was amazed. Since Middlebury, Vermont is one of those calendar quaint towns with one Main Street and Village Green, itís not surprising she ran into Mrs. Flag, and told her it was wonderful that sheíd been such an influence, that Iíd written this wonderful poem with words hat she didnít even know I knew. So, by the following Monday, I had to write my own poem.


I did get some special encouragement. Iíd never been close to my father. Few people were. But he got along fabulously with Robert Frost. They were both taciturn, seemingly cold men. Frost would come into the store my father worked in (my grandfatherís store, then my uncleís) to buy baggy green pants my father would shorten. I guess they talked, or at least endured each other in silence. To my astonishment, my father had taken a poem of mine to show Frost. That poem was one of few Iíd written. Robert Frost read my poem, wrote, ďvery good images sayeth Robert FrostĒ under it and told my father heíd like me to come to see him, bring him more poems. I didnít have others. But Frostís words gave me the belief that I could write.




When you started writing poetry did you have dreams about becoming a "professional" poet?If so, did anyone advise you against this course of action?


 First I was in theater. Then I wanted to get a PHD so I could have a ďreal jobĒósomething to fall back on. Iím not sure I was discouraged. Maybe I should have been.




Did you ever get a poem published in your school magazine?


Lots of little poems in The Tigerís Tale in high school and then in The Syracuse 10




Did you go to university, and if so, which subject(s) did you study?


I went to Syracuse University as an undergraduate. I started in theater and then switched to English and radio and television. The Bread Loaf writing conference. The University of Vt where I was special British lit major and then The Bread Loaf English Program and Brandeis University and State University of New York at Albany.




When did you first start submitting to poetry magazines? And can you tell us how many rejections you received before having something accepted for publication?


I started submitting in the late sixties, my first submission, two versions of the same haiku. That was rejected. The next submission was accepted a few weeks later.




What was the worst rejection you ever received?


Iíve received so many rejections. I donít like them but they really donít bother me. One weird one said something like: "you only write about relationships, family, politics, history, and world events, subjects I have no interest in!"


What really DOES annoy me is getting back empty envelopes when I send not only sase but a special note requesting the return of the poemsóand thereís a lot of postage but no poems. That is annoying.




What was your first published poem?Which poetry magazine published it?And what year was it published?


Lets see my first accepted poem was called "Jonathan" and it was in Kauri late sixties in August and the next accepted later I think but out first was in Folio - a small love poem - both close in time. I published so often in both magazines - I forget which of my poems was first in Folio.




Round about the time that you started seriously writing poetry, who were your literary heroes?And would you say they had an influence on your writing style?


Oh there were so many - I was coming out of working on a PhD and reading Wyatt andDonne, and had done my MA on Dylan Thomas. Wrote a long thesis on Lorca - I am sure they all influenced me. Then of course Sexton, Plath - then leaving graduate school abruptly I read Bukowski, some of the mimeo magazine writers, the anti academics - so many writers over time have touched me and influenced me.




Have you ever attended a creative writing course or been involved in a writers' group?If so, did you find it useful?


Iíve done very little in terms of taking a creative writing course. I started one at Brandeis and then left very quickly. When I lived in Washington Dc I was in a writers group briefly. Iíve been at a couple of writerís conferences where I won scholarships, Bread Loaf and Boulder Writerís conference - all interesting.




When did you put together your first collection of poetry?


I didnít actually put together any of my early collections of poetry: they all came from generous submissions of poetry to a magazine and then having the editor ask to do a book from the poems. "Why Is The House Dissolving" came from a submission to Lung Socket Press and was published by Open Skull pres in 1969. Around the same time, Morgan Press began the first of a series of my poems, "Lady Lyn" from another submission. Until my first Black Sparrow book, "Cold Comfort", most, if not all of my books came from poetry submissions.




How long did it take to get it accepted for publication?And, if appropriate, how many times was it rejected?


I guess I have answered this question by telling you how my books mostly came from a large submission of poems - often it still does. Submissions of Marilyn Monroe poems became my collection of Marilyn poems, the same with themes relating to The Holocaust (Blue Tattoo) Barbie from Barbie poems - Shake House poems - almost all from submission of poems or at the request of the publisher.




How long did you have to wait between acceptance and final publication?


That has varied so wildly - with "Why Is The House Dissolving" and "Lady Lyn" and another book published almost at the same time, "Leaves And Night Things" also came from a submission to a magazine, Baby John. They came out fairly soon.




What sort of critical response did you receive?††


"Why Is The House Dissolving?" a mimeo magazine, got amazingly amazingly favorable reviews. In Works Magazine John Hopper compared the work to Creeley and Plath and said the poems ďstand on their own gorgeous legs.Ē Believe me, that was a real thrill.




Would you say that your publisher actively promoted the book?


Thatís hard to say. The book went out of print. At the time the small press books often were published in very small editions. To tell you the truth, I never really thought about it.




Did you do readings and signings at bookshops to help promote the book?If so, did you organize these yourself, or were they organized by your publisher?And would you say that they had a significant effect on sales figures?


Over the years I have worked EXTREMELY hard to organize readings, have my books used in courses, just be out there. Yes, I do think it helps. Especially in times when books that used to be reviewed by places like Library Journal and Publisherís Weekly, power houses that used to review poetry, now pretty much ignore them.I canít remember a publisher organizing a reading - I might be forgetting - I know some have talked about doing it lately but I am not thinking of any right now. I organized a few things for AWP and John Martin was wonderful in supply many many Black Sparrow books and beautiful covers and posters. Some California presses, knowing I was coming out to read, probably helped set up readings - Applezaba did and there might be others I am not thinking of.




How many copies of the book sold?


I have no idea with any of the books! Not the first or the last, though I know which ones Iíve received royalties from.




Is it still in print?


On no, almost none of my books are in print still, only the most recent. I probably have over a hundred out of print.




At the beginning of your writing career did you enter any poetry competitions?Did you enter a lot or just a few? Did you have any success?And, with hindsight, what are your thoughts about the relative merits or demerits of poetry competitions?


No, I never entered any poetry competitions. Once I was asked to. I am rather negative about contests.




Which of your poetry books has been the most successful in terms of sales, and how many copies has it sold to date?


My Black Sparrow books have done well, especially when John Martin ran Black Sparrow have done well. My anthology "Tangled Vines: Mothers And Daughters" was kept in print for twenty years.


The book that sold best is my recent, "The Licorice Daughter: My Year With Ruffian". I fell in love with the horse and while this is such a different subject for me, I was obsessed. The book did amazingly well, does. When Barbaro got injured, he was always compared to Ruffian and sales spiked but the biggest spike was when they showed the film "Ruffian" after the Belmont race: ratings on Amazon got to around 110 for a little time!!!!





Have you won any awards for your poetry?


I feel I need my resume in hand! OK I recently won a Paterson Award for continuing Excellence by a former Paterson Award winner for "Another Woman Who Looks Like Me", "Cold Comfort" and "Before Itís Light" won Paterson awards. Here is a list of writing awards and grants: Harcourt Brace Scholarship to Boulder Writerís Conference

Poetry Prize at Boulder Writerís conference (judges Richard Eberhart and Alan Dugan)

Hart Crane Award; San Jose Bicentennial Poetry Award; New York State CAPS grant; Yaddo fellowships, 1970, 71, 75, 79, 80; Mac Dowell fellowship; Millay Colony; Bread Loaf Scholarship; Ms Magazine choice for Poetry Reading at Joseph Papp Theater; Ms Magazine Choice of one of the 60 best books for 1978 for Tangled Vines; Jack Kerouac Award; Centennial Magazineís Political Poetry prize; Madeline Sadin Award; Footwork Award; Bring Back the Stars; Esttersceffler Award; Writerís Digest Award for best writing on writing.




Do you make a living out of poetry?


Iíve done a lot besides writing poetry: I have edited 4 anthologies of womenís writing, done many readings and workshops, toured doing readings, sold papers to archives and taught occasionally.




With the benefit of hindsight, are you glad that you pursued your dream of being a poet?Also, if you could turn the clock back, would you do anything different?


Hard to say - sometimes I think a more practical choice would have been easier but probably Iíd do the same thing.




If a young would-be poet approached you, which poets would you recommend as vital reading?


Everything, anything.





Which poetry magazines would you recommend him or her to subscribe to?


This changes all the time. There are so many great magazines out there, print magazines, online magazines - too many to list.




Assuming that this would-be poet showed some promise, would you advise him or her to pursue a "career" in poetry?


Not a career. No, tell him/ her to write if he/ she canít help themselves from doing it. But not expect everything you want to come from this.




Finally (and extremely hypothetically), you are selected to appear on the hit reality TV show, "Desert Island Poets", where you are marooned on a tropical island for three months with a typewriter and several reams of paper.You are provided with all necessary provisions, but you are only allowed to take three books with you.Your appearance fee is more than you could hope to earn in a decade and the show is so popular that all previous participants have become best-selling poets.So, would you participate?And if so, which three books would you take with you?


Since 2004 I have been working on books about horses, Ruffian so intensely I could read nothing but horse books and then, with only a short few months break, Barbaro - soI am mostly reading equine books - and with the last months over intense work on Barbaro, not even that. Though still not done with "Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness", I am taking a breath and hope to finish Bill Nackís Ruffian.




See: Lyn Lifshin's publication list

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