Becoming the Blue Heron, Press 53
Becoming the Blue Heron
Press 53 Amazon
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!
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.