≡ Menu

mfa program

(To sum up our tryptych of posts for Dorothea Lasky, I present a brief and delicious interview)

It seems like some of the best writing that’s happening right now is coming out of the Amherst/ Northampton area. I’m thinking of Natalie Lyalin, Heather Christle, Emily Pettit. Matthew Zapruder went to school there. So did you. What’s the secret?

My instinct is to add to that list with the large number of great poets, writers, musicians, and artists who have come out of there also. But I am not sure where I would stop with this list. So, I will just shake my head and say yes, I agree.

That area is a generative space. Of course, I think so because I went to MFA school at UMass-Amherst (all of these people went to UMass, if not for MFA, then for undergrad.) The MFA program there is wonderful, it just generates. My teachers were Dara Wier, Peter Gizzi, James Tate, Noy Holland–they all taught me so much.

When I lived there, people always called the area the Happy Valley. I am not sure the origin of this, but there is something to the name. Amherst/Northampton, on the whole, is a very tolerant place. As an artist, I never felt more free to exist there and be myself. Where I hung around there, there was a dominant culture of acceptance of behaviors (although, probably this is a bit skewed as most behaviors there are pretty normative.) Still, I think tolerance is the ideal space and culture to create from within. And I think, despite the constricting other places I have lived, I carry this freedom with me always and probably these other poets do, too.

A lot of your poems, especially in your new one BLACK LIFE, use plain language—conversational, chatty—to get at huge ideas…like patience, simplicity, faith, etc. Can you talk a little about how you developed your style?

Sure. I developed my style after a long period of trying to hide what I was saying as much as possible in my poems. That is to say, for a long time I was interested in being as mysterious as possible and creating circles of language that the reader would never be able to follow. I think I distrusted my reader for a long time. Then somewhere in there, I realized that my reader was a person, just like me, who I trusted, but who existed outside of myself. So then, I decided I’d rather try to be as clear as possible and I combined the two instincts into the way that I write today. Still, I think my first instinct–mystery–always governs the poems a little no matter how plain-spoken they seem.

It’s been said that a poem can act as a spell and vica versa. Do you believe a poem can bring about actual change in the physical world?

I think language can always bring about physical change. I think language has weight, exists in the material world. It creates new materials by turning into and/or changing a thought. Thoughts, spells, and poems are physical things (they *almost* literally take up space in the brain.) And changing thoughts also make all kinds of physical change and actions quite literally. Words are the finite forms of a changing thought. They too have weight.

Anyway, casting a spell is like changing a thought, so I guess, yes, I do believe a poem can bring about actual change in the physical world. And, yes, I do believe that a poem can act as a spell. (And vice versa.)

When we worked on Poetry Is Not a Project, you often chose to say less in instances with more might have been said. Is discussing poetry simply case of less being more?

I think of Poetry Is Not a Project as an educational text and I take this category very seriously. I believe in sparseness, elegance, and clarity when explaining an idea to someone. I don’t like to flaunt the complexity of an idea when presenting it to a reader, because I think more often than not this turns off the very readers who are most important to me. In terms of discussing poetry, I don’t think less is more. But I don’t see the book as poetry scholarship, so I think my method is ok in this case.

What are you biggest influences outside of poetry?

I spend a lot of time listening and talking to people. I think the things people say, the ways people feel, and what lives they lead are my greatest influences outside of poetry itself.  Other than people, the visual world is a great influence to me and also, dancing and performance. The physical, spatial world and the arts that are closest to this world are among my biggest influences.

If there was something that you care about other than Love or Awe what is it?

Justice

Click here see Dorothea Lasky’s new book of poems Black Like. Click here to see her chapbook  POETRY IS NOT A PROJECT.