Lynne Schmidt’s new collection Dead Dog Poems (available for pre-order at Finishing Line Press here) is a raw gut punch. Here we talk about that rawness, and how Lynn(e) has no interest in mitigating its power.
MM: So you feeling ready to start?
LS: Yes! Other than my pups distracting me and being buttholes, yes. *laughs*
MM: Good! That’s actually gonna tie into our first question! The poems in dead dog poems center around your relationship with your dog, his cancer, and the grief of his loss. In some of the poems, you acknowledge how many people in society are not as caring or open to the transformative nature of loving a dog. What are you trying to accomplish by carving out space for that relationship, that love, in poetry? Why and how does poetry legitimize how deeply you felt the loss of this dog?
LS: Oh wow – starting with the easy questions! *laughs*
It’s been reported that some people grieve for their pets more deeply than their human counterparts. Some places are starting to offer pet bereavement leave, and I am so here for it.
For me, my relationship with Baxter was what kept me going in the most difficult times in my life. There were points where I’d just tell him “If you’re okay, I’m okay,” and it helped get me through the day.
I don’t think my poetry fully encompasses the loss. Baxter died in 2017, and it’s still been incredibly difficult without him. I remember calling my sister after the diagnosis, knowing that he was dying, and telling her “I keep thinking ahead to when he’s not with me anymore, and it all just feels empty.” Because life likes to kick you when you’re down, a dear friend of mine died the day before I lost Baxter, and I swear you could hear my brain just break – I couldn’t handle the losses, especially so close together. I found myself writing it out. The first piece I wrote was Aftermath – it helped encompass how hopeless I felt with the grief and loss.
With Dead Dog Poems, my goal is to help make Baxter immortal. To tell our story, and to help tell other people, “Hey, it’s okay if you’re fucked up for a long time after your dog dies.” Grief is such a wild journey, and it is different for all of us. I think it’s important to talk about how many different forms of grief there are – it’s not just exclusive to the loss of friends and family, it extends to our fur friends and more.
MM: Grief is definitely the engine of these poems. And in that grief is a powerful refusal to accept the very idea of death or impermanence. Your goal is to immortalize your dog and his goodness. Why is poetry the best form of that immortality?
LS: I’m not sure it is, to be honest. But I firmly believe that books are.
I’ve had a few non-fiction pieces published with/about Baxter, but every time I’d sit down to write about the experience, poems came out. And so I’d let them. In this case, Dead Dog Poems is the best way to immortalize him because most of the poems have been written in his absence. It’s literally preserving his memory and trying to share it with other people, other dog lovers.
MM: Would you say your process is always or often that organic, letting things flow like they want to? Where does craft come into the picture for you?
LS: I’d probably lean more toward organic. I started writing more seriously in 2018 – writing poems from this collection, as well as Gravity.
I find myself writing when I’m feeling too much and can’t quite get the feelings out, can’t quite sit with them, either. That’s when my best poems come out.
I’ve been taking some workshops and learning about how everything can be a poem and experimenting more with “forcing” poems, finding other sources of inspiration, or using stronger words to paint a better picture.
MM: There is a certain amount of flat power that comes with the words “dead dog”, they have a jarring raw quality that many of the poems share. Did you work from a place of raw emotion? Or did the poems come out more polished and then get sanded down into that intensity?
LS: I hear that most of my poetry is intense and that I’ve made many people in the audience cry.
I think generally, I write from an emotional place. I once told a workshop my goal in poetry is to hurt people with words. Someone corrected me and said “I think you mean to say, you want to make them feel something”. Like….yea….that’s….it (not). My goal is to try to replicate the way the losses/the moments felt for me, the devastation, the helplessness, hopelessness of the situation.
Obviously, things were edited after the initial write, but as a whole, I can tell something is finished if it feels powerful to me.
MM: Interesting. To take you at your word then and not correct you, what does inflicting the pain you feel on others through poetry achieve, for you and them?
LS: I think the only way, or the best way, to do it is in such a way that people recognize it. Like it hurts people because either they’ve been there, or they’ve been close to it.
I think a lot of it is allowing the space for these hard feelings – as humans we so frequently turn ourselves off to hurt, and to pain, but life hurts, and it hurts a lot.
With my poetry, I try to offer space for people to a) recognize that hurt and b) process it. (It’s a big part of why I like Q and A sessions following readings, or telling people I’m available to talk, or they can email me).
I hold hands in the literary world and the mental health world, and a lot of that comes through my writing, I think. They want to heal from these hard things, but sometimes healing hurts, too.
MM: So speaking from that perspective of handholding, what does poetry allow you to do that just making space as a mental health care worker wouldn’t allow you to do?
LS: Oh, excellent question.
Poetry allows me to share my story, my grief, in a way that is accessible to others.
As a mental health professional, you don’t generally do that. You establish boundaries and you are here to support your client.
Whereas with poetry, you can write a poem, and have it resonate with people, have them say “I’ve experienced that, too” and though you’re writing from your personal experience, it suddenly becomes this collective experience.
MM: So I’m gonna choose two images from your work, and ask you to choose between them, okay? You can explain your choice, but you have to choose.
MM: A mountain, vs a staring contest.
LS: On impulse, I think mountain.
MM: Good idea to trust the gut on this one.
Lynn(e) Schmidt is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, a mental health professional with a focus on trauma and healing. She is the winner of the 2020 New Women’s Voices Contest and author of the chapbooks, Dead Dog Poems (Finishing Line Press), Gravity (Nightingale and Sparrow Press) which was listed as one of the 17 Best Breakup Books to Read in 2020, and On Becoming a Role Model (Thirty West), which was featured on The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed for PTSD Awareness Week. Her work has received the Maine Nonfiction Award, Editor’s Choice Award, and a 2018 and 2019 PNWA finalist for memoir and poetry respectively. In 2012 she started the project, AbortionChat, which aims to lessen the stigma around abortion. When given the choice, Lynne prefers the company of her three dogs and one cat to humans.
Mordecai Martin is a fiction writer who conducts interviews for the Poetry Question and lives in a small but not tiny house in Philadelphia with his wife, Atenea, and cat, Pharaoh. His work has appeared in Funicular, X-Ray, and other literary magazines. He is a founding member of the Golus Kollectiv, a Jewish writing cooperative, and he blogs at http://www.mordecaimartin.net. Find him on Twitter @mordecaipmartin.