Prone to Marauding Poems: An Interview with Lisa Gluskin-Stonestreet

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Lisa Gluskin-Stonestreet is the author of The Greenhouse (Bull City Press, 2014), selected by David Baker for the Frost Place Poetry Chapbook PrizeTulips, Water, Ash was selected by Jean Valentine for the Morse Poetry Prize and published by University Press of New England in 2009. Her poems have appeared in Cream City Review, At Length, Blackbird, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, 32 Poems, Quarterly West, and many other journals and anthologies. She has been awarded a Javits fellowship and a Phelan Award and received fellowships from the Millay Colony for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. She holds an MFA in poetry from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

Lisa lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and son. She works as a freelance writer and editor, teaches in the post-baccalaureate writing program at UC Berkeley Extension, and mentors and edits individual writers. In her spare time, she cooks competently, gardens badly, and buys far more books than she will ever read.

In this interview, Gluskin-Stonestreet shares her thoughts on both her current and past poetic obsessions, writing and revising The Greenhouse, typography, and the influence of “maternal sleep deprivation” on her work.

Who are your major poetic influences? Who are your poetic great-great-grandfathers and mothers?

Influence is such a weird concept. I know that when I first got serious about writing poems, I produced a lot of bad imitations of (in roughly this order) W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Kay Ryan, (early) Louise Glück, (middle-period) Jorie Graham, John Berryman, Robert Hass, Gregory Orr, Anne Carson, Jane Hirshfield. I’ve since fallen in love with more poets and poems than I can name. The ones that stick with me right now as doing work that has shown me where mine might go next over the years are Forrest Hamer, Campbell McGrath, Linda Gregerson, Albert Goldbarth, Jane Mead, Dean Young, Charles Wright, Brian Teare, Rachel Zucker, and Bob Hicok. I could go on, but will leave my most current obsessions for the question at the end, where you ask what I’m reading.

I’m interested in the conception of the arch of The Greenhouse. Did you begin the project with the framework of a chapbook-length manuscript in mind, or did it assume this form as you wrote and revised? How do you think the chapbook-length form serves or suits your themes and narratives? 

I wasn’t thinking about a chapbook at all. I didn’t see myself as a chapbook kind of writer. But then, after a long silence (encompassing the birth of my son, more sleep deprivation than any one person should be allowed to endure, and all kinds of medical and financial emergencies), I wrote a poem that would become “Flowers, Doggies, the Moon.”  Over the next four or five years, I wrote more poems in this new (stringy, tangled) language, and they started to form a larger entity. I realized at some point that I had a chapbook, and sent it to the Frost Place/Bull City competition. When David Baker selected it, I was stunned—my first book had taken seven years to get accepted by a publisher.

For a long time, I was thinking of these poems as part of a longer manuscript, but something clicked into place at about the twenty-five-page mark. They may eventually also become part of something larger—it remains to be seen if the stuff I’m working on now will encompass them, or need to be its own thing. As the title suggests, this book is contained, intense, lush, full of close, heavy air. The poems talk back and forth among themselves, get tangled up together. It turns out the smaller space and narrower lens of the chapbook form is an excellent fit for this kind of work. I’m a convert.

What is your revision process? How long do you typically spend working on a poem before you begin submitting it? Which poem in The Greenhouse has been through the most revisions?

I work pretty slowly, except in those rare instances when I don’t. Most poems start as bits in my notebook—anywhere from three or four words to a half-dozen pages of prose—and then there’s usually a period of fermentation, lasting weeks or years. By the time I pick up a piece and run with it, it might resonate at a very different frequency than it did when it first arose. Once something is in, say, a second or third draft, I can know if it’s becoming interesting, or if I need to just cast it back into my notes file to swim around a bit more. I fully believe in the maxim “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” If something interesting is happening—if the poem clicks into gear and goes somewhere I didn’t expect—it might then go through anywhere between two and ten more numbered drafts, over weeks or months, before it feels ready. And each numbered draft can change multiple times, so number of actual revisions gets fuzzy.

As for number of revisions in The Greenhouse, I can tell you the least: Called” was the last poem I wrote for this book. It felt like the piece that was missing, and I had a sense of the shape of the space I wanted it to fill. It came quickly, in less than an hour, on the same day I wrote the first draft of “Chimera.” (I’m actually sitting in the same seat in the café where I was that day; over the last few years, it’s become my favorite place to write. Sometimes I have to sit at the next table over and glare at someone until they vacate my spot, but it’s totally worth it.) Anyway, maybe three drafts followed over the next few days. I showed it to my writing group, and they made some very good suggestions, which I ignored. So I figured it was ready.

The poem that went through the most revisions is “Like That.” It was initially about three times as long, and then it got even longer—it had two other major strands that I eventually cut out. I want to say that was because I saw the heart of the poem and was admirably ruthless and decisive, but it’s more that I was out of my depth and just salvaged what was working. I haven’t given up on the other bits, though, and every once in a while I come back and work on them. Overall, it went through fifteen numbered documents under four titles, so maybe forty or fifty drafts over four years.

How did you conceive the aesthetic motifs in The Greenhouse? One thing that makes the book so special is the way it negotiates the limitations of language through the use of white space. Do you tend to write poems with this much attention to visual presentation, or was that a choice specific to this project? Why did you make that choice for The Greenhouse?

You say that like I had a choice. I mean, I’ve always paid attention to a poem’s visual presentation. Before this book, most of what I wrote got much of its energy from compression, and the poems’ shape reflected that. But when I started writing these poems, I was coming off a finished book and three straight years of maternal sleep deprivation. I felt like someone had removed my brain, tossed it in a colander like a pot of spaghetti, and put it back in my head, where it remained quite stringy. The shape of the work reflected the shape of my thoughts during those years, the rhythm of my internal voice.

Looking now from a greater remove, I also feel that each poem knows what it wants to be, and my job is to help it get there. These poems wanted to move across the page, quick then slow, talk to themselves, converse with incoming voices, leave space for what can’t quite be said.

Similarly, the book utilizes a variety of spacing and punctuation techniques. Would you discuss the particular ways you relied on typography to serve the project? What do you think exists in the book’s many asides?

I am a total typography geek; I used to be a letterpress printer. I love semicolons and parentheses and dashes and italics, and how they make it possible to layer voices and rhythms even in a poem that is anything but multivocal. I can talk about how the poems use typography, but it’s a kind of postgame analysis—when I’m writing, it’s largely about scoring the rhythms in my head so that can be played back in your inner ear. The parentheses and italics are also, I think, a way of acknowledging the multiple voices we speak in to ourselves. In my mind they also make a poem three-dimensional, existing on a temporal layer above or below the primary thread of the poem. Like a palimpsest, or one of those anatomy books with the clear plastic overlays. The spacing is one way to speed up and slow down time. I envision the poem’s lines as a loom or scaffold, a more regular grid, and working with spacing allows multiple elements to surface at different points, creating a complex polyrhythm. I think of it partly in terms of music (though in my daily life I can’t do much more than follow along to “Happy Birthday”) and partly in terms of more visual/spatial pattern-making and -breaking. Now you know what the inside of my head looks like.

Gregory Orr wrote of the four poetic temperaments and claims that writers are typically prone to two: music, imagination, story, and structure. With which of these temperaments do you see yourself aligning?

I like “prone to”—it’s like being, say, prone to throwing my back out due to sciatica, then lying prone, vulnerable to any marauding poems that might pass my way. Okay, process of elimination. I don’t really find myself aligning with story, as I’m severely plot-impaired. (Someone did once refer to my poems as “mock-narratives,” though, which I take as a compliment.) I’m not sure what “imagination” means—though I like to think I’m imaginative, I’m not very good at making things up; instead, I tend to show what reality looks like through my particular filters.

So that leaves music and structure, which are crucial—otherwise what is there to distinguish poetry from lineated prose? How the poem unfolds, doubles back on itself, surges forward; how the sound of the language, its phrasing and diction, weaves through the rhythm of the structure. When those two elements start to intersect with the third axis of subject matter, a loose “aboutness,” I feel like I’m getting somewhere.

Is motherhood a theme you explored at all in your poetry before you began working on The Greenhouse?

A bit, though I kind of backed into it. The last poem in my first book, “Etymology of Lost,” is spoken by a mother, or at least by myself at a point when I was newly a parent. (I know I’m supposed to be sophisticated enough to name-check the idea that the I of the poem is not the self. In my poems, the I is not very postmodern, even if she is quite permeable.) “Persephone at 13,” also in Tulips, Water, Ash, also dips briefly into a mother-perspective … I was writing it at as I began to emerge from what, in retrospect, was an extremely long adolescence.

What’s next for you? What are you working on right now?

I’m not very prolific and seem to need long fallow periods between bursts of writing activity. Some of this is practical: between my day job as a freelance editor, parenting, teaching, and general life maintenance, writing time often has to come out of sleep if it comes at all. At those times, I just don’t produce much, though I’m always squirreling away lines and images and ideas. Then I go to type them into my notes file, and I can’t read my own handwriting. So a brief flurry of poems emerged while The Greenhouse was in production, then life intervened for a while. Now life is intervening in a big way, but I’m also starting to see what the next book might be—and doing whatever I can to carve out time to get that stuff down, even in a super-rough form. And yeah, I seem to be thinking in terms of books now, as much or more than individual poems. So that’s interesting.

What are you reading these days? What is your favorite poem today?

Books that have startled or moved me recently: Andrea Cohen’s Furs Not Mine. Marianne Boruch’s Cadaver, Speak. Gwendolyn Brooks’s selected poems—the woman was an utter genius. I’ve just finished Eula Biss’s On Immunity, after a passing comment she made in an AWP panel sparked in me a new way to see the poems I’m working on now. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad; I’ll happily eat up anything she writes. I’m about to reread a classic YA novel by Katherine Paterson, Jacob Have I Loved, which, when I first read it, at about age 12, caused something to telescope inside of me; I just wanted to get more of whatever that intensity was, and I wanted to create it myself. And this last week or so, I’ve been coming back, yet again, to Jorie Graham’s poem “Fission,” which keeps reminding me what a poem can do.

* * *

Jane Huffman is a recent graduate of Kalamazoo College, where she earned her BA in Creative Writing and Theatre Arts. Her poetry has been published widely in print and online, in journals including RHINO Poetry, Word Riot, Arroyo Literary Review, Could Mountain Review, and Hot Metal Bridge. She is an Editorial Assistant at Sundress Publications and is beginning MFA candidacy at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall of 2015.

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