Lynne Thompson is a story-teller. A poet whose cultural framework is rooted in her African-American and Cheyenne heritage. For Thompson, the responsibility of the writer is to “tell a story,” continuing, “I think story-telling is what captivates the human race above all things.” Although she did not grow up playing an instrument, “jazz, rock-an’-roll and the American musical theater” parade her poetic demonstration. She indulges, “distinctive rhythms and cadences are cemented in my brain.” The visual arts with an emphasis on mixed media, prose, and the structure of theater, are equally inspiring. She delectably describes these moments as “economy wrapped around big ideas made accessible through the personal.”
In retrospect of women writing in the past 20 years, Thompson asks us to recognize that “it seems women are increasingly exploring their worlds as they understand them in ways that are highly original and fresh; excavating the detritus of what has been previously thought to be unimportant or uninteresting by an academy largely composed of—and run by—men.” She comments in response to her own cultural duality, “I have taken on the responsibility for framing these family stories of displacement and dislocation and complicated the task by choosing the genre of poetry with which to tell them. Complicated because the poet seeks, in Dickinson’s words, to tell the story “slant” rather than straight on and therein lies the [sweet] challenge.”
Lynne Thompson was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, by parents born in the Windward Islands, West Indies. She received her B.A. from Scripps College and a J.D. from Southwestern University School of Law. She currently serves as the Director of Employee and Labor Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. An active member of the Los Angeles literary scene and a Pushcart Prize nominee, her poetry has been widely published and anthologized.
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
Like so many young girls of my generation, Little Women, was the book I read over and over again (don’t think I ever got over Beth dying). I was lucky to have four older brothers who never complained about taking me to the library so I devoured everything that the stern librarian would allow me to check out! I do remember reading every Nancy Drew cover-to-cover before progressing to Cherry Ames, Nurse, Jane Eyre, Clara Barton, Emma Bovary…..seeing a theme here?
The love of poetry, in fact, of all language was inspired by my father who was a closet poet (my mother going in dread of such “romantic notions”). He read the classics to me, including those of African-American writers and, most particularly, the poetry of Langston Hughes. I specifically recall thinking how can I make words sound like that? My early plan was to study linguistics…
My reading habits have changed over the years with my willingness to read with greater attention and to tackle the work of writers whose approach to their material is more of a challenge. A good example of such a challenge is poet M. NorbeSe Philip’s Zong, a completely original work about the eponymous slave ship and the ordered death of 150 Africans so as to recoup insurance money. The book defies easy categorization—it’s more than poetry, prose or legal treatise—and requires an open mind in the reading due to, among other things, the choices Philip made in terms of typographical fragmentation and derangement on the page. But Zong is so satisfying if the reader stays with it.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
This is a tough question as I always feel sure I’ll exclude someone who was, of course, an influence. Someone I must always credit, however, is the east coast poet, Jayne Cortez. She came to my alma mater, Scripps College, for a semester, I believe, during my senior year and was a revelation. Here was a young, black, woman (very much alive; read: not a dead white male) who was not only writing and publishing poetry but breaking with tradition by eschewing punctuation and all the other conventions that I’d been taught about the craft. It was a transformative experience to hear her and read her work.
Other influences who come immediately to mind are Jane Hirshfield, Lucille Clifton, Pablo Neruda, and Toni Morrison – the latter not often thought of as a poet but should be.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention as mentors two poets that I study with regularly because I have the fortune to live in southern California: Dorothy Barresi and David St. John. My workshops with them over the past several years have been invaluable in my creative development.
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
When I first began writing seriously, I went in fear of form. Too constricting, I told myself, when the truth was I didn’t think I was up to the task. Over the past few years, however, I’ve been experimenting with form, starting first with the glosa and now on to villanelles and pantoums and most recently, abecedarians. Because I’m still relatively new to this fixity, all I can say is that the writing requires a different kind of attention and willingness to follow rather than lead which feels right at this stage in my creative progress.
Nevertheless, I still go in fear of the sestina. One canzone I wrote reads like an overstuffed mushroom cloud…
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
Not only different genres, which I’ll get to in a moment, but also different art forms, most obviously music. Although I play no instrument and can’t hold a tune, I have been very influenced by the music I heard growing up: jazz, rock-an’-roll and the American musical theater. These distinctive rhythms and cadences are cemented in my brain and are a feature, hopefully, in all of my work.
The visual arts have been an influence as well. In the fall of 2011, the Hammer Museum mounted an exhibit Now Dig This: Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 and it is still gnawing on my imagination. One can’t see a mixed media assemblage like Betye Saar’s Spirit Catcher, for example, and not run for the pencil and pad.
Of course, prose—fiction or non-fiction—is also an influence. What’s coming to mind as I write this is Alice Walker’s not-to-be-forgotten The Color Purple and a really marvelous book of stories and essays, Haiti Noir. In the realm of non-fiction, I was knocked out by Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a superb example of engrossing truth-and-story-telling.
Finally, I love live theater and the way its structures work. For example, I’m captivated by the bang-for-the-buck Suzan-Lori Parks put into Topdog, Underdog: two characters, one small room–wow!—economy wrapped around big ideas made accessible through the personal….exactly what I’d like to achieve in my own writing.
5.) What are your plans for the future?
I have two concepts knocking around in my head that I want to explore, hopefully when I’m at the Vermont Studio Center later this year. One is for a stage play centered upon a question I held for years concerning my mother’s attitudes during World War II. Only recently, with a greater sense of empathy for her, I have developed a theory about it; unfortunately, it will always be a theory as I never discussed it with her before she passed away.
The second idea is for a collage of poems and prose pieces that will explore the last private moments I spent with my father within the historical context of his immigration from the West Indies and ultimate relocation to California. All of this should keep me busy for more than a while!
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
Without unduly bashing our male counterparts, many of whom are engaged in writing amazing and original work (Douglas Kearney, Junot Diaz, and D.A. Powell come immediately to mind), it seems women are increasingly exploring their worlds as they understand them in ways that are highly original and fresh; excavating the detritus of what has been previously thought to be unimportant or uninteresting by an academy largely composed of—and run by—men. I’m thinking, to name just a few, of Martha Collins’ willingness to act as witness, once-removed, to a lynching that took place in her father’s hometown in Blue Front; of Harryette Mullen’s wild engagement with language and wordplay in Sleeping with the Dictionary; A.E. Stallings’ invitation to return to ancient Greece as in her recent, family-centric collection, Hapax; and, of Tiya Miles’ deep research and revelation of the almost-lost history of Afro-Cherokee relations in this country. These writers and many of their contemporaries are in the vanguard of a way of seeing how we all live that could only have been written by women; they rise with straight shoulders that I am very comfortable peeking over.
7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
Gracious, there are too many to name—and I’ll say right away, space considerations make this a necessarily limited list—but I’ll give you the names of some women whose work I’ve been reading lately: Lyrae Van-Clief Stefanon, Sarah Maclay, Louise Mathias, Aracelis Girmay, Tracy K. Smith, Marjorie Becker, Jennifer K. Sweeney, Yvette Christiansë and, Stephanie Brown. Of course, I don’t want to exclude those women who have already received and continue to receive recognition for substantial bodies of work: C.D. Wright, Natasha Tretheway, Linda Gregerson, Kimiko Hahn, Marilyn Nelson and the amazing, recent National Book Award-winning Nikky Finney.
8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Reference the opening poem in my collection, Beg No Pardon: “The Poet Applying for A Job, Cites Her Previous Experience”– “Eccentric drop of ink. Gnome on a trapeze….Hand drum…Sizzling arrow.”
9.) You explain in a personal memoir that your poetry is seated in your own culturally rich, African-American and Cheyenne heritage, a scape you have created out of poetic responsibility. In a personal memoir you write the need to translate your familial, “treasure trove of stories that confirm[s] we have lived in the world.” For example you continue, “May—stories of all of our roots and interconnectednesses. As we laugh and reminisce, Mr. Jimmie is outside sweeping away leaves and fallen fruit in Irma’s backyard after a tropically brief downpour and, just as he finishes, the clouds swell and burst again, drenching the morning’s laundry. Mr. Jimmie chuckles.” Can you elaborate on the importance of storytelling and its role in our ability to exist and translate the self in to the world? How do you see yourself in this conversation as storyteller?
My desire as a writer is to tell a story. I think story-telling is what captivates the human race above all things. Whether it be a crime drama or a Shakespearean play, what we all want to know is what happened, to whom, and why. The poet, of course, seeks to distill this desire into sequential (or non-sequential) language that triggers the imagination of anyone who hears or reads it. The essay you reference in your question pertains to my effort to “excavate” the stories of family, which in my case is complicated by the fact of my adoption, what I consider my “duality”. I have taken on the responsibility for framing these family stories of displacement and dislocation and complicated the task by choosing the genre of poetry with which to tell them. Complicated because the poet seeks, in Dickinson’s words, to tell the story “slant” rather than straight on and therein lies the [sweet] challenge.
10.) I am interested in your address and ability to translate African-American and Cheyenne traditions, two very culturally rich discussions. There is a unique balance between upholding tradition, and translating tradition into a creative adaptation that acculturates rather than assimilates voice in a manner that is accepted and heard in different contexts. One also has to be aware of overly romanticizing tradition. How do these negotiations affect your poetic responsibility?
You’re right when you reference responsibility when taking on this task of translation—albeit in one’s original language—in writing. While I hear writers I admire and respect say that the poem must be more true to itself more than to the “facts”, the facts—often known to family and others—are the facts and, thus, hard to ignore. When I’m engaged in these negotiations, I’m also knee-deep in research on places or persons or situations that I’m trying to bring to life on the page. More often than not, the research into the “truth” gives way to the feeling that I want to convey. It seems that if I’m true to that, my responsibility will be met. After all, how do we ever really know the truth of past traditions?
Currently, I’m reading Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello and the author has done a meticulous job of conveying what she can only reasonably assume based on the documented history that’s remains more than 200 years later but in the end, the question remains: did Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson love each other as we conceive of love today? Provocative questions like that demand and demand and demand the constant negotiation that the writer can never be completely sure she’s navigated with success.
11.) Your poem, “Unworshipped Woman,” has a very distinct tone and meter. This is accomplished through the form you implement, particularly in repetition and use of a particular syntax.
Break her down or reek so
the way she do
Nothing got her unzipped mind
her flypaper memory
She a riverbed will be
For a dog’s millennium
Does this meter ask the reader to recall specific musical genres or traditions and if so how do you employ this tool in this piece and others? If not, can you explain how melopoeia evolves and reacts with the logopoeia and phanopoeia in your work?
The goal in “Unworshipped Woman” was to give a roadmap to the reader of the page. That is to say, I wrote and conceived of this piece as progressing in s l o w m o t i o n and I wanted to ensure that it would be read and understood that way. I don’t recall that I had anything specific in mind in terms of established genres or traditions rather that I wanted to add a sensory perception to the reception of language.
12.) Can you share with us what you believe to be magic? How do you see poetry interacting with the everyday worlds we live in?
I’m repeatedly drawn back to Coleridge’s definition of poetry: the best words in the best order. It’s a source of amazement and sheer magic that the 26 letters in the English alphabet can continue to be combined and recombined and then set down (or spoken) one after the other in ways that give the tingle to the spine, make the head spin…
….or maybe, in a variation of what the artist, Miguel Covarrubias is reported to have said, poetry is the magic of dancing with words and lines….