An Interview With Lindsay Lusby

When I first read Catechesis: a postpastoral (The University of Utah Press, 2019), I recognized an immediate admiration for the multiplicities incorporated in the poems. There is a subterranean narrative to these poems, and they are in conversation with each other in myriad ways. I have had the honor of conversing with Lindsay Lusby over a series of emails across months. We discussed poetry, process, the postmodern, visual components in poetry, the natural world, navigating the world as a woman, advice to writers, and more.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

Congratulations on publishing your first full-length collection Catechesis: a postpastoral, selected by Kimiko Hahn as a winner of The Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry. Would you share the process of writing this book, the influences, the juxtapositions of gender, natural sciences, fairytales and movies?

 

LINDSAY LUSBY

Thank you so much! Catechesis is the product of four years of writing and revising and researching and experimentation. When I began, I imagined it being an entire collection of poems combining fairy tales with Biblical elements. Because so many debut collections act as a kind of origin story for the poet, it felt entirely natural to throw these formative influences together to write poems of a strange kind of girlhood. Having grown up in a house in the woods, the natural world figures heavily in everything I write, just as it does in so many fairy tales. The real turn in writing the book came when it occurred to me to incorporate another of my formative influences—horror movies—the final strand of the braid. The moment of epiphany happened while rewatching The Silence of the Lambs, when I finally paid attention to the bird in Clarice Starling’s name and I realized that this was just another kind of fairy tale—a woman who becomes a bird, or a bird who becomes a woman. And she has to solve these dangerous riddles to stay alive and to keep other women alive too.

 

SNEHA

The attention to landscape as extending beyond is particularly alluring in this collection. The element of anthropomorphism connects through these poems. What role does the everyday attention to the natural world around us hold in your life and how does it manifest in your writing?

 

LINDSAY

I spent so much time in the woods growing up that returning there just feels like home. I still dream about those particular woods once or twice a week. It’s this everyday attention to the natural world that gets me through the month, the week, the day. There are so many small moments of beauty to be picked up and kept like shiny pennies. And so many of those small moments lead to an image, a metaphor, a line, or even a whole poem. All of my poems have to have some amount of green in them or they don’t feel quite right to me. That’s how even my Alien poems—about a movie that takes place on a spaceship and a barren primordial planet—have plants at their centers. When so many of the corpse flowers in botanical gardens across the U.S. were preparing to bloom all within a few weeks of each other, I was captivated by these morbidly fantastical plants. While watching one of the livestreams waiting for the flower to open and release its putrid perfume, I was suddenly struck by how much the closed corpse flower looked like the xenomorph egg from the movie, thinking maybe it would release a facehugger instead.

 

SNEHA

In the poem titled “Interlude”, the first lines read: “A girl has two choices: / to be a tree or / to be the forest.” There is a non-binary connotation to the either or, particularly with reference to the next line: “If she leaves her father’s house”, leading to a choice but eventual consequences. There is a reference to violence, as belonging to the patriarchal structure or not. This leads me to a vital question. How do you interpret this constant collapse of reckoning with safety, our bodies, and mental health?

 

LINDSAY

The safety and autonomy of women and girls is constantly threatened in this world we live in. We’re taught from such a young age how to fear, that the threat of violence is always hanging in the air, and that this fear is how we can foresee the danger (possibly outwit it). One thing I love about both fairy tales and horror movies is that they don’t shy away from that basic fact of our lives. So many fairy tales are built around the idea that girls are in constant danger (even in their own homes) and they try to provide a kind of instruction manual for how to survive these unavoidable perils. Horror movies take those threats and amplify them, turn a woman into a hero just for making it through the gauntlet. A “constant collapse” is a good way to put it. As soon as her feet hit seemingly solid ground, that ground will give way too—so she’s got to keep moving. This is survival mode. And after a while it will begin to transform you into someone or something else—a bird, a deer, a tree, or a monster.

 

SNEHA

The usage of erasure in the visual poem titled “Hooded Skullcap” is alluring. I’m particularly interested in how the collages, and their materiality have a remnant lasting effect on the reader. Please tell us more about incorporating this form, and ensuing ideas about the visual spectrum.

 

LINDSAY

These visual poems were just a big experiment for me. From the moment I decided to write movie poems, I had the impulse to create companion pieces for them that were visual art rather than text. I was really inspired by Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, which I found captivatingly complex. She found a way for these two mediums to intertwine in a way that seemed completely natural—they just fit together like puzzle pieces. I wanted to see if I could do something similar, but I needed to play to my strengths. Paper silhouettes and photos of miniature scenes are not a talent of mine, but mixed media collage was something I had in my repertoire. The funny thing is, I really think collage describes the way I approach poem-writing as well. I have multiple sources, influences, and references I want to bring together to form new connections. So, I cut them up and rearrange them until I see how they can fit together. For the visual poems, I chose a wildflower to be the central idea and image to build around. I had an old beaten-up book of wildflower illustrations that I cut images from, then I added pieces from other old books (like a paperback copy of the Gray’s Anatomy textbook and an encyclopedic dictionary), erasures of a few wildflower descriptions from that same book, some hand-stitching, and some other text typed out on one of my typewriters in red and black ink. I envisioned them as creating a kind of field guide experience of the poems. My hope is that seeing these visual poems alongside their text counterparts will deepen the layers of meaning for readers—that the text brings out new meaning in the visual poems and vice versa.

 

SNEHA

I’m drawn towards the form of your book being described as postmodern in a few reviews. The word “postmodern” of course has several understandings (and misunderstandings). Was the tonality of the book something that consciously veered towards that direction?

 

LINDSAY

I’m certainly a fan of postmodern literature and its inventiveness (and reinventions). Because of my own reading preferences, I tend to associate “postmodern” literature with genres such as magical realism, fabulism, and fairy tale retellings. These were certainly a conscious influence as I was writing these poems. But an even stronger influence was that of the postpastoral, which I guess is just another offshoot of postmodernism? The postpastoral encompasses my entire approach to writing poems, my reason for writing them—writing in celebration of the beauty of the traditionally unbeautiful in the natural world: decay, deformity, monstrosity, disfiguration, hybridity.

 

SNEHA

In the poem titled “Look at him, Starling. Tell me what you see.” the couplet at the end reads: “Here, a headline reads: / Fathers, Hide Your Daughters.”. This symbolizes a sense of being hidden, made smaller, rendered invisible, a protection from which one needs protection. I admire the attention to lineation in your poems. Would you please share your thoughts with reference to this particular craft methodology?

 

LINDSAY

I used to write poems with all the lines strictly aligned to the left margin, but there came a point in which these columns of words began to feel too tight, almost claustrophobic. I’d seen poems by others that played around more with white space, with fragments of lines a bit more scattered on the page. Seeing and reading these other poems gave me the push to experiment with different spacing across lines and between them. I wanted to see if the poems felt different to me—and they did. Playing with spacing and lineation in this way helped me to realize how much I am affected by the visual aspect of a poem and how important it was to my reading experience. I describe it as inserting a little more air into the text, so that the lines have room to breathe. For me, poems are just as much about the shape they form on the page as they are about the words themselves as they are about the music they make when read aloud.

 

SNEHA

You are the Assistant Director of Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College, and pay close attention to inclusion and diversity. What advice would you give poets who are beginning to write? [I’m specifically aiming here to request advise for poets who may not have access to MFA programs, are outside the US, Canada, UK, Europe, and Australia.]

 

LINDSAY

One of the most important things you can do—other than just reading and writing and reading some more—is to seek out your writing community wherever you can find it. Although I’ve never attended an MFA program, I’ve been so lucky to have a community of writers, friends, mentors, and students. There are so many ways to build your own community around you—read literary magazines and new poetry collections; find a workshop or two to attend (either online or in-person—there are so many out there!); make sincere, personal connections with other writers through social media (that’s how I keep up with what’s going on in the literary world); and go to as many poetry readings as you can. Although writing is in itself a solitary pursuit, we need our community to be our touchstones, our mentors, our family. I’ve learned so much about my own poetic voice because of my exposure to the work of others. Seeing the amazing poems other poets are creating and talking with them about it has pushed me to embrace my own artistic impulses to experiment and to push poetic boundaries. Find your people however you can.

I’ll actually be leaving my position at the Literary House in May after nearly eight years there to pursue full-time freelance work. But because of the writing community I’ve found and built around me, I’m not afraid to go off alone. It’s that community that has given me this strength and confidence—and I’ll be bringing that with me wherever I go.

 

SNEHA

Much gratitude for agreeing to participate in this interview feature. We look forward to all the exciting projects you have lined up for the future.

 

LINDSAY

It was absolutely my pleasure and honor! Thank you so much, Sneha!

Lindsay Lusby

Lindsay Lusby is the author of the poetry collection Catechesis: a postpastoral (The University of Utah Press, 2019), winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, judged by Kimiko Hahn. She is also the author of two chapbooks, Blackbird Whitetail Redhand (Porkbelly Press, 2018) and Imago (dancing girl press, 2014), and the winner of the 2015 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared most recently in Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, Passages North, The Account, and North Dakota Quarterly. Her visual poems have appeared in Dream Pop Press and Duende. She is a Senior Poetry Reader for Cherry Tree.

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