I Still Wander Through Graveyards: An Interview with Lauren Ireland
I’m never in love easily, except when it comes to aesthetic. Lauren Ireland dumps such an aesthetic on my life, and she has given shape to a lot of what’s desperately wordless about being to me. I first read her poems when I was living in Texas near a pool on a carpeted floor that I thought was impossible to find beautiful. I obsessed over her poems, which are like dream pits to me: part-koan, part-magnolia-in-bloom-by-the-
Jon-Michael Frank: The last time we talked I was leaving Seattle and you were slightly confessing to me that you were sad, and I believed you–it didn’t just feel conversational. It was the first time that we ever really got to talk. I’m still in love with that moment. The cafe and its beige light and one of the people who worked there agreeing with me that we made a mistake in not selling off our lives to go see Kate Bush when she played her residency in the UK a few of years ago. You said your husband Ian was getting frustrated with you for running alone through graveyards. Are you still running in graveyards?
Lauren Ireland: I loved that, too, and I’m sad it was the night before you moved. What is wrong with us? I felt a million times older than I was when we first met. 2014? I was sad then, too, for other reasons.
I don’t run anymore. I tried to be a runner because health or whatever, and also because it seemed like a good thing to do with too many thoughts. But I still wander through graveyards. My last graveyards were Lafayette #1 and St. Louis #1 on two white-hot sunny days. My favorite gravestone is Martha Duncan’s in St Paul’s Episcopal churchyard in Norfolk, Virginia. Here is a photo of it:
And here is where I read about it, in one of the most-read books of my childhood:
Ok, ok. If my life is a public place, it is a small regional museum celebrating the one interesting and maybe sort of horrible thing that ever happened in that town (like Grace Sherwood’s ducking). The gift shop would sell mob caps and beeswax candles in weird shapes and self-published local history books.
There are a lot of places in your new book Feelings real and otherwise. Which is most tender to you personally from the book? Most feared?
Most of these places generate both tenderness and fear, depending on who I was when I was in them. I love my home, but it’s where I was attacked, so when I think of that, it’s terror, When I think of last night, eating a soft-boiled egg gently set a-jiggle on toast by my husband (I was sick), it’s all tenderness.
I think the place I fear the most is the place I can never leave. So maybe it’s my own body.
You’re one of the few people whose marriages I admire. You let that love reek in such a pleasant way, and somehow make the sadnesses of your poems still work with it. Is there anything you are hesitant to write about? Can you ever be someone else in your work?
Being married is sad in many ways. I am often afraid of exploring that, for fear of hurting my husband. But it’s not an Ian-specific sadness; it’s about being a fundamentally lonely person trying to be less lonely with someone else. Much of that sadness is actually pretty sweet. And having the freedom to explore that with my husband, in poems that he reads, is also sweet.
I am afraid to write about my rape, but mostly because it’s incredibly difficult to put words to it. I’ve spent the last four years minimizing it, trying to make it an easy story for people to hear. So they don’t worry, I guess. It’s a strange impulse.
I do not know how to be someone else in my poems. I don’t see the point in trying. I am bored by that kind of poem.
One of my favorite lines in Feelings is: “It’s just like being punched learning things about the living.” Years ago, I had a phone conversation with one of my close friends a few days before he died in a hospital and the only thing I remember about that conversation was him saying to me that he’s still learning so much. Do you ever feel like you’re lessening your life by not being more open to the “punching” as you put it?
Now that you mention it. I don’t know how to be open to the punching, even when I see it coming in slow motion. I think waiting for the punches to come is lessening the quality of my life. It’s fear. Fear of my husband’s death, fear of getting found out (about what, I still don’t know). Fear that ghosts are real. Fear that they’re not. Fear that someone will come through my window again. Fear that Twitter will always be a thing. I spend a lot of time in fear.
What did your friend learn? Did he tell you? Do you think he should have kept it secret, whether he told you or not?
Nothing specific. He had a very open way of talking which I think he consciously enacted so you could apply his words to whatever you saw fit. It’s just heartening to know that there’s never any figuring shit out. Or, that even when you’re dying the next day, there’s still beauty in experiencing how hospital blinds or a catheter works.
To that ineluctable whack of feeling, I love the way you start one of your Seattle poems with, “Imagine having a feeling you choose for yourself,” almost like even though you are “choosing” to dictate your feelings by writing them into poems, there’s still an imprisoning sense about it, like the feelings themselves are still fucking you. Is there anything good about that–not having any agency when it comes feelings?
I want to say no, there is nothing good about that, because so many of my feelings seem like they are bad for me. I take Welbutrin (LOVE YOU!!!!) to help take the edge off those particular feelings.
However, I can’t imagine living in a controlled emotional environment. My brother and I have been discussing the exquisite horror of heartbreak (it makes us both into monsters), and how it’s one of the few things that can make writing happen for us.
Neither of us would ever choose heartbreak for ourselves, but neither of us, I know, would turn away from the work we produce from it.
What are you doing for healing lately?
Therapy, always and forever. Exercise. Walking and talking.
The truth is, I am not sure how to go about healing in a really specific way. Other than therapy, which can be excruciating, everything else feels like a peripheral approach. But I’m still here, so.
This book has such a feeling of privacy to it. I feel distinctly a part of many years of your life within just a few poems. Were any of these poems too private to be put into the book?
Probably. But I don’t know how else to write and I’m bored by poems that aren’t revelatory. I don’t care about things that are just pretty or just political or just technically good or whatever.
I adore the deadpan nostalgia, even when it’s possibly insincere in some of these cities, things you say like, “Homesick for a place i lived 2 days 3 years ago when i was someone else” and “In mourning for my old selves.” What’s it about old selves we want to get away from only to want to go back to again. Do you think nostalgia is sustaining in some way?
Yes, nearly everything beautiful comes from the beauty and pain and longing of nostalgia. I swear I am nostalgic for things as they are happening, or that haven’t yet happened.
Our old selves are irresistible, precisely because we can no longer inhabit them. I spend a lot of time thinking that I’d never be 14 or 18 or 22 again (or, fuck it, 29), but I think of those Laurens fondly. Mostly.
Here’s what makes me want to go back: I want to go tell all those former selves that everything is going to be ok. And also to not be such an asshole.
That reminds me of one of my most favorite poems, introduced to me my dead friend I spoke of earlier. “even in Kyoto / hearing the cuckoo’s cry / I long for Kyoto.” That, to me, is endlessness. That’s been worth to me for the bulk of my life now–where are you getting worth from these days?
Travel. It’s expensive, technically, but has so much worth in all kinds of intangible ways. That’s obvious, I know. But I recently went away by myself for a couple of weeks, and that felt incredibly valuable and extravagant in a transformative way. To wander and just look–really LOOK at things–because I had no agenda or companion. To eat alone. To have uncomfortable experiences and make myself ridiculous. All of it felt very rich and I came home truly “better,” whatever that means.
And that poem? It is the only poem.
Late in Feelings you write, “I can’t leave you without imaging your death.” I’ve felt the same way about dogs I’ve had. Do you ever think love isn’t possible without death? Or at least only necessary as a response to it.
What a wonderful and terrible question. No, nothing is possible without death or impermanence. It’s what makes love so, so big and dangerous and good. It’s what makes my cat’s dew claws so sweet. Speaking of dogs.
I think love may be a bulwark against death. It is something vivid and absorbing that makes us feel that we have been noticed–that we have existed.
How many times have you died in your poems? (Are you cool with that?)
I don’t know! I think I die all the time, every day, so maybe I’m just used to it.
What kind of crystals have you been buying lately? They working at all?
I have been buying crystals for other people, mostly. I hope they are working. I am buying labradorite, always, for astral projection, and selenite for connecting with spirit guides (who??). Hematoid citrine for manifestation. And also moonstone, tourmalinated quartz, and mookaite for hope, intuition, and depression relief.
One thing I feel so connected to you over is our shared basin of Philadelphia loneliness. I remember texting you about dusty late night AM feelings in Philadelphia and you saying the exact things that had propped up my life for so long. When you said it’s the loneliest place I was hooked. In the book, in Phila, there’s the line, “You are you and I am you” almost as an attempt to ignore the self in order to eschew its affecting culture of aloneness, too. Do you enjoy that feeling of erasure in love? Anything else you get that from besides the obvious of drugs, sex etc.
Yes, I used to enjoy it. Now, I realize that I am not erased, that my husband would not love me (like this) if I were not me, that erasure is akin to destruction.
I think–cringing–of all the ways, small and large, I altered myself (my appearance, my writing, my vocabulary, my preferences) to become the perfect person for someone else, without realizing it or meaning to. And then how easily I shed all of it when the relationship ended.
That reminds me of your line, “You can always tell when something is about to become something it used to be” This is so assuring to me even though it’s kind of grisly. What do you do in these situations? I know I freak. Do you think it’s possible to not speed up the dissolution when realizing this about something you care about?
LI: I think I get very dramatic and revel in it a little bit, like I am some kind of baby Nabakov. I don’t mind this pre-nostalgia anymore; by now, I know it’s inevitable, and maybe it makes me stop and actually be where I am for a minute, which is hard for me to do. So, instead of speeding up dissolution, it may slow it down.
There are so many devastating/self-devastating poems in here. Does anything feel better having written them? Is it supposed to? I never know.
Devastation is usually the bloody, aching socket that poems come out of, right? Or am I just still 17?
Sometimes writing makes it worse because it forces articulation. It’s harder to face the real thing, on paper, than it is to hide from the vague fuzzy shape of it. And sometimes there is a grim satisfaction in it.
I think writing is supposed to make us feel better. I learned that in Kemps Landing Middle School, which is now a condo building.
What are some things knocking around your heart right now?
Ghosts. Dirty Old Town. My brother. John Crowley’s Little, Big. The tiny, baby-sized church on Highway 2 in Sultan, WA. My husband as he’s waking up. The Atlantic Ocean in late August. Wendy Carlos. Kara Walker. Larry Levis. Lucian Freud’s Girl in Bed. October 5. Blue crabs. Buckwheat crepes. Birthdays. Daniele Sepe’s Tarantella del Gargano. Beat Happening’s Indian Summer. Far-away friends.
Lastly, since the book cover to Feelings is a mixtape, any chance you’d be willing to make one?
Yes, yes, of course! Here’s what this conversation made me want to hear, or reminded me of, or generated incredible nostalgia for, or whatever.
Will you make one for me?
Indian Summer//Beat Happening
Drivin’ on 9//The Breeders
Journey of the Sorcerer//The Eagles
Movin’ Out//Billy Joel
Boss Ass Bitch/PTAF
Blue Skies//Willie Nelson
Astral Weeks/Van Morrisson
Bottom of my Heart//Lupe Fiasco
Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts//Bob Dylan
Teach Me Sweetheart//Fiery Furnaces
The Ballad of El Goodo//Big Star
Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle//Nirvana
Waterloo Sunset//The Kinks
Tarantella del Garganto//Daniele Sepe
Going to Califronia//Led Zeppelin
I Won’t Hurt You//The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band