Éireann Lorsung is a writer, teacher, and editor who received an MFA from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from the University of Nottingham before writing her first book Music for Landing Planes. She recently received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in Literature that will allow her to travel and gather research for upcoming projects. Lorsung resides in rural Belgium where she runs a residency center for artists and writers called Dickinson House. She’s also the creative designer of the micro press Miel and editor of Journal 1110.
Lorsung’s chapbook “West Illegitimately“ exemplifies the ways in which the present is created from many pasts. Within the chapbook repetition is manipulated as a constraint that allows Lorsung to create an acrostic style poetry. “West Illegitimately“ is a part of a larger piece of upcoming work and was a finalist for the 2015 Anzaldúa Poetry Prize.
Our neighbors are students, maybe 20 years old. Today I slept until ten and lay on the couch looking at the snow falling in immense slow flakes and their red curtains stayed closed and I put a record on our record player which we have not to be ironic but because it slows down our listening and makes us go in order, which we have so little of these days
– Éireann Lorsung
Taeler Kallmerten: When did you realize your passion for poetry?
Éireann Lorsung: I don’t think I have ever conceived of my relationship to poetry—or to language, writing, texts, books—as passion. Passion seems like something that is relatively short-lived, and also extreme. I see its definition includes the words “a compelling enthusiasm,” and certainly I feel both enthusiastic about poetry (in particular when I am in a classroom where poetry is central) and compelled by it. But I also feel compelled to eat and breathe and move and I don’t think of these as passions. Writing things down or making marks on paper—some of these eventually take on the title of “poem,” often by habit (that’s the category easily supplied for this kind of thing)—has been part of my way of being in and relating to the world for as long as I can remember.
Kallmerten: Can you describe your writing process?
Lorsung: Mostly writing means reading things, making notes about things, drawing things, watching out windows, knowing and learning the names of things, studying things, listening to things and animals and humans, paying attention to things including internal things, sewing and making things with my hands, memorizing things, taking pictures of things, singing things, and sometimes using a pen, pencil, computer, or phone to record things at length.
Kallmerten: What compelled you to start Dickinson House? How has Emily Dickinson inspired you as a poet?
Lorsung: Dickinson “inspires” me insofar as I feel her as an ancestor—I am grateful for her departure from older ways of writing and for the ways in which her private and often minuscule practice provides, over time, a chasm that begins to represent writing from the US. And I admire her like I admire very religious people who are drawn to live out their faith in private, who have mysterious experiences of what they believe is there and whose lives demand solitude and priority for those experiences. That is what links Dickinson the poet to the space I made and named for her: a desire to consecrate a space and to consecrate it in particular to unseen women doing their internally demanded work.
As far as how the space came to be, I suppose it stems from my education, which mostly took place at the kitchen table, surrounded by my brothers studying and my parents helping or cooking: I like to be in rooms with others who are learning and making.
Kallmerten: How do you manage your many endeavors and also find time to focus on your writing?
Lorsung: I have always been this way. Something that helps me come to terms with how I work (when I hear the mighty should that arise from observing many other people’s different lives) is to remember that even in stretches of time where all I “have” to do is write, I can only ever manage a few hours before I need to do something else—walk, read, cook, move… When I keep this in focus I remember that a few minutes or an hour regularly will keep the ideas moving and will suffice to make the work. I am selfish when I can be about my time. I have a very supportive partner, who makes it his business to encourage me to write. And I accept that the work I’ve taken on requires a tiny sacrifice of my own time/energy in order to put the values it represents into motion. I’m okay with that.
Kallmerten: You recently gave a lecture about failure where you talked about the concept of productivity. Can you talk about that a little?
Lorsung: Productivity is a concept I had never encountered before my second year in university. It was alien to me to count the worth of a day based on tangible output. When I count my work through this lens it rarely measures up: I am often “unproductive,” meaning I spend a lot of time doing invisible writing and even more time doing work that is “not writing”—cleaning, cooking, teaching.
But in fact I think that when I work hard to be very alive to and awakened by the ordinary work that takes up most of my time, I am able to be more alert and discerning on the page, too. For me the pressure to “produce” is untenable and tied to a logic that I try to reduce as much as I can in my own life—the logic that what is valuable is what is visible, or that writing-as-process is subsumed in value to writing-as-product.
And I know in my own life that focusing on ‘being productive’ requires a willing amnesia about the fact that making meaning takes time. So I am being a bit tongue-in-cheek when I say that, because I would prefer to reject the idea of productivity all together and encourage writers to spend their time attending closely to whatever the work of living puts at hand, from dirty dishes to the blank page, and to see what comes of that (rather than being self-critical for “failing” to live up to an imagined standard of factory-quick production).
Kallmerten: In “Americium” you write “…I put a record on our record player which we have not to be ironic but because it slows down our listening and makes us go in order, which we have so little of these days.” Can you explain why you believe our lives today lack order?
Lorsung: That’s actually in the poem with the very long title that begins “When I say fathers…” And the “we” in that section and several others is a very particular “we”: the we of my partner and me, stuck in the difficult and disorienting disorder of immigration/migration. It’s also a sort of wry comment on the fact that most of the music I listen to (and probably many people listen this way) ends up being a jumble of all kinds of things, more like radio than like a record. The record goes in an order I can’t change (without getting up to physically move the needle). When I listen to music on my computer or phone it’s rarely in the order in which it was made (i.e. the order of an album); it’s a different and more diffuse order.
Kallmerten: In section entitled “An archaeology” it is clear you are talking about people migrating. Can you tell me more about this section?
Lorsung: Moving freely is a human right that transcends national boundaries. The “Archaeology” poems are my imagining of the migrational movements of people in the southwestern parts of Flanders in the 1940s, during the occupation here—the second occupation in thirty years, in a landscape that was still recovering from the absolute desolation of the First World War.
So, in these poems I am trying to experience the landscape here (which is, as many are, pretty banal now that I’ve lived here a while) as the site of an older and other dailiness—the dailiness under occupation, the movement of people (including members of my partner’s family) across borders, through checkpoints, in military prisons, or hiding in byres.
I’m also thinking in these poems about a long history of people here belonging to the land their descendants still live on, and what it means to e.g. be peasants (as much of my partner’s family was even until the middle of the 20th century), what it means to be land-tenants, what it means to do physical labor on and to care for land that isn’t yours by law. I took inspiration from Michel Foucault’s idea of archaeological method as a mode of inquiry into ideas, and relied on actual ‘archaeological’ findings, both textual and material (shards of blue tile found in a field, for example), to generate images for the poems.
Kallmerten: Is there a question you would want to ask other writers?
Lorsung: I would like to ask them what thing they saw today that most stayed with them and what they love.
Taeler Kallmerten, Staff Writer