An Interview with Rebecca Lehmann
By Valerie Wetlaufer
REBECCA LEHMANN is the author of Between the Crackups (Salt Modern Poets 2011). Her poems have been published in Tin House, The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, and many other journals. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and a PhD in creative writing and literary theory from Florida State University. Awards for her poetry include a Maytag Fellowship, a John Mackay Shaw Academy of American Poets Award, a David Kirby Poetry Dissertation Award, and residencies from the Millay Colony for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems “River Mink” and “Dear Unlucky Person” were published in the Fall 2011 issue of Quarterly West.
What books do you love and are currently reading?
This summer I’ll be rereading some old favorites. I have the collected Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Federico Garcia Lorca all stacked up and ready to go. Also on deck: Lyn Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes, and great first books by Jessica Savitz, Adam Fell, and Patrick Ryan Frank.
What writers do you admire?
I like almost everything Anne Carson does. Two of my perennial favorites are Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath.
Are there any hobbies or activities that you enjoy, outside of writing? Do you think that these activities help you with your writing?
I like getting outside and being physically active. I take a lot of walks. Now that it’s summer, my husband and I have been going for bike rides in the state parks in Wisconsin. Being outside helps me quiet my mind, and that’s important for me when I’m writing.
One thing I’ve always admired in your work is your risk-taking. Your poems aren’t afraid to make readers uncomfortable in the best way, and they defy expectations. There is always something decidedly unexpected in your poems, yet you engage literary traditions, forms, and authors deftly. What is your process like for something like “Dream of the Rood,” which is a modern-day fever dream interpretation of the Old English poem?
I wrote “Dream of the Rood” while I was in an Old English class during my PhD at Florida State. Of course we read the original “Dream of the Rood” in class, but we also read many other poems in Old English, and while I’m by no means proficient at reading Old English, some of the grammar patterns started to stick in my head. I tried to reflect those in the poem I wrote. One thing I like about the original “Dream” is that it’s a telling of the Christ story with heavy pagan and animistic themes, a result of the colonization of England by the Romans and the blending of imperialism, as represented through the Catholic faith, with native religions. So my version plays with the idea of religion. Since the original is really about the wood used to make the cross, wood features prominently in my version. My version goes pretty wildly off course from the original, and I was also thinking about ways that women and sexuality are regulated and controlled in Christianity, and in most religious faiths for that matter. Controlling women, and controlling sexuality, becomes a way to control culture.
Do you write daily? What are your writing habits?
When I have the time, I write on weekdays in the mornings. During the academic year, when I’m teaching and have other obligations, I try to write one morning a week. For me, having a routine is important. The older I get, and the more other responsibilities I have, the harder it is to find time for writing unless I regularly create it.
We’re both from the Midwest, and much of Between the Crack-ups seems set in a Midwestern landscape and sensibility. What role does place play in your work?
I used to think I wasn’t a poet who engaged place, but I so clearly am. Much of the book is set in the Midwest, and much of it is set in the Florida panhandle, where I lived for five years. I taught a fiction workshop this year, and spent a lot of time talking to my students about setting. Setting isn’t really an idea that translates fluidly from fiction to poetry, but I think, for me at least, my poems have to exist somewhere. In some of the poems in the book, like “Bucolic Calling,” which deals explicitly with the Midwest, or “The Factory, An Elegy in Six Parts,” which is a long dystopic poem set in a rust belt factory, place is more prominent than in others. However, even in some of the dreamier poems in the book, like the “Particulate Matter” poems, which take place in a surrealistic meadow, place is still important, even if the place is nondescript.
What inspires you?
Getting outside, reading as much as possible, having time to think.
How has your career evolved over time?
I hope that my work has matured over time. For that matter, I hope that I’ve matured over time.
I know you teach creative writing. What advice do you give your students on how to become better poets?
Read, read, read, read, read. Read as much as you can. And write regularly. Don’t give up. Don’t let one teacher or reader who is discouraging prevent you from continuing, but do take criticism seriously. Develop a thick skin. You’re going to get a lot of rejection.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on poems for my second manuscript. Formally they’re very different than the first book, and it’s been exciting to try some new things.
VALERIE WETLAUFER is a birth doula, poet, and doctoral fellow at the University of Utah. Her poems and reviews have appeared in many journals, Drunken Boat, burnt district, The Journal, Bloom, and Tarpaulin Sky. She is the author of the chapbooks Scent of Shatter (Grey Book Press 2010) and Bad Wife Spankings (Gertrude Press 2011). For more info, visit her website, valeriewetlaufer.com.