A conversation with AGNI contributor and poet Lisa Lewis
During the third presidential debate of 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump branded his opponent, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, a “nasty woman.” The moniker has since entered American mainstream culture to refer to a woman, regardless of party affiliation, who threatens Trumpism’s gender norms.
On the eve of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death this September and just weeks before the presidential election, AGNI poetry editor Jennifer Kwon Dobbs interviews Lisa Lewis, award-winning author of six poetry collections and editor of Cimarron Review, about Trumpism’s impact on her imaginative processes as a poet, her experiences teaching women writers at Oklahoma State University, and what’s at stake in 2020 as she edits one of the oldest quarterlies in the United States. To accompany the exchange, we offer a new poem by Lewis, “Masterpiece.”
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs: Yesterday evening, news outlets announced that Supreme Court justice and feminist champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died from complications of pancreatic cancer. Within hours, Senate leader Mitch McConnell announced he would hold a vote on a Trump nominee to replace Ginsburg, and the national story quickly veered from mourning the loss of a women’s-rights trailblazer to discussing the power of Republicans and Democrats with regard to succession. Across six poetry collections, you have kept your focus on women and the class and gender framework (cultural, legal) that can write them out of the way. What is at stake right now, weeks from a national election, for you as a poet?
The loss of Ginsburg follows the recent deaths of two other less-well-known feminists important to me personally—Shere Hite, who analyzed sexuality through narrative questionnaires beginning in the seventies, and the poet Leslie McGrath, who selected my book Taxonomy of the Missing for the Tenth Gate Prize. In the larger sense the meaning of this is undeniable, and the title of Leslie’s last book describes it all too clearly: Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives. The feminist movement as we continue to participate in it is a movement with a beginning but not yet an end, and while its absolute beginning predates us all, the movement as it is popularly understood took shape around 1970 and human mortality is shaping this phase of it in ways that really hurt. The feminist thinkers and activists and artists older than myself who inspired me and taught me and changed the world to make my life as I have lived it possible are passing, and with Leslie one of my own generation has too. So I am thinking—do we have the tools to withstand what is sure to happen next? Were they able to give us enough—enough access to resources, enough legislative power, enough women willing to fight on—to secure the goals they worked for in a world that makes its point about how forgettable women are by forgetting the greatest of them, or reducing them to lies or jokes, time and again?
Which brings me to this: the measure of Ginsburg’s accomplishment was that she became the first woman in American history to attain so much power that she made the whole nation tremble at the moment of her death. The past two days have been remarkable for the waves of mourning and crude glee unleashed by the simple fact of a woman’s dying. When do the deaths of women matter like this? It hasn’t happened before in my lifetime, not in living memory, never at all! Her power was intellectual and legislative and political and cultural; it entirely escaped the sexualization that throughout much of her life—our lives—we’ve been told is a convenient route to a kind of power that obviously could never accomplish what she accomplished. There will have to be many more such lives for the justice Ginsburg devoted herself to, the fairness and freedom for all that all feminists want, for us to know it’s really there. So for me, for all women now really, the question is what do we do to make sure our lives contribute to the furthering of progress in whatever work we do, whatever lives we live, the necessary handing down of power that Ginsburg did what she could to give us?
The urgency of this moment is measured by the pronouncements of the current president, who repeated in Fayetteville, North Carolina, last night one of his trusty popular lines about the press being the enemy of the people. The crowd cheered, and I have always thought that one of the reasons Trump’s base adores his attacks on the press is that they have been encouraged all their lives not to read, not to think, not to trust what learning would do for them. It is one of the ways in which the oppressors oppress one another: they rob from one another the means to understand what’s being done to them. They demonize what could liberate them and those they will not liberate. They come to hate and fear it. Poets may often feel that their work doesn’t get close enough to the center of the political action for us to be in much actual danger. In normal times that’s true. But these are not normal times.
So—to be as succinct as I can about something that is anything but simple—what’s at stake is memory and power, not being forgotten, not letting progress be plowed under, not succumbing to the forces at work trying to push back everything good that’s ever happened, but continuing to advance and continuing to invent and reinvent with the same profound creativity and resistant defiance that have always characterized women’s important work and moved us all forward together.
JKD: I appreciate you mentioning AGNI contributor, the late poet Leslie McGrath, whose titular poem for her last collection resonates so much with what you’re describing: “I’ve seen that beast / hook its teeth on the cleverest PhD / and take her down for decades. / That won’t happen to us, // you say, we’ve come too far. / We’re protected under the law / a majority, a force. / No. Not that big.” Regarding the Supreme Court, “No. Not that big” is devastatingly true. Ginsburg’s legacy and the unfinished equity work of feminists from previous generations feel vulnerable right now because the law empowers President Trump to nominate and a Republican Senate majority to confirm a new justice, who will likely severely limit (if not overturn) Roe v. Wade, Title IX, and voting rights, among other civil rights cornerstones that have empowered women and minorities since the sixties and seventies. In your poetry, how are you tackling the law—gender, cultural, political, social—that empowers men to overturn and erase women’s voices?
LL: What I’ve always hoped to investigate with respect to those defining forces is to make something about my existence and experience and that of the women I write about not fit the spaces they’re supposed to fit. In life we have to work to fit them, and it might be our best moments when we do not try—moments we might be facing one another instead. If masculinity conventionally entitles men to build their lives outwards without much tender regard to what might get trampled on the way, femininity conventionally warns women not to go too far or take too much, and, most significantly, not to cease to give to others in the expected ways, so that everything we do for ourselves is already moralistically tinged as likely regrettable. It’s a limitation that we don’t necessarily live by, though, because we’re not part-people, we are fully human, and I’ve wanted to try to look around the edges of the stereotypes, above them, behind them, for the moments when the unscripted and the real happen among us. I grew up in a household that had almost no men in it—only my maternal grandfather, who came home from his job at the railroad roundhouse smelling of metal late at night, after I had already been put to bed—and it was often a place of ongoing argument, where women faced each other down angrily, with the intent of getting their way—and I was usually the point of contention. It felt strange to me even at the time, since I was very aware that my “fatherless” household structure was supposed to be impossible according to the implicit assumptions of the era and the region, but what power and freedom I observed then, strange indeed! Women fighting one another over a child, demanding to have their way in raising me as each believed I should be raised, and my mother forever at a disadvantage because she didn’t really live there except from Friday evenings to Sunday afternoons. My grandmother’s anger at being stuck with a kid again in her sixties played out there too, I’m sure, though at the time I had no idea why that was the case, and despite the free-spoken quality of woman-talk under that roof, it was clearly never to be discussed.
I have written a very great deal about my mother, whose rape at age thirty-nine by the wealthy nineteen-year-old son of a well-known right-wing radio commentator would’ve made her plenty interesting as a topic of feminist exploration even if it hadn’t happened because she was playing piano in a traveling dance band in 1955. That rape and the pregnancy that wouldn’t’ve ever happened to my mother without it—and my existence as the unwanted offspring who couldn’t be told the truth about her own status—are for me a fountainhead of rage, mourning, inspiration, strange relief, and pride. I have tried to write women into my poems who are like me, who are me in their troubled adventurousness and openness to being despised by conventional people. That my mother was working as an artist in a public way when she was taken from that life by patriarchal sexual violence, and that my unwelcome existence began then, has been powerfully symbolic for me, a potent driver of what I know I inherited and what that circumstance has demanded I first understand, then cast off, then reinvent my own mind free of somehow. Writing about women in the liminal spaces when we fight back against men and seek peace with one another, even if it’s a struggle, has been my project through all my work even when I’m not writing about it directly. I have tried to write about women turning to other women because when we turn to one another we are not performing the most basic service patriarchy has demanded for so long it’s made it seem nigh unto evil to give it up: making life bearable for men.
JKD: Your classic poem “Bridget” comes to mind: “As I remember, I was that kind of girl. I was / Like Bridget. I read about her in The Plain Dealer.” How many of us, as women, felt a flash of recognition and concern when then-candidate Trump menaced Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton’s personal space and called her “a nasty woman” during a 2016 presidential debate? But what upset the most, both emotionally and unexpectedly, was the 53% of white women who voted against Secretary Clinton’s historic candidacy, compared with the 94% of Black women and 68% of Hispanic or Latina voters who chose her, according to The New York Times. In this era of Trumpism, can you talk about your experiences of teaching white women and women of color poetry writing at a university in a deeply red state?
LL: One of the saddest realities of teaching in Oklahoma since Trump has been president is that students seem less willing than before to say anything directly political in the classroom, especially at the undergrad level. A pall has fallen over us, so his name might come up momentarily and everyone looks around wearily at everyone else, and our looks say, “There is nothing we can do about it here,” or maybe, “We’re not supposed to talk about that here”—I hope that’s not what the students think, but I know it sometimes is—and we go back to our poetry feeling whatever we feel—derived from the awareness that all around us in this state are people we can’t find common ground with politically who would punish us for that difference and sometimes, given the chance, do. This intensely guarded quality is the same among both students of color and white students.
There has never been a large population of students of color at OSU, but in recent years the university has clearly been increasing its recruiting efforts, and at this point things look less solidly pale than they once did among both undergrads and grad students. There are also now efforts to include anti-racism materials in all aspects of pedagogy and university life, though most of those efforts didn’t appear until the George Floyd protests. This shift sometimes opens the door to more political comments and conversations in grad classes than I recall from my earlier years here, and I no longer have the same sense that I’m taking on a role I can never do justice to in attempting to represent the work of writers of color to my white students from the perspective of my own whiteness-aiming-for-perspective-on-whiteness. I have absolutely and selfishly delighted in being freed from having to talk to 99% white people who seem to think 99% of the same thoughts and share 99% of the same background. But it’s late in coming. It’s hard to set aside decades of frustrations over the excuse-making and denial that were so solidly ensconced among people who should’ve known better. Sometimes I see that my students trust the change more than I do, just because they weren’t there to see what went before—and I hope they’re right. But I’m also glad I’m not very trusting. The way trust and experience collapse into each other and re-emerge differently across generations has become extremely interesting to me.
I have to say that the heaviest restrictions on all the white women in my classes over the years in Oklahoma have emerged from religious indoctrination of what I would’ve thought an unconventional kind—like the speaking-in-tongues kind—if I hadn’t heard about it so consistently. In many young women it seems to steal agency before it can possibly begin to bloom, and I wonder when they first came to fear themselves like that. It’s mostly the thought-destroying fear of being wrong, and I don’t think it can get as far as I usually see it without a lot of hammering on ideas of “right and wrong,” the kind that turns error into punishable sin. I try to project or generate for my students some kind of safety or freedom or maybe just a sign pointing out the door and down the road—get out of Oklahoma to save yourself. Get out of Oklahoma and see that what you know as your only reality is in fact not everyone’s reality and it doesn’t have to be yours. I know, of course, that in many places it is, because I hear about it from students from other states in the South. The same obsessions, ramped up. But where religious culture silences, creative writing can be and often is a natural remedy. It’s art therapy for people who suffer from a variety of forms of oppression, and when I say therapy I don’t mean just for alleviating pain, but for building whatever necessities can be built through speaking, and making sense and progress through speaking.
JKD: Has Trumpism affected how you edit poetry and prose for Cimarron Review?
LL: That we even think about questions like this makes its own point, doesn’t it? I have always been interested in and drawn to political poetry, so my editorial work on the Cimarron has long reflected that to an extent I hope has been visible to readers. But in normal times we would be a lot less likely to draw direct connections between presidential politics and editing literary magazines, and before Trumpism came crashing through all our windows and hurtling down our chimneys and otherwise shoving aside everything we normally occupy ourselves with, we all had the freedom to think about a wider range of things than what we can do as writers and editors to save ourselves from him. Writers always hope that the work they do has the potential to matter in the world, change something for the better for someone somehow, even if only in small and personal ways; and editing a magazine is always an implicit answer to that hope, advancing it by making the potential for change available to readers. When there is so much at stake in the larger cultural context, those ways seem frustratingly inadequate; but the paradox becomes that the editorial hope is enhanced, the urgency is ramped up. We think of the literature that really has changed us at the deepest levels of thinking, feeling, and understanding, and we remember why we wanted to write in the first place. We know what made us capable of caring about the world that is currently being flogged to within a millimeter of its life on practically every level, and we want to get that possibility out there so it can happen to others too and give them too the force to push back. There is more political writing happening everywhere now as the responsibility increases to speak truth to the worst forms of power this country has seen in my lifetime, and as an editor I have never welcomed it more, because I never had to.
JKD: After November 3rd, Election Day, what’s next for you?
LL: The answer has much to do with what happens that day—or the following days—but one thing that will matter a lot to me that won’t change with the election results is that I’m going to be on leave from teaching in spring 2021. I am just wildly anticipatory about being able to concentrate on writing again for the first time in a long while, due to the usual busyness of trying to direct a writing program along with teaching, but also to a flood that damaged my house so badly in May 2019 I still haven’t been able to move back into it. I’m hoping the extensive repairs will be completed by this spring, because my partner Dinah Cox and I have been living in a “little house” right across the driveway from the real house, and in previous days the little house was my office. I really need privacy to write poems. I can write just about anything else with someone sitting three feet away, but not poems. So my disaster of last year segued right into everybody’s disaster of this year, which slowed down the house repairs, and I know our contractors are trying to pick up the pace to help us out; but I really want to get the most out of this sabbatical. Academia is being changed under the pressures of the pandemic in ways that are more or less impossible to control, and one of those ways for me is that my time to write is drying up even more than before. I have been extremely stubborn all my life about making sure I wrote poems along the way no matter what else was going on at my workplace, but our once-a-month department meetings are turning into every-Friday whatever-kind-of-meetings, and the effect those have on me is to steal the entire weekend. Whatever gets said at the Friday meetings is on my mind Saturday and Sunday too; it’s partly my temperament and partly that I’m program director. So as I write this on a Sunday afternoon after such a Friday meeting, I’m feeling way too tired to be teaching tomorrow, and that glimpse of liberation on the other side of finals week is beckoning so brightly I just have to find a way to keep going until I can get there.
The real question, though, the one that’s scaring me, is what’s next for us all after November 3rd. I can talk myself into plenty of optimism; I can do the opposite too. Being a poet in the midst of national/global crisis feels both totally powerless and, strangely, a heck of a lot more powerful than it usually does. I’ve got my absentee ballot and my Biden sign in the window where I don’t have to worry about it being stolen. The ballot is more than a talisman, but it’s a whole lot less than a guarantee, and in Oklahoma it’s hard not to feel oneself drowning in a poisoned red sea.
Lisa Lewis’s books include The Unbeliever (Brittingham Prize), Silent Treatment (National Poetry Series), Vivisect (New Issues Press), Burned House with Swimming Pool (American Poetry Journal Prize, Dream Horse Press), The Body Double (Georgetown Review Press), and Taxonomy of the Missing (The Word Works). A chapbook titled Story Box was also published as winner of the Poetry West Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, AGNI, Third Coast, American Literary Review, Fence, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. She has also won awards from The American Poetry Review and The Missouri Review, a Pushcart Prize, and an NEA Fellowship. She directs the creative writing program at Oklahoma State University and serves as editor-in-chief of Cimarron Review. (10/2020)
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is senior poetry editor of AGNI and has been part of the editorial team since 2019. Born in Wonju, Republic of Korea, she is the author of Interrogation Room (White Pine Press, 2018); Paper Pavilion (White Pine, 2007), winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize; and the chapbooks Notes from a Missing Person (Essay Press, 2015) and Necro Citizens (German/English edition, hochroth Verlag, 2019). Interrogation Room received mention in The New York Times, was praised by World Literature Today for “a vigorous restlessness,” and won the Association of Asian American Studies Award in Creative Writing: Poetry. She also co-translates Sami poetry with poet-scholar Johanna Domokos, and their translation of Niillas Holmberg’s Juolgevuođđu is forthcoming as Underfoot in spring 2022 from White Pine Press. Kwon Dobbs has received grants and awards for her writing, most recently a Jerome Hill Artists Fellowship and a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, and published work in Crazyhorse, jubilat, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Poetry International, and elsewhere. She is professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College, where she directs Race and Ethnic Studies, and is visiting faculty at Universität Bielefeld. (updated 11/2021)
Photo credit: Thaiphy Phan-Quang