AN INTERVIEW WITH ERIN LAMBERT
Gregory Donovan: Erin, in the poems that you've given us for Blackbird, both poems seem to focus on issues of spirituality, in a sense. I wondered, how does your investigation of the spiritual affect your writing of poetry, or how does it form a background for either of these poems?
Erin Lambert: I used to try to write around spirituality because I was embarrassed by it, and I'm just realizing that that is the whole point of my writing. That is what interests me. I wouldn't say what is behind things, but what is really—this is a tricky word—but what is the essence of everything, what is its truth, which I guess is more of a spiritual pursuit than a philosophical one for me. But it wasn't until I really allowed that to come into my work, or maybe on my part that I even acknowledged it, because I think it was already there, that it sort of guides me now.
GD: This often is an issue, I think, for people who are working with spiritual matters in their poetry, that language is a kind of impediment that has to be triumphed over or gotten around or something like that. Is that part of the struggle for you?
EL: No. I can understand what you mean about a lexicon being absent, but in my own writing I simply try to be a graceful listener—that's my hope. And I think that in that, there's sort of a spirituality in that. The words then simply come by listening, not by thinking about them, thinking my way through them or diving through books looking for the right ones, but simply listening for them.
GD: Would you say then that it's accurate that your spiritual interest in the reality of what's going on in your inner spiritual life, is that the base, and then poetry is an offshoot of that? Or does poetry somehow also inform the spiritual in you?
EL: I think that poetry is part of the base. I think it's certainly the forum through which the spiritual is expressed. One for me is not stronger or more present than the other. I think that the spiritual finds itself in people's lives in different ways, and for me it's through poetry. Does that mean poetry is a spiritual practice? Maybe not necessarily, but it's just there. It simply is. You don't have to go looking for the divine, in my opinion. It's always there, always present. It slaps you in the face, and it's simply a matter of taking note.
GD: In your poems, you seem to have a graceful and possibly even comic vision of the spiritual. Is that a part of your own spirituality?
EL: Yes. I think it's very easy when you start using words like spiritual to take yourself too seriously.
GD: I'm very conscious I've overused the word spiritual already.
EL: I am, too; I don't know what else to say.
GD: Well, I'm worried about using the word "religion" because that seems more constricting or severe.
EL: And it isn't, actually, that isn't what it's about. I think of religion as a map for the spiritual, for the spiritual life, but this isn't about religion for me, and I think that I'm at a point now where I'm trying to negotiate it without a map. But backing up, and I forget the first question you were really asking and I was trying to answer, but . . .
GD: I was talking about the graceful way with which you deal with spirituality in your work, and yet also an element of comedy . . .
EL: Well, it's not about living in my head, and I think that I can do that far too easily. It's about what is practical in life, how it applies day to day, and simply being present. So I do try to take it with a grain of salt.
GD: In your practice of poetry, are there things that are of particular importance to you that you feel like you feature in your own writing or that you particularly look for in the writing that you value?
EL: Emotion, certainly, and music. I think in work that I'm reading now, I keep returning to Rafael Alberti's "angel" poems. There's a relationship, I can tell, between the poet and the words he's using, and a relationship to the subject that, it's very intimate, and I look for that because there's emotion there that can't be expressed in any other way.
GD: So you expect a level of commitment in the poets that you read.
GD: That question actually arose out of something I've been wondering about, that positive nature that you're looking for in poets also probably has a flip side: what you seek to avoid, are not interested in. Are there things going on perhaps in contemporary poetry that you've found disappointing developments or all too familiar?
EL: I wouldn't say that there's anything I wholeheartedly avoid. I try to remain open to everything . . .
GD: In your reading . . .
EL: In my own reading, yes. But I noticed, maybe it's New York City, but I noticed that there's a bent on being "experimental," and I think that that should always be the case for every writer, no matter what they're writing, you should always be trying new things. But what, I guess, grates on my nerves is people being different just for the sake of being different. And I don't necessarily subscribe to that. I like to find some thought, commitment behind what's being put out there. I think there's a lot of work being published that is simply published for the sake of being shocking, and I think we should be over that by now.
GD: Yeah, novelty for its own sake.
GD: I've noticed it's almost as though there is a responsibility in the view of many contemporary poets to find a way to accommodate contemporary critical theory in their work in some way or another. Personally, I feel like that probably is a responsibility that everyone does have—why not incorporate any intellectual enterprise that is going on around you in your work? However, some of them seem to be writing according to a kind of narrow script, and they also . . . maybe poets of all eras that have done this, but there seem to be just a select few poets who are deemed worthy of imitation, or that they're the trailblazers, and then a lot of people following along behind them. Is there anything in particular that you've noticed about that yourself?
EL: You mean in terms of poets who are being emulated?
GD: Yes, or even . . . for example, a very powerful figure in contemporary poetry is Jorie Graham, and perhaps certainly she's powerful for both men and women writers. But I've noticed in particular there are quite a few women poets who seem to have very consciously incorporated elements of Graham's in their own work. And perhaps that really is the zeitgeist—there's just something about her work that's capturing something that is going on in a lot of people's work, and you could make the mistake of calling that imitative. Is there anything like that that you've encountered?
EL: Not that I can think of, no. What I was thinking of when you asked me that was Ezra Pound's slogan, "Make it new," and I think that that's haunting. It haunts a lot of people—a lot of generations—but I think he was playing a trick on us with that. I don't think he really meant "new" so much as "matters," make it matter, which could also be a trick in and of itself. But I notice that, the desire to be cutting edged, to be new.
GD: Well, there's certainly an irony in that very poet who said "make it new." The way that he made it new so often was by reaching to the past.
EL: And that's why I said what I said about making it matter. The sun rises and sets every day, and no one stands there looking at the sunset and saying, "Well, I know how this ends." You know? Because it's new every day. It's new. The circumstances are new, and you're a different person. What you're bringing to it is different, and that matters just as much. So that's perhaps what I'm looking for in what I write and also in what I read. What are the circumstances that have been given to me here, and what am I going to bring to it, given that? And I think it is that simple, and, of course, that complex. It is that simple, and that is what I believe in.
GD: Are there particular struggles that you find yourself having to face in your compositional process that you have to overcome, or tricks that you have to ply yourself with to make it possible?
EL: For a long time, I thought I did. I thought that I needed to practice more discipline, especially in graduate school. I thought, "Okay, I have to make this a daily effort." But writing isn't about sitting down and at any given point writing for a specific period, but it's at all times and any time, it can be 2:00 in the afternoon, and I'm sitting in the middle of a meeting—that's what I mean about listening. But that was an effort for me, to come to that, to realize I couldn't really compartmentalize my life.
GD: So poetry for you has about it a quality of attention, and that that is its origin?
EL: I think so.
GD: Are there other considerations that you bring in, though, once you begin the writing process? Are there other things that you feel like you need to make sure you don't forget?
EL: I have to make sure I don't edit myself too much, especially within the writing process—to simply try to get it down and let it go. That's my biggest struggle. I'm always trying to craft before I even have the stone, you know, the complete stone. And I think that's my biggest fear, that I'm cutting far too much before I have sufficient substance. I'm very tough on myself with the editing.
GD: Are there any things that you have found are helps to you in your revision process?
EL: I still have the voices of every teacher I've ever studied with in my head. And I suppose some people could think that's a detriment to their writing, but it works well for me because I only hear those voices when I'm revising. The trick for me is where does the revision really begin, because what I said about editing as I go along—I have to be careful with that; but that's what I turn to, those voices, later. And to remember to let things become themselves, to let them stand on their own rather than trying to make them appear to be something else. I know that's rather cryptic, but I think when I'm writing I have a tendency to try to build mystery rather than letting that mystery that's already present unfold. Is that still cryptic?
GD: No . . .
In your life of late, you've undertaken a new employment that leads you into a kind of an awareness of what you, I guess might call it an international perspective. Do you find that that work, which I hope you'll talk about a little bit, has that been in any way an influence on your work, is it changing how you see your work as a poet?
EL: It hasn't really had an impact yet, at least not that I've seen. But I know something's coming. You see the lights down the road; you're not there yet. I know that something's on its way from the work I'm doing. I work in international education.
GD: At this point in your life, you were telling me earlier, you've chosen not to be part of the academic apparatus of the United States. I know that for the many years in my life when I was working as a construction worker, it definitely had an effect on my ability to write poetry; frankly, I was pretty tired. So there were times when I just didn't have the kind of energy I thought I ought to bring to my writing. But on the other hand, I also felt that what I was experiencing wasn't always spoken to by many of the writers I encountered, and that was both a blessing and a curse at times. So is there a way in which your working life now is a hindrance or a help or a change in your life as a writer?
EL: Well, the hindrance is there in terms of I am always exhausted to some extent. But I think in all fairness that's part of living in New York City, you know? There's a degree of, a need to survive sometimes. But I love what I'm doing, and I love the people I work with, I guess because I'm part of a not-for-profit that is about education. I work with some amazingly talented, intelligent people, and I guess going into it I had this idea that I would have a secret life because that's what I assumed I had to do, you know, that I do this from nine to five, and then I go home and I write. Or I write before I do this, whatever. But I thought I had to keep the two separate. But somebody read some of my work online—in another journal online—and took note and put it in the office newsletter, and then a few other people took an interest, and it was an interesting thing that happened because the response was that they really didn't understand what the heck I was doing. But rather than trying to explain what I do, I just started asking, "Well, who are you reading? What other poets are you reading?" And the answer is they're not. So I started thinking of people I could steer them towards, and one person in particular—he's our chief financial officer—I suggested he read some Phil Levine. I brought him in What Work Is and just left it at that, and then a few weeks later I was walking by his office, and I saw him reading The Simple Truth. He actually went out and bought three books by Philip Levine, and I thought, you know, that's what it's about. Honestly I don't feel like—and this is just myself, I'm not saying that everybody else who's thirty-two shouldn't be teaching—but I don't feel that at thirty-two I have what I need to offer a younger writer yet. I just don't have it. I feel like being out there doing other things, meeting . . . right now I am meeting these educators from all over the world who have such diverse lives and ideas, and that's important to me.
GD: It enriches your life as a writer.
EL: It does, but more importantly, it simply enriches my life. I'm meeting people I wouldn't meet otherwise, and that's the key. And I think that maybe just a few years ago I was always trying to think of ways to enrich my life as a writer, but it's really about being a person first and foremost. The rest just carries over. Everything's going to inform your writing eventually.
GD: If you were going to identify yourself to a reader as a writer exhibiting a particular quality, something that would make your work memorable to them, what would that be?
EL: Greg, I would aspire to have a quality that would identify me, that would put me in a particular realm of poets, but at this point I just . . . if I had that now, then why the heck would I keep writing, you know? I don't have it, but I'm happy with, I'm aware of what it is that I do have now, which is the subtlety. There's a quiet voice here. It is introspective, and I think that I am coming to accept that that's not something that most people want. People don't look for those qualities, and that's okay by me. It's going to breeze by a lot of eyes, and that's okay.
GD: Well, you seemed to, however, have in mind a different aim when you mentioned before that you believed that what you brought to the writing process was bravery.
EL: I'd like to. I would like to bring bravery. I would like to be brave. And I think that maybe that's why it's only recently that I could even openly admit that I have spiritual interests or spiritual themes in my work because that was something that I felt very embarrassed about when I was much younger.
GD: And that's part of the courage you're. . .
EL: Yeah, I think just addressing those experiences, I have a few pieces that just deal directly with spirits, with the spirit world, and . . . see, growing up I was always thought of as the spooky kid, I was the spooky person in my family, to the point that my mother was always very gracious with me about it. She always believed me, but I dared say something once at school that just . . . I think that was in the third grade, and by the eighth grade kids were still saying, "That's Erin; she believes in ghosts. She's the spooky one." And even in college when, living in Richmond as an undergrad, you're always in an old building, it seems, and you're always encountering strange things, and people just thought I was weird—that I would even admit to it. So when I finally got around to allowing that to unfold in my work, that was a big deal for me. It's probably not a big deal at all, but it was a big deal for me. So I'm interested in seeing where that might go.
GD: I think that offers something to readers, too, who might, in their secret selves, be aware of something beyond the ordinary in the world they encounter but are unwilling to talk about it or maybe even admit it to themselves . . .
EL: But I want to be cautious. That is not to say that what is ordinary is not extraordinary, because it is. I have a piece that I wrote recently in which one of the lines is, "What is simple is extraordinary, and what is extraordinary is dangerous." The divine is in all things already; you don't have to go looking for it, it's there.