Checking in with Lisa Russ Spaar

Checking in with Lisa Russ Spaar

What are you currently working on?

At the moment, I’m reading and responding to a number of student projects from two seminars I taught this semester, so I’m devoting a lot of time and energy to finding ways to honor the work they’ve done.

What is UVA poet Lisa Russ Spaar currently listening to? “A mix tape that my daughter made that has The Mountain Goats on it, some Beirut and Regina Spektor,” she says. “In my day I was a fan of Kate Bush.”

Additionally, I recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and I’m working on a new book of poems. Often, recipients of the fellowship will use it to take time off, hide themselves away and write a lot, but for various reasons, I’m staying busy while working on this book. As a lyric poet, however, I’ve found that you can get away with juggling that kind of project with other responsibilities.
What is your favorite tool of the trade?
Writers always have their different items—they say [Friedrich] Schiller always had to have rotting apples in his desk to write. Or like Hemingway, who had to write while standing up—people have their rituals, their lucky socks or whatever. I know that for a long time, for me, I needed a window, a cigarette and coffee. And heartbreak, I guess. I don’t smoke anymore—I gave that up when I had kids—but I still do coffee. Sometimes I don’t have access to a window, but I try to be near one whenever possible. 
Lastly, a dictionary. I really love the O.E.D., but the old Random House dictionary is my favorite, with its artwork and pictures, and it’s comprehensive—about the size of three Manhattan phonebooks.
Locally, who would you like to collaborate with?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about working with somebody in science. [UVA Chemistry Professor] Cassandra Fraser’s work really interests me. I’ve heard her give talks about molecules and fractal light structures, and there’s a material thing there that appeals to me as a poet.
Have you traveled recently?
I’m essentially a house person, but I believe house people very much require the road, whether in a literal or a literary sense. And I like to think that there are other, mental flights that are going on. Usually I’m reading several books at a time, and that’s a kind of travel for me.
When you’re in a creative mood, what is your favorite snack food?
When I’m really working, I’m too absorbed in the process to eat much, although a lot of my friends have writing rituals involving food, like M&Ms. Just coffee for me. I like espresso drinks. 
Let’s say you’re packing for a long trip. Any essential articles of clothing?
I’m a really light traveler, so I typically take a small suitcase with black tights, a pair of boots or French sandals that are good for walking, and maybe one black skirt and some shirts. I’d rather have room to take home some wonderful souvenir from wherever I’m going, like a book.
What do you carry with you at all times?
I have a lot of sea glass, and I try to take a piece with me whenever I travel.
Guilty pleasures?
One of the great things about getting older is that you feel less guilt over the pleasurable things. But I do value solitude. I’m very rarely alone—I have three kids, although they come and go, and I teach full-time, so when I can grab a free moment for myself, I take such joy in it.
Who is your favorite artist outside your medium?
I’m very interested in painting, and through a friend in London I became acquainted with the work of Paula Rego, a Portuguese artist who has been living in London since the ’70s. Her turf, her psychic material, is very similar to my own; she’s got a dark sensibility, she’s very interested in fairy tales and mythology, and she did a version of Jane Eyre that the Brits made into a postage stamp, which depicted Jane as very plain. She’s always refreshing her practice, never stays static, and keeps incorporating new media.