Lewis Freedman: Since this is an interview for a reading, I thought I might start by asking you about your performance of your poetry.
I've heard you read quite a few times now, and it has been an insistent and powerful experience each time. To my ear, your voice builds in its insistence, but builds by refusing to resolve, by leaving the end of a line or statement splayed. Since your poems very often have to do with confronting the problems of perception (and the role that plays in being a self and relating to others), the insistence and unresolvedness of your voice gives me a simultaneous sense of the vulnerability in strongly asserting these perceptions (the forces threatening them) and of the strength in having produced this vulnerability.
What I'm getting to, is I wonder if you'd be interested in talking about your bodily sensations before, during, and after public readings. Perhaps even your sense of time. How does the listening group of people occur in your body while you read (if they do)? I'd be interested to hear generally about your physical sense of performing, but also specifically if you consistently have bodily associations in relation to particular poems (perhaps even some of your poems that specifically locate your body?)
Dorothea Lasky: Thank you for asking this question. Reading to an audience is very important to me and to my practice of poetry and I often think about why or what I am doing when I am reading. I remember once reading a short essay Eileen Myles wrote for the Poetry Foundation website, in which she talked about the places readers go to when they read. I can’t remember her exact words, but in the essay she described the otherworldly place (maybe not otherworldly, but alter) that poets go to in a reading and how important it was to be gentle to a poet afterwards, as she had just been transported through time and space. I remember that she said that a poetry audience should “help her down” afterwards. I think this is right. Reading poems makes you go somewhere else, where your body does not exist and it can be hard to reconnect the timeless part of you with your body once it is over.
As far as my own bodily sensations before, during, and after a reading, they change every time and are completely determined by the reading space. They are especially influenced by the people at the reading. If it is a friendly reading, if a lot hinges on being social and warm, then I actually have a tendency to be less vulnerable and I feel less during my reading. The more I don’t know an audience and the more work I feel I need to do to either win them over or hurt them or make them see something, the more I feel a duty to get to a vulnerable place where I am nonexistent within the situation. These times are both my best and worst readings.
Reading wears me out. If a reading is simply a social interaction, then I get worn out by talking to people before and afterwards. If a reading is a reading, then I am worn out by transporting my timeless part away from my body, as it is genuinely cleaved. But I think, ideally, reading should wear you out. I think of my Track and Field days back in high school. I used to never exert myself to the point of passing out during practice or a race. This was part due to the fact I had amazing endurance at a young age and the fact that I didn’t really see the point. I remember being scolded by a particularly ditzy coach of mine. Between snapping her gum, she told me that I should look like I am dying each time I run. I thought she was full of shit then, but now I think maybe she is right, if I translate it to reading poems. A reading should really be something. I think readers should always give it their all.
In terms of certain poems and reading perceptions, I guess I’d say that I started off reading with an insistent volume about 5 years ago, because I had a lot of poems (some of these are in my book, AWE) that are based on religious tracts, ephemera from religious zealots, and so forth. I wanted to make my readings into religious ceremonies. This translated into other poems. I feel a spiritual void often, despite having a very real spirit within my body, and so I sometimes want my readings to take away this void.
Lewis, I really like the way you read your poems. It’s scary. You scare me when you are reading. I mean that as a compliment.
LF: Dottie, thanks for your real answer. I certainly have an experience of what you name as the transportation of the timeless part away from the body in the performance of a reading. It's genuinely scary sometimes for me in the extent of its amplification. It's as though my body has expanded and vacated to make space inside it for all the people in the room. My body feels very light and unfelt, and my voice jumps with the struggle to stay with the presence of words as they are making.
When you mention that your experience of a reading space is essentially being influenced by the people in the room, I'm drawn to thinking about how significantly and variously your poems are populated by people. Not only the names and presences of people in your life as subjects in the poem, but also by a way in which people and culture are already present in language and writing and how they feel active to me in the uncanny leaps your poems regularly make.
I'd be really interested to hear about how you experience the arrival of other people in your writing process, those you know and those you don't? Do you look for or follow language that brings them in? Do you receive strength towards honesty and confrontation in your poems from the companionship of other peoples' presence from within language?
DL: I like what you say about the body being unfelt. That is nice, because I think about felt experience in the world. But to be unfelt during a reading would mean to be in transcendence after something presumably felt in the poem. Yes, that seems right.
Thanks for saying that about people and my poems. People are very important to me in terms of poetry. I cannot divorce the two. I cannot divorce myself from the idea that language is always grounded in the social, and that it is a finite form to human experience. And so that what is uncanny in the poem (I love the word uncanny, by the way, thank you for using it) is the idea that people are there finite in the forms of the words.
I think a lot of my writing process involves listening to people. I've been getting this education/social science degree for the past five years and a lot of it involves observing people, interviewing them, listening to the way they structure their discourse as a seemingly silent indicator to what they really think, if they could somehow be cleaved from the social pressure of what they feel they must say (although they never could be and that is great, too). I have been training my voyeuristic perspective for a while now, but I think what actually attracted me to the work, or what made the actual work of the degree seem ok (why I am getting the degree is another story) was that I am fascinated, obsessed, enthralled (never can think of the correct word) with how people talk. I guess both private and public talk, although public talk is more intricate to me because it is part of a spectacle.
You mention the idea that I might receive strength towards honesty and confrontation in my poems from the companionship of other peoples' presence from within language. I don't know about honesty or confrontation. I know that is there. What I am interested in mostly is real conversation. I want to establish in my poems a direct conversation between the speaker and the reader. The other people in the poems are oftentimes beautiful or ugly decorations. Or they were the necessary mediaries to get me to the desired direct address.
How do you feel direct address functions in your poems?
LF: Yes, you put your words right on it there, the direct address of your poems is definitely what I see as their confrontation. What confronts is the genuine clearing you create as a path between speaker and listener. I don't really have a clear sense of that path in my own writing (though I might like to). In the clearing (to continue this not great analogy) (is it something like Duncan's meadow?) I can't usually differentiate where I stand or where others do, who or where is the speaking and the listening,
I wanted to ask you some more about your fascination with talk. Could you talk a little more about what you see as the distinctions between private and public talking? Would thought be included as private talk? Do you hear your poem-making as public talk or private talk? Or perhaps, do you see some of the promise and potentiality of writing poems as occurring within the transference of public talk to private and private talk to public?
DL: You ask a lot of really interesting questions about talking. Talking itself is so complex. Language itself, intent (as convoluted as it can be), and then the private versus public. It is hard to address it all clearly, especially through language as I am doing now. I guess that the most simple way to say it is that I think all talk is inherently public. In poetry, I think the instinct of poets to both communicate feeling/sensation and to entertain the reader, makes even private talk public. And in anything spoken or written, there is the sense that it must have been meant to be public. In my poems, I am trying to play with the lines between public and private talk, but I am very much aware at how public this talk is once it is spoken or written.
I'd love to think more about how thought relates to public and private talk. Obviously something social happens when thought becomes language becomes language that is meant to be and then is expressed. However, we often (in my mind, unfairly) relegate talk that is most like raw thought (i.e. seems to be seemingly unaware of how it might be taken in a social context) to the insane, to children, and to those who have for whatever reason "lost their rational minds" and thus, must not know better. I guess in a way I am most invested in thought that is language, but has not burdened itself to be blended and gutted out by the social world. Thought talk is not exotically beautiful (I hate the term Outsider art, by the way), but is humanly beautiful. I like poetry that is thought talk before it turns into private or public talk. It is the moment of greatest (and most wide-reaching) potentiality of human communication. I think this is what Stein got at in her work and I'd love to continue to explore how to play with the boundaries.