Getting to know lori lamothe and her new book Trace elements
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I’ve always read poetry. I wrote bits and pieces here and there but never kept any of it. One night shortly before I dropped out of graduate school I woke up at 2 or 3 a.m. with a poem in my head. At the time my laptop wasn’t working so I drove to the campus computer lab, which was open all night, and wrote the poem. It sounds odd, I know, but that’s exactly how it happened. It was an awful poem but I didn’t care. I went on writing after that and when I moved back home I wrote maybe 500 poems in a few months. Most of them were really, really bad poems. But it was the beginning of something.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
It varies. So I guess that would be a no – a qualified no. I keep a file of images, ideas and snippets of things that I want to write about. At certain points I’ll sit down at the computer and try to turn some of that gibberish into a poem. Sometimes the gibberish percolates – for days or months or even years – but other times I’ll write about something I’ve just seen without any time in between. I also keep several dozen poems in a single file. There is nothing worse for me than sitting down in front of a blank screen – it’s like dumping a bucket of ice on my mind. For the past few years I’ve tried to write pretty consistently. For me, it’s tough getting started again after more than a week has passed.
After reading this over, I think it makes me seem steadier than I am. I’m a bit moody. Some months I write lots of poems – this past month I’ve written 22, after three solid months of writing fiction. But in between the fiction and the poetry were six weeks of absolutely nothing – I don’t think I even wrote down a recipe. Every day I’d tell myself I was going to write and every day I wouldn’t accomplish a thing. And of course, life intervenes. Sometimes it’s tough to find the time but I’ve come to understand poetry is kind of a necessity for me.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
This was the first question I answered because it was the easiest – always an image. Okay, maybe not always – sometimes a phrase or an idea will get me started – but close. It can be an actual place or person or a photograph/painting. Other images come from dreams, from memories and from books. Still others simply emerge fully-formed in my head and I have no idea how they got there.
The central theme in Trace Elements developed out of an image of the Nashua River. My grandmother used to tell me stories about how the river would run different colors on the days the factories where we lived were making colored paper. The image lodged itself in my mind – for years, it kept pulling me back. Later I learned the pollution got so bad the Nashua actually caught on fire. That image did more than pull me back – it demanded that I write about it. So I did.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Poetry: Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson. Rainer Maria Rilke, Lisel Mueller, Pablo Neruda, Tomas Transtromer, Edith Sodergan, Wallace Stevens, Solveig Von Schoultz, Izumi Shikibu, many others, including contemporary poets like Mary Biddinger and Kristy Bowen and Kim Bridgford and Arielle Greenberg. I love Verse Daily and try to read the poems on that site at least once a week. I also listen to music and know the lyrics work their way into my psyche. Lately I’ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen, Patty Griffin, Ingrid Michaelson and a few others.
Prose: Pretty much everything. I’m not a discriminating reader. I’ll read almost anything if I can get my hands on it.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
Like the image of the river catching fire, the traces of past interwoven with the present in my book are sometimes ominous, sometimes gorgeous--and sometimes both. Each section focuses on a single element – earth, fire, water, air – and turns on ideas to related to that element. I’ve included poems about historical figures, some of whom were from central Massachusetts: Thaddeus MacCarty, who injected himself with smallpox to study the disease, the women cutting Butterick patterns to make uniforms during the Civil War, the mill girls who died when the Pemberton Mill collapsed in 1860.
The collection also touches on events that have defined me as a mother, wife, lover, and artist. My daughter’s first haircut, the day I walked outside during a tornado warning, the time when I applied for a temp job in Cambridge and had to take a personality test and a six-minute intelligence test (yes, it really was six minutes; no, I wasn’t hired).
I wrote the poem below after my father died of cancer. Shortly after his funeral, my mother was putting away some of his things and the radio turned on. My mother went over and shut it off, only to hear it turn on again a minute later. She always joked that it was my father’s way of telling her not to mess with his coaching awards. The poem grew out of that idea.
Read a poem from Trace Elements and listen to some recordings of other great poems by Lori:
Russian scientists discovered Kirlian photography during the 1940’s. It captures light that emanates from objects in electromagnetic fields.
Phantom of a leaf
that’s what they wrote in their notebooks.
No break in the light,
what was cut away minutes before
still part of the picture.
The leaf perfect, complete—
a ghost x-ray
held up against a square of night.
Look at energy’s bones.
You can count them if you want to.
They’re all there. Energy’s bones
don’t break, only shift
along the spectrum from health to sickness,
presence to absence
They say the light shooting off the fingers and toes
of a newborn is blinding
but the man whose face
is falling backwards into his pillow
sleeps in a field of almost total darkness
as if God were standing in the room
dimming his soul. Death only a conduit,
the beating of the heart changed
into ordinary miracles—radios speaking,
phones ringing, coffeemakers clicking on.
If you pull the energy out straight
you can see what a life
looks like after it unravels.
Then you can fasten loss around your neck
or let it drift like a white string
riding the wind of light-boned birds.