Monday, February 10, 2014

Writing Never Felt Like a Choice: The Lindsey Forche Interview

I met Lindsey Forche a few years ago when we were both employees at Borders in Toledo. It didn’t take long for us to learn we both had a mutual love for Tori Amos, a shared interest in poetry, and a strong desire to write the quintessential American novel or poetry collection. We talked about poetry but we shared very little of our original work with one another. I recall, in the mess of my memory, giving Lindsey a copy of a poem I was working on to read in the break room at Borders, and reading an e-mail from her with several of her musical, fierce poems attached.

Finally, in July 2009, I invited Lindsey to read as a feature at the Ground Level, one of Toledo’s poetry venues. My friend John, who was also scheduled to read, died quite unexpectedly a month before the reading. We all agreed to go ahead with the reading anyway, which became a kind of wake for John, whom Lindsey had never met. In spite of being surrounded by dozens of people she didn’t know, mourning a loved one also unknown to her, Lindsey read her poems and also very graciously read a few John’s, and she read them with grace, care, and tenderness.
Her own poems seemed to glow, they were so new to many of us who’d been reading together for so long. At this point I’d still never heard Lindsey read her own poems, and though I had seen them and read them, I wasn’t prepared for the music of them. Lindsey’s poems are characterized by a musical inner rhyme and unexpected enjambed lines that feel flirty. It’s like you’re following them somewhere and they keep stopping to look at you, over their shoulder, sort of smoldering and fierce. And you don’t know if it’s a good idea to keep following them but you do. You can’t help yourself.
If I can cheat a little bit, in order to describe her poems, I’d say they feel like a mash up between Ann Sexton and Tori Amos. They sexual, tense, razor sharp, and so intelligent. The women who populate the Tori Amos songbook are closely related to the women in Lindsey’s poems; they share a certain upended expectation of what their intelligence and beauty should have provided them, and there’s a certain kind of restraint and world weariness I feel like I only see in poetry by the best women writers. Here, in these poems, you find Pandora’s, Eve’s, and Medusa’s descendants. You will also find a sense of humor, an intellect that’s playful and slyly winking, a come-hither glance and a please stay at arm’s length glare. It’s the Madwoman in the Attic walking down the stairs, filled with resignation and expectation.
Enjoy this interview, and these poems, read them out loud over and over again. Try reading them with the props Lindsey uses to write them, and have your favorite music playing in the background and a glass of robust Cabernet in hand.

Thank you for reading.

I started thinking about what makes your poems unique to me. One of the things that struck me right off is that your poems make me think of Tori Amos lyrics before they make me think of poets as influences. And I know you like Tori as much as you like Sexton or Plath. So can you talk about the role of popular music in the making of your poems? I think we have so much more media today to sift through, and maybe all those varied noises and words and concepts do more to shape our work than the influence of a few much-loved and well-read poets with a capital "P".

I agree with this. And Tori really was one of my very first “poetic” influences. I remember my mom driving me to ballet class when I was really young, and “God” came on the radio, and I just thought, This is what I want to do. Not through music, necessarily, though I tried piano lessons after that, but just to express myself the way she did. I’ve known since I was in preschool that I wanted to be a writer. I wrote silly little poems and sent them to children’s periodicals I found in the Writer’s Market Guide, and some of them saw print and some of them received cute little rejection letters. But hearing that song, that piano, those lyrics, changed the way I thought about words and their power. To be honest, I think music influences me more than just about anything else. Writing the rough draft of my novel, I’d put the songs on rotation and pour myself a glass of creative juice, which in my case is Cabernet Sauvignon. Emily Haines (daughter of the poet Paul Haines), old Death Cab for Cutie, Cat Power, Elliott Smith, Bon Iver, Gregory Alan Isakov, Sun Kil Moon—these are examples of the artists that I love. There’s nothing like the feeling that gets inside you when you’re listening to a song you wish you would have written, that you feel in your bones, that makes you break. And poetry, for me, puts the fractured pieces together in a tangible way, or at least makes them look better broken. When I listen to music that astounds me, I ask myself why I’m astounded, and then I must write.   

I guess I should have started by asking who are your influences or poetry heroes. I think it's easy to assume a young woman who writes poems is influenced by Plath, or Sexton,since they're the most talked about, but I sense a wider range in your poems. Who else do you read? And why do like those poets?

It would be untruthful of me to dismiss Sexton as a primary poetic influence. When I discovered her, I fell head over heels in love and devoured her work and her biography and talked about her to anyone who would listen. I relate to her compulsion to write as an alternative to inner disaster. I also like that Sexton didn’t “look” like a poet; she was a housewife, not formally educated in literature, and wrote about sordid female things others didn’t dare delve into. She got flack about it; she wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Plath, also, was an early influence. I was fascinated by the lyrical quality of Lady Lazarus. But I also started my love affair with poems by reading Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, and Pablo Neruda. I read the great, popular stuff very young, and then wrote awful poetry of my own in its likeness.  I’m really into Carolyn Forche right now (and not because we share a last name!) for the vividness and sense of place in her poems. Margaret Atwood’s works are perfection to me; she displays such power in poetry so perfunctorily. Really, though, many of my inspirations are writers of novels and short stories that come across as lovely as poetry. Annie Dillard, Tom Drury, Lorrie Moore, James Greer—God, how I adore a concise story comprised of beautiful words! I want, more than anything, to read what’s beautiful. A good writer or poet can spin a hell of a yarn with very little fabric. They can take what the rest of the world’s thrown out and recycle it for us, into magical things.  

I feel like one of poetry's great gifts to the poet and the audience is that it insists on having a wide range of interests, but the most magical poems are specific, narrow, in a way, they only take up a little space but they're still vast. What else besides reading and writing poetry motivates you to make poems?  

Heightened inner experience, feeling something spectacular about what seems outwardly mundane—that’s primarily what I want to express. I’m obsessed with the passage of time, with how it changes us, with how we can’t have it back. Also, I’ve been very exploratory when it comes to the theme of home, and what home really means to different people. I guess time and home are both prevalent themes of my own life; I go back and try to make sense of what’s happened in my past. Sometimes it comes out in the craziest formations of words! I write poems that I have to go back afterward and analyze. I write before I think, then I revise. Writing never felt like a choice to me; it’s a very ordinary part of my day. Even when I’m otherwise unproductive, I journal.  Some people need cigarettes or chap stick or coffee to get through their day. I need a black Paper Mate.

Although I've yet to write a poem about my daughter Reese (it’s difficult, I admit, for me to write about people who make me happy!), she is the fire under my desire to write. Since her birth, I have a deep need to figure myself out, to make all those little nagging undone things matter less, because she matters more.  My lovely grandmother who passed away when I was ten always put emphasis on simple joys; we drank cranberry juice from crystal wine goblets and made a big deal of the pumpkin farm in autumn. I want my daughter, and my poems, to have that quality.

I'm glad you mentioned your daughter. How does having a child change the way you approach writing? I mean the action of physically writing and also the mental work that goes into starting and finishing a poem. When my son was new, I wrote all the time. But now, well, I relate to your comment about the simple joys, because it's difficult to find the time or the mental space to write with a two year old in the house, though I am filled with inspiration and continue to journal, it's a bit harder to do the day-to-day writing I once did.

I think having a child has both helped and hindered my writing. I'm jealous that you were able to write when your son was a newborn, because I could not find my muse! Being a mother limits the time I have to write, but on the flip-side, I have become much more productive in all areas of my life now that I know I can’t put things off for “later.” Plus, I absolutely believe that parents are responsible for showing their children (as opposed to telling them) that every dream is possible, and that following one’s passion in life is necessary. My passion, of course, is for writing. I never want Reese to read my old-school journals and say, “My mom loved writing back then, but she quit because she had a family instead.”  

I feel like there's a strange manipulation of time and place in your poems. I find it difficult to describe what I mean, but I picture the women in your poems wearing skirts and stockings, smoking Chesterfields, drinking martini's or something, all while listening to Death Cab on an iPod and blogging about abortion rights and gender equality. There's a sense of being contained, too, of being restricted, and some frustration maybe that the role of women in society hasn't changed that much. I suppose I could be off center, but there's something about the concern with domestic matters and femininity in your poems that gets me thinking about political issues as well as personal and poetic ones. I realize I'm not asking a question here, but I'm curious how you feel about women's roles, as you address them in your work.

I’ve moved around quite a bit throughout my life, and I’ve gotten fixated on how, even when we’re undergoing drastic change, life moves on without us. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and moved to Toledo in junior high when my dad got a new job. A week after high school, I threw everything I owned into my Honda Civic and moved back home. I made a terrible, beautiful disaster of things—you’re supposed to do that in those years, I think. To make a long, long, long story short, I drove back to Toledo at twenty-one, leaving my apartment, my school, my friends, my job, to escape a six-headed monster of a relationship. There were years I lived like a sort of vagrant, just wanting to experience everything so I could write about it. I dove head-first into the abyss. I longed to live like song lyrics. Many times I involved myself with less-than-stellar people, mainly men. I still, even being married and having a child and a semblance of stability, feel lost between dimensions somehow. I try to connect myself to who I was then, and then, and then. I used to visit a dignified ninety-something year old woman at a ritzy nursing home. She’d gone to law school when women didn’t go to law school, and in her elderly days she seemed to drift from year to year, and she told these incredible stories of women “way back when.” About asylums, rich husbands, laudanum to shut women up. I’m still enthralled by the subject. I went to see the old state hospital in Traverse City, Michigan around that time, before it got fancy-schmancy with galleries and all that jazz. The history of the place had my blood doing a dance in my veins. When I was in my string of emotionally abusive relationships, I felt such a connection with women who were locked up so they wouldn’t need to be dealt with, who were dubbed “hysterical” by men who drove them to hysterics and a world that didn’t allow them a voice.   

And while I'm on the subject of gender equality, I've been wondering if you think poetry is "gendered"? I mean, does a poem written by a man or a woman give the sex of it's author away with gender cues? Are there topics or points of interest that are more commonly associated with one or the other gender?

I don’t think it has to be. But I think that, perhaps inadvertently, my poems scream female. There are poems out there about all variety of nature and love and sex and family and everything else that either a man or a woman could have written. I suppose I am most passionate, in my own writing, about being female. I’ve lived in several old houses and have always wondered most about what kind of women lived in those rooms and which kind of perfume they wore and what color lipstick the mirror watched them put on. I’m fascinated by time, by place, and also by fashion and how it changes through time and what a dress says about the person wearing it. I tend to record what people are wearing in my writing. Even in my journal, I describe outfits and hairstyles of people I know. Maybe there are male writers who do this too, but I don’t know any! I honestly have never thought about it until this very moment, but I would guess that a psychologist might say that I use physical appearance to describe (or figure out) what’s within all those threads and hemlines.

Do you have a writing ritual? Do you think it's important to have writing rituals? You mentioned black Paper Mate pens earlier in the interview, is that your brand? Sometimes I think writers have same kind of performance superstitions as athletes, and will only use certain paper or pens, or drink a certain brand of coffee when they write.

I do have my little ingrained quirks, and preferences I've picked up over time--especially the pens. I only use black Paper Mates. And they're so cheap! A new box is like Christmas. When I was little, I loved green Paper Mates. They're hard to find, but I ordered a box recently, and occasionally I'll change it up and use green again. I also adore the Cavallini Roma Lussa leather journal, the larger size. They've become sort of my trademark blank book; I don't write as well in any other. When I'm writing or revising, I prefer having my music and a glass of dry red wine next to the keyboard.

I read an essay about making your work/creative place sacred, and I've been curious about writers work-spaces ever since. Do you have a writing space at home, or is there a place you go to work? And do you think it makes a difference to have a special or sacred place for your writing, or will any place with a flat surface and adequate quiet do?

I have the perfect office: a beautiful old wood desk with pigeonholes and a hutch, and a big sturdy bookshelf my husband had made for me, and a bulletin board with all my vintage scraps and old photos. And to be honest, I've written in there maybe three times. For some reason, I gravitate to our desktop in the room off the kitchen. It's cluttered and not particularly inspiring, and my chair is anything but cozy, but I can stare out the ground-level windows or get up and walk around or grab a snack (or another glass of Cabernet) when I'm stuck on a word or an idea. Sometimes I get up and work out in the next room, and then go back to my messy post. There's something about moving around that gets my brain going.

We talked about music earlier: Do you listen to music when you write?

Always. I prefer pure silence, aside from my songs. I even make playlists based on particular moods, or playlists for certain characters, so when I'm writing I can instantly get to the place I need to go. Music transports me immediately, and after a long day of work and taking care of a baby and doing all the little mundane chores we need to do to stay afloat, a girl can use a little help. Before I had other people to take care of, it was easier to walk around in a cloud of poems and dreams and self-absorption.

Do you think a person is called to write poetry? When you were a little girl, writing your poems for children's magazines, you wrote from a place of pleasure, I presume, not because someone made you do it, right? And you kept on writing. Why do you do it?

In my Catholic elementary school, we were taught that our talents are God's gifts to us, and that wasting them is, if not sinful, extremely disappointing to God. That stuck with me, even in my least religious years. I believe more and more, as I get older, in Dharma, and that we should find the thing that makes us happiest, and use it in some way to serve humanity. Could there be anything better? More than anything, I write because I love to write. When I think of what truly makes me feel a sense of oneness with the universe, it's sitting at my computer with a Paper Mate pen and my leather journal and seven open Microsoft Word documents and indie music on rotation, figuring out a way to say something--to really say it, in a way that makes it finally make sense.

Did you have a poetry mentor? Was there someone in your life who encouraged your writing?

My dad's sister writes, and she actually lent me that first magical copy of Writers Market Guide. My teachers usually found my bibliolust and pen-to-paper compulsion endearing. For the most part, I found my "talent" to be something unique; discovering others as fascinated by words was rare, but fabulous when it happened. That was one of my reasons for really enjoying my stint at Borders. For a time, it brought book-lovers together. I haven't lacked in encouragement, but I don't think I grew up in a particularly artistic environment. It felt natural to find the luster in ordinary surroundings.

Do you have an audience in mind when you're writing poems? Do you have a perfect reader? Or is the issue of audience irrelevant to you? I imagine thinking of who will read your poems can be a trap, because don't you think you might start writing for that audience alone, albeit accidentally?

In my poetry, especially, I try to throw all consideration for an audience out a top-floor window. If I allow myself to feel any sort of judgement in advance, I couldn't write an honest piece. However, after I've written something, I become skeptical about sharing it. Reading poetry out loud to people who know you is kind of like that naked-at-school dream. I'm trying to get over that.

This is my last question for you. Earlier today I read an excerpt from a statement Yusef Komunyakaa made about poetry. He said it reconnects us to the act of dreaming ourselves into existence. Do you think poetry helps people live their lives? Has it helped you live yours?

I love that! And I believe it. I believe that we manufacture our own experience. When I write, I create the world I want to live in--a world that finds beauty in a factory town and a dive bar and herringbone skirt. The advantage to being a writer or any variety of artist or idealist, is the ability to swivel perspective. Sometimes a trying situation enables us to move closer to the place where we see a greater truth about the world, or about ourselves. For me, a poem is like a finished crossword puzzle, all those massive questions answered in a space of simple words

Smoke and Mirrors

In other rooms I was other girls.
Praying, simpering, smoking
to smoldering fires in fireplaces
in lamplit houses.

Deaths and divorces and unpaid bills
piled in the archives and attics,
as such things do, and all my hats
were powerless to stop them.

A little exhibitionist,
I changed my dress.
Friends hustled through doors, stamping
snow in muddy rugs. Footprints
are forever, I thought. I practiced
an unpracticed look of bemusement.

Every year, the suitcases, stuffed,
saturated with lifeless scraps of life, were
drug like the undug dead, to pile in
the backseat: again, again.

A little chauvinist,
I changed my dress.

The swing and slam of the screen door
is summer, simplified.  A little ajar, and
the ants marched two by two into the
gingersnaps. Sweetly succulent death!

How gluttonous are we? Our bodies piled
like rugs on the upholstery, where we’ve
spilled punch and poison. I got up while they
slept.  I slipped on stilettos and left.

A little optimist,
I changed my dress.

In fall, I devoured pears and wore a
fedora and a mint-colored trench coat
doused in vintage perfume.  I drove on new
streets and thought new thoughts.

An airplane gave me over to Vegas, my tanned
limbs swathed in piles of tulle and neon.
Cha-ching! The machines sing, alive like nothing
else, like nothing else, like nothing else really is.

A little hedonist,
I changed my dress.

The long prissy gown gave way to
feathers and sass. Swinging and sashaying
around town, we lifted our drinks
to hairspray, to cash, to the circular vow.

In other rooms I was other girls.
How I ran through halls, and erased
unpretty things! The 1920s blooms piled in
the wallpaper erupted in spastic flame.

A little singed mess,
I sat tight in my dress.

Argonauts in the Attic

Once upon a time there were Argonauts in the attic.
I was three.
They sat me down for tea.
Hello, little alien, they said. You pretty bowed thing.
They said, Your father visits us in television time.   

Now--god forsaken skeletons.
It’s hell on Townsend Avenue, my pine tree
Torn up at its very seams.
Jason, could you let this be?
My house is gone, you see.  

Now the cellar and later the foundation.
But where and who are you,
My movie muse? My neon news,
My daddy said you were a dream.
So do me in and in and in.

You cannot say you are not real. My earliest
Memory is your concave ribcage,
Your beautiful bones. I could not wait to sleep-
Inside of me, inside the deep. Your
Beehives, your TV mystique.  

I snuck out, a lemony closet twilight dream--
Your ivory keys played songs for me.
You’d cheat! What childish misery.
But oh, how you belonged to me,
Your china arms, your teasing teeth.

Maud, 1926

In the asylum, a cinnamon kiss.
You, sir, are an attorney. Your wife,
then-- she wears Chanel shoes and
gardenias at her wrist and a linen gown
with a number

(pig off to slaughter).

This is your own Holocaust apocalypse,
women sucking laudanum
popsicles, whore mouths
in your whore-house. Now,
bite down, electrify,

my darling.

She must be mad, she
must be bored.
Nothing like a bone-white room
for stolen crumbs
of solitude,

you’ll argue
and you’ll

(dear it’s what is best for you)

And what is best, so shall
she do. It’s the times, and the
money-- the maids and barred
verandas keep her back
from jumping through.
You, sir, forget to miss
her shackled arms and
sweet perfume.  

She leaves a sweater

a letter

a daughter.


Bring me apples. I want tough skin,
I want back all my autumns.
I was something, back then, when
leaves turned in the Midwest.
All the pulp, and I remember best
the sweet breath.

It happens in the silhouettes, I get
it in periphery- to the left I see
bulbous fruit on little trees. All those
years ago I brushed their tears
into the sink, the wings and worms
and cavities.

I made a pie. I made an offering
to the fruit flies.  Now I want them
back again, all scandal, rot,
all sucrose sin. Bring me apples
and I’ll bring you happiness. We’ll
always measure less.

It’s the law of the land. It’s the
man. It’s my hand. I ask and ask
for the test. Orchards in October:
here’s an elegy. It’s never enough and
there’s never any more. It burned in my
oven, black to the core.

Bring me apples. I’m the girl in the
back-seat who said, My life’s a movie.
Brunette and burnt orange, siren red
lips and landscape. Years and years, the
colours bleed, but the taste is
sweet, in memory.


My face could be yours, or anyone’s.
I woke up like Medusa, only
she’s harder than I am.
She doesn’t mind the ugliness,
forked and reptilian.
I do.
There’s commercialism to help:
colonics and teeth trays and overdoses.
There’s one good thing, in any case:
Women are artists. I paint a face on
In the hall mirror, and band the snakes,
And suck myself into sexiness.
Days and days, we’re getting worse
I think. I am twenty-two.
The seventy-year old heiresses look younger,
All shellac and Shalimar.
Their pores gleam in magazines; it’s done
with needles now, if you can afford it.
Also, if you can swing the reversal of
damage you can smoke glamorously
and sport an Amazon tan and
laser-luscious skin. One day I’ll
have a daughter who will refuse
to pay attention to the hype or
the stars. She will transcend space.
She will live like snakes.
At least, it’s what we say. We
hope for better, for less greed
or more grit, but only if
everyone else is doing it.

The Telltale Heart

I knocked on the door of
The life I left behind,
And ended up in your
red room.
Once, it was celery green,
And ours,
But now it’s fair.
My clock, the little clock
I left there, is
Stopped on the wall,
Stuck and stuck and stuck
At eleven.
Our dog is old. It’s been
Years since I’ve kissed
His auburn hair.
You make me peanut butter and
Jelly; I stare
At the full-length mirror on
The back of the door,
Trying to see myself at nineteen.
Come here, you call.
But she isn’t here, I say.
She isn’t here, she’s
Stuck and stuck and stuck
On the other side,
In that other time somewhere.
Her hip bones, like
Wings in jeans with tears,
Are buried in boxes,
In photographs
In my attic room
You left the same

I see you sometimes,
Standing up there,
In the pink, church bells
Chiming, and my empty chair.
Come here, you say to the air.
My ghosts touch your hands,
Your hair.
The phonograph plays epitaphs
Beneath the stairs.


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