Review/Interview: Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape

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by Danielle Champiet-Coronado

A curious book with a lyrical title that sounds like something you’d hear on the radio between Wagner’s ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ and DeBussy’s ‘Claire De Lune’. I say curious because of the book’s unique nature. “It’s written from the perspective of the observer being observed,” Stephen Lackaye, poet and author of ‘Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape’, shared over coffee. At first, the premise sounds a little voyeuristic but as I read his poems what was revealed was more of a bearing witness to life. Just as we take note of those around us; the barista who makes our coffee, the waiter we chat with as we order lunch or the person who sits two cubicles over from us, how far off is it to think that we are catching the attention of someone else? In our often desensitized and somewhat self-absorbed society one human can still catch the attention of another for no other reason than just being seen.

Born and raised in Poughkeepsie, NY, Mr. Lackaye got his poetic start at coffeehouse readings in New York City during his mid-teens. Having an older brother and older cousins inspiring high jinks and misadventures, he enjoyed many independent train rides into the city with them. After graduation, Mr. Lackaye, having a strong desire for new scenery, attended the University of Southern California. Afterward, he attended the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where he met his beautiful wife. He returned with her to the U.S. where he attended Johns Hopkins University. Remembering how much he loved the west coast, the Lackayes moved to Portland, Oregon in 2011. Mr. Lackaye enjoys working as a manager at Powell’s bookstore, raising his two daughters and exploring the local sights.

‘Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape’ is his first book but Mr. Lackaye’s independent works have earned him multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize (which is like an Emmy nomination) and Best New Poets. His book won the 2015 Unicorn Press First Book Prize. As I sat across him, nursing my coffee, I was first struck by his blue-eyed, teddy bear demeanor. He is funny, open and warm as we talked about his teenage adventures and life in Poughkeepsie and Scotland. As our conversation turned towards poetry, I began to feel the mad social scientist emerge and the observer, me, became the observed. A clever web reminiscent of the illusionist’s art of misdirection; one minute in front of me, the next behind, and as I turn around, he is now off in the distant. Il est bon, n’est-ce pas?

Just as clever as its author, ‘Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape’ draws you into its pages. Complicated in its simplicity, there is a very visceral feel to Stephen Lackaye’s writing. I felt drawn into his prose; walking their grounds, seeing what they see and feeling what they feel. Their scenes painted on pavements before me and all I need to do is step onto them to pierce the veil of these dystopian Neverlands. An aspect that makes even the saddest, most haunting prose of ‘Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape’ fun to read. If you’ve never had the pleasure of a lucid dream, reading this book is almost as good. Mr. Lackaye’s writing evokes an empathy and connection to those around, a re-establishment of humanity back-burnered by cell phones and social media, when people actually held conversations in-person. We touched and participated and were aware. Life had life. That’s what his poetry makes me think of, that life has life. To feel the sadness and confusion of the boy in ‘The Ventriloquist’s Soul’, the cold, over-worked hands of the person in ‘Surrender’ and the lamenting of ‘Butterfly’.

“We train our ears for one note more from the anxious distance, for uncaptivated voices to fill it with their artless swell” – Beyond the Hall of Music/Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape

Toward the end of our talk, we discussed the rise in interest in poetry for both writers and readers. Mr. Lackaye shared his personal stance that “if someone is open to poetry, then I will find something that’s for you.” It may seem a loft boast but one has to look no further than their favorite song to know what he says is possible. Poetry is around us all the time and even the most austere have a favorite song.

Please join us on September 25th at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Vancouver, WA at 7pm to hear Stephen Lackaye read from his fabulous and award-winning collection, ‘Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape’.

 

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