I am an accumulator of lots of cheap beautiful things: Dottie Lasky, poet and teacher, interviewed by Tamara MC

Dorothea Lasky is an American poet, born in St. Louis, Missouri on March 27, 1978. She earned her MFA in Poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also has an Ed.M. from Harvard University in Arts & Education and an Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in Creativity and Education. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University in New York City. She is the author of five full-length poetry collections including, ROME (Liveright/W.W. Norton) and the forthcoming, Milk (Wave Books). Her astrological sign is Aries. She is a fire sign.

Interview by Tamara MC, first-year student at Columbia University’s Graduate Writing Program in the School of the Arts.


 

Tell me about your name Dorothea.

 My grandmother’s name was Dorothea––it is a common Depression era name and means “Gift of God” in Greek. I never met my grandmother, but I was named after her. Dottie, what my friends call me, is the nickname for Dorothea. My grandmother went by Dotty with a y, which is how some people who don’t know me spell my name. Some people also mistakenly call me Dorothy, but that isn’t my name either. I feel that throughout my life I have slowly grown into my name.

 

Are you a confessional poet?

I would not consider myself one, as confessional is not a term that I love. The term was first used about work by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath (among others) last century and it still feels derogatory, because it often relegates poetry to something not serious, something mired in the therapeutic or the taboo. It’s associated with giving space for the taboo in the poem, and maybe I don’t like it because I don’t think anything should be taboo in poetry. It’s more that I don’t like the way people dismiss work that is termed confessional and so I would love for my work to not be dismissed so easily (even though sometimes it is).


Who are your heroes in real life?

My parents.

What are your favorite names?

Beryl.

What is it that you most dislike?

Social obligations.


 

What do you consider yourself?

Do you mean in terms of poetry? This is probably true for all poets, but it is hard for me to think of a term that fits my poetry correctly. I generally resist poetry terminology and classifications because they always feel fake to me, although I know the fakeness is necessarily so and classifications are important for lots of reasons. That being said, there isn’t a term I can think of at this point that has seemed like it describes my work correctly. If I had to, I would simply call myself a lyric poet.

 

Please tell me about your relationship with Sylvia Plath.

I’ve written poetry since I was little, since I was about seven years old, but I didn’t tell anyone, except my mother. When I finally took a poetry class in high school, we read Sylvia Plath and I fell in love. Reading her work prompted me to tell my poetry teacher that I was a poet, too, as I felt Plath gave me license to call myself one. Because she was my first poetry love, it’s been hard to turn away from her completely as the years pass on. I want to move away from her someday, but who knows if that will ever happen. Some love is meant to last after all.


What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I don’t feel I’ve completed my greatest achievement.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

Myself.

Where would you most like to live?

Los Angeles.


 

What was the process to publishing your first book?

As soon as I graduated from college, I went to the MFA program for Poets and Writers at  UMass-Amherst. After I graduated, I entered every first book contest imaginable and I received an honorable mention here and there, but nothing really happened. In the meantime, I entered a master’s degree program in Arts in Education at Harvard. I was beginning to give up hope for poetry, revising my life plans and deciding that maybe I didn’t need to publish my poetry immediately. I thought being an art educator was my real path. I had friends from MFA school who knew Joshua Beckman, the editor at Wave Books, and I told him kind of casually one time that I was having some trouble with winning a first book contest.  He said that he wanted to see what my manuscript was like and why people weren’t taking it. After he read it, I traveled to where he was living at the time on Staten Island, and for two days straight he sat with me on the floor and helped me reorganize Awe into a form that he believed might be more likely to win a book contest. I sent it out for another year and nothing happened. Joshua then checked in with me, and after hearing no one had taken it, he considered it for the press and then finally accepted it for publication, which was a great thing. But this experience, among others, has made me somewhat distrustful of contests and systems of awarding things and I don’t think that my attitude thus far has had any real reason to change.


Who is your hero of fiction?

Ivan Denisovich.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,

What is your greatest regret?

That I have wasted time.


 

If not contests, what is an alternative to publishing?

I always tell my students to find out what poetry presses you like to read and then write to the editors of those presses, asking if they have an open reading period soon or if they might consider unsolicited manuscripts. Sure it’s awkward and it doesn’t always work—the editors may not write back—but it’s definitely worth trying. It’s important to make connections with other poets. I think that this is a good way to find a press with a similar aesthetic and one that might be meant to publish your book.

 

Can you tell me about the publication of Awe?

Wave Books took the book in January 2007 and in Fall 2007 it was published. It was a beautiful experience and a very, very exciting time for me. It opened up my life into the wide open space of being what I was meant to be—a poet.

 

What did having your first book published afford you?

It didn’t change my life in any immediate practical way, but it allowed me a reality where my work was in the world. The book in the world is a different thing. It is different than a book in a journal, or having a chapbook, even though I do believe chapbooks are mini-books. A book is a different kind of animal, because it gives you the feeling of agency to keep writing poetry. If my book had been not taken, I probably would have kept writing poetry, but I would not have had total freedom to take it as seriously. My first book gave me a feeling of audience, the feeling that people were listening. That’s a very powerful drug. I swallow that pill whenever I can.


What is your greatest fear?

To be controlled.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I have a very short attention span.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Cruelty.


 

After it was first published, did you feel vulnerable?

No. Not in terms of poetry—I felt excited.

 

I have heard you call yourself a conservative poet. Can you explain this more?

I am conservative in terms of my poetry. My poems look very much like traditional poems. They have stanzas, titles, the first letters of every line are capitalized, and they are left-justified. I use a pronounced and obvious I. I’m not experimental in that way. I’ve always been nerdy, serious about what a poem looks like, and I have this first instinct always to keep things in a tradition. It’s not that I don’t support the wild in others, in any way that that means. It’s just for my own work, the wild to me does not happen in terms of form.

 

What about conservative in other areas, like dress?

I’m conservative in that, too. I feel always stifled against wearing much, much weirder stuff than I do All of my clothes are things you can buy at Amazon, H&M. Some of it is from Etsy. It’s not like wearing a paper bag decorated with googly eyes. My style is very toned down from what it could be or what my imagination wishes it could be.


What is your current state of mind?

Tired.

Which living person do you most admire?

Killer Mike.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Morality.


 

Has having a family changed your poetry?

It hasn’t changed my poetry, but my time to both write and collect/archive my poems are limited. One thing I liked about my MFA program is that I had time to write poems, type them out, and workshop them—which is something that real life, even as blessed as mine is, doesn’t often give you much time to do. Poetry now seems like the last thing on my mind to work on everyday. I believe that as an artist, it is important to have lots of extra time, even if you watch reruns of some dumb show for eight hours and then write a poem for one hour. It is difficult to say “I’m going to write a poem” in the ten minutes you have between different activities.

 

How much of Awe came from your MFA?

Very little. I’m hard pressed to think of one poem. Actually, one poem did, that I wrote very early on in the program. All the other stuff was what I wrote after graduating.

 

What did you do with your poems from your MFA?

Nothing.

 

Do you think you will ever do anything with them?

Not necessarily. I don’t want to myself, but I wouldn’t be against it if someone wanted me to do something with them. I think it is important to not be precious about your work. It can all be thrown away if necessary—a singular poem means very little. The new thing you’re working on is the thing to care about. But most important is the poem yet to be written. And also, my thesis is preserved, in the library at UMass, so that gives it a home for forever.


Who are your favorite writers?

My current literary crush is Douglas Kearney.

How would you like to die?

Very quickly, without knowing what’s happening.

What is your motto?

Keep doing new stuff.


 

How was your MFA experience?

It was the best time of my life. Being in a MFA program is like saying to the world, “I’m a poet.” When you are in a MFA program, you can say that and you don’t have to feel ashamed about it, which is what you can often feel when trying to explain what you do to others in our society. I loved my teachers and I loved Western Mass. I fit into the landscape and loved the people in the community. Also, I was able to teach early on, as soon as I got there, which made me love it even more.

 

What were the main differences between your MFA and Columbia’s MFA?

One big difference is that here we have a thesis class, which Lucie started and has turned into a wonderful opportunity for our students. This may be different now, but when I went my program, we had workshops and seminars, but we didn’t necessarily formally think about how to create the structure of a book as a whole. Our program was also three years, whereas we have two years here, which makes time expand differently..

 

Would you do anything differently?

Nothing. I’m very, very blessed and privileged. There’s nothing I regret in any way in terms of how I’ve lived my life.


Which living person do you most despise?

Most people with power.

What is the quality you most like in a man?

Sense of humor.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Intelligence.


 

What is your greatest advice for new writers?

To not get discouraged. There are all kinds of ways you can feel rejection and criticism, as you are showing people your work in workshop and then eventually sending your work out, but it’s important to not take all criticism completely seriously. If you love to write poems, then that is what you should do. Your audience will find you. It may take time. It can take a very long time, but it is worth it. The best thing to do is to keep writing.

 

Do you have a favorite poem in AWE? If so, what?

I haven’t thought about AWE in a while. “Ten Lives of Mental Illness,” is the poem I wrote while doing my MFA, and now I feel some nostalgia for it, telling you about it. At readings, I usually just read one poem from AWE, “Boobs are Real,” because it gets a laugh. I don’t connect with it completely however. At least not anymore. The woman that wrote it seems very far away from the woman I am now. I still know her, but not too well.

 

Has your poetry changed a lot since AWE?

All in all, not a lot. I’m on a progression and that progression will continue until I die.

 


What is your favorite occupation?

Teacher.

What is your most marked characteristic?

That I seem like a pushover.

What do you most value in your friends?

That they pay attention to me. That they answer the phone when I call.


 

What is the most difficult thing about being a writer?

Trying to not change your writing to please anyone, unless it is a necessity because it involves money. For example, there have been times when a journal pays for a poem and I needed the money and the editor asked me to change something and I was like whatever. But other than that, do not pay attention too much attention to what you feel is an absolute criticism. Poets say things to other poets and then change their opinion. It’s really hard not letting all of those voices in your head, but that’s what you should do.

 

Did you have any control of your book cover for AWE?

I definitely did. Around when AWE was published, I had a vision of 100 white books with very large black letters on them, spelling out the title. I told that to the press and the designer came up with his beautiful design. I also wanted the inside cover to be my favorite Maybelline nail polish color at the time, “Juicy Tomato.” So I sent swatches and that’s the shade they used. By the way, Maybelline doesn’t make that color anymore—the bastards. My book cover looks exactly like what I wanted it to.

 

Anything else you would like to mention about AWE?

I’m glad that it happened, but I’m glad it’s not the only book I’ve written and will write and publish. It’s a part of a group of things and not the end for me in an emblematic way. It’s not a manifesto, and the I is not me.

Also, I don’t know if you remember, but when George W. Bush was president, part of his Iraqi military strategy was called “Shock and Awe.” I always thought that was the most horrific phrase ever, so that’s part of the reason the book is named that. In addition, some of the rhetoric I used was reminiscent of the way some people talked during that era, particularly politicians.


If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I wouldn’t change anything.

What is your most treasured possession?

My collections.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

To be completely controlled. To have no hope, or agency.


 

What do your parents think about you being a poet?

They were always extremely supportive of my choice and were both instrumental in me being an artist. My father is no longer living, but he was always very kind to me about it, even though he himself was not obviously artistic. He was a brilliant communicator, and was a judge, so I think that helped him understand why language was important to me. My mom is a painter and an art historian, so my mother understood even more what it meant to be an artist and has taught me immeasurably how to be myself.

 

Were you shy to show your mother your poetry?

No at all. From a very young age, I read her my poems the minute I had finished writing them. I’ve never been shy about showing anyone my poems really. I live in a constant state of hunger for attention.


What or who is the greatest love of your life?

Yet to be determined.

When and where were you happiest?

I’ve never been happy.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Be better at making money.


 

Does religion play a role in your life? In your writing?

No, not in any formal way. I’m a very spiritual person, but I’m not that keen on organized religion. I don’t belong to any sort of place formally now. That being said, the spiritual is equally as important to me as this one.

 

What is your greatest extravagance?

I am a total shopaholic. I actually have a problem. It’s not so much that I buy expensive stuff, but I am an accumulator of lots of cheap beautiful things.

 

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

I don’t really dislike anything about my appearance because at this point, I don’t care. Growing up, kids made a lot of fun of my big butt or my frizzy hair. Now I think all of my stuff is great because it’s still working.

 

On what occasion do you lie?

To save someone’s feelings. I do lie a lot and also don’t lie a lot.

 

What are you working on now?

I just finished my next book of poems, called Milk, and a book of lectures. I’m also working on other writing projects, like some chapbooks, essays and things.

 

Can you tell me about your newest Twitter account “Astro Poets @ poetastrologers,” and how astrology plays a part in your life?

My friend Alex Dimitrov and I started it on a whim in November and it’s been really fun so far. Astrology is a frame I find helpful to look at everything. Most of the time, I see people in context of their signs. It’s a big way of how I get through life and be kind. I think Twitter is great because you can be funny, which you can’t always be in the everyday

 

May I ask you questions from the Proust Questionnaire?

Yes.

 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Total peace, where there is a state of peace and prosperity in the world. For me individually, that would mean making art and teaching.

 

 

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Amazing.

 

 

 

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