For this interview, I re-read your “Lines of Flight” (Able Muse Press) and found tears rolling down my cheeks for the sheer beauty of thought and craftsmanship. I admire your ability to create memorable poemsâ€”lines that rise in my mind unexpectedly. “Drought,” “Lost and Found,” “Eleven” seem to me to be little masterpieces. They seem simple at first glance but end with a double whammy.
I read my poem â€œComing to Termsâ€ at the West Chester Poetry Conference First Books Panel in 2011 (though the poem was not in the book!). Afterwards, a member of the audience came up to me, tears streaming down her face, and told me how much the poem had meant to her.
A few years ago, I received a letter from a doctor from Ohio about my poem “Motherâ€™s Day”. He wrote: I literally put my hand to my chest and gasped. “Henslow’s Sparrow” was read to a poetry group in Southsea. The organizer wrote to me later saying that, when the last line was spoken: there was a great collective sigh from the audience.
These testimonials warm my heart because, though I write poems like the little elf in Millayâ€™s “Renascence”, singing sweet songs to please himself, Iâ€™m also hoping that someone, somewhere, should they chance to read or hear one of my poems, might feel a connection with my plainspoken attempts to put some kind of order into this chaos.
You sometimes work with ekphrasis. I’m thinking of “IrÃ¨ne: A Portrait,” “Zeeman’s Paradox” and “Edward Hopper’s Automat.” Would you tell us something about how poems emerge from paintings?
I donâ€™t often write ekphrastic poems. Actually, Iâ€™ve only written three. “IrÃ¨ne: A Portrait” was inspired by my having viewed the original Renoir at an exhibit in Montreal many years ago. I did some research on “little IrÃ¨ne” and my findings horrified me. The poem doesnâ€™t even begin to scratch the surface of the history behind the painting and Irene’s later life. Both “Automat” and “Zeemanâ€™s Paradox” were inspired by the work of Edward Hopper, many of whose paintings give me the goosebumps. Iâ€™m hoping to write an ekphrastic poem soon on “Girl on a Swing” by Winslow Homer, another favorite artist.
You are a Canadian poet, born in the US, and you spend time regularly in Uruguay. These very different landscapes come to life in your work. Do you see yourself as a poet of place?
Well, I donâ€™t consider myself a poet of place, and certainly not a strictly Canadian poet, but rather an American/Canadian poet. Although Iâ€™ve been living and earning my living in French Canada for the past 40-odd years, my internal landscape is, and always will be, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. A poem soon to be published in The Raintown Review, “The View from Nanny Brownâ€™s Front Porch”, portrays a wee bit of this atmosphere. Yes, I felt I had to get away (see “Journey” in Lines of Flight ). But although the multicultural and cosmopolitan aspects of cities like Montreal, Montevideo and Buenos Aires, as well as my extensive travels have added breadth, breath and color to my spirit, Iâ€™m still red, white, and blue through and through, and Iâ€™ll cheer for Team USA in the upcoming World Cup, though they donâ€™t stand a snowballâ€™s chance in hell, and though I still prefer baseball over soccer.
You have written poems about other poets and painters, (Robert Frost and Deborah Warren come to mind) and pay homage to them in various ways such as the “Cento from Emily Dickinson: I Had Some Things.” I’m not usually fond of centos but this is perfect in every way, a poem in its own right. You are an outstanding formalist poet. Sonnets are your forte, but you also master terza rima, the French repeating forms, and the Spanish ovillejo to name a few more. Why do you choose to be a formalist?
My question is: Why arenâ€™t free versers ever asked why they “choose” to write in free verse rather than in form? (Insert smiley here!) Short answer: Because Iâ€™m a nonconformist. Aside from taking the three-day workshop with Alicia Stallings at the 2011 West Chester poetry conference, I never attended a poetry class in my entire life. All I know is that, from the age of around eleven, I knew I would write, and did write, poetry.
The “formality” of it may have originated with my classical music (piano) training from the age of seven, or from the songs I sang in church. I became a church organist in the fourth grade! Or from the popular songs on the radio my mother had playing in the kitchen all day or from her lullabies as she sang to my six younger siblings in the evening. My first exposure to free verse was in high school. But I fell in love with the works of Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and never looked back.
Rhina P. Espaillat, who is one of my household gods, wrote the foreword to “Lines of Flight”. She notes your “clear-eyed understanding and acceptance of this world, whatever its shortcomings” and gives you well-deserved praise. I often marvel at how you achieve such eloquence. The secret, I think, is in your mischievous Elderberry Tale.
The secret’s in the knowing how, she said,
to measure sugar, cinnamon and clove.
For happily-ever-afters, her advice
has come in handy. As I stir my brewâ€”
the cauldron simmering with sweet and spiceâ€”
I add a pinch of snail, a frog or two.
Your new book “Glad and Sorry Seasons” (Biblioasis) is drawing acclaim. What are you brewing now?
Rhina P. Espaillat may be one of your household gods, but to me she represents even more than that. She is the reason why this interview is taking place. Although Iâ€™ve been writing poetry since I was a child, my life as a young mother and serious breadwinner made it, at least for me, impossible to devote the time and energy needed for the craft. Then, over ten years ago, having had only three sonnets and, ironically, one free verse poem published in the nineties, I quite unashamedly sent Rhina Espaillat, Richard Wilbur, and Timothy Steele some of my poems, asking for their opinion. They all replied within a few days, with high praise, encouragement and suggestions. Rhina mentioned the online forum Eratosphere, which I joined immediately. When Alicia Stallings said I should be posting on the Deep End, and Alan Sullivan praised a sonnet, and Alex Pepple invited me to act as moderator, I knew my poetry had a chance of succeeding. Little by little, my craft improved. Right now Iâ€™m putting the finishing touches on a third full-length collection, which will not elicit one â€œHuh?â€ but may â€” hopefully â€” cause a tear, a gasp or a sigh.
Thank you for inviting me to publish in Frostwriting and for this interview.
Janice D. Soderling is poetry editor at Frostwriting and a member of the university class that got us all together. She is guest associate editor for the special translation issue of Able Muse, and assistant fiction editor at Able Muse. Janice is a past featured co-reader at Transatlantic Poetry on Air, teamed up with Roberto Ascalon.