Lynn Marie Houston’s essays and poems have appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly, Prick of the Spindle, Poydras Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Uppagus, 3Elements Review, Extract(s), Postmodern Culture, and Proteus, among others. She lives in an Airstream camper in her hometown of Newburgh, New York. When she isn’t teaching English, she tends her honeybees and kayaks the Delaware River. You can find more of her work at her website: lynnmhouston.wordpress.com
Who is your favorite female identifying written character and why?
The main character in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” haunts me. She feels like family, and I don’t only mean that as a compliment. I’m struck by how Walker wrote Mama as so comfortable in her own skin. Mama is not ashamed of her lower socioeconomic status and is proud of her skills and capacity for hard labor. This large, calloused-hand, black female character was written to be so aware of her own beauty and worth, I can’t help but admire her, can’t help but wish (even as a white woman) to occupy in the real world the literary space she does because it resolves something of the conflict that exists for me between class and gender.
And yet, the character in the story with whom I should most identify, the “intellectual” Dee, is the one who is devalued by Mama in the story. While visiting her mother and sister, Dee offers to take home quilts that were made by their ancestors. She wants to hang them on the wall, but her sister Maggie was supposed to get the quilts for “everyday use” after she marries. Mama opts to preserve a living heritage by giving the quilts to Maggie and pokes fun at Dee for being too removed from her roots. How many times have I been Dee, marginalized for my “academic” thinking, and ignored at family gatherings? My parents were both first-generation college students and on my mother’s side we are still very close to our working class roots.
I love Alice Walker’s character Mama in “Everyday Use” because she is content with a simple life that Capitalism tells us is not good enough, and yet I fear Mama is my own grandmother, a factory seamstress married to a coal miner, who wrote me a letter when I was in my PhD. program at Arizona State telling me to quit wasting my time at school and find a husband. Walker packs so much into that short story and into her main character.
What literary work by a female identifying writer had the most effect on you as a writer and/or person?
The Awakening is my all-time favorite work by a woman author because, essentially, it is the story that almost all women authors seek to tell, even me. Edna Pontellier comes to realize that there is no place in the world for who she wants to be. It’s an incredibly lonely realization and that feeling is often the reason I write. Writing allows me to point out to others the cracks in the façade of this world, one of such rigid and exclusionary definitions, and also the fleeting moments of beauty and comfort I’m able to find, the rabbit holes I’m able to slip into.
I once had a male colleague who taught The Awakening as a failure, telling his students that Kate Chopin had no imagination and that Edna’s suicide at the end of the story was evidence of Chopin’s lack of literary talent as “surely there were other, better options than to kill herself.” What? This was the same colleague who was sleeping with female graduate students and not handing back any graded assignments in his classes (and he received tenure!). Besides making a freshman-level error of literary analysis (characters are not real people!), this reading of The Awakening is totally ludicrous. Kate Chopin wrote many stories with women characters who all have similar realizations (“The Story of an Hour,” “Desiree’s Baby,” etc.) about how the game was rigged, the deck stacked against them. She meant Edna’s suicide to be understood as the act of a woman who had no other way to live with dignity in the repressive society of the 19th-Century South. After reading Chopin’s The Awakening, I realized that I didn’t have to have everything figured out in order to write—I didn’t have to have a solution—I could just write about my struggles, and that was enough.
How did Darryl Sleeps Through the Best Sunrise I’ve Ever Seen come about?
I had tried unsuccessfully to write some nonfiction essays about the three years I spent in Louisiana; I wanted to commemorate my ex-boyfriend Darryl who passed away in a tragic car accident after I moved away. He was a vivid storyteller and a patient teacher who taught me to love saltwater fishing. For a year, I trolled the bayous of Southeastern Louisiana with him in a 14-foot aluminum boat. Now that he’s gone, I enjoy living in the space of those memories, thinking that if I had known then what I do now—how short a time he would be here, the direction my life has taken since then—that I would have better recognized that time of my life for the amazing gift that it was. I try not to forget how that lesson applies to the present.
The poem “Darryl Sleeps Through the Best Sunrise I’ve Ever Seen” came out almost fully formed one morning. I woke up in the New York winter, so grey and dull, and remembered the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen, an atmospheric effect in Louisiana from living around so much water. And then I remembered that when I was marveling at that sunrise Darryl was still alive: I’d just left him in bed to go to work. I wished he had seen that sunrise with me.
Darryl’s daughter, Lexie, recently contacted me, reaching out to try to keep his memory alive, and I was able to send her the link to the Alyss website and share this poem about her father.
What has been your greatest writing life moment so far?
I have started offering some poetry editing and consulting services for friends. I’m putting together instructions for them to follow about how to edit their poetry and send it out for publication. For one friend, I actually agreed to send her work out for her, matching her aesthetic with the right journals and keeping track of the submissions. She has a full time job as a lawyer and enjoys writing, but didn’t want to have to deal with the rejection and the time it takes to research journals and their submission processes. So I suggested some edits for her, wrote her a snazzy bio, and sent out a batch of her poems to journals. It took me 3 months, but I was able to get my friend’s work published, her first publication ever. When I got the email acceptance for her work, it was the best feeling I’d ever felt, better even than getting my own work accepted. I always learn more about a thing when I start to teach or help others with it. So the greatest moment in my writing life so far has been facilitating getting other people’s good work out into the world. I couldn’t offer these editing and consulting services if I hadn’t put so much hard work into my own writing.
What is your favorite piece by another writer from Issue One and why?
I really enjoyed Mandy Rose’s “Five.” I love its purposeful obliqueness, how at first it’s hard to tell whether the main character is hurting herself or being hurt by someone else. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that it is an abusive ex-husband who is the next iteration in a cycle of abuse experienced by the female protagonist (and now, the next generation, her daughter). What that confusion echoes for me is all the ways friends and family members blame victims of abuse and how these victims often blame themselves. This is such a complex and deftly-layered story with great pacing.
What are you currently working on (feel free to use this as an opportunity to brag any bylines you’d like exposure for)?
My first book of poetry, The Clever Dream of Man, is coming out in August from Aldrich Press. I am also putting the finishing touches on a short memoir about a solo kayak-camping trip I took last summer called 110 Miles on the Delaware River. In the fall, I will begin the MFA program in poetry at Southern Connecticut State University. I’m grateful to take a kind of “working” sabbatical in order to train with the talented faculty there; they have already been so generous and welcoming.
Who/what is your favorite Alice/Alyss?
Given my discussion of “Everyday Use” above, that would have to be Alice Walker! I enjoy discussing her work with students in the introductory courses I teach.