Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
Episode XXIII: "The world just needed to be turned inside out for us to feel it is real"
In this installment, I talk with Rosa Lane (above) and Nina Lindsay (below). They discuss poetic beginnings, inspiration, the membrane between real life and poetry-making, empathy & more.
Andrew Lipstein: Today I’m with two Oakland poets, Rosa Lane and Nina Lindsay. Both have a book coming out from Sixteen Rivers Press (Rosa’s “Tiller North” and Nina’s “Because”, both on April 2). Rosa’s work has been compared with that of Elizabeth Bishop; using detail and an economy of words, putting faith in the objective while resonating “a profound love of humanity, an embrace of people around her, and a deep, inward movement of the poet’s imagination” (Stephen Haven). Nina attacks, in her own words, “our multifrond uncertainties and errors” and “hesitant happiness”. Dichotomies carry her work, negotiating “the push-pull of darkness and light, presence and absence, waking consciousness and the dream life” (W.S. Di Piero). This is as open a conversation as any, and I’ll try to stay out of it as much as possible, but I’ll start us off with this question: When did the poet in you begin? When did you first consider yourself a poet, and what need did it come from?
Nina Lindsay: Hm. I've been writing all of my life, and was encouraged as early as elementary school when devorah major, through California Poets in the Schools, taught in my classroom. I've always been an introvert, a noticer, and poetry became my way to process...well, everything.
Rosa Lane: I grew up in a small fishing village on the coast of Maine, culturally isolated. Writing poetry in high school became therapeutic, a way of reaching out to the world, a way of saying things that I could not otherwise share and process emotionally. High school teachers liked my writing. A few poems were published in the high school newsletter. One of them won a state contest. This was when I first thought I might be a poet.
Nina: Rosa, I've had to train myself lately to call myself "a poet." I always knew I had poetry, but never had a moment in which I felt I became a poet. Funny.
Rosa: I was lucky to have had a high school English teacher who loved poetry. Her name was Barbara Libby. I actually had a crush on her, and she loved my poetry. The more she loved it, the more I wrote. I think she introduced the idea that I might consider becoming a poet.
Andrew: As you each grew to where you are now, how did the themes of your writing shift?
Nina: Well, writing as a young person, I was very inwardly focused. I think most young writers are, and that's appropriate. I think my writing is still very self-reflective, self-aware, but I try to use it now to observe and understand other people more. Understanding how people that I am close to (whether emotionally, or just by circumstance and geography) understand the world differently than I do is the "great mystery" that makes me tick. This is why I tick as a person, as a librarian, as a poet. Through writing I can try on different voices, different perspectives, in giving voice to what I see in others, and often still turn the eye on myself…but from a distance that creates a fun-house-mirror effect that always shows me something surprising. When I find that surprise, I know I might have a poem.
Rosa: Initially in high school, the primary theme of my writing included existential philosophy, i.e. themes of despair, personal and social. Camus and Sartre had profound impact on me. In college, the theme shifted to nature as I found a home there. Now, my process of poetry writing is an act of discovery that extends beyond an initial impetus into the unknown realm. Getting into the unknown realm from life-as-usual is terrifying.
Andrew: Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you find yourself resonating with the work of other poets, or does it help to pull from outside the medium?
Nina: I generally find inspiration through other writing or media; not poetry, but a news article, a short story, a piece of art or music. Or from something I observe. I get most of my writing done on my lunch break, or on the bus, so there's a lot of what is presented to me at those times in my poetry: random people, street scenes, coffee and food, my recreational reading. I do read a lot of poetry, and went through a recent period in which I tried explicitly to draw from techniques I was reading...to understand how reading poetry affects my writing of poetry. But I have trouble seeing it. Most of the poetry that moves me is very unlike my own. I'm sure it does influence me, but in less direct ways and I gave up trying to overthink it. If anything, I know how good poetry makes me *feel*, and it is that literal resonance that I am looking to achieve, however I can make it happen.
Rosa: My poems often begin with a bodily feeling that I cannot name. I follow it with the senses not knowing where I am going. The initial feeling sometimes occurs when I read other poets. At those times, I feel the poet taking me into that world that is not the world we know as the everyday world, but a world of discovery, of uncertainty, of surprise. I often feel a tough membrane that separates life-as-usual from where poetry-making occurs. Getting through that membrane, which often feels like a wall, is what I face everyday. Once on the other side, in that world of imagination and magic, anything can happen. The feeling is exuberance, and every time, I wonder why this magical space and living within it for as long as I can is initially so frightful to me.
Nina: Rosa, that is so well said, and I recognize that membrane. To me it feels actually just like living, when I get there. You say you start with a feeling....but how do you start putting words down from a feeling? Is that the frightening part?
Rosa: Regarding that membrane, I often have to be escorted through it. The feeling occurs in the guts, an enormous feeling of anticipation, but what I am anticipating is not clear. For example, right now, like today, I am sensing a color, a salmon color that is watery, like what might be on the horizon of a watercolor painting. I know I will need to enter that world on the other side of the membrane where I will know nothing. I will have no references. I will have no certainties. In thinking about it, this I believe is the part that is frightening. What I will have is a color, or a feeling of a color. I will "go fishing," as I have come to call it, and bring up anything that emerges or floats up from the unconscious. How do you break through that membrane?
Nina: I think you are braver in this regard than I am. I often have a feeling that is floating around in me like a heavy lunch, but it can stay disconnected from my writing. I can't get to it, deliberately, by writing. More often, I will hear or read or see something that just surprises me: something wonderful or horrible I catch in conversation on the bus, or a street sign that responds to something I was thinking and makes me laugh...and I'll just start writing, to get the movement in the pen, and play with language, and see what happens. Sometimes I just end up recording a scene, and it's not a poem. But if I'm in that writing space, it is more likely that my "heavy lunch" feeling can find it's way out through the pen. It's like building a garden to attract birds or bees, I just have to tend it constantly, and hope that something shows up. Once I see it coming, I stay very still, trying to let it all the way through. If it comes, that is the beginning of the poem, and I'm just there, on the other side. I'm intrigued by your salmon color. Do you often start in a color?
Rosa: I love your "building of a garden," then the tending, the waiting, and then the seeing of something coming. What a great description! In terms of the salmon color, that is what is motivating today. Other days, it might be a hint of something else, something I will want to follow like being on the trail of something. The salmon color is what is drawing me in, i.e. what is motivational, but then the salmon color may disappear. The color could be a mode of transport for me to get through the membrane. The salmon color could initially play a part in the writing and then, more than likely will disappear. If I start with the salmon color and it appears in the first lines, these may be removed later. In terms of the "going fishing" metaphor, the salmon color may be the fishing rod, but what it catches or snags within the writing/discovery process may be quite different.
Nina: I'm re-reading your description of getting through the membrane. One of my poems in this book, "86 Tart," is about not getting through it...even though, on the surface it’s about not getting the dessert you want. This poem started in its title. One of my morning coffee places is a restaurant, and the self-serve water carafe in the morning is at the waiter's station, where they keep a tiny slate board to note "86"s as they run out of items at dinner. I found a lot of inspiration on that board, though only one ever became a poem. When I saw "86 Tart" it made me think of a bus line, and that's what started the writing. The idea was just around, waiting to get in there.
I do strongly associate feelings and words with colors, but I have never found inspiration in a color. I find that fascinating. The sound of what I'm writing, or the tone of what I overhear often has a palette, and then my writing works from that palette.
I find what you say about the "hook" later disappearing to very true for me, too. Does this happen more, or less, often than not for you?
Rosa: Yes, most often the initial motivational image or embodied urge disappears or morphs into something else. Where do you do your writing? Could it be anywhere? Or, do you have a particular writing space?
Nina: I have a journal in which all poems take their first form, longhand, and that sits next to my chair at home. Poems rarely start there. I am a "scraps of paper" person, and I start writing wherever I am, usually in the middle of something else. I'll get most of the pieces of the poems on scraps in one or a few sittings, and then make time in the evening to sit with my journal and put them together. I usually write it a few times over in my journal, over the course of several weeks, until I feel I have a first draft. Then it goes on the computer and with me to my writing group and continues there. I do find the revising to be more and more satisfying, as I gain confidence that I can make poems and can also let non-poems go. I've always got a handful of things in progress, near my chair, so that if I get the writing itch but am not finding inspiration, I have something to work on. How about you?
Rosa: I do have a morning chair where right next to it is a stack of scribbles in long hand on pieces of paper. These are the result of previous "fishings," which may or may not develop into anything. I swear that some of these scraps begin writing themselves when I am not looking. When I go back to them, often there is something in the white space that has emerged while I am gone. Maybe these scratchings have rearranged themselves. This is when I know something is developing—like how soup is better the next day. In terms of writing space, sometimes I can write in the morning chair, but most often I write in cafes. I have to have the latte, a corner, a stack of selected poetry books, particular blank white paper, and certain Sharpie pens. Morning is best time for this. I envision and long for this cafe time.
Nina: Rosa, I envy your cafe time. I did used to do the same, when I was in college or working part time. In fact...I did this in high school too. I only ever cut school to go to a museum or write poetry in cafes.
I have a question for you...I enjoy how many of your poems in "Tiller North" describe real people in such detail. I realize this is a facility I have never had. Other people figure a lot in my poems, but always briefly in passing, often lots of them. And a person who is developed more fully in a poem is either myself, or an imagined person (so...myself, just a different one). How do you write deeply about a real person?
Rosa: This is a great question. In thinking about it, there is an empathy that allows me to get within the skin of the other, i.e. the character and the context within which the character is discovered. I become the character sometimes in first person and sometimes in third person. I allow it and invite it. I have thought that having tendencies toward co-dependence serves me well here.
Nina: Aha. I have always been independent, though I find my close relationships with others to be crucial, I tend to give others plenty of space. Often too much space. I need a lot of space. I think that publishing poetry is my way of offering to others what I have a hard time doing in real life.
Rosa: I feel that poetry interrogates reality from one side of the membrane as we commonly know it. In this way, poetry writing, for me, is entirely a subversive act.
Nina: Rosa, I like that. I experience poetry as reality, finally exposed. Like the world just needed to be turned inside out for us to feel it is real.
Andrew: What a great note to end on. Nina and Rosa, this was a pleasure.