Excerpted from . . .
Georgia Poetry Society Newsletter, June/July 2020
Interview with the editor:
You recently won the Charles Dickson Chapbook Contest. How many chapbooks have you written and on what topics?
I have published three other chapbooks. Stations of the Cross (Finishing Line Books, 2008) is a series of sonnets that are modern reflections on the Catholic tradition of prayer on scenes from the passion. The Color of Prayer: Poems on Rembrandt Painting the Bible (Shanti Arts Books, 2019) is a series of ekphrastic poems. Each poem corresponds to one of Rembrandt’s paintings. Rembrandt was not religious in any conventional sense, but his art depicts a lifelong spiritual journey. Barely Still Barely Stirring (Finishing Line Books, 2020) is a collection of poems that describe encounters with nature.
What appeals to you about the chapbook format?
I like it for several reasons. First, that it is a cheap, efficient way to make a collection of poems available to a broad readership. Second, its brevity allows the book to be read in one sitting, which adds strength to the motif holding the collection together. Internet can serve these purposes, and online publishing does have a place, but most of us still prefer to hold the book, to feel the pages as we read, and to keep it nearby so we can turn to it again and again. Another thing I like is that the format lends itself to book art. Chapbooks are ideally suited to being published on handmade paper, printed with letterpress, and individually decorated, letting the poetic and visual art forms work together.
How and why did you decide on your theme for Long Journey Home?
I have always had an interest in Greek mythology. My father was a scholar of the classics, and I grew up knowing the names and stories of gods and goddesses much as I knew names of the ball players on the baseball cards I collected. Later in life, I began to appreciate how these stories speak to us about our humanity—our human nature and how we embrace it, as well as how we sometimes want to escape it.
What was your process for writing this collection of poems and how long did it take? Do you always use the same approach in creating a chapbook?
I wrote a couple of the poems about twenty years ago. However, it was only two or three years ago that I began to write new poems with the intention of creating a chapbook. It was a case of recognizing that I had begun a chapbook without knowing it. The opposite occurred with Stations of the Cross and The Color of Prayer. With those two, I decided on the concepts that would hold the manuscripts together, then wrote the poems. Barely Still Barely Stirring was different again: I selected from poems that I had written over the past twenty-five or so years and which related to a particular aspect of nature.
What were any challenges or struggles as you were working on Long Journey Home?
One of the challenges in writing the poems in Long Journey Home was what to expect of the reader’s knowledge of Greek mythology. Poets often are advised to keep their poems accessible—to avoid esoteric allusions or academic vocabulary that cause the reader or listener to disengage from the poem. After drafting the first two or three of these poems, I realized that I was not going to be able to tap into the psychological depths of the myths without expecting the reader to know more than merely the subjects’ names. The ubiquitous smartphone and Google made the decision easy for me. So, with these poems I am assuming readers will be willing to do some of the work on their own, even if it is merely googling a couple of names. Although, I really recommend Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. The other issue particular to this type of series was whether to remain consistent with form. While I am fond of formal verse, especially the sonnet, some of the poems took on their own form. So, the manuscript is a mixture: a few sonnets, a villanelle, some blank verse, and some free verse.
Which poem in this winning chapbook is your favorite, and why?
Several come to mind. “Daedalus Laments Icarus” is a poem that underwent very little revision from start to finish. Also, the poem is an example of what I was trying to do throughout the series—to give the subjects different voices than found in traditional interpretations. “Demeter Tries Again to Pray” is another example—to make the subjects more human than archetypal. I also enjoyed writing the closing poem, a sonnet that attempts to show that the conclusion of the hero journey is never tidy.
Do you have a new poetry project in the works?
I do. I am working on a new series that uses midrash to frame the poems. Midrash is the Jewish tradition of interpreting scripture using the imagination, in addition to the usual analytics. For example, one of the poems I have so far pictures Isaac as an old man revisiting the site where his father almost sacrificed him when he was a boy. In another, I have Eve giving us her rejoinder.
Excerpted from . . .
Illinois Poets, Newsletter of the Illinois State Poetry Society, May/June 2018
Interview with the editor:
Tell us how you began writing poetry.
Being raised on a farm, I was surrounded by nature—the rhythm of seasons, the cycle of life, the raw physical sensation of it all—as well as ample time and space for solitude. Also, I was the beneficiary of teachers whose own love of poetry was contagious. Therein might be the origin of my creative process: paying close attention to nature in all its forms, reflection, and experiencing great literature.
What most inspires your writing?
More than anything else, other poets inspire me to write poetry. While life experiences give me the grist for my poems, it is reading and listening to other poets that gives me the courage to probe my experience and attempt to express what is only on the verge of language. It is as if I say to myself, “If they are brave enough to risk it, why shouldn’t I?”
Who are some of your favorite poets?
Oh, there are too many to list. Frost and Roethke helped me appreciate poetry as a way of exploring the interior self. Of the poets I keep returning to, Dickinson, Hopkins, and Wordsworth (his later work) hold a special place. Among today’s, I find that Mark Doty and Mary Oliver have much to teach me.
Recommend to our readers a few books about the craft of poetry.
Some favorites are David Lehman’s annual The Best American Poetry, a reliable one-stop source for keeping up with trends; books on craft by Mary Oliver; Edward Hirsch’s books on reading/writing poetry; and Poets Teaching Poets, edited by Gregory Orr and Ellen Voigt.
What advice would you offer poets about improving their skills?
The best way to learn to write is to read a lot of good writing; then, write yourself and seek feedback from other accomplished writers. Workshops and even MFA programs are helpful, but to learn to write, you must write with a readership in mind.
What are you working on now?
I recently completed a set of poems on Rembrandt’s art, titled The Color of Prayer: Poems on Rembrandt Painting the Bible, which has been accepted for publication by Shanti Arts. At present I am working on a series that plays off Greek myths; in each poem I am letting the story be the springboard to the poem.