Edited by Julie Riddle, '92
Associate Professor of English Laurie Lamon, '78, is a poet – she is the author of a new collection of poems, The Fork Without Hunger – but she prefers to describe herself as a writer who follows words. For Lamon, writing is a private endeavor that has long been deeply embedded in her life. In the following narrative she reflects on her journey as a writer.
I loved reading and writing from the time I was very young, and I was encouraged by my teachers from the beginning because I was good with language. One of the gifts my mother gave me and my siblings was frequent visits to the downtown Portland library children's section, where I felt such awe – pounding heart! I'd load up with as many books as was allowed.
My father was a builder, and his work reflected his meticulous and artistic nature. Being at the job site with him – imagining the house as I was standing in it – was an experience that made lasting impressions on me. I realize now that he was a perfectionist; things had to fit perfectly, work perfectly. I once wrote a poem in which I compared a builder creating perfect corners as he's siding a house with the poet working with line breaks.
As a Whitworth student I was mentored greatly by English professors Laura Bloxham, Tammy Reid, Leonard Oakland, Phil Eaton and Lew Archer. Laura was and remains one of the most important mentors I've ever had. She and Tammy were my first models of female intellectuals and their influence in my life has been deeply felt. Lew's and Leonard's literary passions, Native American literature and myth, and modern poetry, respectively, were additional fires that illuminated my beginning work with poetry.
Phil was one of the most important professors for me during my college years, when I finally made contact with the poetry I'd been waiting all of my life to discover. I still remember him reading the works of certain poets – Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Theodore Roethke, Linda Gregg – poets who wrote of nature and human stewardship, suffering and redemption, the still places where the eye discerns the stark and the abundant. Phil's literature courses and his poetry workshop were tremendously influential for me; they gave me the world I had been trying to find on my own. In his handling of words in poems, the atmosphere in his workshop, and his belief in the moral center of the arts, I found a guiding spirit as well as a teacher.
I entered college wanting to be an art major. The two studies, English and art, have remained connected for me, though in college I shifted my focus finally to English and writing. Originally I thought I wanted to study museum curatorship, but the opportunities weren't available, and by the time I was a junior I knew my greater passion lay with poetry.
Laura, Lew, and Phil encouraged me to apply to an master's in fine arts program, which I did. I didn't think very much about a career path; I just wanted to keep studying and writing poetry. I was very fortunate to be accepted to the University of Montana, where I studied with Richard Hugo for three years. He was Theodore Roethke's student, and he became a tremendous teacher and a master poet. His is the voice in my head that I still hear when I am asked about the relationship between writing and publishing. He said, "If you want to be a writer, write. Write for 25 years." His point was to give oneself to the process of learning the craft – don't worry about the external validation of publishing.
Maybe because of what I saw of my father's craft – one house at a time, the saw and sawhorses set up in the garage where he would painstakingly measure and cut and plane, the solitariness – I believed Hugo all the more, and his words have always resonated with me.
After I completed the MFA program at the University of Montana I entered the English literature doctoral program at the University of Utah, where I studied with poet Mark Strand.
I am drawn to poetry's compression of language, its imagery, the drive of poetic language to exist both on the surface and beneath the surface of reality and experience. In other words, the poem tries to catch reality itself, the luminous particulars that exist in time, and it also breaks through the surface to something else – memory, emotion. Poetry does something that brings us close to what we desire so deeply…to make contact with the tangible things of the world that delight and inspire, and that also point to the gates of the mysterious.
In her famous poem, "The Moose," Elizabeth Bishop brings a busload of people traveling at night, in the lull of darkness and quiet talk, to a moose standing on the road. There is an intersection of two worlds, both physical and real and ordinary, and yet that intersection is one that we can't really hold onto. The moose disappears into the woods again and we travel on. I think poems are fascinated with the "is" of things because it is in the "presentness" of being that we can be aware. We are alive to this world, to nature, to each other, and in the most sacred moments, to God. In poem #685, Emily Dickinson says:
Not "Revelation" –'tis – that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes –
Wallace Stevens says "Let be be the finale of seem," and this idea of "being-in-place" greatly interests me. My poems explore the particular. They explore the ordinary experiences of being human. I think they try to illuminate what "ordinary" means. For me as a writer it means really to notice what is around me, which is to simply be aware of being alive: to suffer pain and loss, to be in relationship, to be created by God, to try to understand what is beyond our understanding.
In her acceptance speech upon being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1996, Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet, said of "the ordinary": "But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in the world." One hears the echo of the book of Ecclesiastes' words that there is nothing new under the sun. But this moment is new, and we are new to it, and it contains universes.
Other writers inspire me most, primarily Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, and more recently the poets of witness, who write political poetry of extremity and survival, doubt and faith.
Donald Hall has been my mentor for nearly 10 years; this has been a life-changing, unexpected gift. He is a kind, fierce teacher. His love of poetry and what he has contributed to American poetry in the past 50 years are immeasurable. He has mentored many younger poets, and it's been a privilege to be one of them. He doesn't waste words with his criticism or his praise. He has a work ethic that I respect.
I don't have to look far to find the tiny particles or sound waves that end up creating poems. They arrive in the most ordinary and extraordinary ways, sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific. I wrote a poem called "Good Friday" that brought together my own personal recoil from all the commercial paraphernalia that accompanies Easter, with an image I saw on the news when some of our first soldiers in Iraq had been captured. There was a young woman with bandaged feet whose face we saw through the captors' lens, as she was being questioned.
I think poetry is about correspondences, and sometimes it takes months or years for me to understand how to use what I have, or how one draft of a poem will meld into another, using its skeleton or musculature. In this particular poem, the image of suspension haunted me. The soldier's feet were bandaged, dangling from the edge of the surface where she sat. In another world, here in Spokane, Washington, where I drove to work, drove to check on a house I had just moved out of, I had to pass plastic rabbits hung from trees, whose feet did not touch the ground. Those things filter through who we are. For me as a human being who happens to be a writer, I worked with these realities to try to create something that asks: What are we doing? Why this commercialism of this most sacred season? How do we begin to know how to deal with the images of hostages? Worlds intersect; I am a witness to that.
Most of what I write goes through many, many drafts. It's a fascinating process, working back and forth between the material of the poem and the form it takes. I work on several poems at the same time, each at various stages of development. It usually takes me months to write a poem. A few have come very quickly; they are short lyrical poems that seem to arrive entirely by themselves. When I sense a poem is complete, I let it sit before sending it out to a journal. I've often revised poems years after writing them.
There have been two important turning points in my writing. The first occurred in the mid-1980s when I was working with imagery that pushed closer and closer to surrealism. The second development occurred in the mid-90s. In the midst of what felt to be many "erasures" happening in my life, the language and forms I had been using in my work were overwhelmingly, almost suddenly, insufficient. I felt like I had come to a dead end, and if I couldn't find a new way to use language and form to convey this "being in place," then I couldn't continue to write poetry – I felt it that strongly.
I looked for models in which the poetry was stripped of imagery, metaphor and simile, poems existed like a calligraphic line; only Berryman's Dream Songs were useful. Ray Carver said of his short fiction that he wanted to cut it to the bone, and then to the marrow. I wrote the first "Pain Poem" in 1994, in one sitting, which is unusual for me. It looks and sounds very different from what I am doing now with the Pain Poems, but with this first poem, I found the door I had been looking for.
Ten years later I've written more than 40 Pain Poems. They are very different in form and voice from the rest of my work, but that work has greatly benefited from what I have learned from writing the Pain Poems. I had a dream not long ago of finding an upstairs room in my house, large and full of windows, which I had never known existed. I know in Freudian terms the room and the house suggest the body. But I prefer to think of the room as the mind, which presses against known boundaries.
I recently moved from the house where I lived for 15 years and where I wrote The Fork Without Hunger over a period of many years. My office there was tiny, filled entirely by my U-shaped work space; this room was my sanctuary.
In my current office I have more room, so I have more books. A framed broadside of Jane Kenyon's poem, "Otherwise," hangs on one wall, and beside it are images of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. I have two beautiful big windows in this new space. I can watch light fade through a crabapple tree as I look north. It is an image I love seeing – singular, and yet different every day through the seasons.
I don't like visual clutter, but I have small, precious things within sight when I work. On my desk are shells, seeds, a piece of driftwood. A postcard that (Whitworth Associate Professor of English) Pam Parker sent me from England of Vermeer's girl reading a letter. I have photographs of the Oregon coast framed and hung on the walls, and photographs of my beloved dogs, Li Po and Maude. And a ridiculous number of photographs of my husband! The poetry books I refer to constantly are within reach, and dictionaries, etc. I love reference books.
I welcome the sometimes interrupting but mostly quiet visitations of my dogs when I'm working. They are gentle muses.
I'm fortunate in that my profession offers a flexible schedule and large zones of time on the days I don't teach, but I feel like I'm always scheming to find more writing time.
I work hard to keep up with class grading and preparations, but I also to try to open up time in the evenings and during weekends for writing. The "writing life" isn't just the field of creative exploration, writing and drafting. It also involves the very time-consuming work of preparing manuscripts to send out, keeping track of submissions, keeping up with all of that. It's a second job and it cuts deeply into writing and reading time.
Finding time to write is a struggle, but it's a struggle we all share as human beings with personal lives and all of the needs and desires for time that is so precious. I'm lucky in that I've always been able to sink right away into the work, whether it's for a stolen 20 minutes in the morning of a teaching day, or during a planned three-hour block. It does take discipline. One has to make choices: Do I go to the poetry reading, or do I stay home and have two hours of writing time? Like everyone else, I have to balance personal needs with professional responsibilities.
I've always been pretty obsessive in the poetry part of my life. It ultimately doesn't feel like discipline or choice when I work. It is what I do. It's the hardest thing I do, intellectually and emotionally, but when I'm engaged in working on a poem, I am free. I've never felt writer's block, or burn-out; exhaustion, yes. Full-time teaching is very demanding. I'm not one who can channel my writing life into summer months or long breaks. I write nearly every day. I've always felt like I had to make hard use of the time that I have because time is so precious.
For me, the process of making a poem is like the joy of seeing: to be curious, to be aware, to connect. Intellectually, I have learned more from writing poems, from studying poetry, than from any other area of my life. One of the greatest rewards for me in my private and public writing life is experiencing how poetry implicates its reader in the experience and truth it renders. Poetry can make us think and feel in powerful and articulate ways. There is an inherent morality in poetry that I believe in. It challenges the complacent. The last line of Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" demonstrates how art can penetrate human consciousness to the point of epiphany and permanent change; the line is a charge of responsibility: "You must change your life."