Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews
Paula J. Lambert
is a literary and visual artist from Columbus, Ohio. Her full-length poetry collections include How to See the World (Bottom Dog 2020) and The Sudden Seduction of Gravity (Full/Crescent 2012). She has also authored several chapbooks. The focus of much of her recent work has been the anatomy of birds: by digging deep into their bones, beaks, and feathers, she has found her way to issues both deeply personal and broadly political. Lambert has been recipient of two Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards and two Greater Columbus Arts Council AITC Resource Grants. She has twice been a fellow of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Lambert owns Full/Crescent Press, a small publisher of poetry books and broadsides, through which she has founded and supported numerous public readings and festivals that support the intersection of poetry and science.
As an accomplished multidisciplinary visual artist, Lambert is particularly interested in using recyclable materials. Cardboard is a favorite medium. Her work includes mixed-media collage, sculpture/assemblage, and book arts.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
I’ve been writing all my life, but mostly prose. My MFA is actually in Fiction. Poetry, for me, was always an exercise. When I felt stuck trying to pin down an image, say, while describing a scene or character, I would push the prose aside, pull out a clean page, and work at crystallizing the image in poem form. Then I’d push the poem aside and finish the prose. While working on my first graduate degree, an MA in English, my fiction prof took some time off to finish a book of his own, and I wound up taking a number of poetry workshops with some wonderful teachers, including one visiting professor, Ed Ochester. Eventually, friends and classmates kept telling me my prose read like poetry, and a close friend convinced me to put a chapbook together. It got accepted to the first publisher I sent it to. That’s a long answer already, but still just the first part of the story. Hastening to the end, when I moved to Columbus, Ohio, which has a huge, lively poetry scene, my work was well received on the open mics, and I was continually inspired by the wide range of dynamic poets all around me. So here we are!
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
This is such an interesting question and one that seems like it ought to be easier to answer. But honestly, I had a long academic career and, through most of it, I slogged through the poetry I was assigned and drank up fiction like water. I loved being fully immersed in a good story, the unfolding of a clever character. It took a long time to appreciate the slow unfolding of image, idea, language that you find in poetry. Like so many students victimized by their own education, for a long time I was just afraid of poetry. Along the way, though, there were individual poems that stunned me. “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold comes to mind, which I still find an absolutely stunning work. That a subject as vast as the Victorian Crisis of Faith could be summed so well in so few words—that was a turning point. But it was a long, slow process of encountering poetry incidentally along the road to studying literature generally.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I suspect my first two responses help to answer this one, if I am properly guessing how to interpret “older poets.” I was an English major, history minor, thoroughly entranced with how those subjects were so closely braided together. I was in love with British lit at the time, especially the Victorians. It was a long time before I started paying attention to contemporary literature. Now, everyone around me is a living, breathing poet processing the world through what they write, and it’s honestly a pretty glorious place to be—as a now “older” poet myself!
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I don’t have one. I tend to write very late into the night when the house and the world outside is quiet. And I go through stages of writing voraciously, sometimes write daily as I was when putting “How to See the World” together. But I’m a big believer in paying attention, and in the power of the unconscious—I believe in letting it do its work. I think we’re always processing the fodder, so to speak, for what will make its way to the page when we’re ready.
5. What motivates you to write?
Staying alive. Processing the world so it’s easier to be here. Finding connections from one thing to another and weaving those things together in ways that make sense to me. So maybe, trying to see the world is the best answer—see it as it is, simply, before us. That actually takes a lot of un-learning.
6. What is your work ethic?
As I mentioned in #4, I think my work ethic is paying close attention to the world, to what presents itself to me. Everything is a metaphor, a life lesson. I don’t burden myself by whatever it is I’m “supposed” to be doing as a writer. Pay attention, process, be still. Then the words start to lay themselves out in my head, and that’s when I start writing.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I read so, so, so much prose. I loved character-driven stories, those epiphanic moments where a change of light could suddenly make a character understand everything they’d lived to that moment. So, I suppose in the poetry I write today, I look for and try to express those epiphanic moments.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Mary Oliver has been a huge influence in recent years. She has to be mentioned. I’ve loved Amy Newman for a long time, and Tyehimba Jess and Terrance Hayes. But “today’s writers” includes the community of writers all around me, in Columbus, across the state and region, across the country, really as poets we are a pretty mobile, couch-surfing bunch, and we do what we can to pick up whatever gigs we can, anywhere. I would say I admire the collective voice of the people because we’re in a very powerful process right now of witnessing the world.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I was always intensely, painfully shy, and I’m still easily overwhelmed by sights, sounds, smells, and so on. I don’t react quickly or easily to anything. It takes a long time for me to process things, and writing helps me through that.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Read everything. Everything. Attend every open mic available to you. Read and listen to what you think you won’t like, what you think doesn’t pertain to you. Listen to as many different voices and life experiences as you can. Pay attention to everything around you. Use the writing as a tool to process all of that; let your writing be your process of perceiving the world.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I actually signed two book contracts this summer. Besides How to See the World, which I only just wrote this spring and now debuts September 1st, the collection of bird poems I’ve been working on for years will be released in January of 2022. So, right now, I’m in a process of marketing all that work, which is a whole other ball of wax. I also have a very small poetry press, and we’re debuting two new chapbooks by local authors in late September, so I’ll be immersed in that work for a while. I’m an excellent editor and enjoy that work, as well as designing and hand-stitching the specialty chapbooks we put out. So, it’s going to be a busy fall, full of conferences and readings and releases, all virtual now, so it should be interesting!
12. Thinking about “Opossum: Diversion, Strategy” and “Off Course”, how important is the portrayal of nature to you in these poems, especially birds?
Very important. I grew up hiking in the woods with my father and grandfather, who often stopped us along our trek to point out endangered wildflowers or weird phenomena–like a bucket someone had set on a tree branch a hundred years ago and the tree had grown around it so they each became part of the other. How to See the World is by and large a diary of the pandemic here in the U.S., from early spring through early summer, and I was very aware of being sheltered in place where “nature” may be limited to what you can see from your window, or to the ants making their annual spring trek to the kitchen, and so on. The opossum poem actually came from a friend who posted on Facebook that she found a opossum dead in her garage, and I was immediately taken with the concept of “playing opossum,” which it most certainly seemed we were all doing–waiting for danger to pass.
I’ve been confined to the house a couple of times before for health reasons, and I learned to listen, watch, pay attention to, make do with whatever presents itself to you. And birds have very special significance, always. When I was very sick a while back and mostly confined to bed, the birds outside my window made me crazy with their constant, early-morning racket, and it finally dawned on me that if they were working that hard to get my attention, I’d best listen to what they had to say.
13. How important is form to you in constructing these pieces?
I don’t think of myself as a form poet, but I do pay close attention to how lines are grouped together and how line breaks either create resonance or lead you forward. I tend toward two- and three-line stanzas, which in my mind are always reference to two people or two concepts in relation to each other or to some sort of trinity. I really just let the poem lay itself down on the page.
14. The image of breath is an ongoing theme. Also, the theme of listening.
Yes, very much. Breath is our life force, of course, and we are currently living with a virus that attaches itself to our respiratory system. Breath was an ongoing theme before the pandemic, though, as anything related to wind/air/breath is also related to birds and spirit. And listening is very important, too, as part of what it is to simply be still and pay attention. It’s a lost art, perhaps, as we’re so attached to our distractions and don’t always feel easy with silence. But it’s the key to everything, in my mind. It’s where we come to see and feel and understand that we’re not just in the world and separate from it; we are of the world, an intimately connected part of everything.
15. The theme of “moving”, on and forward, beyond where the poem is.
I think if we’re listening, we’re led. The world is constantly changing, and that’s okay. The image I always connect to, and which is definitely in the book, is any small breeze you can see stirring the trees and how that breeze continues on across the world and circles back again. Every exhale eventually becomes a new inhale–it’s universal, and it’s that intimate part of how we’re all connected.
16. What do you want the reader to leave with once they have read these poems?
I try to leave intention out of things while I’m writing, and it can honestly be months or years before I see things in what I write that are clearly there but which were never consciously intended. That’s the unconscious always at work and always ahead of us, leading the way. What I guess I hope happens is that people are led to recognize the universals of what is inside them and what is simultaneously in the world around us. That people are invited to listen and then to believe in what they encounter. We have a tendency to say “I must be crazy,” but it’s more that our distractions have made us crazy and what lies before us when we pay attention is clear and simple and true and wise. The world really is a beautiful place.