Redefining north.

PN interviews Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize winner Lindsay Means

PN interviews Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize winner Lindsay Means


Passages North is excited to introduce you to the winner of the 2015 Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, Lindsay Means. In her first published poem, "Antikythera," Means explores a jumble of gears from a shipwreck in a way that allows us to see this poet's pure talent and love of words. Here, she discusses her approach to form, who and what's inspiring her these days, and why she keeps coming back to poetry. Means currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

Passages North: How cool that this is your first published poem! What was it like finding out you had won?

Lindsay Means: I'm a really big fan of Lynn Emanuel, so I was thrilled that she even read a poem I wrote -- the fact that she chose it, and that it's being published, is still a little unbelievable to me. I'd been working in doctor's offices for a few years at that point and I was feeling pretty discouraged about writing. This helped put a little crack in that impostor syndrome shell I've been steadily building over the years.

PN: "Antikythera" holds shipwrecks, statues, hands, and silent starts. Can you talk about the process of writing it? Did you know what you wanted to bring in or did some things just come?

LM: This poem really started with the objects it contains -- it was then a matter of figuring out how to catalog or organize them. I took a handful of classics courses in college, and in one of them I wrote a paper about the Antikythera mechanism, which is a jumble of gears pulled up from the site of a first-century-BC shipwreck. The divers who found it thought it was a rock at first, but archaeologists discovered it was in fact this incredibly sophisticated piece of technology that could keep track of the timing of the Olympic games, and celestial events, like eclipses – sort of a hybrid clock/almanac/calendar. For some reason, this technology disappeared – nothing else would be this advanced for hundreds of years. And that was just one of the finds from the shipwreck.

A couple of years ago I took a fantastic online workshop with Mike Young, a poet who has influenced so much about how I talk about writing and think about writing and actually write. This poem started in that workshop -- I wish I could remember what Mike said that dislodged these artifacts from the undergrad research paper where they were hibernating and brought them into a poem, but I'm still so grateful for his guidance.

PN: This poem has found its form. What is your approach to form and what is its relationship to your writing?

LM: Haphazard, at best. I don't have a consistent approach to form -- sometimes I'll start with a basic idea of what form a poem should be in and that will change; other times I'll write without any idea of what the poem will end up being and then see what shape it takes on its own. I do like experimenting with more rigid poetic forms, especially if I get stuck while writing and can't figure out what to do; wedging a stubborn poem into a weird form forces you to come up with words, turns of phrase, or imagery that you might not otherwise find. On the other hand, poems that I've written in predetermined or classic forms sometimes feel too high-school-workshoppy. I have a bunch of tritinas that I don't know what to do with but can't throw away.

PN: What is the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word "Antikythera"?

LM: Antikythera is the island off the coast of Greece where the shipwreck in the poem was found; I've never been there, but the images I've seen are beautiful -- sort of the prototype of what you'd picture when thinking of a Greek island. Unbelievably clear water, whitewashed houses on rocky cliffs, cloudless blue skies. So basically a slideshow tourist campaign for Greece, which isn't unwelcome, especially at this time of year in gloomy New York.

PN: Who is inspiring you creatively right now?

LM: This question is tricky for me -- some of that inspiration might be better called aspiration, in that there are lots of poets I'm reading now who make me say "I want to do that": Aracelis Girmay, Warsan Shire, Maggie Nelson, the aforementioned Mike Young, James Haug, whose chapbook A Plan of How to Catch Amanda has I think the most perfect title of all time; Darcie Dennigan, and so many more I'm sure I'm forgetting. I've had W.S. Merwin's poem "To Paula, In Late Spring" tacked up above every desk I've had since my college graduation; it helps remind me of what a poem can be.

And a lot of inspiration comes from science, in which I have only armchair qualifications. Places like National Geographic Magazine, the American Museum of Natural History (my favorite place in New York City) and NASA's Instagram account are all constant sources of ideas. (On that last note, Alice Oswald's "Spacecraft Voyager 1" offers something both inspirational and aspirational.)

PN: Why poems? Is there anything else you're busy creating these days?

LM: I like poetry because I like words -- and while I don't consider myself an especially analytical or even very organized person, there's something about stripping down writing to its essentials, to the lowest common denominator, that appeals to me. I've tried other forms of writing, but I keep coming back to poetry. Right now I'm working on a series of poems inspired by episodes of The Twilight Zone, which started as an exercise for no better reason than that I loved the show as a kid. I probably won't do the whole series but I'm at least trying to write a poem for every episode of the first and second seasons... sometimes I get unnecessarily competitive with myself, and this might be one of those instances, but now I'm determined to complete it.

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