Spotlight: Lisa Olstein
Interview by Melinda Wilson
Lost Alphabet is a collection of prose poems. What appeals to you about prose poems?
The prose poem as a contemporary form certainly has particular charms (often relating to expectation, juxtaposition, tone, etc.), but I have to admit that these were not what informed my decision to write the poems in Lost Alphabet as prose poems. I was searching for a form that expressed the naturalist’s notebook sensibility of the work—the poems were written, and I hope they read, more like the speaker’s entries in a strange self-chronicle of internal and external experience and study, something between a diary and record, one devoted somewhat obsessively to intense observation. In this context, with this voice and its journeying, line breaks seemed too self-conscious both in the writing process and later in evaluating the final form of the work. This is funny for me to say, because I actually worship line breaks and their many nearly magical powers. Probably this devotion to them informed my decision not to use them in Lost Alphabet. I was searching for the most straightforward, unmediated means of letting the voice speak, because, for this particular project, the voice unselfconsciously revealing itself as it wandered into stranger and stranger territory was paramount.
The speaker in Lost Alphabet lives among and studies moths and butterflies. She becomes consumed by them, saying “When not studying specimens, I see their features everywhere.” Does the speaker’s obsession with her subjects affect her ability to care for them? In other words, can a “specimen” or subject of examination also be the recipient of one’s affections?
This confusion of category and intention is at the crux of what the speaker experiences, and of the narrative arc of the book. Obsession leads to new clarities and much blurring. Observation transforms expectation and interpretation. Experience replaces assumption. The speaker’s relationship to the moths moves from one defined by scientific distance—within which the moths are specimens to be collected, manipulated, killed—to one defined by intense empathy and closeness—within which the moths are individual beings to be discovered and interacted with, to be cherished and cared for. Affection is a key part of it, reached via fascination and also personal dislocation, a loosening of the boundaries and categories and definitions that previously shaped self and reality. It’s an incremental evolution, but in the end, affection does obliterate the possibility of the moths remaining specimens. The identities of the speaker and of the moths evolve away from their original manifestations.
The speaker in Lost Alphabet also deals with some type of painful affliction, but it is unclear what exactly ails her. Can you comment on the significance of this pain?
The pain is a part of the speaker’s general undoing. I leave it vague not to be tricky but to inhabit in my imagination the reality of the character. The speaker doesn’t know what the pain’s significance (or cause) is; the speaker experiences the pain directly and deals with the consequences. It’s a part of what makes up the shifting physical, emotional, and psychic terrain the speaker inhabits. It opens certain doors and shuts others. There isn’t a back-story that I bring to the situation but withhold from the character or from the reader, rather I know what the speaker knows—when the pain hits, how it affects things. A parallel to this is the way I approached the possibility of research while writing this book. Although studying images and seeking out language related to moths was key inspiration and fodder, I didn’t want to become an “expert” and then pick and choose what to let the speaker know—I sought external material only in support of the work of imagining through the speaker. That said, the element of affliction experienced by the speaker is certainly influenced by and infused with my own experience with chronic migraines. There was no master plan—the whole project was determined by a process of discovery-along-the-way—but once it presented itself, I was intrigued by the opportunity to put some of that lived strangeness and difficulty into a completely different context and see how it behaved there.
Can you further describe the relationship between the speaker and Ilya? Who is Ilya and what is her role in the speaker’s studies or observations? To what extent does Ilya’s character function metaphorically?
Ilya is someone from the village who becomes a companion to the speaker much like the speaker becomes an inhabitant of the village—proximity and happenstance coupled with a perceived but muted necessity, some mysterious and persistent compulsion. The speaker’s affliction and need coupled with the culture’s set of social obligations instigate the situation: “Slowly, the absence of pain arrives like snow falling. It was on a day like this, when, visiting, Ilya decided to stay. At least, never left. It is customary here to accompany the wounded. Whoever is able, and near.” The relationship is one of both closeness and distance, willingness and unwillingness, as I hope the poems describe: in some ways the two become partners in the work, in the life; in other ways Ilya stays very much outside of the speaker’s inward journey but witnesses it and sometimes assists, sometimes refuses to assist.
Much like I didn’t become an expert about moths and then pick and choose what the speaker would know, I didn’t develop but choose not to disclose a full back-story for Ilya. In the writing, I inhabited the subject position of the speaker, and so, as for the speaker, Ilya arrives in my imagination as an individual read through what is done, what is said. Stepping back just a little, of course, Ilya is a bridge: to another human being, to the human world that the speaker is losing grip of, to the culture of the foreign place where the speaker has landed. I was aware of and interested in historical, cultural, and literary clichés surrounding ideas of “noble savages” and “native wisdom”—both the terrible falseness and exploitation at the heart of these constructions and their pull on our sentiments and imaginations. In Ilya, I tried to move in and around this territory a little bit, to explore and subvert some of these tropes. In retrospect, I think the relationship serves as a microcosm for the issues of knowing/not knowing, foreignness/familiarity, discovery/limitation and overall paradox that inform the speaker’s relationship to the moths and to the world.
In addition to moths and butterflies, there are a lot of birds in this collection. What is the significance of winged creatures for the speaker?
The speaker here collects and studies moths specifically and devotedly. Over the course of the book, this fairly straightforward intention and practice sort of evolves/devolves into something different, something transformed by obsession and a shifting sense of reality. Birds function as another observable element of the landscape, along with horses, dogs, people, the river, the weather. They’re most comparable to the moths, though, in that along with insects, they’re the wild animals most available to us. Like any of us, the speaker comes in contact with domesticated (i.e. highly mediated) animals pretty regularly, and occasionally enters into proximity with the odd undomesticated animal. Birds are wild but all around, flitting in and out of natural and constructed landscapes. In this way, they’re a kind of link between worlds.
The speaker often poses questions related to identity. She asks in “[master thunder],” “Who am I here in this village? Who am I anywhere?” How might the speaker’s relationship with the moths and butterflies help her to answer these larger questions?
Rather than helping to answer them, the speaker’s relationship with the moths leads to more of these questions and makes answers to them harder and harder to find. Myopic and hypnotic study, isolation and outsider-ness, illness and the body’s heightened sensations, all of these lead to a destabilization of self and of identity. Conventional wisdom increasingly seems not to apply. Received notions of who one is and how things work, particularly the hierarchies of meaning and value we inherit so seamlessly, begin to unravel.
Could you explain the significance of the title Lost Alphabet?
It’s taken from one of the poems late in the book: “The wind wakes them; they wake me. Like a lost alphabet, they await decipherment. I read in them what I desire, what I bring to the silence like a meal.” Uncovering something that was always there but that remains inaccessible is emblematic, I think, of the speaker’s experience. So too the building block nature of an alphabet—individual letters are language at its most elemental. Fluency and all its implications are incipient, but not yet achieved. This is in keeping with the way perception and meaning—that is to say the speaker’s reality—are deconstructed down the bare bones, to elemental units.
In your previous collection Radio Crackling, Radio Gone, each section of the book begins with one of Sappho’s fragments. What made the Sappho fragments a good fit for the book? Do you have a particular affinity for Sappho?
I’ve read and enjoyed Sappho for years and I fell in love with Anne Carson’s new translations in If Not, Winter. Having read different translations over the years was also part of the draw. By virtue of their inevitable variability, translations point in their way to the slippery nature of seemingly static things—words, images, memories, etc.—and this is something the poems in the collection explore. I also like the strange power of the fragments, how they speak vividly to absence and rupture while at the same time evoking something newly affecting and whole. The fact that I lived in Greece for several years and that some of the poems in the collection refer to images and ideas gained there made using Sappho a personal treat, as well.
Are you working on anything new?
I’m in the midst of finishing a new collection of poems, so my brain is deep in final revisions and questions of order. That and learning how to be a mother to an almost two-year old amidst all the usual joys and challenges of a busy life.
[This interview was conducted via e-mail in April 2010]
Lisa Olstein is the author of Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (Copper Canyon Press 2006), winner of the Hayden Carruth Award, and Lost Alphabet (Copper Canyon Press 2009), named one of the nine best poetry books of 2009 by Library Journal. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Centrum. Her work has appeared recently in jubilat, GlitterPony, Indiana Review, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere.