In my mind I see Gil Simmons the same as I seen him that first day. Seeing
him was like looking into a mirror. Like the feeling of running a comb
through your hair after a storm, and nothing snags
In my mind I see Gil Simmons the same as I seen him that first day. Seeing
him was like looking into a mirror. Like the feeling of running a comb
through your hair after a storm, and nothing snags
Today for National Poetry Month, Joan Cusack Handler, Publisher and Senior Editor of CavanKerry Press, shares a poem from Nin Andrews’ Miss August.
Read the poem Mr. Simmons and share your thoughts with us below.
Gil’s father was as mean as a stepped-on snake, especially when he been
drinking. Don’t mind Mr. Simmons, Sarah Jane, May Dee used to say. He’s
just talk. But I did mind him. How he leaned up against the doorjamb in the
room where Gil and me was playing cards and watched us like a hunter
in a stand. He said things like Gil, are you running your mouth again, Boy?
You know what I’d like to do one day? Cut that tongue clear out of your head.
Make you quiet as sleep. Then he laughed, shook his head and said, I’m just
joshing, Sarah Jane. Don’t look at me like that. I looked at Gil instead, his
skin blue-tinged like something living underwater. I never knew how he
got any air in them days.
Today for National Poetry Month, our Managing editor, Starr Troup selects a poem from Nin Andrews’ Miss August.
I was a born nobody—my days so dull, I lay in my bed and watched dust rise. I listened to insect songs. And kept things to myself. I remember two silver dollars in my bedside table. A snow globe I wanted to climb inside. My pony, Annabel, that I didn’t ride. And more whippings than I can count. After a while I didn’t feel a sting. I learned there is a reason to lie. Not to ask. Not to tell. Not to flinch. Anybody asked, I said, Nothing happened. And nothing did. My friend, Sarah Jane Lee, she disagrees. She says I suffered. She says she did, too. And I thought she was the happy one. Nuh-uh, she shakes her head. She blames the South for everything wrong in our lives; everything bad, everything rotten or bitter as turnip greens. Come on up to New York, I say. Leave that place.
Nah, she says. I can’t live any place else. She gets a way-off look in her eyes. Besides, she says, folks up North don’t talk right.
Did you enjoy reading this poem? Comment below.
Author Tina Kelley discusses her joy of writing poetry, motherhood, her latest book “Abloom & Awry“, and takes aim at President Trump.
Read Tina Kelley’s full interview with Nin Andrews below.
Nin Andrews (NA): I love what I sensed as your joie de vivre, or your joy of writing, expressed to beautifully in this collection, and in your opening poem, “The Possible Utility of Poets.”
I especially loved the lines in which you quote your son: “The earth blooms a full inch when my son/explains, ‘A noun is basically everything. We can’t go anywhere without nouns.// They’re always next to us,’”
I wondered if you could say a few words about that poem, about your love of language and of poetry in particular.
Tina Kelley (TK): Thank you! I’m glad you sensed that! I am basically a cheerful, optimistic person, though I have a morbid streak, and I hope this book captures both angles. I love obscure words, and read through lists of them as a way to get inspired to write. I also steal shamelessly from real life, particularly from my experiences writing news and nonfiction, and especially from my kids. My son actually said that line, and I wrote it down. He’s gotten to the point where he will say something poetic and immediately urge me to write it down. He’s 12 now, and he still comes up with beautiful turns of phrases. The other day he told me I had “heathered eyes,” which I immediately stole and put in the file of “phrases that want to be in poems someday.”
RELATED: Abloom & Awry by Tina Kelley available now!
Author Christoper Bursk discusses writing, poetry, and his latest book ‘A Car Stops and A Door Opens‘.
Read Christopher Bursk’s full interview with Nin Andrews below.
Nin Andrews (NA): I so enjoyed reading A Car Stops and a Door Opens. How long did it take you to write this collection? Can you talk a little about the evolution of the book?
Chris Bursk (CB): I have been working on this book for a number of years. Some poems – the ekphrastic ones – date back several decades. The poems about parents go back at least a decade. The book decided it wanted the poem “A Car Stops And a Door Opens” to be the opening into the book – there are a number of doors in the book – doors in the body, doors in the mind, trapdoors too.
Sandra M. Castillo is a poet and South Florida resident. She was born in Havana, Cuba and emigrated on one of the last Freedom Flights. In this exclusive interview with Nin Andrews, Sandra discusses her life and becoming a writer.
Read the full interview with Sandra M. Castillo below.
Nin Andrews (NA): I would love to start by asking you to post the poem, “Pizza,” here, and then say a little bit about your life story. When did you emigrate from Cuba? How old were you then?
Sandra M. Castillo (SC): Pizza
I sit in East Hialeah,
a white, leather-top stool at Mr. Bee’s Pizza,
a left over, outdoor 50s soda shop
just off Palm Avenue.
These are out days with Father,
and this is his favorite spot.
Mabel and Mitzy shift their weight
to their feet, push into a spin.
Father lets them, so does Mr. Bee,
and we were drink 10-ounce bottles
of Coca Cola with our slices
while Father and Mr. Bee try
to understand each other’s language.
It is our first year in Miami.
Mother work days, Father nights,
and in that small, one bedroom apartment
Tía Estela rented for us a year before we arrived,
we watch American cartoons:
Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry,
run around the orange trees in the backyard,
think the world is 310 East 10th Street,
walks to and from El Caibarien,
Coca Cola, a slice
I think I was born knowing that we would be leave Cuba. Household conversations, particularly hush-toned ones, were always about our departure. It was always a question of the when. My mother’s oldest sister, who had left the island prior to the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, had arrived in Key West in 1958. If you can believe it, she actually traded homes with an American who was traveling through Pinar del Rio and fell in love with an idea of himself in the Caribbean. He offered her his home in Miami in exchange for hers. Sight unseen, she accepted the offer and came on the ferry (Havana-Key West) with her husband, her children and all their possessions. By the time I was born, she was sending my parents Gerber baby food and all things American, including the Sears catalogue.
By 1962, the year I was born, my parents and I had US entry visas. My father’s brother, who had come left Cuba before the United States broke off diplomatic relations with the island, had sent us US entry visas in the hope that we would follow, but my mother refused to leave her parents behind and the visas expired.
Then, in September of 1965, Fidel Castro stood at La Plaza de la Revolucion and made an unexpected announcement. Beginning in October of 1965, the Port of Camarioca would be open to Cubans wishing to leave the island. Castro also said the port would be open to anyone wishing to go pick up their relatives. Cubans who opted to leave the island, however, were effectively forfeiting their property and possessions to the Castro government. This exodus did not last. It did, however, lead to conversations between the United States and Cuba, which ultimately negotiated what became known as The Freedom Flights. These twice-a-day-flights were made possible via diplomatic talks as the Johnson administration wanted an orderly exodus. As such, specific criteria was set in place. In order for a family to leave the island via these flights, that family had to be claimed from the United States by a US citizen who agreed to be financially responsible for those family members. Once that paperwork was completed, that given family (in Cuba) was assigned an exit number. By the time our number (160,633) came up, my grandparents had passed away. We arrived in the United States in the summer of 1970: my parents, my twin sisters, who were four and me. I was eight years old.
I loved your first book, and now I love this one even more (Jesus Was My Homeboy). It’s so accessible, so immediate, for lack of a better term. In your poems, you capture beautifully the midlife angst of time passing you by. I was wondering if you could say a few words about that, and then maybe post the poem, “Not Much to It.”
I’ll be 60 in March so it’s heavy on my mind lately. That used to seem ancient to me as a young man. I like to think I’m in the second half, but it’s probably more like the last quarter. It gets you thinking about the journey.
Not much to it.
You draw with chalk
on your sidewalk.
You ride your bike.
You go for ice cream
with your friends.
You party in college.
You get to figuring
by the fire
on a cold night
in the mountains.
You listen to jazz
on the ocean.
You catch a ball game
now and then.
You cradle with
different folks till you
find one that fits.
wake up one day
sitting on a
missing your kids
patting your dog
drinking a can of cold beer,
the summer night
like a blanket on your shoulders
and something you knew
floats by in the night sky
just out of reach.
I also love how you write about your family, about what I, the reader, imagine is often happening right now. Do you ever feel a need for distance between yourself and your subject matter?
I feel like I have to maintain a certain distance to be able to write the poems at all. The initial memory is the prompt to the poem but once I get into it I want to write it honestly, so standing back (and trying to remove the emotion) helps to get it right in my mind.
What does your family think of your books?
I have not heard too many complaints. My wife and kids are very supportive. They’re okay knowing there’s a good chance they’ll end up in a poem or two. My brothers and sisters are proud of their little brother I suppose. I think I get them weepy once in a while. The other day I went to my mother’s grave and read a few of the poems she was in. I did the same for my father when the last book came out. They didn’t offer any criticism. (ha ha). I miss them.
You have a talent for offering a sense of place in your poetry. Reading, I feel as if I am in the car with you, or I am in the coffee shop or the park or the sauna at the Y or . . . Is this something you are conscious of doing?
I do often think about painting that picture, how the right detail or two can focus the place for you. My fiction class and I were reading a story by Richard Ford the other day and the subject looks out to the mountains and sees a “red bar sign.” We talked about how that one small detail cemented the scene in our minds. I’m always searching for that right detail. I hope some of the time I can find it.
This book has such a natural flow. Reading it, I imagined that the words glided onto the page without effort. (Of course, we all hope to sound that way.) But I am thinking, it wasn’t too long ago that your first book was published by CavanKerry. How was the writing of this different from the writing of the first? Was it just a natural continuation?
In many ways it does feel like a continuation of the same subjects – family, place, death, grief, regret. It sounds so somber when I list the topics like that but these people and these memories have had a profound effect on me. I can’t get away from them. I put the pen to the page and they keep showing up.
As a poet you have this funny, whimsical side, but you also have a profound seriousness mixed in, as in the poem, “Death Wish,” which ends, “I want it to be special, magical/worth the wait,/ after being afraid for so long.” I just wanted to applaud when I read that line. Do you think of yourself as a funny poet? Is wit, in your opinion, an essential ingredient of your poetry?
I do sometimes make myself laugh when I’m writing. You always hope what you find funny or whimsical will translate. There’s nothing worse than pulling out the funny poem at a reading and staring back at the tight-lipped crowd. The subjects I deal with need some humor from time to time or the weight might kill me.
What is the most challenging part of writing a collection of poetry?
I feel like the collection piece can sometimes come after the poetry. In both these books I started by publishing a bunch of poems until I had a stack to weed through, pulling out the ones that didn’t make sense together, then writing some more to fill in the thematic gaps. I’ve yet to set out with a totally thematic intent, as far as a collection goes, but I always end up there. I have talked about tackling a specific subject with the next book. We’ll see how that goes.
Are there any writers who helped or inspired you in the writing of this book?
Many. Phil Levine was my first inspiration and remains so today. But there are many others, Jerry Stern, Ruth Stone, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Charles Simic. I also get inspiration from songwriters like Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams. I am fortunate to be close to two great groups of poets as well, one in Salem, Mass and the other in New Jersey. I owe these folks a lot.
I am always interested in titles. When did you know that this was your title?
I imagined it not long after I published the title poem. It felt like (to me) it contained a lot of the bittersweet-ness of some of the other poems.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about this book?
I’m happy it’s here. The response has been humbling.
I would love to close the poem, “Reading to My Kids,” about your daughter reading Of Mice and Men.
I was so happy to hear Garrison Keillor reading this poem on The Writer’s Almanac. But now I have to follow him when I read it in public!
Reading To My Kids
When they were little I read
to them at night until my tongue
got tired. They would poke me
when I started to nod off after twenty
pages of Harry Potter or one of
the Lemony Snickett novels. I read to
them to get them to love reading
but I was never sure if it was working
or if it just looked like the right thing to do.
But one day, my daughter ( fifteen then)
was finishing Of Mice and Men in the car
on our way to basketball. She was at
the end when I heard her say, No
in a familiar frightened voice and I
knew right away where she was,
“Let’s do it now,” Lennie begged,
“Let’s get that place now.”
“Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta.”
And she stared crying, then I started
crying, and I think I saw Steinbeck
in the backseat nodding his head,
and it felt right to me,
like I’d done something right,
and I told her keep going,
read it to me, please, please, I can take it.
I was so moved by this collection (Tornadoesque), I needed a box of tissue beside me just to read it. Whatever you are writing about—whether it is your daughter’s bipolar episode, your father’s Alzheimer’s, or your bisexuality, you transform your subject matter into such lyrical beauty. I know it’s silly to ask, but, how do you do it?
We have a running joke in our family—my wife Dana Roeser, also a poet, takes great pleasure in reminding me, sometimes on a daily basis, that I’m a beauty slut. Oddly, I don’t think of my poems as particularly lyric or beautiful. If they have any strength, I would like to think it lies in seizing a particular situation, image, emotion, thought, or narrative and making it as “super real” as possible. Like many poets, I’m never sure what a poem is really about when I start writing. It usually begins with an urgent phrase or image that with a lot of luck will accumulate other resonant statements or images. For me one of the primary poetic “virtues,” if you will, is precision. I’d like my poems to spring from particular things that can be seen and felt. In “Epilogue,” one of his late poems, Robert Lowell, largely overlooked now, spoke of “the grace of accuracy.” I’m a fan of that phrase.
Sometimes, while reading Tornadoesque, I felt as if I were in the midst of an emotional tornado. I thought of Wordsworth’s line—writing is emotion recollected in tranquility, and I wondered if you were one of those rare poets who can write in the middle of the storm. Or did you compose these poems after the fact?
I’m so glad that you bring up Wordsworth and “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’m constantly bemused by his advice. Often, though not always, I find myself writing poems “in the storm,” as you say. If one is drawn to write about highly emotional subjects, as I am, then I think that one of the best ways is to write in the throes of that emotion. My metaphor would be Odysseus commanding his crew to bind him to the mast and then taking the beeswax (yes, I know I’m changing Homer’s narrative) out of his ears to hear the song of the sirens. Like the mast, poetry is a “mainstay” for me. That said, some of my poems begun in the tornado are finished in relative tranquility.
Every poem in this book is powerful, but the poem about your daughter’s mental breakdown, “Litany on 1st Avenue for My Daughter” is just breath-taking. I wonder if you could post an excerpt here and talk about the process of composing that poem?
“Litany . . .” is also one of my favorite pieces in the book. It’s written in prose because I did not want “to poeticize” mental illness in any way. It was composed on the spot in New York City and shortly after our older daughter’s first (and, so far, only) bipolar episode. I would walk from her small fifth-floor apartment on Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, which she shared with two roommates and where I was staying while she was hospitalized, twenty-five blocks north to the Langone Medical Center on 1st Avenue. So I got to know the intervening neighborhoods and was struck by the contrast between the vibrancy, even flamboyance, of the street life and Eleanor’s situation on a locked psych ward. I wrote the piece longhand (my usual practice) in a few days, didn’t know what to do with it, kept it in rough draft, and didn’t even bother typing it on my computer. I thought that it might be the first section of a much longer poem, but I never went back to it. Finally, after a year, I pulled the rough draft out again, started messing around with it, and realized what was painfully obvious, that it recorded accurately all the emotions of that moment and didn’t need to be “filled out” in any way.
To give you some of the poem’s texture, let me quote a very narrative riff from the middle of “Litany . . .”:
Ambulance sirens screech their way along 1st Avenue through thickening traffic toward Bellevue’s ER Pedestrians put their forefingers in their ears I refuse to muffle, O my deafened daughter, your pain or my grief. Let the 120-decibel sirens puncture my eardrums for all I care Two nights ago the ambulance carried you, O my beautiful babbling daughter, to Bellevue where I checked you in “for psychiatric evaluation” and a one-night stay We waited in the waiting room next to three men handcuffed to their chairs. One was a 250-pound black man, named improbably John Smith, in a green and white Celtics sweatshirt with satin shamrocks, who would occasionally pull out of his jeans’ pocket a small green Bible and start reading the Psalms aloud. He needed Zoloft and an antipsychotic. Juan, a scrawny Puerto Rican, grew increasingly agitated, both legs bouncing uncontrollably up and down, as he waited for the nurse to give him his methadone. Red-headed Kevin, in his early twenties, wore a retro black leather jacket, white T-shirt, jeans, and Converse sneakers. He had been brought in to pick up his lithium. Each of the three had just been arrested and was accompanied by his own police officer. John Smith had a young black cop, equally huge, with a bulletproof vest. Juan had a Latino cop, and they were constantly talking back and forth in Spanish like the best of friends. Kevin’s escort was a red-faced, jovial, Irish cop with blue eyes and hair red as Kevin’s. He was worried about getting all the paperwork filled out correctly You had greeted each handcuffed man in turn like a long-lost brother and introduced yourself, “Hi, I’m Eleanor!” All three perked up You were wearing your yellow harem pants, a vest of black rabbit skin given to you by a girl- friend from Paris, and a long purple silk scarf coiled artfully around your thin neck like a pet python After fifteen minutes, you looked around the waiting room and announced, “My hands are so cold. I need a doctor to check them. Dad, feel how cold they are” I held both your hands in mine, and indeed your fingers were bony icicles You snatched them away and put your palms on top of the black cop’s close-shaven head as if to warm them “Hey, whadja think you’re doing? Get your hands off me!” he exclaimed, then turned to me. “You got to control your daughter” I gave him a long angry stare “Don’t give me no honky look” I said nothing, kept staring “Don’t mess with me, white man” The Latino cop and the Irish cop stepped quietly between us Kevin, disappointed that a fight wasn’t about to break out, said, “I got picked up for four separate misdemeanors at four different bars last night. That’s got to be some kind of record” The Irish cop smiled back at him amiably, “It sure is, son” John Smith muttered from his good book, “O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us: for we are brought very low”
I also love the title poem, “Tornadoesque.” Did you know, the minute your daughter came up with that word, that that would be the title of this book?
Nope. I did think immediately, though, that our younger daughter Lucy’s coined word should be the start of a poem. It often takes quite a while (years, I’m afraid) for me to discover the right title for a book. Just to return to “process” for a moment, the poem “Tornadoesque” was composed nine months after our older daughter’s bipolor episode. However, I worked from notes that I had jotted down at the time, and I acknowledge within the poem my distance from the traumatic events.
And the poem, “Snow’s Signature,” was a perfect poem about Emily Dickinson. Like so many of the poems, I wanted to savor it and read it again and again. I imagine each poem was rewritten many times?
I tend to do quite a bit of revision on most of my poems. Occasionally, however, as with “Snow’s Signature,” a poem will come out almost whole. All I’ll have to do is jiggle it here and there, polish it: lapidary work. Usually the longer I take to write a poem, the better it turns out. It will accumulate depth and resonance over time. So I quite happily work on just a few lines every day.
There is such openness in your poetry, such candor, as you discuss your bisexuality and longing for a male lover, your relationships to your wife and daughters, and your daughter’s mental illness. Do you ever hesitate before writing about deeply personal subjects?
Yes, there is much hesitation. But perhaps misguidedly, I use urgency as a litmus test to decide whether I should write about something. For instance, I felt that I had no choice but to write the poems about my bisexuality, even though it remains a painful subject for my wife, whom I love deeply. However, I think that not to write the poems or to write about my bisexuality in a more coded way would have been dishonest. I was compelled. As the poems indicate, I remain torn, divided by my sexuality. But the writing was a process of discovering a deep truth about my sexuality and has certainly led me to an acceptance of it. Bisexuality is not in any way sanctioned by society, as heterosexuality and, increasingly, homosexuality are. In 2005, The New York Times reported that male bisexuality did not exist. In 2014, it recanted its stand and opined that it did exist. Such attitudes are potentially very damaging for bisexuals because they deny the validity of their experience. It’s important to me, in my own odd way, to speak out and give witness to my experience of bisexuality.
Tell me about the evolution of this book. How and when it began? And how did it take shape?
As they say, that’s a long story. The oldest poems in the book go back twelve years to 2004, when I started writing the bisexual poems. As I see it, four distinct thematic strands intertwine throughout Tornadoesque. They are 1) bisexuality, 2) my daughter’s bipolar condition, 3) wars (World War I and the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts), and 4) a growing awareness of mortality. In early drafts of the book, I had divided these materials into their own sections, a strategy which was completely wrong-headed and led to a very static effect. Finally, after several years, I realized that it would be much more dynamic to braid these strands together and let images from one thematic grouping speak to, and echo, those in another. I think this approach works well and that the title sums up the swirling, unpredictable “order” of the book. I’m particularly proud that the last poem, “Inland in Eden on the Indiana Dunes with Nuclear Reactor,” manages to weave all the themes of the book together. I didn’t intend it that way; it just happened. The book was first called Chartres in the Dark, after the second poem in the collection. Then its title became Tomorrow Leaf, after a later poem. Finally, I settled on Tornadoesque.
In most of your poems, you alternate long and short lines, and I read that this is your trademark style. Can you talk about this style? How it developed? Why do you like it?
These long and short lines have always seemed to me to enable both narrative expansion and lyric contraction within one stanza. I can both tell an anecdote and isolate an image easily. Partly, of course, I like the “look” of the stanza on the page, so there’s an aspect that appeals to a visual, even painterly, aesthetic. The stanza has “shapeliness,” if you will. But, even though it’s a free verse structure, I’m counting beats, six to eight stresses usually in the longer lines, one to three in the shorter lines. I should say that some readers find the line breaks completely arbitrary and “private.”
The first poem that I wrote in this “shape” was called “Untitled.” It appears in my first book, Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, & Guns, and describes, among other things, the motion of surf against a shoreline. The ocean’s repetitive “in and out” rhythms seemed to suggest this form. However, more importantly, I was reading closely C.K. Williams’s poems in Tar at the time and liked the way that his long lines had to be printed with short, indented run-overs because they wouldn’t fit the usual trim size of poetry books. Those short “lines,” which weren’t technically lines, had for me great energy juxtaposed with the longer lines. I thought I’d try writing lines with run-overs “on purpose.” I looked at the result, one large paragraph with zigzagging margins, liked it, but also found it too “heavy” and “blocky.” Then I thought I should try dividing the “block” into shorter stanzas, to “aerate” it. Couplets seemed dull. I still remember the thrill when I marked off tercets with a ruler and saw how that reversing form took over: long, short, long; then short, long, short. In The Anxiety of Influence (a much maligned book at present, I think), Bloom speaks of “creative misprision,” a generative misreading of an older poet by a younger one. I hadn’t yet read Bloom, but it seems in retrospect that my form came directly out of such a “creative misprision.”
This is your fifth book. How has your experience of being a poet changed over the years?
Perhaps you know Carl Jung’s mapping of personality traits onto the compass rose? He says that (in addition to being either introverts or extroverts) we all begin our lives in different quadrants: north is intellect, east intuition, south emotion, and west the factual world. Jung thinks that we must travel in our “life journey” from our given quadrant toward its opposite. The intellectual person must become comfortable with emotion; the intuitive type should connect with the factual world, and vice versa. Metaphorically, I like to apply these personality categories to poetry: north is concerned with poetic structure, east with metaphor, south with sonics, and west with image. As a poet, I started in the south, in emotion, in my overwhelming infatuation with the sounds of words. I then moved west, through fact and image, towards intellect and the discovery of poetic structure as the great enabler of the poem’s voice. I’d love it if I could, within my poems, keep going round the compass rose all the way to the east, to intuition, to better grasp and express the irrational connections that make dynamic metaphor. As one gets older, one’s poetry can expand to include all the characteristics of the different quadrants. This may all sound rather abstract, eccentric, and conceptual, but I think it indicates my trajectory as a writer.
On a more practical level, I find as I get older that I care less about the reception of my poems and am willing to take greater risks with what I write. Tornadoesque is a good example of this willingness. I also am paradoxically committed to writing shorter, more compressed poems and, simultaneously, longer hybrid poems (up to forty pages), which are hard to place, apart from in a book-length manuscript.
Who are your gods and goddesses? Your mentors and influences?
My mother, who died two years ago at the age of ninety-six, was an amateur watercolor painter with a committed painting practice. More and more, I think I take artistic cues from her. She was always experimenting and pushing herself so that her style, recognizably her own, kept changing and developing.
In my early twenties, I started professional life as a cook. My mentor, Hiroshi Hayashi, who ran The Seventh Inn (a well-known, natural foods/macrobiotic restaurant in Boston’s now gentrified “combat zone,” whose clientele included strippers and the Celtics players who wanted to become better acquainted with the strippers), showed me artistic practice in another medium. I remember him cutting thin, almost transparent slices of tuna sashimi and arranging them into a huge peony on a white platter. Once, for a catering event, he baked a six-foot cod twisting as if swimming, the curves of its body held in place by heat-resistant twine. When it emerged from the pizza-style oven, he displayed it on a long metal dish garnished with all sorts of pickled vegetables. It looked as if it were weaving through colorful seaweed.
As for poets . . . Emily Dickinson (the star of “Snow’s Signature”), Elizabeth Bishop, George Oppen, Jimmy Schuyler, and W.H. Auden are some of the poets to whom I keep returning. I was lucky enough to study with poets Madeline DeFrees, Jim Tate, Greg Orr, Charles Wright, Larry Levis, and Mark Strand. I remain indebted, in different ways, to all six.
I’d love to hear you talk about your writing and editing process. What do you love/hate most about writing?
I love it when writing becomes a deep form of meditation in which one can lose one’s usual worried self and gain a deeper, calmer self (sorry to go all “new age” on you). I hate it when I realize that what I’ve been writing on a given day or over a certain week, month, or even year is utter bullshit and is best thrown away. Once I spent a whole summer writing about (of all things) the “home improvement” projects on which my wife and I had embarked. Stuff like laying stones for a patio, planting trees and perennials. All of this writing was unalleviatedly terrible and had to be trashed. Writing and revision never cease to be hard. My favorite quote on the subject is from Frank O’Connor: “You can’t revise nothing.”
I would love to close with another poem or an excerpt of your choice.
How about the first poem of Tornadoesque? Here it is:
YOUNG MAN AT THE BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO STORE, SATURDAY NIGHT Nine o’clock rush, and I’m standing in the long checkout line with a DVD entitled The Perfect Man, which my nearly twelve-year-old daughter wants us to watch, when through the electronic sensor there walks a man so handsome that this whole shop of dreams has to readjust. The women all take a deeper breath as if on cue, throw their shoulders back, and turn ever so slightly to keep him in their peripheral vision. Nothing has happened, everything has. He’s completely, genuinely, charmingly unaware of the stir he’s caused. He has wide blue eyes, brown hair, sideburns. His face is flushed from the cold outside. He wears a loose gray T-shirt that cannot hide, as the bodybuilders like to say, how “ripped” his torso is, biceps that bulge like a boa constrictor after swallowing a white rat. On his veined, tanned forearm a blue, tattooed Celtic knot uncurls. I want to run my dry tongue over that maze of lines cut into his flesh, then stained with indigo inks. But he’s obviously heterosexual, wholesomely Midwestern, and high-fives some friends standing in line. They have other plans for the night. I taste my own loneliness, a wedge of lemon squeezed into a tall shining wineglass of ice water. Drink it all down, I tell myself. Crack the ice cubes between your teeth. I’ve never slept with a man. My wife says that she’ll leave me if I do. I understand her point of view. I do, I do. I look around this store that rents out stories. Which one is mine? Where is the bisexual who has decided to stay in his marriage? In Little Miss Sunshine, the faggot slits his wrists offscreen in the first scene, then has to live, wear gauze bandages like a tennis player’s elastic wristbands for the rest of the film. We laugh. In Broke- back Mountain, the two young cowboys make love in the open in full view of the desolate, panoramic Rockies. They go back to town, get married, have kids, and cannot leave their wives or girlfriends though they live for their “fishing trips” in the mountains together. They writhe on baited hooks. One lover gets his head bashed in with a tire iron by a homophobe on a west Texas roadside. We cry. Drama. Comedy. Thalia and Melpomene’s two masks. There must be other scripts. How do I write this life? All I have is my mechanical pencil, crossing one word out, tracing another onto an empty page. This is Indiana, America’s “heartland,” a family video store. No man holds hands here with another man on the street. Someone has written in pink spray paint FAGS LIVE HERE on the sidewalk in front of my gay friends’ house. They scrubbed it off with turpentine. Ghosts of those pink letters still remain. My tongue cannot unknot the knot on the young man’s forearm.
Orphans is such a powerful and heart-breaking memoir. I thought maybe I’d start the interview by asking for an excerpt from “No Day Was Brighter:” on page 39, beginning on page 39: “I’ve spent my life trying to explain/my mother . . . and ending with “God stealing her mother in every /face and gesture for the rest of her days.”
I’ve spent my life trying to explain my mother; she lived in two countries love and loss_ her mother the center of both. Left alone (a child of 6 again) on the threshold of her mother’s room watching as death and God took her mother away. How does a child confront that oppressor? She finds God stealing her mother in every face and gesture for the rest of her days.
You were named after your grandmother who died in childbirth when your own mother was six. And you resembled your grandmother. How does one pronounce Siobhan, the Irish name for Joan? Did you feel as if somehow you were her mother? I’m thinking of these lines:
I’m named for my mother’s
mother. Siobhan translated
is Joan. Perhaps
that explains what goes on
between me and my mother.
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
Siobhan is pronounced Sha Vaughn (as Joan tells us in Confessions,it rhymes with fawn.
I felt like her mother in the sense that I felt responsible to make her happy and responsible for her sadness. As a child and as an adult. The lines refer to my feeling that she put all her hopes in me— I was her mother’s replacement so she was particularly possessive of me. With that as a background, our relationship was very complicated.
When I was reading Orphans, I was so swept up in your telling—it was as if your words were waves washing over me. And in the early section of the book, you wrote about a beach vacation. Did you start writing this when you were in Aruba? How did the book begin?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
The book began with the mother poems –the ones in my voice. My husband and I are great fans of cruises—particularly transatlantic ones. In the presence of the ocean or sea, I often feel inspired. If I’m not writing, I’m reading and vice versa. “Orphan at Sea”– the Aruba poem was written on a Caribbean cruise and is one of the oldest in the book.
I tend to write in clusters of poems. And in both cases, I wrote a great deal when my parents were close to the ends of their lives.
When my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my friend Karen Chase, suggested that I record her voice and my father’s. I did that. Though unsure of how I would use those conversations, I knew I wanted to write about my parents. At some point. What better way than to let them tell their own stories. My assistant, Donna Rutkowski, transcribed those conversations and I edited them as prose. When the book was 90% finished, another friend, Carol Snyder, commented that someday she’d love to hear my parents’ voices in poems. Needless to say, I couldn’t ignore what I thought was a brilliant idea, so I decided to try. The result are the Mother and Father Speaks sections. That process was amazing. I elaborate on it further down.
This book seems completely open, as if you are bearing your soul to the world. While writing it, did you ever feel a need to withhold a family story or not talk about a sibling?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
I do feel the pull to withhold family or sibling stories and in fact I sometimes do. The decision is based on whose poem it is. Though I reveal a great deal, I also hold back a lot about my family (believe it or not!) in all of my books, and only reveal the stories that are fundamentally mine. When it came to writing this book, I knew it would not be published until after both of my parents had died.
There is so much pain in the book, first the pain of being beaten and manipulated by your mother, and second, the pain of feeling responsible for your father’s fall when he was an old man, and third, the general pain and grief after your parents’ deaths and with the recognition of your own mortality. You keep asking yourself, why, as in the poem, “Questions”:
did I coach you to “Trust yourself,
you can do it?” And why did I
go back to sleep that morning?
And in the poem, “What’s Gone,” you write of both what’s gone and what is left, and both are guilt. You begin the poem with a list of nots:
Not placing him first
No visiting more often
Not making soup
Not stopping by on my way to East Hampton
Not joining him for a walk
Not being good enough
Not going to mass
Not believing . . .
Would it be fair to say you are very hard on yourself? Was it difficult to write these poems?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
Yes, one could say that I’m hard on myself. And yes, it was difficult to write many of the poems. But I was/am committed to the truth. I’m not interested in distortion particularly in the service of the ego. Pain is a real part of life and relationships and I believe that most people recognize that. It’s natural for a person to question themselves, their motives and behaviors when a loved one dies. Hopefully, we’re assessing these throughout our lives. The good and the bad. That’s one of the reasons I’m so attracted to the Jewish Yom Kippur; a day a year dedicated to facing one’s life and taking stock is worthy work indeed. The speaker in this book is flawed and to tell her story honestly, I had to reveal those flaws.
I kept calling this book Orpheus instead of Orphans because it read like a trip to Hades and then back again. The difference, of course, is that the singer was not lost in the end.
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
You end the book with the poem with the image of water, and a nod at your childhood home in Edgewater, so the book comes full circle. I wonder if you could post the lovely last stanza here and maybe say a few words about that poem.
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
I’ll need someone to cover me, find a thick down blanket to warm my thin and flaking bones. Don’t forget a pen and my notebook no use for them. In their place, unfinished poems, family photos, CDs of David’s music, a book of Chekhov’s stories my wedding ring, on my finger please. And, if possible, the sound of water (if not at its edge).
The poem has gone through a considerable transformation; it was once much longer, more optimistic and separate from the rest of the book as a Coda. As I lived with that Coda for a good while, and shared it with friends and editors, I came to see it as out of sync with the rest of the book. I created this lovely scene at my graveside with my son and daughter –in-law and our wonderful Cassidy Vaughn, their 5 month old daughter; it was Christmas and we were drinking mimosas and eating ice cream; they were showing me their presents and chattering away. It was an idyllic. And a lovely fantasy. But it was not real. I was pushing myself too far into acceptance of my death than I was at the time. I removed the Coda and wrote this poem –which told the truth of where I was emotionally. There are days now when this ending continues to hold true and others when I regress to more of the terror expressed in the poems that precede it. Fortunately, as time passes, I regress less often.
How long did it take you to write Orphans?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
About 7-8 years.
Was it more challenging to write this book than others?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
Yes, in that I was dealing with three voices and I was committed to presenting both of my parents in as authentic a way as I could. Finding the form for each of the 3 voices was very challenging and great fun. When I set out to transform the prose into poems, I automatically went to my typical form that uses the whole page as canvas and draws/follows the emotional energy down the page, but my parents’ voices would not speak in my form. They needed their own. I tried several others but was unsuccessful, until I tried simple couplets which gracefully fit my mother’s voice, and I found my father (whose refused to speak in couplets!), spoke most naturally in irregular stanzas of free verse (introduced by a first line separated from the rest of the poem with a space). It was the most amazing learning experience to watch the words insisting on their own form.
How has your life as a therapist informed your writing?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
I’ve always been fascinated by peoples’ stories and I’ve heard many in my 35+ years practicing. And I’m committed to helping patients face and eventually accept theirs. Without recrimination. That part is the hardest and takes the longest.
Many of us have spent countless years ashamed of who we are. The goal of therapy is to become one’s own good mother. That’s not possible until we forgive ourselves our humanity. It’s the bedrock of therapy—learning to accept and love ourselves with all of our imperfections. Having spent over 30 years in my own therapy tackling just that, I’ve come to a place where I’m no longer ashamed of who I am. That has freed me to write openly. I no longer demand perfection from myself. There’s incredible relief in that. So it was actually therapy–my own and the practice of it– that brought me to writing. And freed me to write the poems I want to write.
Along the way, I discovered Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Wild Geese” which I return to often; it’s the permission that all of us need daily in our quest to accept ourselves, forgive and honor ourselves…
You do not have to be good
You do not have to crawl on your belly…
What did you inherit from your parents? Do you attribute your life as a writer to either of them?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
Actually, I credit both of them for my writing. Living my life drenched in the music of their voices and their accents certainly nourished my love of poetry and the love of language. I also credit them for my sense of humor and commitment to family.
I credit my father for my spirituality and acceptance of others. And for my commitment to community and ‘loving my neighbor as myself’. And my love of nature and silence.
I credit my mother with my love of home, my quest for education, my ambition and for the importance of ‘keeping something in my own name’; for my interest in fashion, Law and Order Special Victims and Criminal Minds.
I also credit her for teaching me how to carry my height with pride.
Are there any books or memoirists that serve as role models for you?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Raymond Carver, Steinbeck, Hemingway. All were brilliant psychologists; they knew what it was to be human. I remember being stunned by Chekhov’s liberal use of the word ‘hate’ as in he hated her (or she him). I thought it was too strong an emotion to ever feel toward someone you love. But the more I study that question, the more I’m convinced that he’s right—we humans have within us the potential for the full range of feeling from love through hate. Sometimes with the same person.
So I return to these men periodically. I read them almost exclusively while I was writing Orphans. When one writes in another’s voice, the translation has to be impeccable. I wanted to be fully respectful of my parents. So I gravitate/d toward the masters to study how each created character. Sometimes, I’m honing my skills or looking for some new insight or permission. I’m seldom conscious of doing this, but on observation, I’m convinced I do.
Then there are the poets who so brilliantly illuminate emotion. Start with Whitman, add Brooks, Clifton, Peacock, Gluck (Ararat), Carson, Legaspi….among so many others.
I’d love to hear you talk about how you balance your life as a psychologist, editor and writer.
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
That’s become more graceful. My life has always been busy with my multiple interests and careers, but I’ve slowed down considerably and look forward to slowing down more. I’m almost retired from my psychotherapy practice. My editing responsibilities are heaviest during our open submissions period (because Teresa, Baron and I read every manuscript); the rest of my editing responsibilities like editing our LaurelBooks selections are spread out over the year as is writing I do for the press—the blog/newsletter etc. My own writing makes its way to the top of the heap when it’s necessary. Unlike so many writers that have an even routine of writing daily, I write when a line, or a poem, or a memory pulls me to my notebook. The pacing of the project becomes that much greater as I move toward a book. At that point, writing is all.
Fortunately, I have my husband and son to remind me when that happens so I can remember that I have many loves in my life. And all deserve attention.
What do you love most about writing?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
The discovery in the poem. I love surprising myself. That said, nothing competes with that magical experience when the poem takes over and I am the medium. It reminds me of a quote of Hayden Carruth. “Why ask what’s the use of poetry?/ Poetry is what uses us.”
These are such profound and meditative poems (Only So Far), I wondered as I was reading them if you had a spiritual practice? Or if writing might be, for you, a kind of spiritual practice?
Yes, I do think of writing as a form of spiritual practice, if for no other reasons, that writing makes me look hard at the world and myself. For years now, I’ve tried to sit and look at the world immediately around me, or walk and note daily changes in the life of my neighborhood, both in the natural world and in houses and the activities of the people around me. I also have done the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises twice and still use their “Examen” daily, which is a series of short prayers that give praise, ask for help in the long process of self-honesty and self-examination, and ultimately in the even more difficult activities of loving and hoping. And I try to read a Hebrew Psalm each day.
Reading this collection, I had the desire to weep. It’s so beautiful and so full of sorrow and grief. Were most of these poems composed in the aftermath of your father’s death?
No, a good portion of the poems was written at a retreat called the Hermitage in Englewood, Florida on the west coast. I did two three-week stays in January over two consecutive years. The poems about my father came quickly about a year after his death just when I thought I had finished my grieving.
In the opening section, you have this lovely poem about your father, “Still Listening.” I was wondering if you might post a section from the poem here.
This is from the last section called “My Father’s Hearing Aids.”
Too costly to throw out,
my mother says, my father’s hearing aids,
some whole, some in various stages
of disassembly, lie in his top drawer
like a museum exhibit of a lost past—
when he was still living,
hand constantly raised to his ears,
trying to take hold of the sounds
that fell out of the air or floated
around him like apparitions.
I pick one up and fit it into my ear
as if, my own hearing amplified,
I might pick up something he is
still saying, but all I get is that loud hum
and screech, which, like a rip
in the scrim of memory,
bring him back—he’s at it again,
working to tune in the scramble
of insect chirr, rain chattering
on the trailer’s metal roof,
wind in the pines, a grandchild’s
high-pitched play, the buzz
of his wife’s voice. He wants to hear
again without thinking
of what he’s hearing, wants the Sinatra
song on the radio to sound exactly
the way he remembers it,
and not as if some damaged stylus
were sliding across the black ice
of an old LP. In the end,
nothing ever came to him clearly enough.
I see him spinning those little dials
on his hearing aids back and forth,
nearly frantic, nearly in tears,
the world he’s hearing
like the static of space, those gurgling,
stuttering, anomalous noises
we have our radar pointed at
as if we cannot imagine, being human,
the deep, enclosing silence
without another voice.
This collection moves seamlessly from poem to poem—almost as if they were composed in order. But I am betting that’s not the case?
No, that’s definitely not the case. In fact I had more trouble with the ordering of the poems in this book than I’ve ever had. Even after I hit on the ordering principle of the two epigraphs and the movement between sorrow and joy, or life’s dead-ends and those moments, which Woolf called “matches struck in the dark,” I didn’t see my way. The person who truly saw the pattern of organization that the book’s final form took was my editor and friend, Baron Wormser. I am deeply grateful for his help.
There’s a dialectical movement throughout the book, sometimes a linear divide—whether it be Kafka’s Fence, the North Korean border, Philippe Petit’s tightrope, or the road one is crossing in “Amnesty.” Was that a conscious choice?
Yes, I wanted the poems to vacillate between the poles of the Herbert poem that serves as one of the epigraphs to the book.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.
I love your lines about Emerson in the poem “Midwinter Emerson,” his belief/ we were made for ecstasy and his fear of just that, which reminds me of the lines in the poem about Camus, “Watching Cranes, I think of Camus,” who wondered how we could ever be // miserable, so much beauty in the world,/ but also, how we could ever be happy, / so much shit in the world. Do you share their feelings?
Yes, I do. I have always lived, it seems, in a kind of “in between” place. By that I mean: on the one hand, my experience tells me that I live in a creation that is a gift of love. On the other, I see quite well the more rationale understanding that the world we live may simply be the result of accident and Darwinian evolution. I think Keats’ notion of “Negative Capability” and Simone Weil’s idea about contradiction have always been touchstones for me: that we must live in the contradictions of our experience without an “irritable reaching out after fact and conclusion,” to quote Keats.
Tell me about the title.
The title, Only So Far, comes from a phrase in the poem “Like a Dream” about manatees. Here’s the ending:
Have they made some placid truce
with our noisy world above them,
unable to do more than what they do?—rise
to the surface, their buoyant peace
a kind of offering and sacrifice,
a story to be told thousands of years from now
on some cathedral wall—of creatures that passed
beneath us, at rest in their movement,
then disappeared from our world,
never needing anything from us,
their peace only able to bear us so far,
even if we always wanted to believe in it.
The larger idea in the book is that we can only “get so far.” Like Moses overlooking the Jordan River, we can see the Promised Land, but never get to cross the river. Our place is always that “in between” I spoke about: between the “wilderness” and the Promised Land; between what we can know and the mystery we must acknowledge.
Do you have a specific time of day or year that you write? Do you have any writing rituals? Are their poets whom you work with?
When I’m writing, I work each morning from 8-12. I tend to read and make notes for poems for months, then write for two months, a schedule that came from teaching no doubt. I was never able to do much more than make notes and do revisions once a semester started up. Then in May, when the second semester ended, I would write every day for four hours until school resumed at the end of August. In response to your second question, I exchange poems on a fairly routine basis with the poets Jeffrey Harrison and William Wenthe.
Who are your primary literary influences?
Because I loved and taught British and American literature for forty years, my influences range widely, but behind most of my poems and thinking you can find George Herbert, William Wordsworth and John Keats on the British side, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens on the American.
I admire so many of these poems, I wanted to underline most of the book. “A Christmas Story” is one of my favorites, especially when you describe the Polish poet’s revelation. I wondered if we could close with the interview by posting the poem below.
A Christmas Story
Sure, I’d had too much wine and not enough
of the Advent hope that candles are lit for;
and I’ll confess up front, I was without charity
for our guest who, glassed in behind those black,
small, rectangular frames, reminded me
of those poems that coldly arrange a puzzle
of non-sequiturs to prove again how language
is defective and life leads to nothing more
than dead-ends. So, after a night of wondering
if our never-more-than-hardly-surprised guest,
a young professor whose field of expertise
seemed to be ironic distance, would give
a moment’s thought, as he took apart everyone’s
unexamined stances, to how and why his own
might be constructed, I blurted out a story
over our Christmas dinner dessert, about
Alexander Wat, how the Polish poet,
taken one day from his Soviet prison
to see a local magistrate, stood in the sun,
reveling in its warmth on his face and arms
and hands; as he took in the beauty
of a woman in a light green dress, he knew
he would soon be back in his prison cell.
He never forgot, he said, the irony of
his freedom, and yet he felt, standing there,
something like a revelation, the autumn day
surging in those silly puffiest white clouds,
and a hardly bearable blue sky, and the bell
of a bicycle ringing, and some people
laughing in a nearby café, and that woman,
her bare languid shoulders turning in the sun—
it was all thrilling, achingly alive, a feast
happening right there on the street between
the prison and a government office, nothing else
mattering, not even the moment he knew
was coming, and arrived, right on schedule,
when he stood woodenly before the magistrate.
And when I had finished, my face flushed,
my guest looked at me with astonishment,
unable to process where so much emotion
had come from, and then asked, calmly as ever,
what I meant when I’d used the word, revelation.
This is an incredible book (The Baby Book)—focused on your desire and difficulties of having a child. I’d love to hear about the evolution of this book. Did you write most of these poems when you were dealing with infertility? Or did you compose them after your children were born, when you were looking back at the experience? And how many years did it take you to write this book?
Thank you, Nin. So one of the issues the book is deliberately murky about is the chronology and time frame. This is largely performative—dealing with grief is a cyclical experience, at least for me. In practical terms, the book covers more than a decade, from the early poems written when I was just beginning to solidify what I called then “the baby plan”—the desire to have children as a single woman—to the months following the birth of my son, essentially 2002-2012. The composition of the book mirrored that process; I wrote a few poems around the time I graduated (the first was a version of “The Childless Women Talk about Frida Kahlo”), then a substantial batch while I was undergoing treatment for my first child.
I sent this core group of poems out in maybe 2005, after her birth, as a chapbook, then added a section of poems that is largely not in the book anymore, based on some feedback from other writers, including a series of poems called “Notes from Famous Baby Books” (I really liked these—I should do something else with them!). The manuscript lived in a few other forms during this time, during which I was also working on a memoir and my chapbook project Frida Kahlo, My Sister. And then, based on feedback from the CKP editorial staff, I added a number of poems that provide a clearer framework for the book, including “Infertility Sestina,” “Lexicon,” “I Am Sorry for Your Loss,” and the postcards series. There’s no doubt it’s a different—and better—book because of that. That’s probably an unwieldy answer; the short version is it took about a decade, on and off, and I wrote both during the experience and after.
I love the opening quote from Virginia Woolf in which Woolf writes that she doubts any woman has told the truth about the female body. I think you have done just that in this book. You are so honest, open, exposed, vulnerable. Do you agree with that assessment?
Absolutely; I’m glad that sentiment comes across. That quote was my project for the book. There’s no question that it’s difficult material, in some ways very graphic and explicit about experiences that we are told, socially, to keep quiet about. I have a fantastic introduction to poetry class right now, with students writing about rape culture and child abuse, being transgender, dealing with anxiety, depression, ASD and more; to put it bluntly, if I’m asking them to honor those experiences as beginning poets, I need to expect the same from myself. Some readers, including the editor of a feminist press I very much admire, told me the book was “too much.” What does that even mean? But miscarriage is not pretty, and I wasn’t going to pretend it was. At the same time, how do you write a book without thinking about aesthetics? A number of central moments in the book reflect on that problem, including the poems “Metaphor” and “I Draw My Doctor a Picture.”
Do you have any literary role models? Were you encouraged and/or guided by other poets when writing this collection?
The three female artists who meant the most to me in composing the book are all referenced in it in various ways: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and the painter Frida Kahlo. In very different ways, all three of them reflect on what it means to be acculturated as female. Kahlo, especially, provides for me imagery and critical metaphor to talk about reproductive loss; what her paintings do visually I hope I’ve been able to do in text. To mark traumatic experience. To make it explicit. To ask a reader/viewer to look with respect. Her work was on display this past summer at the Detroit Institute of Arts; I went there with two women from my writing group and just stood for a long time in front of her “Henry Ford Hospital,” a tiny little canvas compared to these mammoth wall-sized murals. I was riveted. To see that painting, which was set in Detroit, in Detroit, not far from the clinic where I received treatment, was profoundly moving. Other poets I greatly admire who tackle the question of the female body in all its complexity are Sharon Olds, Julianna Baggott, Rachel Zucker, and Arielle Greenberg. I found Baggott’s book This Country of Mothers, which references her own miscarriage, when I was researching becoming a single mother. I forgot about that poem for a long time, until I needed it, and then reread the book.
In your poem, “Pregnancy After Loss,” you write: Women talk about their pregnancies/not their miscarriages. So true.
Also true, what you write in “Lexicon,” Sometimes babies/ embryos fetuses babies–/die.
You are willing to state the darker truths of motherhood, the dread, the fears, the messiness. But then you have this wonderful and redeeming line: I also know that infertility/ taught me love/ of the most pure and complicated sort.
So you see a silver lining to your experience?
For its frequency—depending on where you get your numbers statistically about 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage—we don’t really talk about it. And we certainly don’t want to acknowledge recurrent pregnancy loss, second trimester losses, stillbirths, late term abortions for medical reasons. I know women who have experienced all this and more. Women dealing with these issues shouldn’t have to look so hard to find narratives and information. It’s generally only after you tell someone “oh I had a miscarriage” that they come forward with stories of their own. I remember scavenging the Barnes and Noble in Plano, Texas following my first, looking for any books about it. Linda Layne’s work was important to me in terms of providing an intellectual framework, and Brenda Miller’s Season of the Body, her essay collection that confronts having ectopic pregnancies, is still one of the most meaningful discussions of loss for me.
I don’t know that I’d frame it as a “silver lining,” but I’m also a person who sees experiences in multiple ways. I met some amazing women as a result of infertility, my doctors obviously, and some kindred spirits I met online through the ALI (Adoption, Loss, Infertility) blogosphere I found when I was trying to conceive my son. The photographer who took my author photo, who is now a good friend and collaborator, I met at an event hosted by her organization “The Art of Infertility.” And, in very practical terms, I wouldn’t have my children if I weren’t open to donor gametes and alternative means of conception. Love, yes, of the most pure and complicated sort.
There are many powerful and scary poems about the mechanics of getting pregnant. I say, scary, because I detest hospitals. And perhaps in contrast, you have beautiful, if also medical, images of the female body in poems like “Shell.”
My relation to the medicalization of the female body, of reproduction and fertility, is, as you note, complicated to say the least. Because I was a single woman using donor sperm, my approach to family building was necessarily medicalized; I was a fertility patient before I was even diagnosed as infertile, if that makes sense. (By contrast I know women who are clinically infertile but not have the experience of being a patient at a fertility clinic, because they adopt or decide to live childfree or don’t pursue treatment.) The opening poem “Infertility Sestina,” as well as “I Am Sorry for Your Loss,” are attempts to think through those situational differences: as the poem states, I wanted to be a single mother but there was a black hole in my uterus, not a baby. The poem “The Fertility Patient” also does important work for me in terms of reclaiming experience, responding to medical treatment and insurance diagnostic codes. While those terms serve a purpose they are also alienating; what does it mean that treatment for pregnancy loss is coded as “obstetrical care,” for example, on a hospital bill? One of the most important interventions in this book for me is reclaiming some of those experiences; to be crass, when I left the clinic my medical chart was in three file folders held together with rubberbands and tape…that’s a lot of words, not mine, about what I experienced.
On the other side, I’m glad you like “Shell,” which is an attempt to render in artistic terms the otherwise sterile, clinical experience of undergoing transvaginal ultrasounds to check for follicular growth. Follicles, embryos, endometrial stripes—all very lovely once you know what you’re looking for. And both my reproductive endocrinologists used metaphors to describe what they saw. An embryo and a yolk sac as a diamond ring, for example. The acronym for assisted reproductive technologies is ART, and it is unquestionably artistic, beautiful, as well as scientific and “cold.” To be crass, I wouldn’t have my kids without it, and there is literally not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that journey. But it was also brutal both physically and emotionally. I hope the poems taken together convey some of that complexity:
After your struggle to get pregnant, you pull me up short with your poem, “The Childless Woman Has a Baby,” in which you say that when you finally have a baby, you are unremarkable. I am so taken with both your poetry and your insights into motherhood. But I can’t imagine you feel unremarkable, maybe because the book is remarkable.
One of the things I struggled with—still do, to a certain extent—is reconciling the fact of being infertile and a survivor of recurrent pregnancy loss with the experience of also having my family be complete. Both of these realities are true, and that’s something I hope is honored in that title. But infertility is quiet and invisible, not marked on the body in overt external ways, particularly following the birth of a child, and even during pregnancy. When I went to my two-week checkup at the obstetrician I sat there and sobbed; even within that context—even with six different diagnoses that added up to “high risk” written at the top of my chart—the nurse couldn’t see why I was so emotional.
Some women are more easily able to ‘move on’ following infertility treatment; by contrast, I think, for those of us who have issues with pregnancy loss, the experience follows us into pregnancy and beyond. With both my kids I was desperately afraid of SIDS; while I don’t think that fear is unique to women who have undergone infertility treatment, I think it takes on a different valence for someone who has already lost a child. Pregnancy via assisted reproductive technology is absolutely remarkable, in all senses of the word. But unseen, unremarked.
The coldness of the medical experience really comes through in these poems, especially in the poem, “Collage/Voice Mail,” in which doctors are leaving messages about your test results and medical condition. It’s so chilling. Please tell me this is somewhat exaggerated?
I suppose I should say I’m a person who doesn’t like the phone, and one of the few remaining Americans–it feels sometimes–who prefers a landline to a cellphone. So there was a period of several years when my cell only rang if it was my daughter’s school or a nurse from the fertility clinic. They had several phone lines; after a while I programmed my caller ID so one camp up as “Bad News,” the other “More Bad News.” I needed this sort of dark humor! The piece has a cumulative effect, I think, this series of voice mail messages one after another. They are a way of charting the narrative and moving through a long period of time. I can’t tell you how many calls there actually were; they happened everywhere, when I was in class, at the grocery store, making dinner, driving home from an appointment, after tucking my daughter into bed.
Unlike other medical issues where most consults happen face-to-face during scheduled appointments, information needs to be communicated very quickly to fertility patients during an IVF cycle; for example, if you go in for a blood work appointment in the morning, you can expect a follow-up call later in the day to give you the results and tell you what to do (medication doses, for example, or scheduling another appointment the next morning for monitoring). Much of this is communicated through nurses and medical technicians acting as go-betweens, and it’s easy for miscommunication as a result. I do not envy their jobs in this respect. What I hope comes through, though, in the end of the poem and in the book as a whole, frankly, is that it’s a complicated emotional experience for all parties, and I am very grateful for those individuals who communicated with grace and compassion, especially my primary caregivers. I saved a voicemail from my doctor for the entirety of my pregnancy with my son—it was that significant to me, and I was quite superstitious about it.
As you were writing the book, did you imagine an ideal reader? Perhaps women who were suffering as you were?
During the early process of drafting, no, I didn’t really think about audience at all; I was really writing for myself, to process experience, make sense of it. But once I made the decision to send it out as a book, and certainly once it was accepted by CKP, I thought very seriously about who I wanted the book to reach, what work I wanted it to do. I’ve been partnering with an organization “The Art of Infertility” doing workshops on writing the body and such, and that’s been fruitful and fulfilling, and serves as an important outlet for education, community, and even activism. I do think my ideal reader is women who have gone through treatment, or experienced RPL, or otherwise had difficulty building their families. Doing readings for other patients has been a wonderfully emotional experience for me. But on the other side if I had read my book when I was just beginning treatment I don’t know that I would have been prepared for it.
You are a professor as well as a mother? How do you balance writing, teaching, and motherhood?
Yes; I’m a poet, memoirist, and literary critic. I’m also a professor, program director, and single mother. I like to watch TV, go to yoga, and have coffee with friends. I try to have one-on-one time with each of my kids. And given that I have a history of insomnia and a 4-year-old who is just now beginning to sleep through the night, I do not at this stage of my life ever sacrifice sleep! That is, I’m pretty ruthless about scheduling and maintaining boundaries. I don’t multitask, except if we’re talking about putting something in the crock pot for dinner and then sitting down to write. I try to schedule time for new writing four days per week and do “business” work of editing and sending out submissions and such on Fridays when I don’t teach. With very few exceptions, I drop my kids off in the morning, sit down with a cup of coffee and work on writing. It might not be long, sometimes just an hour, but an hour is enough time to draft a new poem or write a page or two of prose, or edit. I think in many ways I’m more productive because I have children. I don’t have the luxury of long expanses of time and I don’t kid myself that that’s what I need to work. What I do miss, though, is that sort of dreamy afternoon in a café I’d have in graduate school writing, aimlessly writing in a notebook. Maybe I’ll have that this summer.
Do you have a new collection of poems underway?
I do have a new project, what I’ve been describing as a book of domestic prose poems tentatively titled “Mother Is a Verb.” It’s a project that tries to make sense of becoming “domesticated” as a feminist. They’re based in observations of my neighborhood but I would not really describe them as nonfiction. They mark the passage of time over days, weeks, months of early motherhood. What happens, for example, at 3:00 in the morning with a sick child? I’m planning on drafting 168 of them (one for each hour in the day), although I doubt the final book will be that long. Maybe. It’s fun to be at the early stages of a project again, and one that’s not so angsty. And yet motherhood is not all sunshine and roses; it’s hard work. A verb as well as an identity. The Baby Book gestures toward some of those experiences—breastfeeding a child with food allergies, late nights in the rocking chair—but doesn’t fully explore them.
I’d like to close the interview with a poem of your choice from the book.
What a difficult choice! This is one of my favorites, as it brings together a number of key images from the book.
An Open Letter to Frida Kahlo
When my legs were dumb from the D&C
when my feet were heavy, stirrupped balls of cotton
& I couldn’t tell where they stopped & the blankets began,
I thought of you.
They kept putting more blankets on me—
they were white & everyone else wore green, my doctor
in her scrubs standing between my legs. I’d been there
before, in your painting dear Frida,
& there were wires attached to my chest & there were tubes
run between my legs, & Dr. E sucked it out, him out,
my boy, I mean, & I thought if this scene were a painting
by Frida Kahlo it would be beautiful, & I laughed.
The sound filled the room like a newborn’s cry.
Frida, what I wanted to say is that I understand
why you come back to this room, a hospital in Detroit,
why the paintings pin you there to the bed like a bug on a nail,
because you’re still there.
You left pieces of yourself behind—
a blot on a sheet, some tissue in a jar—& you want them back.
Nin Andrews, Mac’s Backs-Books (1820 Coventry Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH)
Tuesday, October 27th
Nin will be facilitating a workshop at 6:00pm and giving a poetry reading at 7:30pm
Sandra Castillo, West Kendall Regional Library (Miami, FL)
Tuesday, October 27th at 6pm
Sandra will be sharing her story in the reading “How Did We Get Here?: A Migration Story”
Wanda S. Praisner, Long Branch Arts Council (City Hall, 344 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ)
Wednesday, October 28th at 6:30pm
Wanda will part of the launch reading for Howl of Sorrow: A Collection of Poetry Inspired by Hurricane Sandy
Celia Bland wrote an essay, Second Thoughts: Celia Bland on Look Homeward, Angel, Critical Mass, the blog of the National Critics Board of Directors
January Gill O’Neil, Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA)
Monday, October 5th at 12:30pm
January will be kicking off Old Dominion’s 38th Annual Literary festival
Wanda S. Praisner, Unitarian Church (1 Nelson Street, Newton, NJ)
Tuesday, October 6th at 7pm
Wanda will be part of First Tuesday Writers’ Roundtable
Nin Andrews, Your Vine or Mine (154 Main St, Painesville, OH)
Thursday, October 8th from 6:30-7:30pm
Nin will be reading with Karen Schubert
Wanda Praisner, The 2015 Connect Arts Education Conference (Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, NJ)
Thursday, September 17 from 9am-4:30pm
Wanda will be participating as a NJSCA AIE
Nin Andrews, Root Cafe (852 W Bath Rd, Cuyahoga Falls, OH)
Thursday, September 17 at 7pm
Nin will be reading with Karen Schubert
Nin Andrews, Hiram College’s Western Reserve Book Fair (6832 Hinsdale St, Hiram, OH)
Saturday, September 19 from 1-4pm
Nin will be signing books as part of the 40 writers featured at the fair
Hiram, OH, 44234
I will be selling my books at the fair from 1:00 – 4:00
Tuesday, October 6
This collection (Unidentified Sighing Objects) is clearly the work of a master. I read it straight through, gliding from poem to poem. How long did it take you to compose?
Five or so years. Some of the poems have been on my desk for longer than that, though.
Reading your poems, I am reminded of Buddhist lectures I have attended, especially the teachers who have a humorous take on our very human natures. I wondered what you would think of that?
Makes sense. Life, for me, is tragicomic. I try to honor both sides of that equation. I was born, too, with a fair ration of Jewish irony in me.
I love the poem, “The Present Tense of Jazz: On a Photo by Roy DeCarava.” I especially love the line about weeping for the loneliness of being in a body—so beautifully put.
The Present Tense of Jazz: On a Photo by Roy DeCarava
Prim in a dress, a jumper,
A young white woman listens.
A few tables away, a young Negro man
Wearing a carefully knotted tie listens.
It must be past midnight.
Reason has headed home.
Only a few seekers still are up,
Tapping their internal feet
To the sound the planet would make
If it could riff a bit on its axis,
Invite a few stars down
To agglomerate the gravity.
Though bound by time and space
You can feel these two people
Aren’t likely to speak.
That feels sad, the miserable starch of history
Floating on top of the unmelted pot
But feels right and respectful too
Since with each note their souls
Throb and faint,
Since as people
They didn’t know they were so big and small,
So free despite themselves.
These two people in New
York City in the 1950s,
Not looking further than the moment
Not touching one another
Which could make you weep for the loneliness
Of being in a body and praise it too:
The music you can’t hear but must be there.
I also love your poem, “Inquest,” which is entirely in two other voices. Was that literally taken down from what you heard two people saying?
It’s all made up.
Usually when I read a book of poetry, I can sense whom they might have been influenced by. But in your case, I’m not sure. Who has influenced you? What poets do you admire?
I’ve read fairly widely over the years and like to think a certain amount of it has stuck. That means I’ve been reading poetry on a daily basis since I was fifteen or so, which means over fifty years. As to names, there’s Shakespeare and then the rest of us. I try to keep a finger in one of his plays at all times. And if you’re willing to allow that a lyricist is a poet then Bob Dylan has been a Shakespeare to me. It’s a rare day when some Dylan lines aren’t in my head. As far as contemporary poets, the Polish poets in translation—Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska, Zagajewski—have meant a great deal. So has Stanislaw Baranczak.
There are just so many moments in this book that take my breath away, such as in “Ode to Basketball” that ends so beautifully this:
like stutter steps toward some
Distant emotional hoop / like a fashion designer standing before a cadre
Of cameras and smiling a real fake smile and thinking of some guy
She knew once how she loved him and how he never got off his ass
Even though he could leap through the air and seem to fly but there
Was no place to fly to no homeland no wheelchair no nothing only a ball
Reading that poem (and so many of the poems in the book), I felt a mixture of exhilaration and despair. I wanted to know if you could say a few works about the poem.
What I love about poetry is its ability to capture the thrill of being—of being here, of being alive through the physicality of language, of rhythm and of sound. That sense often pushes in both directions you’ve noted—the exhilaration of physical being and the despair engendered by our confusion and ignorance. In that poem, as in the other odes, I was trying to get a number of conflicting forces into the poem but letting each have its natural say, not forcing anything.
Titles are often such a challenge. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about your choice of title—when it came to you as the title, and how or if it shaped the book.
Some books have had their titles based on a poem within the collection but others haven’t. It’s hard to summarize a collection in a title. For this book, the phrase appealed to me for its punning aspect but also for its sense of human beings, their inherent emotional waywardness. Given that title, I knew, by the way, that my wife’s painting was perfect for the cover.
Could you describe your writing and editing process?
I do a first draft long-hand. Who knows where the inspiration comes from? Then I work intensely on the poem for awhile. Then I put it in a folder and keep pulling it out, more or less randomly, over a period of time, often years. As long as I have the interest, I keep revising. I’ve revised poems that were in books and, in some cases, in anthologies. I typically have some ideal in my head about the poem and typically I haven’t reached that ideal. I work a lot through rhythm and sound and that can be very elusive.
You really have a good sense of how poems should be ordered. What is your secret?
There are a lot of dynamics in putting poems together for a collection: points of view, length, subject matter, tone, form, endings / beginnings, and sheer energy. It’s a matter of trying to calibrate those dimensions. Then there’s the issue of sections or a straight shot without sections. It definitely takes time. I’ve helped a certain number of other poets with this, so I have some additional practice.
You’ve written so many great books, and now this one. How has writing changed for you over the years? Would you say it ever gets easier?
When I started out, I was learning about myself and about poetry. I know a bit more about myself and about poetry now. It certainly has not gotten easier. “Easy” is not a word that goes with writing poetry, for me at least.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Unidentified Sighing Objects?
This book speaks to a lot of what I’ve been trying to do over the years, balancing, as it were, history—our living in circumstantial time—and the spectacle-drama of individual emotions. Also, there’s the balancing of the formal impulse and what a poet-friend of mine calls the “loose limbed” impulse that surfaces in the odes in this book.
The two poems that brought me to tears were “Poem Beginning with a Line by Holderlin” and “Leaving.” I wondered if we could close the interview with “Leaving.”
Not to be here anymore, not to hear
The cat’s fat purring, not to smell
Wood smoke, wet dog, cheap cologne, good cologne,
Not to see the sun and stars, oaks
And asters, snow and rain, every form
I take mostly for granted, makes me sad
But pleased to be writing down these words,
Pleased to have been one more who got the chance
To participate, who raised his hand although
He didn’t know the answer or understand
The question. No matter. The leaving makes me sad;
So much was offered, so freely and completely.
I admire this book (Love’s Labors) so much, I don’t know where to start. I can’t quite believe it’s your first collection of poetry. Really? So I am guessing it took you a long time to write?
Wow, thanks! That’s quite a compliment. I did spend several years working on the collection: the earliest poems included in the book, some of the Smyrna poems, were drafted in the spring of 2007, and I was still writing new poems in 2010. After that I revised for three years before sending the manuscript to CavanKerry. I was in graduate school most of that time, and an earlier version of the book served as the creative portion of my dissertation, which I completed in 2012.
I wonder if you could say a few words about the evolution of Love’s Labors, and how you developed this rhythm—rotating poems about the birth of your children with other themes: your father, your faith, and the locals. The whole book reads like one long poem.
Initially I envisioned an entire collection of Smyrna poems, some of which dealt with themes of faith and doubt from the beginning. But when my wife became pregnant with our first child, all my creative impulses were magnetically drawn to issues of fatherhood and family, and I wrote poems on these topics throughout the pregnancy. For a while I was dismayed by this, convinced I was writing two different manuscripts that might never be finished or would only work as chapbooks. And then I also had poems that fit in neither sequence. But a mentor of mine, William Wenthe, wisely suggested the poems were more closely related than I had believed. He was right, and once I saw the connections, I was able to conceive of the manuscript as a cohesive whole. At that point the challenge became finding an appropriate structure for the book.
I considered sequestering the Smyrna poems, the pregnancy poems, and the “miscellaneous” in separate sections, but that obscured all the resonances between them. Instead I tried grouping poems that shared some thematic resonance. At one point I had something like eight or nine different sections, which was a bit too disjointed. Thinking in terms of narrative helped me find the book’s final structure, which has five sections; this final arrangement highlights common themes between poems and also opens narrative threads that are gradually tied together as the book moves along. Two of the final three poems, “Claudia Blackwood Has Her Doubts” and “Cut,” were the last poems I drafted; by that point I was consciously looking for effective ways to close out the book.
You also weave between the miraculous and the humdrum, between hope and disillusionment. It’s so convincing, especially in a book where faith and childbirth and a father-son relationship are major topics. And what a perfect finale—that last stanza. I am hoping you will post that stanza here?
Certainly. Here’s the final stanza of “Cut,” which is an eight-page poem:
I have only just made peace
with having a father,
and here you are to make me one.
Blood and vernix and milia
cover you—flat-nosed, puffy-eyed,
cone-headed, flushed and wailing
and wet in the nurse’s hands.
Your mother waits for you.
In my left hand a clamp,
scissors in my right. The blades
The title is perfect. At what point did you know the title of the book? How did the title come to you?
The title Love’s Labors came to me very late in the process—shortly before sending the manuscript to CavanKerry. As my dissertation the collection was called But You Are Rich, a phrase taken from the book’s epigraph: “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: . . . I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Rev. 2:8-9). I was never fully satisfied with that title but couldn’t think of anything I liked better for the longest time. Finally I just started making a really long list, like 25-30 possibilities. At some point I began toying with variations on Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labours Lost. Having the word “love” in the title risks sounding sentimental, but hey, so does writing so many poems about having a baby, or about issues of faith. (A poet friend, a former professor of mine, has told me I somehow get away with writing about subjects that usually lead to treacle. I guess that’s a compliment?) But so many of the poems grapple with some variety of love—familial, sexual, divine—and I liked the way “labors” evokes work, working class people, and childbirth. Hitting on Love’s Labors was like a puzzle piece finally snapping into place.
I love the local characters. I especially love the opening stanza of your poem, “Esther Green Plans a Funeral.” I can just hear her talking. I imagine you hear these people in your head when you are writing?
Yeah, writing those persona poems is a mixture of listening and conjuring. Esther was the first of the Smyrna characters I worked with, and once I got into her voice it felt very comfortable. Growing up in Louisiana, of course, I was surrounded by southern women with very strong and distinct voices. So I had that history to draw on.
Sydney Lea wrote a beautiful introduction to the book. Is he one of your mentors?
He’s not, actually, though he’s a poet for whom I have great respect. I did meet Syd when he visited Texas Tech in 2011, where I did my Ph.D., and he was wonderful to talk to, and he gave an excellent reading. What I love about Syd and his poetry is that he’s so adept and comfortable writing in form and meter, but he’s not tendentious about it or strictly bound to it the way some formalists can be.
These poems are so engaging, so intimate and entertaining, I am wondering what the secret is. As if you could tell me. What is your creative process like?
Ha! If there’s a secret, I wish I knew it. Sometimes it seems the process is different for every poem, and that’s not far from the truth, I think. But generally speaking, I carry an idea in my head for a while before I every write anything down. When I finally do start writing, I try to get down a complete draft. Then, over a period of weeks or months, the poem goes through revision after revision. One round of revision may be focused on the narrative, if there is one, then on images, the next on syntax, then line breaks, then sonic effects; eventually these things run together, but learning to focus my attempts at revision in this way has been tremendously helpful to me.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
The most challenging poems to write were “Claudia Blackwood Has Her Doubts” and “Cut.” I was pushing myself to expand the scope of my writing when I wrote these, so they’re both longer poems. The former poem is also a sonnet crown, and there’s something very Sisyphean about that form. Next time I try one it probably won’t be a dramatic monologue in a female voice. Aside from those poems, the biggest challenge was finding the right structure and sequence.
Who are your primary literary influences?
Frost is big for me, though that’s probably not a very fashionable answer these days. Even more unfashionable, but probably responsible for my penchant for persona poems, are Edgar Lee Masters and E.A. Robinson. More recent influences would include B.H. Fairchild, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Robert Lowell, Natasha Trethewey. Richard Wilbur. Rita Dove’s early book Thomas and Beulah.
I’d like to close with a poem of your choice.
Pfc. Mason Buxton Wets a Hook
All warfare is based on deception.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Whether you’re wiping out a phantom weapons cache
or planting homemade bombs in cardboard boxes,
trash cans, saddlebags—Sun Tzu was right:
the lie lies dead at the heart of war. By it
we live and die. The art’s in choosing lures.
(A shiner? Melon lizard? Chartreuse worm?)
That’s part. But a naked lie won’t nail a bass.
You hide the hook inside. Then drop the bait
between two cypress stumps, jig your rod
at five Mississip, crack open a cold one. Sip.
He bites, you set and reel—then watch the lake explode.
Nin Andrews, Rochester Contemporary Art Center
Tuesday, June 23rd at 7pm
Nin will be reading at the Rochester Jazz Festival
Jack Ridl, Ox-Bow School of the Arts (Saugatuck, MI)
Friday June 26th, 10am-5pm
Jack will be leading a workshop “for those who want to begin to those who have been writing for years. There is no pressure to achieve, to complete, to write ‘well.’ All we’re gonna do is ‘see what happens.'”
Sarah Bracey White, Woodlands High School (White Plains, NY)
Wednesday May 13th
Sarah is the Keynote Speaker at Woodlands High School Writers’ Festival
Andrea Carter Brown, EP Foster Library in the Topping Room (651 E. Main St., Ventura, CA)
Thursday, May 14th at 7:30 pm
Andrea will be reading with Lisa Sewell
Jack Ridl, 20359 Douglas Road (Interlochen, MI)
Saturday, May 16th, 9am-3pm
Jack will be leading a workshop. For more information Sylvia McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org (Continental breakfast provided. Bring lunch.)
Nin Andrews is the featured poet in this issue of Plume
Places I Was Dreaming is your third book of poetry, but this is your first autobiographical book?
It’s the kind of question that people often ask, but I’m hesitant to call this work “autobiographical.” Certainly, on the one hand, I drew on my own experiences—my early childhood was spent in the kind of house I describe in the opening poem on the kind of farm I describe later in the book. On the other hand, I was never at any point in the book trying to write a strictly factual account of anything that actually happened there. For example, I can remember having walked across a frozen pond once, as I describe in “The Time I Didn’t Drown,” and I was vaguely aware that I wasn’t supposed to do that, but that’s the end of that poem as a document of any factual retelling of my story—the rest is meditation on that place, not memory. Likewise, I really did sleepwalk when I was a child, though not in such an extreme way as described in the poem “Sleepwalking”; however, most of that poem is the result of a conversation I was having with Walt Whitman about “There Was a Child Went Forth”—I was proposing to him that “There was a child went forth each NIGHT, and many things that child did NOT look upon, those things he STILL became.” Nearly all of the stories I tell in the book are like this—they’re based not on pure memory, but on things I know for sure that I “half created,” as Wordsworth says, things that I can’t remember at all having occurred at any given moment, but that are still a part of my understanding of the place I came from. Does that count as “autobiographical?”
Likewise is it still autobiographical if I reveal that I read numerous books about poverty and also drew on concepts from them for ideas for some of the poems? For example “Fate” is a meditation on the way that when you don’t have money, the lack of resources to respond to small problems leads to chain reactions that make the problems get bigger and bigger, something I read about somewhere. I connected that idea to another idea I read about, that many people who lack resources tend to be fatalistic. It’s not that I didn’t know that these issues existed. Everyone who has very limited means knows about them. But the reading put them into the forefront of my mind. I’m not saying the composition of “Fate” was wholly philosophical and abstract—I really fell into a fire in the immediate circumstances described—but the poem started with those ideas, not with an effort at memoir per se. Beyond the fall into the fire, I don’t know if the rest of that poem is historically accurate or not. Finally, I’m not sure I really care. If the poem speaks to a reader, I’m quite certain it is because of the imagined experience the poem itself conveys to the reader’s mind, not because of where it came from or whether the events in it really happened or not.
Reading these poems, I have the feeling that the book just flowed out of you. Of course, that’s just a sign of great poetry, but I am wondering if they did flow easily?
They were certainly poems that I had a lot of fun writing. They allowed me to make humor an important part of the book and still keep challenging stereotypes and prejudices about the poor—namely, the one that says that people who don’t have much money are lazy and dirty and that they lack internal lives–which are basically the same stereotypes we have about every group we think we understand, but really don’t. That said, I worked on the poems very hard, shared them with friends for feedback, revised them repeatedly, and so on. I’d say they averaged two or three weeks each to write, so they didn’t exactly come to me as completed works in a dream or anything. I worked basically all of them to a certain point at which they somehow transformed themselves into something that was quite different and much better than what I had in mind when I started. I think that’s generally what makes poems seem to flow—that they are the result of an inquiry into something, and that inquiry has generated a mental struggle, and that struggle has generated a nuanced understanding that wasn’t present in the original conception. In my view, that’s why we call it “creative writing”—because the writing process generates ideas, so that what you start with is not very much like what you end up with.
These poems may sound as if they are all conversational free verse, which is the musical sound I wanted them to have, but many of the poems in the book have some kind of accentual and/or syllabic meter or other traditional elements. I did that because the constraints of not having money seemed to me to call for a corresponding restraint in the form. After my previous comments, some readers of the blog may wonder how I can write poems in set forms yet claim that they transformed themselves in process. I can hear some of them now: “Doesn’t he know that set forms are the complete opposite of writing in a generative way?”
To that, I would just say that nearly every free verse writer writes not only in lines, but also in set forms called sentences. But no one says, “Isn’t writing in lines and sentences the opposite of writing in a generative way?” No, of course it isn’t. And writing a fugue or a sonata isn’t some kind of a limitation to a composer—it’s a useful way of thinking about musical ideas. In the same way, writing in iambic pentameter or thirteeners or four-beat accentual lines isn’t a limitation either.
Writing in lines and sentences and writing in traditional forms are both ways of generating new thoughts—the original impulse doesn’t fit into a good sentence or a pleasing line, so we change words or syntax, which is changing meaning or emphasis, which is giving birth to new meanings and emphases. The sonnet form, for example, is just a hill I make the poem climb so it will have to work harder and will thus generate new thought, but the form doesn’t control what it says; it just makes it say something I didn’t expect at first, but that I might like when I hear it. To put it more bluntly, it’s a way of getting myself not to blurt out the first idiotic thing that happens to come into my head. I’d add that it isn’t any more conservative than free verse, at least not in any political sense. Traditional forms are just a different way of approaching the complex interplay of restraint and freedom that all poems—and in fact language itself—have deep within them.
How long did this book take you to compose?
About five years. I wrote the first couple of poems with this book specifically in mind in late 2005 and finished the book near the end of 2010. However, there were some poems I had written earlier that somewhere along the way I realized belonged in this book, and I revised and updated those. The second poem in the published book, “The First Thing I Remember,” is the most extreme version of this. I first wrote on it in 1982 or 83, and that poem—which was a sonnet in its first form—was something I kept coming back to over the years and wrote on at least a dozen times between the early 80’s and 2010, when I finally got it into the shape it’s in now. It’s not a sonnet any more, obviously, but that poem went through such extreme revisions that in fact there isn’t a single phrase left in it from the original version: it’s the same idea of a young child being attacked by rats, but there’s basically nothing else left from the first draft, not really even a noun or verb.
Where exactly did you grow up? Your parents worked on a dairy farm?
I was born in a tiny hospital in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, in Tulsa County, but I grew up to age ten in rural Wagoner County. My parents actually lived on a ranch when I came along; my dad was working as a cowboy then. However, they left the ranch soon after I was born, and we moved to several different places within the same part of the county when I was little.
When I was five, we moved to a place that had formerly been a dairy farm. By the time we arrived, it wasn’t a functioning dairy farm any more, but just a place where the landlords pastured young heifers that were going to become dairy cows when they were older. Dad hayed them and made sure they could get water, fixed fences, and so on in return for rent, and he did auto mechanic work in one of the outbuildings to make money. So they didn’t work on a dairy farm, but on a place that had been a dairy farm.
Are your parents and/or other family members and relatives still living there?
Not on that farm and not in the financial circumstances we lived in then. We moved away from there to Broken Arrow when I was ten because my father and mother both managed to gain skills that led to better jobs that made them a better living. However, my parents have since moved back to Wagoner County, and most of the rest of my family are in neighboring Tulsa County, though of course all of the great aunts and uncles and grandparents are no longer living.
In your poem, “First B,” you talk about your parents’ expectations for you. I wonder if you could post that poem here? How did they feel about your becoming a poet?
First B Dad and Mom heard simultaneously Look at that paper, Buddy, Son, this arithmetic, them takeaways and plusses. it’s your only paper so far This is the first B not a perfect score. you’ve ever brought home. You need to see something: B’s ain’t good enough, you’re smarter than we are. not for you, Buddy. Your job is to show us You can do better: what we all coulda been you can do what I shoulda. if we’d a-knowed what to do. See, I made A’s too They got a great tall school exactly like you, that they call a college. but I quit at fifteen You can go there when you get big. to work, to make money It costs a lot of money, Don’t do what I done. and none of us have been, You can show me up, Buddy, but we hear they let you have a job not so hard, go up there for free not hay somebody’s cattle, if they see how smart you are, haul slop for old hogs, if you make all A’s. fix fence, and work on No one we know old cars every night has gotten that far, for a few extra dollars. so you’ll have to show us. You’ll have to know them books, We want you to go, son, them takeaways and plusses. though it’s a long ways off. You got to get it right You’re the one who can, all the time, Buddy. so you’re the one who has to.
I suspect that the thought of children moving away is nearly always a source of powerfully conflicted feelings for the poor. I was thinking about that when I started the poem—I don’t remember any real conversation as represented here, but the mixed-up emotions were there as long as I can remember. I did very well in my schoolwork from the first day of first grade. My parents seemed to see early on that there were going to be opportunities for me that they wholeheartedly wanted me to take advantage of, yet those very opportunities were also likely to take me physically away from them. This, of course, was not just our circumstance, but is in fact the circumstance of many parents and first-generation college students. The child feels in some way disloyal for leaving and the parents are sad about it, yet everyone knows that leaving is a part of changing the child’s fortunes. It also affects those who stay. The child who leaves that life of poverty has shown that it is possible to leave it, and some of those who remain in it feel that they have been shown to be inadequate because they didn’t get out of it too, but others feel vindicated in some sense, because if it wasn’t their fate to get out of that life, neither was it their fault.
My parents seemed very proud when I graduated from college and went on to become a poet. I live in a world that is not familiar to them, I would say, but I think they are happy with what I’ve done. And I have a lot of respect for them; they are not highly educated people, but they are very smart people and they are also the salt of the earth.
And you also compose music?
I don’t really compose any more. I earned an undergraduate degree in music composition, and for a while I both wrote poetry and composed music. However, finally I found that there just wasn’t enough time in my life to concentrate on both, and poetry was the one that mattered more. In my view, of course, that was just a choice about the kind of music I wanted to write.
Even though the poems speak of a very poor childhood, they also portray an enviable childhood—with lots of love, storytelling, and gratitude. I love the poem, “No Other Meal,” that ends “And all the cousins, when they finished eating,/ said how damn lucky we had gotten, said/ there never was no other meal, not ever.” Did you feel lucky then? Or do you feel any nostalgia, looking back?
One of the things that started this whole book was the awareness that even a very difficult life has some sweetness in it and that the poor are often particularly good at finding what is comical or communal or redeeming in the midst of difficulty. There were things I loved within that life—the extended family, the rural landscape—but I don’t really feel much nostalgia about it in general. It was often rather grim and there was very little that could be done about it. The sense of luck in the poem is really just the obverse side of the sense of fate that people in those circumstances have. “What’s going to happen is going to happen,” they say, and that might turn out well for us, in which case it’s lucky, or it might not turn out well for us, in which case it’s fate, but either way, it is something well beyond the reach of our extremely limited means to change anything. It’s not that we can’t sometimes see an opportunity and take advantage of it, but it does admit the truth, which is that we can’t control everything that affects us.
In “Mirrow” you write about having an accent and a rural style of speaking when you were a boy. Do you still have an accent? Do you think the rhythms and speech patterns of your childhood have influenced your poetry?
I do still have an accent, which has changed somewhat over time, but is still identifiably rural and working class, what would be referred to as a “hick” accent where I come from. My colleagues in Helena, or at least some of them, tell me my accent is charming, so I think I’m lucky to be living where I live now. Certainly the rhythms and patterns of speech in the place I come from have affected the poetry, and in particular the speech habits of my grandmother, whose manner of speaking was unusual even to the rest of my family. I became aware when I was writing my first book, Mose, that the way my grandmother spoke was a portal I could use to take readers into this other world I used to live in, and I realized along with that that my own “hick” dialect was a musical gift the poetry gods had bestowed on me and that I should never be ashamed of it or shy about using it in my writing.
I love how you capture the logic of your childhood self in many of your poems, especially in “Don’t Three Halves Make One-and-a Half, Ma’am?” That poem had me laughing out loud. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about it and post it below.
I got started on that poem because I was thinking about what a truly difficult time I had with fractions in the third grade. As with most of the poems, that small element from my life led me to thinking about something else, the idea of equality. When you’re a poor kid with a hick accent who has a decidedly middle-class teacher, you’re more or less aware all of the time that you’re not going to be treated as an equal, that there are always middle-class assumptions operating that you don’t exactly understand, but are still expected to abide by. When the kid says “Guess I just don’t see what equals equals,” he’s thinking about the kind of interactions he has with that teacher, not just about math.
When I was in elementary school in Oklahoma, corporal punishment in the form of paddling was still very much a part of the system, so in those days you were also very aware of the physical consequences of not fitting in. It all had a way of making you wonder whether or not you might “count” for anything. So all those math terms end up being how the poem speaks about something larger. The “kid-logic” in it is the comic layer on which we can ride the gap between the teacher’s lesson and the kid’s life as he lives it. The boy in the poem is a bit of a smart-aleck, of course, because he knows perfectly well that there’s a disconnect, but the teacher doesn’t know that until he repeatedly surprises her with it, and then she responds with a threat, which of course undermines any hope of his learning the lesson she wanted him to get from her example and makes him say he doesn’t know how to “count.” And then he says, he doesn’t know how to count, and then “No, I don’t,” by which he means “I don’t count,” though he knows the teacher will take him to mean that he doesn’t need to go get a paddling from the principal.
Don’t Three Halves Make One-and-a-Half, Ma’am? a kind of argument in third-grade math Say your mom baked three pies for Thanksgiving, Three pies? We never have that many, ma’am, and your family ate half the pecan, half the rhubarb, and my grandma and my aunts make the pies at our house, and half the pumpkin. Now, what would you have left? and with all my cousins there wouldn’t be any left. Three halves. Do you see? Yes, ma’am, so you’re saying it’s three halves of anything, half a roll of rusted wire, Now tell me, do you really not understand this, half the tin roof that was blown off our chicken house, or don’t you just want to argue and waste and the other half of the fence post we chopped up for kindling, half of our class time, half of our math time? but it’s still three halves? No, that’s not three halves! It’s not three halves unless they’re all the same, Three pies aren’t the same. Rhubarb? Yuck! unless they’re all equal, because they’re all pies, But the things I named are all equal, equal like leftover half pies at Thanksgiving, three halves of pieces of junk in our barnyard, the same shape and size. Don’t you understand equal? so I guess I don’t see what equals equals, Or do you just need to visit the principal? guess I don’t see how to count, ma’am. No, I don’t.
What is your writing process? Do you write every day? How do you edit your poems?
I do try to write at least a little every day. Life interferes sometimes, as I’m sure it does for every writer, but I think the discipline of sitting down to work every day, whether I feel like it or not, is terribly important. It keeps the imagination percolating. It generates inspiration. Why do I think of a new poem line in the shower, or driving down the highway, or in a meeting at work? Because I’ve been percolating: my mind has been working on that poem even when I was asleep or was thinking about something else, and now it’s popping out of me. But when you don’t write every day, that process slows down or stops. You get unhappy and your life gets difficult because you no longer think you’re able to do what you believe you are on this planet to do. It’s no good then.
I have different processes during different stages of a book, usually. I rarely write individual poems outside a larger framework; I’m generally thinking in terms of writing a book, not just a single poem—a symphony, not just a tune. I think that makes starting a new book the most difficult stage. I often do a lot more reading and thinking than actually putting pen to paper when I’m getting started on a new book, because I’m trying hard to see some faint outline of what I’m going to do, even though I know it’s going to change as I do it. Somehow—I’m not sure I understand it exactly myself—I eventually get a purchase on what it is I want to work on, and then that gets carried forward and constantly redefined by the individual poems. Then things get easier. My favorite part is the middle, when I’m pretty sure I know generally what the book is going to be like. That knowledge helps me see what poems to write next, but the poems are also helping me get a better vision of what the whole book is going to be. When I’m in that mode, I can write all morning for a couple hundred days in a row, get a great deal of work done, and still can’t wait to go at it again even harder the next morning.
I edit by trying somewhat obsessively to make every word and phrase do more than it did when I first thought of it. On the surface, I’m trying to make the images more vivid, the diction more precise, the voice and syntax more expressive, the tropes sharper, the rhythms and music more clearly suited to the subject matter. But what I’m really hoping for is that while I busy myself with doing those things, get myself out of the way if you will, the poem will take flight and start to mean things I didn’t intend for it to mean. I want my poems to be little machines that will generate content I didn’t plan and say things I didn’t expect them to say. My feeling is that the new meanings come from my subconscious, finally, but that part of me can’t be accessed in the usual way of deciding what to say and then saying it. That’s part of the reason I don’t say the poems are autobiographical. You can’t figure them out. You have to write them out. And you pray that in the end they don’t say merely what you thought they would.
What poets and writers have influenced you the most?
I’m going to sound like the English professor I am on this, but most of the poets that have influenced and inspired me most are from the past. I truly adore Chaucer, someone who knew how to make poems that used storytelling and humor in surprising and delightful ways and who had in spades one quality that all the poets I care about have—he projected a voice that was utterly himself and could never have been mistaken for someone else. Emily Dickinson, not only a genius at writing in hymnal measures and using dashes to make them sound like free verse, but an unflinching examiner and cataloguer of painful attitudes and difficult human experiences as well. Wallace Stevens, who could make more out of just repeating a phrase or a pattern of phrases than anyone before or since. John Berryman, whose funny, formal, deliberately transgressive, and syntactically out-of-control Dream Songs somehow always make me want to write more, for reasons I don’t completely fathom. W. S. Merwin. James Wright. Charles Wright, Gregory Orr, and William V. Davis, former professors of mine. Richard Dillard, H. L. Hix, and William Wenthe, friends from long back. Natasha Trethewey. Andrew Hudgins. I could go on and on, but I’ve already just started listing them because there are so many. I wish I were as good a writer as any of those. At least I’m still getting better.
What do you think are the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of being a poet?
The most challenging thing is the feeling of isolation that sometimes comes with writing constantly. It’s something one does alone. I’m okay with that—I actually like being alone and in fact have a hard time functioning if I’m not alone for at least a few hours every day. However, when the writing you are trying to do is for one reason or another not really generating something you’re excited about, it is possible to feel isolated and stranded, and that’s never good. I can sometimes work pretty hard for quite a long time without feeling I’m getting anywhere, especially when I’m starting a new book. It sometimes gives me a sensation like I’m swimming in slowly setting concrete.
Fortunately, sooner or later it always turns around. I hit my stride, and then I can’t be alone in my studio enough. And that’s the best part—when poetic ideas and poetic music are coming out of your very pores every time you so much as twitch an eyelid, and you can’t really even stop them. And then the process transforms them into things that are better than you first imagined. It’s wonderful.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Places I Was Dreaming?
Thanks to CavanKerry for giving the book a thoughtful reading and believing in it.
I love the title of this book, Misery Islands, in part because the poems about misery are really mixed in with those about joys of life. It has a very balanced feel—something hard to accomplish in a poetry book. How did you come up with the title?
JANUARY GILL O’NEIL
Thanks, Nin. I remember being at a local park with my friend, poet Colleen Michaels, who told me the story of Misery Islands. This park sits off the coast of Beverly, MA, and as she told me the story of the two islands, Great Misery and Little Misery and the captain who was stuck on the island for three days (the captain was miserable; hence, the name), something clicked. I was writing poems about the breakup of my marriage and wanted something more to pull the poems together. Somehow it worked. I also had never written a long poem, but the islands gave me the opportunity to tell many stories at once.
I think one of my favorite poems is “What the Body Knows.” It really captures the feeling I have at the doctor’s office, and the last line is perfect—“If it listens carefully, it can hear its own voice making the wrong sound.” How did this poem come about?
WHAT THE BODY KNOWS
The body knows it is part of a whole, its parts believed to be in good working order. It knows it’s getting older, years ticking off like pages on a desk calendar, your doctor’s appointment circled in red. Try not to picture the body sitting alone in the waiting room. The body creaks up and down like a hardwood floor, you tell your doctor this; he says your breast is a snow globe. He says, Inside there’s a snowstorm—my job is to decipher a bear from a moose in the snow. He flattens the breast with a low radiation sandwich press. The body wonders if its parts will turn into Brie cheese, if its fingers will fuse and become asparagus stalks. He says it’s possible, but don’t give it a second thought. He says insulate your body with spinach. He says true understanding of the body will enable it to live long and live well. But the body knows when its leg is being pulled. The body is a container of incidental materials. If it listens carefully, it can hear its own voice making the wrong sound.
Honestly, I was in the doctor’s office waiting for my annual mammogram. I started the poem in the office; in fact, the line about spinach came from a TV show playing in the background. Then the technician told me that his job was like differencing a bear from a moose in a snowstorm. I mean, doesn’t the feeling of the scanner pressing down on your breast feel like a Panini machine or a George Foreman grill—or at least what I imagine those things to feel like?
I finished the poem at home that day, just making minor tweaks along the way.
I also love the poem, “What My Kids Will Write about Me in Their Future Tell-All Book.” I thought I was the only one that wondered what my kids would write about me years later—about what they would remember of my parenting. Could you say a few words about the poem?
What My Kids Will Write about Me in Their Future Tell-All Book
They will say that no was my favorite word,
more than stop, or eat, or love.
That some mornings, I’d rather stay in bed,
laptop on lap, instead of making breakfast,
that I’d rather write than speak.
They will say they have seen me naked.
Front side, back side—none of which
were my good side.
They will say I breastfed too long.
In the tell-all book my kids will write
they’ll tell how I let them wrinkle like raisins
in the bathtub so I could watch Big Papi at the plate.
They’ll talk about how I threw out their artwork,
the watercolors and turkey hands,
when I thought they weren’t looking
and when I knew they were.
They’ll say that my voice was a slow torture,
that my singing caused them permanent hearing loss.
In the tell-all book my kids will write
as surely as I am writing this, they will say
I cut them off mid-sentence just because I could.
They’ll tell you how I got down on my knees,
growling my low, guttural disapproval,
how I grabbed their ears, pinched the backs of their arms,
yet they never quite knew who was sadder for it.
They’ll quote me saying, I cry in the shower—
it’s the only safe place I can go.
They will say she was “our sweetest disaster.”
They will say I loved them so much it hurt.
My constant worry about raising kids is what little thing will I do that will send my kids into therapy. I can see it now, “Mom wouldn’t let me play a video game so now I’m on the couch.” All parents wonder this, I’m sure, but when you’re a single parent and the primary caregiver, it’s much harder to be kind sometimes when you’d just rather hide under the sheets. I’m the one my kids turn to for everything, and I mean everything! It’s a blessing but hard to find balance sometimes.
The divorce and post-divorce poems are really powerful. I think my favorite one is “Cunt.” Did you write these poems at the time, or long after, when you were looking back at your marriage?
It rolls off the tongue like a bullet train,
and once it leaves the station
that train is never late. You take it out
when your college-educated self
needs to tell it like it is. There’s not
another word in the English language
to describe the moment your daughter,
your love child, comes back after a weekend
with your ex-husband and his new girlfriend,
the one he left you for when he said
he wanted to lead a more “authentic life.”
You’ve spent your days not reacting
in front of the kids, for the sake of the kids—
but not this time. After 52 weeks of pickups
and drop offs, your turnstile of a mouth
swings open like a car door unhinged,
the moment your daughter tells you of her weekend,
you ask, Why does your hair look so different?
And she says, Daddy’s girlfriend combed it.
She looks at you with those inquisitive brown eyes
half-knowing she’s tripped the wire
between the said and unsaid.
You pull her into a hug, then send her into the kitchen,
dragging a deep breath out of the cave of yourself.
Regret is not in your vocabulary
because under your breath, barely audible,
you’ve just hurled the last word in the arsenal
you can draw back and launch like a punch in the face.
I can’t remember when I wrote it, probably just after the divorce when it was apparent this is how things are now. The life I worked for my whole life had changed so dramatically.
This poem is not about the word so much as the feeling when there’s no other word for this moment. We all have those words we’d never say unless pushed—this one is mine. I actually didn’t learn about the word until I was in my mid-20s, so I don’t have the strong gender-based feelings that others have. I really like the sound of the word cunt: short, curt, it pounds like a hammer. It’s the one word that stops people in their tracks, and yet I like it.
Could you talk a little bit about the evolution of Misery Islands?
I had been writing quite a bit before Underlife was published. Then my then-husband and I were having problems and poetry became my umbrella. And it poured. So I wrote. What I didn’t want Misery to be was therapy. And I didn’t want the reader’s experience to seem as if he or her were peeking in on a nasty fight. The book is so much more than that. It’s important to me that the craft comes through.
Yes, the book is about divorce. But it’s also about transition, and kids, and beauty, and making it through to the other side.
How about your evolution as a poet? When did you first think you were a poet? How did you become a CavanKerry poet?
As an undergrad at Old Dominion University many moons ago, I did poorly in my 8 a.m. economics class. So I think I have bad grades to thank for my turn to creative writing! But once I started taking classes with Toi Derricotte and Ruth Stone, I knew poetry would be my vocation.
When I went to grad school at NYC, I met poet Joseph O. Legaspi on my first day. We’ve been BFFs ever since. I would not be a CavanKerry poet if Joseph hadn’t encouraged me to send my manuscript in during CavanKerry’s open submission period. I was lucky in that my manuscript was chosen relatively quickly. I had also sent my manuscript to two contests and second publisher that gave my manuscript a seriously look-see, but ultimately passed. I’m glad CavanKerry saw potential in my poems.
Who are your primary literary influences?
Toi and Ruth, of course. Also, Sharon Olds, Phil Levine, Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams. I also read a lot of contemporary poetry and attend as many poetry workshops, readings, and gatherings as I can.
When and how do you find time to write?
HA! I don’t find time, I have to make it.
I’ve learned to write anywhere I can: at my daughter’s Tae Kwondo class or my son’s baseball games (he hates that!). Last semester, I made a point to write when my students wrote, which worked out well. Nikki Finney suggests writing in the early morning, like 4 a.m. early, before the first cup of tea and first morning chore. That’s when I’m still in a half-sleep, half-wake state.
You also run the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, right?
Yes, I do. The next festival is May 1-3, 2015 in Salem, Massachusetts. It will be our sixth year and out tiny team is starting the prep work for it now. It’s hard work putting on a festival with 100 readings, workshops, and discussions, music, etc. with little-to-no money, but it is a labor of love. Community is the cornerstone of our weekend. We put the “grass” in grassroots.
What’s your next big project?
Well, I’m close to finishing manuscript #3, which means I’d like to start manuscript #4. My hope is to write poems about the slaves who lived in my current hometown of Beverly, Massachusetts. I have research and documentation on one family, and the matriarch who sued for her freedom and won. I just need to find the time to write the poems. I need more than a few hours here and there to put it together.
from Southern Comfort
Bathing, Miss De Angelo informed us in health class,
is very important, especially once you become a teenager.
In fact I can smell many of you this very day,
so I advise every one of you girls
to go home and take a good long bath tonight.
I know some of your folks like to skimp on water,
but consider it homework.
Say Miss De Angelo assigned it to you.
But girls, let me warn you.
Never take a bath in the same water as your teenage brother.
Well picture this.
All those tiny bubbles settling on your legs
when you sit in a nice tub of water?
If you could count every itty, bitty bubble,
that would be only a fraction of how many sperm
stream from a single man.
Even if he doesn’t touch himself,
the water does.
And it only takes one.
One fast-moving whip-tailed sperm.
And you know how easy it is to catch a cold,
how quickly that little virus races clear through you.
And once that happens,
no one will believe you’re any Virgin Mary,
no matter what you say.
This is such a beautiful book (How They Fell). I’m not sure how to begin, so I guess I’ll start with the beginning, or the opening poem, in which you say that you were born in one country but will die in another. You were born in Scotland? And the first section of the book, “all that green” are memories of Scotland?
Yes, I was born in Aberfeldy, Scotland and grew up in Oban on the West Coast of Scotland. I went to Oban High School and then to St. Andrews University. I also spent some time in Vienna between high school and university (see the poem “Vienna, Spring, 1962”). Yyes, many of the poems in the first section (“All That Green”) are about my growing up in Scotland, with some non-Scottish ones as well. In 1965 I came to the USA and have taught for almost 30 years at Smith College. And yes, I will die in another country. The experiences of each culture have contributed to my work.
How has your Scottish heritage influenced your poetry?
Scots, like the Irish, are a poetic race. The soft colors, the hard edges, the diffidence of the people all contribute to my poetical thinking. I was lucky to have some very great teachers, including the poet Iain Crichton Smith. At St. Andrews, I was secretary of the Literary Society which hosted, among others, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, a man about whom I later wrote my doctoral dissertation at NYU. My very first publication was in “The Phoenix”, the poetry magazine at St. Andrews, in 1964. Therefore, yes, Scotland and its poetry are in my genes.
Is the status and role of a poet different in Scotland than it is in the U.S.?
It may sound traitorous for a Scot, but I think that poets get more respect here in the USA. They (some of them at least) certainly get more money.
The middle section of the book, “passage,” takes on a mythic tone. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the choice to write experience as myth?
The middle section is certainly mythic. Myths really are the experiences of mythic characters. Writing in the mythic vein also allows the poet to take situations far beyond what would be permitted in reality writing.
Are there specific religious influences in your poetry?
Much of my poetry has a religious element, but not in any denominational sense. The two “Thomas” poems are of course from that gospel, which is composed strictly of the sayings of Jesus, without unnecessary commentary.
In the final section of the book, “seconds quicken,” you have wonderful poems about people, ranging from St. Thomas, Jesus, Mary MacDonald, the Monster of Florence, to the queen’s hairdresser. In each there is a sense of illumination, even when you are writing about a mass murderer or a jihadist. It’s almost as if a light shines off the pages. Is this how you actually see the world?
I see the world as composed of many hues and shades of light. But darkness provides a strong counterpoint to the light. Every person, object, and happening in the world (or out of the world, for that matter) can serve as a source of illumination–even, as you say, a mass murderer or jihadist. The poet Iain Crichton Smith, for example, can take a horrible situation (e.g. his poems “In Belfast” and “The Country of Pain”) and use it as a point of illumination. This ability may be the poet’s strongest talent.
I love the title poem, the final poem. I wonder if you would post it here and maybe tell how this poem occurred to you?
The poem “How They Fell” is about the events of 9/11/01 in New York City. I wrote it close to the time of the event, when images of those falling from the towers were still being broadcast. Like everyone else, I was shocked and horrified at these images and the only thing I could think of doing was to write about it. Here it is:
One dove, as from a high
board, arms welded, an arrow
aimed at earth as if he thought
it water and he’d pass through.
A man and a woman held
hands, sweethearts in an alley,
until their grip frayed. Blue
shirt of a child billowed
and tore right off. Two girls
embraced, bodies wrapped tight.
All the ties whipped upward.
A waiter’s apron broke loose,
its strings trailing behind.
An old man wrenched open
his mouth and tried to sing.
Someone clutched a broom.
Who covered her eyes? Who
hummed? Who held his head
as if hands protect? Who stepped
off lightly? Who clenched teeth?
Many wept, or cursed, or yelled,
or prayed, in many languages.
Some counted the seconds
as if they controlled something.
A toddler laughed. No one fell
straight. All of them tumbled.
What is your writing process? How do you usually compose a poem?
This often varies. Sometimes it is immediate and quick. At other times, it may take many days. In many cases, I don’t so much write the poems, as become seized by them. For example, in my first collection (“Becoming Bone”, 2005) I set out to write a novel about the 19th Century poet, artist and saloniste Celia Thaxter, who grew up on a desolate lighthouse island off the coast of Maine. Instead of novelistic scenes, what came out was poems. In the face of this strange phenomenon, I quickly abandoned the novel idea and started putting down the poems.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a poet?
My biggest challenge is finding the next poem. It may come overnight or it may take weeks. When it appears, I must scurry to get it down.
What inspires you? Who are your primary literary influences?
I have mentioned Iain Crichton Smith, who had a huge influence on me. Hugh MacDiarmid, whom I met while at St. Andrews, was also seminally important. The visual arts are also inspiring to me, as in the example of the paintings of Caravaggio, which were the subject of my third volume (“This Caravaggio”, 2012). I am always surprised by what inspires me: I don’t know what it will be until it happens. My surroundings also inspire me, particularly people, including my husband Will (who is also my amanuensis), students, friends.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I am taking a rest, although the occasional poem still slips out. When I am ready to really start again, I’m sure I will know it.
This is such a carefully constructed book (My Crooked House) about the anatomy of a house and a psyche, and the healing of both. I’d love to hear you talk about how the idea for the book came to you.
Well, the poems started coming before the architectural structure of the book announced itself. For a few years I’d been thinking, writing, and talking in therapy about the many aspects of my homesickness. For the first forty years of my life I didn’t feel at home in my body or in my mind or in my writing or in my job or in my family or with friends or in my first marriage or in any place where I lived. This unease with every aspect of my self and my life left me feeling “broken in some fundamental way.” I projected this psychological state on my actual house—e.g. letting the house fall into disrepair and feeling unable to do anything about it. What I’m trying to emphasize here is: my house wasn’t just a metaphor for me, it was me. The root of the symptoms of homesickness was my homesickness for my core self.
At the same time, I was also thinking a lot about “the stories we tell” and how we tell them. Why do people repeat the same stories about their lives? Why do we choose to tell this story and not that one? What were the stories I told, time and again, about myself? Why did I keep circling around the same stories? Somehow those stories seemed part of my basic structure—the walls and floors of me. What did those stories mean? What would happen if I walked around in them? What would happen if I played with using aspects of my brokenness in the forms of the poems—e.g. the lists and the excessive numbering of things that come out of my obsessive compulsive nature? Then, at some point, a line was crossed and the construction of the poems turned into the construction of a book. I knew the poems were beginning to fit together but wanted an objective opinion so I worked with Dael Orlandersmith, a playwright and solo performance artist, for a few sessions. She helped draw the plans for the book. The book was built the way a house is built but from words/poems/stories not from wood/plaster/nails.
I am so in love with your voice in these poems. You are so honest. In your poem, “How It Happened, Part 4,” you talk about how you signed up for a poetry workshop, and the teacher pushed you to “hide less, go further, get out of your head.” You followed that advice brilliantly. Who is this workshop leader? (I think I want to sign up.) At what point did you decide to be a poet?
There were a lot of obstacles for me to overcome before I could declare myself a poet. I come from a family/class/geographic/social/occupational background where the announcement “I’m a poet” would be greeted with “Who the hell do you think you are?” and I bought into that accusation for many, many years. So even though I knew quite early—around the age of ten—that the land of metaphor was where I felt at home, I ran from being a poet in the same way in which Jonah ran from his fate. But, as Jonah couldn’t escape his fate, I couldn’t escape mine. I took a workshop here and there and, though teachers praised my “surfaces,” nothing felt “right” until I had the good fortune to sign up for a workshop with Joan Cusack Handler. It was years before she started CavanKerry Press. In the beginning I believed she hated my poems because every week she’d compliment my craft but add, “hide less, go further, get out of your head.” At the time I didn’t realize she was giving me an incredible gift—the gift of writing my poems, not anyone else’s.
Your poems are so sad, so funny, and so very true. And you surprise me again and again, as in the poem, “About Time through Time, Part 7,” when you talk about wanting to show your therapist what a good client you are. I can relate! But I never would have called myself on it. And the poem about folding fitted sheets. But really, how does anyone fold fitted sheets? Maybe you can post that poem here?
Isn’t it funny how sometimes what feels like one’s private shameful flaw turns out to be quite common and far from shameful? Whenever I read this poem at a reading both women and men come up to tell me that they also cannot fold fitted sheets! Take that Martha Stewart!
At the age of fifty-six, I don’t know how to fold a fitted sheet. Even worse, I feel folding fitted sheets into small neat rectangles that fit on shelves in an orderly fashion is beyond my abilities. I am not kidding. Every week when the sheets come out of the dryer I start folding with optimism—this time I will surely figure it out—and end with rumpled messes, which spill onto the floor when anyone opens the closet door. Every week my belief becomes stronger: I am broken in some fundamental way and thus incapable of learning how to fold a fitted sheet. I trust my ability to understand complex scientific theories such as dark matter or to fix an outage affecting telephone lines or to travel alone in a foreign country but not my competency with easily-mastered-by-everyone-else-in-the-universe tasks such as applying makeup, buying shoes, blow-drying my hair, managing money, cooking simple meals, housekeeping, or tending a flower garden. It has been this way my whole life. I get by because you can get by with wrinkled sheets in disorderly closets by pretending you’re above worrying about such nonsense but, truth be told, week after week I’m in the basement trying to figure it out.
You write about panic attacks and accidents, almost as if there is a meta-Teresa who watches you go through them. And with absolute clarity. I know it’s a lame question, but I have to ask: How do you do that?
I’m not sure how I do it. From a very young age, one of my primary survival techniques was to watch closely every one in the room because the slightest change could signal great danger. And in order to avoid setting off any one else, I had to watch myself. So I became quite skilled in a mind-trick called “splitting”; one side acts, the other watches. In the panic attack and accident poems I wanted to recreate this experience for the reader.
I think my favorite poems in the book are your poems about Jack Wiler. I love that method you use of reversing time, writing from two days before an event up to two minutes before the event. It’s so effective. I was wondering if you could say a few words about Jack, and maybe post a poem about him.
Two summers ago, at Frost Place, I heard Luray Gross, a NJ poet, read a poem that used the reversal of time. as its overarching structure. When I was struggling to find a way to write about Jack’s death, I remembered her poem and adapted the method to my purposes. (By the way: Thank you Luray!)
As a person and as a poet Jack was a force of nature. His poems grab you by the lapels from the first syllable then take you from Toledo to Tampa to Walla Walla before he lets go after the final period. His advice, in regards to writing poetry and to living life, centered on “pay attention.” Jack haunts My Crooked House. I hope that I did him proud.
for Jack Wiler
Three days before, we give a reading at the Main Street Museum in White River Junction. As always you blow off the roof with your performance. You also do a great job reading the Talker role in one of my sideshow poems. The audience loves you. Afterwards our host takes us to dinner at a fancy place, not a chain or a dive. She tells us to order whatever we want from the menu and whatever we want from the bar. We drink glass after glass of a good merlot; eat scallops and filet mignon; laugh at everyone’s stories about the poetry world. At one point you, a satisfied calm on your face, turn to me and say, “This is the first time I really feel like I’m being treated with respect as a poet.”
Two days before, we eat breakfast at the Polka Dot Diner and you ask if I really told you that We Monsters wasn’t the right title for your next collection or if you dreamed the conversation. When I answer that you dreamed it, you tell me that you’re thinking of changing the title but don’t know to what. We drive from Vermont to New Jersey in a terrible storm. You’re in the back seat. You complain about a chill. At various times during the trip I hear mumbling and turn to see if you’re talking to John or me. I’m a little worried because you seem to be pleading in a childlike way with an invisible person. When we drop you off, I give you a hug and say, “I love reading with you.” You agree.
Thirty hours before, I send that new poem for your comment but you don’t answer.
Fifteen minutes before, I’m walking towards the car because John and I are going to Tuesday night yoga when he comes out of the garage, his eyes full of shock, and says, “Johanna just called. Jack’s gone.” Gone where? Oh no, did they have another big fight and Jack walked out? Gone where? And John looks at me and keeps saying, “He’s gone.”
One minute before, I’m walking down the hallway to your bedroom and telling the cops standing outside the door that we’re close friends and I haven’t yet stepped into the room, haven’t yet seen your body, covered with a sheet, on the floor, haven’t yet seen your face.
And then there’s only before.
I imagine, while reading these poems, that they flowed out of you as naturally as water from a faucet. Is that true? What is the biggest challenge for you as a writer?
Oh god, no. I negotiated at length with each and every poem—e.g. What form do you want to be? What metrical pattern? What word here? What word there? What is your story and how should I tell it? (To tell the truth, sometimes it was more of a battle than a negotiation.)
My biggest challenge? Did you ever make popcorn in a hot air popper? First the heat rises but no kernels pop then there’s a stray pop here and there then, all of a sudden, the finale to a Fourth of July fireworks explodes in the popper then silence. My biggest challenge is to avoid panicking during the “no kernels pop” and “silence” times.
How does a poem begin for you? What is your writing process like?
A subject catches my attention. A second subject catches my attention. A third. A fourth. Etcetera. The connections between the subjects are a mystery to me at this stage. I throw myself into an intense research period during which I circle and circle those subjects. This is my lost in the dark woods stage. A line, or a few lines, of a poem pop into my head. (See my answer to the previous question for the whole kernel popping metaphor.) Bit by bit, the poems lead me out of the dark woods and into the landscape of the project. From that moment until the project ends, I’m moving in that landscape day and night.
Who are your primary literary influences?
Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, and Emerson. In the past few years I’ve become obsessed with epics so Homer, Virgil and Dante have played a larger part in my poetry life.
I’d love to close with a poem of your choice.
Thank you, Nin for your thoughtful and attentive questions.
Since My Crooked House is essentially a long love poem to my husband John, I choose:
What I Was Waiting For
John says, before he falls asleep each night,
without a hint of dark, “I love you, Tree.”
Some nights, awake enough, I add my part,
“And I love you, the sun, the moon, the stars.”
Yet even when I’m too far gone to speak,
to hear, and words get missed, his love, his love, abides.
This book, The Bar of the Flattened Heart, is like a perfectly spiced wine with its mix of sorrow, magic, heartache, bitterness, and a dash of humor thrown in to lighten the experience. I don’t think there’s a poem in it that I don’t like, but I particularly admire the opening poem and the poem, “Making Up a New Bed.”
In “Making Up a New Bed,” I love the lines: “At the end of the evening,/ we are, each of us, the heroes/ of our own adventures,/revising the stories to make a happy ending.” I wanted to start the interview with that poem.
Making Up a New Bed
I went back to pick up the last
of the books shoved in a closet.
Emptied of old clothes and arguments
the place seemed different.
I avoided passing the bedroom
with its thousands of stories,
an entire Arabian Nights
I could not bear someone else hearing.
By the telephone I found a note
she’d left herself on an envelope:
Only a rat would run out on you
when you need him.
It wasn’t how I’d tell the story.
Now, clumsily, I will begin to take back my
name, and she hers, not quite sure
whom they mean. No one will telephone,
and begin with “it’s me.”
At the end of the evening,
we are, each of us, the heroes
of our own adventures,
revising the stories to make a happy ending.
With material this thin, who
but a rat would take on such work?
I so admire your subtle wit—it’s almost like an observational wit at times. In the poem “Silences” for example, you write: “He wondered if she really wanted to kiss him; it could have/ been just habit, that perfunctory kiss grownups practiced,/ nothing more than hello.” Do you use humor consciously in your poems? Or is it just in your nature—a way of seeing the world?
I don’t use humor, or maybe I should say, I don’t try to use it. But if it shows up, I don’t cut it out, either. It’s probably just engrained in me. I like your term “observational wit.”
Certainly, it keeps off anger or hurt, the humor, even if it’s not always intended to. Sometimes I’m not even aware that lines in the poems are funny until someone points this out. Then, of course, I’m inclined to go with them.
I also love the poem, “Taking on the Past,” for its wit and honesty. In the poem, a telephone rings, and you keep writing, philosophizing, and not answering, only to end with: “Oh, go ahead, see what the phone wants.”
I remember overhearing someone saying that telephone calls are almost always about the past, though they pretend to be about the future. That seemed an interesting statement, so I just stretched it out a bit.
Could you tell me a little bit about your life as a poet? Your sources of inspiration? Other interests and occupations?
I used to say I’d grown up in the theaters and orchestra pits of Boston, which is only partly true. I did not teach in a college writing program. I worked in a nursery school and as an editor, in that way I had the space I needed to develop myself as a writer. It took a long time. For the last sixteen years I worked as a house carpenter, which was lovely– no committees, no papers to grade, etc.
Could you talk a little bit about the evolution of The Bar of the Flattened Heart?
I don’t know if it evolved. I tend to write poems over a long period of time without any sense of how they will fit together, trusting that whatever interests me is connected just by being in my mind. Then, I get someone like Baron Wormser to see what kind of organization it will take on. I seem unable to do that by myself.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a poet?
Not to get pretentious, but that’s what every writer has to face. How to keep Making It New, as Ezra Pound warned us. How not to get bland. I always have poets like the late Jack Wiler in the back of my mind, pushing me to make it more nasty, if you will.
Who are your primary literary influences?
I always hoped it would be James Merrill, when I was his student in Madison, but that would have killed me, he was so elegant and sophisticated. so I turned helplessly to John Berryman and people like that as models. Later on, Bill Matthews, certainly, and Alicia Ostriker, as well as non-poets–Krazy Kat, Damon Runyon, those sorts. I love the way they speak.
Are you working on a new manuscript yet? And if so, does it have a theme?
I’m kind of just fiddling around, as usual, hoping something will come my way.
People often ask me the question, “What inspired you to become a poet?” I have never had a good answer to the question, so I thought I’d ask you.
One year, I took a poetry course at Iowa State University, not Iowa City where I grew up, in order to write better term papers. I fell in love with poetry instead. Ted Kooser was in some of my classes. He grew up in my hometown, a couple of years ahead of me. I had to promise myself not to quit until age 30, when I started to be serious about it and the rest is history.
I’d love to close with a poem from The Bar of the Flattened Heart.
The Way of My Education
Hat in the air’s one way to say it,
or, thinking like dancing.
The man with the hat in the Magritte
has no head. It floats above him,
above what he knows of the world.
Here inside the window
flowers shift and shimmer like sounds.
How long is a year
or a 45-foot anaconda? One could measure
but not know. Or is it
to understand without measuring?
The second time you see the painting,
it’s still amusing, but like a concept. There. Now
who wants a story? Thank you.
Every time my parents asked me
to do something with my mind,
I responded with my hands.
I’m sorry the world shrinks.
I can walk upon the surface
of a piece of paper, leaving
sparks that look like stars and more stars.
It is not “monkey business” when you think
of the experiment where the two men
measured the speed of light
using a surface the size of a ping-pong table.
May pearls come before spring swine,
er, I mean the sunshine. Oh let’s all go down
to the Homer Spit
and spit in the cold, geometric water.
Michael Miller has two poems in the forthcoming special The Literature and War issue of The Sewanee Review
Nin Andrews has three poems in Anthem
Celia Bland and artist Dianne Kornberg: Madonna Comix, a collaboration of poetry and image
On exhibit at Lesley Heller Workspace, 54 Orchard St., NYC
June 11-July 12
For more info visit lesleyheller.com
Teresa Carson, Dawn Potter, and January Gill O’Neil, Bryant Park Word for Word Reading Series (between 40th and 42nd Streets & Fifth and Sixth Avenues, New York)
Thursday, June 12th at 12:30 p.m.
Word for Word Lunch Poems welcomes CavanKerry Press
For more info visit Bryant Park
Kevin Carey, Paterson Falls Film Festival (Fabian 8 Cinema, 301 Main Street, Paterson, NJ)
Saturday, June 14th at 11:22am
A film screening of Kevin’s fim “All That Lies Between Us.” The story of New Jersey poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan.
For more info visit Paterson Film Festival
Dawn Potter has been nominated for Pushcart Prize for her poem “The Testimony of Various Witnesses”
Wanda Praisner has received two more Pushcart Prize nominations and received an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Poets Prize
There is so much to love about this book (Spooky Action at a Distance). I particularly loved the title poem and “Postcards.” I don’t usually think of divorce poems as beautiful, but yours are. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the evolution of this book and/or of those poems.
First of all, thank you. My first book with CavanKerry, A Day This Lit, sort of balanced on the question, at least to my mind, if art and the imagination could be a solution, a satisfying and palpable solution, to isolation. And I think that this book comes from the recognition that it cannot, that the only thing that solves isolation is connection, human connection. A year after A Day This Lit came out was 9/11. I worked on the 105th floor of the South tower and I lost some people very close to me. While I was not there that day, much dissolved in my life, my long marriage, for one, and I came to realize the utter necessity of finding connection. If the divorce poems work at all, it is because confusion is as much a residue as pain, loss, anger, all the usual suspects, and I tried to imagine the many forms that the confusion can take.
In your poem, “#9, Again,” you wrote:
I write poems because life flopped, flops
and always will. It has vast empty spaces,
monumental plazas between limitless particulars
where we hope to discover, but never do,
harmony or justice, order
(all those place names for love)
and art believes it can fill those spaces with what
we have a surfeit of—yearning . . .
Does that sum up your feelings about why we write poems?
Yes and no. I think we can all imagine a better world, a world we want to live in, and so those of us lucky enough to feel and be creative, desire to make that world. So poetry can be an implicit criticism of life, but it is also an upwelling, a birdsong, an announcement of presence and another example of the shining of life just shining through.
In “The Back Channels,” you begin:
I love the scene that cannot be seen,
the dialogue that cannot be heard,
the dialogue always denied
and admitted only because it succeeded
or is published in some memoir.
I love that opening. I was wondering if you talk a little bit about that poem.
When one decides that he or she wants to change one’s life, there is a lot of negotiation that has to go on. The outside negotiations are relatively easy, it is the negotiations with oneself that are brutal. And those negotiations are always in secret; while you can sometimes tell your friends data, it is extremely difficult to tell them structure, how the various parts of the self are reacting to the change. So I was reading some article about something in the Middle East and the back channels of communication that have to go on and yet have to be denied and I thought how powerful back channels are in the world and in the architecture of the self.
Another poem I admire is “Three Wishes in Worcester, Mass.” I think this could have been written about many American cities including Youngstown, Ohio. Did you actually think of a Chinese poem when looking at Worcester, as the poem suggests?
I went to college in Worcester and, about 6 or 7 years ago, I gave a reading there in the evening. As I was driving out on a coal black night, I went through a particularly barren and burnt-out section. I had graduated from college about 40 years ago and I think I was feeling loss for all the years that were gone and the loss seemed to be embodied in that section of Worcester. And as I felt it, I also wanted it to go away a second later, that is, I wanted it to be evanescent. And one or two thoughts later, the briefness of Chinese and Japanese poetry came to me and the poem was off and running. Surprisingly, I did not miss the entrance to the Interstate that I was searching for.
I read in your bio that you have worked in museums. How have other art forms influenced your poetry?
Yes, I taught perception in museums in New York City and New York State, that is, how to see line, color, shape, all the visual elements in painting and sculpture, so I think I have been better trained than most in seeing what is in front of me rather than naming what is in front of me. So I would hope that the imagery in my work feels really seen to the reader, that I am not sloppy in my metaphors and similes. Interestingly, in my first book, music plays a vital role in the poems, especially Mozart.
Tell me a little bit about how your writing process? How you compose a poem? How you order a book of poems?
That is hard because I don’t really have one. I usually begin writing by reading poetry, I find I need that to begin to shift how I am thinking about language. And some days, a line or a series of lines will come to me. I write them down, and in writing them, I seem to see whether or not they have any real life to them. Mostly, they don’t, but if they do, I just keep going. I try not to censor anything until I have maybe half a page and then I start to see if I can make a poem. Most of the early stuff goes and new directions start to sprout. It takes, normally, for a rather short poem, about 3 or 4 months for me to have something that might survive.
How I order a book of poems? I ask friends, because I have almost no idea. For this book, my friend Baron Wormser helped me immeasurably.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a poet? What do you love and hate the most about being a poet?
The biggest challenge is silence, the willingness of the self, myself, to hide in the tundra. What I love and hate most is the same thing – the unbelievably hard work of doing this. I am jealous of friends that are painters and dancers, whose work makes them move. I sit in front of the white paper or the white screen of the computer (when revising), I sit in absolute silence since I am concentrating so much on the music of the line, and I try to pull stuff out of me. That is hard and hateful, but when I do get something, particularly an image that is utterly new, I am so at the top of the world.
What inspires you? Who are your primary literary influences?
I think, as you can tell from a number of poems with that location, I am really inspired by the beach. There is nothing that does not awe me at the beach and I think the beach puts me in touch with the forces in me that want to enlarge, that want to exult in the gift of life and particularly the gift of consciousness.
As a public school child in the 1950’s, my introductions to poetry were 19th century poems and I hated poetry. I couldn’t understand the grammatical inversions and felt that it had nothing to say to me. But when, in college, I got to read William Carlos Williams and then Frank O’Hara, poets who wanted to write as we spoke, I thought that poetry might become important to me. I don’t know that I have particular influences. I think there is nothing radical in my style and many American poets of the 50s that began to work out the poetics of the every day are my progenitors.
What is your writing process like? Do you have rituals? Are there certain times of day that you write?
Nope, no rituals. When I am really caught in a poem, I work on it almost continuously. On the subway on the way to work is one of my favorite times. I think the rhythm of the train helps me and you are never more in your own box when you are on a crowded subway.
I’d love to close with a poem of your choice.
One of the poems I most enjoy in the book is “The Steam of Tea” because I feel that I found myself in a bit of a corner through the opening and into the middle of the poem and worked very hard to find the real poem that was inside.
The Steam of Tea
a pot of tea
that usual restaurant white ceramic
with the single restrained dark green equator
in the spread yellow sunlight
of the February morning
centers the table with its heat
as she remembers and tells him
of her father, a pilot,
taking her at twelve to Paris
how up on the Trocadero
in the plaza of the Musee De L’Homme
looking down on the Eiffel Tower
he suddenly took her wrists
twirled her so fast
that she became a straight line out
and she learned
what he wanted her to learn:
her complete freedom in the air
and how that brought her
to a sumptuous freedom on the ground.
Across the table, he listens to her
and looks behind her
out the window at the rusted
railroad bridge over the river
that drains, just here, into the bay.
This is the ramshackle part of town
old pilings, dilapidated docks,
the broken hulk of a ferry
that gives weight
to his falling in love in February.
Wanda S. Praisner, West Caldwell Library (30 Clinton Rd. WestCaldwell, NJ)
Saturday, March 22nd at 1 PM
Wanda will be reading as part of Girl Talk: A reading in Celebration of Women’s History Month
Visit www.dianelockward.com for more info
Nin Andrews collaborative chapbook is now downloadable from iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-circus-of-lost-dreams/id623295035?mt=11&uo=4
NIN ANDREWS (NA): I would love to hear you say a few words about the evolution of Same Old Story. How it began, how it developed, and maybe how it earned its title . . .
DAWN POTTER (DP): As a collection, Same Old Story came together by accident. I knew I’d been writing a lot and had accumulated a stack of poems, but I didn’t have any sense that that I was working toward a cohesive collection. And then one day, out of the blue, I realized that I’d spent the past couple of years obsessively reworking the idea of story: story as narrative, story as history, story as form, story as homage, story as repetitive error, story as the life we’re stuck with. It was such a shock to suddenly recognize, “Aha! So this is what I’ve been doing.” But as soon as I saw that theme, I immediately knew how to arrange the book. There was none of that “spread the poems up and down the driveway and beg the wind to blow them into the right order” sense of panic. I can’t say I missed that part of the process.
NA: You live in Harmony, Maine? I keep imagining being able to say, I live in Harmony. Did you grow up in Maine?
DP: Living in Harmony has its ironies, one of which is the name Harmony. I did not grow up in the town but moved here when I was in my late twenties, right before I got pregnant with my older son. So basically this town is where I learned how to be an adult, and it’s also where I learned how to be a writer. Harmony is not a particularly beautiful place. In many ways it encapsulates all the stereotypes of rural degradation. Extreme poverty, unemployment, cultural isolation, domestic violence, opiate addiction, Fox News politics, fundamentalist Christianity: they are all here, and in full evidence. Nonetheless, the place has served as a muse of sorts—a way in which to define solitude, to define community. To say my relationship with the town is ambiguous is to state the case mildly. But then again, ambiguity is the stuff of poetry.
NA: I love the New England feel of so many of the poems. It’s almost as if Maine becomes a character in some of them. I was hoping you might talk a little bit about the role that geography plays in your work.
DP: I think I spoke to some of this in my response to your previous question. But, yes, the place is more than a muse. It has become a character in my writing, as it has for a long line of New England poets. Frost, Dickinson, Carruth—all of them felt a drive to isolate themselves even as they opened themselves to the complications of their physical world as it interacted with their morality and their imagination. Relying on this relationship is a strange ascetic impulse, certainly not one I purposely sought. But it’s there. My landscape and its weather are harsh, but they also require my close attention. I can’t forget they exist. On a ten-below-zero morning, when I have to go outside and haul firewood, my life literally depends on how I choose to interact with my environment. In many ways, the epic, mythic, tedious, everyday reality of this place has become the imaginative geography that lies beneath most of what I write, even pieces that don’t specifically concern Maine.
NA: At the end of “Ugly Town,” you write, “That’s the point to remember about writing./ It doesn’t solve anything.” Do you believe that?
DP: On some days I believe it profoundly. I wrote that poem in the aftermath of a terrible local murder. Three people were killed—the daughter and grandchildren of one of my dearest friends. Her son-in-law was the murderer. My children had gone to day care with those children. It was a horrible time, not least because it forced me to see that my friend’s goodness had no power over her son-in-law’s wickedness. At the same, I recognized that the words I was writing about the murder were equivalently powerless to turn back the larger torrent of violence and ignorance that had fueled this particular vengeful act. Art can record and observe. It can hope, and it can suggest alternatives. But it can’t turn back evil.
NA: I also love your retelling of myth and fairy tales in poems like “Driving Lessons” and “The White Bear.” What inspired these poems?
DP: Even though I’m pushing fifty now, I can still fall headlong into a fairy tale, just as I did when I was eight. I love the way in which these stories so bluntly integrate everyday life—say, carrying water or making soup—with magical impossibility—say, turning into a toad or finding a pair of seven-league boots. These narratives don’t mirror the workings of a short-story plot. Yet even though they have predictable arcs and endings, they often reveal angles of moral puzzlement or emotional clarity. In other words, the narratives are both idiosyncratic and formalized.
“Driving Lessons” and “The Chariot” (the book’s prologue and epilogue) came out of my quest to figure out how the narrative of a well-told myth really worked. I sat down with Rolfe Humphries’s translation of Ovid’s “The Story of Phaeton,” and line by line I rewrote the myth, using my own words but exactly following Ovid’s narrative pacing. The exercise was enormously instructive in helping me understand just how much these archetypal stories depend on patience and compression, but it also showed me that character development is key to making an old story new again. In the “The White Bear” I tried to put those discoveries to use when I reworked the old Scandinavian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” into a poem about the difficulties of marriage.
NA: You sing and play the fiddle, too. Do you ever set your poems to music?
DP: I never write songs, which is a huge mystery to all the guys in my band. And even though I do sing, I’ve never really thought of myself as a singer. My deepest relationship to music is wordless. It is a muscle-memory action; an emotional resonance; a rhythm and a cadence. I learned to play the violin when I was six, the same year I learned to read. My small-child brain soaked up both languages quickly and very intensely, and in a lot of ways that initial childish approach has never changed. I still gobble books with the same unscholarly passion I did as a child. And when I play the violin, I still retain a sense of trance: my body is doing something complex, something outside itself, but I don’t clearly comprehend how I am able to do it. Nonetheless, I do believe that the music and the writing are linked. I write by ear: that is, I hear a cadence in a line or a sentence and find a word to fit the cadence. This is true no matter what I am writing: a sonnet, a free-verse poem, an essay, a Facebook status, a letter to my kid’s teacher. Always, the sound comes first.
NA: What is the biggest challenge for you as a writer?
DP: I’m not sure how to answer this question, partly because the challenge is constantly changing. When I first began to write poems, I had to learn how to “use my stuff” (as my teacher, Baron Wormser, would tell me) while also learning how to frame it as drama and invention—in other words, how to take something from inside myself and give it exterior shape. At the moment, however, I’m working on the opposite challenge. How can I take someone else’s story—a historical voice, for instance—and use my own inner workings to give it artistic shape? The challenge is to keep the immediacy of the poem, to be not only the poet but also the actor, the subject, and the form. It is very difficult, but very absorbing.
NA: How does Same Old Story differ from your previous books?
DP: I hope the writing is better. But that’s what I’m always hoping: that all my life I will continue to get better at using words to contain the invisibilities of poetry. I want the words to be the glass bottle around the djinn, not a distraction or an advertisement. Of course djinns assume an infinite number of forms, so the bottles, too, must be infinitely variable. It seems that I’m back to talking about challenges.
NA: What inspires you? What are your interests, hobbies, passions—outside of poetry and writing?
DP: I like to listen to baseball on the radio. I like to snowshoe and go for long walks and hang around with my sons and beat my husband at cards and complain about the cat. Music we’ve already talked about. I spent twenty years raising livestock—chickens, goats, pigs—but I’ve reduced my animal collection down to two very distracting house pets. I have a fairly large garden, though I’m quite haphazard and unscientific about it. Cooking is a big interest. I bake all of our bread; I do a lot of canning in the summer. I get considerable happiness from making a beautiful meal.
NA: You teach poetry to children and adults. And you also have a book on writing poetry, The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet. What advice do you give to young and aspiring poets today?
DP: I’m a big proponent of what I’ve taken to calling the reading-conversation-writing cycle. As I say in the introduction to The Conversation, “to be a writer, one must be a questing reader, forever seeking closer intimacy with the art; and talking about its details, whether in actual conversation or merely to oneself, can lead a reader down unexpected imaginative paths. The three actions are entwined: one leads to the other, leads to the other, leads to the other.” For an analogy, think about a songwriter. Music is part of her daily life, and she absorbs it, both consciously and unconsciously. One song makes her think of another. Sometimes she studies a song purposefully; sometimes she is struck speechless by an unexpected chord. Reading and writing poetry thrive on this kind of internal conversation too.
NA: How does a poem begin for you?
DP: The moment of creation varies. Sometimes I write in a frenzy of longing and neediness. At other times the process feels almost clinical. Always, as I mentioned, I begin by hearing a wordless cadence. My job is to match words to that cadence.
NA: Who are your primary literary influences?
DP: Oddly enough, I am deeply influenced by prose: the great nineteenth-century novelists such as Dickens and Tolstoy but also modernists such as Woolf and Bowen. Among poets, I gravitate toward the old: Shakespeare, of course; Milton and Coleridge. I am a woman who likes to talk to old men. I claim this as version of feminism, though I sometimes get flak for it.
NA: What is your writing process like?
DP: Chanting noun-adjective combinations under my breath. Wandering around the house looking out the windows at nothing in particular. Driving past my turnoff and/or letting the kettle boil dry. Constantly changing stanza breaks: from three-line stanzas to five-line stanzas back to three-line stanzas up to seven-line stanzas, etc. Chanting prepositional phrases under my breath. Etcetera.
NA: I’d love to close with a poem of your choice.
DP: How about this sonnet, “Astrolabe”? It seems to exemplify a number of the story permutations that arise in the collection.
Like a flour smudge on an old blue apron,
A lunchtime moon thumbprints the sun-plowed,
Snow-scrabbled heavens of Harmony, Maine.
Last night three cops shot Danny McDowell
On South Road, down by the shack you and I rented
That hard winter when the northern lights glowed
And the washing machine froze and I got pregnant.
I built a five-inch snowboy for our half-inch embryo.
You took a picture of it cradled in my mittens.
But today, too late, too late, I see I forgot to worry
About this moon, this ominous rock waxing half-bitten
Over our clueless sentimental history.
Picture it falling. A white egg, neat and slow.
It doubles. Redoubles. Till all we see is shadow.
Jack Ridl, Hope College (Holland, MI)
Thursday, January 30th at 9:30am
Jack will have a Q & A with class that is reading Losing Season
Visit Hope College for more info
Jack Ridl, Saugatuck Center for the Arts (Saugatuck, MI)
Saturday, February 1st, 9am-4pm
Jack will be hosting a workshop with daughter, artist Meridith Ridl
From Saugatuck Center from the Arts:
We are honored to welcome Jack Ridl back to the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, Admired and celebrated for his writings and warm spirit, this time he will be teaching at the SCA in the company of his talented daughter Meridith. Together they will spend a Saturday offering an exclusive visual journal workshop experience, bound to inspire and infuse all who attend with contagious JOY.
Andrea Carter Brown has been elected to serve a two year term beginning in January 2014 as Chair of the VCCA Fellows Council. Previously, she edited, with Margaret B. Ingraham, the poetry anthology Entering the Real World: VCCA Poets on Mt. San Angelo.
Adriana Paramo’s essay “Praying Alone in Qatar” is featured in the December issue of The Sun Magazine.
Nin Andrews was mentioned in Denise Duhamel’s article in the Huffington Post
I love this book (My Mother’s Funeral)! It reads like a novel, and it is a beautiful celebration of you mother’s life. What an amazing woman your mother was! I have a feeling you could spend a lifetime writing about her, that there are many more stories to tell.
Thank you Nin. This book is not just about my mother; it is also about the mothers of all those women of my generation who grew up fatherless and poor. This is a story about women who made it alive to the other side, against all odds, simply because they had, not only each other, but also an ironfisted mother like mine.
Yes, my mother was an amazing woman. But so are the single mothers of other women. There are single mothers all over the world who, despite being illiterate, poor, and full of flaws, manage to raise healthy, productive, and strong women.
It is my hope that the book is not only a celebration of one woman’s life, but that it rather serves as an extrapolation tool to celebrate single mothers across borders.
This book is so magical. It’s almost as if there is a halo around the book. Did you feel that magic when you were writing it?
I’m not sure if I’d choose “magical” to describe My Mother’s Funeral. The book is as real, raw, and grounded as a nonfiction book can be. I steered clear of magical realism, magical potions and magical anything, because I didn’t want the book to fall into the stereotypical Latin-American literature. However, there are parts that have a dream-like feel to them, such as the sections dealing with my parents’ turbulent relationship, my mother’s confession by the river in Alaska, and the climactic moment of my mother’s death with the rich imagery which accompanied her demise.
Did you feel your mother’s presence when you were writing this book? Did you wonder what she would have thought of your stories about her?
My mother was a very private person. I’m sure it would have taken a lot of work (on my part) to convince her that the book is not her daughter spilling the beans about our family, but rather a tribute to her strength, determination, love, and self-sacrifice.
About feeling her presence: Yes, of course. At times it felt as though she was dictating the manuscript and I was simply writing it down on her behalf. My mother’s presence in my life is all pervasive; it’s so real, so tangible, so omnipresent, that even now, seven years after her passing, I have to remind myself that she is dead.
Your mother raised all six of her children with little more than her ingenuity and steely will to keep out of poverty. Even after reading it, I want to ask how she did it. Do you think of her as a kind of Super Woman?
Nin, single mothers are not any kind of Super Women. They are Super Women. The real deal. My mother could have given up. She was borderline illiterate, poor and lonely. But her love for her children and her moral responsibility towards them were a driving force; they propelled the six of us in no other direction than ahead. My sisters, who were a lot older than I was, became mom’s unforeseen team members. They had to drop out of high school to work, to support one another, to carry the baby girl, me, on their shoulders.
Your mother was, it seems, a hopeless romantic when it came to your father, despite the way he treated her. She talked about his love letter forever. Could you quote that letter here?
Oh, the letter. We heard mom recite this little line so many times throughout the years that all of us know it by heart: Cuando usted me mira, me siento transportado al cielo de Mahoma enardecido levemente en ópalo y topacio. Whenever you look at me, I feel transported to Mohammed’s heaven, lightly engulfed by opal and topaz.
You talked about how your mother and father met, courted, married, and made love, as if you were there. You allowed your mind to go into their past so naturally and easily. Was that difficult to do? Did you mother describe your father in his early years in vivid detail?
It is difficult to reconstruct something you haven’t witnessed. Yet, my mother told me all about the courtship and the marriage with its few ups and the countless downs. By virtue of my being the youngest in the family I spent a lot of time alone with mom while my sisters were either at school or at work. We had a lot of “alone” time which she used to teach me life lessons—men want one thing and only one thing from women, a woman doesn’t need a man to be happy, men eat a lot that’s why they should be served more food at the table, men don’t give presents to women unless they want something in return—and to talk about the past. Her past. The things I didn’t witness but which she wanted me to know.
I can’t believe your sister dug up a skeleton and boiled it so that she could get an A in science class. She really did that?
Absolutely. Yes. Not only one but two skeletons. When I say that our education was the most precious gift my mother wanted to give us, I really mean it. If my sister needed a skeleton for her anatomy class, my mother would’ve gone to any lengths, to help her put the thing together and see the A on her report card. The first skeleton dissolved in a home-made sludge of baking soda, so my mother authorized a second skeleton, which we kept in our home for a long time way after the science project had been finalized.
I loved the character, Blanca, who your mother said had pubic hair all over, and who took care of your mother until she started to show interest in men. I felt so sad when she and your mother parted ways. Forgive me for asking, but did Blanca ever find a man?
Did she ever find out the color of Napoleon’s white horse?
I shared a few years with Blanca before I left Colombia. She possessed a kind of innocence you only read about in cheap romance novels. She was easy to tease, easy to fool, easy to like, to love. There was nothing intricate about Blanca. She was/is a simple woman with a heart of gold. I don’t know if she ever found a man, although I hope she did. And no, something tells me she is still wondering what color Napoleon’s white horse was.
Did Catholicism play a role in your mother’s strength? And in her love and faithfulness to your father?
Yes. My mother believed that a marriage was an indissoluble covenant and as such, it was a binding and weighty obligation. My mother also believed that this covenant meant that a good Catholic woman’s body (not the man’s) belonged to her spouse for life. What my mother felt for my father was not just love. She felt the kind of blind devotion, I imagine, a spiritually hungry follower feels toward his guru. She worshipped him, re-invented herself to suit his whims, forgave him for his inability to love her back, and in the process loved him some more. My parents remained married throughout the years-long separations and when they died, they were still legally married to each other.
Were there parts of your mother’s life you didn’t want to write down on paper?
No. I can’t think of anything I did not want to write about her. If mom had secrets, I never knew about them. After she died, while my siblings and I emptied her apartment, I looked for secrets. I searched her drawers, the backs and the bottoms of boxes, underneath coasters and among her underwear. I wanted to find a secret. Anything mysterious, sordid, extraordinary. Nothing. I found nothing. My mother was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things, and I like to think that I wrote most of them.
Was it a healing to write this book?
There was nothing to heal. Her death is no longer a gushing wound; it is a scar. Rather than healing, what I found in writing the book, was a sense of reconciliation, of deep acceptance, and immense respect towards the woman who was my protector, my enemy, my tyrant, my ally, my friend, my everything.
What do your siblings think of your book?
Only one of my siblings speaks English. She has taken it upon herself to translate bits of the book so that my other siblings can be a part of it. Through my writing, I hope, I give them back our mother, with her euphemisms, her steely rules, her “angry food,” her sacrifices, and her boundless love for us, music, and my father.
I’d love to end with an excerpt from the text, a favorite paragraph or two?
Towards the end of the book, I imagine what went through mom’s mind as she took her last breath. I imagine:
That she began to snore in the “agonal respiration,” that ragged, gurgling patterns of breathing typical of those within minutes, sometimes hours, of their death. Mom’s chest bolted as if hit by lightning. The first bolt, like a violent hiccup, made her chest rise in the air; a few seconds later came a weaker strike, followed by something similar to a quiet belch. Then her lower jaw went south then east changing the geography of her face in quick succession. There was tension then pain then agony then silent resignation. My mother’s face rose and fell inside the perfect fit of the nurse’s arms.
That Mom felt something similar to drunkenness. Her head swelled and the crown relaxed and quivered, then melted into a blue sky. She was floating. Her thoughts went out like fireworks exploding onto each other, and in a flash of sparks, she found herself in the most beloved piece of soil in the world, Mariquita. And there, in that place that smelled of avocado and earth after rain, she was no longer my mother. She was Carmen. Just Carmen.
Women. Water. Blood. Carmen is by the river with her two sisters and her five girls. They bend their naked bodies over the rocks and wash their wombs and their hearts. Who has the bloodiest of all? One of them asks. Carmen! They shout in unison. And the women surround her with the intertwined arms of a needy vine while one of her girls carries out a song. Only this time, she halts the sweetness of her contralto voice at midsentence, and instead lets out a scream, more like an angry howl. The other women join in and so does Carmen who seems to be the angriest of all until they hear the voices of other women crossing, naked, the cordillera. By the time the sun had sunk its teeth into the horizon the water is thick and scarlet and there is not a single silent woman. Or one who isn’t angry. Or one with her womb and heart intact.
Earth. Love. Tears. Carmen wraps the letter in a plastic bag and puts it in a small wooden box. It’s a lacquered rectangular thing he gave her after telling her it was from China, but she knows it isn’t. She knows the box is a cheap knick knack he probably bought at a bar, either before or after passing out. On the day he leaves her for a younger, prettier woman, she takes the box out and sets it on the ground. It’s Wednesday and it’s beginning to rain. She walks inside and looks at the drops of rain bounce off the box, from the kitchen during the day, and from her bedroom at night. The weight of the life contained inside the box is beginning to bury it into the ground. On Sunday after church, she buys a hand trowel and with it she digs a hole at the center of the earth, places the box at the bottom and covers it with wet soil that smells of magnolias. She doesn’t tell anyone but whenever he looked at her, she felt transported to Mohammed’s heaven, lightly engulfed by opal and topaz.
I think that Mom’s memories began to faint. A vacuum sucked her upward with a violent jerk as if an invisible parachute had just opened above her head. Then everything was quiet, everything was white, everything stopped. She no longer gasped for air. Her face became unhinged at the jaws, a bead of foamy saliva formed in the corners of her mouth, her neck turned yellow like a withered daffodil, and her eyes closed with a slow flutter. It didn’t smell of sulfur and no marauding vultures bid her farewell. An unfathomable chasm of nothingness swallowed her whole.
Love. She is in his arms. She is safe. Every concavity of his dark body fits nicely into the corresponding convexities of hers. Perfection. There is a space on his chest where her face fits like the missing piece of a puzzle. She puts it there and hears the locking mechanism. Click. Perfect. His heart plays a tango, hers a bolero and they hum and dance to all the music in the world. Husband and wife, man and woman. He is fire; she is the earth. Whatever he destroys, she’ll replenish with opal and topaz. Gladly. Lovingly.
Nin Andrews, McDonough Museum, Youngstown State University,
Tuesday, October 22nd at 7:00pm
Nin will be reading selected new poems
For more info, visit WYSU.org
Joseph O. Legaspi , NYU Bookstore (726 Broadway, NYC)
Tuesday, October 22nd at 6:00pm
A Kundiman Poetry Reading with Joseph O. Legaspi and George Yamazawa
For more info, visit NYU
Wanda S. Praisner, Clarence Dillon Public Library (Rt. 206 & Lamington Rd., Bedminster)
Wednesday, October 23rd at 5:30pm
Wanda will be reading from Where the Dead Are
For more info, visit Clarence Dillon Public Library
Baron Wormser, Eastern Connecticut State University, Science 301 (83 Windham St, Willimantic, CT)
Wednesday, October 23rd at 3 pm
Baron will be giving The University Hour talk that will focus on his twenty-three years of living off the grid in rural Maine
For more info, visit Eastern Connecticut State University
Sarah Bracey White, Mahopac Public Library (668 Route Six, Mahopac, NY)
Thursday, October 24th at 7 pm
Sarah will be reading from Primary Lessons
For more info, visit CTCentral.com
Jack Ridl, BookBug Bookstore (Kalamazoo, MI)
Friday, October 25 at 7pm
Jack will be reading with Gail Martin and Susan Ramsey
For more info, visit BookBug
Andrea Carter Brown, The Claremont Forum Bookshop (586 W. First Street, Claremont, CA.)
Sunday, October 27th at 2pm
Andrea will be reading with Jessica Piazza
For more info, visit The Claremont Forum Bookshop
First of all, I just wanted to say how much I loved this book, Primary Lessons. I was completely hypnotized by this little girl-you, and especially by her insights into her color-coded world.
SARAH BRACEY WHITE
Thank you, Nin. I call that little girl my Sarah-child.
NA: Was it hard to get into the mind of yourself as a child? Or is she still very much with you?
SBW: I’ve nurtured my “five year old self” all my life. I liked who I was then — the love I felt and the freedom I experienced. I’ll always cherish that memory. I felt as if I were “channeling” my younger self while I was writing this book. A lot of my memories after returning to South Carolina in 1951 were frozen in the iceberg of my “separation trauma.” To write this memoir, I had to crack that ice for access. When trauma occurs, sometimes we develop amnesia as a way to move ahead without going mad. We don’t go back to explore that hidden pain and its cause until we’re strong enough to deal with it. In my sixties, I was finally able to go back to my early life and seek a resolution for things that were still affecting me. Cracking that ice was extremely painful.
NA: What year did you arrive in Sumter?
NA: So you would have been ten in 1957. Did integration have any effect on Sumter schools?
SBW: No, integration had no effect on me and my school after the Brown vs Board of Education ruling. Sumter’s schools were finally integrated in 1971 when integration laws were “complied with” by sending all girls to one school and all boys to another school. This protected the “flowers of southern womanhood” from African American boys.
NA: You bring back a southern childhood in that era so clearly with your details: the Olde English Furniture polish, Household Finance Company, your aunt and your mother’s arguments about which is better or more racist, the North or the South. Did you go back to South Carolina when you were writing this book?
SBW: My editor Baron Wormser made me add all those details. I thought they were too much. But he was right.
I stayed away from Sumter, SC from 1964 – after my father’s funeral – until 1986. Then, at age 40, I was overcome with the need to know more about my father’s family. I spent my vacation in Sumter visiting friends and researching my family tree. This book, however, is not about my family tree. That book is in the wings.
I now return to Sumter at least every two years to attend family reunions or my high school’s annual Legacykeeper’s Banquet.
NA: Do you have a southern accent?
SBW: I tried very hard to erase my southern accent. However, traces of it linger — evident mostly when I’m tired. . . when I talk to other southerners. . . or when I’m excited.
NA: You had such a fiery spirit, even at five years old when you arrived in Sumter. Do you credit your aunt for that inner strength? Or your father?
SBW: We’re each the product of the intersection of nature and nurture. I think my father must have had a fiery spirit because my mother certainly didn’t. And then, during my early years with Aunt Susie, I watched her speak up for herself and do the things that she thought were right. Children absorb what they “see,” rather than what adults “tell” them.
NA: Did you feel like you were your mother’s mother?
SBW: Yes, I always felt like I mothered my mother. Her mother died when she was seventeen and yes, she needed mothering. That was why I had such mixed emotions about her. She always told me to do as she said, not as she did. Because she had made so many irreparable mistakes. That’s why I wrote this book – to explore my mixed feelings about a woman who evidently loved me, though she did not display her affection. I discovered through writing this book that I loved her and was angry at her when she died — leaving me alone, after taking me away from Aunt Susie.
NA: In Sumter you start out as an outsider: an outsider to your sisters, your mother, the town, and the southern way of life. Did you retain this sense of being an outsider?
SBW: I’ve always been an observer – even as a child living in Philadelphia. Human beings fascinate me! I’m mesmerized by watching them and analyzing their behavior. I’ll always be the outsider. After I entered an interracial marriage, I became “the outsider” in another world.
NA: Your mother claimed that she took you back to Sumter so that you would “learn to protect yourself from mean-spirited white folks.” And your aunt thought Philadelphia was a much better environment for you. Who do you think was right?
SBW: I think my mother was right to take me back to Sumter, but for the wrong reasons. I needed the knowledge that I was not given away, that she too loved me. Had she not re-claimed me, as I grew up, I would have questioned why I was the one she gave away and I would have felt some sense of inadequacy. My education in South Carolina was a better, more rounded one than I could ever have received in Philadelphia. My mother’s friends were my first teachers and that personal tie made them push me to be my best. We become what people around us expect of us. It’s why my mother felt that “Colored” children were best educated in “Colored” schools.
NA: Your sisters missed a few days of school to pick cotton? Did you ever do that?
SBW: No, I never picked cotton. I’m still fascinated by cotton fields and their history for people of color. I have a romanticized feeling about cotton, without the memories of the backbreaking drudgery of having to pick it under the blazing sun.
NA: Your father is such a tragic story. An educated man, he dies working alongside migrant workers. It’s as if he dies a slave’s death, but I believe he inspired you. Do you think of him when you are writing or speaking in public?
SBW: Fathers influence their children by their presence in, or absence from, their lives. While I never knew my father, my mother never spoke harshly about him and I longed for his return — when I was a young child. After I researched his family tree, I grew to understand more about the circumstances of his life and the many tragedies he endured. People who knew him said my father was smart, very socially conscious, and a moving public speaker. He loved to teach, as did my mother. Jim Crow laws restrained him from expressing himself, or teaching. I vowed I’d never become a teacher, and yet I have. It’s in my genes. I’ve never been afraid to speak in public. I always think of my father when I am on stage. I stand on his shoulders and speak with the power of his memory.
NA: You decided as a young woman to choose a career over love and motherhood when you turned down Butch’s wedding proposal and when you decided that you would never have a child. You never deluded yourself with the idea that a woman could have it all?
SBW: When I was growing up, I never knew a woman who had it all. I learned early that life requires sacrifices. I was clear-eyed from childhood about what I wanted and that was to be master of my own life. Children and husbands always seemed to restrain women. I was 44 before I married and when I did, it was because I met a man who believed it was his purpose in life to make me happy. He pushed me to attain my dreams. He urged me to write “Primary Lessons” and is now urging me to get to work on completing the next book. I never had children, which has allowed me to nurture other people’s children — as did both my parents.
NA: I think your pen-pal is the only nice white person in the book. She is this disembodied voice who offers some thread of hope for better race relations. Did you ever meet her?
SBW: No, but I’ve tried to find her. In 2010, while I was an inaugural fellow at the Writing Center at SUNY Purchase, I worked on a YA novel about my relationship with my pen-pal Sharon Yarian. I searched the internet, wrote letters to newspapers in South Dakota, had several genealogists in SD search for her, but to no avail.
NA: What is a writing day like for you? Do you have a schedule? A ritual? A favorite reader or a writing group?
SBW: I’m most creative early in the morning. When I started writing fiction, I’d work from 7 – 11 am each day. My answering machine message used to say, “I’m sorry I can’t take your call, but the muses have me hard at work.” Then, when I began to explore my relationship with my mother (see next question), I realized that the morning hours didn’t work for that. I had a full time job, so I began to write from 8 – 11 pm when I was too tired to lie. Now, I garden in the mornings.
My husband Bob listened to the pieces about my mother and father as I wrote them. I shared them as revelations about my past – like diamonds plucked from a coal mine. I’ve also belonged to a writing group (the Westchester SIG) for more than 25 years (longer than I’ve been married). We meet monthly and share whatever we’re writing. When I began to share the stories about my life, they urged me to keep writing. You’ve struck gold, they told me.
NA: What inspired you to write your memoir? Was there a particular event or triggering thought or moment?
SBW: One June, in a casual phone conversation with my sister Williette, she mentioned that the day was Daddy’s birthday. That fact surprised me. I didn’t know my own father’s birthday! It suddenly dawned on me that I knew very little about my father. After the call ended, I began to write down all the things I remembered about my father. My first memory was of seeing him when I was 10 years old. I tucked away the few pages I scribbled. Then, decades later, my husband said to me one day, apropos of nothing — I thought, “You know your mother loved you.” He countered my argument that she didn’t with “tell me something nice your mother did for you.” For weeks after that, he repeated the question. I recalled many things. And began to think that maybe she did love me. The five-year-old inside me had been clinging to her pledge never to love her mean mother. After a while, I started writing about my relationship with my mother as a way to understand my long-held anger toward her. I’d been writing about her in fictional pieces for years. In every piece, my ambivalence toward her for taking me away from Aunt Susie showed up. I also couldn’t acknowledge my anger at her for dying and leaving me alone. The completion of Primary Lessons allowed me to sit back and say, my mother loved me and I loved her. Both of our lives were filled with circumstances beyond our control. She tried — as best she knew how — to love me, protect me and teach me to survive.
NA: When you were writing Primary Lessons, did you have an imaginary audience?
SBW: No. I never expected to have this book published. Writing it was a personal journey toward understanding myself.
On our family tree
my line ends abruptly.
Unable to seed the future,
I mine the past
into veins of familial misfortune
bear witness to stories,
behind sugar-starched, lace curtains.
My revelations inspire fear
in those who hide the truth
behind forced smiles.
Or seal their lips
with fermented libations.
They would have me write fiction,
cloak history in gossamer,
present images that
bear no resemblance
to those whose genes we share.
They whisper that I,
free of impressionable children,
have abandoned self-control
in favor of self-indulgence.
Perhaps they are right,
for I disdain high pedestals
that require vigilant balance.
Instead, I tread the fallow fields
and spread the stories
of lives lived when life
had to be raked from barren soil.
My written words
shall carry forward our history,
that it may be known
by the young who follow me.
Unlike those before us
who discovered truths
and tried to express them
in a time and place
where their voices could not rise
above a whisper,
this next generation will be armed
with knowledge of the past
And able to build a life
On the pedestals of truth.
I send this gift into the future
It will be my offering
from beyond the grave.
By Sarah Bracey White