Bobbi Lurie is the author of three poetry collections: Grief Suite, Letter from the Lawn, and The Book I Never Read. In addition to being a writer she has worked as a teacher, editor, therapist, visual artist, muralist and printmaker. She was kind enough to talk to me about her work via a series of emails.
Biblioklept: I want to start with the cover of your book, which I like very much. It’s a woodcut that seems to depict a woman in pain or suffering; the image sets the tone for Grief Suite, in a way. You did the woodcut yourself, right? Did you make it before or after putting the collection together? Can you tell us a about this process?
Bobbi Lurie: I made that particular woodcut a long time ago; long before I called myself a printmaker, long before I thought of writing as an art form.I was in love with Japanese woodcuts, and I appreciated the discipline of it.
The main thing to know, for those who care about ownership of their images, is that the image is reversed in the process of making a woodcut. Once the “art” “idea” has met the gouging, repetitious sense of self embodying the role of a woodcarver, there can be no clinging to ownership. One works for hours within the process and hopes for the best.
Woodcuts are a relief printing technique in which the parts to be printed (the parts which will receive the ink and become the positive image) remain level with the surface where the rice paper meets it. The image is rubbed onto the paper’s surface. The first look at the printed image is always exciting, whether there is disappointment or joy. Regardless, I think it is dishonest for someone who makes woodcuts to take ownership completely. I bow to the process. I feel that way with every form of art.
The areas meant to show “white” are cut away with a knife or chisel.
Woodcuts can be made in multiples. I only had one copy of this particular woodcut, though. Had I printed multiples, every print would have been different. Whatever expression you see on the face of this woodcut, it would have appeared differently had it been printed at another time.
I consider this woodcut to be the first poem of the book.
Biblioklept: I like the idea that the cover of a book is part of the content of the book, that it was created by the author of the book.
I know that most of the poems in your collection were published in different places; they are also stylistically varied. Did you always see them as a cohesive work?
BL: When I’m working on a poem, I never think of it as anything but its individual self. But, just as the cover woodcut is the first poem, the book, as a whole, is the last poem. This book reflects my particular process (at that time) of layering poems. It is a feeling which is, basically, “musical,” for me. Each poem is a note and the manuscript, when it’s finished, is a song.
I order the poems into a narrative. That is important to me. It can be surprising at first: going through poems, discovering a pattern of memories and ideas, looked at as a whole. The pattern is created long after the poems have been made. Seeing a whole new entity emerge is very exciting. Keeping to it, building on it, having the right tone, the right music, is very challenging.
You ask about varying styles on the page. The page is very important to me. Poems, for me, are as visual as my etchings were. I think of the visual layout of a poem first. I am still a visual artist, regardless of words.
Biblioklept: I’m curious then — does the idea for the poem come first, and then you think of its form on the page, and then think about the words and the arrangement of the words? I think about the title of a poem in the collection here: “Feeling Finds Pattern in Language” . . .
BL: I think I feel images rather than think ideas. Also, sound is very important to me. And the rhythm of words. There is a sense of something and then there is the sound of the words coming through. I don’t think I write things volitionally, or, at least, never entirely. There is the first sound and then there is the juxtaposition of other sounds, other words, like colors used in an attempt to communicate an image.
The poem “Feeling Finds Pattern in Language” is a visual memory of the sun setting, while sitting in a cafe, beside the ocean, watching two lovers at the next table. He was holding her hands. Her coffee sat there, untouched, for a long time. I’m sure it turned cold. I was the one who was drawing on the napkin. That moment felt significant. I knew I would always remember it. We all have significant moments like those, which stay with us, I think. The first words of the poem came there, in the cafe, and I wrote it on the napkin I had been drawing on. I put the napkin away. It stayed as a single line for a long time. This is a poem I worked and re-worked. I wanted it to be twelve lines. It could have been three stanzas of four lines each, representing a three part progression in their relationship, as I imagined it. But only the first stanza ended up with the four line format I started with. The second stanza is seven lines because I felt it added a sense of speed and density, in the way that action is swift, yet dense, affecting the physical world, unlike thought. It requires more description than the image of someone being very still, deciding whether to act or not. That image of hesitation is the first stanza. The last line is separate, the end result, the secret not said, not seen by me, but imagined and, therefore, in parentheses, as if the speaker is the only one who knew what happened after or as if it the speaker found out how things played out beyond that scene. For me, the format of the poem is similar to a musical score, a sense of time and pauses. In screenwriting, the word “beat” is placed where the action stops; where there is a pause. I see the blank space between stanzas as a pause and so I placed a pause between the 7 line stanzas and the last line. The last line my way of showing the future).
The title was the process. I felt something very tender, watching these two lovers. I wanted very much to put that tenderness I felt into words. And the feeling found a pattern (in language). The title of that poem came to me from the process of putting that poem together. A lot of it was influenced by the beauty of the sky, the fact that I was traveling and would be leaving the next day…a sense of brevity.
“Feeling Finds Pattern in Language”
her hands are wings he takes them into his
presses them with the map he drew on the napkin where they meet
where the coffee sits cold
because they cannot drink
suffering like a saint she takes the cold cup
lifts it to her lips
the tender touch of porcelain
the bitter tip of tongue
the sun already set
reflects a sacred filament of light
reaching out to the street where they sit
(later she takes communion with the sacredness of his kiss)
Biblioklept: As I’ve already remarked, the poems in Grief Suite vary stylistically; I’m curious, in light of your last explication, about “Purity Becomes a Kind,” which features elements of what appears to be html code . . .
BL: I saw a fragment of html and it reminded me of hieroglyphics, something I’ve always loved, visually. Although poets who identify themselves as being visual poets might not call this a visual poem, for me it is just as much a visual poem as a language poem in the sense that it must be looked at, seen as an image; it cannot be experienced through sound alone. A lot of the poetry world believes in reading poems out loud. Many feel that the performance of the poem, or reading of the poem, is of major significance. I think of my poems as being more visual and silent. “Purity Becomes A Kind” is the third piece in the book. I placed it there because I felt I needed a transition, a place of seeing, as well as hearing, of sight, as well as language, or sound. It is placed here because I wanted to give the reader a break from narrative. The poem which follows this is “Feeling Finds Pattern In Language.” I wanted something unobtrusive, in terms of narrative, to precede that poem. I am suggesting something about “purity” here and the poem which follows deals with the hesitation a woman has in committing to love. I wanted to express that hesitation before it even happened. I wanted to express an incoherent, deeper voice, which is vague, not yet formed into language, into thought, or action, something existing before consciousness of a thought takes place. That is why this piece is placed previous to it. It works, for me, as a transition, a moment to pause and look, as well as read.
> purity becomes a kind
> > of holy innocence wronged by everyt=
hing in the world
> that stands in its way.
> > Perhap=
s "The girl whose flesh was dreamed"<br>>
Biblioklept: Do you read your poems aloud—publicly, I mean?
BL: I suppose this is one of the most important questions you could ask me.
I’ve stuttered all my life. As a child, I said things I didn’t mean because I chose my words according to which words were easier to say without stuttering.
I do read my poems out loud but not as often as a lot of other poets do. For me, reading out loud is a performance. It takes me weeks to prepare for a poetry reading/ performance. Since stutterers don’t stutter when they sing, I choose poems I can sing, or, flow with, through speech, trying my best not to make it seem like I’m singing, though, for me: they are songs. I write them out as a type of musical score, with specific notations to keep the flow going. I record the way I recite them, thinking of them as music, judging them accordingly, changing organization and speed to accommodate my stuttering. Sometimes I surprise myself and don’t stutter at all during a reading. Sometimes I stutter a few times, sometimes more.
The point for me is that I am not thinking of the poems as much as I am thinking of speech itself. I often pull it off quite well. But it is difficult for me to reconcile what I write, from within myself, with performing it outwardly.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
BL: No, I never stole a book. I’ve spent more money on books than on anything else in my life. I’d be rich had I not bought all those books. When people come into my house, they are usually shocked at how books take up most of my living space. I need to move now and am in the process of deciding which books I’m willing to let go of in order to live in a smaller place. It’s quite a challenge to make the decision to give books away. It’s like redefining who I am as a person and, because of this, the books I feel I cannot let go of are all the more precious to me.