Wombell Rainbow Interview with Lyn Coffin
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Author of poetry, fiction, drama and translation has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, most notably The First Honeymoon (Iron Twine Press), a collection of her short fiction, and her poetic translation of Shota Rustaveli’s 12th century epic (Poezia Press.) Lyn has twice been a Wordsworth Poet in Seattle. Her poetry has won an National Endowment for the Humanities award and a Michigan Council for the Arts grant. Individual poems have won various awards, including the Jeanne Lohmann Poetry Award and first prize in StAnza’s Scottish International Poetry Festival Muriel Sparks’ competition (2018).
Lyn’s poetry was part of the International Poetry Festival in Soria, Spain (8/2017). This Green Life, her New and Collected Poems was featured at the 2018 Soria International Poetry Festival, which also celebrated the publishing of the collection in Spanish (Pregunta).
Lyn has had short plays produced on and off Broadway, Malaysia, Boston and Seattle. Her translation (along with Nato Alkhazashvili) of Dato Barbakadze’s “Still Life with Snow” won a translation award from the Georgian Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection.
Lyn’s fiction has been praised by Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Fulton, among others.
“Falling off the Scaffold has, in a sense, no characters at all, only the projected personaes of two people unknown to each other; yet it respects the contours of reality and gives us, in a most unusual form, a story about illusion and self-deception.” – Joyce Carol Oates, from her Introduction to Best American Short Stories
“Coffin’s fiction shows evidence of an original and delightful intelligence. Her lively and memorable characters speak as if they are possessed by forces slightly beyond their control, in voices brimming with wit, intelligence, cunning, and love. The structure of her stories unfolds with such grace that one forgets the skill it takes to produce such ‘effortless’ architecture.”
– Alice Fulton, Winner: American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature
She has taught at several American Universities, (Michigan, Detroit, Washington), as well as in Malaysia and Georgia (Ilya University). She has also taught translation and Creative Writing at The Shota Rustaveli Institute in Tbilisi. She helped launch the 1st official Mexican Book Fair in Toluca, (8/2015) and lectured at the American University in Cairo in (3/2016). Widely praised translations include Standing on Earth, by Mohsen Emadi, (PhonemeMedia Press), translated from Iranian, with the author’s collaboration (9/2016) and The Adventures of a Boy Named Piccolo (Salamura), by Archil Sulakauri, translated from Georgian with Veronica Muskheli. This book, featuring illustrations by Vaho Muskheli, was displayed at Bologna Book Fair (10/ 2016). (Transcendent Zero)
Lyn’s translations of Nikoloz Baratashvili are featured in a book published by The Museum of Literature in Tbilisi. This volume includes all Baratashvili’s original poems, Boris Pasternak’s Russian translations, and Lyn’s English translations. Professor Harsha Ram of Berkeley, a scholar of Georgian and American poetry, said “Overall, if one were to compare these translations to Pasternak’s, one could say that while among Pasternak’s translations there are genuine masterpieces… they also take radical liberties with the original, while Lyn Coffin has achieved her success without permitting her own poetic sensibility to muffle Baratashvili’s own plangent voice.”
Who introduced you to poetry?
My father introduced me to poetry. He would give us kids a dollar for every poem we memorized. I believe my first attempt was- As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. I met him there again today. I wish to God he’d go away.” Poetry caught on with me like wildfire moving across a forest without harming the trees. I loved the sound of it, the magic of rhymes. And I had already been caught by metaphor. My first creative writing ever was done in response to a prompt in first or second grade. The teacher asked us to describe ourselves and I wrote something like: “I am rectangular and made of wood. There is a hole in my head where people pour in ink.” (Something like that.) The teacher was wildly enthusiastic but I remember a lot of the kids thinking I had misunderstood the assignment in describing a desk. My father’s taste in poetry was narrow- I only heard him thoroughly praise four “poems”- one the speech from Julius Caesar- “There is a tide in the affairs of men…” The second, Masefield’s “I must go down to the sea again.” Kipling’s If which usually petered out after six lines or so. And “The Ballad of Yukon Jake,” by Edward Paramore, Jr., a parody or whatever it is which was so successful my father constantly misremembered it as having been authored by Service himself.
My father was a businessman who had left the halls of learning (Brown) rather early under interesting circumstances, and (as he would be the first to tell you)not the intellectual my mother was. But. He loved to recite poetry and loved to hear us recite it to him. I think once I got $2 for reciting “The Hollow Men” at dinner. I also had friends who knew and loved poetry, including one early boy friend who left a part of “death shall have no dominion” scrawled on a piece of note paper taped to our cottage door (I thought he had written it, which I believe was part of his somewhat nefarious intent). I remember my parents told our plumber on the phone they had left instructions for him and when he found my friend’s poetic offering, he tried to make sense of it in plumbing terms.
There were also assorted teachers who introduced me to certain forms of poetry. I remember a professor of Greek talking about Sapphic lyrics, and being so inspired I wrote this: “Poetry is all around us, everywhere you look. Stems ending in a liquid Is a lesson in my grammar book.”
How aware were and are you of the dominating influence of older writers, traditional and contemporary?
One is never aware enough. Growing up, I was very aware of the presence of Carl Sandburg, and wrote a parody for the Miss Halls School yearbook about my life, told in Carl Sandburg fashion. A few months later, I got a letter from him praising my poem, but by then I had “moved on” and now was enamored of Robert Frost (I’ve never quite shaken him- especially “Design”- the darkest poem I think I’ve ever read)- so enamored of Frost that I threw away Sandburg’s letter (which had committed the unpardonable sin of not being written by Frost). I don’t know much- I especially regret my lack of knowledge of foreign poets. I’ve always been embarrassingly ignorant. One example (a prosaic one)- My cousin was reading a book- I asked her what it was and she said “The Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant”- “Oh,” I said. “Who’s that by?” A pause. “Well,” she said. “It’s by Guy de Maupassant.” Another pause. “Some people know him as Guy de Mo-pass-ann.” “Oh, Him,” I said.) I have had the great good fortune to stumble upon or be given the chance to become familiar with two GREAT poets most Americans have never heard of- One is Jiri Orten, a Czech (Jewish) poet, killed in the Holocaust and Edward Hirsch has been a great supporter and wrote about Orten’s “A Small Elegy” in my translation in his “How to Read A Poem,” saying it was/is one of the poems he most loves. I hope readers will look up Orten- but avoid the “other” translation. The man means well, but English is not his native language and the translations are (imho) very bad. I also “ran into” the 12th century Georgian (as in the country) poet, Shota Rustaveli and his epic poem, The Knight in the Panther Skin. This is a fantastic narrative, written in shairi (an old Persian form which I also used in my translation; shairi is sixteen syllable lines, rhymed aaaa, bbbb, etc., etc.) Shota wrote 1661 quatrains. The translation took me well over two and a half years. But it won the SABA Award, and that was really nice. I have a dear ear/sensibility as far as Whitman goes and I am only lately learning to edge in to Ginsberg. I have a soft spot for Billy Collins. I’ve written several “paradelles,” and hope some day he will see my “Paradelle on Love” and write me about it. (Billy, are you there?)
I wasn’t aware of Poets Against the War, which I think was a crucial movement, until I met Sam Hamill later in (I was going to say “his life,” but it was/is mine, as well)— I copy-edited Habitations and I’m really proud of that. I am minorly aware of contemporary Seattle poets. We have a really active scene here- Jed Myers comes to mind, Judith Roche, Michael Dylan Welch for haiku, Carolyne Wright, Sharon Cumberland. And an only partially-discovered Tom Brush. I love the work of Ilya Kaminsky and Alice Fulton. I am aware of the dominating presence of my teachers, especially Radcliffe Squires (almost forgotten) and Donald Hall.
What is your daily writing routine?
This answer is easy. I don’t have a daily writing routine, and I don’t want one. I don’t like routines. Even things I do like seem to pall when they’re on a regular, daily basis. Sometimes I write a whole lot, sometimes nothing. I try to pay heed to that small voice (of a devil, an imp, an angel) and write when I have something to say. I don’t believe (for myself) in journal-writing, or workshops that operate from “a prompt.” If a prompt is used, I ask that everyone who has written a response (if he or she is willing) read the response to the group. I find it somehow crushing or discouraging to have bunches of people writing and then going on to write something else, without any Communication taking place. The belief seems to be that the act of writing is crucial but what is written doesn’t matter. But sooner or later, when one operates in such a context, I think one comes to feel- If the thing that is written doesn’t matter, neither does the act of producing it. (I hope this makes sense.) I think prompts and exercises make it easier for the writing teacher, but are (not to overstate things) death for the writer, especially a beginning writer. I had a friend who was a writing teacher with me at the University. His classes always involved prompts and his homework involved complicated exercises- “Write a scene in which two people talk and each has a secret he or she does not communicate to the other.” I commented once that I don’t write like that, write in response to “prompts” and he said, “I don’t, either, but it makes writing easier to teach.” If students can’t come up with an idea, I suggest they plagiarize. If you try writing a story or a poem you have loved (unless you have it memorized), your writing will creep in around the edges. I like to compare the teaching of writing, and writing itself, with taking a class of young kids to the Natural History museum. And you’ve prepared this lecture on the Native American way of life and as you go in the door, one kid yells, “Hey, a dinosaur!” And they run off to the dinosaur room. You can try to corral them and force them to listen to your lecture. But I think it better to go with the urge, the instinct, and do an impromptu lesson on dinosaurs.
What motivates you to write?
Uh. Well- This is one of those questions. The standard answers I can think of-
1) I dunno, I just always have;
2) That’s like asking what motivates me to breathe. Writing with me goes back a long way- I’ve thought of myself as a writer, or known myself to be a writer, since first grade. Motivational questions are always difficult questions, I think- very complicated. “Why?” has many roots. Even something like “Why did you have cheerios for breakfast?” (as I did this morning) could be answered
Because they were out of Rice Krispies.
Because I’ve had too many eggs recently and wanted a change.
Because I wanted something to put under fresh fruit.
Well, you get the idea. I write because I can, because it seems to me one way I can contribute to the world, because nobody stops me, because I’m a terrible bowler. More seriously, I like reading and I admire authors and as a young child, I “wanted to do that.” Writing releases uncomfortable emotions in me. Writing satisfies uncomfortable ambitions in me. But really- in our end is our beginning- I dunno, I just always have.
How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
When I think “young,” I’m thinking elementary or high school (first). Let’s start with the short stories- I remember three short stories that really made an impression on me, and only one of them is known to me now. That one, by Richard Connell (I just looked it up- I read it way before author’s names were important), is about a big game hunter who hunts another hunter. I don’t think that had any influence at all. I don’t remember the titles or the authors of the other two- One was about a civilization in the future that had one pill a year to eat- The baby in the family ate a bottle of them and blew up. The other story was about a husband who is cheating on his wife (this one was high school) and he “sports with his mistress in the shade” and then she asks him some question, and he responds that he sleeps around but he only shares ideas with his wife. I don’t think any of these stories had any influence on me at all. Ah. I know. The one story I read early which Did have an influence was “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Many times over in my life, including in “The Gift Horse,” which I think is the best short story I’ve ever written, I’ve written or tried to write stories that carry over into the afterlife, that don’t end when there main character or narrator dies. As for poetry, I read Sandburg quite a bit and ended up writing a Sandburg parody that was published in my high school yearbook. Somehow it ended up on Sandburg’s desk and he wrote me a short letter praising my poem and predicting great things for me but by the time (a year later?) I got the letter, I had moved on and discovered Robert Frost. I was embarrassed to be “found out” as a lover of Sandburg and I threw the letter away. (I wonder if there’s a copy somewhere in the Sandburg archives- Or a copy of my poem? If only….) “If” and “The Hollow Men” were great favorites. I feel that I’m failing this question (which interest me a lot), so let me quote my first “independent, non-assigned” poem as a way of making up for lost memories. (I wrote this in my first year at college): “Beyond night’s harvest/ moon-scythed/ fierce tigers stalk./ Green glades/ deep rain-dark woods/ sheathe cool white claws.” (I regret the “fierce” very much.)One stray memory- I liked The Little Prince as a child and have read it countless times, usually when I’m trying to learn a language.Whether it’s influenced me, I don’t know. I love(d) the little fox, especially where he discovers there are no hunters on the little prince’s planet and is really excited about it. Then the little prince tells him there are no chickens, either, and the little fox says, “Nothing is perfect.” Ah. I remember one poet I read early who I also remember had a big influence on me, and that was Stephen Crane. His little nugget poems (“But the man ran on…”) or “I eat it because it is bitter/ And because it is mine” (if I remember rightly) paved my way to haiku. I used to discuss haiku with Sam Hamill, and I remember his brilliant translation of and interpretation of the famous Bassho frog haiku. Sam explained that the frog jumped into the sound of water, not the water itself. Somehow, that explained a lot to me. I have written a lot of haiku. hummingbird/hovering/ both of us….
Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I had the great good fortune to translate Standing on Earth, (Phoneme Media) the poems of Mohsen Emadi, an Iranian poet living in exile in Mexico. Mohsen’s work uniquely fascinates and inspires me. Mohsen knows more about everything literary than any other person I have ever met. Through Mohsen, I became acquainted with the work (in translation) of the great Spanish poet, Antonio Gamoneda. I came close to meeting this archetypal, mythic poet when I was in Spain last summer. I still hope I will be able to tell him in person how much I admire him.
Reading today’s writers is always something in flux. I will do a reading in Ann Arbor in March with Keith Taylor, and I admire him tremendously. I seem to gravitate to poetry of place, and his is definitely a “planted” voice. I admire a poet named Jed Myers, a Seattle poet. I remember when Jed was just starting out and now he has found his voice. Jed not only writes poetry but he reads a lot and always has suggestions for me. He writes essay from his double perspective of poet and psychiatrist. It was Jed who turned me on to Robert Wrigley. I’ve only read two poems by Robert Wrigley, and I loved both of them. I will be reading more. There is a poet in my poets’ group whose name is Tom Brush. He hasn’t published much, but his is a terrific, uncompromising presence in today’s poetry world. There is a wild and outrageously wonderful Georgian(as in the country) poet named Irakli Qolbaia- I think he’s published a few poems in France and a few in Georgia, but he is close to unkown. And wonderful. The last poet I would mention is Ilya Kaminsky. His poetry is wonderful and he himself is a spirit to inspire and lead us. I love his work. I notice there are no women on this list. I admire Judith Roche’s poetry- She is another Seattle friend. I knew Alice Fulton at Michigan. I loved her poetry then but I have lost track of her. I admire the poetry of Carolyn Forche but don’t know it really well. There is so little time and so much poetry to read!
What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?
How do you become a dog owner? I’m being facetious, obviously, because the question is problematic, hovering halfway between “How did you become a writer?” and “How does one become a writer?” I became a writer by writing lots of stuff and having some people like it enough to publish it. “How does one become a writer?” Some people think writers are born, not made. If one keeps writing, one is a writer. If one calls oneself a writer, one is a writer. Actually, the more interesting question (to me) would be- When does one fail to become a writer (when one wants to be)? THe answer would be- I don’t know- Never? I know plenty of people who write gibberish (on the net, for instance) and are taken seriously as writers. When do you become an adult?- You can assign a year, a state of mind. My son once asked me- “When did you first feel old?” and I fired back, “When did you?” (He was about 30 at the time.) But the question is not Why but How? Is this asking for a recipe? There isn’t any. The closest we get these days is to keeping a journal, and I don’t believe in keeping a journal. There’s a joke/ riddle somewhere- “How do you get a dog out of a box?” Answer: He’s out. I’m not grasping this as I should, probably, but “How do you become a writer?” Answer: You’re a writer. How did you become one? A writer of what? For what? To what end? I’m glad this question comes so near the end, because I basically don’t get it. At least not the way it should be gotten.
Tell me about writing projects you’re involved in at the moment.
Ah. Writing projects at the moment are varied— even scattered, I think you could say…. First of all, I spent this evening going back over my novel, The Aftermath. A friend had helped me by marking up a manuscript— inserting quotes, taking out quotes, making various and sundry complaints. I fixed a lot of small stuff. I’m not sure I’ll be able to take out 80 pages, as she suggests, however. This is a novel about a woman who is drugged and raped. The prologue moves very quickly, and leads one to expect a detective thriller or a crime novel, I suppose. But The Aftermath is quite different. My reader didn’t like the time I spent on labor and delivery. But it shows where my protagonist’s mind is…. Sigh. Another project involves Zipf’s law. I became fascinated when someone told me about word frequency, and I found Zipf’s law, listing the 100 most frequent words in English. I have been writing a story a day, increasing the number of common words I leave out. Tonight, I was up to 80, and I think I shall stop there. The story narrators are sounding more and more insane. (Available on my blog, at http://www.lyncoffin.com). Another project I worked on today was preparing the second edition of Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther Skin. I am going back over this huge epic, trying to make the caesuras appear more regularly, as Rustaveli himself apparently did. Before, I just put a pause in wherever I wanted. But now I am informed, and reformed. I also looked at Angel Guida’s book of poems, Espectral. I hope to co-translate this before the summer. And I worked a tiny, tiny bit on writing lyrics for a melody that is being composed by my friend, Nino Basharuli. The topic of the song is “Seattle.” So there you have it. I did quite a bit of work on a number of different fronts. So much needs to be done.
Thank you very much for interviewing me. Thank you for putting this series up on the web. If there is any mainstream publisher out there who would be willing to read the first 40 pages of The Aftermath, please contact me right away.