Interview with Lynne Thompson

Lynne Thompson’s second full-length poetry collection—Start With a Small Guitar—debuts from What Books Press Oct. 1. Her first, Beg No Pardon, won the Perugia Press Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Lynne sits down for this interview with fellow poet Candace Pearson, whose credits include Chaparral.

Q: Poets have been writing love poems since the days of papyrus. Given that incredible history, how does a contemporary poet tackle the daunting task of the love poem?

A: There’s an adage in the poetry community that says that all poems are ultimately about love and death, so these poems fit within that concept. More specifically, I wasn’t intentionally writing about love or its absence in all cases. For example, in the two Ars Poetica, I was thinking about the concepts of naiveté and vulnerability, but within the context of the manuscript, they, too, became love poems. Ditto for –Last Night, I Dreamed I was Frida Kahlo–. I guess I’m answering you by saying that I avoided looking the “daunting task” square in the eye whenever I could!

Q: The soundbite for your new book, Start With a Small Guitar, could be “love/no love poems.” How would you expand on its themes?

A: I am looking to convey the ephemerality of the concept of love as we’ve come to know it—think we know it!—in the 21st century, as well as the lovers’ ultimate ambivalence about what it requires/demands of us. I am attempting to get at the unrelenting push me-pull you that is always just below the surface between intimates.

Q: There’s a tension in these poems between the promise and possibility of love and—I hesitate to say it—“inevitable” disillusion. Is that how the speaker sees it or does she remain at heart optimistic?

A: The conundrum is that the speaker of a poem like Little Song of Alcove knows the lovers are inevitable fools but she simply can’t resist the lure of the possible.

Q: In Optimist’s Requiem, after castigating herself as fool, the speaker says, “. . . did you see that/did it look like love?” I regard that question as ultimately hopeful. Agree, disagree?

A: I agree. This poem’s speaker is eternally optimistic, fool that she is!

Q: At the same time, a sense of menace weaves through many poems. In The Long Look, “He put his eyes/on me and they were shameless.” Later, we’re told (Empathy), “There’s going to be another intifada/There’s going to be a wind-up.” When you were writing, were you ever concerned about flirting close to that dark edge?

A: No, in fact, I wanted to flirt (and more) with the dark edge that I think often lives in relationships when the two persons involved are being most honest about who they are, about their deepest feelings and fears about themselves and the “other”— everything Madison Avenue wants to keep out of view so it can continue to sell the fantasy to us.

Q: What poets might you count among your influences or inspirations for this manuscript, particularly in regards to love poems?

A: Without question, when it comes to the love poem, I’d have to say Pablo Neruda is the overriding influence. I came to his work early in my adult reading of poetry and can remember saying “Damn! Wow!” over and over. Upon reflection, what I was trying to do with Start With a Small Guitar is captured in Neruda’s lines (as translated by W.S. Merwin): “I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her./Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”

Q: In the title poem, Start With a Small Guitar, we’re told “What you hear is the melody once resident inside you.” In another poem (More than a rhythm section,) the speaker says, “I want my man/to tuba me,/trombone me/and flare my bells,/ to oboe and O baby/ love me `til I swing low.” Talk about the ways you use music in your work—and why.

A: Music—be it jazz or classical or rock-`n-roll—is always the tool that allows me to move from line to line. I have to hear the poem in my own voice before I can consider it finished (or finished for now). Plus the music of artists like Nina Simone, Laura Nyro, and Miles Davis—oh, his Sketches of Spain!—is in my DNA so I think those influences naturally spill onto the page.

Q: Your poems often have a strong narrative impulse, broken by lyric reverie or psychic disjunction. What’s important to you in how you “tell” a story?

A: At heart, I’m a storyteller who’s elected to use poetry to move the narrative. But I’m also looking for new and fresh ways to convey the tale so that a poem like Nature Boy’s is a fragmented, language-driven riff on man’s (and I include woman’s) constant urge to run away….so yes, you’ve captured one of my tropes: psychic disjunction (although I wouldn’t have thought of it quite that way…thank you!)

Q: The new book includes a variety of formal strategies, including a mirror poem, couplets, triadic stanzas, questions, prose poems. For you, how does a poem find its true form—is it a process of experimentation or instinct?

A: A little of both, I guess. For the last few years, I’ve taken to writing first drafts in long-hand, margin to margin in my journal and then, when I transfer the draft to the computer, I let it find the configuration that it’s happiest with. Sometimes, it doesn’t know what’s good for it and neither do I!

Q: Your first book, Beg No Pardon, was a double award-winner and had multiple printings. Did that make it harder or easier to face putting together a second book?

A: As much as I hate to admit it, yes, it seemed much harder. I thought Beg No Pardon was a fluke and I needed to prove to myself that I could not only continue to write poems but that I could write better poems from a craft perspective. I’ll leave it to others to determine if Start With a Small Guitar has been successful in this way. I am pleased, however, that it’s quite different in many ways than the first collection.

Q: Was your second full-length ms. always in the form of Start With a Small Guitar? If not, how did it evolve?

A: The manuscript has gone through quite an evolution. Many of the poems were part of a longer manuscript that I was never satisfied with but I took out a group of poems with the intention of compiling a chapbook. But, as any writer will tell you, I kept writing these “love/no love” poems until it seemed that I had a full-length manuscript. Even after What Books Press had accepted the manuscript, I was still writing!—and was able to include those latter poems as well.

Q: Start With a Small Guitar is being published by a Los Angeles-based publisher. What should we know about What Books?

A: The What Books Press Collective is celebrating its 5th year of existence and is bringing a new and eclectic presence to the L.A. publishing scene. Not only does the collective include fine poets and novelists, but also the brilliant artist Gronk who provides the artwork for all the book covers in the Press’ growing library. His involvement has given it a worldwide spotlight based upon his past output as well as the designs he’s currently creating for Peter Sellar’s upcoming opera which will premiere in Madrid later this year. The novelist and collective member, Rod Val Moore, has just won the Juniper Prize. So this is definitely a group to watch!

Q: The existence of an L.A. poetry publisher (and there are a handful) seems a sign of health for poetry in this city. How would you describe the state of L.A. poetry today?

A: One can’t help but think that the state of poetry is quite healthy with the announced selection of the city’s first poet laureate, Eloise Klein Healy, last year. There could be no one better to ensure our city’s place on the literary map than Eloise and, from what I’ve heard, everyone is universally pleased with her selection. In addition, the number of reading venues for poetry around town also speak to the genre’s rising profile. Today, as I respond to your questions, I’ve had to turn down two poetry readings to attend two others (driving distances being what they are in this town!)—who’d have thunk it???

Q: I love your love of words. In your first book, you introduced us to the girl who ate paper. In the latest, you say (Ars Poetica, ruthless), “Language is a porcupine; a beggar’s bones/slighting flesh; filaments kissing.” So, we have the slight and the kiss. How does this duality express the way you see the power of language?

A: The English language is an endless source of fun for anyone who chooses to play with it as poets do. From synonyms, homonyms, double-entendres, the whole gamut of wordplay is endless and offers myriad possibilities for metaphor which is something poets love to near distraction in this period in our literary history. I love not only the way the sounds of the words bump up against each other, but the way they feel in my mouth. One poem that’s not part of Start With a Small Guitar cites some of my favorite words (little used today) “jive, pestilence…vestibule”, words that “crunch like nuts and…stick in the teeth like fresh corn”. What could be more fun?

Lynne Thompson’s Start With a Small Guitar will be available starting in October from What Books Press, SPD Distributors and Amazon.