At the altar of creative thinking: A Conversation with Dorothea Lasky / by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.

BY LAUREN R. KORN

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Dorothea Lasky is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, Milk (Wave Books, 2018), as well as ROME (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2014) and Thunderbird, Black Life, AWE, all out from Wave Books. She is the co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013) and several chapbooks, including Snakes (Tungsten Press, 2018) and Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she co-directs Columbia Artist/Teachers and is the Director of Undergraduate Studies. She lives in New York City.

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Do not deny,
Do not deny, thing out of thing.
Do not deny in the new vanity
The old, original dust.

    — Laura Riding, from “Incarnations”

Lauren R. Korn: There’s a repetition in Milk that, I think, mirrors both your subject matter—the persistence of [making] a human life, a baby—but also that of the writing process: repetition until inception, as it were. Do you see these repetitions as being similar? I’m curious, too, as to whether Milk has always been a collection of poems, or whether the book has been, at any point in your writing process, a single long poem. (Again, I’m speaking to the collection’s recurring images.)

Dorothea Lasky: Thank you for noticing all of these things. The book was never one long poem, but I did mean for the repetition in the book to suggest a kind of cohesive, one long poem feel, but I did also want the book to feel like a set of discrete poems. Like so many other poets lately, I have been thinking a lot about the connections between the essay form and the form of a poem. In earlier versions of the book, I had essays included alongside the poems, but then decided to take them out, something I feel now was the right decision. However, I think the book has elements of the essay in its type of repetition. It comes back to ideas, imagery, and language as a way to emphasize them. The book has an iterative structure, versus a trajectory of progressing anywhere in particular. I’ve always been somewhat against the idea that poems have to have arguments and I think the more books I write, the more my poems mirror this belief. As in making anything (babies or poems), the process of creativity is about coming back to something you’ve technically “done before” and seeing if you can do it again, perhaps better, or at least in a new or different way.

LRK: At certain moments in Milk, I was reminded of Ariana Reines’ Mercury—both books see women’s bodies held up against technology, the subsequent perception of those bodies through technology’s lens, but also in spite of it; there is, too, the idea of poems holding or being spiritual objects; and I think both collections speak to a kind of modern romanticism and lyricism. How do you view poetry as a part of or being the core of your spirituality (if, indeed, you hold such a belief)?

DL: Thank you so much of comparing Milk to Mercury. I love the similarities you have found between them and would love to think more about them. I do think of poetry as a core of my spiritual belief, in so much as in anything, poetry is a way to record everyday life and make it important. The last few months I have been thinking a lot about the purpose of a life and the point of art making, and feeling very sad and hopeless as I circle around these ideas, particularly as the cruelties of the world and humanity rise more and more to the surface. I think of course that ideas of purpose or the point are distractions for living and for spirituality, and for poetry, too. I guess that in so much that poetry is like any human process, it is spiritual. I think poetry can transform and transcend, but it doesn’t have to. In this way, I hold Poetry up like a god.

LRK: Another aesthetic similarity I see between Milk and Mercury is their use of illustrations between sections. Is visual art a regular part of your creative practice? How do you see your illustrations pursuing clarity—or obscurity—in Milk?

DL: I am very much a frustrated visual artist with zero talent or skill. This manifests in my everyday life in terms of fashion, as I am a somewhat obsessive collector of costume jewelry. I would say that the visual worldand my experience of itis at least of equal importance to poetry to me, if not more important. When I was working on Milk, I wanted to work a bit against the idea of typical section breaks in contemporary books, which again suggest some sort of linear progression, as when they use Roman numerals and suggest an ordering of elements. I thought that having images versus words or numbers might help me find my own way of organizing the book, so I created my own images that felt like they represented the book and its sections. The images are meant to give the book an occult element, as I feel that the visual world is tied closely with the possibility of another world, with our literal vision obscuring other alternative ones. I drew the images with inspiration from sacred symbols, ideas of weather and atmosphere, and other divinatory materials. It was my hope that Milk might look a little bit like a spellbook.

LRK: How has motherhood changed your relationships to or with other women? Do you see that change reflected in Milk and/or your current poetics?

DL: Thank you for linking this conversation between Rachel Zucker and Sarah Manguso. I have a vague memory of hearing about it many years ago (I see it came out in 2009), but I don’t think I ever read it in full or much of it at all until now. It’s quite amazing to read it and think about what parts of it I relate to now and then what parts I do not. It reminds me a bit of a conversation I had with Sheila Heti, right before her book Motherhood came out and right before Milk was released this spring, which was just recently published by Propeller Magazine and can be found here. Except that conversation felt very different, both the experience of having it and the air which surrounded it, and seemed to feel much more about our books specifically than us as people and the choices we’ve made in our own lives. That conversation felt wildly intimate for a brief time, despite us never having actually met, and I sincerely can say it was a great moment in my life to talk to someone as magical and brilliant as Sheila Heti about her book, a moment of communion for me. 

That being said, I don’t think Milk has changed my relationship with other women. Not that it is the same thing, but I don’t think that being a mother has either, maybe sadly. I don’t have a lot of close friends, female or otherwise, and motherhood itself has isolated me further into a solitary path where I feel I have less and less people to talk to or hang out with, which feels extra lonely as it feels like it could be an opportunity for things not to be this way, as motherhood has definitely made me a more loving person. Or least my perception makes me feel so, for whatever that’s worth. I do long for more conversations with people and for more real friends.

But then again, here I am talking about real life and Milk is not real. I think if anything my current poetics has maybe nothing to do with other women. But then when I say that it seems ridiculous as the book itself is absolutely for other mothers, so that they wouldn’t feel lonely if motherhood was not exactly what they were told it would be. It certainly wasn’t for me, as my first baby was born three months early and as her life hung in the balance, I searched for poetry books to help me through it. Milk is meant to be a gesture of love for mothers who need itwho need a poetry book that is a friend during a hard timefor them to get their power back. It’s meant to be an offering, which is what I’d like my poetics to always be.

LRK: Milk seems to be, at many points in its pages, in conversation with or utilizing confessional poetry, acting as record(s) of your cognitive space (even though so much of your poetic imagery reflects exterior space). What is your relationship to confessional poetry?

DL: I guess I would say that I love confessional poetry, but not necessarily the term confessional. Or more so, my associations with it, which involves a sense of misogyny. I feel that the frame of confessionalism is always somehow saying it is un-poetic to discuss the self in a poem, when I feel all poems involve the self as a lived-in necessity. I think poems involve the self and the body, as the two are so deeply intertwined in a poet, alongside all of the outside forces interacting with these two things. But I think that the main argument I have with the term confessionalism is again that having a self and all its messes in a poem is essentially unearthing a taboo. A self itself isn’t ever a taboo—it’s just that some readers want to read about certain selves more than others. But no, I do think the self and the body are one thing, in a poem and in everything. And because they are one thing, they become simply portents for the poem to hang on to.

LRK: Your collection, Black Life, bears the epigraph “NO MILK / BLACK LIFE,” which you attribute to Laura Solomon. Upon reading Milk, this epigraph sprang to mind. Do you see these two collections—and the collections that make up your oveure, broadly—speaking to one another?

DL: I love you for noticing this—thank you! They are meant to absolutely be in conversation with each other, as Black Life, is about nihilism and the annihilism of self that happens with death, when there is no milk left to give that can save you. It was written as my father was dying from Alzheimer’s and during that time, I was thinking a lot about what parts of our selves exist beyond this lifetime.

I stole the quotation to start the book, as around that time, Laura Solomon and another artist were playing a game where they gave people those two lines and asked them to think about what they first imagined when they heard them. Then I think the idea was to create something out of whatever one thought of first. At least that’s how I heard the prompt. When I did this exercise, in my imagination, I immediately saw a mother and son, in a room bathed in green light, with an empty Milk container. The boy’s smile is sinister and directed at the viewer. He knows that life can be ruthless and that death is mean.

When I had my daughter, because she was a preemie, right after she was born I needed to pump breast milk to help her start to live outside of my body. I remember the nurse coming up to my room right after I had her and taking down tiny drops of colostrum to the NICU, as that was all it was going to take to jumpstart her tiny body. I saw the power I always had, but never knew I had, to save a life. It was in these moments that I remembered Laura Solomon’s line, “No Milk,” and immediately saw milk as a sort of symbol for the lifeforce, for the power of creativity.

I see all of my books in conversation with each other. I put poems in each of them that reference the other ones in various ways. As a poet, I see my life as the writing of one long book.

LRK: How has publishing changed your relationship to poetry? Do you see that change reflected in Milk?

DL: Although my first book, AWE, came out about 11 years ago now, I still continue to feel grateful to have people who publish my work. It was difficult getting my first book published, as I had entered every first book contest ever for years before Wave Books published it. There was a sort of rigidity and reticence, I think, that my poems developed in response to this, as I really did feel that my work was being judged coldly and ruthlessly constantly, like being on a perpetual first date with poetry readers. But once AWE was published, I started to let my guard down a bit and I think my voice changed from there. I saw the intimacy and depth of care that existed between me and real living readers, and my love for them poured out into my poems. I see Milk as being a sort of pinnacle of this love.

LRK: Milk is strewn with color. I know the cloth edition of Milk is green, but I’m curious: do you consider green the color of the book? (I think I would say the book is blue.) If I were to ask you about the tonal color of the book, would you have a different answer? (I think I would say the book is orange, tonally.)

DL: I love this question! Yes, I do think of the book as green, actually. I know I mentioned the green light in my Black Life image earlier. The strangeness of green has long been an obsession of mine. I think even close to 20 years ago, or maybe even longer, I started thinking about how much green can change a poem or a picture and how this relates to common ideas of green, that it represents health and renewal. I think of plants as holy things and related to life-giving, which relates to Milk’s theme as well. But although I instinctively trust that plants are “good things” they aren’t always and they are actually very odd and represent the weirdness of being alive in the world. Anyway, I’d say the green I think that is the book is related to all of these ideas and is the green of the cloth edition of it. I love that you think the book is blue and would love to hear more why you think so. The color it is tonally is especially a very interesting question. Tonally, I might say it is yellow ochre, which I guess in many ways is close to orange. I’d love to ask this question of other books sometime and discuss it with you.

LRK: Ha, I would love to do that, too!

My next questions are my attempts to ask you questions you may (read: probably definitely) have answered at some point in your life, but which I’m hoping you haven’t answered in an interview capacity. (Thanks, Jack Spicer.)

Write about how the fall of Rome affected modern poetry.

DL: Do you mean modern poetry, as in Modernism or contemporary poetry? I feel like the fall of Rome has affected nearly everything about contemporary culture, either maybe or definitely unfortunately. The idea of Rome is a cloud that absolutely informs life in America. I think the myth of Ancient Rome itself shapes American poetry immensely, not by the use of its imagery, which can be oppressive and silly when used incorrectly, but in its syntax and relationship to the power dynamic between the persona and the reader.

LRK: How do you see that power dynamic playing itself out?

DL: There is something definitely frightening but potentially exhilarating about the way power displays itself in American English. The kind of speech and writing we are taught in schools here and the kind of syntax we favor is heavily simplistic, stylized, and staccato. Our syntax is militaristic and the language of Ancient Rome was too, just in its own way. Of course, I do feel any sense of grammar and all its formalities is possibly militaristic in any language, but I hesitate to make a generalization like that because I am (obviously, ha) not a linguist. I think the idea of grammar itself is violent, as it seeks to control new language. That’s why poets are so important, because we resist this violence with the beauty of our creations.

LRK: You’re probably hating the commas I’m adding to your responses. Always in copy-edit mode... Sorry!

DL: No, thank you! I hate punctuation in general, except maybe a sexy colon making a title all formal-looking or a period piercing the air. I think I may have taken at least one of your commas out already.

LRK: Ha. Good. I tend to over-punctuate, anyway. ...What constellation do you most resemble?

DL: Probably most people who know me would say Andromeda, but I wish they’d say Draco. The truth is probably Volans. What about you?

LRK: Today, I feel like I most resemble Cygnus. It’s always looked like a shrugging torso to me, like the shrugging emoji or emoticon. Not to say I’m ambivalent or uncaring. I’m willing to admit ignorance. All of this has little to do with its mythology, but… Why do you say you most truly resemble Volans?

DL: Because I’m wily. I love yours!

LRK: Ha, thank you. I'm interested in the story of Leucippus and my etymological namesake, Daphne: my interpretation is kind of a stretch, but I guess I identify with a want to resist stasis. I feel, too, that I’m loyal, which seems like a kind of stasis, actually.

DL: It makes sense! Also, I can see why you think of loyalty and stasis as being connected. It definitely feels that way to stick by someone or something, no matter what. But I think of loyalty as something so positive, and stasis has a depressing tone to it. Perhaps I think of loyalty as a choice.

LRK: Good point. I guess the stasis I attempt to resist is that of identity. I listened recently to an interview with the writer Jesse Ball, who said, “I think it’s much more pleasurable…to go through life dynamically altering who you are and how you feel about things.”

DL: I love this idea and I totally agree with it. Just as Dickinson said, “We both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.” It’s impossible to stay the same forever.

LRK: What card from the Tarot deck represents the absolute of your desires? The absolute of your fears?

DL: I always get a little jolt when I get the Ace of Wands. I’m always terrified when I get The Tower, even though I know rationally it can be a positive card given the circumstance.

LRK: Do you remember a circumstance under which drawing The Tower proved positive for you?

DL: Eek, I don’t! It has always been bad, to be honest.

LRK: I had my tarot read by the poet Hoa Nguyen in February, and my circumstance mirrored her own so exactly—moving to Canada for the furthering of a partner’s career—that when she said she’d drawn The Tower before packing up her life, I was certain I was in for your aforementioned terror. (I was lucky: no such Tower-terror arrived, but my four-card spread did include the Five of Pentacles.)

DL: Oh, I am so glad you didn’t get it! I remember once, a long time ago, I had a Sagittarius boyfriend who was moving from his old apartment to a new life, and he painted some symbol of his own making that represented to him a kind of rebirth right on his old wall. When he showed me the painting, he seemed pleased and explained how important this idea was to him. I’ve always thought his explanation was like the way people try to make you feel better about The Tower card when you get a reading. They will say, “Oh no, don’t worry, out of destruction comes rebirth.” I’ve never trusted that idea completely. I love zero destruction at all times and just moving on, not tearing the whole thing down before you go.

LRK: You’re so definitive! I love that. I feel like it’s not just tarot card readers that consider destruction as a means to rebirth. Nietzsche (“I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those that cross over”), T.S. Eliot (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”), Anne Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, the list goes on and on. I suppose, though, that the poet is a kind of tarot card reader—there is a lot of overlap in the hypothetical Venn diagram. Eliot even wrote of the tarot in The Waste Land, “with a wicked pack of cards.”

DL: Or as Plath said in “Daddy”: “And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack.”

LRK: (I’ll take your Plath quote over my Eliot quote any day.)

DL: I think poets are absolutely spiritual workers, dealing in divinatory objects, which are in their case, poems. Although I think that this connection sometimes serves to mystify the role of a poet in society even further than it is already. I personally think it should make it clearer. People sometimes want the work of poetry to be all brain and part of a linear, cerebral process, when it is more complicated than that and involves the most holy type of thinking of allcreativity. The brain itself is the greatest divinatory object of all. I guess, who knows, but I myself worship at the altar of creative thinking.

LRK: Like thousands (343K+) of other Twitter users, I follow you and Alex Dimitrov: the Astro Poets (@poetastrologers). It’s so clear to me the influence poetry and astrology can have on one another, but I’m wondering how becoming a ‘poet astrologer’ has changed your poetic process not on or via Twitter.

DL: Thank you for following us! I feel that I have always had an interest in the ways in which poetry and the spiritual world interact, so I am not sure that Astro Poets has changed this about my poetic process or poetry writing. I remember when I started getting really obsessed with astrology, almost 20 years ago now, a friend asked me, “Since you like it so much, will you start putting more astrology into your poems?” I remember how confused I was by this question, only because I believe in the idea of emergence when it comes to writing poems and I don’t go into a poem thinking I am going to write ‘about’ anything. But writing with Alex for our Twitter, our columns at W Magazine, and the book we are writing together, we do have to write ‘about’ astrology and poetry, so I guess I’d say that the Twitter has affected my idea of writing for these types of forums, which as a poet I didn’t consider as seriously, as they weren’t available to me in the same way. I’d say for sure that writing for Astro Poets has affected my sense of the scope of prose and what kinds of prose writing I am interested in doing in the years to come.

LRK: Can you elaborate on this idea of prose and scope?

DL: Aside from Astro Poets, I’ve had some opportunities in the past five years that have opened up the idea that I could write prose in some form and not be limited to just writing poems. I am currently finishing a book of lectures on poetry, which should be out in the coming months. After that, I hope to finish at least one other book of prose. Also, I’ve written a few prose pieces lately for online publications (which you can find here and here), and I’d love to do more writing like this in the near future.

LRK: And I cannot wait to read more writing like that in the near future!

You recently took part in a residency at Mount Analogue. What does a Twitter residency mean to you? How are you navigating the digital space, and how is it different than how you might approach a physical or place-based residency? This is not to say that digital space does not have a ‘placeness.’

DL: I loved doing this residency! The people who run Mount Analogue are so nice and I think it is such a fabulous idea to invite visitors to occupy a digital space in this way. I have never been to a formal residency in a ‘place’ and would love to go to one sometime, so I am not sure how it is different. But I would assume that there would be something very different, as no matter how much the digital landscape occupies our imaginations and actual beings, it was different to post on the Twitter during a regular day of everyday life, versus the idea of going and being somewhere for a long time. When I did my posts at Mount Analogue, I thought about creating a cohesiveness to what I was writing. I think Twitter lends itself to this. When you have a Twitter account, you sort of have to have a theme or else people might get confused. If it’s an individual person’s Twitter, then the theme can, of course, just be that person’s performance of themselves, like the way a persona performs their mask in a collection of poems or across a poet’s work. My residency got me thinking about all kinds of other Twitters one could create to give poetry more attention by Twitter users.

LRK: Astro Poets seems like one such Twitter account, giving poetry a ‘mainstream’ spotlight.

My next question exists purely because I have you “on the line.” In “Astrological Sign Poem,” published in LitHub, you write, “Capricorn, you are nothing if not hell.” I’m a Capricorn and identify strongly with this line, but can you to parse your sentiment for me and for Adroit readers?

DL: It’s hard to completely explain it. I’ll just say that Capricorns love lushness and hell is certainly nothing if not lush.

LRK: A love of “lushness.” I’m so glad I’ve attempted to curb my questions for you; I’m prone to asking questions with long explanations.

What is the last book you purchased, and where did you purchase it?

DL: R E D by Chase Berggrun. I got it from the poet at Mark Cugini and Layne Ransom’s engagement reading. It’s fantastic and everyone should buy it immediately!

LRK: One last request: please give this interview an epigraph.

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Lauren R. Korn is a poet and graphic designer currently living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. She is the Director of Content for The Adroit Journal and will be an M.A. student of Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick this fall. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming.