When I set out to write APOCRYPHAL, my first full-length poetry collection, I knew very little about what it would be, but I knew there was something pushing me to do it. It was a feeling, an almost-thing, a belief. It was this banging internal knowledge that though my body would die, at least my words could reincarnate in their reader's view. I am an atheist who wrote an entire book around the concept of the Apocrypha, those non-canonical non-stories, the hidden documents, the dirtied bits. I wanted to say, 'here is my reality,' in fragments and half-remembered memories, because whether or not their foundation was entirely the truth, or whether I not I could accept them as true, they were mine and they were acknowledged. I suppose a portion of why I write comes from shame and fear. When I write, the words somehow leave me and just are, in some way removing my ownership. I enjoy the writing and rewriting of my own personal myth. I like turning bad people into characters whose mythos I can manipulate. I like sending lovers to heaven.
When I was a child my Italian grandparents put me into Catholic School -- meaning, they paid for the schooling. One lunch day, the nun asked us what Jesus' love meant to us. What? I was eight. "I don't know what it means because I can't see him," I told them. I then was brought to the bathroom to have my mouth washed out over the sink.
This 'rebellion' marked the early formation of my observational personality, but it also left me feeling shameful. If everyone believes -- if I don't believe -- who am I, and why do I still find the grandiose beauty of Catholicism so intriguing? Was I wrong? Am I searching hard enough? Maybe he can't see me? How could my heart still want for God when my mind had never really been there?
I suppose I write to find my own God, or to explore that loss and shame. I get to create my own playground of paradise and punishment. I get to ask and answer questions.
I was told once in my first MFA course that God just isn't subject that could easily be explored. Actually, I was told to basically drop it. So of course I didn't. I kept at it, and kept reading the work of other poets whose personal beliefs were or were not synonymous with their verse. I am fascinated with contemporary poetic notions of reincarnation, death, myth and religion and atheism.
And so in this series, I will interview poets about how their work intersects with belief.
To kickoff, I interviewed Lisa A. Flowers, whose poetry is as rich as myth itself.
Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, vocalist, the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press, and the author of diatomhero: religious poems. Her work has appeared in The Cortland Review, elimae, Tarpaulin Sky, The Collagist, and other magazines and online journals. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in the rugged terrain above Boulder, Colorado. Visit her here or here.
Lisa, your poetry - as well as the poetry you're drawn to as a reviewer and curator - share one thing in common: a sense of grandiosity, always on the edge of the profane or sacred. You're written the book, "diatomhero: religious poems" (whose title you call an anagram of the bible’s “I am the door”). What attracts you to myth and god as a contemporary poet? Why has poetry of god and myth has long captivated poets? What is it that continuously haunts us in modern times?
Myth has always defined the times in which we live, in that it is rooted--whatever its subsequent incarnations-- in fear of mortality and nature. It's around this fear that religion and cultural value systems, which have always been present, spring up. So, that fact alone makes it a perpetually contemporary factor. However, of the two (mortality and nature) only death remains as impenetrable as ever.
Nature is now widely assumed to be "understood", even though Lars von Trier, in stark contrast to Thoreau, Keats, et al, called it "Satan's church." Is mortality always primitive, no matter how many millions of years have elapsed, like Kaspar Hauser ushered eternally into the drawing room of a great estate? It's an interesting question. But the truth is that the wilderness is just as wild and uncontrollable as the knowledge that we're going to die. It's just that death cannot (ostensibly) "report back", like a hurricane or a catastrophic earthquake can. I think this, in a crude nutshell, is the conundrum that enthralls poets, whether they're Romantics or hardcore realists.
The other aspect that's riveting (and far more important, I think) is transformation, which I talk a bit more about in this interview at THEThe Poetry. If myth can provide an historical template for the ingenuity of fear to build on, it can also provide an ever-accessible template by which one can find their way out of just about anything. So many people are obsessed only with entry points, as if they alone define the outcomes that science is continually searching for.
So, "I am the door" is about entrances and exits. I like to think of the structure of myth as a sort of OCD like system in which specific actions are calculated to produce results. Someone washing their hands obsessively or having to take two steps back every time they take two steps forward isn't that much different to me than the genesis of the most beautiful and transcendental myths on earth.
I am attracted to your work because the body of it is one long poem, really, always expanding on itself. You play with notions of rebirth in all of your work, as though death does not really exist. For example, I sometimes feel there is a real disparity between my true beliefs and my writing (which almost always centers on some sort of Lynchian, pseudo or strange paradise).
I constantly try to resurrect everything because I'm afraid of loss, and so divinity becomes default. In reality, I am an atheist. I'm so fascinated and excited by poetic explorations of heaven and hell, especially when the writer has complicated religious views. Do you write what you want to believe or what you hope is true?
Great question. It would be easy to say that there is some wish-fulfillment there, but I also believe that creation can produce tangible results ... like a ghost who strains to become perfume, or something like that. I have pledged never to abandon the people I loved who have died, and diatomhero is largely about honoring that commitment. So, in that sense, to call the writing fantasy would be a sort of betrayal. I do write about what I want to be true, of course. But I prefer to think of my own desires as entirely secondary to the work itself. Also, I love your description of God as a default. It reminds me of an article I read recently, which touched upon the body of Christ, itself, as the center of time.
Because religious and mythic poetry is surprisingly commonplace in the contemporary sphere, how do you think, as a reviewer, poets can successfully explore this area without sentimentality, predictability and sloppiness?
I can probably best answer that question by quoting one of your own statements (which I loved) back to you. In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, you said: "from a poetic perspective, I would like to say that it is not my responsibility to write what is clean and free from bullshit. It is my responsibility to write what I want to write." I think that's really the main caveat ... the bottom line being that, as long as something is expressing itself effectively, there are absolutely no rules.
As a reviews editor, I see so much pedantic nonsense, so many "carefully structured", paranoid, academic explanations that are afraid of pure, channeled, sensuous response. My friend CA Conrad likes to quote Mina Loy, who said: "If you are very frank with yourself and don't mind how ridiculous anything that comes to you may seem, you will have a chance of capturing the symbol of your direct reaction." Therein, indeed, lies the road to originality.
LISA A. FLOWERS is a poet, critic, vocalist, the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press, and the author of diatomhero: religious poems. Her work has appeared in The Cortland Review, elimae, Tarpaulin Sky, The Collagist, and other magazines and online journals. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in the rugged terrain above Boulder, Colorado. Visit her here or here.
LISA MARIE BASILE is the author of APOCRYPHAL (Noctuary Press, October 2014), and the chapbooks Andalucia and Triste. Her poetry and other work can be seen in PANK Magazine, Tin House, The Nervous Breakdown, Johns Hopkin’s The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Huffington Post and Prick of the Spindle, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and a co-curator for Diorama, a NYC-based collaborative poetry/music salon. She is a graduate of the New School’s MFA in Writing program, and works as a content director. Find out more about Lisa here. Follow her on twitter @lisamariebasile