To read Lisa Olstein’s fifth book of poetry, Dream Apartment (Copper Canyon, 2023), is to enter a vortex parallel to dreamscape. Like dreams, the poems hold their own logic. They seem to ask as a whole this question: “What poems take shape in proximity to night?”
Dream Apartment is a deeply associative and language-forward collection. Olstein exemplifies what it looks like for a poet to play, even when play is in the presence of tragedy and grief, or when play is the serious kind that teaches us something essential.
Formally, the poems explore a kaleidoscope of shapes and sizes, sprawling across whole sections in the form of arrows or distilled into skinny slips tumbling down the page like a Jacob’s Ladder. Sonically, they skip and skid from sound to sound, conjuring spell and lullaby both: “Render tender the shoots / of evening, let us in the lettuce // light, fitful as fish pumping / fistfuls of razored air, jagged.” These poems are not dream recordings or explanations, says Olstein, but they do play in a similar way. Images and animals show up as beings unto themselves and as doors into rooms we didn’t know existed.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Olstein over Zoom about a myriad of subjects: writing without telos, discovery through disruption, the inevitability of animals, and all kinds of reversal.
The Rumpus: Your newest book is called Dream Apartment. What is your relationship to titles? What are the ways they come about for you, and what kind of work do you want them to do in your poems?
Lisa Olstein: I love titles. I love titles in a way similar to the way I love lines. Poetry gives us opportunities, and I love exploring different ways to use them.
In terms of this book, this is not a book recounting dreams or attempting to interpret dreams, though I have nothing against projects such as that. Instead, I am fascinated with the parallels between dreams and poems on the level of logic and form.
Adrienne Rich said, “Poems are like dreams. In them you put what you don’t know you know.” Poems themselves are dream apartments. They’re an unordinary pocket of time and space in which we discover things we didn’t know we knew and encounter new taxonomies and images and sometimes have revelations. They move according to different kinds of logic.
I’m likewise fascinated by the way we share dreams across formal constraints. One of the most commonly shared dreams is that dream of being in your own space, your own house or your own apartment, and discovering there is a room you never knew existed, opening that door and being like “Oh my god this this was here all along.” I am fascinated by the fact that we share that dream.
More generally in terms of titles, sometimes I’m interested in emphasis and explication. For instance, there’s a poem in here called “The Spell” that I think is naming the enactment of the poem in terms of trying to cast a spell or enact a wish through spell-like language. More often, though, I’m interested in adjacency and juxtaposition, how a title can provide a slightly different valence or throw the light in a slightly different direction. It’s like when we throw voices: if the primary voice of the poem is located in one position, the title might call in from a slightly different angle or space.
I don’t know if you collect shells or stones on the beach. I love to collect, in particular, beautiful rocks, and I’m fascinated by the dynamics between them, the simplest arrangements. How do four white stones look in relationship to one another versus when you add in a green rock or a black rock or add a different size? The body of the poem and the title of the poem are like these stones that speak to one another in aesthetics and scale. They inform or reveal one another.
Rumpus: Was this a collection, then, in which you were thinking about that connection between the nature of dreams and the nature of poems? Was that an impetus for you in writing this collection? And, if not, was there a guiding force for these poems?
Olstein: Hmm . . . I don’t know that I could pinpoint one guiding force. I don’t think about a book early on. It’s really important to me to create a compartmentalized realm. When I’m in the zone of trying to create individual poems, I don’t think about audience. I don’t think about publishing. To me, that would be a process killer. I try to allow the creative and generative space to be extremely private and extremely discovery-oriented.
I don’t superimpose a set of intentions on it. I try to make work, and then over time, read that work and notice what it might be doing, notice things it might be exploring. Then, if I like those things or, I’m interested in them, then I might lean in a little bit more. I might take a form from one poem that was organic in that instance and transform another poem that’s not in that form, to look at how the work might talk amongst itself and how I might help that conversation.
Rumpus: Has that process of writing in an incredibly private space always been your process, or have you grown into that?
Olstein: It’s always been my process. I mean, in my first book, a lot of those poems were ones I brought to workshop, so they weren’t private in that sense. But they still certainly felt not in a public realm. There’s a self-consciousness and an intentionality that would disrupt my ability to be brave and immersed in my medium when I’m actually writing. It only works if I’m in a direct, almost feral relationship with language. It’s very sound-based. There’s a lot of thinking and feeling that’s going on, as well, but if I don’t have the sound in my ear, there’s no poem.
I mean to say that writing poems is a very immersive, medium-based process I hope accesses my experience and conscious mind that’s not mediated by any obligations or external frameworks.
Rumpus: It makes sense to hear about your process because your poems are so immersed in language play. Is there anything else about language in this collection you’d like to add?
Olstein: Yes. Language is such a beautiful and complicated medium. It has a visual aspect. It has a sonic aspect. It has these histories; every word is its own haunted house. It has these personal associations. If I say, “lemon,” we will picture the same thing and we also won’t, right? We all have a varied connection to history—personal history, cultural history, etymological history. And then, of course, language is our primary means of making meaning, so it’s extraordinarily complex and multifaceted.
That does not mean we need to be precious about it. Sometimes we emphasize certain aspects or valences or facets of language for different reasons, and sometimes it’s about playfulness or excess. “Come, Calamity” really lays on the alliteration, slant rhyme, and imagery, and then the poem undercuts it. It is maximalist and overly poetical, then it says, “Fuck that.”
Playing with tone can be about pleasure, but there’s lots of serious play, like mammals play as young creatures in order to rehearse important life skills. So I think play can just be for pleasure, and also play can be revealing, concealing, and sometimes transformative.
Elsewhere is another kind of leaning into the medium as a location to do this investigatory work. Whereas [the poem] “Come, Calamity” is laying it on pretty thick sonically and image-wise in order to create a certain register and then undercut it for an emotional purpose, the poem “Root” is attempting to manifest fidelity to precision, to the importance and the granularity of what exactly we mean and how exactly we use language to express, describe, or obscure, so that poem is much more minimalist. It’s not attempting to be playful. It’s attempting to bring a fierce specificity and commitment to exacting precision in order to not obscure something.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned a couple times how titles work with the bodies of your poems to reverse expectations. Those movements are so pleasurable. Can you speak to the importance of reversal in Dream Apartments?
Olstein: There is a deep pleasure in disrupting preconceived or routinized patterns of thinking or of language itself. That’s one of my great joys in reading and writing poetry—how often a poem does not go in the direction I expect. It may just be syntactical. There was a time in my life I transcribed a lot of poems I loved, not because I needed a copy but because it would reveal how my mind works. I’d write the poem line by line, and I would start to write the more expected next phrase or a syntactical construction and realize, no, the poem didn’t do that, it did something less expected.
It’s not about being contrary or to “play devil’s advocate.” I’m interested in complexity. I’m interested in the fact that very few things are simple. I’m curious about the paradoxes and the different kinds of lenses or logics we might see something through, how that’s part of the material making up our lives and our identity. The breaks in pattern are interesting. For good reasons, our brains recognize patterns and then fill in the blanks. When there’s too much input, the brain prunes its dendrites to not be overwhelmed. At the same time, that pattern of expectation can dull our thinking as we rely on prefabricated constructions. In language, syntactically and pattern-wise, there’s a real dulling effect, so when something surprising occurs, it reflects our deeper reality and deeper truth. It also wakes us up.
Rumpus: The sections in your book have a variety of forms. There are haibun, couplets, skinny long poems, poems that move over the space of the page, poems that appear as arrows, the almost concrete section of “Night Secretary” on different fallacies. As the one who shaped the poems, how do you think form works in this book?
Olstein: I wanted to see how form could inhabit different kinds of logics. I was interested in experimenting with the formal manifestation on the field of the page as something that could work in concert with the different moods and material elements of the different kinds of poems. The formal variation is attempting to quite literally give shape to the different modes of thinking and feeling.
But there are times of searching out a residence in form, and then there’s when the form itself forces your hand, forces certain choices.
For instance, those arrow-shaped poems are written from and into and about a space of bewilderment and grief at the loss of a friend who died by suicide very unexpectedly. The poems start off in the familiar couplet that an earlier section of the book uses for the same associative and narrative work, only, in the face of the loss, the poems devolve into these jagged, arrow-shaped, sharp-edged homes. Then they come out the other side and reconstitute as couplets. They start off smaller and get bigger and bigger and then they get smaller and smaller again.
There was something about the disorientation and the jaggedness and the sharpness of that shape that drew me, and once I started playing with it—because it’s almost a concrete form—in order to create this pointed shape, I had to make line breaks that were dictated not by my conscious ordinary intentionality around a certain aesthetics but around the shape itself. A chance operation came into the picture. That new form of input made me break lines in places I wouldn’t have otherwise. On one hand, the line breaks became arbitrary. On the other hand, the line breaks became the opposite of arbitrary because they were being dictated by a very clear rationale, which was the shape.
I’m really excited when language and form use me in this sense.
Rumpus: It’s like another reversal, only it’s a reversal, like you said, against the poet. What brought on those poems in the first place? Are there other places in the collection where that kind of reversal happens against the poet—where you felt thrust off the cliff—not of your own volition?
Olstein: Yes. I love those cliffs. I love them as a reader, and I love them as a writer. I think in a similar way, the concrete sections in “Night Secretary”—in particular, the one shaped like an urn—I was surprised and excited about the way my interest in logical frameworks extends to the similar pitfalls in logical thought. They’re also similar in that they have names. We think we’re just making an argument, having our own original trains of thought, but those often fall into either learned or convenient patterns. I find that fascinating in a very similar way to the way I find it fascinating that we have similar anxiety dreams.
That’s why there are iterations of these different fallacies and the list itself listing in a poem is another way that language operates. The list is a very quotidian form. It’s something that occurs in our ordinary daily life. It’s something that has a presence in poetry. The playfulness and oddness of the names of fallacies—the straw man, the bandwagon, the slothful induction, the sharpshooter—it’s a place of playfulness in language and taking that opportunity to make it a concrete poem. That resonates with those habits—and thus, shapes—of our way of thinking.
That was something I discovered by doing, not by realizing I had a great idea and then writing it.
Rumpus: Your last poem introduces the idea of archive and numbers. In what way—if at all—is Dream Apartment an archive? You say it’s not about dreams. But what is it? If it were an archive, what would be an archive of?
Olstein: Archives are fascinating. They’re repositories. They hold relics. From their contents that may or may not go together, we build stories and histories. But memory is fallible. Gaston Bachelard says the poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the brain. Only certain things stick. Sometimes we can tell the story of why, and other times we don’t know why. We remember the way the light looked reflecting off of the bay from a certain hillside on a certain morning twenty-three years ago, but why that moment?
We have these fascinating brains. Each of us has the “Odd Lot Archive” of our life experience, the residue of it in terms of memory and in terms of narrative. I’m fascinated by that and how an archive sounds so organized, so official, but if you go into the archives, they’re a mess. They’re a hodgepodge: in this box we have one of Virginia Woolf’s gloves, three letters, two buttons, and half of a diary that was partway burnt. It’s from these things that we synthesize.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Olstein: I am working on a book-length project that is comprised of three poetic sequences that are collage- and erasure-based that engage with an antique reference book as source text. There are three source texts written between 1815 and 1901. They’re all these repositories of knowledge: one is a prototypical medical textbook; one is a natural history of vertebrate aquatic life in Massachusetts Bay. And another is a secondary school primer on ancient Greek history.
So there are these really fucking old books, and they all have maps and drawings and diagrams and things that go along with their reference material. They are these repositories of incredibly outdated knowledge, and I fell really deep into engaging with them through cutout and collage and erasure and arrangement to create sequences—one sequence per book—that combine language and image.
Rumpus: Is there a question you wish someone would ask but hasn’t?
Olstein: I don’t know if there is anything I wish someone would ask. Is there anything that you genuinely wanted to know but thought that’s not the right kind of question?
Rumpus: What a great reversal. The animals in Dream Apartment populate the pages in such a nonlinear way. In what ways do animals matter to you and/or to these poems?
Olstein: The animals are inevitable. We are among them. They are among us. We share this realm. To keep [the animals] out feels to me as artificial as when sometimes people complain about putting them in. They are here in so many ways. They’re here in terms of the fact that we are destroying them and we are relating to extinction crises. They’re here in that they sleep in our beds as our companion animals and parts of our family. They’re here as real beings and as beings that are used as symbolic, parabolic, and mythic kinds of creatures in so many different ways across our literatures and our cultures. Again, I think they’re inevitable.
I realize I can’t really explain the preponderance of rabbits.
I will say one of the oldest poems is “Blue is the Room in the House We Don’t Use.” It’s addressed to the rabbits on the lawn at midnight. There are predictable ways we encounter animals, and there are unpredictable ways we encounter animals. When we encounter them unpredictably, we are reminded that we don’t control everything. There are not just “other beings,” there are other ways of being. Your dog’s vision is literally different than yours. Your cat’s is different from that, and the praying mantis’ is different from that, and the rabbit’s is different from that, and all those ways of seeing are as real or as not real as anything else. The multiplicity and the malleability of what we too often reduce to absolutist, human-oriented, individual-oriented version of reality is something animals work against.
Author photograph by David Goodrich