For the Schuylkill Valley Journal, 25th Anniversary issue (featured reader)
By Grant Clauser
GC: Was there a moment in your life when you decided to make a commitment to poetry? What was that like?
BM: Yes, I did have an epiphany of sorts: one Christmas night many years ago I was sitting on the couch enjoying the tree lights after everyone had gone to bed. I wrote a pretty lame copy-cat poem after Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” I had always written poetry from childhood on through the various stages of my life and stuffed everything into folders that no one would see. But on that night something clicked about the way poetry can evoke thought, memory, emotion, action, and I decided to get serious about my writing. Somehow, that few moments sparked almost a sense of urgency—why haven’t I done this before? I went back to grad school for Creative Writing with a focus on poetry and that really crystallized my commitment to my writing.
GC: Where did the impulse for your book, Food, Wine, and Other Considerations—an Alphabet come from? Was such a project book more or less challenging or fun than your previous collection?
BM: In spring, 2011, I was recovering from an illness—grateful to be home from the hospital —and its meals. Out of the blue an idea struck me to jot down all the natural foods I could think of (mostly vegetables and fruits initially) and I began an alphabetical list in my notebook. Then over time joined that to the idea of the centrality of food in human experience beyond simple sustenance—the traditions that build up around memories (Proust’s madeleine, for example) and the celebrations, both religious and secular in which food is an important focus. I then began a few poems and the idea simply expanded into a book on the topic. I found it mostly fun because it seemed to flow very naturally. Some of the poems are light and a bit humorous, while others are nostalgic and serious. As an artist myself, I write a lot of Ekphrastic poetry, so several of the poems also call attention to great still-life works from world masters, both well- and not so well known. Of course, since it’s alphabetical, the placing into order was a breeze this time!
GC: That book ends on a “Z” food, Zweiback . I love how the last poem of the book includes so many references to beginnings. Did you plan that from the start or did it just happen that way?
BM: A little of both. I wanted in some way to create a “full circle” sense of the entirety of the book that evokes the cycle of life—that every ending introduces another beginning. As I neared the end of the manuscript, knowing of course it would end at “Z,” along with the fact that the first poem, “Apple” speaks of Eden, I did want the final poem to take us back to Eden. But the content of the poem came later. Because Zweiback is a food often associated with teething babies, it eventually seemed natural to consider babies as coming here from an Eden-like place.
GC: Your poems are both lyrical and narrative. How do you balance the impulses of figurative language with the needs of exposition?
BM: I love story and naturally lean in that direction because I think we all share most of the same experiences through life in different specific detail. And like all poets, I love the play of language and the way it can spark recognition in the reader. One of John Keats’ remarks in a letter to John Taylor is my main guiding principle: “[Poetry] should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance…” I love that. For me, usually the story comes first, so sometimes I make preliminary notes that highlight the important details, along with considering some universal application that might resonate with readers, and begin there, often writing a bit prosaically, then cut, cut, cut to create, as you say, the balance that crosses into poetry. Sometimes the words come first and I build a story around them. For example, I wrote a poem entitled “On a March Morning.” I’d been driving to work and noticed a thin, flat layer of cloud hovering over a field on my right. It made me think of the way a sheet looks in the air when one shakes it over the bed while making it. And the phrase “stilled in shake above the bed” came to me and I built the poem around it.
GC: Many of your poems, especially your food poems, but others as well, have an element of praise or celebration. Do you believe that people in general don’t recognize the pleasure in their lives as much as they should?
BM: Well, I think we’re all like that from time to time. Like every generation of toddlers, we all used to squat on the lawn to study a busy ant hill. Then the business of growing up and taking on more and more responsibility tends to add layers of numbness to simple pleasures. I think we are aware of them on some level—like the lovely sigh of finally lying down at night, or a breathtaking moonrise. But I think the difference lies in whether or not we consciously notice and register these things. I give my writing students exercises to this effect and they report the most insightful experiences and love the idea of conscious noticing. This is the “job” of the poet, I believe—so we not only “tune in” to what is all around us, but receive it reading other poets as well and, in turn, offer it back in our own work.
GC: Do you have any habits, strategies or practices to help you get into the writing mood?
BM: Oh, yes. Number one, I read other poets for inspiration. When I was in graduate school, for a poetry writing class project I emailed ten national poets laureate requesting they respond to three questions (all but two wrote back and one had her assistant let me know she was on a book tour and was unable to respond). In any case, over the years I’ve shared with my students Ted Kooser’s response to one of my questions: “I tell my students for every poem you try to write, read at least 100!” I think that’s very wise advice. I also keep a folder on my desktop of “interesting poetic phrases,” words or lines that came to me while writing but that just didn’t work in any given poem I was trying to complete—but Aha! maybe they’ll work in the future, so I often check that folder. Another habit that helps is to go back over older poems and edit. If that’s all I get done on a given day, at least I did something.
GC: What do you look for in poets you read for pleasure? Are there some poets you read for pleasure and some for study?
BM: When I read for pleasure, I look first for accessibility and within that, vivid language, surprising turns of phrase—work that reads clearly and at the same time, stretches me to view ideas in a poet’s singular, interesting light. Poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marge Piercy, Ross Gay, Kay Ryan, April Lindner, Theodore Roethke, Joseph A. Chelius, Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson are some of my favorites. Some of course are a cross between pleasure and study—poets such as Ellen Bryant Voigt, Christopher Bursk, Mark Doty, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Levine, Pablo Neruda, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gerald Stern; Irish poets, Nuala ni Dhomhnaill and Seamus Heaney, British poets Tennyson, Blake, Donne, Keats. Far too many to name, but I like reading different voices and styles—they all inspire me emotionally as well as “craftily” (and of course, I mean that in the best possible way!).
Grant Clauser is author of Necessary Myths, (Winner, Dogfish Head Poetry Prize), Broadkill Press 2013
ROUND ROBIN TOUR
Here we are again with this year’s writers’ round robin, that never fails to inspire us to keep paying attention to those notions that light on our shoulders like little birds, urging us to record. I have my friend and mentor, April Lindner, to thank for inviting me this year. April is not only a gifted poet, but writes remarkable modern-day versions of classic stories whose big themes hold up to the test of time and are inspiring a new generation of readers.
Here’s the way this blog tour works:
Writers are asked to respond to four questions about their writing process and what they are working on now. Read what April has to say at http://aprillindnerwrites.blogspot.com
And here are mine:
1) What am I working on?
One, I’m looking forward to the first set of galleys of my new book, Food, Wine, and Other Essential Considerations—an Alphabet, coming out in July of this year from Aldrich Press. And two, I’m wrapping up my current manuscript, another full-length collection of poems, many on the events that influence women as they grow from girlhood to adulthood.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
First, I think differences in genre are generally subtle since “genre” implies its own definition—a category, but as far as sensibilities and style, I’d say two themes that I often focus on are story and art. I tend to write thematically and tell condensed stories that I believe speak to some universal recognition for most of us. And as an artist myself, I write a lot of ekphrastic poetry—work that offers my impressions of great art, specifically painting, by well-known as well as well as lesser-known artists, both modern and classic. I often focus on the people in the paintings, musing on what their daily lives were like as well as the way artists use light in their work. I’m also very attentive to form—particularly rhythm, word play, and experimentation with rhyme though I’m not in the strict sense a Formalist poet.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I come from a very musical family and have always loved poetry and song, so I think I’m naturally drawn to writing poetry more than writing in other genres. I like the tight focus poetry offers, the challenge to contain a big idea in a small space as well as the music of it.
4) How does your writing process work?
I go in stretches between sitting down every day, especially when I’m getting close to the end of a book—I can’t stop thinking about it and can’t wait to get back to it. Then, I have periods when I just can’t get to that hour or two each morning because life has other plans. That’s when I’m jotting in notebooks (and still on the occasional back of an envelope or receipt) random poems and impressions that come (the way writers know they do)—a scene on the road while driving to work, a quip in a TV show, an overheard conversation in the supermarket line. And of course, the idea that lands on you when you’re not looking because it wants you to spread its word. Once I have a number of poems, I review them to see if there’s any thread of connection among them. As I mention above, I tend to write thematically; I like the unity of that, so when I see it emerging, I start to feel on a roll. That’s when I get back to my every day schedule.
Catherine Staples is the author of The Rattling Window (Ashland Poetry Press, 2013), winner of the McGovern Prize. Honors include Honorable Mention for the Sheila Margaret Motton Book Award (2014), Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writer’s Conference (2013), and the Southern Poetry Review’s Guy Owen Prize (2011). Her chapbook, Never a Note Forfeit (Steven Kitchens Press, 2011), was awarded the Keystone Prize. Staples’ poems and reviews have appeared in The Southern Review, Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, The Common, Rattle, Commonweal, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and others. She teaches in the Honors program at Villanova University.
Visit her responses to the blog tour by linking to the “Field Notes” section of her webpage: http://www.catherinestaples.com
The author, Laura Matson Hahn, spent 14 years crafting THE HEART CODE NOVEL after a 20 year career in Strategic Communications for corporations and thought-leader organizations, where she translated complex, new concepts into accessible, understandable mass communications. She now delivers the same for the spiritual concept of every being having its own, unique heart code to guide their best life. THE HEART CODE NOVEL: Family-based fiction with a wise, Bohemian Grandmother dedicated to transferring the practice of living a heart-centered life to her only granddaughter in 1930’s Connecticut, Czechoslovakia and New York City.
ROUND ROBIN TOUR
The Next Big Thing is a round-robin series of interviews with writers.
I hope you enjoy the Q&A…and check out two more writers’ Bios below—at the end of my responses to the interview–(right after this little commercial message—thank you for indulging me!)
My book, Waiting for the Light to Change was released in May (2013) from Word Tech Communications, and is available at the publisher’s website: wordtechcommunications.com, at Amazon, and by contacting me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And now, The Interview:
What is the working title of your book?
The title is Waiting for the Light to Change and is drawn from a line in one of the poems in the book entitled “Intersection.”
Where did the idea come from for the book?
This question goes back to the poem that inspired the title. The idea for that poem came to me while actually sitting at a red light waiting for the light to change. But it also fit quite nicely and symbolically with the larger themes of the poems which make up the book as a whole: one is that many of the poems are ekphrastic; that is, they focus on masterpieces by some of the world’s greatest artists and of course the notion of light is all important to artists. Many of the other poems focus on the times in our lives when we are either waiting for the light to brighten or know it may ebb into darkness for a time, at which point we find ourselves again waiting for it to change!
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s generally a balance between narrative and lyric poetry.
What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie rendition?
Wouldn’t it be fun to fill a stage or screen with people like Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis, Naomi Watts, Michael Kitchen, James Franco, Ralph Waite, Helen Mirren.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Waiting for the Light to Change invites the reader to consider the value of noticing: the play of light on the familiar in the physical world, the thought processes that shed light on the interior life, and the expression of both of these in the lasting art that (I believe) keeps us human.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
It took about five years among the steps of writing original drafts of the poems, honing them until I was satisfied they were ready to go out the door, and ordering them in a sequence that made sense, which was done largely with the generous suggestions of my friend and one of my consistent mentors, poet Christopher Bursk.
What other books would you compare this one to within your genre?
This is a difficult question because it invites comparison that I think can be presumptuous, and that’s uncomfortable for me. I’d say a few poets I very much admire and who seem to dip into the same sensibilities I do as far as style and in some cases, general topics, books by poets like Ellen Bryant Voigt, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Joseph A. Chelius, Marie Kane, Lorraine Lins.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My father. He was a college professor and administrator, educated through the G.I. bill after WWII. He was an avid reader, and had planned a book about his war years (events of which he never spoke) when the children were grown–we had a large family–and he could retire and focus, but sadly, he died of a sudden heart attack at a young age and that dream died with him. His goal stayed with me as inspiration, and along with reading, reading, reading, and writing, writing, writing, I came to know it was about time I get moving. I’ve written since I was a teenager but never talked about it, mostly tucking pieces away in notebooks, loose papers, the backs of envelopes, collected randomly in folders. I would write stories or poems in my head as I walked, wrote feature stories for a few years as a journalist, was teaching creative writing at the university level, and finally got serious about my own poetry. I joined a remarkable poets’ community in Bucks County led by Chris Bursk, and completing the book became the natural next step.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
John Keats said, “…poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” And I’ve looked to that quote for my own enjoyment of reading poetry and for what I believe is a process of any writer’s life–that is, allowing the work to come through me from wherever it originates; what I think readers can relate to when reading my work. As well, Flannery O’Connor said (I’m paraphrasing here) that anyone who has had a childhood has enough to write about for a lifetime. In my writing, my interests lean toward observing and sharing life experiences that I believe are universal to all of us.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My book isn’t self-published. My publisher is Word Tech Communications, based in Cincinnati, OH.
My selections for next week’s Next Big Thing Interview are:
Marie Kane is the 2006 Bucks County, PA Poet Laureate. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, whose writing credits include the Belleview Literary Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, U. S. 1 Worksheets, Meadowland Review, The River, Stirring, The Bucks County Writer, Wordgathering, two Inglis House anthologies, The Poet’s Touchstone, and the Delaware Valley Poets Anthology, among others. She has received a recognition award for her poetry from the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts, and an award for her teaching of young writers from The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She is a second place winner in the 2008 Poetry Society of New Hampshire’s International Contest, second and third place winner in the 2009 Inglis House International Contest, and a second runner-up in the 2010 Robert Fraser contest. She has been a final juror for the Montgomery County (PA) High School Poetry Contest, and for the last four years, has been the final judge for the national scholastic Sarah Mook poetry contest, grades K-12. Her chapbook, Survivors in the Garden, was published in June of 2012 by Big Table Publishing of Newton, MA. Visit her website at mariekanepoetry.com.
Lavinia Kumar is a poet, and sometime writer of children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction who also paints with/dabbles in acrylics and watercolors. Among her published books are a poetry chapbook, Rivers of Saris (published by Main Street Rag), and her self-published books for 6th-9th grade: Maud Leonora Menten, and Alfred Lothar Wegener & Harry Fielding Reid: Scientists & Adventurers. Children’s fiction books are Octopus Purple-us, Sonia’s Revenge, and Tommy’s Mixed-up Chicks. She holds an EdD in science education, and degrees in Chemistry (BA), and Biology (MA), and was long involved in technology education. She has taught in middle and high school, in college, and in medical school. She developed and directed a state-wide web-based professional development resource for educators for New Jersey and co-wrote Using Assessment for Instruction (published by the International Center for Leadership in Education in 2008). Visit her blog at seniorsmagazine.org.