Documenting Discovery: Lisa Olstein on the Art of Observation

“We all love to receive something either really beautiful or really intelligent, but what’s most exciting or engaging is when a work of art stimulates in you a new kind of thinking, or a new set of questions, or a new set of ideas that are happening in your own brain but that were instigated by the art.”

Culture asks much of the writer: filter the cacophony, exceed vernacular, deliver art. The writer may use familiar language to build an extraordinary world, to make an unusual character an analog for the self, to transform that self into a friend. She may excel at documentation, recording observations in exquisite lines that juxtapose agricultural ritual with scientific discovery, interior reflection with external reproach. Poet Lisa Olstein is this writer. In “Lost Alphabet” (Copper Canyon, 2009) she gives readers a collection of moths, a mysterious companion, a dark hut in an unusual country, and the eyes of a lepidoptrist asking perennial questions: What does it mean to know? Are there limits to understanding? Even in company are we anything but alone?


Slowly, the absence of pain arrives like
snow falling. It was on a day like this when, visiting, Ilya
decided to stay. At least, never left. It is customary here to
accompany the wounded. Whoever is able, and near.


Each poem is an illustrated plate colored by detail — the work of writer as collector. We learn that Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” brushes against the atmosphere of Marco Polo’s travel diaries, that Olstein was captivated by a landscape of moth wings. Holding a hand to the eye and rounding the fingers, the speaker of “Lost Alphabet” acts as the writer acts: narrowing focus, targeting detail.


I want nothing to end, not a single observation,
despite longing for what remains unknown. For one thing:
weight. Another: ratio. Flight’s beat, beat, glide. And
constantly, the interruption: sometimes circling for days, a
wary insistent stray.


In her new poems, myriad voices extend Olstein’s investigation. Mentions of medical experiments appear beside anecdotes of space travel. Reflection is compelled by fact, doubt undergirds perception.


Either the mute child spoke
in full sentences alone in the dark
or the monitors picked up ghosts
of deliverymen and pelicans
streaming over the bridge.


Thus Olstein asks us to consider knowledge as ephemeral, relational. She critiques certainty, exposes fact. These are important poems. They walk us to the borderline of what we take for granted and stand unflinching at the chasm, compelling us to wonder what it’s possible to know.


— Carlin M. Wragg, Editor


Note: This transcript has been slightly modified to enhance readability.


Lisa Olstein: Reads “[white spring]” from Lost Alphabet (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).


Carlin M. Wragg: I wanted to start by asking you a question about color, or really the lack of color. I felt in reading the poems that the setting was colorless, but colorless in a good way, in a way that made it dream-like and ephemeral. Some images I’m thinking about are “a shadow made by starlight,” and “a white sheet illuminated by moonlight.” I’m wondering if you were thinking about creating a certain kind of space with this technique, or why you chose those images as a way of describing the setting.


LO: It’s interesting because you’re coming at it from an angle that wasn’t the angle from which I approached it but it’s very interesting to hear and I think you’re right. To me it’s almost like a world seen and experienced through a scrim. There is this sense of quiet, of mutedness — not a lack of immediacy, or of connection, or passion even, but it is a very meditative, incremental world. I think the place I imagined myself into is one of great measure and a lack of what we would ordinarily think of as active, whether it’s through color or activity itself.


I think so much of this project comes from spending a lot of time staring at these incredibly enlarged images — they’re scans actually — of moths. There’s this book called Night Visions by a scientist named Joseph Scheer. There was some new technology that allowed them to scan the specimens without crushing them — I think before they could enlarge them but the moth would essentially be flattened, or the butterfly or the insect, whatever was being looked at — so what you have are these moths that in real life are a quarter-of-an-inch long, maybe an inch or two long, or wide, and they’re blown up into a twelve-inch image. Sometimes it’s just a fraction of the wing that’s blown up. So what you’re seeing is something that’s almost microscopic spread out, enormous. The truth is that a lot of the moths are very vibrant in color, but a lot of them are very pale or very dull; those were the ones that I was most drawn to and spent the most time immersing my senses in.


CMW: How did you learn about moths? Was it from these images alone or did you do other research?


LO: The research part of this project was really fun and really tricky, and part of what was fun and tricky was figuring out what seemed right to me as I went along. I was really influenced in sensibility by Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. I had just read and reread that memoir and there was something about the way he was looking through the veil of time at the past and at his childhood, and at certain childhood scenes. There was something in the vividness of it, but it also had a dreamlike quality because it was coming through memory — that was one influence.


For me it just kind of emerged. Once I had a whole bunch of poems I thought, “I’m just going to have a multi-part poem,” and then I thought, “Maybe I’ll have a little series,” and then “I thought, ‘I’m just going to have a multi-part poem,’ and then I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll have a little series,’ and then I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll have a section in a book,’”I thought, “Maybe I’ll have a section in a book,” and then I thought, eventually — I think I had about thirty pages and I was only just beginning to scratch the surface of what I felt like was there — I thought, “I’m going to go for it. I’m going to try to do this.” So at that time, in addition to studying the moths in Night Visions, I did start to poke around and see what else might contribute. A big contributor was The Travels of Marco Polo, Marco Polo’s diaries, for a sense of strangeness and dislocation, of travel, and of the outsider looking in.


I was really clear that I wanted my traveler to land somewhere and stay, to become immersed, and that’s really the opposite of what happens in The Travels where they just keep moving, moving, moving, but there was a real contribution from borrowed phrases and from that sense of foreignness and dislocation. In terms of the moths themselves, I looked at some Audubon drawings. I also poked around and found some really strange books written by amateurs. There’s a book called Moths and How To Rear Them by this guy who, as a hobbyist, got really into raising moths. He had this whole basement system in his house he’d set up with no guidance, so he wrote a how-to book, in case you also wanted to be an amateur moth breeder in your basement, about how to build cages out of screens and what to feed different species. It was really weird, and really exciting.


What was clear to me from this research was that I couldn’t become an expert and then select information for my character to know. I wanted to essentially be the character, swimming around and making things up as I went along. So I did turn to reference books, to these old illustrations, and to naturalist accounts to find certain language, like the names of certain moths, and certain information that is true, that is factually correct about the way something might work, but overall what I was seeking was inspiration, things that I could take in and digest as the character that then could be used in the character’s voice in this weird investigation, this weird journey that the character goes on.


CMW: I’m curious about what you discovered in the process of this research. Why are people looking at moths? Why is this man building a set-up in his basement? What is it about the animal that you found, or you found others to be, really transfixed by?


LO: I think that lepidoptery is a really old form of study. Way before what we consider to be modern science people studied moths and butterflies as avidly as they studied anything else, flora and fauna, so I think they’ve just always been part of the available world that human beings have been fascinated by. I think maybe in terms of our moment right now, insects and birds are the wild animals that are integrated into most of our lives. I happen to live in a place where there are a lot of farms so I see farm animals, but they’re not wild animals. There are coyotes and moose and bear around but, first of all, most of them are radio-tagged and tracked, and second of all, most of them I rarely see. Where we’ve landed in our lives, in our culture, we’re very disconnected from wildness and wild animals, yet even in cities we see birds and insects all day long, in almost any place, in any context.


In some funny way — and this wasn’t intentional, this wasn’t a realization that I then chose to pursue — in thinking about it in retrospect I believe that there’s something there that we recognize, that birds and insects, in this case butterflies, moths, are truly wild; we don’t control them, we affect their habitats but we’re not making their habitats, we don’t farm them, yet they still come into our field of vision and interact in our world more than any other kind of wild creature.


CMW: I want to ask you about horses. I think horses are a consistent presence in your work. I’m curious about whether you were using horses as a symbol, not of wildness but of domesticity. I wonder if I’m reading that right? What were you thinking about with horses? Why do they appear from time to time in the book?


LO: I think you’re exactly right. I think horses represent but also embody — they actually are — animals that we as humans have developed these incredibly complex relationships with. I’ve ridden on and off from childhood but I’ve never owned a horse, I never lived in horse country, I wasn’t a horse person, but I’ve always loved riding and have had different opportunities at different times in my life to do it.


I love animals, so the opportunity to have an interspecies relationship beyond what you can have with your average house pet is unbelievably appealing to me. I realize that it’s probably not good for the animals but if I could I would really like to have a friend who’s a dolphin; interspecies communication and interaction is something I’m very greedily and enthusiastically, and probably immaturely, drawn to. I think people often have very emotionally complex relationships with their cats or dogs or parrots or whomever they live with, and I think that that’s very real and I’ve had that too.


With a horse it’s different, just because any species is different, but also you’re working together. Maybe people feel that way with a guide dog or a herding dog, or something where you’re really embarking together on some project and really working in complicated ways together, but riding is like that; you can’t ride an unwilling horse. When you ride a horse you are communicating and the communication is going in both directions. This is not to discount the fact that horses were originally wild and they’ve been domesticated, I’m not trying to comment on that, but through domesticated horses we do have complicated relationships and interspecies communication. So this book — again, this wasn’t my intention — is, I think, a bridge. It becomes a parallel for what the speaker pursues with the moths, in that the speaker is actually developing this communicative, really complex relationship with the moths that he’s studying.


CMW: I want to ask you about your titles. The titles of the poems in the book appear uniform, in brackets, right-justified. They’re not capitalized. Is the way the text is organized and the way the titles are organized something that came after the poems were written or did it emerge organically?


LO: It also emerged. The really, really early ones, when the voice was first arriving, I remember writing in couplets, line breaks and couplets, and I think pretty quickly that started to not feel right. I think pretty quickly it started to feel to me like a naturalist’s notebook, like a person doing a “…when the voice was first arriving, I remember writing in couplets, line breaks and couplets, and I think pretty quickly that started to not feel right. I think pretty quickly it started to feel to me like a naturalist’s notebook…”combination of recording their work and their observations along with their thoughts and their inner world. It felt like the two were meshing and getting integrated and getting confused. I don’t honestly remember when I started writing them as prose poems. I think that emerged pretty early in the project. The titles being right-justified and lowercase and in brackets, that came at the end, and the reasoning for that was I really liked the titles and the places where I’ve borrowed phrases — a few from Nabokov, a bunch from Marco Polo’s The Travels, some from some of these strange moth books that I read, sometimes they’re species names, either common or Latin — the titles are the places where I put those borrowed words and phrases. In many cases they delight me a little bit, which is why I chose them. Many of them are my own invention too. I really liked them, and I liked them being there.


The book itself isn’t a typically or normatively organized book of poems and the relationship between the title and the body of the poems isn’t as it was in my first book, or in the poems I’m writing now. I wanted to include the titles, but they had the potential to feel intrusive. The way that I conceived of them was that I thought of the titles as one small pebble that I was arranging next to another pebble or stone. You know when you’re at the beach and you pick up pretty rocks and you start putting them down next to each other and you like certain combinations? That’s how they felt to me, and I liked that, but my editor was like, “Gosh, I don’t even know if these poems should have titles, if they even need titles,” and a friend who read the manuscript had the same response. I was searching for a way to include the titles because I did like them, I liked the smaller stone next to the larger stone, sometimes they just set a tone or introduced a strange idea, so I didn’t want to lose them but I wanted to find a way where in the experience of reading it didn’t feel like you had to stop and have a new title formally announced to you and then could enter a new poem. There’s a real continuity between the poems, or at least I was striving for a continuity between the poems, so I wanted to find a way for the titles to exist but to be unobtrusive.


CMW: That certainly was accomplished for me when I was reading. There are two things that I’m thinking about. One is remembering how I was reading when I read the book for the first time. By the middle, I was reading the titles almost as links between the last poem and the next poem rather than breaking at the end of the page. I almost want to say that they were like waves, there was something very continuous about them for me. The second thing I’m thinking about is how you said it’s like a naturalist’s notebook, that’s one way you were thinking about it. It also seems like a writer’s notebook. It’s like the traces of inspiration, things that you were attracted to as a writer, have found their home in the text in a way that doesn’t distract from the work that you created.


LO: That’s probably the most true answer. That it was a way for me to sneak in some of the language that really instigated and excited me and yes, to actually bring those artifacts, in a sense, into it.


CMW: I want to transition a little bit and talk about juxtaposition. The reason for that is because there was a way in which the poems made meaning for me in the lines themselves but also in the relationship between lines. I found as I was reading that I was feeling impressions of things that weren’t always related to the images on the page. I’m curious to know whether you were thinking about juxtaposition or about putting different things next to each other and hoping there would be a resonance between them? And maybe if you want to read “[if you are here you have already come too far]” because I can see a couple of places in this poem that relate to this idea.


LO: Reads “[if you are here you have already come too far]” from Lost Alphabet (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).


CMW: What I’m looking at while we’re with the poem is that in saying certain things you say others. So, “I know almost nothing except the way they move their eyes across my face,” and the line goes on. In saying “I know almost nothing” except these things the speaker illustrates action that ends in something that’s rather shocking and startling, this violence, again we’re back to horses and their relationship with people, so even though the poem itself didn’t feel violent to me, in the end I was in the presence of violence. There’s a way in which the juxtaposition of “I know almost nothing” tells you how much the speaker actually knows.


LO: I think that’s true, and I think what’s happening here is that the poem is trying to ask the question, “What do we usually mean when we say we know nothing about somebody, or we know a lot about somebody?” We often are relying on the things that they tell us about themselves. Say, for example, if you and I were to become friends, what are the ten things I’d be sure to tell you and what are the ten things you’d be sure to tell me? Would those things be significant or not? Whereas, what would it mean for us to get to know each other through a whole different set of things that weren’t based on the stories that we always tell about ourselves?


Here it’s like you pointed out, the experience of observing, asking how does somebody look out at their land? How do they treat the animal that they’re interacting with? How do they respond to something like getting thrown off a horse? Is it through anger or through laughter? It’s sort of like the speaker is saying, “I don’t know anything about their stories. I don’t know anything about who they are or what they think because I don’t even speak their language so I can’t even find out the most basic things,” but through observation and shared experience you can also learn an enormous amount, just in this other kind of way, not in a way that we ordinarily privilege as a way of getting to know somebody.


CMW: Before we go to your new work I want to ask two last questions about Lost Alphabet that really relate more to the backstory than the words on the page. I’m curious about what you as the writer felt this village looked like as you were working with it. I wonder who who these people are to you and whether there was a specific time period you were thinking in as you were, again, working through this story in the book.


LO: I think that the village does exist in my mind, but it isn’t like I can say it’s this small town outside Ljublijana in Slovenia; it’s an imagined place, and it’s informed by my ignorance. To me the Mongolian Steppes is the vague notion of where this is happening, but I made a point of not actually trying to find out what it looks like in a small village in that part of the world because I wanted to imagine the place. The time period is also sort of tricky. I don’t have an exact date. I did do a certain amount of thinking like, “Well, glass has been invented,” but I knew I didn’t want my character to be examining things with a microscope, I wanted it to be done with the human eye. I made choices about what to include. I have a vague sense of time period and to me there were things that felt either too old or too new. I was aware of anachronistic issues, but I didn’t pinpoint them and try to find out what was happening in this particular decade.


CMW: Let’s talk about your new work. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re running through in your mind as you’re working through these new poems? Then maybe we can read “Control Group.”


LO: Well, it was quite an experience, and again an unplanned one — I hadn’t intended to enter into the world of Lost Alphabet but once I did I was exclusively there. I guess it was about two-and-a-half years that I didn’t write any other poems; everything in my creative space — my creative psychic space — was being funneled into Lost Alphabet. And then I kind of thought it was done. I reached a point where I thought, “I could keep writing into this project, but I don’t think I should.”


Just one tiny side note in case it’s at all interesting: Lost Alphabet has a narrative arc and it’s organized chronologically but I didn’t write it that way, I wrote into it at “Sometimes I’d be writing a poem that is chronologically early in the speaker’s experience, then the very next day I might write a poem much later in the speaker’s experience. It wasn’t until I ordered it that I imposed any kind of chronology on the story.”all different parts and times. Sometimes I’d be writing a poem that is chronologically early in the speaker’s experience, then the very next day I might write a poem much later in the speaker’s experience. It wasn’t until I ordered it that I imposed any kind of chronology on the story. I was aware in my mind that there was a development but the actual writing I didn’t do in a linear or chronological manner. It felt like I could have kept on writing into it in different ways but I felt like, “This is probably done, I’m only going to start repeating things.”


So I had what felt scary but really, really like a privilege, this experience of having had a two-and-a-half year break from writing individual lyric poems. When I returned to it I felt different, it felt really fresh and really exciting to do it. I don’t know if I can articulate in any intelligent way how it felt different, it just felt like the mind I was bringing to it, the things that interested me, that they were all slightly different. It felt fun and refreshing to be back to doing individual lyric poems. Once Lost Alphabet developed it was a very supportive world to write from so I could always be thinking about it, whereas with individual poems it’s a much shorter time where they can be active and you can be mulling it over. The from-beginning-to-end creative process is short and it can be repeated over and over for individual poems, whereas in Lost Alphabet it was stretched out in this really luxurious way.


I’m very interested in a tone that isn’t necessarily me speaking. There are lots of potential speakers but whoever’s speaking is speaking very clearly and directly. That doesn’t mean it’s conversational necessarily, and it doesn’t mean that it’s the kind of speaking that you hear all the time around you, but I’m interested in a really strong, clear voice, and I’m really happy when that voice doesn’t feel like me. I feel freer in these poems not to be compelled by autobiography, or compelled by personal emotion in the same kind of way. I feel like I’m able to explore intellectual and emotional terrains with more distance from myself in a way that I’m finding interesting.


CMW: Let’s hear “Control Group,” then I have a couple of questions about it.


LO: Reads “Control Group.”


CMW: It’s almost a cacophony of voices, statements that are overlapping, and they build, and they lead to something. The lines are incredibly precise and really compelling. There’s a violence as well in this poem that I didn’t feel was an overarching sensibility in Lost Alphabet, even though animals are important here too, so there is some kind of commonality. It does feel really fresh. It does feel really different. Was that something that you were surprised by when you were working on these new poems?


LO: I think that what you just said about this poem in terms of the cacophony of voices and the violence, I think that’s really accurate and I think it’s probably true in some general ways, but I think it’s also specifically true about this poem. I am very interested in layering voices and in layering statements, in the space between them and how they resonate off one another, when they seem related or don’t seem related, sort of like a building.


I guess one thing I’m interested in — and I don’t even know if I can articulate it because it’s the first time I’m having this as a conscious thought — is some of the very strange places we’re finding ourselves in as a culture, the combination of technology and the ability that we have — whether it’s access information, look inside of our bodies, have robots do microsurgery on us, “So it’s this strange cacophony of information, of voices, of experience, of looking at the past and how we assessed, in retrospect, information that we used to think of as sound, and asking, ‘How will we assess current information that we now think of as sound?’”know live what’s happening, whether it’s in a bear den up the hill or a war zone across the world, where we’ve stretched to, what we’re able to do — and how we’re interpreting it with the consciousness that throughout modern history all of our interpretations have been wrong, for the most part. The most cutting-edge information at any given time is like, “Well of course we need to cut and bleed this person in order to get rid of their fever,” and at the time that was the accepted cutting-edge medical knowledge — and now we have our own. I wonder what percentage of it we’ll look back on in fifty years on and think was barbaric, was completely wrong. So it’s this strange, as you said, cacophony of information, of voices, of experience, of looking at the past and how we assessed, in retrospect, information that we used to think of as sound, and asking, “How will we assess current information that we now think of as sound?” Those were all concerns in this particular poem.


I had a child a year ago, it will be two years in June, my first and only baby, and some of the ideas in this poem are informed by some reading that I did about brain development, and some reading that I did about what we did so that we could learn some of these things that we know about brain development. I think I was interested in, and somehow part of what got expressed in this poem, was the unanticipated violence of the experience of pregnancy and childbirth and becoming a mother, and how that violence existed on different planes. The violent change that a woman’s body undergoes through pregnancy and childbirth and postpartum. Some of it is the way every fear and every form of violence reinvents itself once you have a child. You’ve spent your whole life figuring out how to handle living in a world with all the risks that are in this world, you have your ways of coping, and then all of a sudden there exists a being that you care about more viscerally and more violently than anything has ever prepared you for. Every possible harm feels new, and feels newly dangerous, way more dangerous than it ever felt before. That’s a weird kind of violence. There’s also the emotional violence of the intensity of — even love can be a form of emotional violence.


CMW: It’s almost like you’re bringing new vision to the writing that you’re doing now, and that you’re bringing new questions. One of the things I loved about what you just said is that in this poem you’re implicitly asking questions but no questions appear in the text. It’s back again to that juxtaposition thing we were thinking about, that those questions emerge not by being present, but by their absence, and by the absence of the things you as the writer have chosen to exclude. I find it fascinating that that can happen, that that exists, that through these choices this kind of reading experience becomes possible.


LO: I think you’re putting your finger on something that I also think is one of the deepest powers and wonders of writing. We all love to receive something either really beautiful or really intelligent, but what’s most exciting or engaging is when a work of art stimulates in you a new kind of thinking, or a new set of questions, or a new set of ideas that are happening in your own brain but that were instigated by the art.


CMW: I think that’s true and I was actually just thinking that it’s getting to be about 3:15pm and I know you have a sleeping child so I don’t want to keep you too long. Maybe we could close with you reading “Teaching Farm”?


LO: Sure thing.


LO: Reads “Teaching Farm”


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