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.
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).
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.
MHR: In a few of the poems, we encounter the heart. There is a great tradition of writing about the heart. What does it signify to you poetically and what is your renewed vision of that metaphor, in a poem like, “squatter?” Also, why the male personification of “heart” in that specific poem?
DB: Let me start with addressing your question about male personification. When I was in my teens, twenties, and thirties, my poetry was relentlessly autobiographical and confessional. When I returned to writing in earnest in my fifties, I was bored with my personal narrative. Over the past year and a half, I’ve thrown myself into exploring alien poetic forms, personae, and source material. As a young adult, I would never have written poems that looked as these do on the page—so full of space and so spare. At that time as well, I would probably have chosen a narrator who was more of a mirror image. Now, in contrast, I am much more curious and much freer as a poet. I don’t want to be bound to my gender or to any other aspects of my identity when I write.
Too, Portland, Oregon has a large community of unhoused people. Most are men. Many are veterans. Every day on my walk to work, I watch their ingenuity in surviving in marginal spaces, admiring their scrappiness and savviness. To me, the heart is like that, a crusty survivor.
Finally, the heart figures prominently in my work because it is so damn insistent—it clenches, thunders, hungers, feigns indifference. As “systole/diastole” says, the heart is “membranous” and “cussed.” It wants what it wants and to hell with the rest.
MHR: Your poem, “how the blessed travel,” opens the chapbook. In it are the lines, “there they go/with a sound/like a piccolo” These lines fit wonderfully with the rhythm of the piece itself. How did this auditory image come to you?
DB: This chapbook contains many mobile and birdlike slight poems. They flit about with their hollow bones. The word piccolo is both visually playful on the page and fun to say. It captured the image of a tiny little holiness hitching a ride on that perfect emblem of the spirit—the singing bird.
MHR: “Sitting on the wall,” is a poem of vibrancy and energy. It is as though a veil is lifted from our eyes to see into burgeoning reality. Do you identify as a prescient or visionary poet?
DB: Yes, I do. I feel compelled to write. I wake in the night urgent to begin and often have to fight to stay in bed. My head vibrates all day long with an electricity that’s only released at the keyboard. When I write ekphrastic poems, the story emerges as if whispered, as if the paintings possessed me until I got it right. In the same way that a medium gets caught up in a trance, I disappear into my creative process. I feel most at home there.
“Sitting on the wall” is one of many poems that I have written to deal with my disappointment at rejection. There are days when I receive 5-8 rejection notices. Even though I understand it’s an unavoidable part of the writer’s process, I still feel a welter of sadness, frustration, anger, confusion, isolation, envy, and so on. The way I deal with this is to write more. I imagine scenarios in which someone doesn’t get what they wanted—in love, at work, in the family, and so on. This poem, while ostensibly about a single woman embracing her aloneness at dusk, holds this other pain inside it like a seed.
MHR: In “with the insight of vast differences,” we are brought into a mythic space. The vehicle is not merely a plane, but the poem itself which carries us. In the third section, you make a breathless pronouncement. Can you decode that for us?
DB: My physical world is very small. I live within a couple miles of my work. I spend most days within a couple miles of my home. I walk each day in the same parks. I am largely a creature of habit living on limited means. That said, every day, I find something worth writing about. Every day within the familiar, I locate something new and strange: an encounter, a painting, a quotation in a book, a news story. My poem’s final pronouncement summarizes my life or stands like a legend on my family crest: “we are all of us being born //…into newness //even if the place we have arrived // is the very place from which we only recently departed //”
MHR: Who is the subject of the “Hungry” and how do you know her?
DB: The process of aging in a female body is fraught as, traditionally, women’s bodies have been predominantly sexualized. As a teacher, my physical presence, my sensuality as it were, has been one of many tools to be used in the classroom to attract and maintain attention. Now that I am in my 50s, however, my relationship with my body has changed as has the way others see me in my body. Now I tend to evoke the motherly or grandmotherly. I have entered the crone phase, becoming more like a witch-woman who lives in a shack in the woods and gathers herbs for simples. My identity as a poet superimposes itself on that of the witch, as I collect anything and anyone that I might weave into my craft. The birds and the plants don’t always welcome the crone’s attentions just as my poetic subjects don’t always warm to the analysis they receive at my hand.
MHR: “Luminescence” evokes a deep sensuality. This is repeated effectively in “wild(er)ness.” Does nature lend itself to you for sensual or sexual sensations?
DB: Without a doubt, nature evokes the sensual, and in all seasons: the almost indecent fecundity and horniness, the storms, the maturation, and ripeness. Seeds and blooms mimic genitalia. Nature is profligate and insistent. Too, the natural world can express heartlessness and indifference as do we when consumed by our own hungers.
MHR: You’ve drawn so much out of the natural world. What do you find to be key that prompts you to knit a poem out of dream and dark as in “To the Dark Boundary?”
DB: This poem came to me in the liminal moment between sleep and wakefulness. I was taken by the image of my feet having independent agency from the rest of me as they are, instead, always my servants. I found it charming to follow them for once and go where they wanted to go, to have the dusty, gnarled, stinky part of me in the lead. My feet seemed so much less self-conscious than I usually am—perhaps precisely because they were liberated from my overly-analytical brain.
MHR: “Dutiful” seems to speak of the poet’s curse and blessing to create from experience. Can you explain your understanding of this poem? Am I off the mark?
DB: Off the mark would be too strong. I’m always delighted to see what people receive from my work. I much prefer being offered an interpretation that is slightly askew to my intentions than just the comment “I don’t get it”(or radio silence) and a pause in which I am expected to explain it.
I love that you saw the poet’s project in this poem. It is that and so much more. As a mother, I have an on-going sense of being pendant on others, a duty to watch out for and encourage. As a teacher, I also have a set of obligations to entertain yet instruct, to hold the large space of the class while making room for all the individual egos within it. As a wife, I have obligations to my spouse. As a daughter, I have yet others to my parents. As a poet, I have a duty to my craft and to my voice. All these roles with their attendant sacrifices are often underappreciated by their recipients. Thus, it falls to me to encourage myself. “What I’m doing seems to be working.” I could abandon my various posts, “I imagine letting go…I could follow as if by plan.” But I can’t. “Steeled by duty,” I carry on. For better or for worse, these are my identities. At the end of the day, it is up to me to garland my own head and say, “well done.”
MHR: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Devon.
DB: My pleasure!
Devon Balwit is a teacher/poet living in Portland, OR. She has four chapbooks—How the Blessed Travel (Maverick Duck Press), Forms Most Marvelous (forthcoming with dancing girl press), In Front of the Elements, and Where You Were Going Never Was (both forthcoming with Grey Borders Books). Her recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Non-Binary Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Almagre Review, The Stillwater Review, The Tule Review, Red Earth Review, The Free State Review, Front Porch, Cease Cows, Concis, and Eunoia Review.
MHR: Sensuality is palpable throughout the collection. I am drawn to ask you about “Toulon, 1971.” So much is unsaid of the Spanish lover, and yet we are clear about who he is to the speaker. Can you speak to the idea of capturing a scene/moment/character indirectly rather than by explication?
KCH: First, Clare, I want to thank you and MockingHeart Review for publishing my work and for the opportunity of this interview. I think the best writing never explains but engages us through stories that allow us to reach our own insights. Initiation into sex, first love, loss, rejection and the entire spectrum of human sentiments and interactions are, obviously, universal. But it is the specificity of individual experience that allows us to relate on common ground. Most of our stories are amazingly similar. It is authentic emotion in singular instances that allows us to relate to these shared experiences in new, revelatory ways. This is the essential beauty of creative expression.
MHR: Do you study Eastern philosophy? I am thinking the poem, “April Note,” in the second section, which is titled “In the Silence of Snow.” In this section, you are able to capture the “tableau” of seasons with a Zen-eye. Do you feel observation of nature and the seasons affects the poetic mind’s inclination towards contemplative poems?
KCH: I see nature as incredibly interactive not as pastoral and impassive as it is often portrayed in poetry. We are an integral part of the natural landscape whether we honor, respect and work within it or whether we try to subjugate and abuse it. I have great reverence for its power. I’ve studied various spiritual paths and, perhaps, there’s a Zen-like influence in my approach. I seek to capture the less expected or pedestrian responses to the natural environment, the nuances that we miss in a busy, noisy world.
MHR: I am deeply impressed with your economy of line and the precision of your line breaks. They are clean almost like breathing. Do you read poems aloud as you are drafting and revising?
KCH: Thank you, Clare. That’s lovely. Yes, I do read aloud continually. It is critical to the appropriate rhythm. Ideally, a poem is read and heard. The poet has to be mindful of both aspects—it should work optimally at all levels. I believe one misplaced comma can make a big difference. I learn much about my poems when I hear others read them. Inevitably they will stumble in places where I hesitate myself and am most uncomfortable. It shows me something is off. There must be proper flow. I also review videos of my readings. Often the perceptions we have while reading are quite different when we see them more objectively as an observer.
MHR: Themes that you explore are love, contemporary life, consumerism, history, landscapes and our impact on them. Would you add to this list?
KCH: Yes, most definitely. I would say wounds and healing. We are all wounded in various ways. Forgiveness is often misunderstood. It is an organic process that evolves once we face transgressions head on, holding others and ourselves responsible and working through the pain. It is not about absolving people. We are all angry, although it’s not an acceptable form of expression and is confused with violence—that is not acceptable or necessary if one processes anger properly. Acknowledging we are all perpetrators and victims to one extent or another allows for compassion that is more genuine than forgiveness. There is no secret ingredient, magic thought process or sacred ritual that achieves this; only hard work and brutal honesty about others and ourselves. People confuse peace and truth. If you seek peace you cannot always accept truth because you compromise. If you always strive for truth, your peace will grow from that. As the saying goes, we are only as sick as our secrets. This is why I write as honestly as I can about working through maternal incest and childhood abuse and how abuses such as these can permeate all of our relationships and interactions in life.
MHR: I sense in your style that you are adept at making poems fold in on themselves. Can you give us insight into your poem-writing process? You can speak of craft, language, and poetic vision.
KCH: I believe the poem should startle, create an “aha” moment, even a twist at the end. It should lead us away from conditioned responses. Further, if it creates an epiphany or catharsis of some kind, that’s a great bonus. Poems that just describe or dictate are not enlightening. We want to take the familiar and make it fresh. After all, we go to a poem to discover some new insight about the world and ourselves. Craft is, of course, essential. Choice of form, finding the right language, and correct structure. “Poetic vision” sounds so elevated but, actually, it’s true. Often lines pop into my head, in dreams, upon waking or through observations. In truth, the best work is not conjured or forced but comes through us as a vessel. You can call it the muse, the divine, God, but it all amounts to the same thing. There is a universal, communal force we can tap into if we are open and available to it.
MHR: How was the sequencing determined in this collection? What made you decide to divide the book into segments?
KCH: Initially there were no segments. These developed organically as I began to organize how I would sequence the poems in the book. Some were more relevant to relationships, some to political, social and ecological concerns, some to personal healing and others to resolutions. But I see them as all connected in one sense or another. The epigraphs and quotes I included were discovered along the way and just felt appropriate.
MHR: Some of the poems seem confessional. How do you balance the personal when made public in your poems? Do you think it is necessary for the poet to designate the speaker as “I” in poems for a personal processing of the emotional impetus that sparked them?
KCH: In a sense, some of the poems in Out From Calaboose are confessional in their details and references. Using “I” as the speaker is not essential to the point or impact of a poem. However, I find that using the personal references creates a greater connection with my audience. People will come up to me and say they were immensely touched by my personal revelations and it sparked reactions based on their own experiences, even though those situations may not be exactly the same. The most important element is the genuine emotion behind the words. In the poem “A Thin Season” I pay homage to a teenager beheaded by terrorists for listening to pop tunes in his father’s grocery store. A true story. It’s not my story but properly told it can stir our emotions and create an empathetic heart.
MHR: What are some highlights of your process? Do you prescribe times to write or do you write on the go? Both?
KCH: I would say both, although I do a lot of my work in the morning hours when I’m alone at my desk before the household gets moving. The most critical aspect of writing is to authentically recreate from real life experiences at a very visceral level. It’s also important to write consistently. If there’s a block, do some journaling about the block! There’s much to be said for discipline, for showing up, as they say. Then review, edit, rewrite and do it all again and again. It is also important to work in community with other writers and poets. Read, read, read as much as possible and listen to others. It’s not only informative but sparks inspiration. Recently, I’ve been writing a lot of reviews and am so pleased to be published by the American Book Review, Compulsive Reader and others. I also befriend the media, social and local, and have gotten newspaper, magazine and radio interviews. We need to build a solid, genuine platform and then ask! I work hard to keep my website exciting and updated.
MHR: How many years was this book in the making? Can you tell me about the Nirala Series?
KCH: In all, the poems cover three decades. I published individual pieces during that time, as noted in the acknowledgments. But the time had to be right to pull it all together. It’s wonderful that there are so many opportunities to publish in today’s world. But it’s a slippery slope regarding quality. I’d rather put out one book occasionally than many I feel are less than what I expect from myself. A representative from Nirala, the wonderful poet Yuyutsu Sharma, met me at a book launch for a poet they had just published, whose work I had edited. I read during the event and he approached me afterward. From there I forwarded a manuscript that was accepted, and we worked on it for over six months to bring it to fruition. Nirala is wonderful to work with and did a beautiful job on the book. They’re global publishers based in New Delhi, India but have a large series of authors from around the world. I also had the input of bestselling author Linda Gray Sexton, daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, who made editing suggestions. We share similar backgrounds and family dynamics, and I greatly appreciate her input and friendship. Poet Roberta Gould, who just published her eleventh book of poems and is a great friend, wrote the Foreword. And I was blessed to receive many great blurbs and reviews. Robert Milby, just named Poet Laureate of Orange County, NY where I reside, is another great friend and has been instrumental in supporting me with readings and events. I also host a monthly poetry salon in my home that focuses on strong feedback and critical analysis of our work.
MHR: You have a poem titled, “Out from Calaboose.” Why did you choose this as the title of the collection?
KCH: A calaboose is a small, local jail that, to me, represents self-imprisonment from wounds we carry with us that require healing. So much work I’ve done over the years has led me to the door of my calaboose. But stepping over that threshold is a daily process, moment by moment, and we must remain ever vigilant. The poems are an impetus to that vigilance.
Out from Calaboose can be purchased via Amazon or at Karen’s website: www.karencorinneherceg.com
Karen Corinne Herceg graduated from Columbia University and has graduate credits in editing, revision, and psychology. A recipient of N.Y. State grants, she has featured at major venues such as The New York Public Library, The Queens Museum, The Provincetown Playhouse, St. John’s University, Binghamton Community Poets, Calling All Poets Series and many others with such renowned poets as Pulitzer Prize winners John Ashbery and Philip Schultz and poet William Packard, founder of The New York Quarterly.
Her first volume of poems was Inner Sanctions. Nirala Publications released her second book, Out From Calaboose: New Poems, in November 2016. She publishes poetry, prose, essays and reviews in a variety of magazines and literary journals here and abroad including the prestigious American Book Review. Her work is read on various radio broadcasts. Karen has been working with Khalilah Ali, writing her memoirs as the former wife of the legendary Muhammad Ali.
Karen is listed with Poets & Writers and is a member of The Academy of American Poets, PEN America, The Poetry Society of America, The Woodstock Poetry Society and CAPS. Her website is: www.karencorinneherceg.com and you can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
MHR: Your chapbook, Benign Protection, (Cervena Barva Press), is dedicated to your deceased parents. How were these poems beneficial to your grief process?
AEP: Writing the poems was the grieving process. My father died at 91 in 2004; my mother at 92 in 2012. When I was a teenager my mother and I made a pact; whoever died first would let the other know what death was like. I imagined that she would appear to me in a dream shortly after her death; she didn’t. The poems became the dream.
MHR: The chapbook opens with the poem” The River Styx.” On this journey you set upon, we are with you. You take us into myriad griefs. Can you tell us about the process of sequencing which lends itself very well to the reading experience of these poems?
AEP: The first part of the book is about my mother – the second part about my father. I wanted to play with their life-times and insert those poems into the liturgical calendar, but make the movement circular and not linear. The reader crosses over in the first poem – into the memory of life in Brooklyn – then into the Virgin Birth – and the journey into Christmas/Epiphany/Lent/Easter – leaving that for the secular – back to memory – lost family members (“Matryushka” is for my maternal great-grandmother – whose name is long forgotten) and leads to the supreme dream – “I have been to Samarqand.” “Fog,” the last poem is the reprise – it is gentle – we cross over in the first poem; we roll over with the world in the last one.
MHR: The poem “Without Form” is a poet’s eye, looking always to the unknowable. Can you speak to the mystery and mysticism in which you ground the dish, plate, brush, house, and kitchen so well? Maybe a few words of how the ordinary is essential when writing the extraordinary.
AEP: The ordinary is always extraordinary. I wrote the poem a few months after my mother died – it was summer – it was very hot – I was alone in my house looking at items I had taken from her apartment – things she had touched, used, loved. My house is haunted. The ghosts were noisy that day. It was a perfect storm.
MHR: We embrace the experience of your longing in a poem like “East 16th Street.” The business of the aftermath of death is its own heartache. Can you speak to the way you weave the “necessary business” experience into a poem, which holds emotional impact?
AEP: I like to play with line breaks – read the poems out loud to see how they move – this poem came easier than others. I was in Brooklyn – staying with friends who live 2 blocks away from East 16th Street. I walked to the supermarket – bought some item my mother would have had and then walked back down East 16th Street – hoping to see her ghost. It was a powerful moment – spring – beautiful fragrant April – no one was walking there but me. I wanted to capture that experience of profound aloneness in the poem.
MHR: Seasons and religious seasons are knitted into the shape of the book. Are you personally oriented by these seasons?
AEP: Yes – I live in New England where we have 4 seasons – the religious seasons naturally follow.
MHR: Your family’s complex Russian culture is deftly described throughout. Can you speak to some of the held beliefs about death in your personal heritage and upbringing that many readers may not be familiar with, limited to the scope of this book?
AEP: I have to answer this outside of the church. My parents were spiritual – they believed in God – were Orthodox Christians – but they did not attend church. My mother was allergic to perfume and the Russian Orthodox Church uses incense in their service. My father had escaped death several times during WW II – he believed God had spared his life. My father also believed that after he died, my mother needed to wait 7 years (as she was 7 years younger) before she died so they would be the same age when they met again. She died 2 months after her 92nd birthday. I wouldn’t be surprised if their ghosts were living in apt. 2E. They believed in a deep rich life of the soul – the eternal Easter.
MHR: On a personal note, do you have a sense, a prescience perhaps, that envisions your departed beloveds?
AEP: Yes, and that prescience ties into the life of the soul, but sometimes I think my parents have come back as my two parakeets, Fin and Gertrude, and their cage is apartment 2E. We laugh about that in my house.
MHR: What is the period that these poems were written? Can you speak about how the chapbook came to be?
AEP: From 2012 – 2015; there were more, but I edited them out to make the book tighter. I sent them to Gloria Mindock and was very happy when she agreed to publish them.
MHR: Thank you for indulging our questions. How can someone buy your chapbook?
AEP: Thank you! I have copies available. Readers can contact me at: email@example.com
Cervena Barva Press
Anne Elezabeth Pluto is Professor of Literature and Theatre at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she is the artistic director and one of the founders of the Oxford Street Players, the university’s Shakespeare troupe. She is an alumna of Shakespeare & Company, and has been a member of the Worcester Shakespeare Company since 2011. She was a member of the Boston small press scene in the late 1980s and is one of the founders and editors at Nixes Mate Review. Her chapbook, The Frog Princess, was published by White Pine Press (1985), her eBook Lubbock Electric, by Argotist ebooks (2012), and her chapbook Benign Protection by Cervana Barva Press (2016). Recent publications include: The Buffalo Evening News, Unlikely Stories: Episode IV, Mat Hat Lit, Pirene’s Fountain, The Enchanting Verses Literary Review, Mockingheart Review, Yellow Chair Review, Levure Litteraire – numero 12, The Naugatuck River Review, and Tuesday, An Art Project.
MHR: Your poems are revelations. Do you believe in the Muse as a force of nature or supernature?
AB: I do believe the Muse exists. Whichever form it has, it is there and whenever she kindles my soul I write. I am unable to write unless I am driven to words by the Muse. I am not a writer who writes every day. That’s not how it works for me. I cannot force a single word out of my pen. The spark comes to me unexpectedly and I always write a poem from beginning to end in a sitting. Sometimes I realize that it is almost a trance-like experience. I am driven. Words pour out on the page. I myself am quite fascinated by the process.
MHR: You are a poet and a translator. Where do you think your passion for language(s) come(s) from?
AB: I guess my love for languages comes from two main episodes linked to my childhood. When I was 4 and 5 years old I spent two summers in a Kinderheim in Zug, Switzerland. The Frauleins who ran the place were German-Swiss ladies and the kids who spent their summertime there were from different countries. That was my first experience in a totally international environment. It was a sort of Babel to me and it made me consciously aware that languages were not barriers, that I could learn things in a different language. The second one is connected to the 5 years I spent in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where we relocated when my dad, who was an Engineer, was in charge of the construction of two oil refineries. I attended American schools. And, it was very much a “live or die” experience! I had no other option than to learn the language. I remember I was quite fast at it. I guess I have always had a penchant for languages. I have learned French in high school and at University. I have a Master Degree in Foreign Languages. Today, translations are my daily bread. Languages have indeed shaped me!
MHR: What do you think are your dominant themes? I sense Love, History, Art, The Body, Womanhood- Woman-heart, and myriad other passions. Have I missed something or would you like to express something more?
AB: Yes, I guess you have captured many of the themes I am obsessed with or my demons. When I speak of demons, I refer to the Ancient Greek daimon, the inspiring force. Love in all its facets is indeed one of them. Art and History, too. Given the fact that I live in the Eternal city, I guess this is a sort of inevitable fate. I am the product of my historical past and my eyes and soul are imbued with art whenever I go for a stroll. I’d almost say it’s part of my DNA. The Body is a key element of my writing. Somebody told me my writing is “muscular,” I guess you can tell there is blood, sinews and heart in it! Womanhood is certainly there. Many of my icons are women and I celebrate them in my poetry. I would always love to express more in my poems. I am attracted by many themes although the ones you have mentioned are possibly the ones I feel a closer bond to.
MHR: Your poem “Les Goddesses” gives very clear professions and pronouncements about female artistic impulse. What did writing this poem teach you that you want to impart to us?
AB: This poem was inspired by a visit to an exhibition on Contemporary Art in NY here in Rome a few summers ago. The video “Les Goddesses” by Moyra Davey was part of this show. I remember sitting in this dark room lit only by the black and white video itself and being literally captured in a vortex of images and recordings. Davey recorded her life on a tape as she walked around the rooms of her home. Her lens capturing frames of her inner life and of the changes in the outside world. Her words encapsulated what she loved most. I was touched by her mentioning Alejandra Pizarnik, an Argentinean poet I am very fond of, whose work I had discovered just a few months earlier. It seemed a sign. Les Goddesses is a declaration of love to oneself, to being writers/artists, to all the artists that inspire us. I wrote this poem in a sitting—as I do most of the times – the morning after attending the exhibition.
MHR: The body is explored in the poem “Landscape with Muse” and the lovely metaphors are succinctly defined. What inspires you to write the body?
AB: I love that poem. The body I mention in the poem is Helga Testorf’s body, the Muse of painter Andrew Wyeth. The Helga paintings are immensely beautiful and they depict a sensuous woman’s body in many different poses: on a stool, lying on a bed or even in plein air. I found very intriguing how almost nobody was aware of these paintings for a long time. How both Helga and Andrew kept their work secret even to their spouses. How the 45 paintings and innumerable drawings that span a cycle of almost fifteen years were stored at the home of one of Wyeth’s students. Those drawings and paintings are an amazing tribute not just to Helga, but to the woman’s body. Wyeth candidly admitted that he had to fall in love with the model he was working with and you can tell! Those works simply teem with love.
MHR: Your inspiration for most of these poems are writers and artists to whom you are devoted. How does this devotion to creators sustain you as a writer?
AB: I feel a great bond with writers and artists in general. I guess the reason lies in the mutual need to recount the world via words, lines or color. Whatever the medium we choose, the aim is to depict the inner and the outside world as a present for viewers and readers. Literary works and artworks are gifts to the world. A concentrated expression of sentiments and feelings.
MHR: Do you believe we can channel other voices as poets? I do. In your poem, “Las Dos Fridas” impeccably taps another heart. Can you speak of the process in writing this poem?
AB: I hope to be able to! Frida Kahlo has inspired several of my poems. I turn to her as a sunflower to the sun. I remember distinctly how, maybe 25 years ago, I walked into a bookstore and, in the Art section, I saw a book dedicated to her. I was unaware of her work. The cover depicted a detail of her “The Broken Column” painting. In it, her backbone is a column and her body is pierced by nails as a feminine version of St. Sebastian. That sense of suffering struck a chord in me. I bought the book and have read almost any book I could find about Frida over the years. Reading her diaries has enabled me to “hear” her voice. This is why I’ve attempted to write this poem in first-person. This poem is inspired by her painting “The Two Fridas,” basically the two versions of her same self. The way she saw herself and the way Diego Rivera liked her. It’s a big painting that I’ve seen “live” here in Rome. It’s a painting that deals with the dissolution of the self, with her divorce from Diego. I have been there myself. I have experienced the end of my marriage and I have had to put together the pieces of me that were left to move forward. I can totally relate to that exposure of one’s heart. This is also why I could quite confidently use the “I” POV in this poem.
MHR: Your poems are homages to artists and writers in “Love & Other Demons.” What does your worldview say to the reader in your best guess of what is in their minds as they read these poems?
AB: Many of the poems in “Love & Other Demons” are a tribute to writers and poets I love. I hope to be able to convey to the reader this same love as it is, after all, what ignites me to write most of the time. I couldn’t imagine a closer way to touch my heart or to understand the motives of my writing.
MHR: In “Caravaggio-like Love” the form’s suspension is calculated perfectly. How did this poem come to be? Was it lightning fast or a more laborious step-by-step kind of poem?
AB: This poem is inspired by the very physical act of walking barefoot for a while and having dusty feet and then lying on the bed close to my boyfriend John who was asleep. The first thought that came to my mind was my favorite painting by Caravaggio, The Pilgrims’ Madonna, in the Roman church of St. Augustine. In it, two pilgrims are kneeling in front of Mary who is holding Baby Jesus in her arms. The canvas shows us the dirty feet of the wandering pilgrims as they revere the woman in front of them. Mary is wearing a crimson red velvet dress; whose color is unparalleled. This is a love poem for John. That red expresses in a truthful way the passion I feel for him. It was written in one sitting.
MHR: And lastly, do you believe in absolute Truths with a capital “T?” Please elaborate why or why not.
AB: This is a very philosophical question and I could write a whole essay on it! To keep it very short, I will say that I believe I have developed a more Relativist approach over the years. I find it more and more hard to relate to absolute Truths. Truths are indeed many.
Alessandra Bava is a poet and a translator living in the Eternal city. She is the author of four chapbooks: Guerrilla Blues, Nocturne, They Talk About Death and Diagnosis. Her poems and translations have appeared or are upcoming in magazines such as Gargoyle, Plath Profiles, Tinderbox, Thrush, and Waxwing. She has edited an Anthology of New American Poetry and she keeps working at the biography of a contemporary American poet.
Buy Love & Other Demons:
MHR: Many of the poems were sparked by dreams you had. Do you find that writing from dreams liberates your language?
KM: I’m not sure I’d say that it liberates my language, but writing from dreams definitely liberated my form. My tendency is to write in highly structured ways that can feel too tidy, but the shiftiness of dreams forced me to get messy in my writing process.
MHR: Each of the poems resonates the rich aura of pregnancy. Did you find, when writing the book, that the subject of pregnancy could be further explored?
KM: I was really resistant when I started writing pregnancy and baby poems. Fortunately, I realized that I should let myself write rather than fighting against my preoccupation and disruptive physical state. Each pregnancy is so different physically and emotionally, even for the same woman across pregnancies, so I think there will always be more to explore with pregnancy.
MHR: Even the poems that read like fables are grounded in the real world. Do you consider your work in this book “fabulist?”
KM: I have thought of the dream poems as connected to fabulist or speculative writing, and some of the poems do respond to and tweak existing narratives, but then there are many poems in the book that are firmly in the realm of nonfiction.
MHR: You have created a fertile world in which the reader can apprehend the poems even as the poems suggests more mystery beyond the words. Do you think you have succeeded in striking that balance in the open-endedness of the work?
KM: I do feel pretty good about the way this collection seems fairly accessible to non-poets and non-mothers (and I’ve had a couple of men say that reading my poems took them into pregnancy and childbirth in a way they could not otherwise experience). I was hoping to capture the wonder and terror of becoming a mother, and I was hoping to capture some moments of clarity in the midst of the strangeness.
MHR: Many of the poems open chasms of fear that arise from the dangers and “unknowns” of pregnancy. Did you find that writing these anxieties alleviated some personal fears?
KM: Actually, recording the pregnancy dreams and writing from them made me aware of fears that I hadn’t consciously realized and articulated for myself before. Whether or not writing them alleviated the fears at all, it did at least make me aware of them.
MHR: These poems do not look away. You have some very stark and harrowing images. I commend your bravery. Did you ever think of these poems as charms to ward off misfortunes of pregnancy?
KM: Oh, I hadn’t thought of them as charms, but thank you for seeing that possibility. I was interested in writing about pregnancy and birth in a way that acknowledged the surreal, painful, dark parts and not just the sentimental pastel images that we often associate with baby showers and newborns.
MHR: You use the line “Once upon a time there was a mother” as a device interwoven in the sequencing of the poems. Do you see these interjections as creating segments, or as places to take a breath?
KM: Originally, those section breaks were a stand-alone poem, first published in PANK as “A Whole Mother Story.” An editor at Sundress Publications suggested that the poem, which takes place entirely in footnotes, might be an interesting organizational device for the book, and I ended up taking that suggestion and using each footnote as a section heading. I think it might be both things that you suggested—those interjected footnotes did create sections of the final manuscript, and they also provide those moments of pause.
MHR: In a couple of poems, we pick up on your time spent in Louisiana. Can you speak to these poems and give us a bit of your impression of Louisiana culture as you experienced it?
KM: I lived in southern Louisiana for three years for graduate school, and I had a wonderful time there. It sometimes felt like we’d gone to another country entirely because the culture is so distinct. We fell in love with the food and the many, many festivals, and I was fascinated by the pervasiveness of Catholicism even in secular realms; when we went to an omelet festival, a priest blessed the giant pan before the cooking began. One of the poems that is especially rooted in Louisiana is “Mother Mary Comes to Be,” a multi-part poem inspired by a life-sized statue of Mary in someone’s front yard down the street from where we lived. In the poem, I explore my fascination with Mary as both virgin and mother (an impossible standard for women, incidentally), and I had a good time imagining Mary at Mardi Gras.
MHR: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
KM: My pleasure! Thank you for asking.
Katie Manning is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review and an Associate Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks, and her first full-length poetry collection, Tasty Other, is the 2016 winner of the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. She has received The Nassau Review Author Award for Poetry, and her writing has been published in Fairy Tale Review, New Letters, Poet Lore, So to Speak, Verse Daily, and many other journals and anthologies. Find her online at www.katiemanningpoet.com.
MHR: The unifying theme of the poems in Loving from the Backbone (Flutter Press, 2015) is loving which through the elements of your craft makes loving elemental. Each piece, imbued with passion, or a dispassionate understanding of love and its complexities is finely wrought. In “He Says” I sense the woman’s power is choice. Her choosing to open herself, or not. Can you speak to the woman’s power as exemplified in this poem?
Catherine Arra: I believe that everyone’s power is in the ability to understand intent, one’s own intent as well as that of others, and to choose accordingly. In “He Says,” we have a relationship that is stalled. The mating dance, courtship teases and coupling are complete. The sex is great. It’s time for the couple to go deeper into relationship or walk away. The woman is aware of her desire or intent to go deeper. She is also aware of her partner’s ambivalence or intent to keep things as they are between them. She knows he loves her, she understands his fear and her power; however, she will not use her power to hurt him but to challenge them both to grow.
In this poem, I wanted to articulate intent by what “he says.”
MHR: In “One of the Girls” you deftly draw an imaginative narrative that likens otherworldliness into a poem that is very much rooted in the world. What was the emotional impetus for this poem?
CA: The emotional impetus for this poem was a growing annoyance with sloppiness or entitled negligence in relationship. The man in the poem needs to clean out his closet literally and figuratively. He doesn’t see the ghosts of his past relationships or how they haunt the present. He is unaware of the irresolution in himself and between himself and past partners. The woman does; she intuits and mediates between past and present. She once again understands intent.
I feel poetry comes from an otherworldliness. The poet hears, discovers and gives voice to the narrative, or often to silence. She traverses and connects worlds seen or unseen, the past and present, the living and the dead.
MHR: “Premature Snow” is a personification of nature. Most of the poems in “Loving from the Backbone” display nature prominently. How does nature inspire you?
CA: Well first, I’ve never been a fan of winter, though the season has taught me how to hibernate, renew and how to have faith. Nature inspires me in all ways; it holds, moves and continually teaches me. I see myself, all mankind, all creatures as a part of one wondrous, divine organism. In nature I find endless metaphor.
MHR: There is a line in the poem “Sustenance” that reads “the recipe for life on earth.” It seems a fitting phrase to encompass the urgings of these poems. These poems give vital life lessons without being didactic. It’s as though a grace-filled voice whispers to us, “This is the way.” Do you agree or disagree?
I agree, though my intent in writing is never to instruct but to share or show. For me, poetry is a practice like yoga, of breathing and allowing life to move through me, of seeing, appreciating and assimilating what is. The “recipe for life on earth” or “love that lasts” or a poem that works is a delicate combination that may be a form of grace or prayer.
MHR: There is a languidness in the voice of the poems that shines in a quiet contentment, but in a poem like “Blind Passage,” there is a power surge. Can you speak to this?
CA: “…a languidness in the voice that shines in quiet contentment” What a lovely, poetic comment Clare.
I agree that the voice in many of the poems is sated and serene. The “power surge” you sense in “Blind Passage” is perhaps the strength of vulnerability. To love openly, instinctively, without fearful manipulation and intellectual interference is to love from the backbone. I used the quote from D.H. Lawrence to link the poem to Lawrence’s sustained literary message for mankind to stay connected to the natural world, to his instinctual nature and to understand that sex in the head is not sex at all.
MHR: In the title poem, “Loving from the Backbone,” What gave you the imaginative spark to write of the condition of human love related to reptilian life?
CA: The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the human brain. It controls the body’s vital functions: heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature and balance. Our sense of smell, hunger, thirst and our hard-wired instinct to mate are rooted in the reptilian brain, which is located in the brainstem and the cerebellum providing a direct connection to the spine that governs all movement. For me, loving from the backbone is to love instinctively, organically, in union with emotion and intellect. It is to love fully and consciously from the oldest, deepest parts of our being.
MHR: These poems are sensual and earthy. When you write about the body it is with a deft and careful hand, as though you are creating brushstrokes for a painting. Do you practice any other art forms or exercise other creative skills? If so, how do you see the interconnectedness with your poetry?
CA: I enjoy photography and can say that I practice the art of seeing. I often think visually and have a strong visual memory. I nearly became a professional photographer before I decided to become a teacher. I imagine poems with vivid imagery or an unexpected emotional sweep to be like photographs; I see photographs as poems and stories. I also practice yoga and try to live astutely and fully in and through my body. I believe that the challenging work of the artist is to come through the body, to allow the divine in and through, to give it voice and form in everything we do: writing, painting, cooking, gardening, caregiving, working, living, loving, dying. Perhaps this is the art of being a good vessel.
MHR: I read an article recently that stated that what men, heterosexual men, really want is “safe harbor” in a woman. Would you agree with that in your understanding?
CA: I think we all want safe harbor in relationship no matter our gender or sexual preference. We all want to submit to love and to be loved. Relationship requires courage and tenderness. I play with this idea in the poems, “Submission” and “The Gospel of Skies” wherein it appears that the woman submits to the male sex drive and her partner’s need for safe harbor, but in truth, he submits to her. They go together into the mystery, naked and unashamed. What they create together is safe harbor for both, “where they lie side by side in the gravity of breathing.”
Thank you, Clare, for your deeply intuitive reading of Loving from the Backbone and for taking the time to interview me.
Catherine Arra is the author of Slamming & Splitting (Red Ochre Press 2014), Loving from the Backbone (Flutter Press 2015) and forthcoming in 2017, Tales of Intrigue & Plumage (FutureCycle Press). Recent poetry and prose have been published in The Timberline Review, Peacock Journal, Flash Frontier, MockingHeart Review and Sugared Water. A former English and writing teacher, Arra now teaches part time and facilitates a local writers’ group in upstate New York. Find her at www.catherinearra.com
MockingHeart Review’s Editor, Clare L. Martin’s Seek the Holy Dark is the 2017 selection of the Louisiana Series of Cajun and Creole Poetry by Yellow Flag Press.
Seek the Holy Dark is now available for pre-order. Trade paperback, 66 pages, only $10. Pre-orders will ship in early February. To order click here.
Any new book of poems worth its salt must reinvent the intelligences of poetry: trope, word, image, argument, sentence, strophe, music. The poems in Clare Martin’s Seek the Holy Dark will keep. They are salt.
~Darrell Bourque, Former Louisiana Poet Laureate, author of Megan’s Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie and Where I Waited
From the holy dark of horror storms and freedom in the hand, to starving wolves and old women who live in woods, Clare Martin’s poetic imagery seeks in myth to locate depth of soul. She incants salvation “bone by bone” up from the shadows. Her writing has a beautiful fury, a hard questing and secret exultation that keep the reader poised and intoxicated. “Do you seek the heart too” the opening poem asks, and of course, we answer Yes and read breathlessly on. These poems “drop through this world/into dark awakening.” The strong-hearted will understand.
~Rachel Dacus, author of Gods of Water and Air
Seek the Holy Dark is a book of revelations in poems. Clare L. Martin sees the richness and the poverty that are bedmates, proffers them as gifts, lays them at our feet. Her poems suggest we join in the quest to be both humbled and exalted. Martin, who never looks away, fully understands the duality of nature, its light and darkness, exploring both in this lush and lyrical new collection.
~Susan Tepper, author of dear Petrov and The Merrill Diaries