Natalie Lyalin Week (1): A Poem, An Interview

This week, I along with other contributors will throw down with Natalie Lyalin, editor of GlitterPony and author of the next book of poems that you should buy: Pink & Hot Pink Habitat (Coconut Books). Buy it here. There will be opportunities to WIN Natalie’s book along with other books from the tremendous Coconut catalog, so stayed tuned for that. This will be like a party on the internet. A party that starts with a poem and follows that with an interview to which the poem is relevant. So, to begin.

GREAT SOPHIAS

There were two great Sophias
and a few good Dorothys. We enacted
inside the outside world of the mausoleum.

The mausoleum is by my house,
and I thought it was ordinary. I thought
it was all ordinary. I was Sophia,
but not so good at it. I loved Dorothy.

On the lake, the small swans stood on water.
I stood under a tree. Someone occupied the
peace pagoda. It is not always certain,
a safe exit from the forest.

I believe their show was the first
to address homosexuality. Dorothy
loved the way she dressed.
They were dressed impeccably.

Because Natalie’s book gave me lots to think about concerning gender and place, these were the starting points of the interview, after the jump.

McDANIEL: When I think of gender and place, I think of public and private selves and spaces.  Natalie, how do you negotiate between public and private–in terms of gender and/or/in-conjunction-with place–as a poet?

LYALIN: Wow, what an interesting question. As you noted, you and I are both from the South, where typified gender ideals are quite prominent. My family’s eastern european background certainly adds to a very conventional idea of the female gender role. I think for me gender is an action, or reflex, that I participate in and create daily in public and in private. That is, I consciously and subconsciously see what it means to be a woman, or feminine, and I do whatever that is–I participate in the world-wide construction of the female gender. I’m obviously drawn to some things that would be considered typically feminine–the title of my book  and the magazine I edit (GlitterPony) being prime examples of that. As I write this I’m looking at a vase of fat pink flowers, and that makes me really happy. Just writing the words ‘fat pink flowers’ makes me want to write a poem! And that instinct has given me trepidation. I have wondered if someone would assume my book is a princess-scape because of the title and the illustration of the unicorn on the cover. But then, I’m not really writing for that person, so I try to not entertain that ‘what if’. The whole notion of gender “normalcy” is quite frustrating because I do not think that a woman should or does like the color pink, or glitter, or makeup, or wants to be a mother, or even has a vagina. Gender is so constructed that it is hard to see where the stereotypes begin and end. So I’m aware of the gender in my poetry, that it reads as feminine, but I’m also aware of the violence that exists in my writing. I think that is also a part of my gender construction, but I know that many associate violence or physical power with the male gender. I think that violence is a nice juxtaposition to the fluffiness of some of the poems in P&HPH. I like the idea of this book and its title and the severed head on p.12. I’m certainly not a violent person in public or in private, but in a private poetic way I’m very violent, at times. The poems are a place where I’m the strongest and I can do whatever I want, and there is nothing to be afraid of. I certainly do not feel this way as a woman out in my daily life. In that sense, the idea of power and safety come together at the intersection of place and gender. I feel powerful when I construct my own landscape. I think I feel a loss of power as a woman in my public and private life, but I have tremendous power as a poet in my constructed landscape.

McDANIEL: Something early on in your answer, about your origins, has brought me to my next question, which you are, as always, free to reject. Would you mind telling me a little bit about your mother w/ regard to poetry, gender, and place? Maybe a little emblematic story, if one comes to mind?

LYALIN:  To be honest, I’m not sure how my mother figures into my poetry. I know she figures very prominently in my life. She and my father had some very traditional views on gender and I would say that her concept of gender leans in that direction as well. But for whatever reason my poems focused more on fathers than on mothers. However, I recently realized that I stopped writing about a father figure and began writing about a mother figure. When writing P&HPH I literally could not stop writing about fathers–menacing and looming fathers kept popping up in the poems. But with my new poems I finally wrote something about a mother. I had this really strong image of my mom in a house watching the news and it just struck me–the silence of the house, and the foods she eats, and how she’s there. I got a really wonderful poem out of that “psychic” viewing of her. And I think I felt a relief that mothers finally found a way into my writing. It’s almost like I had no room for them before.

McDANIEL:  [Here I gave Natalie a choice of three questions.–McD] I’m thinking about what you say about being drawn to the typically feminine, but having trepidation about that–and I’m thinking that there seems to be a similar fraughtness expressed in P&HPH in regard to place, wherein you play with/disrupt/upend the appropriateness of situations to their settings. I don’t know how to make this into a question, but would still love to hear your answer.

LYALIN: I began to answer another question having to do with gender and wrote a lot, but then stopped because talking about place and this idea that you bring up of upending the appropriate was really calling to me. I don’t write my poems actively contemplating notions of gender, though I obviously find gender issues in poetry/life to be complicated, compelling, and absolutely necessary of our attention. Place and landscape are much more imminent in my mind. The desire to upend and disrupt place is a power play. I find this to be a really pleasing gesture in writing. For example, in the poem “Goose Necks for the Baby, Baby,” I place a severed head on a freight train. I am both frightened and liberated by that image as the head I’m cutting off is my own. I see that moment as taking back some power that was lost. I will be the one to dismember myself. I also find interest in the uncomfortable, the thing that startles you on the page. It’s like the moment when you bite into an apple and discover a worm. This is the same principal I feel drawn to in my writing. I like to set up a beautiful space and then turn on a weird light that casts a strange shadow.

McDANIEL: I think you’ve said something important about poetry and power, something that perhaps non-poets don’t think about, and that perhaps not many poets talk about. Might you say more about poetry and power plays, poetry and consolidating power? I’m thinking at this point that there is no real need to stick strictly to gender and place, though they are nice things to keep in mind. So please feel at liberty to range as far as you’d like in talking about poetry and power.

LYALIN: I think the relationship between poetry and power is unique for each poet. I’m not sure how many of the poets I know write because they want to feel powerful. Although I recognize this pursuit in my writing it is really a small part of it, and certainly not often conscious. And as much as I like to believe that I have power in my poems there is also the real possibility that they have power over me. Some poets are possessed by their poems and have no choice but to keep writing. I can think of several poets like this, but Osip Mandelstam comes to mind first. He died because of his poems and that is something I’m not prepared to do, and I’m ashamed to say that.
So poetry is powerful. But the concept of power is very relative because it is also close to boasting, cruelty, and oppression. And on the other side it is close to weakness. Weakness and submission are also a type of power.  Which makes me think the following: I’m not sure if a great poem or poet has to be powerful. I think it is more impressive when weak poets write powerful things.
Poems are quite powerful and often dangerous. For one, after coming into being they no longer need their poet and survive fabulously on their own. This is wonderful and also creepy! Somewhat similarly, I recently met a poet in Tel Aviv who told me that the government was watching her and her fellow writers and she was serious. Because there are many instances of governments monitoring and silencing poets I’m sure that poetry is actually quite dangerous and very powerful. Again, I come back to Mandelstam.

McDANIEL: Because it is Betty White’s birthday, I must ask you now: Which Golden Girl would you be, and why?

LYALIN: This is a toughie. I hate to single out one of the ladies as I love them all and really see them as one woman split into four (like an external Herman’s Head). That said, I would go with the fabulous Dorothy Zbornak. To me she really is the backbone of that show, the one with the sharpest sense of humor, the one that really comes in and makes a scene hilarious. The episode where Dorothy, Blanch, and Rose sing “Mr. Sandman” is a great example of this. Dorothy provides the very deep “bom bom bom bom” part of the song and nails it. You know, I love Dorothy, but I may be Sophia. I’m conflicted on this. Dorothy all the way for favorite character, but realistically I may be Sophia.

The Golden Girls Sing Mr. Sandman to a Crying Baby

McDANIEL:  I’m going to go back to something from that tripartite question 3, but in a different way.  And so, what do you think about when you think about your audience?

LYALIN: When I think of my audience I start to blush. I do not think about the audience when I write because then I would worry about cursing or saying something gross. But now, when I am not writing a poem, I am thinking of them and it is strange. I want them to feel something when reading my poems, and I want them to understand, but in their own way. We do not need a unified understanding, but we should all feel something when reading, I think. I felt a great deal when writing the poems, so the biggest concern would be a flatline from the audience. I wish I could look at them more, but I have a hard time looking up when I do a reading. A live audience makes me dizzy, but the abstract audience is super. I float things out to them and they occasionally send back some flares.

McDANIEL: How do you deal with endings, as a poet? As in, what kinds of endings are you drawn to? Or as in, what do you think a last line or thought in a poem should and/or should not accomplish?

LYALIN: Okay, endings: Endings are quite instinctual, and my instincts are to cut things early. This is because I visualize my endings as a camera zooming out of a shot. I like endings that suggest a continuation post textual ending. So, the poem’s ending is akin to that part in a tv show, not quite the cliff hanger, but something like it that is kinder.  I don’t like the idea of leaving a reader in torment over what happens past the last line. I want them to be on steady ground and do the work of determining where this poem was going. I also like the “gong” ending. The one where no continuation is possible because the poem is its own perfectly horrifying or beautiful universe and when you look up from the page to the sound of gong. There is nothing before this poem and nothing after.
I think of Joyce Carol Oates’ ending in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and any Joy Williams ending. After reading their work it is clean slate time. What could possibly exist outside of that?