Lyn Lifshin: Reflections on a Life of Poetry

Lyn Lifshin has published over 130 books and chapbooks, including three from Black Press: Cold Comfort, Before It’s Light, and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me. Recent books include Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle; Knife Edge & Absinthe: The Tango Poems; Malala; A Girl Goes into the Woods; Femme Eterna; Little Dancer: The Degas Poems and #alivelikealoadedgun. She edited three anthologies: Tangled Vines, Lips Unsealed, and Ariadne’s Thread. Her web:

Content Editor Sarah Raines speaks with Lyn about her life as a poet below.


I notice that your poems discuss historical female figures, such as Marilyn Monroe and Malala Yousafzai, as well as shed light upon the female experience. At the same time, you've produced collections on topics as varied as Alfred Hitchcock, the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and the racehorse Secretariat. What is it about something or someone that compels you to write?

Often a book would come from someone asking for poems on a certain subject. I’d get started and become obsessed and kept on. In the past, when asked for a poem, I’d write fifty. That is how I wrote books on Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Blue Tattoo, and refugees. I would write one poem about, say, Ruffian (a famous horse) and kept going with other famous horses: Secretariat, Barbaro, dream poems. I’ve often used photographs and written family poems from them. Notes from traveling often turn into poems.

What is your approach to revision?

Mostly, I revised as I typed up the poem.

Theodore Roethke wrote, "Love is not love until love's vulnerable." I wonder if the same can be said of poetry. What is the connection for you personally between vulnerability and poetry? Is the "I" in your poetry you (or some version of you)?

 Not sure but the “I” probably has some bits of me in it---not literally but something I’ve imagined.

 I read that you were a painter before becoming a poet. Tell me about that.

I painted a little but I was never a painter.  Black Sparrow Press had their writers do some limited copies with art work. I started in art---but I would never say I was a painter.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming poets?  

Write because you have to, but maybe become a doctor or lawyer and write because it gives you pleasure.

 When it comes to your writing practice, how do you divide your time between life and writing?

If I were writing answers to this interview a few months ago, it would be very different. Lately, I’m writing and dancing, my two biggest loves, very little, hardly at all.  I used to do ballet on the metro every morning and read coming home. I read a lot but I loved dancing, ballroom and ballet, and my days were full. … My days were filled with writing and dancing and it was enough. It was more than enough. Now, I do neither and I hate this loss.

Read Lyn’s most recent Roanoke Review publication “But Instead Has Gone Into Woods” here.