After the release of her 2017 EP Bold, Mary Lambert returns with a new book of poetry, Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across. The book, whose title comes from the poem “The Art of Shame,” is a deeply personal and vulnerable work in which Lambert tackles her experiences with sexual violence, body love, mental health, heartbreak, the music industry and more. It is her first book of poetry released from a publishing house, beyond her self-published collection 500 Tips for Fat Girls which she sells online and at shows.
Billboard spoke to Lambert about her processes in songwriting and poetry, her hopes for work as catharsis, her forthcoming album Horror Orchid, and more.
How is your work in this book different than 500 Tips for Fat Girls?
Quite a few of the poems from 500 Tips for Fat Girls are in Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across. The publisher asked for that and I also felt like the writing was pretty good in it. I spent a long time reworking poems, cutting stuff out, recontextualizing them for my current relationship to that work. I took writing classes, workshops, one-on-one private sessions with writers. What’s so bananas is some of these poems are 11 years old and some I just finished writing a couple months ago, so it’s spread wide chronologically. Topically many of the elements are similar in terms of contending with mental illness, body acceptance and sexual assault. There’s also an added element of my life post-”Same Love” and my life post-pop music in writing that I haven’t explored before and that felt good to process.
How are your experiences of writing songs and writing poetry different?
They’re different beasts. When I’m writing a song I’m thinking about the structure, format and how my listener will hear it. When I’m writing poetry, I can say what I want to say and there’s a lot of editing. It’s difficult for me to create music that isn’t digestible or easily understood. I feel a bit more open in terms of writing poetry because language offers such an opportunity to put so many different messages across all at once. I think I started overlapping songs with poems about 10 years ago. Sometimes when I’ve written a poem I can sense an internal rhythm that will make sense musically. I’m sitting at my piano and I’ll start vocalizing. When I do find something I feel might connect with people or do a good service, I’ll vocalize a chorus. Then I have the option of deciding whether I want the verses to be spoken poetry or if I want to sing the verses. I try different things to see what the piece wants. I don’t step out with a goal in mind. Everything comes pretty organically.
What is the difference for you in writing poetry to be performed and writing it for the page, especially since you’re recording audio for the book?
I was terrified to make this collection particularly because I feel really fortunate to have a robust, vibrant community of poets in my life and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t want to get this book deal simply because I was “Mary Lambert, the singer-songwriter.” I wanted to get a book deal because my writing was strong and there’s value in it. I knew the only way I was going to feel comfortable putting these poems out was if I studied more. It was really important to me to have the duality of performance and written word work for this book. I just recorded the audiobook three days ago and it was an incredible, beautiful experience to read it out loud. I played piano along with it so there’s many musical moments on the audiobook. Even though this isn’t a spoken word album it has a conversational cadence I hope comes across. The way that I write poetry, I read it out loud as I’m writing it, so I’m always thinking about inflection and delivery and how it will come across spoken. But what was important to me was that that voice translated to the page. I absolutely wanted the element of my full voice to be present.
You’ve shared before that you hope your music facilitates catharsis. How do you hope this book does that too?
I feel like I really wrote it for myself because the writing process is so insular. I try not to think what people will think as I’m writing because I get too in my head and too critical. Now that I am at the releasing part, it is such a good opportunity to reflect on what kind of service this art provides. In being radically vulnerable it does offer an invitation for other people who might be contending with trauma or sexual assault or who experience things that I have experienced to rid themselves of the shame that comes with those things. I feel like I’m living such a full, uninhibited life, I’m so full of joy, and I wouldn’t be able to do to that if I hadn’t faced all of my trauma head on. If I can encourage anybody else who felt the way I did 10 years ago, then hopefully it’s an act of service. I feel there’s an urgency to being good to each other. I thought most people who would be interested in buying or reading it would be people like me, people dealing with trauma, who cry a lot, or maybe are queer or mentally different. I talked to someone today who was like, ‘I don’t have any of that, but this book gave me an opportunity to see someone else’s perspective in a radically vulnerable way and I feel more deeply compassionate.’ That was a huge lightbulb moment. I didn’t think about being vulnerable and having an effect on someone who wasn’t like me.
You’ve described yourself in the past as a chronic over-sharer. How does that play into your poetry and your songwriting?
I think this piece of work is radically vulnerable in a way that I don’t think I’ve been before. Some of that is terrifying, but I’m not that scared of the actual stuff that I say. I don’t know any other way to operate. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been pretty open about anything I was experiencing and it’s only afforded me joy and connection to other people. I know this is the extreme version of openness, but I don’t really have fears about it. In terms of my relationship to the actual content of talking about sexual violence or my incest or things like this, these are things I haven’t actually talked about in interviews, on stage, or on albums but feel have an urgency of talking about now. It’s important we as a society understand trauma is so pervasive and affects so many people. There’s a necessity for hardcore kindness. Hopefully this encourages that.
How did writing this book affect the writing process for Horror Orchid?
The book and the album are closely related in terms of explicitly talking about trauma. There’s quite a few poems from the book on the album and I was writing both at the same time. I originally was going to call the album Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across. There is a theme of shame and ultimately redemption which I like to think the book has, and so the album has that function too. The album I’m particularly excited about because I produced it myself and I fully orchestrated everything. My background is in classical composition, and I have quite a few classical pieces that I do spoken word on top of that reiterate musical ideas, so everything informs each other. I want to take my time with the album to make sure it’s exactly the masterpiece I want it to be. This year just feels like an incredible time for my creative output and having my stamp on everything that I put out that feels so uniquely me. Ideally I’ll be putting it out in the spring, but knowing me it’ll be spring of 2020. It’s just a matter of what takes my attention first. I decided to fully embrace the book process rather than trying to do too many things at once first.