Features / Interviews / Poetry

On Divinity and Poetry: Q&A with Lisa Dordal

by Lisa Peet

smiling woman on dock

Lisa Dordal; Photo credit: Beth Gwinn

Lisa Dordal, a poet and teacher based in Nashville, holds both a Master of Fine Arts in poetry and a Master of Divinity—neither of which will surprise the reader of her deeply accomplished, deeply compassionate work. Her first full-length collection, Mosaic of the Dark, was published in 2018, and Water Lessons in 2022 (both Black Lawrence Press). Next Time You Come Home, an elegant and fascinating reshaping of letters from her mother, will be out in September—pre-order it here.

Dordal offered her thoughts to Bloom recently on poetry, spirituality, making the invisible visible, and more.


LP: Water Lessons and Next Time You Come Home are wonderful counterpoints to each other—such different and yet complementary sides to the spectrum of what poetry can be. Have you always thought of yourself as a poet?

LD: I haven’t always thought of myself as a poet though, looking back, I see that I always was one. I wrote a lot of poetry in high school and college as a way to deal with the depression I was experiencing at the time. At the age of 30, I came out of the closet as a lesbian but, prior to that, all I knew was that I was deeply unhappy and didn’t feel good about myself. Writing poetry helped me process that pain. It wasn’t until much later—when I went to divinity school at the age of 36—that I began to think of myself as a poet. That’s when my poetic impulses—which had been dormant for so long—began to awaken.

I should mention there was actually a brief time in high school when I consciously thought of myself as a poet. I had entered a poetry contest sponsored by Gwendolyn Brooks and when she called to tell me I had won a prize in her contest, I thought: Wow! I’m a poet! I even wore a black turtleneck to school the next day because I thought that was the way poets dressed. My understanding of what a poet was at that time in my life was superficial and not yet inwardly grounded. It would be two decades before I really claimed the title—and when claiming it felt completely authentic to who I was deep down and within.

LP: What was your genesis as a writer (as well as a poet)? What did you read growing up, and what stuck with you and/or formed your sensibilities?

Water Lessons Final CoverLD: I was definitely a reader growing up. I grew up in an academic family, right across the street from the University of Chicago. My father had a career in academic medicine; my mother, who worked as a social worker, was a huge reader—literary fiction, magazines, newspapers. Our house was filled with books. Reading was the norm in my family and something I loved to do. But unfortunately, there was a big emphasis on information over transformation or, say, emotional experience; a big emphasis on the disciplines of science and math over literature. Growing up, I absorbed a lot of unhealthy ideas about intelligence—like the idea that people who are good at math are smarter than people who aren’t or the idea that knowledge (in the form of factual information) is superior to the kind of wisdom a person might garner from the transformative power of literature. These were warped ideas that likely stemmed from the gender roles in my family and, related to this, the privileging of math and science over the arts. This privileging of information over transformation was so deeply ingrained in me that, during one of my college breaks, I read (and took notes on) the entire World Book Encyclopedia because I thought this would make me smart. My artistic impulses—much like my sexual impulses—were deeply buried. I see a big similarity between the length of time it took me to realize I was a lesbian and the length of time it took me to realize I was a poet. Two different but very related journeys.

LP: There is a strong sense of spirituality running through your poems—how did your formal divinity studies change/reinforce/channel that part of your art?

LD: Divinity school opened up new channels of creativity for me and was really the starting point for me thinking of myself as a poet. In my Biblical Studies courses, we were trained, when reading a story from the Bible, to ask who has power in the story and who doesn’t; who is in the center and who is in the margins; who has a voice and who doesn’t. I was particularly drawn to stories with female characters and soon started writing poems in which I would creatively reimagine the story in order to give the female characters more voice, more centrality. Not long after this, I started asking these same kinds of questions about my own life: Who had power in the family and culture in which I was raised and who didn’t? Who had voice and who didn’t? Who was in the center and who was in the margins? The very act of asking those questions allowed me to tap into a wellspring of wisdom and emotion and experience that I then spent the next 10 years exploring in my poetry.

I see so much overlap between religious pursuits and poetic pursuits. Poetry is all about meaning-making through words and the same could be said of many religious or spiritual pursuits. Telling stories—whether new ones or ones that have existed in the world for thousands of years—is a form of meaning-making. Both religion and poetry are attempting to make what is usually invisible, visible.

I’m still very drawn to certain stories from the Bible and it’s not unusual for me to make biblical references in my poems. For example, in my poem “Ars Poetica,” I make a reference to a New Testament story in which a group of women tell the male apostles about their experience at the empty tomb and they are not believed. An argument could be made that the reason they aren’t believed is because they are women. I experienced this kind of gender dynamic throughout my childhood and young adult years and I experienced it particularly in connection with my mother’s alcoholism. My mother started drinking when I was 10 years old and her drinking had a huge impact on me. I tried to speak out about it, but my concerns were dismissed. The final lines from “Ars Poetica” are: “I was the one no one believed. / And my father still insists her liver was fine. / It was her heart, he says, just her heart.

LP: Water Lessons, which is more of a traditional poetry collection, captures a lifetime of experience: family relationships, childhood, loss and grief, the natural world, and a growing awareness race and racism, among many other threads. Where did those poems happen in your work timeline—were they brewing for a long time, or are they more recent distillations? 

Mosaic of the DarkLD: It took me close to 10 years to write my first book, Mosaic of the Dark. But Water Lessons came much more easily—probably only two years from start to finish. Many of the poems in Mosaic of the Dark focus on my experiences as a closeted lesbian trying to fit my life into what, for me, felt like a prescribed script of heterosexuality, and also on my mother’s possibly non-heterosexual orientation and eventual death from alcoholism. In this way, the book addresses the psychological harm that can arise from restrictive societal expectations for women.

The poems in Water Lessons continue to explore these themes—especially with respect to my mother. But there are also poems in this collection about my father’s dementia and my own childlessness. Those poems emerged very naturally from certain life events that occurred or resurfaced during the two years I was writing the book.

Then there are poems about my own complicity in systemic racism as a white girl growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Those poems were inspired by the work I started doing in 2018 (thanks in large part to my Unitarian Universalist congregation) around the issue of mainstream white supremacy.

And woven throughout Water Lessons are my meditations on a divine presence that, for me, is both keenly felt and necessarily elusive. There’s a lot in the book about the relationship between reality and imagination; faith and doubt; and presence and absence. Many of the poems I am currently working on—for a future book—are very much centered on these themes. So far, each book I have finished has provided me with a natural starting point for a subsequent book.

LP: Some of the details you use are so specific. Are you a note taker/journal keeper?

LD: I am a note taker, for sure. When I read—especially nonfiction—I take a lot of notes. There used to be a time—maybe 10 years ago—when I would spend one day a month in the magazine room at the Vanderbilt library, reading everything that was interesting to me from a wide range of journals and magazines. I called this day my “purple notebook day” because I would take notes in a purple notebook. Then, in the evening over dinner, I would share with my wife all the quirky things I had learned that day. Mostly I do my reading and note-taking at home now (but still in a purple notebook!). One of the things I love about being a writer is that I get to follow my curiosities wherever they take me. The trick (for me) is to not worry about where my reading might lead me. Sometimes my internal editor might kick in and say: Do you really think this is ever going to be relevant? I have to silence that voice and just enjoy the process of learning regardless of whether or not it leads to a new poem or any other kind of writing.

LP: Did your mother’s death open up a path in your work that hadn’t existed before? How did your work differ before and after the event? 

LD: My mother died five months before I started divinity school. During divinity school, I had many opportunities to write about and reflect on her death and also on her alcoholism. And I would say that, yes, her death somehow gave me permission to start writing about what I had experienced as a child and then later as an adult. As I mentioned earlier, divinity school had a huge impact on my writing. The fact that my mother died around the same time as I began divinity school makes it hard to know which “event” impacted my writing more. Everything changed for me as a writer once I went to divinity school and my experience in school was shaped in profound ways by my mother’s death just prior to the start of school.

Cover for Next Time You Come HomeLP: As a longtime, regular letter writer, I absolutely loved what you did with Next Time You Come Home. It struck me as the flip side of blackout poetry, where instead of pulling out words and phrases to make new meaning you set pieces of these letters to be in conversation with each other—to become more themselves. You say in the prologue, “If someone had asked me, during the distillation process, what criteria I was using to decide what text to keep and what to delete, I’m not sure I would have been able to provide a satisfactory answer,” and you name a few things that rose to the surface. Now that some time has elapsed since you put the collection together, do you have any different insight into that sculpting process?

LD: That’s a great question. I don’t really have any new insights about the process, but I would say that the sense of awe I still feel about the process has only deepened since then. The experience felt almost trancelike—as if I was being guided by something. I like to think that I was being guided by my mother! But who knows. All I know is that the experience of rediscovering my mother’s letters so long after her death was transformative for me. Throughout the process of reading her letters and then sculpting them into something new, I felt so much love—as if my mother was right there with me working on the book. To me, this speaks to the power of words. Every time I re-visit her words, I hear her voice and feel her presence. Words are magic in this way.

LP: Are you a letter writer, other than your correspondence with your mother? And if so, does having done that work, which has such a strong collective cadence, make you more (or differently) conscious of your own rhythms when you’re writing casually? Has it changed how you approach your poetry?

LD: Unfortunately, I’m not much a letter writer in the old-fashioned pen and paper sense. And I do think it’s a shame that so few people write letters nowadays. It really is a dying art. Not long after I finished the manuscript for Next Time You Come Home, I picked up the letter writing habit for a while by writing weekly letters addressed to my mother. Since I’ve never been as consistent with journal writing as I would like, I thought, well, maybe the reason I’ve never been able to maintain a journaling practice is because my entries aren’t addressed to anyone. So once a week I sat down and wrote a letter to my mother with the hope that by specifically addressing her, I would feel compelled to continue the practice. Unfortunately, this only lasted for about three months.

In terms of her letters impacting my poetry, I do feel like her letters have helped me appreciate—even more than I already did—how much power the simplest, most straightforward language can have.

1974 photo of woman in blue compact car

Milly Dordal

LP: I’m also fascinated with the backstory of having the box of letters in your home for years before you discovered it. Do you feel like that surprise, or unfolding, changed how you approached the way you worked with them? 

LD: Once I rediscovered the letters, I was so worried about something happening to them that I immediately started typing them up (a process that took several weeks). Reading her words again, so long after her death, was transformative for me because the experience allowed me to feel her love in such a direct way. As I mentioned earlier, my mother started drinking when I was 10. One thing I struggled with growing up was not always feeling “seen” by her. After she’d been drinking, it was as if I was invisible, as if she was looking right through me. But when I reread the letters, it was like she was alive again and I could feel her looking directly at me—and with so much love. This is why I felt such urgency about preserving the letters. I had already lost my mother twice—once to alcoholism and once to physical death—and I didn’t want to lose her again.

LP: Are you working on anything new that you want to talk about?

LD: I do have new poems that I’ve written in the last year—some of which have been inspired by my father’s death last May. I know I have more to write about that. And also a few that have been inspired by my study of mysticism. I am very interested to see where those poems go—and to see what new ones emerge.

Also, I recently wrote a children’s book about the experience of becoming a new cat mom. My wife and I adopted two cats last year after being dog people for decades (we’re both in our fifties). We are smitten! I’m currently looking for a publisher for the book but even if it never gets picked up, it sure was fun to write.

LP: And last of all, the eternal question: What are you reading?

LD: Ever since my father died, I’ve been drawn to the writings of Willa Cather. My father grew up in North Dakota and, even though Cather’s novels don’t take place in North Dakota, there is something about the Nebraska landscape that is very familiar to me and also comforting in the way that it reminds me of my father. I will be attending a Willa Cather conference this summer in Red Cloud, Nebraska and I am viewing it as almost a religious pilgrimage. I can’t wait to spend time in that landscape—both the physical landscape and also the emotional and psychological landscape. Who knows what feelings will bubble up while I’m there.

I have also been reading a lot about mysticism lately. As I mentioned previously, there is a deep connection to me between poetry and spirituality. Both endeavors are interested in the relationship between what is visible and what is invisible, between what is seen and what is unseen, between the “real” and the imagined (which, to me, is no less real). And both endeavors require the use of metaphor and imagination, an appreciation for solitude, and the necessity of faith (whether in the writing process itself or in a divine being). I’m hoping to spend concentrated time this summer with the writings of Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Julian of Norwich, and any others I have time for (before the fall semester starts)

LD: And the real last question: What didn’t I ask you that you’d like to say?

LD: I’d love to add something about my writing process in general. Writing is really a two-way conversation—it involves listening and speaking. Reading is the listening part and writing is the speaking part. I make a point of reading a lot and reading widely—not just poetry but fiction, nonfiction, etc. I let my curiosities take me wherever they lead.

If I told myself I had to get up every morning and write, I might not ever get out of bed. The blank page can be very intimidating. But one thing I can do is read. My daily writing practice during the summer months (which is when I get most of my writing done because I’m not teaching then) is to spend an hour or so every day reading poetry. I read it slowly, sometimes out loud. And I keep pen and paper close by. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the poetry that I’m reading will call up something for me—something from my own experiences that I feel compelled to write down. At that point, I start writing as much as I can on paper—whatever comes to mind. I write until I discover what it is that something inside me wants to say.

I always learn something from my poems—or go somewhere I didn’t know I was going to go. Once I have reached this place on paper, only then do I move to the computer to continue the process. There might be more that I discover once I move to the computer, but I really need to have some kind of base to work with.

Last year I attended a workshop led by the amazing singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier and she put into words something I’ve been experiencing for years but had never fully articulated which is that inspiration typically—maybe even always—arrives in small moments. It’s not loud and thunderous—like a voice coming out of the clouds. Rather it’s small moments, small things I notice that I need to write down. I don’t usually know where those moments will lead me but I know they will eventually lead to something.

The reason I bring any of this up is because it’s so easy for people to be intimidated by even the thought of writing. But, really, there are things you can do to make it less intimidating. Setting aside time to read every day (if you can!) or every week (which is also fine!) is the beginning of the writing journey. Once ideas, images, stories start to bubble up inside you, it’s time to start writing and let the magic begin.


Bloom Post End

Lisa Peet is the Executive Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.

Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features

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