10 Questions for Zefyr Lisowski
- By Edward Clifford
The process of becoming sick may be familiar to you,
or it may not. First, I had unexpected pain. This is not
to be confused with previous unexpected pains.
Actually, the unexpected pains had continued back for
as long as I can remember.
—from "Untitled (from Ghostdaughter)," Volume 63, Issue 4 (Winter 2022)
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I’m most interested in poetry as a language of directness, and affinity as well. My father, who wrote, inoculated me in a poetry I no longer have affinity for. Eliot, Stevens, the other names you’d expect. After my disenchantment, I spent several years actively not writing until I discovered other poets whose truths were more immediate: Ai, June Jordan. Then, when I started editing for Apogee Journal, I fell into the writing and influence of so many who I also now call friends: Joey de Jesus, Muriel Leung, Joselia Rebekah Hughes.
Much of my writing is in the unit of the sentence, not the line, so to that end I’ve learned from prose stylists as well, Zora Neale Hurston and Angela Carter especially. Finally, I believe poetry at its most comprehensive is a practice of care, so the labor of those who work in care-related fields—doulas, community members, support networks—deeply influences how I move through the world and page, openhearted and unshying, every day. Exes too. And finally, some other writers: Johanna Hedva, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, Diana Khoi Nguyen. It doesn’t escape me that many of these are women or those whose genders are less legible. We regulate and care more than men do, which means our dreams—and writing is a form of dreaming—are by default more expansive and free.
What other professions have you worked in?
I worked in the service industry as a barista and sometimes server consistently until the first week of shelter-in-place, when my coffee shop laid off all its workers and closed its doors to avoid paying unemployment. Since then, I’ve taught. Before that, I worked as a bookseller, museum assistant, and spent a miserable few summers doing illicit work involving my body, which I was not good at.
What did you want to be when you were young?
The first job that I ever remember wanting was as a special effects makeup artist for horror movies. After that, a marine biologist. After I flunked out of a high-intensity residential high school for STEM, I finally found myself in language.
What inspired you to write this piece?
The piece is an excerpt from a longer manuscript-in-progress about an email I received from my father eight months before he died. The email said, because we didn’t hide your dead sister’s existence from you, you’re fucking up your body with hormones. It said, because you knew her name, you’re trying to turn into her. It’s the cruelest thing anyone has said to me. The manuscript, which took me six years to even start writing, is about her and what I turned myself into instead.
But it’s impossible to write that without also writing about the reality of my body—not well— and the bodies of those I was close with, too. Grief, disability, and sex are all part of the same conversation, the body’s. This is because to navigate each it’s essential to get closer to yourself. In this poem I wanted to write a progression into sickness that maybe was never a progression because sickness was always there. I yoked everything in the poem together—economic anxiety, debility, grief, fucking and longing—as it was already together.
In fact, I suspect grief, desire, disability exist in tandem for most—especially given our white supremacist ableist death cult of a country’s white supremacist ableist death cult response to the ongoing pandemic. The past few years have felt a long funereal wail for those I love—those who do and do not identify as disabled but are debilitated nonetheless by in-person, low-waged work, community isolation, incarceration, and more. I have to believe in the necessity of the endurance of love for us, because those who govern and determine us show none of that love at all.
Poems can serve to isolate moments, but I’m more interested in those that illuminate the moments bound together already. I believe we’re all bound to each other, and refuse to write a poetics not equally cleft by the legacies of the ways we hurt and care for one another anyway. In other words: if there’s one thing that motivates my writing—this piece or any other—it’s care, another word for which is love.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
When I’m writing poetry, I need silence, or at most outdoor noises: birds, squirrels. I do most of my most productive writing in public parks. When I’m writing prose, which I’ve been doing more of lately, it helps to find a rhythm to tether the sentences to. Lately, I’ve been gravitating to older country music: Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt. They all have an unaggressively steady uncomplicated tempo—which makes it easier to change up on the page—and the lyrics are usually sad but not devastating (relatable). Other musicians I’ve edited to before: Marisa Anderson, Caroline Shaw, Tierra Whack.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I can’t write without walking first—so that’s the first ritual. If I’m in pain or have difficulty walking, shifting between rooms in my apartment. For the longest time, if I was writing something especially emotionally difficult, I’d reduce the margins on MS Word or draw a box on a sheet of paper to confine the words—give them a space they can be held in, but also one that holds them away from me. This allows me to get deeper, but also allows the words room themselves to recover from that depth. And then the usual rituals to ground myself as I pivot towards editing: applying rose water, keeping a lavender sachet nearby, reading tarot as directive practice. Holding, and being held.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Since an ex figures into this piece, I believe she was the first reader of it! That was mainly an ethics check, though—if I represent someone who’s still in my life, I try my absolute hardest to make sure they’re fine with the representation I give.
In general I have several poets and writers who I exchange work with—Joselia Rebekah Hughes, Valentine Conaty, John Manuel Arias, Spencer Williams, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, Madeline ffitch—although no dedicated first readers. I try to think foremost of what sort of eye the work in question needs, and send it out accordingly.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
During my hiatus from writing, I was convinced I was going to be a comics artist, and I still draw comics somewhat regularly. There’s something about how the form is both grounded and fantastical, compressed and expansive, that holds a lot in common with poetry. I’m regularly drawn to visual artists, painters and crafters, so hold an affinity towards that as well. There’s a conversation somewhere between the condensed expansiveness of a canvas and the condensed expansiveness of the page.
But if not for either of those forms, I’d make miniatures. Last autumn I build a dollhouse from scratch, although made countless mistakes along the way. Maybe the mistakes are part of it, too. To wit, I write mainly because my hands are too clumsy to do anything else to my satisfaction.
What are you working on currently?
Ghostdaughter, the manuscript I described above. Also, at a residency this summer, I finished the second draft of a collection of essays, Uncanny Valley Girls, about horror movies, exes, and avoiding hurting others in the ways you’ve been hurt; I’m in the process of pitching it to agents and continuing revisions on it as well. Finally, my first full-length poetry collection, Girl Work, is forthcoming in 2024 from Noemi Press, so I’m working with my editors on that as well. My plate is full.
What are you reading right now?
I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m slowly translating—with Google Translate and a pocket dictionary—Cristina La Veneno’s memoir-cum-biography, Digo! Ni Puta, Ni Santa. She was a sex worker who in the 1990s was the most famous, most visible trans woman in Spain. She was also one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen pictures of— although beauty, like most metrics of evaluation, is fraught at best. (The HBO show about her, Veneno, is required viewing.) Beyond that, I’m reading my friends’ work as it’s sent to me; Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century; and as a breather, some Junji Ito horror comics. While I’m taking a break from poetry right now, without fail I’m sure I’ll return soon.
ZEFYR LISOWSKI is a poetry co-editor at Apogee Journal and the author of the Lizzie Borden queer murder chapbook Blood Box (Black Lawrence Press). Her poems and essays have appeared Catapult, The Offing, and elsewhere, and she has received support from Blue Mountain Center, Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, and more. She grew up in the Great Dismal Swamp, NC, and lives at zeflisowski.com.