Poet 2 Poet: Sarah Bigham and Bill Yarrow

Sarah’s questions for Bill                                                                                  

SGB: Your Facebook cover photo features both a building and a statue (which also appears on one of your book covers). What are those two items, where are they, and what significance do they have to you?

BY: I like geometry. I like symmetry. The building is the Yarrow Hotel in Harbin, China. I was amused by its name, and I liked the way it was lit and framed. The image appealed to me aesthetically. My profile image is the face of a telamon (or atlas) that appears on a building on the Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, Russia. I visited St. Petersburg with a college friend in 2008 and I snapped that picture, which became the cover image of my book Blasphemer seven years later. A telamon is a male version of a caryatid. Why is it my profile image on Facebook? Our real faces keep changing, so rather than constantly updating my picture, I went with an avatar that had a personal connection for me.

SGB: How have your education in the field of English and your career in academia contributed to your experiences as a writer? Has either of those backgrounds impeded your writing in any way or presented challenges?

 BY: My education and teaching career have forced me to read a lot of books. I’ve found that quite helpful in my own writing.

SGB: You are a prolific author with an impressive list of publications, including books. What advice do you have for me or other writers who have a poetry manuscript and are hoping to find a publisher?

 BY: Send out your work! Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Sooner or later, you’ll find the publisher right for you. But don’t ignore rejection. Take it seriously. Keep tweaking, revising, or recrafting your manuscript. A manuscript can always be improved. There’s no rush to publish. My first book came out when I was 60. Shakespeare said, “The ripeness is all.” Let your work ripen. Try to publish before it rots.

SGB: Your book from 2016 is called The Vig of Love. A previous book is titled The Lice of Christ. How do you develop your clever book titles? Do you ever ask friends, family, or colleagues for feedback on possible titles? 

BY: I always ask for feedback but I don’t always listen to the advice I’m given.

SGB: Do you participate in writing groups? Do you have a writing partner? Do you seek out readers for work that you plan to submit for publication? Or do you prefer a more solitary approach to your craft? 

BY: Writing groups are fun socially, but the only worthwhile ones I’ve found are the ones in which the participants are completely honest with each other. That honesty is hard to find. I don’t go to a writing group looking for praise. I look for honest critique. The majority of people (especially writers) are afraid to be honest. Emerson said, “Politeness ruins conversation.” I think the same can be said for most writing groups. “Politeness ruins writing groups.” Say what you really think and express what you truly feel. If I trust your taste and judgment, I’ll listen attentively.

A writing partner? I’ve collaborated on many projects, but I don’t have and have never had a writing partner.

Do I seek out readers before publication? Generally, no. I let editors be those readers.

SGB: How have current events impacted your work as a poet? Are there political realities, movements, world happenings, or other issues that have influenced your thought processes? 

BY: Everything that happens in the world, in your career, and in your personal life influences your thought processes. How could it not? I make no separation.

SGB: What is the role (if any) of memory in your writing?

BY: Part of what you think is what you remember. Part of what you feel is what you remember. Thinking + feeling = writing. Writing is what you know in your head and in your bones. To revise Stevens slightly: “I know, too, / That memory is involved / In what I know.”

SGB: Do you make a conscious effort to incorporate diverse perspectives in your work as a writer, teacher, and creative person? In what ways do you introduce your students to writing, themes, and information that may be out of their comfort zone? 

BY: Yes, I do. Everything a person has never heard of is out of his or her comfort zone, so I make a point of introducing my students to authors, books, artworks, films, and ideas they have never heard of.

SGB: “Poets Who Thrum” is one of my favorite pieces of your work! I love the way it sounds and repeats and incorporates words you created along with unusual words and constantly moving images. Tell me about your process for writing that poem and how long it took you to hone it into its final format.

 BY: Thanks! I don’t know how long it took exactly. It did go through several revisions. I didn’t make up any of the words in the poem. They are all real, albeit unusual, words.

SGB: “End of Shift” has a great descriptor—”velveteen candle baths.” I love that concept even though I have absolutely no idea what it actually means. I admire the way you put words together into poems that convey a real sense of something, even if readers are not able to describe what that something is. Some of the people who have read my poetry are adamant that they want to know exactly what it means. My response typically is that it means whatever you want it to mean. My mother, however, requires more specific answers! What do you hope people will get from reading your poetry? What, if any, details do you provide to readers about the meaning you ascribe to a poem?

BY: I don’t think poems mean whatever people want them to mean. I think meaning is contained in and constrained by structure, pattern, syntax, rhythm, allusion, figuration, denotation and connotation of words, etc. I do understand, however, people wanting to find their own significance in poems. E. D. Hirsch draws that important distinction between “meaning” and “significance” in Validity in Interpretation, an important book for readers and writers. I hope people get enjoyment from reading my poems—the enjoyment might be a delight in sound, language, image, movement, feeling, or idea or something else. I do think clarity in poems is a virtue. I always try to be as clear as I can be in my writing. People sometimes confuse clarity with simplicity. The great writers, however profound, however complex, were always clear.

You mention your mother requiring more specific answers as to meaning. That makes me smile. My mother was like that too. Perhaps all mothers of writers are like that! I think, despite asking about a poem’s meaning, mothers are really just looking for two answers from their offspring writer. “Don’t worry, Mom—I’m fine!” and “No, the poem is not about you.”

SGB: You often read your poems in public. I have always been reluctant to do the same because my poems, to me, are more than just words and I fear that my voice reading them will not convey their impact in the same way as a reader’s internal voice. Has that ever been a concern for you? What motivates you to read and share your work verbally? What suggestions do you have for writers planning to do a poetry reading?

BY: For me, poems are just words. That’s what a poem is—words. You are the best reader of your poems—you know how the poem is meant to sound. Don’t be afraid to perform your work. I use “perform” intentionally. A reading is a performance. There is an audience and you are the performer. Don’t read in a singsong voice. Don’t read mechanically or in a monotone. Don’t pause at the end of every line—read according to the grammar of the lines. There is emotion in every poem. Read with emotion!

Rehearse reading your poems aloud. Practice before a mirror. Mark the words where you stumble or misread. Never read a poem you just wrote. If you plan to read something emotional, practice reading it over and over until you can read it without becoming emotional in front of the audience. There’s nothing more uncomfortable for an audience member than to sit silently before a poet who is blubbering or weeping on the stage. Read from paper with your poems double or triple spaced in large print. Do not read from a book or a phone. Stand up straight. Take a moment before you start talking. Get your mouth right next to the microphone. Don’t explain. Don’t say what the poem is “about.” If you have to explain something, do so briefly. No one cares where you were when you wrote the poem. Just read the poem! If your poem is in parts, do not identify the parts. Read it as one poem. Avoid reading long, long poems. Have mercy on your audience. Entertain them! If you were an audience member, what kind of poems would you want to hear? Not poems about death! Not poems about suicide! Your best poem is not necessarily the best poem to read in public. Choose your poems carefully and order your reading. Don’t stumble and shuffle through a sheaf of pages. Know what you are going to do in advance. Don’t apologize for anything! Start strong and end strong.

SGB: In one previous interview you mentioned that your choice for a Nobel Prize in literature would have been Oliver Sacks. What made you select him? I am also a Sacks fan. His 2015 book Gratitude was particularly powerful. I found much solace in this slim volume during my own health journey and shared it with a friend going through his own medical challenges.

 BY: Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature for good writing. So did Bertrand Russell. So did Bob Dylan. Oliver Sacks wrote well. In my opinion, good writing should be acknowledged and rewarded.

SGB: Your hybrid work, Pointed Music, combines your poetry with music by Ray Fahrner. How did this project develop? Did you already know Ray? What was it about his musical style that spoke to you? I listened/watched “Whiplash Marriage” on YouTube and was mesmerized by the morphing colors. How did you create those?

 BY: I’ve been friends with Dr. Raymond Fahrner since 1963. We were in school together and stayed close friends through college and after. Ray listened to a recording of one of my poems and set the recording to music. I loved what he did. He started doing more and more, all in different musical styles and with different musical instruments, all those choices related in some way to the individual poem. As he would finish a musical piece, I would create a videopoem using his audio and public domain images and film clips. In 2015, we put together 38 musical pieces (about an hour’s worth of music) into a CD. The morphing colors? Home video of fireworks with a movie filter.

SGB: I see that you have also created film experiments. Are you drawn to working with more than one artistic medium/genre at a time? How do these various approaches impact one another?

BY: Everything impacts everything else. I teach film and am interested in it. It bleeds into literature and theater and music and art and architecture and writing. No one genre or form of art is completely separate for me. All separations are artificial and arbitrary anyway. Everything is and should be hybrid. The film experiments are videos I made of two movies running simultaneously side by side for comparison’s sake. They are housed at Vimeo.

SGB: Have you spent any time writing in other genres? If so, did you enjoy it? What brings you consistently back to poetry?

BY: Some of my poems come out in paragraphs. I’m drawn to aphorisms of various sizes. I write critical essays occasionally. I don’t know that I ever “leave” poetry, but what brings me back is concision.

SGB: The Apnea Poems were written while you were suffering from severe sleep apnea. Did you receive effective treatment for this condition? Do you use a CPAP machine at night? I use one for a REM disorder, not apnea, but it took a long time for me to get used to the contraption and I wrote a poem about it. Did your poetry process, output, or style change in any way after being treated for apnea?

 BY: Well, what I termed retrospectively “The Apnea Poems” were poems that were just poems when I wrote and published them, but which now strike me as being related to that condition so I grouped them and published them as a free ebook on Smashwords last year. About twenty years ago, my left lung spontaneously collapsed, so I wasn’t a candidate for a CPAP machine. I use an oral device to treat the apnea. After treatment, I did see a change in my writing but I’m not sure it would be visible to a casual reader. The circumstances surrounding the writing of a poem may be interesting, but they have no real bearing on the success of the poem as a poem. Poems swim or sink on their own merits or demerits. Pope wrote an essay subtitled “The Art of Sinking in Poetry.” I’d like to see an essay called “The Art of Swimming in Poetry.”

Bill, as a relatively new-to-the-scene author, I truly valued the opportunity to participate in Clare’s poet to poet exchange. You have been widely published, actively participate in readings, do a variety of interviews, and use an impressive range of social media platforms. I applaud the time you put into “marketing,” for lack of a better word, and I have much to learn from your methods! You have given me great advice, and I am feeling more empowered to do a poetry reading. I see our pairing as fortuitous, as we have quite different styles and I always grow from interactions with people who approach the world (and writing) from alternative perspectives. I also appreciate the time you took in reviewing my work. I am honored that an established author with such impressive credentials was interested in learning more about me and my creations. You embody lifelong learning, something I aspire to model for my students. Thank you!

 

Bill’s questions for Sarah                                                                                  

BY: Sarah, your family history and also your medical history have played a very important role in your life. Could you tell us about the relationship of the personal to your work?

SGB: To me, everything is personal. My worldview is almost entirely sculpted via emotions, and how I feel drives nearly everything I do. I was lucky to grow up in a stable, supportive family and have enjoyed 18 years of happiness with my spouse. My relationships with them, and the other people I have interacted with in some way throughout my life, inform much of my written work. I have been unlucky with my health and have now been given numerous diagnoses, but still have mysterious symptoms. Surviving the physical pain I have endured due to those conditions, and their treatments, has been extraordinarily difficult. I tend to write and paint about things that have deeply affected me.

 BY: You began writing and painting in 2015. What impelled you to start those creative endeavors at that time?

SGB: I did a lot of creative writing as a young person, but then focused solely on academic writing along with reading of all kinds. My mother always thought I would be a writer, so when I first had work published, she was more excited than anyone else. (She and my wife are also the first people to read my work after it has been accepted for publication.) I took an art class in college, something I hoped would be fun. All I needed to do was earn a D because we had the option to take two classes on a pass/fall basis before we graduated. The instructor looked like Charles Manson and he never gave us grades of any kind. I was terrified of him and of failing the course. I did, however, develop a fascination with watercolor and I ultimately passed the class. Through multiple years, several moves, and a career shift, I kept all of my watercolors, brushes, and supplies in a box that I stored in the basement. When my health conditions worsened and the pain was at an all-time high, I would pace the house until the early morning hours because I was in too much pain to sleep. It occurred to me one evening that I could try doing something to distract myself, so I started writing. I wrote the first creative writing piece I had done in over 20 years, entered a writing contest, and won. I had returned to painting just prior to becoming ill and found myself picking up my watercolor brushes more frequently. I keep vampire hours, so much of my best work is completed long after my friends, family, and neighbors are asleep!

 BY: When you paint, you use “dissolved medications and supplements as watercolors” in some of your paintings. In others, you have used “concentrated wine, kitchen spices, plants, and even cat hair.” That is fascinating to me! Please tell us more about what’s behind your choices of materials that go into your paintings.

SGB: I am not a trained artist which could be seen as a liability, but it also frees me from any preset notions about technique or approach. Other than the college art course, I have had no artistic instruction except for a wild experimental watercolor class held in a warehouse. I signed up for the class while I was on sabbatical. I thought it would be a great way to mentally disconnect from the research I was doing at the time. The class was composed entirely of professional artists. And me. We met in a warehouse once a week and basically got to do whatever we wanted. I started to feel like a “real” artist when the others in the class took my work very seriously and complimented me on my creativity, composition, etc. (I had  absolutely no idea what I was doing, but loved every moment!) I think that because I have not had formal art instruction and have worked almost entirely alone, I feel free to try anything that occurs to me. Throughout my medical journey, I have taken innumerable prescriptions and over-the-counter products, many of which did not work or are no longer prescribed. It occurred to me as I was gathering bottles of pills and droppers of tinctures to take to a medication disposal drop-off point that these items could be good sources of pigment. My wife is a chemistry professor and her description of evaporating things in lab experiments made me think that evaporated wine could be an interesting substance to use for art. I love to garden, so it seemed quite natural to bring plants inside to incorporate into my art. (One of my favorite techniques for painting at the moment is to use flower petals to make patterns on wet watercolor paper.) We have three cats and I am always surrounded by cat hair. As I was picking up clumps of it, it dawned on me that the texture could be fantastic for a painting – and it was.

 BY: You write, “My current writing is influenced, in large part, by my experiences as a ‘healthcare consumer’ with complex medical conditions that are not visible to those around me'” and you hope that your work will  “inspire empathy and compassion for those living with chronic pain.” That’s a noble ambition. What responses have you gotten to the work you have published so far?

SGB: This has been the most rewarding part of my artistic journey. I have heard from people through my website, at art exhibits, via email or social media, and in person that my work has helped them. People in pain often have trouble explaining their pain, and I have been thanked repeatedly for accurately describing pain through words or visuals. Some people have told me that they have printed out my poems or essays and taken them to their medical providers to say, “This is how I feel, this is what my pain is like.” Others have shared their own experiences with terrible pain and their sense of being abandoned by the healthcare system, and have thanked me for creating awareness about those living with invisible conditions like chronic pain. Healthcare providers have thanked me for describing patient perspectives they had never before considered. Friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances have expressed deep appreciation for my work and told me that they never realized how awful it must be to live with some of the conditions I have. Multiple people have reached out to me for advice about locating chronic pain treatment for themselves or loved ones, or just to share their own stories, relieved to find someone who will understand. One man simply cried and hugged me. I understood his suffering.

BY: I love the artworks you have posted on your website. Is inspiring empathy and compassion also your motive in producing your art? I ask because though I find your art very beautiful, I also find it unnerving. I would describe it as hauntingly, disconcertingly biological. I feel like I’m being shown something invisible to the naked human eye. It takes me very close to something almost too intimate for words. To me, your art seems an expression of roiled life at the cellular level. It has an intensely personal yet, at the same time, an almost clinical aestheticism to it. Is it an expression of your living with chronic pain? Without explaining the “meaning” of individual paintings, could you talk specifically about the emotion that went into the creation of these powerful watercolors?

SGB: Thank you! I really like your description of “roiled life” because that is exactly what I am feeling when painting a number of pieces. The life that I knew has been ripped away. I have a new one now, one that I am trying hard to appreciate, but some days that is very hard to do. I tend to feel the worst when I first wake up. If I paint soon after I wake or in the early morning hours before going to bed, I am most likely channeling my inner anguish. I have pain throughout my body, but the worst area is in the pelvis, a part of the body people may never want to discuss in public, yet it is a situation millions of people endure. Many of my paintings are a way of screaming about this private pain. Other paintings reflect the much happier parts of my life and are inspired by things such as my backyard garden or the view from my childhood bedroom window, a scene I love to this day.

 BY: I love the wit of your recent poem “Exiting higher education or What I learned about professors before becoming one myself.” What idiosyncrasies would your students point out about you as a professor? Speaking of being a professor, you are not an English professor but work in the social sciences department teaching psychology and education classes in your college. Please tell us how your teaching has influenced (or has not influenced) your writing and your art.

SGB: This is a great question! My students would probably say that I talk a lot about my family, my friends, my cats, and new things I did or learned since the last class meeting; that I am a bookworm who always brings in books to share with them; that I write all over their papers in green (never red) pen; that I laugh a lot; that I ask many questions and really want to know about their lives; that I am terribly clumsy; and that I repeatedly say we need more peace, love, and understanding in the world.

I am an education professor at Frederick Community College where I teach classes such as Schools & Society, Educational Psychology, and Human Growth & Development. I love my job and adore my students. I write a lot about people, and especially enjoy writing about those with whom I connect. My students have inspired many of my pieces, especially my favorite essay, Where Smart Lives. I am not a trained writer so I was nervous to share my work publicly at first, especially with my English department colleagues. However, it has certainly been to my benefit that my department shares a building with English. Colleagues in both departments have been very supportive of my writing and have encouraged me to celebrate my successes.

BY: You teach in Frederick, Maryland. Are you from Maryland? If not, how did you wind up there? I’m from Philadelphia, but I spent every summer until I was 26 in Ocean City, Maryland, where my dad had a penny arcade on the boardwalk. Please tell us about where you spent your childhood and how that influenced your writing and your art.

SGB: I read about the Ocean City arcade in one of your interviews! That sounds like a wonderful tradition, spending the summer in the same place every year. I grew up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and spent all of my summers there, with the exception of family vacations. A favorite spot was (and still is) Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. My parents continue to live in the same house where I grew up with my siblings, and from the back of my parents’ property, you can see the Peace Light memorial as well as one of the (many) battlefields in the area. I went to college in Virginia, headed to Upstate New York for graduate school where I earned a master’s degree, but left my first doctoral program in a state of disillusionment. I went on a magnificent cross-country adventure with a great friend from grad school and then returned home to Gettysburg to regroup. My sister and her husband lived in Frederick and were expecting their first child. I was determined to move to Frederick so I could be an active part of the baby’s life. I found a job and moved to Frederick right before Emma was born. It has been such a joy to be an aunt. My siblings’ children all call us “The Aunties” and we love them dearly. My family has always been my anchor and deeply influences my work.

BY: Your three poems in the recent issue of Cura are very different in tone and form from the other poems you have published. Please tell us about your writing influences (who are the writers, particularly poets, who have inspired you?) and what you see as your evolution as a writer, not just in subject matter but also in form.

SGB: My mother-in-law, Phyllis, passed away earlier this year and her death impacted the poetry you mention in Cura. For years, she and I would talk on the phone every Friday. I called it “Fridays with Phyllis.” She was a kind, funny, loving person and I am so happy that we were able to be true friends. I loved her dearly.

I am not a student of poetry or literature, and have never felt constrained by form. I go by feel. I know that doesn’t work for everyone. In junior high I did a report on Ogden Nash, so I would say that he was my first favorite poet. Currently, I am a big fan of Natasha Trethewey. I had a chance to attend one of her readings and meet her briefly. I loved that opportunity and found her to be as genuine as her poetry. Several years ago she worked with PBS to do a series called Where Poetry Lives and I use videos from that project in my classes to show the impact of poetry on students, people living with dementia, etc. Kwame Alexander is another favorite. His book Crossover, while written for young people, is incredibly compelling for adults as well. I marvel at his ability to create an entire book from a poem. It is one of the many books I pass around in my education classes and encourage future teachers to read and ultimately share with their own students.

 BY: Sarah, you include in your poem “The wood that separates us from the wind” some very specific details. You write, “In the home I share with a spouse and a trio of felines, tiny notches are unevenly scattered across the upper portion of the solid wood door that came with the house.” The speaker tells us her childhood house is “1.3 miles from the hospital” where she was born. The door in her childhood home “features one long, scarring crack—the product of an epic adolescent door slamming.” I want to ask you about the importance of details in writing. I also want to ask you how important it is to you (as a writer) that the details are factually accurate. For me, every poem intuits a speaker who is different from the author. For me, poems may begin in autobiographical experience, but they never stay there. For me, I change details when necessary to make sure the poem works “as a poem.” In this poem for example, maybe I really lived two and a half miles from the hospital where I was born. I might change that to 1.3 miles in the poem because the adolescent who cracked the door by slamming it was thirteen years old when that happened. I like those kinds of connections. My own writing really took off when I no longer felt “chained to facts” when I wrote, but for many years I did feel chained to facts. I felt I had to be scrupulously accurate when I described something from real life. How do you feel about this? What is your take on what I call “the importance of lying in poetry”?

SGB: I like that concept – lying in poetry! I should probably do it more often. While I don’t feel chained to facts, I do feel compelled to share details. I love details, but I realize not everyone does. I was telling a family member a story one time while we were in the car. I don’t remember what it was about or where we were going, but I do remember happily rambling on as I conveyed details and side tangents and how I felt about all of the moving parts to the story. My family member then banged on the steering wheel in exasperation and snapped, “Just get to the point!” Since then, I have tried to be conscious of my propensity to focus on and relate every single detail. My wife is very patient and spends part of each day listening to what she calls my “stories” which are basically a regurgitation of what happened that day, along with many of my thoughts and reactions. I am not succinct. It is a failing. Talking too much and spending too much money on books are probably my biggest vices. I include essential truths in my nonfiction poetry and prose, but I do change some details so that any people involved who do not come across as good eggs are not easily identifiable.

 BY: What is your favorite poem of all the ones you have written? Why is it your favorite?

SGB: It changes based on how I feel at any particular moment! “Loved beis one that often tops my personal list, because it is about my spirit cat. I have always shared a home with cats (with the exception of my time in college dorms) and even though I am mildly allergic to them, I cannot imagine being without them. My wife and I adopt what are sometimes called “less adoptable” or “harder to home” cats who might be seen as somewhat broken. I am a little broken myself, so it’s a good fit. Another favorite poem is “Of creativity lost and found” because it encompasses my feelings on returning to creative expression.

 BY: Please tell a little about the essays and short stories you have published. What do you see as the connection between your prose pieces and your poems?

SGB: I have a very active imagination and a deep memory bank. My wife says I live in my head and not my body. She is right. (She often is.) I have been that way for most of my life, but even more so in recent years, given my chronic pain situation. It is much easier to get through the day while composing stories and poems and essays in my head! I have so many ideas about what to write – I keep a long list that I add to each day. I mentally access a particular thought, concept, or memory and then feel my way through it. Sometimes it clearly is a piece of fiction. Other times it is an essay or a poem. Or it starts out as one and then morphs into something else entirely. So I see the writing as all very connected, at least in my mind. The painting is a different story because I am able to be very physically active as I paint – throwing and spritzing and dolloping. With writing, I type away on my ergonomic keyboard at my standing desk – it’s the same physical routine no matter what I am writing.

 BY: My favorite poem of yours is “Seven Days a Mother.” It is beautiful and affecting, simple and complex, precise and mysterious. It mixes the past, the present, and the future in a marvelous and moving way. I don’t have a question. I just wanted to tell you that. If you want to say anything about it, please do.

SGB: Thank you so much! That poem is a good example of how my “process” often works. I have been asked about my process, and I do not really have one. A poem or essay or painting essentially comes to me, and I am compelled to complete it. It has been marinating inside and then emerges. I hone it a bit until I know in my bones that it is done (or at least done for now). And then I release it into the world. I love when a poem happens that way.

 BY: Please tell us about the S. G. Bigham Benefit LLC.

SGB: Here in Maryland there is a great concept called a benefit LLC which is essentially a business that is committed to public benefit and positive outcomes for society and/or the environment. I have never had a dream of owning a business (I much prefer teaching), but when I was about to start having art shows and potentially selling my paintings, I knew that I needed a business structure of some kind. I have long been involved in community service and feel it is important for all of us to give back in some way, so a benefit LLC was a perfect fit for me. My benefit LLC gives a portion of proceeds from art sales to non-profit organizations that have helped me and many others living with chronic pain. My great-grandfather, Samuel Gray Bigham, had a store called S. G. Bigham’s Hardware. He and I have the same initials. He died before I was born, but his son, Franklin, lived two blocks from our house while I was growing up. Daddy Frank, as we all called him, was a major figure in my life. I love the historical connection of the names.

 BY: What question didn’t I ask you that you wished I had asked? Please answer it.

SGB: You have asked great questions! They really made me think and reflect. One additional question could be what plans I have for the future in terms of creative endeavors. My answer is that I have a complete poetry book manuscript as well as a complete manuscript of essays that I have been shopping around. If any agents or publishers are reading this and have interest in my work, I’d love to hear from them! I also have some pretty nifty artwork to include, should there be a need for visuals. J

Sarah, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you and your work. Keep writing and painting! You have a wonderful career in writing and painting ahead of you!

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Bill Yarrow
Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College and an editor at Blue Fifth Review, is the author of Against PromptsThe Vig of Love, Blasphemer, Pointed Sentences, and five chapbooks. He has been nominated eight times for a Pushcart Prize. More about Bill at https://billyarrow.wordpress.com/

 

Sarah Bigham

Sarah Bigham teaches, writes, and paints in Maryland where she lives with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, an unwieldy herb garden, several chronic pain conditions, and near-constant outrage at the general state of the world tempered with love for those doing their best to make a difference. A Pushcart nominee, Sarah’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of great places for readers, writers, and listeners. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.

An Interview with Sam Rasnake

MHR‘s Contributing Writer/Social Media Associate Charlotte Hamrick interviews MHR poet, Sam Rasnake.

 

I first “met” Sam Rasnake in the online writing forum Fictionaut. I was new to the site and a little intimidated by sharing my poetry with a group of strangers who weren’t strangers to each other. Sam was one of the first commenters of my work. His comments were always supportive and kind and he was (is) always willing to help me out when I was stuck or unsure of a piece. His own work is a beauty to behold. Sensitive, lyrical, intensely interesting. I’m so happy to be in a position to interview him for MockingHeart Review. Heartfelt thanks to Sam for sharing his time and thoughts.

~Charlotte Hamrick

 

What is your earliest recollection of the desire to write down your own thoughts?

I had a fantastic high school English teacher who turned me on to the deep wells of Bob Dylan, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Her class discussions made me try writing in a creative way. She showed me how to want to be a writer.

Do you remember your first poem? What was it about?

I began writing poetry in high school – showing them to no one. I kept them in a Japanese puzzle box. The first one was “Time,” a sonnet-like piece about – wait for it – dying.

Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?

Poetry has always been my focus in writing – and reading. Over the years, I dabbled in fiction, but the works seemed to morph into prose poems.

When my Father died in 2012, I stopped writing. Actually, I stopped writing about six months before he died when bone cancer began to impact the quality of his life in an extreme way – and I didn’t attempt to write for about a year after he passed. I was teaching college fall of 2013, and a creative writing class in non-fiction helped jump-start my work. I made myself do the class assignments with the students. We were using Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French writer, philosopher, and creator of the personal essay, as the basis for our works. His “Of” pieces served as models for our “On” works – the subjects ranging from objects to abstractions to family to dreams… from the mundane to the universal to the personal. Writing began to feel comfortable to me again, and the words began to flow. I wrote many successful pieces that term. Nearly all have now been published in various journals. I thanked the students for their help – and gave a nod to Montaigne, one of the most important writers I’ve ever read.

Lately, I’ve been writing flash fiction as well as poetry.

I’m always interested in the writing process. Tell us a little about yours. Do you ponder a poem for a while, keeping it in a draft stage and working on it periodically or do you write it all at once, as the inspiration and words strike you? How much editing do you do on a piece?

I’ve always approached poetry from the Stanley Kunitz method. I had always written this way, but he articulated the method that closely resembled my own. The poet waits for the poem. This requires patience. In other words, I don’t choose the poem – the poem chooses me. I don’t decide my topics. I let the topics find me. I need to be overwhelmed by a subject or focus, and that does happen. Over the years, I’ve learned how to recognize the feeling of a poem coming my way. And it does begin with a feeling and not a thought.

As the years disappear from me, I find that I writer fewer drafts. I seldom write every day though I’m constantly reading the works of others – poetry, fiction, non-fiction. My poems now tend to come to me in a more complete or finished way. With some – probably the better ones – no words or phrasings are changed. The best ones arrive whole. For this reason, I have few stranded lines or incomplete poems. I should add, however, that I also have fewer finished works. I consider a finished work to be a published work – or at least what I consider publishable.

When I’m ready to begin writing a poem, I go to my journal and write what I’m hearing in my head. A poem is finished when I go to the computer. I seldom edit from a keyboard. The work is, for the most part, already finished.

Some writers advise writing every day, to actually force yourself, that it’s good practice. What do you think about that p.o.v.?

As a writer, I can’t be forced or coaxed. Subjects or topics are the same way. For this reason, I’m more comfortable in a writing group than I am in a writers’ workshop. I either do or do not write.

I do believe that a good writer – or a bad one for that matter – should be reading, and I do that.

Even though I may not be writing, I’m constantly flipping through my journal – I’m on #28 now. A Moleskine notebook, lined pages, with a soft cover is perfect. I’m halfway through 28. The first entry begins with a “finished poem” – “Some Kind of Compass” – printed from my computer, then taped onto the journal’s pages. I’ve included images as well. The poem is an ekphrastic piece based on the film Degalog, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ten-hour masterpiece. The date of my entry is 11 January 2017. The draft of the poem is found in the closing pages of journal #27. I’d been asked by Didi Menendez, editor of Poets Artists magazine, to submit a piece for a themed issue – the male muse. The poem’s subject came to me instantly and was finished quickly – with few changes. Apparently, I wanted to tinker with one stanza before submission, and I did that on 1/13. The poem is submitted on 1/14. My next entry in journal #28 – after a couple of pages of random thoughts or comments about “Some Kind of Compass,” my favorite music recordings, and the poetry of Paul Celan (I must have been reading his works at the time) – is on 22 February. My point is that I don’t write daily in my journal – or maybe I should say I don’t plan on writing daily. Sometimes it happens to be daily, but that is the exception. Normally, days will go by without an entry. On occasion, weeks or even months will pass. I write when I write.

Do you have a favorite place to write that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?

My green chair beside the fireplace is my spot. I love to write there. The window to my left faces the mountains that begin the Cherokee National Forest and the glass doors to my right lead to the trees on the hill behind my house.

Where was the strangest place that inspiration hit you for a poem and how did it turn out?

My cousin worked at a funeral home, and years ago I had to see him at work for some reason – I don’t remember why. He was called away briefly, leaving me alone in the embalming room. A poem began nudging me at once – filling my head with images of Hammer horror films. I didn’t have a pen or paper, but I began writing the poem – “The Dead”. It turned out well. The piece was published and nominated for a Pushcart.

Are there any recurrent themes in your poems? If so, why do you think that is?

My response is more mode than theme, but it does connect with theme. For many years, I’ve been working in an ekphrastic mode, writing pieces that connect to literature, art (in its many forms), music, and cinema. The creative arts have always been important to me. This, no doubt may be due to one of my earliest memories: my Father’s college textbook – Art History of the Western World.

As for a recurring theme, I’m not certain, but my best guess would be loss. For example, my favorite filmmakers – Krzysztof Kieślowski, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Bresson, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Orson Welles – are focused on the theme of loss, and I respond to their works because of it.

Do you have any favorite words?

Highway, window, door, path, road, stream, river, line…

Do you have any tips to share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?

Read more – as often as possible. Reading can help a writer find the way into a work. Also, listen to music. View works of art. Watch films. Travel. Soak up the world. Let the world – the individual’s world – find a way to your own work, and let that work reflect the self. The “self” has a unique voice, and for the poem to be exceptional, that voice must be present in the lines. Voice – one that is true – takes an enormous amount of patience to find, but it is what sets the work apart from the numbing, uninspired dullness that language can have. Poetry should inspire, should change us, should serve as a map that leads to a personal truth. My poetry doesn’t have to be for everyone, but it does have to connect with me. For this reason, I do not write for an audience. That’s not to say I don’t want an audience; I do. But, that’s not the reason I write.

There is a burgeoning poetry community online and new lit journals popping up all the time. Some people think it’s just so much “look at me” noise and unworthy of notice while others celebrate more open and diverse opportunities for poets to share their work.  What do you think?

Today, there are more poetic opportunities than ever. We have more access to venues, more access to a myriad of voices. I do celebrate writers, and enjoy, learn from, grow with their works. I read many journals these days – mostly online, and my circle of writer friends continues to grow.

I find it impossible to name one poet who is my favorite – I have several. Who are some of your favorite poets and/or poems?

My favorite poets – the poets I’ve read the most – are Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges, William Stafford, Yosa Buson, Natasha Trethewey, William Blake, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Wisława Szymborska, Jack Gilbert, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jane Hirshfield, Lucille Clifton, Han-Shan, Paul Celan, James Wright, Anne Carson, Jack Gilbert, Joy Harjo, Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, Adrienne Rich, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Lynda Hull, Larry Levis, Yusef Komunyakaa…

If I had to pick one poet: Elizabeth Bishop – one book: Geography III – and one poem: “Crusoe in England”. A remarkable writer.

 

sam rasnake

Sam Rasnake‘s works have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He has served as a judge for the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, University of California, Berkeley, and as a musician recorded has recorded with Radio On, the Show Yourself sessions (Aftermath Records). His most recent book is Cinéma Vérité (A-Minor Press, 2013).

Interview with a Poet: Tom Montag

As a new feature, MockingHeart Review will conduct interviews with contributors on a monthly basis. Look for other new content such as reviews of poetry collections, poet-to-poet dialogues, and craft essays.

Thank you for your interest in MockingHeart Review and enjoy our interview with poet/contributor, Tom Montag.

 

Interview with a Poet: Tom Montag

 

MHR: What was the impetus, the first inner suggestion, for you to embark on your legendary tour this summer?

TOM MONTAG: I turn 71 at the end of August this year. I had never seen the Grand Canyon. I had never seen Los Angeles. You don’t ever know how many days, weeks, or years you might have left. I thought: if I don’t do it now, will I ever have the opportunity?

About that point, I read an article that said some artists were hoping to save the community of Bombay Beach on the east side of the Salton Sea. I had never seen the Salton Sea, so I put that on my itinerary.

I had seen some of northern California with my wife in years past, but none of the rest of it. And if I was going to drive the length of California, I might as well visit Portland, Oregon, to see Powell’s Books in this lifetime and to meet some old blogger buddies too.

From Portland, I had hoped to drive up to the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana, along the Canadian border, but cut that out of my journey in favor of an overnight visit with my daughter in Colorado and poetry readings in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska.

I knew at the start that I wanted to visit poet-friends in southern Missouri. I wanted to meet the editor of MockingHeart Review in Louisiana. Then I’d drive across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to get to the Grand Canyon, the Salton Sea, and Los Angeles, then make my way north to Portland.

I put a note up on Facebook sketching an outline of the trip and suggestion people might set up house readings for me along the way. Charlotte Wolfe in Newton, Kansas, responded by asking “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” and offered to host a reading at her quilt store. As a high school and college student in Milwaukee, Charlotte had worked as a typesetter for me in the 1970s when I published Margins, and she had been our older daughter’s babysitter. Yes, I could detour to Kansas.

The editor of MockingHeart Review told me she would not be at home during my Louisiana visit but would be in New Orleans for the weekend instead, along with her friend and fellow poet Bessie Senette; they’d be the featured readers at the Maple Leaf Bar on Sunday afternoon. I thought I could meet them there and read at the open mic afterward. No, they said, you can be a featured reader too. Not too long after that, I received a message that Bessie would be “cooking Cajun” on Saturday, and “could you make it here in time for supper?” Of course, I could!

Charles Alexander of Victoria, Texas, said that if I could make it to south Texas, he would set up a reading for me at the University of Houston-Victoria’s Design Center. My nephew Andrew Montag and his wife Allison would host a house reading in Austin, Texas. My high school classmate, Tim Schmaltz would do the same in Phoenix.

As I would be passing near Santa Fe, New Mexico, I asked poet Lauren Camp if we might have dinner together. Writer Fred Garber, who lives in the Calexico/Mexicali area, suggested that while I was at the Salton Sea, we might meet for a meal. I asked my second cousin, Fr. John Montag, SJ, if I might stay with him a couple days in Los Angeles. He said yes and offered to show me the town. Jessie Lillie Lemon, a former student of mine when I taught Creative Nonfiction at Lakeland College, offered to host a house reading in Seaside, California.

Since I’d be near Fresno, I asked poet and editor Michael Meyerhofer if we might be able to do lunch. Michael had made me a featured poet at Atticus Review a few years ago. He’s also originally from Iowa, as I am, so I figured we’d find plenty to talk about. Erica Goss, formerly the Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, and now of Eugene, Oregon, has been a Facebook friend for some time, and I asked if we might meet for lunch as I passed through town. Haiku poet and artist Carolyn Winkler offered me a place to stay while I was in Portland.

And, of course, Greg Kosmicki and Rex Walton got readings arranged for me in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, and Fr. John’s sister, Mary Patrice, offered a place to stay in Omaha.

I plotted out the route, logged addresses and phone numbers, and knew where I had to be by when and how to get hold of people if I needed to. All that remained was to calculate other places along the way I might have to overnight: one night in Louisiana on the way to New Orleans; another night in Amarillo, Texas, on the way to Santa Fe; in Winslow, Arizona, on the way to the Grand Canyon; in southern Oregon on the way to Portland; and in Utah, on the way to my daughter’s in Loveland, Colorado.

Truly, once I put it out to the universe that I was going to do this trip, things just fell into place as if it were meant to be. The impetus was: see the Grand Canyon, the Salton Sea, and Los Angeles before I die, and the trip turned out to be so much more than that.

MHR: Please tell us the cities you visited.

TOM MONTAG: Most of the cities I visited are indicated in the narrative above.

MHR: Landscape inspires the poet mind. Did you find that seeing the running landscape from the driver’s seat and in your walking about give you keen insight into the areas you visited, and perhaps the people, too? Were you intrigued and given intimations of history as well as life in the present?

TOM MONTAG: Landscape and people, and the mysteries surrounding them, are at the heart of my poetry, I suppose. My most productive time as a poet seems to be when I am traveling. Something about the motion and movement of travel gets my juices flowing. In a court of law, I’d probably have to testify: “No, your honor, I wouldn’t say that I was writing while I was driving; I would say I was driving while I was writing. There’s a difference. No, your honor, I would not recommend this method for any other poet. Yes, your honor, you can only write very short poems in this fashion, and you can’t revise them.” The world going past me on this 6500-mile trek was an intense and ever-present stimulus for the poet in me, and it resulted in 579 poems (or notes for poems) over the 31 days I was traveling.

I’m often called a “nature poet” because I write so much of the world around us; and some people remark on the “mystical” or “spiritual” nature of my work, because the world is a place of wonder, and some of that wonder ends up in my poetry. I think the poet’s first task is to pay attention, and I’ve trained myself to do that, even at 70 m.p.h. What am I seeing and what is it trying to say?

I probably learned the most about the people of an area when we talked before and after my readings. For instance, my half hour reading at Jessie Lillie Lemon’s house in Seaside, California, was followed by one of the most intense two and a half hours of conversation I think I’ve ever had, exchanging ideas with songwriters and composers and artists and even a mathematician, about poetry and art and the architecture of form and so on. It was wonderful. In New Orleans, as you know, we started out talking at 4:30 in the afternoon and didn’t stop until someone noticed, “Oh, it’s ten-thirty.” My lunches and suppers with poets along the way were like that, too, almost as if we are brothers and sisters who were getting back together after some time apart as if we had known each other a long while and were just continuing an old conversation. Partly that might be because they were Facebook friends already, but more importantly, I think it is because the arts tend to create community, and sharing my poetry was like a moment of communion with those I met on this journey.

In terms of “intimations of history as well as life in the present,” I think there were cues everywhere along the way. For instance, there is a big story/history tied up in these few lines I wrote in southern California:

 

Always someone
adjusting where
the water goes.

 

At that moment, someone was adjusting the water. Always there were the people and that canvas of water and plains and mountains and desert unrolling before me, much of it new to me. And I didn’t realize how much I love our trees and the rolling fields of Wisconsin until I got back home from this sojourn into other landscapes.

 

75 degrees
and drizzling in Wisconsin,

as if to say: Welcome home
from that other country,

the hot, dry one.

 

MHR: What would you suggest to other poets wanting to cultivate a community beyond their immediate locale? 

TOM MONTAG: On this trip, in terms of creating community, the first thing to notice is that I reached out to people I already had some connection with, usually on Facebook. So, in a way I was a “known quantity,” and so were they.

The second thing: in most cases, I was asking for “house readings,” meaning small, intimate gatherings along my route. I was not asking to be paid, though, in Victoria, Texas, Charles Alexander put out the basket “to help with gas money,” which garnered enough for three or four tanks. In some cases, I did end up in larger poetry venues, including Crescent Moon Coffee in Lincoln, where the audience must have numbered about 45-50. I am happy to read to three people, to thirteen people, to twenty-three people, or fifty.

Third: I took to calling this my “Johnny Appleseed Tour,” because one goal was to plant my books all along the way, and I did that, giving them to poets and interested attendees wherever I read. I wasn’t trying to sell books, but to share them. In turn, many poets gave me copies of their books and I came home with quite a boxful.

Fourth: I was not asking to couch-surf or find a place to stay in people’s houses. Mostly I stayed in motels, except for Austin, where I stayed with my nephew and his wife; Los Angeles, where I stayed with Fr. John; Portland, where I stayed with fellow poet Carolyn Winkler; Loveland, where I stayed with my daughter; and Omaha, where I stayed with another second cousin, Mary Patrice.

Fifth: allowing time for conversation before and after the readings, over meals, and so on, created the time and place for community to flourish. If I were to do something similar again in the future, I might spend less time focused on the poetry readings and more time on creating the space for conversation. Those conversations were the most invigorating parts of the trip.

MHR: Was New Orleans your favorite stop, when you met me and my friends? Why or why not? (Trick question)

TOM MONTAG: Certainly, there is no better Cajun food than what I had in New Orleans, and the conversation we shared was the equal of any I’ve enjoyed. In fact, when people ask me what was my most favorite part of the trip, I say: “the home-cooked Cajun food in New Orleans.”

MHR: How full was your heart when you arrived home? Does communion with readers and other writers give you sustenance?

TOM MONTAG: By the time I arrived home, I was ready to be home. I was “full,” as I like to say, or maybe even on overload. When I travel, I travel with silence — no radio, no CDs playing, just me and the words bumping around in my head. One can only do that for so long.

In terms of being lifted by those who heard me read and who talked with me along the way, yes, sustenance is the perfect word. I was flying. Generally, I find poetry to be a lonely business, but I was far from lonely on this trip. I felt loved and appreciated at every turn. That’s going to keep me juiced for quite a while.

MHR: You produced over 500 new ideas and/or poems inspired on the road. I’m sure you have work before you for some time. I’m guessing that this out of ordinary adventure kept your mind free to write. What did this trip as opposed to your home-writing discipline do to open your mind and give you those poetic inklings and fully-formed pieces? 

TOM MONTAG: Sometimes, when I travel, I fear I might be setting myself up for disappointment — going out on the road expecting that a poem will appear before me every 11.2 miles or so is a pretty big promise to make. Yet this method has worked for many years and is still working, with poems conjured up out of the world rolling past. I know there are no guarantees, but one must keep on keeping on.

When I am at home, I tend to write somewhat longer and more nuanced poems, I suppose. I wouldn’t say I’m disciplined. These poems occur irregularly, perhaps when I have been reading for a while, and something in what I’ve read gets syllables flying around in my head; or I might hear the train come through town, or a thunderstorm comes rolling in. At home, the stimuli are often less direct and less intense than when I am on the road.

There are always “real” things in my poems, whether written on the road or at home, but those written at home might have a little bit more of quantum mechanics and particle physics in them than those written on the road, where you find it harder to think the big thoughts.

My editorial process with the poems written while on the road is something like this: (1) get the poems/notes typed up; (2) identify which poems are good to go as is and start sending them out; (3) work on those which need more attention. This third step may take a while. I am still at work on poems I wrote during my visit to New Mexico in January 2016. In some cases, I admit, I struggle to recapture what it was I was trying to record, and those attempts fall by the wayside. But by and large, travel always produces poems for me. This trip was my “west of the Mississippi” tour; I wonder if I will live long enough to do a similar “east of the Mississippi” tour. And what kind of poems would that produce?

 

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Tom Montag is the author of In This Place: Selected Poems 1982-2013, This Wrecked World, and The Miles No One Wants. He has been a featured poet at Atticus Review, Contemporary American Voices, Houseboat, Basil O’Flaherty Review, and Blue Heron Review. With David Graham, he is editing an anthology of poetry about small-town America.

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Dear fans and friends of MockingHeart Review,

For the past three years, I have worked to bring you three issues a year of what I believe are works of tremendous beauty and lifted up poets in our pages for the world to admire, connect with and for all of us to be inspired. We’re in the inspiration business!

This is a one-woman operation (at this point), and while I absolutely love the work involved in putting each issue together, soliciting poets, reading submissions, editing the work with poets, and formatting the issues, I do so in my spare time in a consistently timely manner. I ‘m working on a strategic calendar for new features that will be implemented over several months.

I do this work fervently and with joy. There are no reading fees and our pages are open to highly acclaimed poets, emerging, and new poets as well. I have dedicated many hours to bring the best that comes across my desk to the world.

I hope you have enjoyed the selections I have published. I owe great gratitude to the poets and readers who have been so kind in their appraisals and who have made my work so rewarding.

It’s always a challenge to ask for money. I feel the work I do is a vocation and I am humble when it comes to soliciting donations. I was against it for some time, but I feel differently now.

The plans for MockingHeart Review need support in monetary ways. There are costs related to maintaining the website and my time has been more limited due to my own writing and the editing, ghostwriting, and sales writing I do for Childress Communication.

I’m asking now for donations to make MockingHeart Review greater than it is through more interviews, poet spotlights, new book reviews, and increased promotional activities. 

Any amount is appreciated. A few dollars here and there add up and I am thankful for whatever amount you would be able to send. Since we are not a nonprofit, I cannot offer that your donation would be tax deductible.

The button above goes to my personal PayPal account. If you have loved MockingHeart Review and feel as though your poems have been comfortably “at home” here, or if you are a reader who has enjoyed perusing our pages, I hope you will find it in your heart and pocketbook to give a little so that we can do so much more.

Thank you for your support and interest in MockingHeart Review!

Clare L. Martin, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief, MHR

 

 

 

 

A Poet’s Work is Never Done: Michelle Messina Reale

MockingHeart Review contributor, Michelle Messina Reale, was interviewed for LA VOCE di New York on her work with and poetic representation of refugees in Sicily. In March 2018, poems from this endeavor will be published as a book, “Confini,” by Červená Barva Press. Read the article at the link below.

The Poetics of Displacement

by George De Stefano

Who are the refugees? Why do they keep coming? Michelle Messina Reale on the lives of people in Sicilian refugee camps
Michelle 1
Michelle Reale
 is an Associate Professor at Arcadia University. She is the author of several collections of poetry.  She blogs about her ethnography among African refugees in Sicily at http://www. sempresicilia.wordpress.com

You can read her contributions to MHR here:
https://mockingheartreview.com/…/volume-1-is…/michelle-reale

An interview with Amber Edmonson

lostbirds(1)

MHR: First, l I want to congratulate you on Lost Birds of the Iron Range. The collection is exquisite and the poems are pristine. Can you give us some of the backstories of birds/mines which work to structure the poems?

AE: Thank you so much! This collection started as a love letter to the wild landscape of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I live. The area has a history of mining and logging that drew large numbers of European immigrants to the area in the 1800s, so the book is also a love letter to migration: the places we are from and the places we go, the things we bring with us, and what we leave behind. And that’s what I imagine the mythological birds to be—the objects of both the old and new lands, one always ceding to the other as cultures arrive and change and merge.

MHR: Can you speak to the imagined historical time that these poems would take place? What land encompasses the Iron Range as you envision it?

AE: The real-life Iron Range spans much of the Upper Peninsula and all along Lake Superior. In the U. P., the peak of modern mining was the mid-1800s, which is when I imagine much of my book’s history to occur. This is the time of the birds and the young woman whose journey we follow.  I have also included poems from the perspective of The Historian and the Historian’s Apprentice, who are from the present, looking back on the past and speculating.

MHR: What are your ideas of why poets are attracted to writing about birds? Do you believe myth plays a part in this? How were you drawn to write these poems?

AE: Oh gosh, birds are so common but also so otherworldly, aren’t they? I know “poets writing about birds” is a cliché, but I also think cultures have been exploring the idea of birds for millennia, so I doubt any of us are giving up soon! (When Nicci Mechler at Porkbelly Press sent me my acceptance for this book, she noted that it was one of several bird collections she had received. Eek!) I hadn’t intended to write a collection initially. It was just one poem (I forget which one, or if that one even made it into the final draft), but after the first poem, they just started flowing, each one inspiring the next.

MHR: Were any of these poems inspired by dreams?

AE: Only the waking dream of living in this place! I am answering these questions half a mile down the road from a place literally called The Yooper Tourist Trap, which boasts a giant chainsaw out front, as tall as a house. The chainsaw’s name is Big Gus. And then there are the ethereally beautiful stretches of wilderness: waterfalls and winding trails through cedars and the untamable shore of Lake Superior. And then there’s the way the wilderness is interrupted by the eerie, terraced mines on the horizon. So, none of the poems were inspired by actual dreams, but there’s something very surreal about living here.

MHR: There is a line in “The Historian’s Apprentice Shares a Secret,” that reads “what is written removed from what is true.” What guides you to remove language to uphold structure and sense in a poem?

AE: Oh, that’s a great question! I often find that I tend toward too many words when my core words aren’t quite right—when they aren’t “what is true.” If my noun is off, or my verb, then I try to nudge them into the right direction with adjectives and adverbs and metaphors. Lately, my goal has been to cut away all of that, to cut down to the barest essence of what I am trying to say. My poems have gotten very small lately, something closer to silence.

MHR: Birds seem to take on mystical qualities in these poems. Did this liberate your language and enable you to be visionary while grounding the work in the various narratives? Did you find that the mystery of birds allowed for the poems to transcend the mundane?

AE: It really did. A few years ago, I read an essay by poet Fleda Brown where she lamented that her poems often stayed too close to the shore, and I wanted to use these poems as an opportunity to explore the more “out-there” waters for myself. The poems let me take more mundane elements—the scent of cardamom found in traditional Finnish bread, for example, or the mending of clothes—and couple them with these mythological birds. It was such a freeing exercise.
MHR: You have two poems, “Motherland I” and “Motherland II” What is the journey to which you allude?

AE: These poems follow a young woman as she leaves Finland with her husband so he can work in the Upper Peninsula’s copper mines. Those were some of the last poems I wrote for the collection (I think I originally had twenty-seven before paring it down for Porkbelly’s micro-chapbook contest), and I hope they helped to ground the themes of migration and home with the experience of one specific character.

MHR: How can someone purchase your chapbook?

AE: Lost Birds of the Iron Range is available through Porkbelly Press: https://porkbellypress.com/catalog/micro-chapbooks/2017-series/edmondson/

MHR: Thank you for taking the time to respond to our questions.

 

Edmondson

Amber Edmondson is a poet and book artist who lives in Michigan’s
Upper Peninsula. Her work has appeared in publications such as Diode
Poetry Journal
, Menacing Hedge, and MockingHeart Review. She is the
author of two chapbooks: Darling Girl (dancing girl press 2016) and
Lost Birds of the Iron Range (Porkbelly Press 2017).

 

An interview with Terri Kirby Erickson

Becoming the Blue Heron cover 300dpi
Becoming the Blue Heron, Press 53

www.terrikirbyerickson.com

BUY
Becoming the Blue Heron
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MHR: I must say this book was a complete delight and worthy of awe. Your poems are rooted in story which sometimes take on fresh mythologies; incorporating family memories, nature, and myriad sensualities. Combined, this speaks to your skill as you weave these themes into finely wrought narratives. Can you illuminate us to something of your writing process? Do you have a schedule for writing? How do you begin a poem and how do these initial underpinnings become the finished art?

TKE:  Thank you so much for the kind words, Clare.  I admit to having no writing discipline, whatsoever.  I write when something moves me to do so—an image, an idea, a bit of family history that someone passes along to me, my own memories of experiences from childhood and beyond.  I begin a poem with no idea, usually, of where it will end up.  For example, I wrote a poem the other day based on the motion of the tall trees in the churchyard behind our house, how the tips of the branches reminded me of sea anemones as they waved in the wind.  Around that central image, I crafted a poem that took me on a journey from that particular vision to somewhere else entirely.  The finished art happens when I read through the work and feel it says exactly what I wish to say, the way I intended to say it—and most importantly, whatever was said has some universal appeal.  I bear in mind, always, that I’m writing “to” someone and not talking to myself in front of a mirror.  Poetry isn’t an exercise in introspection.  It’s a conversation between the poet, the poem, and potential readers.

 

MHR: These poems are at once exciting and meditative. Do you practice meditation or have a unique prayer process that sometimes leads to the discovery of poems?

TKE:  I believe that I live, for the most part, in a meditative, prayerful state.  I don’t have particular prayer times or go to church on a regular basis, but I am in constant communion with the God of my understanding—mostly expressing gratitude, but sometimes asking for mercy upon myself, the people I love, and the world as a whole.  Life is a difficult, though entirely worthwhile business.  I know myself to be a broken human being to whom grievous and agonizing harm has come again and again, yet I remain ecstatic to be alive on this gorgeous and ever-changing planet of ours.  I am thrilled every morning when I wake up because I know when I open the curtains and blinds in our house, if my eyes are in working order and the world is still with us, I will see the sky, which floors me every day with its beauty!  It is this exquisite feeling of being present in such a glorious setting, privileged to see what God has made for the delight of the creatures He created, that so often leads to poems.

 

MHR: In each of these poems, the voice never falters. There is a refreshing immediacy in the language. This speaks to your skill but it also sparks the idea that you are deeply attuned to life and nature.  Are you writing when you are not writing? Can you speak to this?

TKE:  I spent most of my childhood outdoors, the natural world my playground.  And as long as I can remember, in the midst of seeing what I saw when lying in the grass, climbing trees, and playing games with my friends, metaphors came to me easily and quickly.  I often thought about how “this” was similar to “that,” always looking for comparisons.  For example, I wrote a poem at the age of ten, comparing dirty snow by the side of the road, to old newspapers—the same faded and yellowing “paper,” the dirt like newsprint.  So yes, in some sense I am always and have long been “writing,” even if all the words haven’t yet found their way to paper or to a computer screen, which is where I do most of my composing these days.

 

MHR: Becoming the Blue Heron is your fifth collection. When you read your own work do you sense the development of your poetry? What changes have you noticed in your writing from the first book to this one? Do you have any advice for your younger poet-self?

TKE:  I think my confidence level is the main difference, although I hope, also, that every collection is better than the one before it.  I can’t make that judgment, myself, because I’m too close to the work.  But I never want loyal readers (those who have read and enjoyed my poetry thus far) to say. “Bless her heart.  Maybe TKE needs to find something better to do with her life!”  I definitely want my poems to remain accessible and I believe they are, but perhaps as I’ve grown older and richer in experience and insight, my poems reflect that growth, adding a few more layers of meaning to poetry that is more complex than it might appear at first glance.  If there is anything I would say to my younger poet-self, it would be to live as fearlessly as possible, to never stop feeling everything intensely, even when it hurts.  Then, when the time comes to reflect on our emotions “in tranquility,” as William Wordsworth so eloquently stated, we have so much more material from which to draw.  I’d say the same thing, however, to people who are not writers.  A life well-lived, in my opinion, is one in which we have been completely and willfully present.

 

MHR: Many of these poems work from memory—memories of stories you heard as a child, childhood memories themselves, nostalgic family scenes. In the poem “Zydeco,” (which as a Louisiana poet and publisher, and lifelong resident, I wish I had published), you draw such a complete and insightful picture of a Louisiana Zydeco performance in an Opelousas dancehall. Can you tell me about this poem—how memory infused it so that you were able to capture such an authentic feeling for the experience?

TKE:  Sadly, I’ve never personally experienced an Opelousas dancehall, but when I lived in Louisiana in my early twenties, I heard plenty of Cajun and Zydeco music.  In writing the poem, “Zydeco,” I used a combination of imagination, research, and memories of how those soulful, sensual, and lively songs made me feel, to try and convey to readers the joyful abandon of dancing (for the most part, in my living room!) to these particular melodies and rhythms, and how it might feel to do so in the company of strangers and friends brought together by their love for this life-affirming music.  Music, like poetry, is a powerful unifying force, and I dare anyone to listen to Zydeco and try to feel anything but good!

 

MHR: Light is a motif in this book. What to you is the power of light as it appears in Becoming the Blue Heron?

TKE:  “Light” is used to symbolize God, faith, and holiness throughout the Christian Bible, with verses such as Psalms 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path,” and John 8:12:  “Then spoke Jesus again to them, saying, I am the light of the world…”  As a Christian by faith, everything I write reflects my feelings and impressions of God and His creations, even when faith and God are not mentioned in the work.  Like C.S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  In Becoming the Blue Heron, specifically, the word “light” is also used as another word for “soul” or the essence of life in every living thing, as well as a symbol for illumination.  I believe we are here to learn and grow in wisdom and love for our brothers and sisters in this world, not only our human companions but the blue herons and honeybees, horses and barn owls.  People speak of moving toward the “light” as we transition away from our lives on earth to our eternal lives with God, but I believe each of us contains what many refer to as the “divine spark,” already, and in my view, we either tend that God-place in ourselves by practicing kindness, compassion, and love, or allow it to be extinguished by hatred and prejudice, fear and indifference.  In my own journey, I strive to keep my tiny portion of light glowing as well as I can and to look for and write about the light in others.

 

MHR: Again, about Louisiana—since MockingHeart Review was born and bred in Louisiana—can you tell me a bit about your life when you lived here? What were some of your best memories?  Did you have a favorite Louisiana meal?

TKE:  Decades ago, I lived in Alexandria, Louisiana, with my ex-husband who was stationed at England Air Force Base.  It was July when I arrived and hot as Satan’s tie clip, the air heavy-laden with humidity.  Naturally, insects abound in that moist environment so we had our share of palmetto bugs, the first I’d ever seen.  They were the size of polo ponies and surprise, surprise, palmetto bugs can fly!  I discovered this important fact while attempting to encourage them (with a broom!) to exit the kitchen of our tiny rental house, where each room was painted a different rainbow color.  For a brief period, I worked as a hostess in a seafood restaurant but soon found a day job as a sales clerk in women’s “fine” apparel at the (now defunct) Wellan’s Department Store.  After four or five months of helping women in their search for wedding dresses, furs, and other finery, I found my “dream” job and worked as a copywriter at KALB Radio/Television station until the day we moved back to NC.  Among my favorite foods were shrimp po’boys, heavy on the cayenne pepper, particularly since they were inexpensive and gourmet meals weren’t in our budget, and my dear friend, the late Narcille Mayeaux’s homemade candy, famous in her hometown of Pineville and beyond.  I remember my time in Alexandria with great affection, and the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of one of our most unique and culturally rich states have made their way into more than one of my poems!

 

MHR: Your poem, “Rail Walking” made me gasp pleasurably. It’s one of many that begins in nostalgia and transcends sentiment to rise to high art. Your great-grandfather in the poem takes on a mythic aura. The poem is rooted in the real but glows with an otherworldliness. Can you give us a bit of insight into how this poem came to be and how the narrative led you to an almost supernatural finish?

TKE:  My great-grandfather, Samuel White, was a Primitive Baptist preacher and a coffin maker, who lived to be 89 years old.  He and my great-grandmother resided with my grandparents from the time my mother was a child, so she and my uncle have many memories of him and his life that they have shared with me over the years.  By the time I was old enough to know him, myself, “Papa” had already had several strokes, so my recollections are of a gentle, kindly old man who never said much and was difficult to understand.  There are photos, however, of a handsome man with black hair and blue eyes who, as told to me by others, could charm birds and squirrels from the trees and I mean this literally!  We have a family photograph of Papa with a squirrel sitting on his shoulders and this, I am told, was not an infrequent occurrence.  Animals loved and trusted him, and people did, too.  So I have a great deal of material from which to draw when it comes to writing about this sweet-natured man, which I tried to put to good use in “Rail Walking.”  This was something my great-grandfather loved to do, according to my uncle–often going on long walks along the railroad tracks. So as I was coming to the close of this poem, in my mind’s eye I could see him there, his long stride, his concentration on and appreciation of the beauty surrounding him, imagining what his innate kindness would look like to someone with eyes to see the light of his good soul, brightly shining…

 

MHR: There is an array of animals in these poems. Do you feel that your relationship to wildlife lends itself to your poetry so well because of their ultimate mystery? I mean, we don’t always know about them because they live apart from us, peeking into our lives as blessings—and they literally don’t speak.

TKE:  Because I was a shy and introverted child, often told (by adults) that I appeared to be older in speech and actions than my years would seem to indicate (I often joke that I was at least 35 when I was born!), I wasn’t all that comfortable with people other than close friends and of course, my family.  I loved animals, however, and we had a number of pets in our house, including turtles, lizards, a parakeet named “Pete,” an incredibly long-lived and beloved cat, and about a zillion goldfish.  And as I said earlier, I spent most of my childhood outdoors when weather permitted, and found a great deal of comfort and peace in the presence of animals, birds, and even insects because they seemed so carefree and happy, and nothing was asked of them but to be their own gorgeous and mysterious selves.  I’m “inside” more than “outside” these days, but I’m still fascinated by and enthralled with our fellow sojourners on this earth–creatures who never speak but have so much to say when it comes to teaching us how to live in the moment.

 

MHR: You have a measured, sensual voice which speaks to skill in your craft. I sense you write for yourself but are ever-aware that your work is a gift to the world and the people in it. Am I accurate in saying so?

TKE:  When I’m writing, I do try to remain conscious that my poems are meant to be read and that writing them is not just some cathartic writing exercise intended for me, alone.  I strive to be real and honest in my interpretation of whatever it is that I’m writing about and to satisfy myself in this regard, but I also want to weave into the “story” or “narrative” of the poem, common threads that are familiar to others.  For example, if I’m writing about my grandmother or any other family member, I hope to stimulate a reader’s memory of a similarly beloved person in their own lives.  And if the subjects are blue herons, blue jays, frogs, red and white tulips, and on and on when it comes to my attempts to celebrate the natural world, I’m doing my best to take the reader along with me into the fields and creeks and woods as if we are friends linking arms and experiencing it all, together.

 

MHR: And lastly, the book ends with the title poem, “Becoming the Blue Heron.” Can you give us some insight into why you placed this poem last in the book?

TKE:  In several weeks, I’ll be 59 years old, which is rather an unbelievable age that will probably leave a few people wondering how many years I intend to be 59!  But I’ve never been reluctant to reveal my age because I feel it is a mark of valor that I’m still here, still speaking in coherent sentences for the most part, and continue to have a sense of humor!  So the poem, “Becoming the Blue Heron,” in my own mind, is about transformative experiences, about stepping out of one’s comfort zone and allowing ourselves to be free from self-doubt, guilt, regret, and the weight of old sorrows, and to “fly” into the unknown (i.e., aging and its ultimate conclusion) with courage, hope, and lightness of spirit–so light, in fact, that flight changes into something we can do, if only in our imaginations.  As a person who has endured a variety of health challenges since birth, it has been difficult to maintain a cordial relationship with a body that continues to “act up.”  So imagining myself stepping out of the confines of a less-than-ideal form was in itself freeing, and seemed like it ought to be the final statement of the collection.  I wanted to end the book by saying let go, let go, of anything that weighs us down, my loves–let go and don’t look back!

 

MHR: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions.

TKE:  It was a pleasure, Clare.  Thank you for your insightful questions, your sensitivity, your support of other poets and writers, and for your own fine work, which I have long admired!

MHR: Thank you!

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Terri Kirby Erickson is the author of five full-length collections of award-winning poetry, including her latest book, Becoming the Blue Heron (Press 53, 2017). Her work has appeared in the 2013 Poet’s Market, Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry,” Asheville Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, JAMA, Literary Mama, NASA News & Notes, North Carolina Literary Review, storySouth, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, Verse Daily, and many others. Awards include the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize, Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award, Atlanta Review International Publication Prize, Gold Medal in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and a Nautilus Silver Book Award. She lives in North Carolina.