Charles Bukowski

Over the years, I’ve been proud to have my fiction appear alongside writers I greatly admire (William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Margaret Atwood). The first poems I ever published came out in an issue of The Hudson Review that contained James Wright’s last-from his wonderful final book, This Journey. It meant a lot to me.

I’ve recently been doing a big clean out…and in staggering down memory lane, one name keeps appearing with baffling frequency…LYN LIFSHIN. She is everywhere. And of course, my humble publication record doesn’t even give the slightest hint of just how truly ubiquitous she is.

If there’s ever been a journal that has published poetry, the Vegas odds are she’s been in it. It’s astounding. Over 120 books she’s published–I think. Thousands of mag publications. Literally.

I’m torn between admiring such prolific output…and wondering about all the postage. I imagine all the cover letters…the envelopes laid out in long hallways (like M.C. Escher winding stairs). What must the machine behind that enterprise look like? Simply to keep so much material out in the mail is a logistical feat.

And keeping track. Last week I got a “thanks but no thanks” letter from the Indiana Review–for work submitted three years ago! I’d forgotten I’d written the piece, let alone sent it. Maybe Lyn’s just really well organized.

I think too of the loneliness of some poor editor of what will end up being a two issue journal or webzine…and they don’t get a submission from Lyn. How would you feel? Lyn, we’re waiting…

I’ve occasionally considered the possibility that Lyn isn’t actually an individual, but a code name for a cooperative.

Then the truly disturbing notion occurred that perhaps she’s doing a Joyce Carol Oates on us (one of the funniest articles I’ve ever read was on Oates, in the Atlantic Monthly, called “Stop Me Before I Write Again”)…not only publishing endlessly under her own name, but under a range of pseudonyms. Lyn might be sitting back and thinking, “Hmm, I’ve got 200 poems I wrote yesterday, how am I going to get them all out?” Yes, a ticklish question arises for Lyn Lifshin scholars-just how much contemporary poetry is she responsible for?

Questions fill my mind in the case of writers like Lifshin and Oates. Do they lick all the stamps themselves? Have they ever lost a piece of writing? I just found a whole book I’d forgotten about and am resurrecting. A BOOK-not one poem or story. Admittedly, one of the reasons I’d forgotten about the book is that it was written in a period of deep alcoholic and narcotic confusion in Tonga, where it actually seemed like a reasonable proposition to shoot a speargun at a government official trying to protect himself with a giant tortoiseshell (I got the bastard, don’t you worry–right in the thigh-and then I got my passport back).

I watched 200 handwritten pages blow out the window of a twin engine Otter over Papua New Guinea and seriously considered going after them (I was skydiving then and figured the jungle canopy would be kind to me). Then I thought they looked rather lovely floating down. They reminded me of a great moment at an old Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference concerning the soon to die John Gardner–his angry ex-wife had hired a plane to drop leaflets all over sunny green Middlebury, exposing his cadlike behavior. My friend Stanley Elkin, who had to walk with a cane because of MS, insisted I scurry after some. Tim O’Brien and I laughed ourselves sick.

I wonder too if Lyn and Joyce are now diligent about backing up. They’d be good backers up. Press Save. Press Send. I only recently lost 150 pages in a computer crash. Bang. Gone. Imagine how Lyn and Joyce would feel.

I’m very suspicious of people who are well organized and save everything. Hunter S. Thompson (someone you’d think I’d be pretty supportive of) worried me with his neatly mimeographed letters.

As Miles Davis once said…and I happened to hear because I was the only one with him…he wasn’t exactly talking to me…”Not all music has to be heard to be listened to.” It was kind of a Bruce Lee insight.

Some writers are so prolific you wonder how they have time to even proofread their work, let alone actually read it back and consider. William T. Vollman is a good example. You can skip not just pages, but whole sections. Hell, you can skip books.

What’s my point? Well, I don’t apologize for that speargun incident one bit. That dill hole had it coming and I nailed him. I tracked him down and I hit the target. It happened in the lobby of the Dateline Hotel. I pressure packed him and reassured the guests who witnessed it. “Just a personal matter,” I said.

It’s easy to forget words-and let’s face it, most of them should be forgotten. I couldn’t quote a Lyn Lifshin poem to save my balls. You remember people you wound-and help.

The strategy of trying to put out as much as you can into the fossil record of culture is fair. Just as long as it has the thzing. That’s what the speargun sounded like.

Saknussemm on the Beach

It was beautiful. I took a pompous little civil servant down, on the run, at 10 feet, missing a major artery. I got my passport back and legal clearance to leave the country. I left behind the book I was writing then. Cost of doing business. It’s taken me a long time to learn just what business I’m in.

It’s called Thzing. Our mission statement is “Wounding and helping.” We choose our shots-and when to extend a hand. Let others crank shit out.

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KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is a writer, painter and musical producer. He is the author of the international cult novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. Random House is bringing out his third novel in the USA in March 2011, and a new book called Reverend America has just been completed and is already being sold in Europe. A Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he has won First Prize in the Boston Review and River Styx Short Fiction Contests, and received the Fiction Collective 2 Award for Innovative Writing, in addition to publishing in a wide range of places such as Playboy, Nerve.com, Opium Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner and ZYZZYVA, amongst many others. You can find more about him on his Facebook Page.

9 responses to “I Still Love Lyn Lifshin In Spite of This”

  1. dwoz says:

    High point of my day, and the inexorable ring of truth, to boot.


    Not truth.


    My new favorite word.

    Even in spite of it’s etymological ancestry in “sizzle”.

  2. Your writing is dazzling, no doubt about it. And the point(s) you make are well taken. But in all defense of Lyn (she happens to be a friend, and someone with whom I have a semi-regular online discourse), how much she publishes (or not) is her business. Not yours. Whether you can quote something she wrote “to save your balls” or not, is your problem. Not hers. And I would say that to call anyone else’s work “shit” is really low. Just me. Peace.

    • dwoz says:

      My dear Robert, I think you miss one very important thing about a piece like this. The erstwhile target of derision, Lyn Lifshin, is in the entirely enviable position of being able to read a hit piece like this and laugh…all the way to the bank, baby…all the way to the bank.

      And that’s kind of implicit in the presentation.

      The thought comes to mind of Sammy Soza reading a sports writer, talking about how dull and uninteresting it has become to write about how Soza has, as predictably as the need to defecate every morning, spanked the cover off yet another baseball, and why don’t we talk about something interesting for a change?

      I think Soza would laugh right along, and say, All the way to the bank, my friend!

  3. Kris Saknussemm says:

    I actually dig the vast majority of Lyn’s work that I’ve read. My real target is literary credentialism–the game we are all forced to play today of building up a track record–hence an inherent emphasis on quantity–when in fact, some of the most revered American classics of relatively recent times have been the work of very non-prolific authors. I think of Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, Robert Pirsig.

    I was once at a reading honoring the Seattle poet David Waggoner on his 21st poetry book, and someone in the back hollered, “Yes, but can anyone here recite a single line?” There was a telling silence.

  4. JSBreukelaar says:

    I think what it comes down to is leaving a mark. Not just for posterity but also so others know they’re not alone. Whether it’s one book or a hundred. I get that from Harper Lee. I get it from Stephen King. I remember reading one of your early stories, Kris. One story. And I got it from that too.

  5. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Thanks Jen. I agree. It’s the connection that counts, however you make it. I still listen obsessively to Larry Coryell’s few seconds of pure guitar attack on the Mingus recording of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” I hear the sound rise, and the hairs on my head go up. It’s not a solo. It’s exactly 11 seconds of music. But I can’t imagine my life without those 11 seconds.

  6. Kristine says:

    This is the best article about Lifshin and her prodigious output. The funniest, too. 🙂

  7. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Thanks Kristine. I did mean to poke playful fun at Lyn. Nothing mean.

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