The Second Coming: A Conversation With Lynn Doyle
The poet Lynn Doyle has spent the past near three decades teaching and writing in the High Country of North Carolina, at Appalachian State University in Boone (where I first met her), where she is popular with students who find her teaching and honesty authentic and ‘giving. A graduate of Houston’s MA and Virginia’s MFA programs, Doyle made her name with her fiery debut Living Gloves, which won publication through EP Dutton in the 1986 National Poetry Series. Since then, poems from the collection have been anthologized in Ray Gonzalez’ Inheritance of Light, while other pieces appeared in Hotel Amerika, The Paris Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review (amongst others). Undoing Undone, her second collection, forthcoming from Press 53, marks her return to the poetry scene after thirty-four years away during which Doyle struggled with depression, a struggle her poems do not shy away from. At times playful and lyrical, and at others dark, somber, and meditative, Undoing Undone continues the thematic concerns Doyle undertook in her early work, under the banner of aging and time’s passage—almost a reflection, though never a reconsideration. Some people opt to open an interview with a critical essay en miniature, others get right to it. I think I will be excused to provide here a personal approach.
I remember when I walked into Lynn's poetry class, my freshman year of college: ENG 3651. Bright eyed and bushy, I sat next to Victoria Borders. Victoria wrote a fascinating sentimental poem about pig calling, how her grandfather appeared on Letterman to demonstrate his prize-winning 'SooooUuuueeeeee,' that hog-call pronounced like 'Suey.' She was a fast friend, in part because of the environment Lynn created. But, this isn't about Victoria, though I know Lynn remembers her with a similar affection.
I had no idea what I was stepping into; what did a writing class entail? I had only started writing a month before I moved to Appalachian State. What came was, I know now, natural: we wrote, that first day I recall being handed my first assignment and leaving to get into it. The next semester, when I leveled up into her advanced course, I, with immense pride, got back a little Dada poem she'd written "This is publishable" on. It took a while to place it (and I might harbor some dissatisfaction with where I ultimately let it go), but her prophecy was true. That was the moment I knew I could become a 'poet,' though I still don't know exactly what that entails.
A year later, I got my hands on Living Gloves. The little pink volume—interlaced hands almost as a cats cradle on the cover—struck me at first as a slim volume to stake a reputation on. Back then, I thought good writing came in the form of some Pynchon novel or other spun over a thousand pages, or else a turgid Foster Wallace bit about the IRS. I was only just starting to read Gertrude Stein, a writer I'd infinitely link to Doyle. Over Living Gloves three sections, I learned the whole history of a life—Doyle's life, that is. Her mother went to Mallorca on an archaeological expedition, her best friend died, her house burned down. I also saw an analytical eye, one that crafted witty and deep, viable characters: Evelyn, Miami, who were, like Doyle, often not in control of their own lives. And that final section, about George Klein, Doyle's friend and companion, who died in 1986, brought me to tears and laughter. I learned the grace of brevity and concision. One doesn't need to fill a thousand pages to change a life.
In June of last year, Lynn asked me to take a look at a project she was working on. Eager to see new work, I agreed, no hesitation. That project, as it turned out, was Undoing Undone. At that time, the book had a very different ordering, and I read it with interest. Even then, it was ready to see the world. Going through old files in her library, I found several poems I begged Lynn to include, and much to my surprise she agreed. Not on every count, but on many. I didn't significantly alter the manuscript in anyway, and lay no claim to editorial power. I simply offered advice on order and what was there, as a reader.
Of course Doyle heard me. I've always struggled with self-doubt, negative self-talk. I think that is where my path was meant to cross her's. She listened because she knew, and knows, my value, as she does all people. Her heart is deeper than any teacher I've ever known. I consider her my most trusted reader, and value her collaboration. It was with pleasure, then, that I accepted such an assignment as this. I had no doubts that the first person I'd interview would end up being Lynn Doyle. No doubt at all.
I cannot express the pride, joy, and honor with which I take this chance to herald what can only be defined as Lynn's second coming. Yeats, I think, was predisposed to becoming titular. Joan Didion, Robert Bork, Sleater-Kinney, Chinua Achebe, even Showtime's The Circus, have culled it for a title. And, perhaps, I am being nostalgic or sentimental when I offer this in the same vein. But, I look at that list of names and think, 'that's as strange a cast of characters as would appear in any Doyle collection.' Staunchly idiosyncratic, what I love so much about Lynn's work is that it is always different.
"The ceremony of innocence is drowned," Yeats tells us, "Surely some revelation is at hand." Surely.
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Thom Young: Undoing Undone is your second book, but in many ways it feels a sequel to your first, Living Gloves.
Lynn Doyle: It certainly can be seen that way, I do continue some of the interests present in my early work: playing around with language. There were pretty dark poems in the first book. They dealt with cancer, losing everything in a fire, hurricanes. I continue to deal with some of that in “Clinical, the Trials.” It is sort of a follow-up poem, linked poems, about my friend George who died of cancer. A section of Living Gloves is about him, that book was dedicated to him. I finish that story out in Undoing Undone, but the book isn’t just a continuation.
I feel the poems in this collection are quieter. They are quieter poems. They are—thoughtful is not the right word. Some of the poems in Living Gloves feel to me as though they are shouting at the readers.
TY: How so?
LD: Well, the poem “Wake Up,” which has an engineer itemizing how long we’d have to to live in various situations such as if the sun were to go out or if the bridge were to collapse. That shouting in there, the speaker is being really insistent that everybody should be aware of the preciousness of our time in the world—how quickly we could lose everything. But that shouting was appropriate.
TY: What about the characters in the first book, I am thinking about Evelyn. When she is blinded by a champagne cork. That is a loud poem.
LD: It is a loud thing to have happened to her [chuckles].
TY: Later on in the poem we learn about how she has been molested, and then there is a funeral. It reads as an encyclopedia of woe.
LD: I think even the title “Evelyn,” I realized later it was “Evil Lynn,” even though she is not evil.
TY: Do you see this “Evil Lynn” as a sort of doppelganger of you?
LD: I guess. I try not to. I never want to be evil. And I don’t think I am. The other character sequence, “Miami,” it could just as well be my ami. A sort of creole of mon ami. So there is a dark and a light side, though the balance seems to weigh the dark in the first collection. This new book is more reflective, is closer and lighter.
TY: Not absent, either, is your ongoing affection towards words. I’d love to hear your thoughts on language.
LD: I just love words. I try to play around with them, and rescue words—remind people of their origins. I look up every word I use in the dictionary. Sometimes knowing the full definition and etymology will send my poem in a completely different direction. I’ll find that there might be a parallel to be made, a conceptual rhyme, an image to be made between an etymology (or a word’s older meanings) and another facet of the poem.
I’ve struggled with words my whole life. I’ve never been tested for dyslexia, but I know my family members have had it. I’m convinced my father, one of my brothers, too, has it. I don’t think I’m full-blown dyslexic but it is very difficult for me to read. I often write down words but they aren’t the way I intend them. 'Rainbow' instead of 'umbrella,' that sort of thing. During the worst of my depressed periods, I’ve had weeks—months even—where I felt that I completely lost language. There was one particularly horrible period after I was a test subject at the National Institute of Mental Health. For weeks before the testing could even begin, I had to be on what I called the “death diet” because it seemed like all I was allowed to eat was rice. Between the diet and the test itself, I completely lost language. I felt that there were words I didn’t know what the words meant anymore. I was writing a poem and I used the word ‘yet,’ and I had no idea what that word means. Luckily, it is hard to describe 'yet' if you try to tell the definition to someone else. It was the right word to use, but I didn’t know why. Sometimes, I don’t know where the connections I come up with come from. It seems like a blessing that it happens to me.
I really have struggled with language. I can be the most inarticulate speaker at times, spit out the worst word salad of them all—Sarah Palin, George Bush.
TY: It’s a stunning confession to come from a poet who uses language so beautifully, as you do. You talked about finding an etymology. That might change a whole perspective.
LD: In “Controlled Burn” (in Undoing Undone), it was about going to see the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin the second or third year of their operation. They were trying to take old farmland and convert it back to prairie and wetland. They were doing controlled burns, and I wanted to write about them. Fires. My family’s house burned down. It is a recurring theme in my work. This seemed like a burn for good.
I was dealing with cranes, and how they were close to extinction. The word pedigree ended up in the poem, and I went to look it up. At the bottom of the definition was “foot of the crane,” and I thought ‘That’s a bonus.’ Pedigree, and extinction, became much larger in the revision. The original was all about the hand puppets and costumes they wear to have the infant cranes imprint on something other than a human.
TY: Is this etymological interest a new development since Living Gloves?
LD: No, it has always been there. I have very, very personal poems, but then I have fictionalized poems. What gets hidden in the first book that is more clear in the second is that they're even more political, socially oriented. “The High School of O,” for instance. It doesn’t make one lick of difference to me—it is not important whether or not that poem is true. I never had a wife-beating English teacher in high school, but I did get carried across the gym floor by a guy in a marvelous kiss, and he did have tuberculosis. So, I was afraid I was going to die for a bit. We all were.
I went to the School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, and we were there in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Houston was up there with San Francisco and New York in cases. I think 20 to 30 percent of my class died of AIDS or its derivatives within five to ten years. There was a lot of IV drug use, a lot of drug use at my high school. There was no treatment then.
I wanted to write a poem about all these deaths, but I didn’t want to be moralistic—sex out of wedlock, finger wagging. And I wanted to write about abortion, another ‘consequence of sex,’ if you can say that without any moralization. I wrote it and right away it was accepted by The Paris Review, but when I submitted it as part of an application for an NEA grant, I was turned down. Back then, amidst all the concern over artists getting NEA grants and soaking crucifixes in urine or other hubbub over free expression, you could still see the judges comments. They wrote “No poems about abortion or same sex relationships.”
TY: You often take the role of witness in powerful and empathetic tones, as in “Heresy of the Figure.” Where does that position come from?
LD: I’ve been witness to a lot. There have been suicides in my family, we lost our home in a fire, cousins went to Viet Nam, and that really affected them. I saw this beautiful photograph from the war in Kosovo in The New York Times, a mother over her son’s dead body. It looked like a religious painting out of the Renaissance—a pietà. I had that photo in my mind for years. But the poem came just as much from language. I originally titled it “Personification: Kosovo,” trying to bring the person into the frame. I’d be so tired of hearing about the ceasefires in the newspaper: people were still dying. We’d lost all sense of the person. The poem should have a focus on the person, not the image of them. So often, we just see the body lying there dead, and we don’t do the work of breathing life back into them.
TY: There are two other “Heresy” poems in Undoing Undone: “Heresy of the Dodge, Polara,” and “Heresy of the Front Teeth.” Both deal explicitly with family dramas. As you mention being witness to so many things we often consider personal, do you see those poems as part of a sequence of witnessing?
LD: Yes. The book is filled with witnessing. In “Heresy of the Figures,” I end with “as if it were not all cardinal.” I really struggled with that as I wanted to somehow hint at officials in the church, whether it be a Catholic Church or officials in Islam. Catholics have their cardinals. In another, “Barnacle Birth,” I bring up how the leaders of some of these religions say things that we just believe, whether we are just followers or for some other reason. I went through a period where I felt myself very religious.
I was raised a Unitarian, which is also a kind of witnessing. In Unitarian Sunday School, we dealt with situational ethics. I was ten years old, and they told us “there has been a nuclear war, but you have made it to the bomb shelter. Unfortunately, there are too many of you and you need to let three of yourselves go in order to survive.” And we, all dutiful good little Unitarians, began thinking about age match-ups and the like, plotting out some Unitarian Adam and Eve scenario. In the bathroom, there was a poster of Hiroshima. It was preprogrammed in me.
TY: Did you stay in the shelter?
LD: I volunteered to leave, thinking “if the world is dead, I don’t want to be part of it.” I went from being raised in that loose, almost non-believing Unitarian setting to seeking out the rituals and structures of a high Episcopal church. But, eventually, I found my own distance from that. The “Heresies” come from those, that experience with religion—both my beliefs and my doubts.
TY: “Ruminating” is another sort of departure for you, an inversion from the pieces about your own battles with suicidal depression. Is it harder for you to write about the self or the ‘other’ when talking about mental health?
LD: I don’t tend to write about the other when I deal with mental health and illness in my work, but I have worked a lot with others who have mental illnesses in the past. I think it is important to be proactive in that community. As for “Ruminating,” it just so happened, in the Fabulous Fifties neighborhood I lived in, you could hear people two houses over screaming. One of my neighbors did try to kill himself, and that gave me pause to think about myself. Hearing them talk, that situation, became reflexive. Do people know I’m depressed? How different do I look? Do I look like some escapee from a Breughel painting? I always imagined I looked special and different physically because I speak differently.
TY: You do write about the other more frequently in Living Gloves, with the George poems.
LD: Back then, I was more afraid to self-identify publicly as being mentally ill. But now I’ve come to realize it is my duty. When I am doing well, people can see that it is possible to have a full-time job, to keep living, and being productive up to a certain point with this devastating condition. And, for me, it has been devastating for most of my life.
TY: When did you come to terms with the mentality that this is a duty to be upfront about your diagnosis?
LD: As a creative writing teacher—as an art teacher—you deal with creative people. Creative people can live on the edge, living with depression, and when you have college students they can be just developing schizophrenia. I felt ‘I need to step in.’ I have colleagues who say ‘don’t ever tell people you’re depressed.’ I know the reasons why not to, but I also know that—even though I handle my depression poorly at times (I’m no role model by any means)—there are times when it might be of genuine help to somebody, a student, who is dealing with mental illness for the first time in their life. Just to see there is someone they can talk to, that there are other people like them.
TY: How might you consider writing a way of asserting your identity, as therapy?
LD: I don’t know if it’s a therapy. There is a poem in Undoing Undone, “Intonation.” It’s been around since before the first [book], but I didn’t include it there because to me it is one of the most personal things I ever wrote. It is about language, again. About being inarticulate. About seeing things differently because I hear things differently. It isn’t just about the medication change, ECT, memory loss, any of those medical events in my life. At times when I am in a really bad way, when I hear words, I hear words within the words. Not voices, just that it is hard to hear what exactly was said. “A noise” might be “annoys,” or, more troubling, “summer” could be “summon her.”
TY: A malapropric language?
LD: In psychology, it is known as ‘clanging.’
TY: Living Gloves is consumed by the city, but in Undoing Undone you talk about rural North Carolina, your home along the New River, Linville Gorge, and climate change.
LD: Growing up in Houston, we dealt with hurricanes, tornadoes and other acts of nature that make you aware that nature is indifferent. I had a place in Wisconsin that was my Mecca—a glacial landscape in the southern part of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. The shapes of the land, everything about it—the kettles, the kames, the drumlins, even the language of that geography is beautiful—that was me, that was my landscape. I would go there every summer. Then, I ended up living in a very rural place outside of Boone, North Carolina, near the New River. Not on it, but I can see it from outside my house. I am fascinated by it. There are so many different species of birds, I love looking at them. If I see some geese flying south for the winter, I feel that is a little gift, a show just for me. The same with a blue heron in the river, for people who still notice things. I must bore family and friends to death showing them pictures of the birds, the river. The sunrises—I love big sky, having grown up in the flatness of Houston where you could see storms coming from so far away. Here I live in a bit of a valley, you can see such incredible sunrises and sunsets, but only in snippets.
TY: Was there a compulsion to write about this particular place?
LD: Not at first, but the landscape here has become as important to me as the glacial landscape I adored in Wisconsin. I went to graduate school in Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and came to love their beauty. Although it really took me awhile. That first winter when I was in Charlottesville, when the trees lost their leaves, intellectually, I knew they were not dead, that the leaves would come back. But, you see, winter in Houston, with its live oaks and pines, the trees are green all year. So when a tree doesn’t have leaves, in Houston, you know it is probably dead. In Virginia, when all those trees lost their leaves, I thought, “everything is dead.” A reflection of my depression. A trick every autumn, and I have to laugh.