Lauren Schmidt is the author of three collections of poetry: Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing; The Voodoo Doll Parade, selected for the Main Street Rag Author’s Choice Chapbook Series; and Psalms of The Dining Room, a sequence of poems about her volunteer experience at a soup kitchen in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rattle, Nimrod, PANK, New York Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, and The Progressive. Her awards include the So to Speak Poetry Prize, the Neil Postman Prize for Metaphor, The Janet B. McCabe Prize for Poetry, and the Bellevue Literary Review’s Vilcek Prize for Poetry. Schmidt is an Instructor of Developmental English at Passaic County Community College and a Poet-in-the-Schools for Paterson Public Schools.
Geosi Gyasi: You volunteer teaching poetry at a transitional housing program for homeless mothers. I am wondering your relationship with the homeless mothers?
Lauren Schmidt: First, I should tell you that I no longer volunteer there because I moved an hour away to take on a new job. I am currently doing a similar program with teenage girls through Girl Scouts. But I’m happy to reflect on my time with the homeless mothers, as it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
My relationship with the women there is very much like any other: it’s one of mutual respect and trust that had to be earned first. When I started, many of the women were, understandably, reluctant to open up. But after the second or third week, after I was willing to talk about myself and my own life struggles, the young women started to open up. I have been teaching for thirteen years, so I treated the workshop as much like a classroom as I could establish a positive, respectful, and encouraging environment, but eventually, our relationship transcended the teacher/student distance. I still hear from the women from time to time, even though I am no longer there and many of the women have graduated from the program.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult teaching poetry to homeless mothers?
Lauren Schmidt: I can see why you’d ask this question—most people wonder why I’d bother with poetry, of all things—but I think poetry is meant for people who need it the most. The challenge was to find poems that spoke as much to their experiences as possible when I didn’t know them. So, I started off with poems about names (identity), since we all have names. Then I went on to poetry about motherhood and other similar themes because I knew they were all mothers. After that, once we got to know each other and once they started to share more with me in their own writing and our group discussions of the poems, I had a much stronger sense of the kinds of things that would interest them.
I was so encouraged by their level of engagement, that I began to expand the program in other ways. I took them to see a couple of plays and poetry readings, and then I even brought some poets I know into the program to read to them and hold a Q&A. Even the women who didn’t consider themselves poets were engaged, but I also had women bring me things they’d written on their own from week to week. So, while there was indeed a range of education level and level of interest, I’d say that poetry was probably the best thing I could have used to tap into these women’s experiences.
Geosi Gyasi: You have a way of choosing titles for your poems. The tile of your poem, “My Father Asks Me to Kill Him” is one typical example. What influenced the title?
Lauren Schmidt: What influenced the title was the experience I describe in the poem. My father and I were taking a walk in his neighborhood one evening while I was visiting my parents. They have an ice cream shop down their street, so that’s probably where we were going. And one of our neighbors who had been diagnosed with ALS the year before passed us with his own family, and he was barely recognizable because he’d deteriorated in health so fast. My father turned to me after they’d past some distance and said something to the effect of, “If I ever get a diagnosis like that, you should just kill me,” and he made a gun-to-the-throat gesture.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you a lover of long poems?
Lauren Schmidt: I love long poems only when the subject warrants length. Otherwise, I feel that one my jobs as a poet is to say whatever I want to say so precisely that it takes up the fewest number of lines as possible. In most of my longer poems, I notice that there is a lot of associative leaping—one memory to another memory—which allows me to explore multiple narratives on a theme, thus extending the poem without dragging it out. When it comes to narratives, I try to find the most crucial moment of the narrative and let that speak for itself. To lengthen a single narrative simply to write a long poem, I think, is to risk losing the impact of that single moment.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us a bit about your chapbook, “The Voodoo Doll Parade”?
Lauren Schmidt: My chapbook emerged mostly out of work I was doing as an M.F.A student, and I was lucky enough to have had it accepted for publication less than six months after graduation. It was a very important moment in my publishing life because it introduced me to the company that would publish another book, a full-length collection called Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing, where many of the poems in the two manuscripts overlap. The publishers there really believed in my work from early on, even though I wasn’t someone anyone had ever heard of. That’s a pretty good indication that the editors like your work—they’re willing to take a chance on a no-name poet with very few credits to her career. So that little chapbook changed everything for me.
Geosi Gyasi: You teach writing at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. Is it difficult to teach how to write?
Lauren Schmidt: I no longer teach at Brookdale Community College. These days, I am a full-time, tenure-track professor in the Developmental English Department at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey, one of the most impoverished cities in the state of New Jersey. Despite some of the challenges that arise in teaching an at-risk population, this is my ideal job. The work is so utterly important and many of my students are moving mountains to get their education. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of, truly.
My students have been woefully under-prepared in their educational careers and are therefore not ready for college-level courses. So, they must go through the Developmental English program first, before they can earn college-level credits. In that way, it’s a lot like teaching high school, which I did for eight years before my transition into higher education.
Geosi Gyasi: Were you taught how to write?
Lauren Schmidt: I don’t know if I was taught to write the way I write, but I was most definitely given an arsenal of skills that I use consistently in my work. My elementary school teachers noticed very early on that I had an aptitude for language—I was quite precocious with my vocabulary—so they gave me additional books to read and extra vocabulary words to learn. In fifth grade, I won a poetry contest, and my parents and grandparents had poems I’d written them for birthdays and anniversaries and things like that, so I must have always been interested in poetry. I can’t say for certain where I developed this interest since no one in my family writes. My best guess is Shel Silverstein, a children’s author and poet. My mother read him to me constantly as a small child.
By the time I reached middle school, I met my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Ring, who is actually the person on the dedication page of my third book. He fostered my writing probably more than anyone in my life, but he insists that I came to him writing the way I did and that he had nothing to do with it. I’d argue otherwise by saying that his encouragement was more important than any extra book someone could have given me to read.
In high school, I met another English teacher, Mrs. Gilbert, who would always read my work. She didn’t help me write poetry and she didn’t give me any extra work, but she showed tremendous interest in my poetry and my love of it. I remember sitting in her class thinking, “This is the kind of high school English teacher I want to be!”
In short, I felt very loved and nurtured as a student and I know that each of these teachers (and others whom I have not mentioned here by name) played a necessary part in my growth as a writer, particularly in the early days. Had my love of words not been encouraged and developed by these teachers, I don’t know that I would have followed my dreams.
Geosi Gyasi: What interests you as a writer?
Lauren Schmidt: In a word, injustice. I am constantly trying to right wrongs in my work, speak out against the things I see that need changing, defend the marginalized and disenfranchised. If you read my work, you’ll see quite a few underdogs in there, people you want to root for, people who aren’t always treated very well by other people. And I think it’s important for writers to tell those stories.
My first full-length collection, Psalms of The Dining Room, is a series of poems based on my volunteer work in a homeless kitchen in Eugene, Oregon where I lived for five years in my twenties, and I’m currently working on a series of poems about my work with the mothers in New Jersey. There are so many uplifting stories in places you wouldn’t expect to find them—-like homeless kitchens and housing programs—and who else is going to tell them but a poet?
Geosi Gyasi: There must have been something that sparkled your interest in writing “Why I Am Not a Taxidermist”?
Lauren Schmidt: This is one of my longer poems, and, as I said earlier, it includes a lot of associative leaps, memories that I sort of strung together. The central metaphor was inspired by a visit to one of my mother’s friend’s house is Arizona. The husband—and not my uncle as it says in my poem—had a John Wayne room! Literally everything in the room had something to do with John Wayne. I was sixteen when I saw The John Wayne Room and it really stayed with me. More than ten years later, it would show up in a poem!
Geosi Gyasi: Which writers have influenced you most?
Lauren Schmidt: Too many poets to name here, but here are a few: Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Patricia Smith, Martin Espada, Sharon Olds, and Walt Whitman.
Geosi Gyasi: When not writing, what do you do to relax?
Lauren Schmidt: People tell me I don’t really relax! I like to volunteer in my free time, something that’s always been important to me. I also like to be outside, whether it’s spending time at the beach or going hiking in the woods. And, of course, I like the things that everyone else likes: going to movies, seeing friends and family, eating, napping, etc.
Geosi Gyasi: What started your interest in writing?
Lauren Schmidt: I wish I knew! I have always felt drawn to it in ways I could never explain, and though I didn’t start thinking about making a professional go at being published until I was almost 30, writing has always been a part of my life.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your writing schedule like?
Lauren Schmidt: My writing schedule varies depending on what I have going on in my life, but I probably produce a poem a month. There have been times in my life where I have been much more prolific than that, and others where I have had dry spells. The last four years, when my three books all came out, I hardly wrote at all because I was working multiple jobs and going to school full-time to earn a second Master’s Degree. Plus, all the work I’d produced in the few years prior was now coming out in book form. Though my creative writing slowed down a lot in those years, I was writing a lot of academic work—critical essays and thesis papers—which I think is still good exercises for the writing muscles. In the last two years, I have been working on what will be my next collection, if someone ever wants to publish it. I’m trying to take my time with it and enjoy the process because when I first got started, a put a lot of pressure on myself to get books out as a way of calling myself a writer. I guess I had a lot to prove to myself. And now that I have a few books out, I no longer feel the need to publish at a fast rate. I want to grow as a writer and push myself in new directions and these things take time and patience.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?
Lauren Schmidt: I haven’t really experienced writer’s block. I have experienced the FEAR of writer’s block, if that makes any sense. Sometimes, when it’s been a while and I haven’t produced anything I like, I get worried that I’ve lost whatever skill I once possessed to write. But eventually something happens—-I’ll get a poem accepted for publication or someone will write to me about how much they like my work—and I’ll get back on the horse. I have found that the worst thing I can do to my creative spirit is get wrapped up in how much or little I’m producing. I know many writers say that they write every day, and I’m so envious of those people, but I also know that if I were to write every day, I’d produce a lot of junk. I did that when I first started my M.F.A. program—I prompted myself as much as possible to get going and to experiment with the things I was learning—and while I was wildly prolific, a lot of it was stuff that will most likely never see publication. These days, I’m much more focused on improving the quality of the poems I write. Having a theme such as the one I’m working on in mind is also quite helpdul in battling writer’s block. If I can see a larger picture, writing the individual poems feels less daunting.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you often write?
Lauren Schmidt: I write wherever I can. Sometimes I go to my public library, or in my office hour at work, but mostly I write from my desk at home. If I’m feeling stuck on a poem, I will often get away from my house. For some reason, the change in scenery helps to get me going. Generally, though, I write at my desk in my house;
Geosi Gyasi: Which of your poems stand out best?
Lauren Schmidt: I can’t name many by title, but I know when I’ve nailed it, usually, and most often, these poems have been rolling around in my head for some time.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you sometimes look back and wish to change anything from your poems?
Lauren Schmidt: Absolutely. This is another reason I’d like to take my time in this next collection. I want to mitigate that feeling of “I could have done better” inasmuch as I can. I am pretty hard on myself, so I don’t know that I can ever get that critical voice in my head to silence completely, but it would be nice to turn the volume down on it.
Geosi Gyasi: What have you been up to in recent times?
Lauren Schmidt: Recently, I have been preoccupied with my new job. I have a challenging student population—one that I love—and I’m trying to be my best teacher for them. Creatively, I’m working on a collection about my volunteer work with the homeless mothers. The poems are getting accepted with some regularity, which is exciting, but I still have some way to go in completing the manuscript.