Mary Lambert always has a lot going on. She’s an emotionally honest poet, a wildly successful independent artist working on releasing a new album, loud and charming role model for the body positive movement, and a ray of goddamn sunshine. Next week, on October 23, Mary will release her second collection of poetry, Shame Is An Ocean I Swim Across.
The book has been years in the making and is being birthed into the world in a way that Mary says feels like fate. Divided into five sections and delving into some of the harder things about life – sexual assault, mental illness, and body acceptance – the collection is filled with Mary’s signature beautiful brutal honesty. You’re going to love it.
Autostraddle was able to chat with Mary about the process of writing the book, whether poetry is activism, who she’s reading right now, and how vulnerability can save the world.
Autostraddle: Hi Mary! How are you today?
Mary Lambert: I’m so good! I’m blissed out. I’m really happy. The book’s about to come out, I’m doing last runs on the album, and I have a really exciting meeting for another project coming up. I’m just really stoked.
Hell yeah! I’m entirely unsurprised that you have a million things going on and I’m excited about all of them. Before we dive into talking about the book, do you want to tell me a bit about your new upcoming album?
The album is going to be called Horror Orchid. I know, it’s a mouthful too, but it looks really pretty on the page! I’m so proud of it. It sits really congruently with the book, and so I can’t wait for them both to be out at the same time because I think it will illustrate a very comprehensive story of my life, you know?
Yes! This is your second poetry collection. How does it feel to be putting these poems out into the world?
I’m scared as fuck. I’m so scared. I’m proud but I’m really terrified that some critic is going to rip it apart and I’m going to be too sensitive about it and I’m going to cry. The problem is I’m really confident in my music, I’m really confident in performing, I feel really at ease and very natural in the music sphere, but I’ve been out of the poetry circle for a couple of years now and I don’t know if [this] writing is good. Do you know what I mean? I read a lot of poetry and I worked really hard on this and I know it’s my best writing, but I’m still like “god, is it going to be received well?”
I do know that feeling, but I also know that this book is good! Because I read it. And I actually think that it’s beautiful that someone with your level of fame and talent still gets nervous to put out vulnerable creative work, because it’s always scary.
Thank you. I see the beauty in it too. There are just so many fragile things that I’m discussing [in this book] that I don’t know if there’s a way that I can prepare myself for what is going to unfold, whether it’s good or bad or neutral or what. I think I have to mentally just be like okay, I created something that was really healing for me, and maybe that will offer some comfort to others. All I know is that it’s going to be fulfilling for me to be reading this collection and to know that it’s in people’s homes that might be dealing with trauma and assault and body issues. I have high hopes for it. Maybe that’s my problem, I need to manage expectations!
I think it’s valid to have high hopes for this work, Mary! I’m curious about your process. Is the way you write poetry and the way you write songs the same? Or do you sometimes wake up in the morning and think, “whoa, this one’s a poem!!”?
The process of writing, of creating, for me, is so different between poetry and music. They are completely different processes. I’m accessing different parts of my brain and using different muscles. When I’m writing music I feel this intense divine connection to god. It usually starts by sitting at the piano for 10 or 15 minutes and then just sort of like, finding chords that feel really pleasing, and then kind of humming along and creating vowel sounds and creating a melody that’s married to the chord structure. It feels very organic and I don’t think too much about it. Ninety percent of the songs I write I don’t ever release, they’re just more for my own personal growth and healing.
With poetry, the impetus is usually from something I want to discuss, like a conversation I want to have. So I’m more focused on my direct connection to humanity, whereas I think with music I’m more concerned with my direct connection to god. With poetry there’s such an editing process and there’s so much fine tuning that goes into [each poem]. I want to be really thoughtful about the actual craft because I think language is delicate and it’s our primary mode of communicating with each other, and I want to be sure every line is entirely intentional. I think a bit more critically when I’m writing poetry.
That makes sense. Sometimes you set your poems to music and play them at shows or on your albums – how do you know if a poem is also going to work like that?
If I decide a poem has a sense of its own rhythm, I might put that to music and see how that feels. But sometimes there are poems where I’m just like, there’s no real internal rhythm, there’s no cadence to it, it doesn’t totally feel right to music… so every piece is its own beast.
Wow, I love that. “Every piece is its own beast.” That said, the poems that hit me the hardest in this book are “Epidemic” and “Rape Poem.” In “Epidemic” you write about rape culture: “How do we change any of it?” Do you think of your poetry as a form of activism, or as a personal response to the current political climate and the realities of being a woman, or both?
That’s such a good question. I feel like each poem really serves its own function. I wouldn’t say as a blanket [statement] that the book itself functions as a cultural narrative or something, but… living in our current dystopian climate affects every aspect [of my life] whether I want it to or not. So, that means that all these poems are in some sense a statement of activism, because of my identity. I can’t untie my identity from my work.
I really take issue with people trying to separate art from the artist. I just don’t think that you can, and I don’t think that you should either. I think someone’s identity is inherently tied to what they create and you’re getting a piece of their soul when you consume something that came from their brain. And if you say, oh I’m a fan of this work but I’m not a fan of this person – I get that some people can do that, but I’m not that way, and I don’t want my work to be that way either. I remember after performing some of my songs, I’d have people come up to me and say, “I don’t believe in gay marriage but I really love your work!” And I was like, then you don’t love my work! You don’t get it, they’re inextricably tied!
Haha, were those people just pretending you were singing about straight people? They were like, I changed all the pronouns in your work and now I’m comfortable with it!
Right like, “it makes sense to me now!”
[Note: we both laughed so hard at this point of the interview. I wish I could capture for you, the reader, the pure joy that is Mary’s laughter.]
In your acknowledgement section at the back of this book, you have a huge huge huge section thanking poets that you love, and I love that so much because I’m so into the idea that we’re all constantly inspiring and supporting one another and raising each other up. Who are you reading right now?
Yes! I’m [currently] fixated on Hera Lindsay Bird, I just devour everything she writes. Danez Smith is incredible. Tara Hardy. Shira Erlichman. I look at my favorite journals, Winter Tangerine and Kenyon Review. I look at Poetry Foundation’s Poetry magazine, and just get excited about people. I fixate and then I obsess and read everything they’ve ever written!
When I interviewed you in 2013 – which, can you believe I interviewed you in 2013?! That’s five years ago! – I asked you about your poetry because I had just read 500 Tips for Fat Girls and I loved it and one of the things you said to me was: “I think being vulnerable is the key to human connection.” And I’m curious if, five years later, you still feel that way?
Yes, one hundred percent. I feel like that’s been my life thesis since I can remember. I think this book is the physical incarnation of my desire to connect. And I really do believe that vulnerability is the key to empathy and I think empathy is what is going to save us. And it’s so much. It’s terrifying to be vulnerable. But once you are practiced at it, the light that comes out of that connection with people, when you come to the table first, when you’re like this is how I’m actually feeling, this is what I’m actually experiencing, I just feel like it creates an immediate invitation for someone to meet you and to relate to you, and you haven an opportunity to then relate to another human’s experience. If that cycle continues I think this global mindset can really take heed and we can begin healing.
I just got chills. Thank you so much, Mary!
Thanks Vanessa! I feel seen!
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Shame Is An Ocean I Swim Across: Poems by Mary Lambert comes out on October 23 and is currently available for pre-order. Mary is recording the audio for the book herself (“I’m going to be a weepy little baby! I’m so excited!”) and will be touring this fall both to promote the book and to sing. Check out her website for dates of shows.