Poet Lisa Andrews is the author of the chapbook Dear Liz and the full-length poetry collection, The Inside Room, which came out in 2018 from Indolent Press. Lynn Mcgee writes that The Inside Room “submerges readers into myths you might be familiar with—such as the story of Persephone—but have never heard rendered with such intimate clarity.” I had the opportunity to email with Lisa from her apartment in Brooklyn, NY, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Over email, we discussed life during coronavirus, the impact of poetry friendships, and The Inside Room.
Okay, well to start off, you live in NYC, where as I write this in mid-April, things are getting pretty crazy. How are you holding up with everything that’s going on? Have you been social distancing and quarantining at all? Has the coronavirus affected your life as an artist in any way?
I think I’m holding up alright. My husband Tony and I are holed up in the apartment (we are in close quarters). It’s been difficult, but we’re alive and kicking. I have been social distancing since at least March 11, quarantining since March 11 as well—with the exception of going outside for brief periods most days—am I insane, thoughtless, reckless to do this??—to go to the grocery store and/or to take a walk to maintain some semblance of sanity, but I continue to be concerned about going out (concerned for others and my husband, as well as myself), even with gloves and an old mask that I have.
The local grocery stores, besides being bare-shelved in places, do not allow for much social distancing. It’s not at all clear if surfaces are being cleaned off, and there is a lot of variety in terms of whether the people who work there are themselves protected—or even that aware—although that seems to be improving somewhat.
I’m writing less. In the past, I would most likely be writing on a long walk or in a café. In the recent past, I’ve been fortunate enough to have easier access to a possible sweep of uninterrupted time. We’re a bit on top of each other here. We don’t have a washing machine or dryer. And it’s been difficult getting prescriptions. I might add I have a couple of underlying health conditions—nothing dire, but one is asthma, which makes us both a little nervous, and we’ve been trying to figure out a lot of things that have to do with logistics in the apartment—the details of which are wildly uninteresting but seemed to be extraordinarily time-consuming.
Each day feels like a slow puzzle in a thick maze. I could even add that it feels more of a challenge than ever to keep up with e-mail and all other forms of communication—including the world of Zoom. (And places are difficult, if not impossible, to reach by phone.)
I should make it clear I do realize I have it easy. I’m not a child in a cage at the border. I’m lucky to have health insurance (however inadequate and expensive, however few doctors will take it). I am not a Syrian refugee. I am not a refugee seeking asylum in the USA who has been turned back, likely to be killed on return. I’m not in a war zone. Undocumented workers, people without health insurance—millions of New Yorkers are having a far worse time than whatever Tony and I are now confronting. I certainly don’t want to overstate how bad things are, but I would prefer not to dissemble either.
One of the most disturbing things about what’s taking place now is that, at least in my imagination, if we were under a different kind of attack, we might take comfort, find solace in the company of others, even organize or protest. And if someone is sick—far from home (with no visitors allowed), or inside your own home—one is supposed to keep a great distance. Again, here we are the lucky ones. We may have only one bathroom, but the apartment itself has several rooms, and it’s just us. How to keep distance if there are many people in small quarters.
I keep hearing that this virus may be more airborne than was previously thought, but as far as I can make out it’s not known yet whether one could get infected by any of the small airborne particles that might manage to linger.
I seem to spend a lot of energy wondering about the various surfaces I’ve touched throughout the day, and whether it’s worth the risk of going outside. I seem to be able to repeat this argument in endless circular fashion. So far, I usually have ended up taking the risk, believing that it’s good for one’s immune system—not to mention sanity—to get a breath of air. And I do my best to keep a distance and wear gloves and something over my mouth. The few times I have run into someone I know, however, it’s been challenging staying 2 m apart.
In the past, there have been times where I felt that writing poetry might be tantamount to a criminal activity—that I should be constantly protesting. These days, I often feel the desire to write (early in the day, say), but I am quickly (all too easily?) overwhelmed by small but somewhat urgent tasks, or, more importantly, by the bad news and the sad news I am hearing from friends—about their close friends, family, and loved ones; and by trying to keep up with the news: the need to find fact-based sources with helpful information and resources, the need to keep informed, but not to the point of drowning in it.
Should I be going over my will and making changes? Should I be doing various domestic tasks, attempting to find things out of stock? I keep wanting to make things for the children in this apartment building, but then I realize we could all be asymptomatic carriers. That’s a huge part of what I find so confounding about this virus and this situation—the asymptomatic carrier.
To circle back—a bad habit (repetition with or without variation): My favorite way to revise—or to write—is to go on a long walk and compose as I walk, follow the sounds of the words, revise and make changes as I go along— often talking out loud. I like to write while walking or in a café or on a subway car (or even if I’m stuck waiting somewhere). I find it hard to write unless I’m in a place where I’m unlikely to be interrupted, but I’m well aware that people have written poetry in prison on toilet paper (now a thing so rare you would think it potable water in the desert).
If I were to write a poem, I might write it out of moments of happiness—even now. Or I might draw on a memory of a “perfect day.”
My mother liked to say every generation thinks the world will end in its own time. I think what’s going on now could give her a good run for her money.
So you went to NYU and got a M.A. in English and a M.F.A. in Creative writing, has the NYC writer life been everything you wanted it to be when you started in the M.F.A. program? Currently I’m looking into grad schools, the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at NYU being one of them and I’ve been pretty nervous about it.
I think it has had its ups and downs. I loved going to NYU for the people I met there, the friends I made, the workshops, the teachers I was able to study with—for many reasons. Unfortunately for me (selfishly speaking), my two best friends from NYU days moved, or moved back, to California.
Without being part of a writing group, or being in an ongoing writing workshop, and with a number of health issues (and who knows for what other combination of reasons and excuses), I fell out of my writing life two years or so after the NYU M.F.A.
One February, I finally started gathering poems together on my computer, looking for the poems I thought had the most electricity, and trying to find the version of each that seemed most alive and “finished.” And here is where Michael Broder enters in and changes everything! We had been in two classes together at NYU and had been in touch, off and on—but only lightly so.
Later that winter or early spring, I received an email from Michael saying that he would be reading at a bookstore in midtown from his new poetry book, This Life Now. I was excited about going to the reading, but also, as strange as it may sound, a little scared: Would this lead to something new? It felt like some kind of crossing-over point.
Michael reached out to me after that reading, asking if I might want to meet, to catch up and talk about writing. We got together, met a few times, and then Michael proposed meeting each week to write. Late in April of that year, we started meeting on Fridays from 3 to 5 at a local cafe. Over time, Michael decided he would like to start a publishing company. He announced this at one of our Friday meetings. (How casually have I just said this?) This was at least one year, if not more, after we had first started meeting regularly. It was April again—poetry month in the scheme of things—and he suggested that I focus on the poems I had been writing recently about my friend Liz. He suggested I gather what I had and see if I couldn’t put together a group of poems about Liz. Perhaps this could be a chapbook. It would need to be 20 to 30 pages long. I would not only need to revise; I would need to write some more poems!
Being accountable, being held accountable, having a sense of urgency and immediacy, knowing that someone else was out there who, for whatever reason, would be expecting to see these poems; and, before that, the fact of having this time and place set aside for writing together: All of that was magic. By “magic,” I mean transformative.
I think what had been happening, before reconnecting with Michael, was that, in some sense, I felt that I could write almost anytime (within reason), so why write at this particular moment? I could always write another time. Another time. (There’s an old Broadway tune with the refrain “Some other time”; and we all know what “some other time” means.) It was as if I’d entered not only a place of utter isolation, but a place in which everything would (somehow) take place in some fantasy version of the future.
Meeting with Michael changed everything, and “all we were doing” was “just writing.” Just writing! It didn’t have to be “perfect”; it didn’t have to be anything other than what it was, and I think we both felt rather magically released into suddenly being able to write in this time and place set aside for writing. Together. A time. A place. Another person. Accountability.
Something taking place in real time, and not in the vacuum of a weirdly perfectionist and seemingly eternally postponed— as if eternally postponable—version of the future. A future that was all “potentially” available—as if in the next room. As if that next room would be there forever. As if I would be, too.
I remember years ago when I was waitressing, hearing a younger waitress who wanted to be in the theater ask one of the waitresses who was an actor (we would have said “actress’ then) with a good deal of theater experience if she thought theater school was worth it, and the older waitress (who is far younger than I am now!) thought, at least as far as theater schools went, that it was worth it for the people you would meet. I really think that’s the main thing. Meeting Michael and reconnecting with him was possible only because of our both having gone to NYU for an M.F.A. I also need to give credit to my poet friend Frankie Drayus (also from the same time at NYU), who would often ask, when she called from L.A., “Are you writing?”
The people you meet—the friendships you make, maintain or rekindle—that’s what matters. I used to think one can, or should, “do it alone”—whatever it is. I don’t believe that anymore. Not for one second.
Taking the time and going to a place like NYU is not only a way of making the time and space for writing, putting it front and center, but it is also a way of announcing that to oneself—to oneself, and to others. To keep things hidden is to run the risk of losing them entirely.
I have a friend who got an M.F.A. at Columbia in Studio Art some time ago. Apart from the people she met, what mattered most to her was that she was given the time and space—in this instance, a large studio space at no additional cost for two years and the summer in between.
As far as the cost of NYU, and the cost of living in New York City goes—that’s a whole other concern. I could say: “It’s far more important to do what matters most. You don’t need to be worried about money; after all, you could have gotten an M.B.A. and gone on to work for Lehman Brothers and then what. Do what matters most.”
From another vantage point, I might worry about financial stresses that could interfere with writing. But I’m saying all of this not knowing what kinds of opportunities for financial help are or are not available at the M.F.A. program at NYU now. I can tell you that reconnecting with Michael around 2013 or 2014 and beginning to meet with him regularly on Fridays changed my life. And that would never have been possible had I not gone to the M.F.A. program at NYU.
And here’s another thing that happened because of Michael. Michael arranged for a group of people connected with Indolent Books—which he, unstoppable person that he is, had founded by this point—to read in the Lunar Walk Poetry Series, a series founded and curated by poets Lynn McGee and Gerry LaFemina, with Madeleine Barnes co-hosting. Lynn McGee invited a group of us to read, and that led to my beginning to attend the Lunar Walk Poetry Series, which has a wonderful open mic at the end of its readings led by Bryn Dodson.
And here is where I must tell you that Madeleine Barnes and Bryn Dodson both went to NYU. Attending the Lunar Walk Reading Series, I met other poets, including Jerry Wagoner, who organized a wonderful reading—an event with art and poetry—this past summer at the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
Meeting Michael not only changed my life in terms of what happened once we started writing together, but it was through Michael that I began to meet or reconnect with poets such as Nicole Callihan (an NYU alumna) and Carla Drysdale—both through Indolent Books and through the poetry series Michael curates and maintains online. And I haven’t even mentioned Pete’s Candy Store, where Michael curates and hosts the poetry series Pete’s Big Salmon (a series originally given that name by another NYU alumna), and all the poets I’ve met there.
The unfortunate overriding context for my answer to your question—COVID-19—is one that forces me to end with this (a frame or caveat I hope will be removed sooner than one might anticipate): I wouldn’t advise anyone to plan to move here until we are all on the other side of this—however many waves of it there may be.
My next few questions are going to be getting into your book. You begin your book and chapbooks with a quote from Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Why that book? Why Carson McCullers? What would you say your relationship with her work is?
To be honest, coincidence—call it serendipity or mere timing—is probably the main reason that it was Carson McCullers upon whom I drew for the epigraph of both books.
I think I first fell in love with Carson McCullers when I saw the extraordinary film version of The Member of the Wedding, starring Ethel Waters, Brandon de Wilde, and Julie Harris. It remains my favorite film in the entire world.
Around 2013, for whatever reason—perhaps The Member the Wedding had been on Turner Classic Movies again—I went on a Carson McCullers binge or spree of sorts, reading or re-reading The Member of the Wedding, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Reflections in a Golden Eye. I can’t remember if I read more of her at that point or not, but I know that the book I fell in love with in 2013 was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which by the way, was also made into an amazing film.
When I was considering what might be a good epigraph for Dear Liz, I thought, Why not choose that quote from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It simply didn’t make sense to me to look any further, to consider anyone or anything else at that point: I love Carson McCullers. I had just read the book, and, sadly, it fit.
My love of “the inside room”—that phrase, that idea—my love of all the recurring moments in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter that referred to the “inside room”: All of that preceded the making of The Inside Room, came long before the book became the book it eventually became, or took the shape it eventually took.
When I was reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 2013, I fell in love with that phrase, the very idea of it, all that it means inside the book, and all that it might suggest to a reader of the book. I loved each recurring mention of the “inside room.” I would read those passages aloud, marking up my paperback copy, noting every time “the inside room” appeared. To me, the “inside room” was an inviolable place. The idea of an inside room felt very real and true to me.
It was a phrase I was taken with from the start, and it had stayed with me so strongly that when I began to put the book together, I wanted that to be the title. When it came time to choose an epigraph, I wanted the epigraph to be in support of the title. I might have to edit or cut, but I wanted the epigraph to be directly connected to the title, to reveal the title’s source.
To choose an epigraph from the title’s source felt logical to me. The epigraph would be in the service of the cherished title, even though, by the time the book had taken shape, by the time the book was no longer an idea, but the book it actually became, I’m not sure the epigraph was, in point of fact, “the ideal epigraph”—in terms of a clear, absolute, and indisputable correspondence between epigraph and book—but I stand by both.
And maybe that’s all right. I mean, at some point the book is no longer the writer’s; it no longer belongs solely to the person who wrote it. The reader takes over, and, once written (once released) it’s to the reader the book is offered.
In considering what I might write in response to your question, I looked up the source for Carson McCullers’ title. I confess I had no idea where it came from. I came across one source that credited Fiona Macleod, a second source that credited William Sharp—neither mentioning the other. Searching a little further, I discovered they are, in fact, the same person. (I’ll leave it at that, but I find the entire business of William-as-Fiona fascinating.)
Thanks to you, I discovered that “The Lonely Hunter”—in which we find “But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on / a lonely hill”—was written by William Sharp, writing as Fiona Macleod.
There’s a line in “Window” from The Inside Room, “I am water, unreliable/ like you. I remember everything I wasn’t told” that just… hits me. It grabs my heart and holds it for a beat before just popping it right back in my chest. It makes me think about my own mother and our relationship and growing up in an unpredictable house. A mother figure is very present throughout the book as well as some of your other work, another poem that comes to mind is “Mother Love Song.” Could you maybe talk about the theme of “mother” in your writing?
Disclaimer: I have never been a mother; therefore, my own mother (from whatever distance or vantage point, in whatever realm), and/or any potential reader of any poem who is also a mother, has it over me, and always will—to the extent that the circumstances of one’s life enter in, whether as reader or writer, and/or to the extent that any poem is purely, only—or merely—autobiographical. And here I must say that, although I believe poems inevitably come out of the writer’s life, travel through the writer, are filtered through everything one has ever seen, read, thought, or experienced, I also feel very strongly that to write in no way indicates, or leads to the assumption that there is a one-to-one correspondence between one’s writing and one’s “self.”
Here’s a strange example of what I mean: In The Inside Room there’s a poem about eating glass. In the workshop I was taking in which I wrote that poem, a fellow workshop member, who apparently took things quite literally, and who automatically assumed the poem to be autobiographical, thought that I must have eaten a great deal of glass.
A lot of the fun—the fun in a lot of these poems—the pleasureful wildness, the wild pleasure—is precisely in being someone else, or in finding a voice that, however related to oneself, remains markedly different from oneself. To me, it’s a bit like acting. There are various schools of acting, all kinds of theories, but I believe most people would agree there’s some difference between the actor and the character. I also continue to be curious about the number of interviews I’ve heard in which the interviewer presumes—if not insists—that a novelist, for example, must be writing directly, and only, out of personal experience—as if imagination were something archaic, a relic.
As far as “mother poems” in general are concerned, I felt that these were among the poems I had to write first. In order to begin to write anything other than this, I first had to write this. The memories out of which many of the poems in The Inside Room first began may well be the template, the source, what I believe Stanley Kunitz might consider “the wound,” out of which one writes—one’s beginnings, the place from which we may hope to escape, and to which we may often, in memory, return. I think a lot of the writing came out of a rage, and the rage—and the writing—felt like finally being born. Whatever the cost.
Some other themes I was really interested in throughout the book was this repetition of fairytale characters and fairytale settings as well as nature. Do these connect with the overarching theme of this mother figure and daughterhood?
In terms of nature and “the theme of the mother” in The Inside Room, I’d have to begin with Persephone. As a child, I was told this myth “explained” spring and summer. (One can argue every single point of this, but I’m speaking here only in the broadest, most general terms.) I thought it a bizarre story in so many ways. I was fascinated by the mention of hell, the mention of this strange fruit—a pomegranate. I have a childhood memory of my mother and a pomegranate: She has brought one home and is opening it for me. The fruit looks very complicated.
Looking back on the Persephone myth now, I can’t say what I felt as a child, but I wonder if I didn’t notice even then—perhaps in some subconscious way for which I had no words—the strange emphasis on the mother. The mother’s grief, the mother’s profound upsetment: It’s all about the mother. Where is the mother at the front of the story. (Plot, of course, could be one answer, but doesn’t myth and folklore come from a place deeper than plot?) When Persephone wanders off and is abducted, where is the powerful goddess mother?
Returning to the Persephone myth, I began to read (or re-imagine) Persephone’s journey to hell not as abduction but as choice. When I say this, I am, of course, rewriting the myth, or, as Harold Bloom might say, “misreading” it. Whatever one feels about the source material(s)—what I might call the more “academic” considerations—the myth is one I feel called to re-write. Over and over again.
I know I am not alone in this; however, I’ve done my best not to read other poetry in this realm. I’ve done so out of the desire to make my own way, however blindly, and in order to be certain I’ve not unwittingly taken anything from another writer.
No matter how one chooses to read—or rewrite—the Persephone myth, it is a myth in which nature—the various seasons, the harvest—is front and center; in fact, one could argue that, in this myth, “nature” is “the mother”: “Disappoint a mother and you get winter.”
In terms of fairy tales and the theme of “the mother,” I might begin with Hansel and Gretel, even though, in this instance, it is the stereotypically evil stepmother figure who sends the children into the forest—the father doing nothing to prevent their almost certain death. The witch is almost (in my twisted reading of the fairy tale) a type of “good mother”—no matter what plans she may have in store for those children, food and shelter are offered.
I’ve always found fairy tales both disturbing and fascinating, and have been drawn to them, in part, for the mysterious pull they seem to have in their persistence across time and place. A child, often a young girl, may be sent on a mission that will put her in peril. That kind of story feels real to me, however distant the setting, however “mythic” or folkloric the vocabulary or landscape. There is something elemental is fairy tales that I would describe in terms of betrayal. The people you think you can trust are the ones you ought to fear most.
How do you handle this vulnerability when writing and later publishing?
In terms of any sense of vulnerability or exposure, I’m afraid I’m in a position where I can easily dodge the question—at least in the most direct sense—because both my parents are dead. I wrote a number of these poems while my mother was alive, but I doubt I would ever have published them during her lifetime.
As for people’s reading of any particular poem or book—there’s no accounting for what people might see or think or feel. I get the sense it’s wise not to worry about that too much.
As for anything I might read in front of others, I do feel that when I’m giving “a reading,” I’m not reading merely as myself. I like to think that I’m giving voice to the poems. Perhaps it would be more correct, more precise, to say that the poems have a voice all their own. There is a great deal of space, I feel, between myself as an ordinary human being, a human who is 5 feet 7 ½ inches tall, and what the poems may, or may not, be doing. The poems are bigger than I am, smarter (I hope) than I am.
I think the reason I’m belaboring this point is in order to say that it’s precisely this fact—that you and the poem are not the same entity—that gives one permission to read, to write, and to have around you all the while a protective shield against the kind of vulnerability you reference in your question.
To be vulnerable in the act of writing is a blessing, a gift, a necessity. The more specifically vulnerable the writing, the more likely it is (in my opinion and experience) others will take the writing as if it were intended for them, as it were, even, about them. Ideally, the reader or listener will find themselves inside what you have written.
Adrienne Rich said, “But poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know,” from “When We Dead Awaken.” (Originally published in College English, Fall 1972, as “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.”) I wouldn’t hold anyone responsible or accountable for a dream.
If I’m giving a reading, I am doing something both larger than myself, and different from myself—something that comes out of me, but is also not me, and is at a distance from myself. Whatever people think or make of the poems is up to them. (There’s a marvelous Martha Graham quote about that.)
So you have a theatre background, when you’re writing do you think about how you’ll perform the piece? Or do you start with more of a concept for performance and write from there?
I think it’s actually the reverse. When I’m writing, when I’m in the earliest stages of writing (no pun intended!), I’m not really “thinking” at all. I’m certainly not thinking about how I might read or perform any eventual, more or less “final” version of whatever I may have only just begun to explore.
I don’t think I’ve ever begun with the concept of performance and written from there. But I think what does happen, if I’m lucky, and I keep writing, is that I hope to tap into a voice, to locate a voice somewhere within; or to follow a voice, as if picking up a frequency in the air. I think that may be where what one might call “dramatic tension” certainly enters in. It’s a good and welcome thing if the voice has something to say—with a sense of urgency and immediacy, a sense of lived experience, a sense of something at stake. Without that, I think one’s desire to write or read or listen—to write in the first place, to keep following any given path—I think that all goes slack, evaporates.
It’s kind of as if you were turning on a radio (do I date myself here?), and, if you happened upon a station where someone were merely droning on and on about tweezers (unless of course that were so odd, so perversely fascinating it made you stop), I think you would most likely keep going, hoping for a station with something exciting—something without too much static, something that might generates excitement in you the instant you first hear it. You may have to keep writing to get past the static.
Genuine excitement and little static: That would be the ideal. I think that happens sometimes when one is writing and writing and writing, and, all of a sudden, something picks up—there’s a pull. It’s not wildly unlike the last lines of Jorie Graham’s poem “The Way Things Work”: “ . . . eventually / something catches.”* You can almost feel it happening, but you do your damnedest to pretend you don’t notice it, for fear of somehow chasing it away.
When I first write, when I’m just writing in a journal or notebook—and most of the time it may end up going nowhere—and I certainly don’t know if any of it will ever end up being something like a poem—I do my best to write faster than I can think. I write in long hand on yellow legal paper—those pads of yellow legal paper—wide ruled—or in those composition books with the hard covers that have a black and white mottled pattern. I write using a big fat pen—I think there was one actually called a Bic XXL, which sounds like something vaguely related to football—or a pen with some kind of ink that flows readily—like a fountain pen—something that will make it easier to write as fast as possible. Something that will make it feel as if there’s the least amount of drag between the words and the mechanics of getting them down on paper.
Over the years, I’ve found that—as my handwriting has gotten worse, and my eyesight has become a little less sharp—if I don’t transcribe this one way or another right away (on the computer or as a voice recording), I can’t always make out what I’ve written.
If I get very lucky, there might be some writing that has a lot of different possibilities inside it. I’d say those might be the two extremes for me: the writing that goes on and on, and seemingly goes nowhere, and, sometimes, the writing like a thunderclap, and then you’re left with a map, and there’s all kinds of buried things in there—things buried and things on the surface.
In terms of writing and performance, I might say two things, even at the risk of sounding as if I’m pontificating. I think there’s room for all kinds of poetry in the world. There’s poetry that may not be at all like the kind of poetry I’ve been talking about. I think there’s room for all kinds of poetry (I repeat myself!). The second thing I might say is that—although I’ve just said at least twice that there’s room for all kinds of poetry—I might be a little suspicious of poetry that depends on performance. To me, that would be a little like a movie that depends on the soundtrack—that needs a soundtrack to make it appear to be a movie that one is watching in the first place.
If we’re talking about performance poetry as an entity unto itself—which is something I don’t know enough about to speak about in the first place—I just want to make clear that I don’t think I’m a practitioner of what’s usually understood as performance poetry. And there are certainly all kinds of performance poetry in the world, as well as all kinds of poetry, in general, and I don’t mean to be sounding judgmental at all.
I guess all I mean to say is that, speaking only for myself, it’s my hope, my intention, my belief that the writing comes first. And in preparing to give a reading, I might memorize a poem (or, if it’s a poem I’ve only recently written, it would likely still be in my head anyway), and I might feel—hope to feel—connected deeply enough to the voice of the poem that I might be able to do a good enough good job in reading it aloud that I don’t get in the way of the poem.
Where the idea, or the categories, of theater and writing overlap or cross over for me would be in the electricity—the electrical currents that are in the writing—particularly if there is a voice or a persona inside the poem. And that’s also part of why I believe I’m able to stand up and read: I am, and I am not, the poem. That’s really getting back to your question about feeling vulnerable if someone reads something you’ve written or hears you read it aloud. I think the performance—and by “performance,” I mean simply “the reading”—is a vehicle for delivering the poem to an audience. By “performance,” I don’t, I hope, mean anything artificial. (Although I could, if indulged, all too readily give a sermon on things such as the importance of speaking so that one can be heard, and realizing there’s probably a limit to the amount of time that people can comfortably listen to any one voice.)
There are probably many ways of putting the poem across, but it’s good to feel free to stand up and read the poem, and not feel as if you’ve got a target on your back; and part of what gives me permission to feel that I can do that is that it’s not me anymore—it’s the poem. In giving a reading, admittedly a kind of performance, I am different from my day-to-day self, as well.
There are people, there are poets, who fearlessly stand up and deliver a poem and give it to you straight. I hope I do a little of that, too. I’m not sure, however, I’m always that brave. And so, if I’m speaking in the voice of Persephone, or in the voice of a pair of gloves in a museum, then I feel a greater sense of liberty, as well as a sense of protection—a greater sense of freedom, and, if you like, “cover.”
Perhaps it’s taken me this long—you know all my bad habits, or a lot of them by now (digression, repetition)—simply to say this: Where “performance” may really enter in, in terms of any of these poems, is in the ones you might call “persona poems.” The persona or the voice is the source of the freedom, and the fun—the wild pleasure; and, if you like, the source of a sense of protection and permission.
Danni Beltran is a queer, Latinx poet, creative nonfiction writer and brujx from Troy, NY. They have work forthcoming in Ethel in July 2020.