Dorothea Lasky on her new book, Thunderbird, transformation, color, and the demons that haunt her poetry.
What would it be like to not be alive anymore? To leave this world of colors and tactile sensations and friends and strangers and grass and insects and smoke and oceans and wild dreams? It is a question that you’ll inevitably confront when you pick up Dorothea Lasky’s new collection, Thunderbird. The flavor of sensate mortality is thick on these pages—flip through them and read windswept sadness and world-hurt. Read good and evil, confusion and acuity. Read also a howling authority, a life grabbed by its gnarled horns and shown itself in the bathroom mirror. Fan the pages with your thumb and hear a thunderbird as it roars.
Jonathan Aprea One thing that’s very evident in Thunderbird is the quantity of plane crashes. There are plane crashes in “Misunderstood," “Plane Crash of the Thunderbird,” and “Death of the Polish Empire,” and I was wondering about that recurrence in this book. It’s evident that the idea of the thunderbird ties into planes in some way.
Dorothea Lasky I guess that the thunderbird, aside from a lot of American cultural references—I’m thinking of the Native American references, and you know, there’s a lot—is basically a Zeus-like figure that controls lightning and weather and the skies. It’s a figure who is in charge. It’s like a universal spirit sort of deity thing. I guess that I was trying to find a similar image in our culture that really is like a thunderbird, and that to me is a plane. Especially because planes transport you through time and space. I mean they’re changing time, they’re changing space, and when you’re in them you’re sort of contained in some way within this world. That kind of idea is what’s really important to the book. Because if the book is about spiritual transformation or the I going through different states of being, then that’s what’s possible in a plane. And you know, so if there’s a plane crash, what does that mean for what’s happening to the I?
The I is going through a transformation in this book. I really see the three books as a trilogy. The I has gone through a whole process. And after Thunderbird the I is going to be—you know I don’t exactly know what the I is going to be—but it’ll be something else that couldn’t have happened if it hadn’t gone through these three books.
JA I think that Black Life is definitely a darker book than Awe, and I think that this book in some ways is darker than Black Life, but also stranger and more . . . mystical? I don’t know. It’s almost spooky.
DL Yeah (laughter). Well it’s supposed to be.
JA I think it’s coming out in this book with demons and devils and Rangda and these different scary figures that you’re evoking—
DL Did you look up Rangda?
JA I did.
DL Did you look up her face?
JA Yeah. I know I’ve seen it somewhere before. It’s terrifying.
DL She’s really scary. I met her unexpectedly a few summers ago. I was doing my doctoral research in Philly, and I was staying with my friend, the poet Michelle Taransky. Her apartment is on the top of a split level house, and on the stairs going up is a giant mask of a really really scary face with hair that was like six feet: feathered hair going down; gray feathered hair. Michelle was used to it, so she really didn’t think anything of it, but the first time I saw it I felt a jolt. I was staying with her writing these poems and stuff for a few weeks, and every time I’d pass it I would be like—I would have to not look at it because it’s so . . . —well you know what it looks like. But it’s a real thing, embodied, not just an image. And one day we were walking down the stairs, and I was like, “I hate that ugly mask,” and all the lights in the hallway went out.
JA You’re kidding me!
DL (laughter) It was really freaky. And because I would always leave really early for my work in the mornings, I would have a lot of encounters with just me and this mask. So I started getting really interested in who this was. I knew it was a figure from Indonesian mythology, and there’s a god who is kind of like a puppy. He’s a good, sort of nice, little guy, and I thought maybe it was him. So I started finding out more information about him. And he’s mischievous, so I started thinking of this mask thing as kind of a trickster figure. But as I was doing more research I realized that it was Rangda, and Rangda as you know is this evil demonic woman who controls all evil. It was the scariest thing of all it could have been. Anyways, that’s why I put her in the book. We had a thing. We have a history.
JA Going off of that: the thunderbird is this all-powerful thing, I guess, and there’s also the idea of vengeance wrapped into the idea of the thunderbird—
DL Yeah, and in Rangda there is.
JA These are both images of deities to be feared. And I was wondering how you thought that fear plays a role in these poems?
DL Well I think that the I has gained momentum where it’s wanting to create fear. It’s getting power from all of these deities in the book to really assume all of this power that it’s been building, where it’s able to do anything, be anything, be a metaphysical I that can take on any costume. Which is why I feel like the thunderbird is able to transform itself into anything that it needs to.
JA Reading the first half of your book, I was thinking a little bit about Buddhism. And in one poem you actually mentioned it, so it made me think about it more and think that maybe you were thinking about it. You mention that poetry and science relate to Buddhism.
DL Well a kind of holy science is like Buddhism. Just the idea that anything can turn into anything else and that we all contain a life source and everything that exists. It’s a sense of interconnectedness.
JA And another one of your poems talks about God. And it’s almost a warning about when we . . . well you said it better than I’ll say it.
DL Yeah, when we try to personify anything we don’t fully understand. Especially the idea that the animal is closer to—
JA The bear looking through the eyes . . . the passage “Do I dare mention God in this poem?/ God is wild, and not human/ and when people make God human/ he stares at you through the eyes of a bear/ and beats his terrible bearded chest/ and guffaws into the stars.” I just—I was thinking a lot about different religions as I was reading.
DL Well no, it’s a lot about religion. I guess all three books are about religion. I mean really it’s a spiritual journey that the I is going through. Because the first has awe—that you’re alive, an entity to be anything, that kind of reality, and then seeing things anew, which is a wonderful state of being. And then after that knowledge is nihilism, because you know, once you realize you are this thing, you realize that it can go away, too. And then this book is kind of the end of a spiritual journey into a demonic force. A happy or unhappy ending, depending on your outlook.
JA The demonic force definitely comes out. And I’m also very glad that this book came out in October.
DL Halloween, it’s my favorite holiday.
JA And I mean, there is so much death in this collection that October just seems perfect. Did you plan that?
DL I didn’t, but some things you can’t plan.
JA You seem to be attuned to death in a number of ways with the thunderbird. I think it kind of gets at the physicality of a poem as a document that will exist past death, and also there’s just death in general within your poems. “To Be the Thing,” “I Want to be Dead,” “Love Song to the Night,” Death of the Polish Empire,” and a lot of others, in less direct ways. And it comes up in a lot of your other work as well. Do you want to discuss “Death of the Polish Empire,” where you talk about how death is “the most important thing” to be thinking about?
DL Yeah, it’s not a mind-blowing or complex idea, but death is an equalizer. It kind of equalizes all ways of definition. It kind of, in a way, extends a kindness to all other beings. Because once we realize that that’s going to happen to us, it’s obviously an ultimate empathy. I mean maybe that’s like that one particular poem. And also, we were talking about the transformation of the I and the other beings in the poem. That’s something that also connects all poets. You know, poets are always all communicating to each other even past being a living being. There’s always an immortal conversation happening among poets or people that are wanting to speak to each other through poetry. Like Jack Spicer. Have you ever read some of his letters to Lorca? He talks a little bit about that. Just how poets would rather talk to other dead poets, because there’s a kind of gentleness that happens when they’re communicating in a poem, and nothing else can get to that kind of kindness between people. And Catullus talks a little bit about this. Do you like Catullus?
JA I do.
DL Catullus talks about that, like: fuck you or I love you or whatever—the poem is the immortal thing, and I’m doing something to communicate with my other brother by putting this in a poem.
JA And you respond to Catullus directly in this book.
DL Yeah, there’s a lot of Catullus.
JA It doesn’t come up as much in Thunderbird, but in Black Life, all of the direct address to different people and using their names and stuff like that, it reminded me very much of Catullus.
DL I don’t know if you saw it, liking Catullus—there’s a reference to Clodia.
JA Oh Clodia. I couldn’t tell if that was that.
DL Yeah, that’s that. That’s her. And in the same way, this book is talking to her because I have a relationship with her as well, being a poet. And she has lots of names in the book. I call her a lot of names other than Clodia.
DL We all have a Clodia (laughter).
JA I remember last summer I read some poems that you had published on BOMB’s website. They all had to do with different colors. One was explicitly green, one was blue, and one was orange I think. And color is something that comes up a lot in Thunderbird as well as in your other works. It’s a very visual way of writing. It made me think a lot about color in my own work.
DL I’m teaching a class now about color and poetry at NYU, and I am going to start teaching one through Brooklyn Poets soon. I’m trying to write a book about color; it’s going to be called I, Violet. Those poems are from seven poems I wrote which were sketches, where each color is a character. The whole thing’s about murder. It’s like a horror play thing, and that’s a little chapbook that’s going to be called ROYGBIV. But the bigger book’s going to be called I, Violet—it’s trying to think really closely about what happens when you look at all dimensions of a color. This isn’t a mind-blowing idea of mine, but making an image in a person’s mind is the most important thing you can do, or one of the most important things you can do—a responsibility that you have to engage someone’s imaginative space. I think of it as a physical space where you can decorate and plant things within. So you have a responsibility to do that (if that’s what you want to do—I don’t want to be moralistic about it) and color is a really easy and wonderful way to do that. To connect language with that imaginative space. I guess I think it’s important in that way. And also, I just always wanted to paint word paintings. Because, you know, I would have loved to have had any skill visually. It would have made me happy to work in that vein. I never tried. My mom is a painter and an art historian. But very early I knew I was a poet and that I wasn’t a painter. But it’s kind of that instinct that drives my interest in color poems.
JA They talk about that in fiction, they call it “the fictional dream”: being entrapped in a flow while reading, you know, a movie going on inside of your head. And that is something that I think happens more in your work than with some other poets’ work. It’s accessible to a degree that you can have that experience.
DL I just think color is really, really important. There are so many things that are really important that I think we spend a lot of time acting as if they are not important. It’s just this afterthought in a lot of arenas, that things are certain colors. You know, obviously there are some places where it is important, like advertising or a TV show or something like that. But in a lot of ways, even if people are color-coding, they’re not thinking deeply about those colors. They’re just differentiating between things, “oh this folder is blue, this one is green,” and I think there’s just so much more to be considered when it comes to colors. One of my favorite books is Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. She thinks a lot about blue, and in the class I am teaching at NYU, we’re reading that and William Glass has a book, On Being Blue. There’s another book we’re reading by Daniel Tammet who is a man with autism, but I think very high functioning, and it’s called Born on a Blue Day. So it’s just about that, you know—
JA Synesthesia and things like that.
DL Yeah. I used to work with autistic kids, and I love the way autistic brains work. To me there’s some sort of opening that happens in their thinking about the importance of color, in a way that we should think about and value instead of maybe thinking of it as weird. It could be very helpful to us I think in terms of invention and creativity, to think about what cognitive processes are causing these leaps.
JA Talking about fear and the I in this poem, I feel like there are certain poems in this collection that stand out as noticing the perception that another perceives in the speaker and the speaker then correcting that impression. It comes up in terms of understanding versus misunderstanding, inhuman versus human, being a man versus a woman, and I was wondering if that’s something that you consciously placed into your writing as part of this I’s persona?
DL There’s a lot of understanding that a person goes through when they think about what’s contained internally, in terms of what their self is and then obviously the perception of the self in the world. So the internal and the external boundary is always something that’s being negotiated. People develop different ways to negotiate that, whether it’s a public persona or a relationship persona or something like that. But I guess I’m really interested in the idea that that’s not the only negotiation possible. That there’s a self which is not internal or external—instead is a dimension that we can’t fully comprehend within this state of being in a body. It’s part of what the I is, and it has the ability to go beyond that boundary of internal and external and assume any costume or any performative mask, or splinter itself into any form.
JA In many ways this I defies any sort of concrete package that one tries to place it into.
DL Yeah, and any practicality. And I’m glad you used that word concrete. Like any sort of understanding that we have of what it’s like to be within the world—this is something else. But I guess also that we think of us as self, and then we think of interpreting other selves, but what if there’s only one self, you know, which is something that other people have thought about before. We’re all interconnected obviously as a thing, and so if the I acts with that, if the I flattens every voice to itself, then what else could it do?
JA This idea of flattening the self, I read that also in “The Enemy.” The sense of embracing your enemy, and the enemy being you.
DL Yeah, when the I and the you are intimately connected, anything you do to one, you do to the other. Any evil you exert to another person is going to affect you because there’s no difference between you both. So even though it’s very demonic, it’s actually a very kind I this I in Thunderbird. It’s a kind demon. Anyway, I feel like the idea of the demonic is just to go through a transformation. Rather than that the demonic exists as one being. The demonic is the realization that your I is not safe. It doesn’t exist as a finite thing. That it can always be changed, and that kind of fear—that you’re an animal, that you’re a corpse. That you’re always waiting for a new transformation.
Jonathan Aprea is a writer and a photographer. He lives in Brooklyn.