Lisa Jarnot In Conversation
with Francis Raven

Lisa Jarnot was born in Buffalo, New York in 1967. Since the mid-1990s she has lived in New York City where she has been actively involved in the community of The Poetry Project at Saint Mark’s Church in the Bowerie. She has edited two small magazines (No Trees, 1987-1990, and Troubled Surfer, 1991-1992) as well as The Poetry Project Newsletter and An Anthology of New American Poetry (Talisman House Publishers, 1997). She is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: Some Other Kind of Mission (Burning Deck Press, 1996), Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001 and Salt Publishers, 2003), and Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions, 2003). Her biography of the San Francisco poet Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, is forthcoming from University of California Press.

Francis Raven: How did you become a poet?

Lisa Jarnot: I wanted to be a musician/rock star but wasn't very good at writing songs (this was around my final year of high school. I was also really interested in Steven King's novels, so I started writing bad horror stories.)

FR: Who were your mentors or influences?

LJ: The Rolling Stones, then Bob Dylan, then Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and Rimbaud, and then Robert Duncan.

FR: What do you think the relationship is between lyric poetry and langauge poetry? And how has that relationship evolved?

LJ: I've never been fully engaged in language poetry. It seems to me that a lot of the language poets were educated by the lyric poets, for example William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, and Bernadette Mayer all played a role in educating language poets.

FR: What's your working strategy? When do you write? How often? On a computer?

LJ: I write when I can by whatever means possible. I teach a lot and sometimes only have time to write when I'm on the subway going to work.

FR: What are you working on right now?

LJ: I’m translating the Iliad, finishing a biography of Robert Duncan, and finishing a novel.

FR: How did you get to write the book about Duncan?

LJ: I decided that I wanted to write about Duncan because he is one of my poetical heroes. Then I started writing.

FR: How did you get into the poetry business?

LJ: Probably the way most poets do—as a do-it-yourself business—I published a small magazine (no trees) and ran a reading series as an undergraduate in Buffalo, NY

FR: Do you have any advice for younger writers?

LJ: Bob Creeley's advice to younger writers was "take care of your teeth". Absolutely. And don't drink too much. But also, more seriously, study meter and rhyme. Learn the mechanics and study language— read the Oxford English Dictionary and you will go far as a poet! FR: What do you think the relationship is between poetry and politics?

LJ: I think that writing poetry is political—it feels like it's not allowed in American culture—saying "I am a poet" and being a poet is political. But also it's a good way to get a point across, writing poems.

FR: Could you tell me a little about your knitting project?

LJ: I started knitting a year ago as a way of relaxing at night. Now I'm obsessed with it. it feels like a good non-verbal creative act. I'd be a painter if I had the money for the paints.

FR: Has blogging influenced your poetry?

LJ: Yes. I think so. I feel more conversational and engaged with the world and I want to bring that instinct into the poems.

FR: Has teaching changed your poetry at all?

LJ: Yes. i get very inspired by my students. I feel like they are always pushing me to think of poetry from new angles.

FR: What made you want to translate the Iliad and how was the experience?

LJ: I studied ancient greek as an undergraduate at the university of buffalo and really enjoyed it. For some time last year I was in a bad mood and it occurred to me that I should check out the bad moods of Achilles and Agamemnon. It seemed appropriate at the time to be translating a text about rage. And it's been great fun. I love solving the problems/puzzles of translation.

FR: What was writing a novel like? What did you learn from it? Do you want to do it again?

LJ: It felt pretty liberating to write the novel. It's actually not entirely finished yet, but it's been through three drafts. I'd love to write more prose—non-fiction next—I want to write about kids who kill people—school shooters.

FR: What's the weirdest job you ever had?

LJ: I've had a lot of weird jobs I guess. I worked as a telemarketer in California—calling post offices and doing surveys to make sure that the mail men delivered department store flyers. That was pretty weird, plus I had to be at work at 6 a.m. to call the east coast.

FR: Do you have any pets?

LJ: 2 excellent cats.

FR: What's your favorite poetry journal right now?

LJ: I like NO: A Journal of the Arts a lot and Chain and Gam.

FR: Do you have an agent? And if so how did you get one?

LJ: Yes. I had an agent for the Duncan book. It's not so hard to get an agent if you shop around with a "sellable" book— probably I'd never have an agent for my poems.

FR: How many copies of the Black Dog Songs were printed?

LJ: I'm not sure about this. Maybe 2000 so far.

FR: Who designed it?

LJ: Flood Editions has a designer. (Jeff Clark?) I gave them some basic info, but I let them do their thing. I was very pleased with how it came out.