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Mary Lambert Proves The Power Of Vulnerability, Self-Doubt, And Self-Love In Her New Poetry Collection: BUST Interview

by Lydia Wang

In her newest book of poetry, Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across, Mary Lambert refuses to hide. Her darkest experiences, her lowest moments, the best and worst pieces of herself—they’re all equally visible. In the opening poem’s first stanza, Lambert recalls, “One time a boy grabbed me in the music room/and kissed my neck in front of everybody./I did not want to be kissed, but I thought I was supposed/to want to be kissed. I did not know what to do./And so I laughed.”

Of course, this kind of candor isn’t unusual for the musician and poet. She catapulted to fame with her chorus on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ 2012 hit “Same Love” and her subsequent solo single “She Keeps Me Warm,” but this breakthrough was hardly the start—or peak—of her career; Lambert has been singing and writing about sexuality, mental health, trauma, recovery, and body positivity for years, performing at poetry slams and music venues alike.

She’s quick to explain, though, that this kind of openness is just who she is. “I don’t know how to avoid talking about difficult issues,” Lambert tells BUST. “I’m the kind of person who is involuntarily vulnerable—I don’t know how to not do it, or not be completely expressive and bleed everywhere, on everyone. And I feel like it’s kind of become my job, in a great way, in a way that I’m grateful for.”

Lambert wrote the poems in Shame Is an Ocean over the course of ten years, and they range in content, theme, and style. “This [book] was really so close to my heart, and so close to my healing,” she says. “Whatever its use is to somebody—I hope that they use it.” 

One of the first poems Lambert wrote for the book, “I Know Girls (Bodylove),” is likely a very familiar one for her fanbase. The piece previously appeared not only in her debut chapbook 500 Tips For Fat Girls, but also on her 2013 EP, Welcome to the Age of My Body. In her new book, the poem has a dedication: for anyone who has ever felt their body is incorrect. 

“It’s become such a core part of my performances now. I was contending with having it in the collection because I don’t feel it’s my strongest writing,” Lambert says, “but I know that it’s impacted quite a few of my fans, so I wanted to include it.”

With maxims like “Our bodies deserve more than to be/war-torn and collateral” and “you are worth more than your father’s/mistake or a man’s whim,” the poem is a guide of sorts to self-love and body acceptance. Other pieces in Shame Is an Ocean, though, battle with self-doubt, insecurity, and heartache—as Lambert writes in “Tips for Fat Girls,” “they will always leave you for the thin ones/be funny; laugh at yourself/you cannot afford to be quiet and sad.”

These poems that show the sometimes-rocky path to body acceptance—and the backslides—are just as important to include in a collection about self-love, Lambert says. “I really feel like there’s this school of thought with body positivity that’s super black and white, like all of a sudden, you’re going to wake up one day and you’re just going to love yourself and love your body. ‘Just look in the mirror and think: I love you.’ Like, fuck you—if I could just look in a mirror and say that I love myself, I would have done that years ago,” she jokes. “I don’t think there’s really enough guidance on how to get to that place. Talking about these doubts is really important, because if you’re not able to express the shame in your experiences and the shame you are feeling about your body, however destructive, you’re not going to be able to address it.”

Along with body image, Lambert’s book discusses rape culture and sexual assault at length—and this, too, is a topic with facets that she thinks are misunderstood and not always represented in writing. “Oftentimes, when people are writing about trauma or talking about trauma, you have this chorus of, ‘I want people to know that they’re not alone.’ And I don’t think that people who have dealt with sexual trauma and violence necessarily feel alone,” she says. “I think it’s that they don’t feel understood, or that there’s not really room for them to tell their story.”

Lambert adds that she thinks the poetry community offers an environment that can be more conducive to sharing these different kinds of stories. “I think that there is an inherent civic, social responsibility to not perpetuate systems that actively marginalize survivors. And I think that poets typically do it very well,” she explains.

And in the pop music world?

“I think writing music and writing songs is a lot harder for talking about very direct issues,” says Lambert. “I’m always amazed when people can do it and talk specifically about an issue—I mean, that’s why when ‘Same Love’ fell into my lap, it was so cool. I didn’t have to do the specific ‘it’s okay if gay people get married and have lives, y’all’ thing. Somebody else did that work. Ben [Macklemore] did that work, and I got to sing about love, which is what I give a shit about.”

At this point, I have to tell Lambert how much her music has meant to me—specifically, her love songs, both the happy and wistful ones, about loving other women. After I emote for a few minutes—and she very kindly indulges me—she says, “When I’m performing and releasing work, I think, okay. What would my 17-year-old gay-ass self need? Being 17, being on the brink of suicide, being bipolar, being fat…what would I need at 17 so that I wouldn’t experience the amount of turmoil that I had? And so I am so avidly pro-representation and visibility, and I think queer voices are so important. I think that all marginalized voices are important, and that it’s the responsibility of people who have platforms to build each other up, and to bring everybody in. Everybody deserves a chance to tell their story.”

In addition to her new book, Lambert will be putting forward a new album soon, titled Horror Orchid. After her first full studio album, Heart On My Sleeve (2014), she split from her label, Capitol Records, in favor of producing and marketing her own work. Her recent EP, Bold, was released through her own Tender Heart Records last year, and she’s just as excited to share Horror Orchid with the world.

“It kind of mirrors the book. It’s heavy as hell—it’s the saddest album I’ve ever done, and I produced it myself,” she shares. “I have some features on there I’m really excited about, and also my bachelor’s degree is in music composition, so I did some orchestral writing for this album. All the strings in there I composed myself, and every song I wrote myself, and it just feels like my masterpiece. It’s exactly what I’ve dreamed of making for many, many years.”

What else is coming up? Lambert will be talking about her book in New York on Thursday, in Nashville on Sunday, and in Los Angeles November 4—you can keep up with her appearances on Twitter. After that, she tells BUST, she could be doing anything. And she definitely plans to. “I really want to make a fashion line, and I want to start a record label. And I want to be in a musical, or a show or something,” Lambert says. “I think I can do it.”

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You can purchase Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across, out today, on Barnes & Noble or IndieBound.

Top photo via YouTube / Mary Lambert

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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