“I see my poetry as a place that allows me to be who I am, a place where my truth matters.”
Lisa Dordal’s poem “Pretty Moon” is a well-loved entry in Broad Street’s online “Share This Poem” feature, and as of January 31, 2018, it’s an integral part of her new book, Mosaic of the Dark. We just love it when our contributors hit the big time, so this seemed like the right moment to check in and find out not just what truth and honesty mean to Lisa, but also how poetry is a place, and how an expanding vocabulary let her figure out who she is in a male-centric environment.
The author of a previous chapbook, Commemoration, Lisa holds master’s degrees in both divinity and creative writing, and her work has appeared in a wide spectrum of journals and anthologies, including Best New Poets, Vinyl Poetry, Feminist Wire, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Ninth Letter, Connotation Press, CALYX, The Greensboro Review, New Poetry from the Midwest, and Rainbow in the Word.
Read on to find out how Lisa sees inspiration as a haunting and poetry as a space — a foreign land in which you just might find your truest self.
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Broad Street: Let’s start with perhaps the toughest question — how do you define “truth”?
Lisa: That’s a great question, because there are so many different kinds of truth. There’s literal truth — what really happened. But even that kind of truth is slippery because “what really happened” can look different depending on the situation of the viewer. And there’s mythical truth — stories that are not literally true on the “outside” but are considered true “on the inside” because they offer profound insights into what it means to be human.
The kind of truth I’m mostly interested in is emotional truth. In other words, something happened, but the specific details aren’t as important as how someone felt about what happened. Sometimes I will change the details of a story (for any number of reasons), but as long as the emotional truth of the story is true to my emotional experience, then the poem itself is true.
Writers often say you have to write what you know. I agree with this advice, but I would add that we can know something — emotionally, for example — that is beyond our own individual life experience.
I remember someone telling me a story once about something they had experienced, and the story affected me so profoundly that I was inspired to write a poem based (loosely) on what this other person had experienced. Because I had felt such a powerful emotional connection to her story I was able to write a poem in which the “I” in the poem is a very personal “I.” The details of the poem are a combination of things I personally experienced and things my friend experienced. And yet the poem feels very true and authentic to me because I had so completely internalized the emotional truth of the original story.
I agree — there are so many ways you can know about something, including research into historical eras or how people unlike yourself live now. The trick is to be true to the facts and also true to the heart. So, then,what role does a sense of truth or honesty play in your writing–your poetry, certainly, but also any other genre in which you work?
Truth matters very much in my work. I was raised in a culture — a family culture and a larger societal culture — in which I couldn’t be true to the person I really was deep down and within. I didn’t accept and celebrate myself as a lesbian until I was thirty years old.
“I had heard the word ‘lesbian’ as a kid but, back then, I only understood the stereotypical meanings of the word, not its gorgeous multiplicities.”
There had never been space for me to be a lesbian before then; it’s as if the “I” who I really was didn’t exist because I didn’t have a linguistic context in which to understand my identity. Even when I had a slight inkling early on that I might be attracted to women, I didn’t have the words I needed to understand who I was. I was raised in a very male-centered atmosphere in which my voice as a woman didn’t matter as much as the male voices I was surrounded by. I was constantly doubting myself, doubting my voice, and doubting my identity.
Thus, my truth was denied to me for many years. I had heard the word lesbian as a kid but, back then, I only understood the stereotypical meanings of the word, not its gorgeous multiplicities.
Poetry is a kind of country for me — a big, beautiful country filled with many different voices and identities. And in this country, my voice and my identity take up the space they have always deserved. I see my poetry as a place that allows me to be who I am; a place where my truth matters.
Could you discuss inspiration and what makes you feel you simply must write about a topic, a scene, an event? Perhaps you could do so by giving us the background of “Pretty Moon.”
Oftentimes inspiration feels like a haunting. Like something I just can’t let go of — or something that won’t let go of me. It can feel like a wrestling of sorts. My cousin’s death is one example of this. It somehow lodged itself into me and I had to write about it in “Pretty Moon.”
I also write a lot about my mother. She died in 2001 from issues partly related to her alcoholism, and just when I think I’ve written the last poem about her, another one comes along. Although many of my mother poems emerge from a place of pain and loss, I consider these hauntings to be a wonderful gift; a way for me to connect, through my writing, with one of my dearest ancestors.
Sometimes I am haunted by historical figures — people from the past who I suddenly want to learn more about. In my poem “Even Houseflies,” for example, I reference Pliny the Elder, who was a first-century Roman historian, and Ötzi the Iceman, whose 5,000-year-old body was found in the Alps over two decades ago.
Working with so few words and making such a huge impact with your poems, how do you select the details that will connect with readers?
I’m not sure that I worry so much about whether the details of a particular poem will connect with readers as much as whether or not they connect with me. Writing helps me deal with painful experiences and often provides a pathway to healing. I write first and foremost for myself — or for whomever is haunting me (i.e., my mother, my cousin, etc.).
In terms of the spareness of my language, yes, that is definitely a characteristic of much of my work. “Pretty Moon” is a particularly spare poem that I think works perfectly with the topic. I didn’t set out to write such a short, spare poem about my cousin, who died too early — but, in the end, the spareness of the language works perfectly with the subject matter of the poem.
It certainly does … When you were a struggling/dreaming new writer, what gave you inspiration and kept you going? Did you face a lot of rejection, and if so, how did you process it and move forward?
The thing that kept me going — and continues to keep me going — is a love for the process of writing. I remember early on, before writing became my profession, I used to set aside one day a week to read and write. I worked four days a week at an office job and spent Fridays reading and writing poetry.
Poetry was more of a hobby back then and, maybe because of this, I didn’t struggle much with rejection. I don’t think I even knew what rejection was back then, because I wasn’t trying to do anything with my work except write it. I wasn’t trying to be A Writer. I just knew I loved to read poetry, and when I read poetry I almost always became inspired to write. That was kind of a Garden of Eden phase in terms of my writing.
Gradually I started to take my writing more seriously. I started connecting with other writers and sending out my work. Then I applied for and was accepted into an MFA program, and later I started teaching poetry.
“Poetry is a kind of country for me — a big, beautiful country filled with many different voices and identities. And in this country, my voice and my identity take up the space they have always deserved.”
Now the stakes are higher. It’s my job to write and to get my work out into the world. It’s no longer just nice to get a poem published. It’s something that is expected of me. But, at the same time, what a joy the writing life is! I get to read what I want, write what I want, even teach what I want. But it’s a joy I have to work to maintain. There are plenty of times when my concerns about getting published — what I call external concerns — become internalized to such an extent that they drown out my internal concerns. Internal concerns are way more important than external concerns because they come from a much deeper, more meaningful place. External concerns are about my career as a poet. Internal concerns are about writing the kinds of poems I want and need to write.
I remember — several years ago — having a particularly bad day in which my external concerns were completely drowning out my internal joys. At one point, I walked into my study and I suddenly felt one of my arms reaching out towards my bookcase (where I keep a lot of my poetry books and research books). It felt a little like a poet’s version of an altar call — as if my body was leading me toward that which would heal me. Suddenly I was reminded of what is most important. Of what it is that I am called to surrender to and to dedicate my life to.
I think it’s crucial for all writers to have some sort of touchstone — whether it’s a mental image or something physical — that they can return to when they are feeling lost or off-center.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers–in any form?
Read, read, read. Writing is a two-way conversation and, as with any good conversation, that means there are times when you need to speak and times when you need to listen. If all you’re doing is writing, that means you’re not listening and this will not be good for your poetry. It doesn’t mean you have to read poetry exclusively. I read a lot of poetry but I also read a lot of fiction and nonfiction.
“Publishing shouldn’t be your primary goal. I recommend focusing on writing success, not publishing success.”
Also, try to keep joy at the center of your process. Publishing shouldn’t be your primary goal, because whether or not you get published is completely out of your control (unless you are self-publishing). Your primary goal should be something you have reasonable control over — otherwise your happiness will be completely dependent on what others think of you rather than on what you think of yourself.
I recommend focusing on writing success, not publishing success. This is not to say that publishing isn’t important. It’s just that if it becomes more important than the actual writing, then there’s a pretty good chance your writing will suffer.
Once you do start sending things out for publication, set reasonable goals. Some journals have a one or two percent acceptance rate. Others have a higher acceptance rate. Submit to a mix of journals at first to figure out how to target your work.
I also recommend finding or creating a writer’s group. Show your work to other people. Get feedback. Be open to getting feedback.
And, finally, don’t compare yourself to other writers. The only person you should ever compare yourself to is earlier iterations of yourself. When I look back at where I was eight years ago versus when I am now, I am immensely proud of myself. When I compare myself to other writers — certain ones in particular — I feel like a failure. And who wants to feel like a failure? No one does.
And guess what? No one has to.
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