First, a thought. Or a dream, a happening, an itch, a longing, an aversion, a quickening, a word. Then a poem, and after more time and more poems, maybe one adheres to another, and that to another still, and eventually an idea of poems together. A book.
This is how it happens, a book of poetry. Can happen. Might.
Poet Dorothea Lasky has published five books of poetry and several chapbooks, including a new one called Snakes, and describes how she works from one poem to many, and from there into a collection on a theme.
"Each time, after I finish a book, I tend to keep writing poems at random, with no real focus. I put very little pressure on this work and just write for fun or need or from whatever drive writing poems comes from," she told Spine. Central to her process: quiet and time. "I am a firm believer that if you give a person time to completely manage a day as they so choose, they will create new things," she said.
Ideally, Lasky finds her time first thing. She pairs her quiet with coffee and "looks at things" on a walk, at a museum, in her home studying objects she's collected, like tiny elephant figures or a bunch of fabrics doused in fall colors. Ideally is not lately, as Lasky balances writing with family and teaching. Quiet time at present looks like coffee and computer and a PowerBar … and no talking!
"Once I have to speak to anyone in person, with my actual speaking voice, the poems turn into other things. In complete contradiction of this image, however, I will say that I write, or I should say start, lots of poems in a rush, at all times throughout the day, again very randomly."
As she writes poems and writes poems, a central concept emerges. "It usually has to do with a certain preoccupation, or should we say obsession, that I am feeling at the time, whether it be for a person or an idea, and usually both," she said.
At this point, Lasky kicks into high gear. The book takes off. "It becomes almost urgent for me to get things together in some form and then to keep working on new poems that fit in the book, however loosely. Then at some point, I become ruthless and the book takes its final shape. After the fact, it all feels like it was extraordinarily organic."
Upon completing her book Rome (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2014), Lasky returned to random writing, and found herself chasing Stanley Kubrick down a moon-hole. She'd long been interested in space, in astrology, and the sublime. "I also love the movie The Shining and I saw the documentary Room 237, which purports a theory that Kubrick used the movie as a confession that he had filmed the moon landings, which were fake." The Internet readily provided Lasky with conspiracy theorists who agreed: The moon landing was fake! Kubrick staged the entire thing!
Lasky thought more, wrote more about the moon, and about delusions. What if the moon is a mass conspiracy we've all tricked ourselves into believing? This led to considerations of the moon as poetic cliché. From these strands, a book began to coalesce; a book titled The Moon Book. Then, life.
Three months early, Lasky's first child arrived and suddenly the poet was spending 18 hours a day in the NICU, pumping breastmilk. "At some point sitting there during those hard days, I started to think about creativity, which has long been an important theme to me, and the ways in which we contain so many possibilities unknowingly throughout our lives. We go through our lives holding so much potential to love and give and it is only in certain moments that we see the actual manifestation of these possibilities come to fruition. Perhaps this is always what happens when we write a poem, for example. Anyway, at some point having these thoughts, I decided on the title Milk and the book took its real shape from there."
The Moon Book to Milk to a manuscript she felt was "pretty close to done," and then Lasky reached out to poet and Wave Books Editor-in-Chief Joshua Beckman. The editor of Lasky's first three books, Beckman knew her, knew her writing. The two had already established a good working relationship and, said Lasky, "he cares about poetry and the integrity of a book." Beckman suggested some substantial changes, especially organizational. Lasky reworked. Milk launches in April.
As Lasky prepares for the book's release, she also prepares for the return of students from winter break; she teaches poetry at Columbia University's School of the Arts. She also co-directs Columbia Artist/Teachers (providing MFA students with teacher training and teaching opportunities) and organizes the university's summer writing program. She said for many of her students, the struggle comes not in the form of writing, but publishing.
"I have found my students can feel very anxious that this will never happen and will sometimes work towards making a 'publishable' book out of this fear," she said. While she advises understanding trends, she feels the most effort should be spent creating work you love.
"The best thing to do is to make a book that you feel proud of, even if the thought of seeing it in the world makes you feel odd or scared. Everything else will fall into place."
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Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.