The Sort of Bliss I Strive For: An Interview with Dorothea Lasky
Interview by Katie Condon
The speakers represented across Dorothea Lasky’s four poetry collections are at once banal and almighty: they delight in people’s sweaters and then regard the sweater-wearer’s journey through the mortal world with a wisdom that seems omniscient. In part these all-knowing declarations are unexpected because they are delivered by speakers who earnestly profess their love for “weird ass hippies” or open a poem with a discussion of The Shining. In this way, Lasky cultivates a kind of artlessness that has made her poetic voice absolutely unique over the past decade. Like the shepherd Caedmon, who was illiterate until an angel gifted him with song, the wisdoms that Lasky’s poems arrive at are often so abrupt that they seem like gifts transmitted from a god. Unlike Caedmon, however, Lasky’s speakers are their own gods. Their divine wisdom is not received; it is summoned from within a speaker who is part “graceful lady” and “part museum / Of the voices of the universe everyone else forgets.” Lasky’s poetry calls on us to delight in oddities as much as it asks us to consider our place in her cruel and beautiful world.
Lasky’s buoyant and confident voice extends from her poetry to her lectures and essays on poetics (which we hear she’s compiling into a book!). In her critical writing, she often pushes back against popular notions of poetic composition, investigates color in poetry and examines the usefulness of poetic personae. Not only is her intellect fierce, Lasky also brings a refreshing informality and wit to her criticism. I can’t help but describe her approach as undiscriminating. Much like her poetry, her prose is generous and ecstatic—as much as it wants you to take knowledge from it, it wants you too to take joy.
Dorthea Lasky is the author of five collections of poetry, including MILK, which is forthcoming from Wave Books, and Rome (Liveright/W.W. Norton). I had the pleasure of discussing poetry and poetics with Lasky over e-mail last fall.
Katie Condon: I’d love to start by chatting about your idea of the Metaphysical I. For readers who haven’t read or listened to your really fantastic lecture “Poetry and the Metaphysical I,” this I is one that contains immense power and contradiction. Or, as you put it: an I “[t]hat is so much the puffed up essence of personal, it can harness all fragmented senses of self and use them whenever it needs to, to go beyond it…an I that is so powerful it can truly become a universal I.”
In the lecture you offer poems by Catullus and Sylvia Plath (among others) as housing a Metaphysical I, and you also cite—to my serious delight—work by Biggie and Nicki Minaj. My question is, in the few years since you wrote this lecture, what other poets’ and hip-hop artists’ work have you identified a Metaphysical I in? How do they live up to the criteria of the persona?
Dorothea Lasky: Thank you so much for reading and knowing this essay! It encapsulates such a particular time in my thinking about poetry and my own struggles to understand how a persona is crafted and carried out in the space of a poem. The ideas arose out of a class I was teaching around that time called “Ancient Roman Poetry and the Metaphysical I,” which I created to help ask questions about the poetry I truly loved. There was the idea that a metaphysical I could function in a poem as a shapeshifter—wholly performative and frightening—a true trickster, with the intrinsic quality of mercury.
My own particular poetic development has involved the surging together of these poets you mention, Catullus, Plath, Nicki Minaj, and Biggie, because they share this force. When I first heard all of their work in different times throughout my life, something just clicked. In their poems, they aren’t afraid to have feelings, to change their minds, to be inconsistent, and to use associative and aesthetic logic. To me, that’s an ideal kind of persona, because it can do anything. It’s more than just brave—it just has zero fear to say what it means. No one can say silly things to it like “you aren’t making sense,” because sense is just beside the point.
If I were to write this essay today, I might include a poet I’ve been obsessed with for about 10 years, Douglas Kearney. I think what makes his work so special to me is that it is completely unafraid to be more than a poem every single time. Kearney writes poems visually and sonically and creates work that has multiple meanings with each new read. The I of his poems completely sees through genres and disciplines and I love that.
KC: Another of your essays that I frequently revisit is “What is color in Poetry, or Is It the Wild Wind in the Space of the Word.” In it you suggest that “color creates a kind of imaginative testimony.” I’m wondering what color (or colors) you would describe each of your full-length poetry collections as, and what their imaginative testimonies might be?
DL: Thank you also for knowing this piece! I love this question so much. This exercise would be a lot of fun to do for any poetry book. I’d love to do this in a class. If I steal this, I promise I will cite you!
For my first book, AWE, I would say that its color is a bright, tomato red. This is a little obvious, because the inside covers are this color and they were made by me sending a swatch of Maybelline’s Juicy Tomato to Wave Books to copy exactly (a color that is discontinued now—Maybelline bring it back!!). AWE is about sublime faith. Its imaginative testimony is about committing to a spiritual or ethical principle—or more importantly, a God–– and saying, I give it all to you, passionately. Its testimony is like hot, spiritual sex, but again, with actual spirits and gods, which I think would be like this hot orange red everywhere. (I’ll also say, in line with all of these ideas, AWE’s secondary color is an icy blue.)
The title of my second book, Black Life, is based on a poetic exercise the poet Laura Solomon was doing at the time I wrote it, where she was asking poets and artists to respond to the couplet: “No Milk/Black Life.” I think you had to come up with the first image you thought of and do something with it (like write a poem or make a picture). When she said those words to me, I immediately had the image of a mother and son in the depths of poverty. The mother is holding up a milk carton, like one of those from the 1950’s that might have just said “MILK,” with no brand name, and the boy has a horrific grin, almost maniacal. His smile is saying to the viewer, “I know.” The scene is shrouded in a dark sickly green, like the green of things turning towards death. This dark green is in line with the imaginative testimony of this book, which is about hopelessness and the process of dying—or really, nihilism.
Thunderbird is about descending completely into the demonic, because in it, my persona dies early on and then the book has to deal with what they can do after death. I’ve always seen the color of this book as a blinding, hot pink. Like the kind of pink that looks fantastic in a hot, desert sun and also is blistering at night, in the cool blue of the night sky. It’s infused with something, but you can’t tell early on if this thing could be bad. It actually seems to have pure intentions, but then it doesn’t at all. The book’s imaginative testimony is like, what is evil, and so its color is the holy evil of this pink.
ROME will always be yellow and red together, like the colors of ketchup and mustard bottles, or the most beautiful orange right before it’s made. Or ROME actually is the color of Roman shields, which are bright red and yellow. With this book, I was thinking again of passion, but unlike AWE, which is about devoting one’s self to a God, this book is about devoting one’s self to fight for real, earthly love. Its imaginative testimony is a kind of internal war, a war of feelings, and its colors are that bright red and yellow shield smashing through the air, again and again, futilely.
Because Milk is just now coming to be, it’s hard for me to have complete distance to understand its color and imaginative testimony. But I will say, at this point, it’s a weird green, like turning from the dark green of Black Life, into a sort of green light, with a sort of blue-green translucence. Like if everything is shaded in a green traffic light. And the book is saying, go go go, you’re wasting time, live!
KC: Yes! Before reading that essay I was fairly oblivious to the tonal depths that colors contain, and I love this as a way to think about what a given piece of writing cares about. (It would be fun to do in a classroom—I hadn’t thought of that!) Are you working through any new essays or lectures on poetics? Or, really the heart of this question is: what questions about poetics have been preoccupying you lately?
DL: I have been working on putting these lectures you mention earlier into a collection. And then after I finish that book, it is my hope to write a longer collection of essays on poetics or maybe more largely, aesthetics. It’s definitely interesting, and pretty difficult, to go back to my ideas in these earlier essays, because it’s hard to know how much to preserve about my original thoughts. This is distinctly different than what it feels like for me to go back to poems after a long while—there is something about the sentence that changes your relationship to what is being said that never happens in a poem (because poems can mean so many things throughout time and are in effect, timeless).
More generally, I have been thinking a lot lately about the idea of a hybrid form, between poetry and nonfiction, and how I want to write within this space. So maybe the act of writing these essays is about this type of hybrid poetics just by its nature. And in terms of the topics of what I am working on, I guess I would say they are about obsession, health, creativity and making, what it means to live, veganism, more about the reinvention of a persona, the color turquoise, the stars, and the deadpan.
KC: It sounds like a collection everyone should get their hands on when it comes out. (I know I look forward to having all of your essays and lectures in one place!) Since you mentioned the stars, I wanted to look back to April 2017. By way of Bon Appetit Magazine, the Astro Poets suggested I enjoy some Gruyère cheese as I ponder big decisions I’d make during the next month. I love Gruyère, and so many of us love you Astro Poets and the food and drink you pair with our signs. What does writing horoscopes contribute to your poetics? Or is it the other way around?
DL: Haha, I am so glad you liked this pairing! I don’t want to take complete credit for this particular cheese, because Alex Dimitrov and I always split the horoscopes we do and he may have made this holy choice. We actually aren’t doing Bon Appetit horoscopes anymore and are instead writing horoscopes and an advice column for W Magazine. But I miss doing them, because I love using astrology to find kinships in the mundane and the stars. I remember many years ago, when I’d been known to go to a party or two, I used to love to make friends drinks based on their signs—it was so much fun. I’d really like to do that again one day actually.
Astro Poets is a way to intertwine two things that I love thinking about: astrology and poetry. And I’d say that my experience in poetry makes writing horoscopes easier, because I have had many years of experience conjuring the ineffable into language. In this way, poetry informs my astrology, but I don’t know that I’d say it goes the other way around. Definitely the spiritual world intersects with my poetics big time. I guess I’ll leave it at that.
KC: Repetition seems important to your work. What draws you to repetition? What does it lend to poems, yours in particular?
DL: Repetition is everything to my poetics, because repeating things is a type of witchcraft. For me, repeating things over and over is a sort of anti-didactic, pro-emotional and pro-obsessive stance. It’s saying every second changes everything and nothing is ever the same again, you are never safe in your expertise of a thing, and that life is (maybe blissfully) centerless.
KC I love thinking of repetition as a kind of witchcraft! I also love thinking about this language-magic in relation to “finding kinships between the mundane and the stars” that you previously mentioned. From what I’ve gleaned about witchcraft over the years it seems that in addition to repetitive language, spells often involve items that out of the context of magic would be utterly mundane: a toenail or a lizard tongue, for instance. What are your thoughts on why the mundane should be worthy of poets’ reverence?
DL: I feel that the mundane should be worthy of everyone’s reverence, because the everyday has a lot to give us. It reminds us to live each second to its fullest and that even the smallest things are important and worthy of our care and attention (and in most ways, even the most so). I believe poets are observational scientists and that it is our job to notice these small details of the everyday and translate them into beautiful language. In this way, all poets are witches. Witchcraft to me is a great thing because it resists dominant structures of organized religion and lets everyone find a way into the spiritual realm with whatever they have on hand. Of course, this involves ritual and ritual is about taking that special hair off your beloved’s head and soaking it in cinnamon and lizard oil with intent. We live in a time where the cult of Science and the practice of medicine is as tied to capitalism as possible (let’s hope it can’t get any worse), but really the beauty of healing is that with intent you take the mundane and let it soak within itself and make it better. This sounds antithetical potentially to some people who practice science, but I believe all real scientists would agree with me that discovery is always a type of witchcraft because it’s about being devoted to a cause and a question and seeing it through. Poets, Witches, and Scientists—they are all just one in the same. They are all just practitioners of the mundane.
KC: At the risk of getting too heady toward the end of our interview, I’d like to zoom in on your idea that repetition reminds us that we “are never safe in [our] expertise of a thing.” To make the obvious observation, this is a totally postmodern thought in that it gestures toward all of the skepticism and centerlessness that drives folks like Acker and Pynchon. Yet, your idea is also radically opposed to so much of postmodernism’s paranoia and pessimism when you call the centerlessness of life potentially blissful. Bliss seems like a good place to end, in large part because you mentioned that your newest collection Milk is saying go go go, you’re wasting time, live! What role does bliss play in our postmodern age? Could this indicate a turn in our poetic thinking at large?
DL: I think that a first step in a consciousness that is waking up is realizing there is no center at all. I guess I mean by this the idea that there is no purpose, that the structures at play that make us feel cozy may indeed be faulty, be suspect, be not even there at all—that what we hold dear is all just this grand illusion. This may be the heart of postmodernism—to think of us floating in dark space without absolutely anything to catch us. The image of the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the perfect image of this—he is completely alone—there is no country, no friend, no mother—it’s all just a conversation of one that he must go at on his own. I guess that feels a lot what survival is and must be—we all do exist in solitary planes. Again, we must realize this if we can come to the social world with grace. When we realize that no one is around, it is a joy to see that people can and do care and that caring is contagious. Maybe by this use of the word bliss, I mean good energy. Because when you’ve been alone in dark space, no end in sight, the bliss is to say, “that center I sought was the real illusion—what is real is the embrace of my friends and lovers.” But by embrace, I don’t just mean the simple idea of the sensual. Instead, I mean care, real care. I mean the hands that bring us out into this world and hold us as we leave. They surround, there is no center. Or more so to say, the center is us. It’s all again—a sort of witchcraft. The point is not to understand completely. It is to feel bliss in what we can do for each other. Which is a lot and much much more than we do. And being devoted to nurturing others is the way to create a solid center for the future and our future humans. That’s the sort of bliss I strive for.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of five books of poems, including the forthcoming Milk (Wave Books) and ROME (Liveright/W.W. Norton). She is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University’s School for the Arts and currently lives in New York City.