“Allowing the Work to Shine”
Interview: Dale Going

Denise Liddell Lawson
Artists Dialogue
Volume VII Number 5
Marin Arts Council
October/November 1994

Your biographical note in the collection Everything is Real Except the Obvious reads, “Poetry has been the transept, steadying horizontal. Always my heart has opened through it, only recently my throat.” Would you comment on that?
 Before writing there was reading. But I probably didn’t start reading poetry until I was in 9th grade. At that point I was reading love poems, and it was definitely a heart experience, as it is with most people who come to poetry when they are at that age.
     At the time that I first started to read poetry, I began to write it. I spent 20 years writing in fits and starts, usually very bad poetry. But I felt that if I didn’t write it, I was wasting my life. That if I died without having written poetry, I’d have completely blown it.
     The motivation was originally from the heart – and therefore private. The throat part in that quote was when I finally got to the point where I could communicate, where I could express myself.
     During those 20 years, my frustration was that it’s extremely difficult to write love poems that are not trivial. It was only when I allowed my imagination and mental processes to come back into it that I was able to stay interested.
How did you learn to stop putting off writing?
I think it had to do with having had cancer.
     The most obvious part of that is you get a shock. You realize that you are not going to live forever and you had better get on with it.
     Beyond that, having cancer gave me a solitude that I had never had. For quite a long period of time, about a year, I was not able to do anything except be. For part of that time I was so weak that I couldn’t turn on the knob of the television set. All I could do was read, so I spent a year reading. And thinking.
     Reading got me back into an imaginative space.
As a letterpress printer you are able to express your aesthetic in a tangible way. The formal arrangement of your poems is also extremely visual, as in “(One Woman is Lifted for Every Two Who Walk((” – a poem about dancers. What is the process of composition in such a poem?
     In the dance poem there was a desire to use dancers’ movements and breaks and abruptness, the way they move on and off the stage, across the stage, into and out of groupings.
     In the poem, “She Pushes With Her Hands,” I was also doing something intentional with the spacing. The poem is bout a 17th century woman whom we know about from letters that were written by Jesuit missionaries. I wanted to center her story, so the poem is placed in a narrow column in the center of a large white space. We know so little about her that it felt the silence surrounding her mattered as much as the words that surfaced. I also wanted to include text from the letters of the Jesuits, but marginalized in the way that she had been marginalized. So I printed the excerpts on separate, smaller leafs of paper that are the same width as the margins in her poem.
In “She Pushes With Her Hands,” you quote the writings of the Jesuit fathers, and in some of your new work you use Old English words and quotations from the King James version of the Bible. Where did this interest in archaic speech come from? Is it from hearing liturgical language as a child, or is it from your current reading, or is it the sounds of the words that interest you?
All of the above. The sound of language is what you start out with before you can read. In my case, growing up Catholic meant that I heard Latin in church as a child. I had no idea what the words meant, and I would stand there and sing along, making up my own words.
     I studied Latin in high school, and I continued to study it because I was enthralled with how much one could learn about English from knowing Latin. Knowing the roots of words has always fascinated me.
Finding the words hidden inside the words reminds me of H.D.
     Yes, and it’s also like Gertrude Stein. I resonate with her taking Cézanne’s ideas about painting and applying them to writing. He talked out how artists work on a surface, but beneath the surface is so much more. The thing to do is to go down into the roots of what is on the surface.
     One of the things I’ve thought about doing in a letterpress book is to include both forms: to have an overlay that includes everything, the notes behind the poem, and then an underlay that is the moment distilled from those notes. The nine poems in “Or Less,” each with 25 words, came out of probably 200 pages of text that I wrote during one summer. That’s what was left.
The text was note-taking?
A kind of blind notetaking, writing with the screen off on my computer so that I couldn’t see what I was doing and edit myself too quickly.
Do you feel you censor yourself as you write?
     I censor my writing less than I used to, certainly. I’ve come to see how important it is to just get as much out on paper as I possibly can. I much prefer to work with a full page and cut down than to work with a blank page and build up.
You’re a poet and you’re also a letterpress printer. Has that been a natural progression for you?
     It’s a completely natural progression, and it’s something I actually searched out before I found it. I have always loved books as physical objects. And I love paper – the feel, the texture, the feel of letters imprinted into paper, which is something that’s lost in offset printing.
     In 1991 I finally found a class at San Francisco State. It was taught by Peter Koch at The Press in Tuscany Alley. That’s how I learned to print. Although there are mechanical aspects of printing that make me feel stupid and “unguylike,” it also seems utterly natural.
     I remember taking a lesson with a bookbinder. He was showing us how to sew books, and he mentioned the name of some kind of knot you had to use. As soon as he gave the knot a name, I tightened up because I thought it was going to be like sailing or Boy Scouts. And then he demonstrated the knot, and I realized I’ve always done those knots for hand sewing. I just never knew the name.
How has the experience of being a printer influenced your writing?
     I’m a much more careful, tender editor than I used to be. When I was making “She Pushes With Her Hands,” I was writing the poem at the same time that I was typesetting it. And because typesetting is an excruciating, labor-intensive process, I really thought out every word, every letter in that poem.
     At one point I had no idea how the poem was going to take shape or end. What solved that for me was selecting the paper and putting together a mock-up of the book. It turned out that seven couplets fit on a page and no more. And that started to influence the structure of the poem and resolved some of the questions I had about it.
It’s unusual to have the design constraints of a book influence the writing of a poem. Most poets hand over their manuscript to a publisher and the publisher makes all the design decisions.
Not many poets keep in mind the fact that their work may eventually be printed in a book. Pots generally wrote for output on an 8½×11 sheet of paper, but the reality is that there are very few books that are printed that size. So things are going to be changed.
     If you are formally inventive as a poet, your work my pose other challenges to a publisher. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poems, for example, re printed side-ways in magazines because her long lines do not fit on a standard size page. I order for her work to be printed beautifully, it has to be printed in a large format.
     How much space, or silence, surrounds a poem also makes a difference. In letterpress printing, the type is made of lead and the spacing material is also made of lead. You physically experience the weight of silence. Silence itself has far more mass and weight than all the tiny little letters.
     And that’s what’s being represented on the page: the few words that emerge from this enormous silence.
So, as a printer, you are able to present your words exactly as you want?
     Yes, and no one else would ever do it in the same exquisite way. There is presentation as beautiful as a finely made letterpress book, where the words are imprinted into beautiful, often handmade paper.
     It’s not just a mental or abstract manifestation. It’s the presence of the hand in the process, of it being a physical manifestation. Poetry is considered in such an abstract way, and yet there is something so material about it.
What do you mean by “poetry is considered in an abstract way”?
     I think it’s possibly the most feared art form. When language doesn’t meet people’s expectations of clarity, they are taken aback and feel stupid and hostile. What I believe poets are trying to do is to act with supreme clarity, to be as precise and actual as possible.
I know that you publish the work of other poets, and that one of your projects is a literary journal called Fascicles. Describe how that came about.
     “Fascicles” is a word that means “bundle.” It refers to printing in installments, and also to Emily Dickenson’s manuscript of her poems. She only printed a handful of poems in her lifetime. The rest of them were found after her death in a trunk, handwritten in small pamphlets that were sewn together and numbered in a particular order and then bound with ribbon into bundles, or fascicles. To this day they have never been published in the form and the order that she chose for them. All of the typographic treatments of her poetry have altered – often horribly altered – her work in some way: punctuation and capitalization changed, titles added, etc.
     When I started thinking about the (in)visibility of women’s writing, I noticed that when I sent out announcements for poetry readings, they often ended up on somebody’s refrigerator or bulletin board. And I realized that these poems were being read more often and by a broader audience than if they had been published in literary journals.
     So I decided to make a visible, and beautiful, representation of women’s writing. Fascicles is a series of small broadsides that are ornamented and printed in a variety of colors and tied with ribbon. They look like a present waiting to be opened or a pile of letters, which, up until fairly recently, was what most writing by women was – either letters or diaries. And that’s how Emily Dickinson’s work went out too. Her poems were “published” in letters to her friends during her lifetime.
What other poets have you published?
     I’ve done chapbooks of poems by Denise Newman and Eléna Rivera (who is also poet-printer). I have forthcoming books by Carol Snow and Kathleen Fraser.
     I publish work by contemporary women poets whose work just dazzles me. Whether they’re known or unknown is an irrelevant issue at this point. Women’s writing has historically been overlooked and neglected.
     Even our greatest women poets were erased or misread. I find it shocking that we still don’t have all of Gertrude Stein and H.D. in print, and that Lorine Niedecker and Emily Dickinson were so badly edited. Doing anything about that actuality is beyond the scope of my project, but I want to do what I can to make the writing of my contemporaries visible, and in a way that allows the work to shine.