DOROTHEA LASKY’S poems bewitch with the intense force and phenomenal range of their voice. This voice has become richer and more sonorous through each of her previous books, from Awe to Black Life to Thunderbird. Her style is immediately recognizable: a combination of candor, compassion, bravado, and the utmost verve; as she confronts universal spiritual polarities and abiding dilemmas of morality, her enduring subject is the stigma of eroticism and the inevitability of death. Disarming and deceptively undemanding, her lyrics charm the listener to follow their fearless leaps into a realm of feverish sublimity where mortal limitations cease to exist. Now, in Rome, Lasky has tuned her ear to the most rhapsodic, rapturous speakers, and her vision is sharper, more incisive than before, peering into the deep hollows of being human, illuminating our darkest quandaries. We met to talk over the voices of Rome, voices tuned to the influence of that ancient city and imbued with modern mysticism, hip hop, the demonic, and the so-called “other place.”
ZACHARY PACE: What’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word Rome?
DOROTHEA LASKY: The first image? I guess I would say: Senators giving speeches in a kind of abstract space, part Coliseum and part not. People in a forum where they’re performing and orating. When I was 10, my fifth grade teacher read Ovid to us, which is probably where this image comes from. Her act of reading these texts was truly a singular experience, in that it established my early kinship to Rome and I became inspired by a kind of performance of speech. I imagined walking the streets, hearing Cicero speak. I felt very much a part of that time from the second I learned about it. And also, you know, because of my book cover, I see the she-wolf when I think of the word Rome. Also, I see the Coliseum, but from the outside; I’ve only ever seen the outside when I’ve visited the city in real life. All these things, and palm trees. What do you see?
I see the Coliseum, too. And in the title poem, the cashier in the hometown grocery says Rome is about the Coliseum. A deeply distressing event occurs in that arena, in both Thunderbird — in the poem “I Like Weird Ass Hippies” — and the title poem of Rome. In the earlier poem, you say you’ll go to Rome and murder your daughter in front of the gods. In the later poem, you do:
They bring up my own dead body
Propped over with dead desire
And I kill it
They bring up my daughter
Her wolf eyes
A sign of recognition and with my hand on her neck
I say goodbye …
Another moment that felt particularly climactic is in the poem called “July,” when you decide to call the book Rome. Can we revisit these moments together?
Thank you so much for noticing these tiny clues! My first three books felt like a trilogy, and they interacted in this way where the trajectory of the “I” descended into the demonic. So this new book had to deal with where to go from there. I like to create woven threads throughout each book — little pockets where they connect — but I don’t always expect the reader to notice, which is why I am so glad you did. In “Weird Ass Hippies,” I’m thinking about how in the Bible, Abraham says, “I’ll do anything to show my faith, even murder my child.” And then I thought of Iphigenia, and her father’s willingness to sacrifice her to the gods — that idea of such extreme faith that you’ll give up the thing that’s most important to you. What does it mean to have that kind of faith?
Nihilism is a thread in a lot of my work, but especially in Rome. I always think about all of the sacrifices you make in life, but for what? No one saves you. There’s no one long happy period, just these little seconds of contentment. When you exist in this reality — of nothingness, the present — you can say, “I can kill anything, it’s heroic, or it doesn’t matter,” and then you come to a deadened space where you’re willing to kill what’s most important to you. This is different than blind faith, but a sense of faith that I’m more attracted to. Somehow this gesture of faith is beyond our conceptions of violence; its religious devotion becomes a sort of rationality. This is also true of any sort of mystical practice: you perform rituals but they’re not going to give you exactly what you want or intended. They might give you something else that you needed, but you really do have to say goodbye for no reason. In life, you have to murder things all the time for no reason.
Speaking of the demonic, you mentioned the she-wolf. Last week, Adam [Fitzgerald] told me he was walking in the East Village and heard a man shout, “You’ll meet your end when you bed the animal!” I thought of that omen while reading about Rome’s origin myth, which is centered on the image of the she-wolf suckling abandoned twins who were born of a woman who was raped by the god of war … and then the collapse of Ancient Rome, a civilization on which modern government, warfare, technology, et cetera, is modeled. Nowadays, it seems the common imagined scenario for the end of the global status quo is apocalyptic. Society has forgotten, or is ignoring, that civilizations have collapsed in the past, but human beings have survived.
And here we are as a result of that cycle of collapse, hardly the first beings ever to experience what we see as distinct to our time. What I love about ancient literature is thinking of the people writing it and reading it in their present, and imagining people throughout history reading the same text over and over again. I remember a conversation I had with CAConrad: we were talking about how when someone prays to certain gods or goddesses, it’s not this one-dimensional thing — millions and millions of people have prayed to these figures, and that does take on a spiritual weight. It’s not just an image or iconography, and it’s not about the inherent power in a particular icon — it’s all the energy directed toward a common point, which has the power to come back around and do what it wants to do for you. In ancient literature, I love that this common point is language, with all those generations interpreting it in different ways, making its meaning. That’s important to me in making poetry. It’s not just the layer of one moment; it contains all the other moments associated with it, and most importantly the immense future associated with it, its infinite present.
And I think in this infinite present, we might remember all of the collapses that have happened before, which turned out not to be apocalypses, just endings. We are so obsessed with younger and younger youth that we can be unwilling to look at that old and see how it can be layered with the new. It’s funny, I remember reading an online discussion last year about how there should be no more books of poetry about Rome in 2014. Of course, because I wrote a book called Rome in 2014, I think that’s about as foolish and shortsighted as saying there should be no more poems about the moon. Our old icons will always be part of our mortal story. Our old figureheads give us answers, new reasons to live.
If poetry can contain so much spiritual energy, and if it can be such a vessel for human history, then I can’t understand why it’s so marginalized in popular culture. You say in the poem “Why Poetry Can Be Hard for Most People” that it’s “because of sound” — a statement that’s as befuddling as it is clarifying. I want to look at this idea through the lens of rap music, because I know it’s a major sonic influence on your work, and because I want to examine what makes rap lyrics easier than lyric poems. You’ve identified a kind of power play between the artist and the audience; for example, you’ve written regarding your admiration for the performer Drake: “This is the great sacrifice of a wordsmith — to give me, the listener, over half, if not all, of the power.” On the other hand, in one of my favorite Rome poems, “Porn,” the women in the sex scene watch their friend fuck a hired hand, and they tell her, “Now you’re free” … later in the poem, the reader is addressed:
But are you free
No, you’ll never be
I’ve got you in my grasp
I’ve got you right here in my room
I’m so glad you mentioned Drake. I had a long dream about him last night. He was playing his music, we spoke, we connected, and he gave me advice about a new book I am writing. He is a great spiritual icon in my imagination. You know, hip hop is so important to me because I think it’s one place in contemporary poetry where people are actually writing poems. [Laughs.] No, I really mean that. And not to dismiss people writing poems in other venues, but you can’t deny that when a hip hop artist writes lyrics and people are like, “I need that right now, it’s going to change my life to listen to that,” it’s what you want all poetry to do. When you write a poem, you want it to be urgently important to someone. I don’t know that I’ve ever written a poem that is urgent to anyone, but I know certain poems that are urgent to me.
Something that hip hop artists share with what remains of the ancient Roman poets is swagger, and power. They both say, “I’ve got all this money, I’ve got all these men and women, I’m the best.” Both are lewd, and aren’t afraid of using lewdness to attract a listener, to entertain. Ancient Roman poets made work that hinged on the performative, similar to how hip hop artists have to find the most effective way to entertain a live listener.
I think some contemporary poetry shies away from this immediacy. But it’s what the demonic does best. I mean “demon” in a loving way. It’s not totally evil. It’s a demon who doesn’t always want to hurt you, just one who is looking through the windowpane at night, studying you, watching you in the mirror — the demon as mercury, as trickster. It’s an intense instinct, a drive, the red eye, “the cauldron of morning” as Plath wrote. This sense of the demonic is beautiful because it has to care about who it’s targeting, it has to reflect and absorb what their weaknesses are, it has to attract them, it has to work itself into a form that someone will want to pick up. That’s what I’ve always wanted poems to do. I want them to be attractive and entertaining and seemingly simple, using language and imagery that people can easily understand. But once you’re in the poem you’re trapped. It locks the door and tells you what it wants to say. I don’t think the persona in “Porn” wants to hurt the reader — it just knows that porn is something that will make everyone listen, and even if they’re disgusted by it, they’re still fascinated by the scene. So it’s a way to seduce the reader into an intimate place. That’s all a demon wants. It wants to be heard like any other restless spirit.
Who else do you admire who works in this way, engaging the demonic and performing the obscene?
Blake draws me into the demonic again and again. In his work, he never shies away from the musculature of the imagination, and he is not afraid to be obscene in the best ways. I think he engages the demonic through multiple forms: as reader and viewer, you have to interact with both image and text simultaneously, and you become trapped in the awfulness of being. Artists that work in multiple modalities have more potential for the demonic, and this is partly what I mean by saying “because of sound” in my poem “Why Poetry Can Be Hard for Most People.” Because sound is and is not a multiple modality, is and is not simple or one thing. Sound can be hard. When it’s hard, then it’s important to me. It’s a little demon.
I’ve noticed that when you meet a person for the first time, more often than not you immediately ask her astrological sign, or you guess it (almost always accurately). Knowing that astrology and mysticism are so crucial to how you encounter existence and interpret an experience, I wonder how it affects the craft of a poem.
There’s a hidden element of the occult involved in creating any art. I do believe that voices speak through you when you’re creating. It’s not easy to talk about — it can’t be taught or set up in a systematic way — but I think that when you are making anything, your membranes are permeable to spirits. When the voiceless see a vessel they can channel, they speak through it. I don’t have any specific rituals for writing because I don’t ever want to make it precious. I don’t want to feel like I have to write at midnight with a green cloak and a blue candle. I wasn’t raised very religiously — we had religious ideas in my household but never any kind of dogmatism. I think that’s why I always want to be free of rules. That’s the way I approach writing. It’s an actual attraction to a voice that wants to be spoken. But it’s a free and natural attraction. There is no obligation. The act of speaking gives it magic.
This idea recurs in Rome: to have no voice is worse than not having a body. You’re channeling voices that have been …
Disembodied. In various ways.
So, it’s a practice? You can make a poem by listening for what others don’t hear?
And it’s the way I approach my life. I’m always thinking about how I can save the thing that could be forgotten. I tend to be a hoarder, and not just of material things. I’m scared to throw away ephemera, what people say is trash, what doesn’t have value — even thoughts. That moves me, because the random thought or speech that you pick up every day, the things that seemingly have no value — preserving those moments is the most important thing you can do when creating. Those things are always speaking to you. If you listen you can make use of them. That’s why I feel I can never write enough. You can never record enough of life.
I’ve always been pretty obsessed with death — like everyone — but when my father died, my relationship to death changed because he was the closest person to me to die, and especially because his body felt tied to my own in that blood kinship. I had to believe that something existed beyond that body, which solidified the idea that poetry is the place where voice is most important, because we can’t control the fact that the body is going to go away. And we know it will, so it’s not a precious thing to preserve. But the speech of that thing is what you can preserve.
That makes me think of the “other place” that you reference in Thunderbird and in Rome, and the idea of “this world” versus “the next world.” Last week, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word-of-the-day email defined “other place” as a euphemism for hell. In your poems, it seems more like paradise. Where is the other place?
I think it is an alternate reality where we’re disembodied. I believe in reincarnation, but I don’t think that it’s one-to-one: like I can’t wait to come back exactly myself but as a parrot — that’s too silly. I think things break down and reconfigure in a molecular way, and that new configuration is the other place. So it’s not really beyond this world, it just might as well be because it’s in another time. And that allows for belief in ghosts, because why wouldn’t those residual memories remain when new configurations occur that are similar to past ones? I don’t believe in the difference between heaven and hell. I believe more in hell. But hell is not a bad thing. It’s an eroticized place, where all the good things about being an animal are allowed. You’re not trapped. And maybe there is an evil overlord but it’s not purely evil. And that is a big problem I’ve always had with the demonic; I have a hard time finding it completely evil. So the other place might as well be hell because it’s too strange not to be in this existence we’ve grown used to — but it’s not as scary as it’s imagined to be; only in contrast to our daily lives where we have to hide our animalness in so many various ways.
The poem is an immortal space. Maybe it’s a kind of hell because that feeling is trapped forever, and who you were in that moment is trapped forever, but that’s what poets want. We want immortality — to speak to the future as present beings. We’re trying to trap ourselves in the moment for a future reader.
What direction are you writing in now? Where has Rome led you?
So much has happened in my life since I wrote Rome; I am trying to write away from it. I’m a bit sick of the idea of the beloved, which my books are obsessed with. But when I’m writing a poem, I feel so comfortable in a persona in direct conversation with a beloved. It’s a hard shtick to break. Maybe I can’t ever totally break from it. But in my future work, I would like to have the beloved be life itself. Is that possible? I wonder.