The news came in an email at 6:00 AM on December 22. The subject line: “New York Times!”
The recipient: Butler Poet-in-Residence Alessandra Lynch. The sender: Kaveh Akbar MFA ’15, who now teaches poetry at Purdue.
Inside was this link, but no message. And Lynch thought, “Good ol’ Kaveh. Yet again, someone has recognized his prodigious gifts.”
She clicked on the link and saw the cover of her new book Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment under the headline “The Best Poetry of 2017.” Along with it was this summation by David Orr, who writes the On Poetry column for The New York Times Book Review:
Alessandra Lynch, “Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment.” You can read 20 pages into Lynch’s book before you fully realize it’s about a sexual assault — and this is to her credit. She wants to show an act of violence in all its terrible particularity and also in the way it becomes a background against which identity trembles and sometimes fractures. It’s difficult to read this collection without thinking about how timely it is, but its force is in no sense dependent on that congruity.
“I gasped,” Lynch said. “It felt, and still feels, so surreal. Unreal. I don’t know how David Orr found the book. He must receive thousands of books to review. So what was it about this book? I have no idea.”
That was just the beginning. About six weeks later, Lynch got a call from The Los Angeles Times informing her that her book was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in Poetry. She’ll be flown to California to participate in the newspaper’s April 21-22 Festival of Books.
“I don’t have experience like this,” Lynch said. “From the time I was 9, I was just in my room, writing my poems. Then eventually I had enough poems and it dawned on me that I really wanted to make a book from them. For me, writing has always been a solitary, private situation. The public nature of publication and awards, while often nice, is very, sometimes chillingly, distant from the making and the life, the vitality of the poems.”
As Orr wrote in The New York Times, Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment is, in fact, about a sexual assault—Lynch’s. The attack happened a couple of decades ago.
She didn’t report the incident and for years told no one.
“I think I was in an extreme state of shock,” she said. “I didn’t even realize for years that I had some sort of PTSD. I wouldn’t have ever said that I had that. That’s what soldiers at war have. But clearly the disassociation and distance from what had happened are hallmarks of this. For years I moved around in a daze. And it’s all over those poems.”
In 2005, during a two-month stay at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, Lynch developed a routine—eat some blueberries and go for a run through the woods. As she ran, a line or two would come to her. When she got back to her studio, she would type “meditation,” along with that line or two. There were meditations on the body, on absence, on abandonment, on desire. She wrote about a hundred, numbering each. She wasn’t thinking about publishing or even sharing them.
“It just felt like such a sacred experience,” she said. “I felt very in tune with those words.”
In 2007, during a second stay at Yaddo, she followed a similar routine, but typed “agitation” at the top of each page. The “agitations” that surfaced became poems more directly about the assault.
After a few years, ready to share the poems and thinking she had two separate manuscripts, her husband, Butler Associate Professor of English and poet Chris Forhan, suggested that the agitations and meditations might belong together in a book.
Lynch devised a sequence for the poems, then showed the collection to another poet-friend who suggested that she move one of the more overt assault poems to the beginning. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t do that,'” she said. “That would be shocking. But he was right. And then I realized I was creating a narrative out of these highly lyrical poems. I was finally telling the story. I was finally facing the violence I had experienced through poetry.”
Then, in 2015, during a two-week fellowship at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire—and after Alice James Books had already accepted Daylily for publication—Lynch wrote a final poem, “P.S. Assault.” That “made the book fuller and more substantial.”
The poem begins:
The girl it happens to
of my body
“There are some really excruciatingly dark, excruciatingly personal moments in the book, and yet I think because it’s poetry, there’s so much metaphor and imagery,” Lynch said. “It’s not a direct report of what happened, and there’s a meandering in and out of consciousness—a disassociated state, but a really beautiful state, a really comforting state. And the wandering out helps me and anyone who reads this book understand that the shock of it, the stun of it, makes you feel almost as though it didn’t really happen to you.”
Lynch took the book title Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment from the first line of one of the poems. A daylily flower carries a lot of time symbolism and implication, Lynch said, and daylily, in this case, was witness to “the fact that at some point I realized I had experienced a dangerous moment in my life.”
She chose the cover painting, Time, by Metka Krašovec, wife of Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, for the traumatized look in the woman’s eyes. “There’s a wariness, there’s a deep sorrow, an unsettledness and an unnerved quality to the eyes,” she said. “But the figure itself is still. It’s almost like paralysis. Plus there’s a bird on her hand looking at her, but she’s not paying attention to the bird. And there’s a hand on her shoulder, which is ominous.”
This is Lynch’s third published book of poems, but she’s been writing poetry and putting together books since she was a little girl in Pound Ridge, New York. She remembers her first-grade teacher announcing that the class would be working together on a journal and asking, “Who’s going to write the poetry?” When no one spoke up, she volunteered.
She recalls her mother saying, “If you want to do anything well, you have to practice it.” She took those words to heart and started to write every day. She still does.
In teaching poetry and memoir writing at Butler, she asks her students to reveal what is most important to them, what has hurt them most, what has made them feel most joyful—”those deeper feelings we don’t often get the opportunity to share, but when we do share make us feel known.”
“I think in some subconscious way, teachers teach what they want to learn,” she said. “After all these years of having my terrific, brave students reveal all these things to me, I think that actually helped me.”
Lynch said Daylily was cathartic to write. She hopes it will help others who’ve been through trauma. And she has no expectations about winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, for which she’s competing against Shane McCrae, Evie Shockley, Patricia Smith, and David Wojahn.
She said she looks at their biographies and long lists of accomplishments, then looks at her own, which says she “lives with her husband and sons by a stony creek, two hackberry trees, and a magnolia trio.”
“It’s as though there are all these better-known poets up on the stage and I’m like a piece of pollen that drifts up,” she said. “And there I am. I feel like pollen. But pollen’s not a bad thing to feel like.”
Marc Allan MFA ’18