Shara Lessley, a 1997 graduate of UC Irvine with bachelor’s degrees in dance and English, talks to Between the Lines about writing, living in the Middle East and her just-released collection of poems, Two-Headed Nightingale.
Your collection of poetry, Two-Headed Nightingale, is being released this month. Tell us a little bit about your book. How did it come about?
Poet Michael Collier describes Two-Headed Nightingale as less a freak of nature than a paradox of imagination. The book’s title gestures toward Keats’s intoxicating bird, but is also the stage name of 19th C. conjoined songstresses Christine and Millie McCoy. In many ways these two subjects—the natural world and the world of female performers (both public and private)—serve as the project’s bookends. Two-Headed Nightingale is populated by circus aerialists and ballet dancers, ghost moths and decomposing starlings. Throughout the collection, I’m drawn to things that are deviant, anatomical, dark, overlooked. Most of the poems were written when I was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, although the book itself evolved over a period of six or seven years.
You’re currently living in Amman, Jordan. Does location or environment affect the way you write or what you write about? Does your writing have a different feel living in the Middle East than it does when you are in the U.S.?
Because the Middle East is central to my second manuscript, I’m greatly concerned about its depiction. How can I best relay local textures and tensions without exploiting or appropriating them for lyric or dramatic effect? During my time in Amman, I’ve been treated as more than a guest, a passing visitor. My husband and I have attended local weddings and family events. We’ve picnicked with perfect strangers, and taken tea with armed guards in back rooms at the airport and King Hussein Bin Talal Mosque. Last week, we participated in the three-day period of mourning to support a friend whose mother died of complications related to diabetes. The American myth of the Middle East is a complicated one. My experience in Jordan has been equally complex. I’m working diligently on poems that seek to reconcile these differences.
What is your writing process? Do you sit down and write every day or do you wait until something inspires you?
Since the birth of my son in September, I’ve found the daily practice of writing almost impossible. I’m hoping this will change. Even when I’m not drafting, however, I feed my work in other ways by reading, memorizing poems, or simply jotting down sentences and fragments. Several times each year, I also immerse myself in a poet’s life and collected works—poetry, correspondence, various biographies and criticism, etc. I’m definitely an advocate of perspiration vs. inspiration.
How has your experience at UC Irvine helped you in your writing?
Irvine’s English Department introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed. I entered the university as a dance major and found my calling as a poet. Much of this had to do with the faculty. Professors Mailloux, Wlecke, and Thomas, for example, captured my attention—and quickly. I’m also indebted to the encouragement of then-MFA student and Introduction to Creative Writing Instructor Penelope Pelizzon. Like many folks, my high school experience with poetry was practically nonexistent (I remember one or two lessons involving Wordsworth that seemed to dissipate before they took flight). Penelope taught work by living poets, ones connected—however loosely—to Irvine. For the first time, I read writing by Yusef Komunyakaa, Michael Ryan, Sharon Olds, Gary Soto, Robert Pinsky. Simple as it now seems, Penelope’s selections conveyed poetry’s currency. It was then that I began to read canonical staples as part of a larger conversation, a conversation in which I desperately wanted to participate.
You were a student of Professor Jim McMichael. What is one thing that you learned from him?
Thanks to Jim’s early direction, I obsess about my drafts’ weakness and flaws; particularly, the transitional moments when lines tend to flatten out. In workshop, Jim was exacting. He once advised (warned?) our class that poets must think of everything. He even went so far as to say that one misstep—down to the syllable—destroys a poem. That’s a lot for any twenty-one-year-old to handle! At the time, my writing was terrible. I remember sitting in his office and expressing my frustration. He told me to read as many poems as possible aloud. This helped me not only recognize certain kinds of cadences and metrical patterns, but to begin to appreciate the art of compression.
What is your favorite poem? You know, the one you wish you had written?
A friend told me that Alexander the Great wept when he had no more worlds to conquer. Something about that ambition, that insatiability speaks to me. My favorite poem, in other words, is always changing. There are plenty I wish I’d written: Marianne Moore’s “A Grave” or “Elephants” (or any number of her poems), Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes —.” Work by John Donne, Thomas Hardy. Lorca, Szymborska, Brooks. I first read Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” in Professor Wlecke’s Romantic Poetry course: “Perhaps the self-same song that found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn…” More than a decade and a half later, Keats’s lines still slay me.
Do you have a new project in the works?
I’m about half finished with a manuscript tentatively titled The Explosive Expert’s Wife. This collection aims not only to examine and dispel the darker fears and prejudices associated with Jordan and The Middle East, but also to celebrate the region’s beauty and mystery. The counterparts to the ex-pat poems feature stateside explosive ranges, government labs, and American terrorists like Eric Rudolph and the Unabomber. Selections from this project are starting to turn up in places like The Missouri Review, New England Review, Smartish Pace, and The Southern Review.
A selected work from Two-Headed Nightingale:
Already, winter makes a corpse of things.
Snow reshapes what frost has taken. You’ve lost
interest in letters. So let sunrise come.
Let smoke grow darker by the light of day—
what I could spare of you I’ve burned already.
The fencepost needs repair. Let sunrise come.
Let panels of light make thirsty the ice-
caked stump of oak. Let the sky go empty
as December’s intimations, when in snow
we fashioned ourselves side by side as fallen
angels: yours, the greater wingspan; my outline
barely reaching. Daybreak. I lay my body down
in powder. Roots torque up through the chest’s
blankness, snarl of knots unloosed. What comes,
on parting you insisted, will come. Ice splits,
in the distance. What breaks will break. Let it.
You can find Shara Lessley on Facebook and on her blog innsarenotresidencies.blogspot.com. Two-Headed Nightingale is available at Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.
Shara Lessley is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Her most recent awards include an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, an Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship from Colgate University, the Reginald S. Tickner Fellowship from the Gilman School, the 2006 “Discovery”/The Nation prize, and Isotope’s 2009 Editor’s Prize. Shara’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, Threepenny Review, The Southern Review, and The Missouri Review, among others. A recipient of scholarships from ArtsBridge and Bread Loaf, as well as the Moondancer Fellowship in Nature and Outdoor Writing from The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, Shara holds an MFA from University of Maryland. She currently lives in Amman, Jordan.
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