Carolyn Oliver: I’m wondering if you would walk us through your composition process for “Indelible in the Hippocampus,” a poem in Mind Lit in Neon that first appeared in The Worcester Review.
R.J. Lambert: The title is taken from Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, which occupied my attention during 2018 when I wrote the poem. Essentially, in a very measured, scientific way, she was describing the way traumatic memories are burned into the hippocampus, which has also been my experience in adulthood, where memories are much clearer than from childhood.
Like most of my writing, “Indelible in the Hippocampus” started with exploring some interesting sounds and by stating in plain language a truth about my life: that I don’t really remember much of my childhood. For example, my brother is two years younger than me, yet he remembers a lot more of our childhood than I do. Truths like this can serve as a philosophical or existential jumping-off point for poems. As I wrote, some phrasing came to mind and kept my attention, like “an atrophy from infancy” and “the rain starts ranting,” probably phrases I had written down on sticky notes or blank word documents, knowing they would be useful later. I have a very patchwork writing process, pulling in scraps of notes and incomplete poems to build something new. It’s a kind of linguistic collage. Other than writing out phrases on scratches of paper, I do all of my composing on my computer. I think I teased out the other lines from the general observation that the days all of childhood ran together, indistinctly, in my memory, which feels like a kind of failing on my part, or something inherently deficient about me. This foretells the end of the poem, which relates my forgetful childhood to my mental and physical struggles as a young adult in Seattle, staying out too late and probably not keeping myself very safe in certain parts of the city. Presented together, the poem first sets up my innate loss of childhood memories, followed by a conscious effort as an adult and as a writer to remember my life, process my experiences, and grow from them.
The final touch on the poem, a kind of afterthought, was adding the word “No” to the beginning of the first line. I try to create little opportunities to disrupt the reading process as a way of engaging the reader. I usually do this with nonstandard punctuation and syntax, like overusing parentheses or underutilizing capitalization and periods. In this poem, I liked starting off on a note of seeming disagreement, possibly mid-conversation: “No, I don’t much remember growing up.”
CO: Many of Mind Lit in Neon’s ekphrastic poems respond to music—songs and pieces by Mozart, Whitney Houston, Queen, Chopin, Frank Ocean. Do you set out to write poems when streaming a particular piece, or do lines and poems tend to take shape spontaneously as you listen?
RJL: Interestingly, none of the poems titled after songs in that section were written while streaming those specific songs. In fact, all of the poems in the “Streaming” section of the book originally had different titles that had nothing to do with music. MLIN is my first published book, and one of the lessons I learned from revising the full manuscript is that I had to be open to new ways of envisioning the collection as a cohesive creative work, even if some of the poems had previously been published under other titles. The idea for a set of “Streaming” poems was actually something I was working on as a future table of contents for my next project, and for which I had gathered a number of related song titles as prompts to write a series of poems. Then, as I was revising the manuscript to find a publisher, I decided to repurpose my list of song titles to change the lens through which this section would be viewed. In other words, the titles were intended to unify the poems in the section and served as a literary device to overlay new meaning. The end result is that the section offers my life experiences in conversation with songs from pop-culture and “high culture,” like classical music.
That being said, music plays a very tangible role in my writing process, and I listen to a small group of curated songs while writing and revising. I have always experienced a kind of synesthesia with music and with writing, where I see each of them in colors, and the moods they evoke can be aligned through simultaneously writing poems and listening to music. Listening to the same music on repeat also brings upon a meditative creative state and fosters clarity in my writing. Specifically, most of the revisions to the overall manuscript, and all of the new poems (including the opening poem and the last three poems of the book), were written while streaming Troye Sivan’s In a Dream LP during the pandemic. I likely listened to it hundreds of times while writing and revising. It’s haunting and gorgeous and mostly up-tempo, and I would be thrilled if any of that comes through to readers of my book.
CO: Mind Lit in Neon features poems of varying line lengths, and as its engagement with music suggests, sound is a particularly vivid sensory component to many poems (I’m thinking particularly of the poem “Fight, Flight, Freeze” and these lines from “Ode to Nancy Reagan”: “each flutter / on the broken blue like two / hands stopping short of clap.”) How do you approach the relationship of sound and silence (musically, maybe, note and rest?) in a poem? Does that relationship differ when you think of the poem on the page versus the poem read aloud?
RJL: The varied line lengths and formal experimentation in the book are an effort to keep things interesting and try to do something new. There’s so much poetry out there, so much good poetry, and I feel like one thing I can maybe add to the corpus, one way I can earn my readers, is to show them something fresh. It’s not that I’m doing something no one else is doing, but rather that each of the poems is doing something a little different than the others in the book, hopefully making for a fun read. Some of the poems can be read in more than one way, essentially as two or three poems in one, and I like the idea of playing with visual form, punctuation, and space on the page to open up alternate interpretations. It gives me enjoyment as a writer—I think writing should be somewhat risky and playful—and I hope it engages readers to bring their own understanding of how the poem should be read.
Sound, on the other hand, is the one crucial thing about poetry that sets it apart from other forms of writing. Playing with sounds is what I find fun bout writing poetry, and noticing how others play with sounds is what delights me in reading poems. Poems that read like prose with line breaks don’t do a lot for me. I like word play, I like interesting language, and I like hearing the music in a poem’s rhyme and cadence. I remember when I realized this—the very day, and the specific words. I was on a bus in Austin in the early 2000s, and I overheard incoherent parts of a conversation, which I quickly turned into some wording along the lines of, “Wind-day’s many involvements scuffle down and down for miles like black-backed birds.” Through some writing and revising, this became a poem about how birds model for us innate capacity to change our mind and try a new direction, to “hold a second destination in the will,” and these words appear in my book as “After Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary Étude.’”
CO: How has your scholarly background in responses to crisis informed your poems, and vice versa? Or, more broadly, how do you experience the relationship between scholarly writing (not generally perceived as creative, though of course it is!) and writing poems?
RJL: Starting with the second part of that question, I think a scholarly orientation is a core part of my approach to writing and the way I make sense of my life. As a college student, I majored in creative writing, but also in philosophy, and later when I finished my master’s in creative writing, I went on to work in medical editing and then completed a doctorate in rhetoric. So, my mind has always been preoccupied with life’s big questions. Philosophy, like research, is interested in answering the big questions. So is poetry, just not in an as obvious or definitive of a way. I like engaging important thinkers, and also less important thinkers, as prompts for writing. Some poems in MLIN engage with Thoreau, Pascal, and Camus, but also with Brigitte Bardot, Lil Wayne, and Frank Ocean.
As you alluded to, one of the big questions for me to answer in my life and in my writing has been about responding to and healing from trauma. I was diagnosed with PTSD almost two decades after surviving the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, yet because of the PTSD I was in denial, leading to a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms in my 20s. I also avoided writing about myself and my life experience, because I didn’t know how to do it in a way that was lyrical rather than narrative. After a hiatus from creative writing for about a decade, I returned to poetry with a new appreciation for the power of narratives and telling my own story, along with new insights about how trauma affects all of us and can be a point of connection. While I have not yet written any poems about gun violence or my specific experience with Columbine, a number of my poems in this book mention traumas large and small, usually related to family dynamics, internalized homophobia from coming out as gay in the relatively more homophobic 90s, relationship violence in my early dating life, and bearing witness to mental health crises in the queer community. The first poem in my book is kind of a tongue-in-cheek highlight reel of my family and relationship traumas, but it didn’t feel heavy to write because it’s full of pop-culture allusions and humor. It’s a playful poem that puts trauma in its rightful place as a relatable part of life.
CO: What kinds of images have you felt a pull toward, lately?
RJL: The last several poems in my book are ekphrastic for “Untitled” works of art from the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1991, and I continue to be obsessed with art from that time period. I am drawn to conceptual art and protest art, as well as a lot of the digital collage stuff that is all over the internet. My cover artist, Loui Jover, is always posting interesting works online—he has some recent art about mental health and anxiety during the pandemic that is very minimalist and affecting. One of my exes works at an art auction house and sends me interesting artists, many of whom I have never heard of, and some of which I save to my computer to write about or dream of as cover art. I am always looking at work by Jane Hammond and Marcel Dzama, two of my favorite artists, and both of whom are alluded to in poem titles from my book.
CO: Are there any books you’re turning to for comfort and courage these days? Any books you’re looking forward to reading or re-reading?
RJL: I’m currently reading the lyric essay collections The Art of Perpetuation by Alison Powell and Christopher Locke’s Without Saints. Like most writers, I have bought more poetry books than I have found time to read, but the ones I’m prioritizing are new books by queer authors, like Aldo Amparán’s debut poetry collection, Brother Sleep, and a poet I admire named Carolyn Oliver! I have also recently gotten into writing reviews. I thought it was a much higher barrier to entry, like publishing poetry, but I have found it more accessible than that so far, and journals have been very encouraging. I recently published reviews for Prince Shakur’s devastating debut memoir in West Trade Review online and for Michael Chang’s self-assured new poetry collection in Colorado Review online, and I am seeking a venue for my review of Kiran Bhat’s touching multilingual poetry collection Speaking in Tongues.
R.J. Lambert (he, him, his) is the author of the poetry collection Mind Lit in Neon (Finishing Line Press), and recent poems in Bending Genres, The Ilanot Review, and Main Street Rag. He teaches writing at the Medical University of South Carolina and is online at rj-lambert.com or @SoyRJ on Twitter.
Carolyn Oliver is the editor of The Worcester Review.