An Interview with Poet Paula J. Lambert
Smith Creative Writing Series guest speaker comments on following the push-pull of art
Paula J. Lambert has authored several collections of poetry, including The Ghost of Every Feathered Thing (FutureCycle Press 2022) and How to See the World (Bottom Dog Press 2020), a finalist for the 2021 Ohioana Library Book Awards. She has been awarded two Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards, two Greater Columbus Arts Council Resource Grants, and PEN America's L'Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship. She owns Full/Crescent Press, a small publisher of poetry books and broadsides specializing in hand-stitched, art-quality chapbooks.
Chloe Hilson is a senior in the BFA Creative Writing Program at Penn State Behrend. This interview took place via email.
Chloe Hilson: As you have published both poetry and prose, do you have a preference? In terms of its differences from prose, what makes poetry a satisfying, fulfilling medium for you?
Paula J. Lambert: My MFA is actually in fiction, and shortly after I completed that degree, I started writing nonfiction almost entirely. I was really focused on memoir. Poetry had always been a tool for me — a way to clarify a scene I was trying to work out in a story, or to crystallize an image in an essay. I'd push the notebook or keyboard away and condense it down to a poem. Then I'd push the poem aside and finish the page I'd started with. In my program, I got a lot of comments that my prose read like poetry, and a few people encouraged me to write and publish more poems. One was David Shevin, a friend and colleague who has since passed away. He'd be thrilled to know what I've published in recent years. And George Looney was the first to convince me to put a chapbook together and send it out, which I finally did after a couple of years of prodding. It was accepted the first place I sent it, which is pretty crazy. For 10 or 12 years now I've been writing poetry almost exclusively, but I've been feeling a strong pull back to prose for a while now. I've published a few essays this year, and I've taken some classes to help me focus on what I'm trying to shift back to. I'm working on some flash pieces and a much bigger project that might be a collection of essays. It doesn't mean I'll stop writing poetry — I'm sure I'll do both. But it's fluid, where one sometimes lends itself better than another, the same way writing and visual art do for me. There's a gentle pull back and forth, and I just follow it.
CH: In your book The Sudden Seduction of Gravity, the subjects of the poems are often deeply personal topics such as illness. Have you always been comfortable writing about personal matters, or did you have to overcome discomfort to write this book? Do you have any tips for someone who wants to write about personal matters but isn't sure how to approach that?
PJL: Deeply personal issues are important to write about because they extend to so many others experiencing the same thing. We often feel isolated in our day-to-day lives, perhaps especially now, but anything we've endured is no doubt part of a larger human experience, and there are people out there who need to feel less alone. They might not have the voice to talk about how they're feeling or a way to process what they're going through. Art and literature have always helped us do those things.
That said, it's important that what we write does help us learn and grow, that we find ways to move past where we are in the present moment — whether or not the work is ever published or finds its way to an audience. Wallowing on the page is not much help to anyone, least of all ourselves. And there are times when we need to be sure we're working safely, in tandem with a therapist perhaps.
That particular book, The Sudden Seduction of Gravity, has always elicited the strongest response from readers who have suffered serious illnesses of their own — all different kinds, mind you, not necessarily the same issues I was writing about. That surprised me. But when you're very ill, there's a sort of betrayal of the body that's extremely hard to deal with. So again, there's a universality that you tap into, and readers are grateful to be seen and heard, to feel less alone.
CH: Your newly published book, The Ghost of Every Feathered Thing, utilizes birds as the subject of each poem. What do birds mean or symbolize for you personally, and how did you know you wanted to focus on writing about them?
PJL: This is an excellent question, and the truth of the matter is, I'm still trying to figure all of it out. I've been writing about birds for eight or nine years now, and I'd never set out to. I knew nothing about birds, had no special fondness for them. When I was sick and in bed a lot — and a very light sleeper — the birds outside my window made me crazy. It finally dawned on me that if they were working that hard to get my attention, I'd best listen to what they had to say.
From the start, I've been interested in the anatomy of birds, which is an unusual take. Poets have always written about birds, but how many have written about the nictitating membrane? Or the extra bone in a sparrow's tongue? Or the curled trachea of a swan? Somehow, though, looking inward always takes us back out. The personal reflects the universal. So in starting out with poems related to birds' anatomy, I wound up writing about their sacred mythology, which exists across cultures. It's all connected.
I liked the idea that birds that dive, like the loon or penguin, are really doing quite the same thing as birds that soar through the sky. They exist in the places they've evolved to be suited for. And every bird is beautiful in its way — perfect in its design no matter what oddball trait it's developed, a funny-looking beak or a clumsy webbed foot or claws on its wing like the hoatzin nestling. Whatever. It has a purpose. It's designed for its own survival, its own place in the world. We'd do well to mirror that back on ourselves.
CH: Your author's bio states that you specialize in crafting hand-stitched specialty chapbooks, some of which have been published as well. This is a fascinating practice. How did you come to learn this skill? How long does it take to complete a chapbook?
PJL: I recommend anyone interested in poetry try putting together their own chaps. It can be photocopied and stapled—that's fine. You'll have an understanding of the process of publication: proofreading, finding artwork that resonates for the cover, figuring out how on earth to sell them or what to do if they don't. Any money you make starts with you and stays with you. And you own all the mistakes, too, which is a learning process.
There are lots of online sources for figuring out how to make a basic chap, and when you start looking, it's easy to find your way to the more artsy ones. Some people print on fabric and sew them together on a machine. Book artists make all kinds of whimsical 3-D constructs you'll hardly recognize as a book. There are accordion styles and pop-ups, books with little drawers built in, tiny books made out from matchstick boxes, all kinds of things.
My visual art has almost always involved text in some way, so I was bound to find my way to book arts eventually. Within that, though, I started looking at what other people were doing and what they weren't doing. I started figuring out what might help a book look really beautiful but still be something readers could afford to buy. The chapbooks I make, by the way, have always been underpriced for the work and materials that go into them, but I want the poetry to find its way into people's hands. It's meant to be read. How you entice them to read is really just part of the fun.
CH: What advice would you give to writers who want to try writing poetry but are intimidated by the process or are worried about creating "bad" poetry?
PJL: Write bad poetry! Write lots of bad poetry! And along the way, read as much as you can. Read what you like, what you don't like, what you love, what you hate. Figure out what works and why, what doesn't and why, whose writing alludes to — or confronts — somebody else's. Keep writing, keep reading, listen. Listen to Button Poetry and watch the performers closely. Go to open mics and slams and performances and festivals (safely, when you can!). Take a road trip. See how and why poetry venues change from city to city — or why they're so much the same. Read Instagram poetry and all the poetry hashtags. And while you're doing all that, keep writing, writing, writing. Fill notebooks. Wear out your laptop. That's how bad poetry finds its way to being good. Live your best life, tend to what's real — unapologetically — and keep writing.
To be clear on that last part, it's important to give yourself a break now and then for not writing — that's what I mean by "tend to what's real." It might be your health, your family, the bills you have to pay. That's life, and every part of it is material you can use later. In the meantime, let the unconscious do its work, and trust that it will. Come back to writing when you can, and pick up where you left off. You actually won't be behind at all, as we pressure ourselves into believing. You're likely to be miles ahead.
Poet Paula J. Lambert will read from her work on February 3rd at 6:00 p.m. as part of Penn State Behrend's Smith Creative Writers Reading Series. The Zoom event is free and open to the public. The link can be found at www.behrend.psu.edu/readings