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After 10 years at the top, Lyn Lifshin is finally ready to give up her crown.
Last year, Lifshin, a poet who inhabits a very unpoetic edge-city row house two minutes from the Vienna Metro, once again topped everybody else in poems placed in magazines nationwide. Her total of 84 beat, by far, such other top-finishers as Marge Piercy (16) and Seamus Heaney (14) (per the Directory of Poetry Publishers).
Now she’s ready to give someone else a shot. “I have been rather obsessive about it,” she says of the hard work that has placed hundreds of her sharp, conversational poems (on subjects ranging from her dying mother’s last days to “Years Later Lorena Thinks of the Penis She Had for a Day”) in magazines ranging from the American Scholar to Rolling Stone. Maybe, she now thinks, “Ten years is enough.”
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What has given Lifshin pause is the publication of her new Cold Comfort: Selected Poems 1970-1996. For the first time, a gathering from her three decades of free-lance work (and many small-press chapbooks) will be available everywhereand Lifshin won’t have to pay the postage, or shlep the books to stores herself. Her new publisher is the respected (and widely distributed) Black Sparrow Press, which handles such big-leaguers as Charles Bukowski. Says Black Sparrow editor John Martin, “Nobody would publish Bukowski when I did. Today he’s at a million copies worldwide….Now I’m going to do the same for [Lifshin].”
Lifshin is understandably thrilled, but it turns out there’s actually another reason she wants to take some time off: Not everybody is a fan of her profligacy. She winces at the dig she recently received from another local poet, Pulitzer Prize winner Henry Taylor: “So, how many poems did you write today?” She’s no longer so quick to quote Ken Kesey’s friendly comment that “Lyn Lifshin’s poems stay on my bathroom wall longer than anybody else’s.”
That her poems aren’t heavily worked over is a virtue; Lifshin’s best work speaks with the fresh, probing voice of a good diarist. And anyway, she’s not just prolific, she’s versatile. Lots of poets can do the sensitive/beautiful thing, but how many could pull off a sensitive, beautiful (really) poem about John Bobbitt’s dick? Now that should get a prize.John DeVault
Lifshin will read from her work Saturday, Oct. 25, at 2 p.m. at Tower Books in Fairfax.