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Cracking the Code: A Conversation with Lisa Luxx

"Lisa Luxx" by Robert Norbury
"Lisa Luxx" by Robert Norbury

I first saw Lisa perform at one of Sidewalks’ poetry readings where she was invited to read as a feature poet. She spoke with calculated agency, her hazel-green eyes—wide and observant—scrutinized the audience carefully. Her voice reverberated through the intimacy of Riwaq's basement, at times low and calming—a pacifying hymn to the child within us. At other times, she was fierce, rough, angry. While reciting “Voice of Earth,” she stepped out of her human suit to deliver a message from our ancient mother. Her words became incantations that shocked her listeners into a state of reverie. Suspended, we hung between her lines, holding our collective breath. 

After that reading, one of my friends was convinced that Lisa was a cultist, a remark that would probably amuse her. The next time I saw the poet was at one of Haven for Artist's performance poetry workshops that she hosted. There, she asked us to write about our fears and obsessions, to write them raw. She was tender and encouraging and ruthless. I left Haven to sit outside on the stairs, crying out what had once been unspoken. I am thankful for that catharsis, one that I continue to experience at each of her moving performances. 

On her visit to Beirut in February 2019, I met Lisa again for a chat over Lebanese mezze and Moroccan tea at Mezyan. We spoke about her writing practice, poetry as the cure to existential loneliness, and the transformative journey of reuniting with her birth father.


NK
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

LL
I remember very distinctly, when I was maybe like six years old – I was sitting with my family watching TV and my mind started to wander. I started to think how…God puts us here…and to connect back with God, we have to crack the meaning of life. And you can die, and then you can get back to God or you can crack the meaning of life, then you never have to die and you just get back with God. You skip the step of dying, and you go straight to heaven, right? And the way to do that would be through language. You have to use words in poetry and to keep playing with the order in which you use them until you crack the code. You crack the code through language.

NK
Have you cracked the code?

LL
No, because then I really— because I think I spent most of my life trying to crack the code, knowingly or unknowingly, then I started realizing that language isn’t entirely adequate and that all of the most sublime things happen outside of the verbal context, and we’ll never be able to speak them. That's why I can’t tell you what happened yesterday, because it won’t fit into words. And yeah the most sublime things won't happen in language. Yet, then, I find moments where I start questioning that. But there can’t be one meaning of life. I talk about this whole notion in my Ted Talk, and I reference this Greek philosopher, Gorgias, from like 4
th century B.C., who believes there are no ultimate truths, or if there are, we’ll never know of it, and if we know of it, we’ll never be able to speak of it, and even if we speak of it, somebody else will never be able to understand what we’re saying. And so I think that’s the nature of language. We may be able to capture it, but because of the way I might describe my version of that truth to you, I will use words and you will interpret those words differently than I ever intended them to be used, because you’ve lived a different life than me, made up of all your “eye”, like this eye-man I got tattooed, so you’re going to receive all the words that I tell you in a way related to how you’ve heard those words before. We don’t share a meaning on words, you know? So how can I write, or how can I speak of a universe of truths if I will never ever ever be using the same language as you or anybody else...I can never check with you whether it’s right. I can never check with this person whether it’s right.So, no I didn’t crack it. [Lisa laughs]

NK
You don’t think that’s possible?

LL
I’m about to go on a silent retreat in the mountains, do two days of silence. I think this will bring me closer to understanding how much can be communicated between two bodies without
language, and it’s going to be out in nature, camping out in nature, in silence, in pure silence. And obviously this is Vipassna, usually done in 10 days. But I don’t have 10 days to do it, so two days, with meditation. I’ll be with someone very close to my heart, which creates a whole different dynamic of it, because there will be a lot of things that we would want to say. So I'm interested to know about—I can’t answer your question now—I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to answer finitely. But I’ll probably answer better after having gone on this retreat and bombed myself in silence to understand the depth and breadth of communicating without words. 

NK
Okay so now you’re going on this retreat, but what does your typical writing practice look like?

LL
It depends on what I’m writing. And it changes a lot because I just experiment with the practice. And I feel more at ease with experimenting now and taking risks than I used to. With this memoir that I’m writing at the moment, I don’t know about the word “memoir” because I’m not old enough for that [laughs], I don’t know what to call it—it is life writing—

NK
It
is a memoir. It doesn’t have to be written to the point of your death. 

LL
Yeah true.
The Beetle in the Box—memoir—that’s my fucking beetle. [laughs] Erm.. yeah this process has been about what I really, really like.I took an audio diary for a year and a half, and still going, of all of my thoughts pertaining to this particular journey that I was on in my life. I listened to all that, listened to my voice and transcribed it all, and now the transcription is finding shape in all of that. What I like about this process is that I retain the voice in which I speak, in my writing, which is something that I really want to capture because I’m most comfortable on stage not on page. I knew for many years that my power was on stage; I couldn’t capture that power on page, I couldn’t figure out how to do it, and it’s not that I actively sought out how to do that, but I think I’m kind of getting closer to it now. It captures the way I naturally SPEAK. Usually with poetry, I mean the process now, I won’t let a poem go until I’ve like wrestled with it so much that it’s changed me somehow, you know. Or that it’s leaving me completely different than how it came to me. So I’m really trying to go through this transformative process, whether that be in form, like playing with the form of it like, there was a piece that I was editing for a year or something, and it’s my favorite piece in terms of form, and if I show it to someone it’ll be so simple but I just really like the way that it fell together. I think I said this in the workshop that you came to, um, I see that a poet’s job is like a sculptor’s job, you have the clay in front of you, and you just chip chip chip until the character comes out of it, so I think my practice is that. Whereas when I used to be more spoken-word oriented, it’d be how it came out of my mouth, how it landed on the page. It’s a bit more of Beat generation-y, which I really don’t respect anymore—cause that was a bunch of very pretty well-off white dudes just being like “however it lands on the page dude, it’s just perfect” where you don’t have to work for anything—no, you do, that’s called artwork for a reason. I think you have to spend a lot of time with it, chipping away at a poem, chipping chipping chipping, and then yeah…I don’t delete any versions of it though, I just have version one, version two, version three…

NK
How do you start writing a poem? Like now you have this feeling and you need to translate it into words, what pushes you to the state where you want to record it?

LL
Real life experience, I guess. I can’t think my way to a poem. Something has to shock my system somehow. I think I almost have to go the abyss and come back with it in my pocket. And that abyss might look like anything, that abyss might be like a dark memory, that abyss might be an ecstatic revelation, that abyss might be another body, another person. But I think I have to dive into some sense of—yeah, I think I have to go to the abyss and come back. And I’ll come back in a sprawled mess, and that’s when the craftsmanship comes out, does that make sense? You made me realize it’s been a long time since I wrote a poem.

NK
When was the last time?

LL
...That wasn’t a love poem, as well. I write poems for lovers too often…but the last time that I didn’t write something where I wasn’t just trying to swoon somebody [laughs] was in November. Can that be true? Can that really be true? I don’t know. 

NK
Do you remember what the last poem was about?

LL
The last poem that I remember writing was in November, and it was about pain, and it was about pain in the body, like memories of pain and how they live in the body, and what that looks like.And how you learn to lean into the pain and find softness within the sword. I don’t remember writing since then a poem that wasn’t—as I said wasn’t about—swooning. [Lisa grows more silent and distant.] But for some reason that’s making me feel quite alarmed.

NK
Why?

LL
I guess I’m working on this book, so I
am writing but there is something that makes me feel that I’m less of a poet? I don’t know…

NK
Do you feel like if you don’t write poetry, then you’re not a poet anymore?

LL
I think it’s more about the fact that my craft changed a lot. In fact, I was just writing from the audio transcriptions and there’s something that I’d said when I did a show in December, and I came off stage—I had a great reception, really—but I cried after because I thought that like the best of my work was behind me because nothing will ever be as raw as it was. I’m now so concerned with craft, and now I’m trying to be a good poet by focusing on the art of literature rather than just raw expression. And I felt that that robbed me of the urgency to write. I think I’ve been feeling further and further away from my craft because of that. I guess I just—you know my poem “Voice of Earth”?

NK
Yes.

LL
To me, something had happened that created that. That was a going-into-the-abyss, the whole thing that surrounded that. And sometimes I think maybe I never need to write something like that again. It’s been a couple of years since I wrote something that’s shaken me. Like, my new stuff is good poetry, it gets published in journals, you know, I mean it’s good artistry but it underwhelms me. It doesn’t give me the same release, on stage. It doesn’t bring a whole room together. Like, I’m pushing my craft, but I’m not pushing my emotions and all those in the room in the same way. My favorite thing about “Voice of Earth” is how it sounded just like me. When I read those pieces, I know there’s going to be an effect, I know it’s going to bring people together in the room and that it’s going to push people to feel a certain way, whether they did or did not want to feel it. Do you know what I mean? And that’s the work that I’m most interested in—this is a nice conversation, thank you, you’re making me realize what I want from my own work. I don’t think I’ve ever put my finger on that before. That’s useful, thank you.

NK
How do you push people to feel something through your poetry? 

LL
I guess poetry is more like a prayer, it’s such a uniting force. When you hear somebody say something on stage, or in a book, or in a journal or wherever, and you feel like somebody’s managed to capture that feeling that made you feel isolated or afraid or angry or ecstatic or any of these feelings, that it united two people or more people, then you get that feeling of “Me fucking too, shit!” it’s the ultimate cure to existential loneliness—poetry, literature—and for me there are pieces where I get on stage and I’m so uncomfortable because I think people might be like “You have no right saying that, who the fuck do you think you are?” and when people don’t—why am I thinking that? Because I’m so isolated in that feeling—I feel invalidated and all these things, or they might feel like they totally relate to that, and then we’d both cured our loneliness for one night, for just like a breath of time, and that would count for so much.

NK
Lisa, tell us a piece of advice that you would never forget—a piece of advice that is right there in front of you while you’re writing. 

LL
Two pieces, and they both come from the same person, Stephanie Theobald, she’s a novelist, and she’s the woman who told me all about sisterhood. One of them is “Never censor yourself, that’s your editor’s job” and that’s something that comes back to me a lot because I write incredibly personal work, and increasingly more so. And on the same thread, she also says that by the time your work is published and people are all caught up in the scandal of who you are and what you’ve done, you’re already moving on to the next scandalous thing in your life. By the time it’s published, you would have already done that, you’ve moved on. Just keep living scandalously, and then it won’t fucking matter to you, you know? And on a similar thread she said this, it isn’t a writing tip but it is, erm, it’s “Always live your life as if you’re writing your memoir.” And I’ve lived by that knowingly or unknowingly, like overtly aware of it or covertly aware of it, while writing this book Honey Eyes, so I’ve made all these decisions on this journey, which is a completely deeply personal journey of meeting my birth father. I lived it all based on how it would appear in the book rather than how it felt [Lisa laughs], and it’s great, it’s made for really great literature! I think. We’ll see.

NK
Tell us more about
Honey Eyes

LL
The original idea was that it was going to be a collection of poems, but then the BBC producer wanted me to record everything of my journey because they wanted to put a show together and a documentary about me writing these poems. So I recorded everything. So when I got back and listened to the recording, I was like this isn’t a poetry collection, this is a book, and so that’s how it took on the identity of being prose and poetry while not letting the poetry go. But the book is about my journey to grasp some grain of sand as it runs through the hourglass of Syria, to plant it in my chest so that I can carry it forward… as having been removed from my Syrian heritage through adoption. And then the only real knowledge I received on Syria for so long while being in the UK was of trauma and of war, and I wanted to know a different narrative so that I could tell a different story; that was my role. So I started the journey to try to get to Syria, or at least try to get close to it, to start to understand, so I could carry it forward somehow, erm, and as I did that, as I leaned in that journey, the universe leaned back in towards me, and out from the middle of the abyss this letter came from my birth father, who I’d never known, never seen, never contacted, only ever knew his name and that he lives in Damascus, and that he’s an engineer. And he didn’t know my full name, so he didn’t know any of these things, so he couldn’t have known that I was making this journey. He just decided to reach me, so we spoke by letters first, writing poetry back and forth to one another—he’s a poet too—and then we met in May, by the lighthouse on the Corniche [in Beirut]. As I was saying to you before, I was in search of [something]—I turned the land into a father; that’s essentially what happened. And I believed that if I reached the land, I’d fill that void in me, that gap that’s always been in me. I believed I could know better if I stood in the land where my ancestors came from, so I made this land a father, and then I fell in love on the journey with this woman who’s like an ocean. On the last day of us being together, she took me to meet Abdo, my birth father, and it turned out that he was the land that I was seeking and my ocean had delivered me to my land. That’s the story I’m writing. I haven’t finished it because I haven’t finished the journey, I should say. I do believe it should end in me going to the land, I don’t know why, because I’m an Aries and I’m stubborn and I said that’s what I’m going to do, so that’s what I’m going to do [Lisa laughs]. But, yeah, so that’s the book. It’s prose and poetry because my journey’s been led by me being a poet here, and I wouldn’t have been able to establish myself in this city (Beirut) and make a life for myself if it weren’t for doing poetry and being poetry and seeing poetry in everything, so, I have to let the form of poetry guide the surface of the book. Because, ultimately, the whole thing is about the search for identity. Like, who am I if I don’t know half of me? And, yeah, I guess a very big realization that I had very early on is that I’m not—it’s not whether I’m British or whether I’m queer or whether I’m whatever—I’m a poet. First and foremost. So poetry has to rise to the surface of the book.

NK
Do you feel like you’re more whole now that you went through that journey?
 

LL
Yeah. I really do. I feel like my soul rests more comfortably in my body somehow. It’s that thing where the more you know about something, the more you realize you don’t know? So the closer that I come to try and fill that gap in me and try to know more about my cultural identity, my heritage, my cultural heritage, the more I realize I don’t know about it and that makes me feel very frustrated, like I’m further away. There are days where I just want to go home and forget that I ever started this because it pulls up so many feelings around diasporic insecurities, so many feelings come up, and also my feelings around my adoption and all of these things, so I know myself more but sometimes I don’t want to know so much. And yeah it makes me realize how much I still got to know. But that’s exciting because I have lots of time, hopefully!

NK
I think what you’re doing is very brave, although I see how it could get frustrating. And now you’re writing your journey, there’s room for a lot of introspection. How do you overcome writer’s block? What would you advise? 

LL
Stop trying to write. It’s realizing that writing isn’t sitting at a paper or at a desk. My best work comes from conversations, my best work has come from walking away from the notebook and just fucking experiencing life. You have to live it before you can write it. If you can’t get anything out and you can’t write it, you haven’t finished living it yet, you haven’t gotten in touch with the thing yet. Just go out and let it be and let it come through conversations. If there is a specific idea that you want put down in words, start conversations about it, see how your mouth talks about [it] when you’re free from the authoritarian visage of the white paper or the blank screen. See how your mouth talks about it after a drink or after you’ve smoked a cigarette, or whatever you’ve smoked, see how it comes out of you then and take note of that. That’s where the writing lies, where you actually interact with the world itself and then you commit it to paper after. For me that’s—the best thing—like right now I just said to you I haven’t written anything since November. I’m also at peace with it because I know when something comes through me, it will be right. Like I could go home now and be like “Fuck, I need to write a fucking poem” and write some really shitty poetry. And some people might say write every day and practice every day, whatever, whatever…you can do that.

NK
You haven't written poetry since November [2018], but what about prose? Do you try to write every day?

LL
I probably do make a mark every day. I think there’s something—I think writing every day is quite a scary concept, I make a mark every day.

NK
On the paper?

LL
Can be on the paper. Sometimes drawing is like the most useful thing for me. I’m such a wordy person sometimes, I just have to draw instead. I sustain myself in creativity, but I’m using a different part of myself, I judge myself less. I’m terrible at drawing, I fucking love it!

NK
Me too. I draw like a child. 

LL
Yeah me too, but I love it! A child never says, “I can’t draw”. They just fucking draw. My niece likes my drawings.

NK
Because she understands what you’re doing! 

LL
Exactly, to the point where my sister asks me, “Who drew that?!” My other thing for particularly writing poetry, is to try and not to sit down and write a poem, but write prose, just get it out of you, and then shape it. Never fucking try and shape something while you’re writing it. If it happens that way, then fucking hallelujah. But that can be rare. I think you should get it out of you and then chip away, chip away. You can just keep a diary around the conversations you had. I write down conversations that I had. I go to my favorite conversationalists. That’s the thing, I surround myself with very good conversationalists, and we discuss ideas and discuss ideas, and then see it all from different perspectives. We examine it, we churn it over, and they might challenge something that makes me realize how much I care about that thing or how much I’m willing to be fluid about that thing, and that’s how I get to know what it is that I’m trying to say.

NK
What is one thing your readers will never know about you?

LL
Probably how good my love poems are [Lisa laughs]. I think my love poems are amazing, I think they’re some of my most beautiful, pure work. But I’ll never publish them because—maybe after a lot of time, I’ve got way more interesting things to say—at this stage, I don’t know. I started writing Breastmilk Martini because I was really into my love poems.

NK
Is it about love?

LL
Yes. It’s a deconstruction of love poems. But then I went down the track that I go down, and it started being a deconstruction of basically a queer feminist perspective on love as it is in our society and, therefore, how it’s murdered through our systemic take on how we should love one another.

NK
How do you think it’s portrayed?

LL
I think it’s portrayed as ownership; I think it’s portrayed as power, as romance sits in the seat of love most of the time. The process has a singular narrative of “this happened, then this happened” so very rarely do you meet somebody and say, “this is how I love – should we figure out how we can love together in a way that suits us?” And that’s it and you make it up as you go along. For me this is interesting, this is how you love. I start the book with a Public Service Announcement about the fact that nobody knows how to fucking love and that we have to dismantle the way we were taught love so we can build it on an individual level. And then throughout the book, I ask questions and you have to read the book with a pen—because you’ll be asked questions—and you have to write your response. So I tell them at the start that you have to be an active reader, you’re going to be asked questions and you’re going to have to write. I don’t believe you should read any book without a pen in your hand. So you’re going to be deconstructing love too, so in that sense I make a lover out of you. This is the notion, this is how I feel relationships should be, deconstructing what we know. Yeah, I think that’s what my readers will never know about me—my love poems—that I spend a very long time writing love poems that no one will ever read except the person I’m writing for.

NK
How many love poems have you written so far?

LL
...Many. [Lisa laughs] Yeah, many. I like writing love poems. Even if it’s not love, even if I’ve known this person for like three days or something, but they just inspire something in me and bring it out. I think there’s something really special and terrifying in the attraction between two people – like how they can poke at your very core somehow. An interesting thing comes out of that. It’s a really interesting way to observe yourself, you know? And they bring out your deepest shit as well. I want to say it’s a bit like therapy, but that’s not very fair for anybody—a lover shouldn’t be turned into a therapist anyway. I mean they make you witness yourself, if you’re willing to look at yourself, in such a raw fucking way. It’s terrifying. It brings out sides of you that are closest to madness. I’m closest to madness when I’m closest to feeling something for somebody. That’s where I’m most likely to fall into psychosis. No doubt. Most times when I’ve fallen into psychosis was when I was in love with someone. And I don’t know what brings that out in me, but I lose touch. It’s, I think, because of the sense of being out of control. I think it comes back to not knowing how to love. I don’t just mean on a personal level, I’m not saying everybody goes mad, I think a lot of people fucking do. For me, I know it makes me go particularly crazy. Except I don’t know what it is, I don’t know what to do with it. I pour it into one person, like you said, like even that, like why we default into monogamy. There’re very good narratives for why we default into monogamy, because it worked well in the capitalist context…but even that, like maybe that’s the problem, it has you pouring so much love into one place and you don’t know how full their heart is already—whether it’s just going to spill out everywhere and then you’re like going to slip on it and then you’re going to fall and crack your head open.

NK
Imagine you’re having a conversation with the world, what would you say?

LL
What would I say…that the sea change will stop throwing you off course when you become the ocean. When you learn how to be a tide. 

NK
And that’s one of your poems—“How to Be a Tide”.

LL
It’s about that shift in everything and surrendering to how much you’re going to shift and change. How fluid we are. And how many times the waves are going to change motion, within you and around you, and how once you become it and accept yourself as a part of that ocean and as part of that tide, you ain’t going to drown in the sea. It’s about our cycles of being, from being in states of, like, revelatory states to then feeling like everything-is-logical states, just accepting that you’re always in cycles. When I feel like shit, or when my mood is low, or when I’m very anxious, it’s cool. The other day I described sadness to my friends— “Sadness stopped by, we had a cup of tea and then it went on its way.” Everything is just visiting you, everything is moving, everything is shifting. Nothing is complete at all, and even with poems that are complete, even when they’re finished, you can keep on editing them. Even when a poem is published you can keep editing it. It’s like that piece of advice about writing where you’re trying to chip out a story on the rocks. Just allow yourself to be the tide that slowly erodes that rock into that narrative of your life, everywhere, by living and being, and being in motion with everything and everyone around you and just seeing how that shapes that rock.

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