The Happiness Experiment
“These lyrics carry the reader into a realm of immense, immediate, and surreal activity. The Happiness Experiment is a dream-version of what Whitman might have called a ‘song of occupations.” Within Lisa Fishman’s moving work of observation and recollection, the world of ordinary things seems itself to think, to mind itself; things gather, watch, prepare, betray, forget, explore, give names or keep silent. Throughout, the poet’s mercurial intelligence is alert to the play of echo and the surprises of memory, in which the simplest verbs reveal their capacity to haunt. Her book’s experiment is always linked to experience, its happiness to hap or chance.”—Kenneth Gross, author of Shakespeare’s Noise
“Lisa Fishman’s third book is strange and compelling, a kind of pastoral poetry without place. Lightly but passionately undoing (the unmade, undreaming) as much as doing, Fishman’s poems evoke figures of betweenness, floating ‘between the reader and the book.’” —Nicholas Royle, author of After Derrida and The Uncanny
To be saying of summer,
light flaws the potatoes
culled beside the piano.
To put in the compost so many apples
we fastened our pearls with a safety pin,
traveled fugue-like out of our body.
Other body ringing backward, soft pencil
leaded body on the paper sleeping body in Italian.
Darken the roses dried on the lamppost,
thud thud in the weather
all trembling kissed my mouth.
Two sisters like two arrows,
a note on the door.
As fur came in so thickly on the horses
by the fenceline, winter now.
Copyright © 2007 by Lisa Fishman
“Nothing in Fishman’s laconic earlier books would have predicted the dreamy, impressive exuberance in this, her third: the poet depicts her rural surroundings, their precedents in classical pastoral, and her own, generously drift-prone imagination in these lyrical sequences, exploring attachments geographic, georgic, erotic and maternal. ‘Darken the roses dried on the lamppost,’ one of a few poems called ‘Calendar,’ instructs; ‘thud thud in the weather / all trembling kissed my mouth.’ Fishman (Dear, Read) repeatedly invokes the Romantic radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as she seeks ideals, new beginnings, and pure sentiments in a sometimes frustrating Midwest: ‘One winter the road stuck us all in our houses / turning to horses or daughters or fish.’ Titles such as ‘Eighth Month’ and ‘Ninth Month’ combine an interest in pregnancy and motherhood with attention to the agricultural year, at once inevitable and eccentric: ‘the woman tore a flower like a cabbage / Often she was full of beets.’ Breathless, almost punctuation-free lines recall the W.S. Merwin of the 1970s, whose fans ought to love Fishman’s work—yet Fishman is hopeful where Merwin was dark, delighted amid disorder. Originality and sincerity make up, in these bravura bursts of song, for what can look like disorganization, and even her many abandonments of syntax and sentence structure serve her emotions, describing her search for a better, unconventional way to live: ‘Don’t be silly / like a pillow full of atoms, where to lay your / head with horses / in the happiness.’” —Publisher’s Weekly
“Modernity asks: can the clock be trusted? Einstein’s clocks—addled by action—and Dali’s clocks—limp by nature—declare they can’t. We have to find another way to count. Just so: The Happiness Experiment moves in fits and starts, by horoscopes and harvests, the Gregorian calendar and constellations as well as subtler devices down within the poems, navigating by ‘halfway point[s] / we heard of in the dark.’ Even alphabets—there are two smart abecedarians—are an attempt to make measurements. Lisa Fishman’s fine new lyrics move smooth-cadenced through irregular samplings and rulers of time, ‘Midsummer’ to the ‘Ninth Month,’ ‘October' to ‘Infinity.’ But in any particular instant, fluctuating time seems to be suspended, and her poems the result of illuminating what hangs in that moment. . . . The poems are in fragments, often—but never shards. They’re un-screwed, un-locked, released like the broom’s bristles that ‘unthread.’ (‘Undreamed,’ she writes—an aptitude for beautiful undoings.) It seems crucial that ‘Everything is alchemy, Shelley said / if it is secret,’ and in The Happiness Experiment so much is revealed to be a secret. Held to a lamp, a sun or moon, it’s the shape those secrets make, in an instant of refraction and shadow, that forms the poem.” —from the review in Cranky by Alex Walton
“This is a collection of intense lyrics that seem intent on physicality, action, and THE SOUL, poems that work to distance our consumed/consumer selves from what this world has become and return them to a state of wonder in which true perception/connection can take place. . . . Fishman’s work is distinctive and important not only because of her technique but because of what she is saying. It seems the purpose here isn’t so much to present answers, or to wring hands (as Wordsworth might have done) over our current mess, but to encourage readers, those who are baffled or intrigued or somewhere else entirely, to think intuitively and emotionally. Through poems that consistently utilize physical and natural objects as the center for slippery and hazily defined abstractions, Fishman’s experiment provides some interesting and happy results.” —from the review by Nate Pritts in Rain Taxi
I live in Chicago, where I teach in the MFA and undergraduate poetry program of Columbia College, and in Southern Wisconsin where we have an organic farm. Previously, I lived in New York City and Salt Lake City, although I am a native of Michigan (Pontiac, metro-Detroit, Leelanau County).
My first poetry teacher was Diane Wakoski at Michigan State University, where I was an undergraduate (1984-88). From her, I learned the phrase, “all the important information about the author may be found inside the book,” which (in similar versions) appears on the backs of her books instead of a bio. I agree with her. But I’ll try this biographical sketch anyway, minimally. I’m also grateful to Diane for pointing me to Creeley, Olson, Levertov and for making me aware of the Black Mountain School.
William Olsen was my next main teacher, in the MFA program at Western Michigan University (1989-88). Because I subsequently entered a doctoral program in literature rather than in creative writing (University of Utah), I didn’t have mentors who were poets after that. Instead, deep readers of poetry—Charles Berger, a Stevens scholar; Lee Rust Brown, an Emerson scholar; and Brooke Hopkins, a Wordsworth scholar—were my teachers. I wrote my dissertation on Shelley (under Charles Berger), which remains unbound in the thesis office, pending formatting corrections, after being successfully defended and approved by the doctoral committee. Ironically, the title of my dissertation is “Shelley’s ‘secret alchemy’: Mercury Unbound.”
I say I had no poetry mentors after my MFA program. Of course, the main teachers are always the poets one is reading, often the dead. Michael Palmer, whom I met at BreadLoaf the one year we both found ourselves there, knew this when he pointed me to Lorine Niedecker; Robert Creeley knew this when he referred me to poets of my own generation with whom I was not familiar. So the list of influences is vast and has to include all the time I spent in the Renaissance with people like Elise Jorgens and Stephanie Richardson at WMU; all of the time I spent in Modernism with the fine teachers of that work at Utah; and of course it has to include living in the British Romantics—whom I was taught to read by Stevens and other Modernists (a learning backwards, a learning by poets). The book I really want to write (or, rather, revise and publish) is on Shelley (“Mercury Unbound”).
A project we have underway—the “we” is the poet Richard Meier, myself, my husband, and the folks at Wave Books—has come to be called, for convenience’s sake, “Poetry Farm.” It’s the brainchild of Joshua Beckman, who shares our feeling that poets need to envision ways of working and being outside of academic structures. In the past, it seems people were able to imagine such possibilities more readily. But the professionalization of poetry (or of “creative writing”) seems to have narrowed the landscape. So we have poets, somewhat inaccurately called “interns,” come to our 12-acre fruit and vegetable farm to work for four hours a day. The rest of the day is theirs to write or think or read. There is no money involved and no “workshop” or formalized discussions of poems—just a new environment in which to write and a lot of physical work to do outside. They stay in a converted chicken coop or in the former granary and are largely on their own after picking tomatoes, hoeing strawberries, tying apples trees, etc. Each session this summer has been full, and it’s been a huge help to the farm, which is the full-time occupation of my husband, Henry Morren.
I had my son, James, on Bob Dylan’s birthday when I was 37. I was born in December, 1966.
Everything else is or is not contained in the books (The Happiness Experiment; Dear, Read; The Deep Heart’s Core Is a Suitcase).
Q: The Happiness Experiment starts with the long, unnumbered sequence, “Midsummer,” and ends with the single-poem section, “Infinity.” Is that movement suggestive of your experience of time as theater, myth, insect body, alchemy, self-divison, self-doubling, synchrony, gestation, figment? A: Yes.
Q: The poems feel pressed into argument, premonition and song by the apparational forces of Renaissance masking, Romantic making, nursery rhyming and “the rural through a sudden view.” Do your poems come forward from the echo chamber of thought and lyric? A: If so, not systematically.
Q: In some of your poems, such structures of meaning as those invoked by calendars, horoscopes and alphabets, for example, are felt to be mercurial and liminal. Do they enable transformation, transcendence? A: NO. Transformation and transcendence are not sought, but rather transmutation and occasional immanence. I like Shelley’s notion of “transitory brightness” as a way of describing something about poetry.
Q: The obscuring of the self and its doubles (Queen Elizabeth, King Lear) under conditions of pregnancy and quest, and the gains of misreading the Italian of Dante, are summoned in the twin poems, “Oscura Selva.” The houses of memory, theater of eros and myths of naming emerge in “Midsummer” and other sections. Throughout, the seductions of vision present themselves in ways sympathetic to Shelley and Blake, who, among others, inhabit your book as ______? A: Internal necessity and interior paramour.
Q: In a complex and dynamic ecology, the raw materia of the physical world jostles the interplay of act and vision by way of the invention of insects, the staking of apple trees, the marking of birdcalls. A: I suppose so.
Q: In the penultimate section, “Creature,” live the spirits of Lorine Niedecker and John Clare cross-written on the ghosts of Hopkins and John Dee. A: Okay.
Q: In your poems, is it true that the “animal life / already is felt to be at hand,” as the poem containing the book’s title remembers or foretells? A: Sometimes.