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10 Questions for Rebecca Lehmann

Author Photo by Andrea D'Agosto

In the whale's spout, a rainbow.
In my daughter's hair, a rainbow hairtie.
In the holy, holy. Holy, holy.
In a diamond's carbon-shape angles.
In each eye, a stone reflected,
a sore.
—from "In Morning," Volume 63, Issue 3 (Fall 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was in third grade, my teacher had us do an ekphrastic writing exercise based on postcards of paintings in the Chicago Art Institute. Mine was the painting “The Coast of Labrador” by William Bradford, and I wrote a story about a girl with really big feet who gets stranded on an island and is discovered by a fisherman. I was the tallest kid in my class that year and really self-conscious about it. My teacher told my mom that she thought I’d become a writer after that, so there must have been something in the story that impressed her.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
A lot of poems in The Sweating Sickness (the manuscript that “In Morning” and “Get Lost Serenade” are taken from) were written during the pandemic, and I was reading the Wolf Hall series by Hilary Mantel while writing them, and also teaching Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice, both of which influenced the collection greatly. I tend to be drawn to poets who write about their lives, and when I’m looking for a grounding I turn to Joy Harjo for her sense of wonder in the face of starkness, Adrienne Rich for her bleak explorations, Sylvia Plath for her use of sound and John Ashbery for his tangentiality. My former teacher, Dean Young, just passed away, and I’ve been thinking a lot today about just how much of a debt my work owes to him, as well, and the permission his work gives to jumble up the everyday with the surreal.

What other professions have you worked in?
I got my first job when I was 14, washing dishes at a diner. I worked as a waitress in high school and college, and have worked as an elementary school teacher, a baker, an essay grader, and a call center employee. I’m an English professor now, which is by far my favorite job, though part of me misses restaurant work. When I was in college I worked at a Greek restaurant and I used to love going into the walk-in cooler and scooping a bowl of olives out of the giant olive container and snacking on them. I can still taste the brine.

What did you want to be when you were young?
A major league baseball player, an archeologist, a botanist, a mathematician.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I wrote both of these poems during a period of deep depression in the winter of 2020/2021. I was home with two small kids, working full time remotely, and losing my mind. My abusive ex-boyfriend killed himself that summer, and while I thought I had long ago processed the trauma of that relationship, his suicide and my grief over his death dredged it all back up. “In Morning” is a poem praying for an end of the pandemic, and “Get Lost Serenade” is a poem about the complex grief that arose for me when this person, who had terrorized me, died violently by his own hand. I found myself wishing I could shut that grief out, tell it to “get lost,” but of course I couldn’t.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I live next to a graveyard and it shows up in so many of my poems. At first, I found the cemetery very depressing, but it’s been interesting to see the ways people decorate the graves of their loved ones, what they leave in remembrance, how they hold funerals, when they return to remember or celebrate somebody’s life. That said, the next time I move I’m going to try to find a cheerier location.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I don’t usually share drafts. When something is done, I send it out to journals, so I guess those editors get first read. If I do want to share something, I send it to my longtime friend Marc Rahe—we’ve been swapping poems for almost 20 years, so it’s a nice way to say hello.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I love gardening. I’m a maximalist in the garden, just like in my poems, and everything in my flower gardens is flouncy and lush, and there’s a lot of pink and purple going on.

What are you working on currently?
I just finished writing my tenure file, and editing the manuscript for my third book of poetry, The Sweating Sickness, so I’m kind of noodling around to find out what my next project is going to look like. The Sweating Sickness is really personal and deals with pretty heavy topics, so I’m trying to find a way to re-connect to more joy in my writing.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series and I’m on Lila and it is breaking my heart!

REBECCA LEHMANN is the author of the poetry collections Ringer and Between the Crackups. Her poetry and nonfiction has been published in Copper Nickel, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith, and other venues. She lives in Indiana, where she is assistant professor of English at Saint Mary’s College. She is the founding editor of the online journal Couplet Poetry.

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