Dorothea Lasky is the author of AWE and Black Life. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, among others.
“The poems in Black Life absolutely sting and shine, often all at once.”
“Though cut of the same cloth as her debut, Awe, this second book is more grown up, darker, burdened with greater weight and responsibility . . . ”
“Encountering a Dorothea Lasky poem requires a willingness to turn over all the rocks, to take a good, long look at the creepy-crawlies wriggling in the earth. She will force you to acknowledge the blackness of blood pumping underneath your skin or the claustrophobia of loneliness, but she will not allow you to forget there is light, and that it can exist in knowing another person.”
“It’s a pretty bleak road trip, through a landscape dotted with monsters and memory loss, and yet there’s a persistent wild joy that’s riding shotgun, existing in tandem with the darkness.”
When we asked Dorothea Lasky for five books that were similar to Black Life, her second collection of poetry from Wave Books, she immediately mentioned the late, great Biggie Smalls. As a native New Yorker and obsessive hip-hop fan, I felt like I needed to get to the bottom of this. I sat down with Dottie for a couple of minutes and asked her a couple questions about the black Frank White.
* * *
Mark Cugini: First and foremost, I think it’s worth mentioning that you said if someone liked Black Life, they’d probably like Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death. I couldn’t agree more, but I’m sort of curious — how do you think they’re similar?
Dorothea Lasky: I would say the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die is more like Black Life than Life After Death. Life After Death, for me, is more like my next book, Thunderbird. Nevertheless, Black Life is indebted to Biggie’s album because in both the speaker is a “Born sinner, the opposite of a winner.” And also, in both, the speakers give you the sense (I hope) that it was not a choice to be so, but more a condition thrust upon them by life itself. On a formal level, I am interested in how Biggie folds all kinds of language and voices (some so not his own that they can’t help but become so) into short, clipping lines. They have a casual air, but of course, they couldn’t be farther from casual if they tried. The essence of coolness.
MC: Oh, ok, that makes a lot more sense — especially the “born sinner” line. Not to get too liberal-arts-school here, but Biggie was raised by a single mother in a low-income neighborhood that was overrun with gang violence and drug use. I do think it’s obvious that the speaker in Black Life was thrust into situations where she lacked control, but those are instances of a different nature: it seems as if she’s addressing interpersonal relationships instead of class issues. If that’s the case, how does it end up that both speakers end up with such swagger? Does it maybe have something to do with owning their personal tragedies?
DL: Thanks for saying that about swagger! What an important word for what we are talking about. Of course, content and the socioeconomic background of poets affect how they craft their personae and what those voices say. I do think, however, that class issues and interpersonal ones are inextricable. Class is rife with everything we do and vice versa. Biggie, to me, is like any poet who takes pieces of life and weaves it into his work. He includes the people he meets and how these people affect him and what they say. I think this is where swagger comes from. It is the craft, the skill, the flow, that connects all of us as poets. The ability to take the muck of the everyday and make it beautiful.
MC: I completely share that sentiment about Biggie, and I think you’re absolutely right. Let’s talk a little bit about where your swagger is coming from: one of the threads that runs through Black Life is the deteriorating (mental?) health of the narrator’s father. Is this something that you had to were pulling from your own experiences? Do you think that makes your swagger similar or different to Biggie’s, and in which ways?
DL: A lot of the experiences in Black Life are from my own personal experience and I think this is like Biggie. But isn’t that true for all poetry? Or all writing and all art? Or all thought? Science is a set of ideas made by people. What poem isn’t at least in part based on the poet’s personal experience, even when we know that I in a poem is not always the I of the poet? I as a person haven’t done everything in the exact way the I in my poems does things, but he/she/it still comes from me. The mask is there on the face of the poet with the reading of the poem, but the eye come through however disfigured and distant the costume. I don’t know, just yesterday I visited a friend’s poetry class and one of the wonderful students there asked if I ever felt embarrassed by the personal details I put in my poems. I told her that I wasn’t embarrassed, because for the most part there was a lot of mediation and craft there — a lot of control. Maybe the control has to do with swagger. To feel the pain or joy and hold it transfixed. To transfix a reader with the dead emotion, somehow alive and always alive with the listening/reading. That’s how I feel when I listen to Biggie. When I hear his voice, I know he is in some way still alive. Do you think this has to do with swagger, too?
MC: Oh, totally. It’s funny, I was listening to “Things Done Changed” (my favorite “first-song-on-an-album” in hip-hop history) and the last line of that song is “my momma’s got cancer on her breast / don’t ask me why I’m motherfucking stressed.” I always found that to be such a beautiful deviation: rappers are supposed to be cocky and full of bravado, yet here’s this incredible admission of weakness and self-consciousness. Do you think that’s the definitive difference between rappers and poets — that rappers are supposed to control this concept of “swagger,” while poets are taught to operate within their self-consciousness?
DL: That is probably my favorite Biggie line ever. That and “Girls used to diss me / Now they write letters ’cause they miss me.” The way he wraps the rhyme around to give us something so sweet and sad. I think that the admission of weakness and self-consciousness amidst swagger is what makes rappers and poets the same. There might be some places where we are taught to operate differently, but when we are writing poems, we operate language for exactly the same purpose. And I think that whatever places there are that make us feel as if we are not doing the same thing should be obliterated.
MC: If Black Life is Ready to Die and your next book is Life After Death, does that mean Puff Daddy is going to take all the poems you’ve cut and make a Reborn album? If so, is there anything I can do to prevent that from happening?
DL: If there is anything we can do to *make* this happen, then I would be very happy. He is a saint that Puffy.