Serena, I want to thank you for the opportunity to think more about what I do as a poet and why. I’ve been fortunate to have many poems published in 32 Poems and other really fine places. And, yes, I’ve won the Larry Neal Award for Poetry three times–-third place in 2001, second place in 2002, and first place in 2006. Awards can be a wonderful affirmation of one’s work, and I’ve been pleased that there are folks out there who like poems I’ve written. I wish there were more awards and more recognition for others who write at least as well if not better than and get less recognition.
I love teaching, especially teaching poetry. To work with students in small classes–-which I’ve been given the good fortune and opportunity to do–-is enormously rewarding. I’ve stayed in touch with many of my former students through the years–I get to experience the amazing transformation of students into friends, each time as interesting and unique as a poem
Opening up ways of reading, both understanding meaning and also the other forces at work in fine poems, is a real joy. I feel it enriches students’ lives, and teaching them certainly enriches mine. I can’t say which is most rewarding. They go together. I couldn’t teach what, nor the way, I do if I weren’t writing poems. The first excellent teachers and critics of literature in the U.S. were writers, they started this business and I’m pleased to be able to do in some measure what they did and envisioned for the future. Writing literature gives a teacher the capacity to teach poems from the inside, from the perspective of how they are made, how they are put together. It’s possible to teach poems as poems, as made, and verbal art, in a way not possible without knowing how to make them.
2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?
Being a “white page” poet, as Ed Hirsch put it at the Spoken Word finals in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, I prefer poems that are complexly textured, difficult to get on one read even on the page. I can’t help it! I admire the energy of spoken poetry, but I love the complex multi-faceted nature of certain kinds of poetry that has to be read and reread. What I really admire are poems that have both. I keep striving for that, even though I don’t know how far one can go in both directions.
I am startled and stimulated by poems that are written first for the access of listeners, and more and more appreciative of what those word-artists do. Their work has an immediate power, and a directness, that page poetry too often lacks. I think spoken word poetry brings readers into poetry who may then read other kinds. It is, in my experience working with students and homeless women, a conductor into the richly diverse field contemporary poetry is. I’m not a fan of performance poetry, only because I find movement distracting for me as a listener. It’s too much to attend to, and I want to go with the words, which is where my love is. But I wouldn’t want to dismiss performance poetry. The more kinds of poetry, the richer we are, I believe, as readers and as a culture. I wouldn’t want to dictate to anyone what they should like. As a teacher, I aim to open up awareness of many kinds of poetry, and hope that students gain insight into and strategies for reading even very difficult poems.
I do believe poetry can be an equalizer, yes, and can help people to travel through the world with greater understanding of themselves and each other. And therefore of each other. I don’t think this is the only function of art, but it is one very important one. When I teach poetry, I make sure to include writers for whom this is explicitly or implicitly a major thrust, writers such as Adrienne Rich, Robery Bly, Galway Kinnell, and of course Walt Whitman.
3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?
Obsessions? I haven’t tried to discover what obsessions I might have. I try to confine my obsessiveness to poetry, to getting every word, line, mark of punctuation perfect, which is a way of saying a poem’s done, finished, it looks and feels right to me. Poetry’s a good place for that, much better than in other areas of life! Eamon Grennan once said a particular long poem of mine was obsessive when he read it in draft. “Obsessiveness is good,” he said. He meant, in poetry, and that’s fine with me to have it if it makes for good art. As long as it enriches instead of dampening my life!
4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).
I learned to use writing groups in composition classes when I first started out as a teacher. I still value writing groups for the feedback on how different people, poets and not-poets, read the poems I’m working on. That’s all I need to know how what I’ve done is working, is being received. I can then decide whether I want , or need, to make changes, given what I was trying to do in a poem. I don’t like others rewriting words or phrases, as I’ve seen some groups do. And I was so strongly trained against doing that. I find it’s enough just to listen to what readers make of what I’ve written. Very often I don’t know what to make of poems that come out of my pencil and get themselves down on pages. Possibly I don’t like how-to books because they are of no help to me. I write what’s there is for me to write, and the form finds itself. I’ve read and taught poetry for so long that imagine I have a storehouse, you could say, to draw from, and that place inside that cooks up the poetry uses ingredients from wherever. Often I can’t tell the wherever, but sometimes I know whose poems have gotten into my mix. I actually bought Anne Lamont’s book three years ago while at a writer’s colony in Vermont, but I could read only a few pages. It wasn’t helpful to me, though it was recommended so highly by others, so I know some writers find Lamont’s, and other books helpful.
5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?
I don’t think poets have an obligation to do anything but write the poetry that is theirs to write. For me, I’ve found that trying to write for a specific kind of reader or write to be understood is deadly for the poems. That’s not at all the same thing as writing an inside-the-poem listener, or being aware that one has reader-listeners. But I don’t think an artist can change his work to be something it’s not. We seem to have in the mainstream U.S. not only a low value on poetry but little need for it. I suspect that comes from a satisfaction with life, a relative ease, or at least a mind of relative ease. There isn’t a sense among so many of our population for anything significant and deeply rich and valuable to struggle for.
Garrison Keillor is doing a lot to bring people into the habit of listening to poetry. I’m of the mind that what he does is a great service to poetry, but it is only a beginning, an easseful easing in to the pleasures of poetry. American artists at their best have traditionally been out to stimulate wonder and awe, to disturb, even shock. Some poetry will always be “elitist” and needs to be if poetry is to take in all of our collective life. Same for “inaccessible.” It would be a terrible loss if the poets writing difficult verse stopped writing it. Emily Dickinson was difficult, and now she is far less so. Same for so many poets–we learned to read them later, and they have changed poetry and enriched it immeasurably. Who can imagine what poetry in the U.S. would be without Whitman and Dickinson, without Eliot, Stevens, Moore, Lowell, Lorde, the early Bly, Rich and so on? Certainly the terrific and more “accessible” poetry by others would be very different than it is.
6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?
I don’t listen to music when I’m working with words (reading or writing or thinking). It distracts and I can’t focus. As a result, I’m appalling ignorant of current music. My husband John is a painter, and he listens to music and PBS stations all day every day in his studio while he paints. I often wish I’d been a painter instead so I could listen all day to other things while I work.
When I’m ready for poems I get a number 2 pencil out of my pencil vase and a pad of legal size paper, or else a pen and plain white paper, and sit down to write. I have preferred places–my desk, a particular chair, a porch, a lawn, the metro–but that’s about it. A cup of tea is sometimes nice. I know I have a way of “going to the place where poetry is” as I call it, but I can’t describe in words what it is that I do. It’s a moment and matter of taking a certain kind of attention.
7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?
Yes, Serena, I have to say that friendships have changed. I have so many more friends since focusing on writing poetry. I’ve met so many–so many–poets through writing and going to poetry readings and being in writing groups. There is a shared way of thinking among people who make art. Not they always agree, by any means! But they tend to think alike, in metaphors, images, movements, and so on. And in poetry most folks are so caring and supportive, and not just with respect to the art. I have many more friends, but less time to give because I need time to write. Often I have to choose between writing and seeing friends or talking on the phone or e-mailing. I tend to go in spurts of writing and spurts of seeing friends. I write intensely for periods of time, and then I don’t write if no poems are pressing. I’m not a poem-a-day writer. But when the poems are pouring I might get 12 or 15 drafts of new poems in a week.
8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?
Staying fit is, for me, a given. I have difficulty going more than a day without exercise. Living in downtown D.C., I walk a lot instead of driving, so the time I used to spend on commuting from the suburbs is now used in walking to and from places–the metro, my office, appointments, shopping. Then I do yoga several times a week, and try swim regularly if I can manage, which is every day in the summer.
If I have an appointment out by the Beltway, I’ll walk there and back on a weekend, to keep in shape for mountain hiking in the summer. People think it’s far, but 16 or 20 miles on level ground is easy compared to going up and down a mountain. I enjoy those hikes immensely. I grew up on a dairy farm, and getting that much exercise still feels right to me. Something feels terribly off in my body if I don’t get it. So I consider myself fortunate that I am made to exercise and don’t have to make myself do it. I love to feel the body moving. It’s one of the best parts of our life. It’s the best part of writing–-thinking to the regular rhythm of the moving feet and the breath.
9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?
I have way too many favorite foods to list! Food doesn’t inspire, as far as I’ve noticed. When I’m focused on writing, I may not even know how much time has passed, and can miss meals entirely.
I don’t think of having “writer’s block” because I don’t expect to be writing all the time. I always have more new poems coming or drafts to be revising—more than I ever have time to work on. My husband is the same way. He’s always working on several paintings at a time, in various stages of production, and never has any downtime, even though he paints every day, for much of each day. I wouldn’t know what to say to someone who might ask me what to do about it. William Stafford said “lower your standards.” Well, that is the same idea said another way, I imagine. At the moment I sit down to write, I don’t expect to write good poems, just poems. Then I’ll see if a good poem comes of it. Not all the drafts are good, but I have more potentially good poems than I can possibly find time to work on. Ask me again when I’m retired!
10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.
I don’t have an ideal writing space. I gather myself in with the paper and pen or pencil and write. That’s my writing space. It’s much more internal than external. I would love to have a separate room, but we live in loft space, so I’ve had to develop a way of shutting out the space around me and making my own place wherever I am.
11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?
Right now I’m working on poems about a week last month when my mother died. I’ve never written about experiences so close in time to their happening before, and I was surprised that I both felt pressured to and could actually write so soon. The experience was so intense, because I stayed with her during her last two days and nights. The sheer physicality stripped away from everything that normally occupies us, and the huge emotional range were so indescribable that I found I was too restless to sit still, or even think straight, afterward. Then one afternoon I decided to sit down and try to write poems about that week, and from that moment the restlessness ceased and hasn’t returned.
Before my mother died, I had been working on a series of poems about genocide, and then some poems that I still don’t know what they are about. Something inner, but expressed in a kind of half-surrealistic half-realistic imagery taken from nature. I grew up immersed in nature on the farm, so my mind naturally goes there. I’ve lived in cities for 20 years, but I’ve given up hoping I might write much urban poetry.
There is no going home
the vehicle stalls
in reverse gear
in mud tracks
as essential as
the flat fields, the blades
of shadowed pines over the drive,
the sun bleeding
from the west.
On the rise the house,
painted clapboard, the color of cream,
is rented now like bodies
of water and minerals made
living by some miracle
which is to say some process
we don’t understand.
Some day we’ll have a
a different lover,
pine trees and whirling wind
that primitive communion
a new testament
of each generation.
All going home is never going back—
there may be ruin and mud tracks
deep to make wheels spin. The only way
is slogging on,
or else walking
Or yet it may be dry
the sand flying in your nostrils
but you must breathe, must go, must go
on, which is to say, go on making
required visits, like stations
of a cross. It is a way
of finding what we lost
or never had, of learning we are only
renters, and making new covenants,
going where we belong.