Interview with Lucille Lang Day 2011 by Zara Raab
This interview first appeared in the San Francisco Book Review
in the “Writing Around the Bay “ column
Author of six books and three chapbooks, Lucille Lang Day (http://lucillelangday.com) is a visible presence in the Bay Area poetry scene, a frequent guest reader at public events, and director of Scarlet Tanager Books. With an M.F.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State University, as well as a Ph.D. in science and mathematics education from UC Berkeley, (as well as other degrees), for 17 years she directed the Hall of Health, an interactive children’s museum in Berkeley. Her most recent book is The Curvature of Blue from Cervena Barva Press (2009). Her memoir Married at Fourteen, will appear from Heyday in 2012. She will be reading as part of the Marin Poetry Center's Summer Traveling Show on July 19th at the Dance Palace, 503 B Street, Point Reyes, 7:00. Visit www.marinpoetrycenter.org for more details.
Zara Raab: You were married when you were fourteen, and had your first child when you were fifteen. Yet you have multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. in science and mathematics education. How did you manage this?
Lucille Lang Day: As a teenager, I found that I didn’t like working as a waitress, gas station attendant, cosmetic salesgirl, or phone girl at Chicken Delight, so I became truly driven to acquire credentials that would qualify me for other lines of work. My mother took care of my daughter when I went back to school.
ZR: To evoke this period in your life, I’d like to quote from your wonderful poem “Reject Jell-O,” which I just heard you read at Moe’s Books in Berkeley as part of the Poetry Flash launch of Jack Foley’s long awaited Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940–2005.
The man I married twice—
at fourteen in Reno, again in Oakland
the month before I turned eighteen—
had a night maintenance job at General Foods.
He mopped the tiled floors and scrubbed
the wheels and teeth of the Jell-O machines.
I see him bending in green light,
a rag in one hand,
a pail of foamy solution at his feet.
He would come home at seven a.m.
with a box of damaged Jell-O packages,
including the day's first run,
routinely rejected, and go to sleep.
I made salad with that reject Jell-O—
lemon, lime, strawberry, orange, peach—
in a kitchen where I could almost touch
opposing walls at the same time
and kept a pie pan under the leaking sink.
We ate hamburgers and Jell-O
almost every night . . .
ZR: This is a wonderfully evocative poem. And you have a memoir coming out next year from Heyday, so I look forward to reading more about your life. But mostly you write poetry. Why?
LLD: In the form of a poem I can best express some things I want to say. Sometimes a poem feels like the only sensible way to say it. For example, in my latest poetry collection, The Curvature of Blue, the poem “Playing ‘St. Louis Blues’ at Auschwitz” combines the idea of multiple universes with the story of Louis Bannet, who saved his life by playing the trumpet at Auschwitz. I think an essay with these elements would come out garbled, but in poetry I could bring it off.
ZR: What compels you to write poetry?
LLD: Strong emotions. Things I find particularly beautiful, ugly, or interesting. Dreams. Concern for the environment. The fun of playing and experimenting with words. Poetry keeps me from getting bored. Also, I feel that I experience my life more fully when I write. The process helps me see more, remember more, and clarify my thoughts about it all. Plus, sharing the poems deepens my sense of connection with other people.
ZR: Why not a novel or short stories, or for that matter nonfiction?
LLD: I have tried all of the above. I started two novels and totally abandoned one of them. After writing about 60 pages of the second one, I took out the fictional elements and turned it into the first couple of chapters of my memoir. My imagination and sense of narrative, I’ve concluded, do not work in the manner of a novelist. However, I have published many short stories and personal essays, so with short fiction and creative nonfiction, I seem to be on firmer ground.
ZR: How is the memoir coming out from Heyday different from the poems?
LLD: It contains a lot more information about my life than I have been able to pack into my poems. I should say, however, that writing poetry has helped my prose immensely. In poetry it’s essential to get rid of all of the extra words and to be aware of all of the sounds and rhythms of language. This also happens in good prose.
ZR: You have a publishing imprint, as well, called Scarlet Tanager Books (http://www.scarlettanager.com). What’s happening with that now? Will you be coming out with a new book this year?
LLD: I’ve decided to publish anthologies for now, rather than books by individual authors. The first Scarlet Tanager anthology, entitled Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry, is edited by Andrena Zawinski. It will be released in February 2012. Anthologies will enable me to publish many more writers than I was able to showcase in books by individuals.
ZR: What are you reading now?
LLD: The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek: A Tragic Clash Between White and Native America, by Berkeley author Richard Kluger. It’s about the persecution of the peace-loving Nisqually tribe by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens and his cronies in the mid-19th century. Leschi deserves to be remembered along with such figures as Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo. And Dick Kluger, who won a Pulitzer for his book about the tobacco industry, deserves a second Pulitzer for this one.
ZR: Who are your favorite authors?
LLD: In poetry Pattiann Rogers and upcoming Bay Area poet Rebecca Foust are among my favorites; in fiction Elizabeth Strout and Charles Baxter; and in nonfiction (memoir) Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, and Frank McCourt.
ZR: How do you decide what you're going to read?
LLD: I tend to read books, poetry and prose, related to what I’m working on. I also look for new books by my favorite authors, books my friends and husband recommend, and books by my writer friends.
ZR: What books/ authors influenced you as a young writer?
LLD: In poetry I was influenced by Emily Dickenson, John Keats, and Sylvia Plath; in prose by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Flannery O’Connor, and Grace Paley.
ZR: What books influence you now?
LLD: Books by contemporary writers. For example, Pattiann Rogers’s Song of the World Becoming and Alison Hawthorne Deming’s The Monarchs have influenced my science and nature poetry. Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club have influenced my memoir.
ZR: What are you writing now? Can you describe your current projects?
LLD: I’m working on sequences of poems about place, the natural world, ancestors, family, and mortality. In fiction, I’ve completed eight stories for a collection whose main themes are emerging as identity and loss of emotional control.
ZR: Do you belong to a book club? How important is a sense of community to your writing? How important is your writing to a sense of community?
LLD: I don’t belong to a book club, but a sense of community is very important to me as a writer. I belong to a women’s poetry salon that meets every six weeks, and I have a small writing group (three women, including myself) that meets about once a month. I also get support and inspiration from the broader community of Bay Area writers, as well as from writer friends nationwide. The sense of community is a big part of what keeps me going.