Interview with Dorothea Lasky: On Swagger, Wildness, & The Color Red



by Matthew Burgess

Dorothea Lasky is the author of four books of poetry, most recently ROME (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2014), as well as Thunderbird, BlackLife, and AWE (Wave Books). She is the co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013) and several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Currently, she is an assistant professor of poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and lives in New York City. 

In a recent review of ROME, poet Eileen Myles writes: “I can’t think of anyone I know who more believes in the value of the act of imparting knowledge to kids, to young adults, to students, whatever she believes in that exchange. And because of that dedication to education, the poetry she produces is kind of a punk rock pedagogy, like the imparting is happening, the imparting of knowledge and information but the message has gone wild. The message is dirty, the message is magical, it’s a million things.” Matthew Burgess recently spoke with Dorothea Lasky over the phone to discuss poetry, education, and a few of the million things.

Photo (above) courtesy of Karen Keats

Matthew Burgess: Many people know you through your poetry, but some don’t realize that you hold a doctorate in creativity and education from University of Pennsylvania. Clearly, you are dedicated to teaching as well.

Dorothea Lasky: Teaching is really much more important to me than poetry. It is something that I’ve always wanted to do, since I was very little. I’ve always thought of teachers as the ultimate glamorous performers. They are the lounge singers of the imagination.

MB: Tell me about how you came to be so passionate about education.

DL: Part of it was that I didn’t want to commit to being a poet, because I felt that it was a selfish act—I believed that you weren’t really helping people when you wrote poetry. It took me a long time to realize that this is not true. Obviously, the whole point is that people are reading your work and that the poems are having an impact in the world. Back in college, I wanted to be a child psychologist, and my first jobs were working with autistic kids and working as a day care teacher. Then after college, it was important to me that I actually helped people in a real way, so I also taught alongside whatever else I was doing. I think if I stopped writing poems—well, I don’t know what that would look like—but I would still be really happy if I could keep teaching. The whole arena of the classroom and what you can do in it is more important to me than writing.

MB: When did you realize that the poems you were putting out into the world were also doing a kind of work?

DL: At some point after publishing my first book, AWE. Having a book and going to readings and talking to people, I realized that the poems were past the inner space and they were having some effect—it made a difference in the way I looked at it. I guess someone could have explained this to me before it happened and that would have made sense in an intellectual way, but it wasn’t until it actually happened that I understood. I think a lot about Anne Sexton, these days especially, and I know she felt that way, too. She had really deep feelings and she expressed them, and the poems were helping people who also had these feelings. That is something that you’re doing when you write poems—you’re providing solace. That is actual work in some weird way. But again, it took me a long time to begin to see it that way.

MB: In a classroom you may have twenty or so people in front of you, and you can almost perceive the impact that you’re making. But in poetry the impact may be less visible because the poems are moving through time and space.

DL: Yes, when you have a class, you may have the really vocal people and the people you really connect with overtly, and then there are the quiet people, the people who sit far away from you and who never talk to you, and who give you a gift in the end and say, thanks so much, this was the best class. And it’s sometimes the other people who are quiet, who you have no idea if they are ever even listening to you and you think that they hate you or something, who are the people that class actually has a profound effect on, who go on to be writers. Of course, you don’t know; you just have to keep putting yourself out there and having faith that it’s going to make a difference at some stage. It’s an interesting thing when you publish a book because it is more the silent readers, even those in the future, that are the most important.

MB: I’m glad the conversation took this turn because while I was reading your books, especially the recently published ROME, I noticed this emphasis on the reader. The speaker of the poems has this confidence and this swagger in the knowledge of the readers’ presence.

DL: After writing my first book and putting it out there, something clicked. I felt the readers’ presence very clearly and so it was so much easier to write poems to them. Because they were an abstract kind of person I knew. It wasn’t like a particular one person—maybe it’s some sort of group of future people, but people that I loved more than the people I interact with. Ideal people because they felt that same way that I did.

MB: In the poem “What Is a Man If Not a Siphon,” you write: “And there I was/ Until you picked this poem up, so hello, hello there/ You sickly thing/ It is these words now that are your medicine.” The reader is addressed directly, and there is this magical quality. Do you think of the poem as a spell or an enchantment?

Dorothea_Lasky-croppedDL: I definitely do. And I think it is the same thing that you’re doing in a classroom.  I use that word “performance” a lot when discussing teaching, and I really believe that what the teacher is doing is a performance. You are saying that this set of behaviors has some meaning. That’s what you’re doing is a spell as well, and that’s definitely what you’re doing in a poem. A poem asserts: I’ve made this line, and this is going to have some effect on you. Just the act of believing does make it have an effect. For example, in a class, if I am going to get ten oranges and ask students to write a poem, just the fact that a teacher has decreed that as important—it does become important. You have a classroom of students who have not only thought deeply about oranges, you also have a classroom’s worth of poems about oranges. Or if we say that we’re going to read John Donne, then that becomes really important. A whole group of people will see his work in a new way—it wouldn’t have happened otherwise, if the people had simply read him on their own. It may seem arbitrary and specific to the particular teacher, and it is, in a holy way. Every teacher brings their style into the classroom in ways that both crucial and critical and this why we still need real-life teachers, not machines, to teach our students.

MB: What kinds of experiences do you think that poems can make possible? Or more specifically, what do you want your reader to experience?

DL: This answer is also connected to teaching. When I first started writing AWE, I was living in Boston. In Harvard Square, at least about ten years ago, there were a lot of preachers, and they all have their religious tracts on display, and they’re shouting to everyone about whatever they believe in. Seeing them for the first time, it had a profound effect on me. I saw that as walked past them, you couldn’t help but listen to whatever they were saying, and they wanted to wake you up. They wanted to say, you’re living in this fog, and God is important, or whatever. I liked that they had this ability to wake up non-believers just by the drama of their rhetoric and actual volume. At that point, I decided that the persona of my poems wanted to wake you up. My persona wants to say that you’re in a fog, you don’t realize that these things are important, there is a darker—not in a bad way—but a darker side of things that you’re not acknowledging, so I’m going to force you to acknowledge it. Of course that is kind of obnoxious, so I can understand if someone doesn’t necessarily like that persona, one that is very vehement that they know the truth and they’re going to tell you about it whether you like it or not. Just like a street preacher, a revelatory persona isn’t for everyone.

MB: So you have come a long way from the position that poetry might be selfish. I wonder how this “swagger” translates into your teaching. A lot of our students are fearful, shy, or hiding in some way, and I wonder how we can encourage them to connect with their own swagger. Is that something that you are concerned about?

DL: Definitely. When we talk about empowering our students—and I know we use that word a lot but it is most important thing that we do—it needs to be about letting them know that they are supposed to take the knowledge we give them on their own terms, on their own accord, and use it in whatever way they need to. As a teacher, you can’t determine what that is they will take from your lessons, even if you have a sense of the trajectory that their lives will take. You can’t assume what they might use the knowledge for and what’s going to happen with it. As a teacher, you have to have some swagger. It doesn’t have to appear in some over-confident way, or in the way the persona of the poems might display it. You can do it in various ways for the classroom and for particular moments. But as a teacher, you must always have a sense that you are doing the good work, and you must have faith that the students will take the goodness of it in whatever ways they wish to.

MB: Do you think “swagger” and “voice” might be connected? Maybe swagger is a more playful term for what we mean when we say voice?

DL: I’ve always felt very connected to the idea of voice, and I know people think it’s cheesy or something, but I still love it. It’s about developing your persona, realizing what your aesthetic is. I always use the example of interior decorating. Any of us could go in the same store, and we would pick up very different things in that store to decorate the same room. That’s your style, and that style is important. To find out what that is and to have faith in that, and not to have that stampeded by the world.

MB: Maybe even before style comes into play, it is about identifying your voice. I think one of the things that poetry can do is to tune people into their voice. Through the act of writing and through the freedom that poetry affords, you can tune in to what your interior voice is, identify it, and actually use it. Use it to make the poem, or use it to say something in class.

DL: I think poetry is a space in which you are inventing new language, inventing new grammar. You’re saying that I don’t care about the rules that you think are important, that I’m going to make my own music. I know that people have different ideas about this. Some people are fuddy duddies about this and think that poetry is a place where you learn correct grammar. But I think you learn by creating your own way.

MB: At a recent planning meeting at a school, I was telling the story about how T&W was founded. One of the things that Kenneth Koch, Anne Sexton, June Jordan, and others wanted to do was to address the misguided ways poetry is taught in the schools, and one of the main problems is this notion that poetry is difficult, that it’s about rules, or that it’s an intricate puzzle that is supposed to be solved. Part of why I feel so strongly about teaching poetry is that it’s precisely the opposite: it’s a space where you can be as free as you possibly can on the page. And yet, even though this is obvious to us, we have to make these arguments about what this freedom affords and why it is so essential to our students.

DL: I know, and while there are a lot of reasons why you’d want to get up while you’re having that conversation, because you feel like you’re preaching and people aren’t listening, that’s why we have to get in there and make the argument as much as possible. To change the landscape for the kids, so hopefully they won’t feel that way in twenty years. This is part of the reason I decided to start the Ashbery Home School with Adam Fitzgerald and Timothy Donnelly last year, as it’s a dream of mine to make an entire school that is devoted to poetry and experiential learning. I think that there can never enough places where poetry learning takes center stage. [For more about the Ashbery Home School, see Adam Fitzgerald’s The Cannibals.]

MB: I noticed that the word “wild” is one of the recurring words in ROME. The notion of wildness seems related to this idea: that poetry is not a space constrained and constricted by rules.

DL: One time when I was a writer in the schools in a second-grade class, I brought in Merwin’s “Vixen.” One of the second-graders said, “Why doesn’t he use punctuation?” And I realized that to them this really stood out, because they had just learned what punctuation was. But it surprised me. This is even more evidence that poetry can teach students what punctuation can and cannot do. There is a kind of wildness there that you can achieve—that making beautiful language is not about a rule, but about people agreeing that a rule is something to be reverent and then subsequently irreverent about. Personally, I’ve always felt that the forms of my poems are very conventional. I think I’m conservative about the spatial position of the poem on a page, or even sound wise, so for me the wildness has always been about emotions and rhetoric. But I will always support wildness in all its infinite forms.

MB: If we’re trying to justify wildness to someone who is skeptical, who doesn’t see the value of allowing a child to be that free on the page, what can we say? What can we offer as an argument to bring them over a bit, to open them up to what we know to be true on an intuitive level?

DL: Well, I think the first thing that it depends on is if the administrator or the teacher is worried about wildness in terms of actual behavior or what is happening in the assignment. Oftentimes, that gets conflated.

MB: My inclination is to talk about process and to engage people in conversation about the fact that very few writers actually sit down and write an organized piece of writing without first engaging in a wilder process. So I try to create and guard a space where that messiness, wildness, playfulness is permitted by pointing out that this is necessary and desirable part of a longer process. In many cases this will lead to more controlled forms of writing, but if you try to get to that control without going through a more associative playful stage, you’re going to stiffen up.

DL: I think part of what we have to do—which may not be the part that we want to do—is make arguments on the terms that we probably don’t want to think about. I wrote this article defending poetry in The Atlantic a few years ago, and it was about how poetry teaches argumentation. Of course argument is important to writing essays, and of course everyone thinks essays are important for some strange reason. [Laughs] But it is about forcing ourselves to find out what terms are going to be acceptable to the people that we’re trying to convince.

I’ve always wanted to do educational research, actual studies to show how poetry helps test scores and grades and the subjects people find important. I feel that we have to do that. We have to bite the bullet and just actually figure out what’s going to convince the right people and just start doing that work. That can be a challenge for arts educators—not to be on the defensive and preach to the choir. We speak in terms that we understand and believe in because we’ve devoted our life to do this and a lot of times we feel a certain martyrdom and even, at times, a bitter anger about it, but we need to figure out what language is going to convince policy makers or school administrators or teachers. We have to translate what we do into that language. And I know that seems like dampening the wild, but to me that is what we have to do to make a space for the wild.

MB: One of the terms you use in Poetry Is Not a Project is “kaleidoscopic thinking.” Can you say something about what this means?

DL: I think of it as a kind of mania. That is a term that we can be scared of, but this kind of mania is important to having new thoughts. For example, when you read a book and it reminds you of something in an associative way, whether it is obvious or not, whether it is a line that reminds you of another book that you’ve read, or an image that connects, you feel empowered to make that connection. To connect texts and experiences and images and all kinds of art forms or disciplines, and to see that they have a very strong bond, is manic. But this kind of seeing is a bit like looking in a kaleidoscope. Often this kind of thinking can be considered superficial or crazy, so we tend to put those people and those thinkers into a crazy box. But I think that this kind of thinking is the most important for building new knowledge. Creative thinkers are naturally associative and let themselves be inspired by their dreaming mind, but I think that our world is not always amenable to that, sadly. That is why we have to figure out how to express this in terms that the world considers to be important.

We speak in terms that we understand and believe in because we’ve devoted our life to do this and a lot of times we feel a certain martyrdom and even, at times, a bitter anger about it, but we need to figure out what language is going to convince policy makers or school administrators or teachers. We have to translate what we do into that language. And I know that seems like dampening the wild, but to me that is what we have to do to make a space for the wild.

MB: Yes, a poem is a place that permits and encourages kaleidoscopic thinking. If we can get educators or administrators to acknowledge that “kaleidoscopic thinking” is crucial for thinking in creative, innovative, interdisciplinary ways, then we could make the argument poetry should be central and not relegated to a single unit in April. Poetry is a space where this kind of thinking can happen, and we need to preserve that space.

DL: We definitely do. And if we don’t find a way to say how it’s important, then we are in danger of losing that space, and we need to fight for it. Poetry is the only space that says you can use whatever language you want and you can experiment with that. There are no rules here. I believe that starting from that place is the best way to learn any information.

MB: How old were you when you discovered poetry? What was little Dottie like?

DL: Actually, little Dottie was a poet. I grew up in a house full of new ideas and language. My Dad was a judge and my mom was an art historian and a painter. It was an environment where speaking and art making was very supported. My mom in particular was very inspirational to my thinking about creativity. She let me know that what you’re making is really important to the world, and she encouraged me not to be precious about it. She always said, you don’t work on this painting for forty-five years, you make something and then you give it away. Because the one specific thing you make is not that important; what is important is that you keep making it again and again. That has been a really key idea to me as an artist, because if you get so tied up in one thing you forget that you are the source to make all of it.  You think the source of the new is this tenuous thing outside of yourself, who visits you if you’re lucky, when really we are all the creators harnessing the next new thing.

I started writing poems when I was about seven. I had to go to bed earlier than I wanted to, and I just started writing poems. I have no idea why they were poems, because even though my parents were very intelligent and creative, they didn’t really read poetry per se. I just started writing poems and it felt very spiritual.  Even though I don’t like to admit it publically because people tend to look down on the idea of spirit, I did feel that there was a voice speaking to me and I wasn’t really in control of what was happening. It felt very much like a kind of possession. I’ve since had to rearticulate what that means, because I know that might sound creepy and people are not going to accept the idea. People don’t want to think about the spirit, if they can help it. But I was able to be free because I grew up in household where that was okay. It was acceptable to get possessed by the dream—that was the great gift my parents gave me. Also, I was writing in the dark, and I didn’t have to pay attention to any rules about how or why the words should appear on the page. That was why they were poems. I couldn’t see what I was writing, so I just wrote from a place where I didn’t have to pay attention to conventional sentence form.

My mom in particular was very inspirational to my thinking about creativity. She let me know that what you’re making is really important to the world, and she encouraged me not to be precious about it. She always said, you don’t work on this painting for forty-five years, you make something and then you give it away.

MB: Do you have any of those poems?

DL: The first notebook is either somewhere in my mom’s house or just lost. I have a diary and I know it’s in my apartment somewhere. I remember one of them.

MB: Can you tell me?

DL: You want to hear it?

MB: Yes!

DL: Okay, it’s about colors. (Well…obviously.) Okay:

Blue dignity
Is suddenly black

And brown and grey
Other colors that cause flack

A sapphire poses
Amongst a bed of roses

And strength and triumph remain
Where gracefulness refrain

Oh copper colored cream
What did I dream?

Don’t replace the past
Or snakes will wrath

Violets violets
Of the sea

Why did you
Leave me?

That’s what I would always do. I would memorize my poems, and after I wrote one I would go into my mom’s room and read it to her. So maybe that’s why I thought that reading poems was really important.

MB: How would she respond?

DL: She would either say that was good or I don’t like that. She was very honest.

MB: So, it wasn’t just about your mother’s approval.

DL: No, it was about thinking, how does this work to a reader. And I wouldn’t necessarily change it. But I did want her to say that she liked it. I remember I read one to my grandfather and he said that I wasn’t a very good poet. And I remember thinking, I don’t really care what you think.

MB: Nice. So you already had some of that swagger at a young age?

DL: I guess that’s the fighter, right? I was a baby Aries and stubborn. I think I was really blessed, too, that I went to schools where I could tell people that I loved poetry and that’s what I want for every person. It doesn’t have to be poetry, but whatever they discover when they’re little is significant. I get very worried that the creative drive could be stamped out for various reasons in our schools today and I do believe every student has a kind of creativity that should not be trampled on. It should be preserved and nurtured.

MB: Amen. I am right next to you in Harvard Square preaching the same gospel. Can you name a teacher who made a big impact on your development as a poet?

DL: There is a teacher that I mention in the book I co-edited, Open The Door. Her name is Mrs. Hanlin, my fifth-grade teacher, who was so important to me. I started writing poems at around seven, and then I was writing them sort of secretly in elementary school. Mrs. Hamlin was really into classics and she read us Ovid during lunch break, and for whatever reason that made me realize that there were poets beyond myself, beyond this time, that there were these weird people who lived a really long time ago who wrote poetry, too, and that was like, the greatest gift that anyone could have given me, to connect me with that.

I also had a high school teacher named Marjorie Stelmach, who is a poet. She has published a few books of poetry, and she was so important because she was the first teacher I kind of “came out to” as being a poet. I was taking a poetry class with her, and I said, “Actually, I write poetry,” and she said, “I’d love to see it.” She would meet with me after school and edit my poems, and she taught me what that was like, and I’ve stolen some of her techniques in the ways that I run my workshops today. She was a truly great model about how to empower someone. All I said was that I write poetry. She didn’t care whether it was good or bad, or if I had promise, and all this BS that we too often talk about when we take about students. All that mattered was that I had the instinct to do it on my own, and she just wanted to support that. I think that is the best kind of teacher.

MB: As a teacher, do you avoid praising too much, or evaluating too much. What is your poetry classroom like?

DL: I really hate the question “Is this poem good?” or “Will this poem get published in such and such place?” Like my mom taught me, I would rather support the person to keep doing it, and worry at some later point if they’re good or not, whatever that means. To me it’s more about creating a generative base and worrying about the world later. The classroom is a space where you can create whatever you want, and worry later whether people will like it or whether you’re going to get a Guggenheim or the Pulitzer. I think you know what I mean.

MB: Making is the most important thing.

DL: Yes, because you get blinded by the made thing. Jay Z has this line in “Lost One” about being famous. It goes, “Except that fame is. The worst drug known to man. It’s stronger than heroin. When you can look in the mirror like, ‘There I am’.” I think that’s what can happen when you look at the made object. You say to yourself, “Oh my god, I made this exceptional blanket, this exceptional song. I just made a world-class soufflé—I don’t have to make anything else again. How awesome.” You should just keep making and not worry about what you’ve already done.

MB: Since our readers are teaching artists and teachers, can you share something about how to create a “generative space” in your classroom?

DL: One of the things is that I love is to make poetry exercises. I just think there can’t be enough of them in the world. I love Bernadette Mayer and the stuff that she’s done with education and curriculum, and I love that you can now look up her list of exercises online and I think that lists like these should be multiplied to infinity. So one of the things I do is try to bring in a new exercise to every class during a semester. Not as an assignment—they don’t have to use it—but just some crazy thing that they can do if they want to. Then I have all my students bring in at least one exercise over the course of the class, so that by the end of the class everyone has twenty-five exercises that they don’t have to use, but they can’t ever say, “I have writer’s block—what should I do?” I hate the term “writer’s block.” Because I just think you only have writer’s block if you want what you’re writing to be a particular thing. You can always just write something, even if it’s just a word or something tiny and crazy like that. So that is really important to me. And it’s important to ask students to do it, too.

MB: Could you give us one of your “old faithfuls” that we could share with our readers?

DL: I have this exercise I always do called “The Red Exercise.” I ask students to go out from the classroom and find a red object and study it for about ten minutes and record everything they observe. Then they have to find another one. Then they have to find somebody interacting with red, for example, somebody wearing red lipstick or somebody wearing a red dress or drinking a Coke (not doing coke though, ‘cause that’s white). Then I ask them to think of somebody they feel strongly about, either love or hate or whatever it is, and think about that person interacting with red. So if it’s a great love affair, they may be sitting on a red bed; or if it’s a boss you hate, imagine him getting hit by a red car. Then write a poem combining all of those things together.

The exercise was inspired by Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. She has a poem about a red hat that says: “If red is in everything it is not necessary.” So before doing the exercise, we talk about that line: “What does it mean for red to be in everything? What does it mean for red not to be necessary?” Of course you can use any color in the future. You can look for orange objects, or purple, and discuss what it means for those colors to be necessary. You can do that exercise again, or you could use a phrase, or you could use a sound. It’s less about the color red then it is an exercise in thematic thinking. If you take a theme and put that on the world, there is so much that can come out of it. You can generate so much.

About the author:
Matthew Burgess has been a poet-in-residence with Teachers & Writers Collaborative since 2001. He is also a doctoral lecturer at Brooklyn College, where he teaches creative writing and composition. His debut collection of poems, Slippers for Elsewhere, was published by UpSet Press in January 2014; and a children’s book titled Enormous Smallness: A Story of EE Cummings, is forthcoming from Enchanted Lion Books in April 2015. Burgess recently received his PhD in literature from the CUNY Graduate Center.


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