Featured Poet Brenda Tate Levy
Interview by Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas
C: I’ve been lucky enough to have been granted this opportunity to interview you for Triggerfish. I’m really honored, especially since you’ve been such a wonderful mentor to me over the years. I know that you are a retired teacher and an exceptionally talented artist, but how would you describe yourself, your life?
I’ve always been highly conscious of alternatives – of other possible roads than the one I’m travelling at any given moment. I was adopted in infancy, which has coloured much of my outlook through the years. There were gaps I desperately wanted to understand, but I didn’t track down my birth family until I was almost 50, so I went through much of my life wanting to find out where I’d begun. I loved my adoptive parents; they were the only mom and dad I ever knew or wanted. But Nova Scotia had very strict limits on freedom of information for adoptees. It was the denial of a basic human right to know one’s own genetic history. Things have changed a bit since then but we are still a very restrictive province in terms of adoption-related issues.
As a young woman, I was extremely unsure of myself. I had no confidence, and perhaps that stemmed from both the adoption sensitivity and shyness as a child. My father was in the navy and only came home weekends; my mother was a teacher in a small town where everyone knew everything (or at least thought they did). So there were times when I caught the fallout from disgruntled students who must have figured it was easier to taunt a pampered only child than to take on her dragon-lady mom. I was judged as conceited when I was really just terrified of being verbally bullied. It made me socially awkward, which I still am, and I was always aware of feeling vulnerable. That has also stayed with me. But I hardly ever speak of it.
Time after time, a solid-gold nugget would fall into my lap and I’d just leap right up and knock it away! Educational opportunities were bypassed, romances sidetracked, one marriage derailed before it even had a good trial run. I think I was racing away from myself; now I write poems about that, so it’s become a part of what I create. People are often scared of self-examination, at least too closely. But poets get rather good at exhuming buried experience. It can become obsessive, this business of digging around inside one’s own skull. Fiction writers tend to mine all sorts of strata for their stories. Poets mine themselves. I do, anyway.
I also explore my personal interests with considerable passion, whether it’s hunting for fossils or planting flowers. I’ve become more of an observer, taken extra time to stop and look into the way Nature operates. My camera has forced me to become more knowledgeable about the microcosmic world I see through the lens. If I’m photographing dragonflies, spiders or birds, I want to identify and learn more about them. I keep buying guidebooks so I can read up on all the critters I’m discovering. And the visual images from the natural world find their way into my writing; there’s a cool overlap between the two art forms. I’ve only just started to use the camera as a way to express myself. I entered my first photo contest in our local garden club, three or four years ago. Now I’m on my second DSLR and have begun to collect lenses for specific types of shots. It’s addictive – again, like writing.
I’m fairly happy where I am now. I don’t exactly relish getting older but there’s no cure for it. I still have dreams and ambitions – just no real roots. Although I love Yarmouth County and have been here for almost thirty years, sometimes I ponder relocating to Wolfville where I grew up. Every time I go back there, I spend the next week dealing with homesickness. It’s strange, since my childhood memories include those moments of extreme social anxiety. But the good outweighs the negative, obviously. I still have friends in Wolfville whom I’ve known since pre-school. A small university town is a magical place to start out, and it’s just as magical to complete one’s destiny there.
C: I’ve enjoyed your websites, The Writer’s Respite and Nova Scotia Nature. You’ve received so many awards for your work in several genres, including your novel “Nightingales Don’t Cry”, recently named winner of the 31st annual Atlantic Writing Competition. Has writing always been a passion for you or was there one event in your life that propelled you to write?
I’ve always enjoyed using language. In school, English was my best and favourite subject from the get-go. I was kind of geeky about it, in fact. I wrote poetry for the school yearbook, and when I was around twelve I created a novelette – a horse story. I was big on horse stories! I just found it recently – typed all in upper case on lined paper. Yikes. I stopped writing seriously for years after I graduated from school – except for song lyrics, since I had an autoharp and enjoyed singing in public (I was never shy about that, oddly enough). I played around with the odd poem but nothing stuck. I did do scripts for youth theatre productions, in collaboration with a friend, and when I taught my drama classes I also wrote plays for them. In 1988, I applied to the school board for a summer grant to take a writers’ workshop in poetry, and I was hooked. I began to build a portfolio of my work. It was mostly narrative poems, for a long time. Then in the 1990s I got a computer, and discovered there were sites where people could post writing and exchange feedback on it. I started out slowly and tentatively, joined a couple websites and gained more confidence. TCP was my greatest “find”. I signed on around 2001 and never looked back.
But the one event that might have had the greatest impact was winning an honourable mention in a small writing contest for a now-defunct group called BS Poetry Society, that sponsored the Nova Scotia Poetry Awards. I submitted a piece about spousal abuse, and it ended up being published in their 1989 winners’ anthology. That made me think that if someone actually thought what I’d written was worth printing, then maybe it might happen again. I just took a long time to mull it over before I went to the next level. And through that early and very regional competition, I was introduced to the work of some fine writers who are still around. Our paths kept crossing over the years. I didn’t feel as if I were quite so isolated, after all.
Writing a Young Adult novel was a departure for me. I got a mentorship with a wonderful YA writer, Don Aker, through Writers’ Federation of NS and worked on the book for 1 1/2 years or so. I submitted it to the combined YA/children’s fiction competition on a whim, really. I didn’t expect to win; there were 41 entries. But I’m hopeless at marketing, so the manuscript is still in search of a home. The theme features a medical condition that isn’t usually talked about and that could be problematic if a publisher doesn’t want to tackle it. My main character has an ostomy. I’ve never read a teen-oriented novel in which this is the situation, and I keep hoping that one of these days I’ll submit the book where it needs to be.
But poetry is my comfort zone.
C: Your poem, “I No Gone Cat, You Just Not See Me”, won 1st place in IBPC in 2004, one of your many wins at the IBPC and it just so happens to be a favorite poem for some of us on the Journal. Would you mind sharing that poem here and discussing it with us?
I’m delighted to do so. That poem also relates to my answer to the preceding question because it, too, represented a turning point for me. I used to see poems sent off to IBPC and wonder if I’d ever get to that level. I’d read the winners and feel a major disconnect between what I was seeing, and what I was writing. For awhile, I tried to emulate what I thought was an “IBPC-type” style. I didn’t realize that I was trying to sound like someone else. Finally, one or two of my pieces did get sent on to the competition but they tanked. And I thought, wait a minute – this isn’t the way I should be approaching my poetry. Who cares about impressing a judge or winning a contest? You’ve got to do it for its own sake or it isn’t worth anything.
And I changed completely. My own voice had gotten muffled somewhere along the way and I needed to regain it. So I just let myself write. I knew the poetry might not be on anyone’s must-read list, but suddenly that was irrelevant. When I stopped thinking about what other people were producing, then my own creativity took a huge leap forward. And what I was writing became more authentic.
In 2004, I had a stressful year – rather an understatement. Retirement was obviously life-altering. Then came two major illnesses in my immediate family, and finally the death of my mother. But before all this happened, I lost my beloved cat Sam to undiagnosed cardiomyopathy. He’d seemed fine and then, one morning, his heart just failed. He was only four. I brought him home from the vet’s, buried him in the yard and couldn’t stop crying. In hindsight, I was practising for all the tears to come. Then I sat down and wrote “I No Gone Cat”. Much of the poem dealt not only with current grief but also with sorrows to come. What came out was in catspeak. I reread it and understood right away how to handle the weird syntax, and make it consistent. My cat character lived in a continual present tense. He didn’t understand forming plurals, subject-verb agreement, any of that. His voice was simple and very honest. It felt almost like he was dictating the story, so I merely transcribed it and polished it a bit. Then I posted it on TCP, to a warm response. When it won IBPC later on, people were emailing me to say how it had touched them, because they’d also lost pets and found that Sam’s simple wisdom helped them mourn and accept. It was published by LilyLit Review and finally, posted on my website. There’s an audio version on Smokey Joe’s Cafe as well. I still get occasional emails from total strangers wanting to share their feelings about that poem, and we always end up discussing our pets.
After that, I understood that I was meant to write in my own way. I ignored what seemed to be trendy or popular in terms of poetic styles, and I no longer compared myself to the talented poets who were winning IBPC. I just did whatever I wanted. My first collection, Cleansing, was published in 2005. A chapbook, Beeline, came out in 2007. I’ve done quite well in IBPC over the intervening years and have also had success in other competitions. I don’t send out my poems very often but some have been included in various publications – Soundzine, Contemporary American Voices, Epicenter, Houston Panhandler. I have another full-length poetry collection ready to go, but again, it has to find the right publisher. I credit little Sam with providing the impetus I needed in order to shake myself loose and write from the centre of my soul.
So here’s the poem, with only one tiny edit since it was first published. In a sense, it’s become a memorial to several special cats. Gold Mister, who comes for Sam as he is lying on the vet’s operating table, is really an incarnation of Jasper whom I’d owned some years before. The Siamese is my old Maxi who died at 19. The stray, Sam’s nemesis, is a character named Beaky (who also has his own poem); he’d wandered into our lives as an adult tom in 2003 and became the dedicated Barn Guardian, until he passed away a few months ago. And the little mother-woman is, of course, my Mom. Sam’s death was to prepare me for what was to come. That was Gold Mister’s contribution to my emotional stability. Sometimes, I even reread this piece and it’s as if someone else wrote it – not me. I find it oddly reassuring. Maybe I tapped into something bigger than myself at the time; who knows?
I No Gone Cat, You Just Not See Me
I almost sleeping when he come. He say,
“Cat, why you not look up? Eyes see all
that be, until breath stop. Watch with eyes.”
When I open, he shine like morning, right
here in scary place. Two-leg mother
with me, talk touch, talk touch. I not
try stretch out claws, even after
she hurt my ear and trap me tight
for bring where are other sick ones.
“She love you,” Sun Cat say, “so she
want help you better but not time now
for her do that.” He stand close and then
I sitting beside him with no sore ear,
and ribs not breaking under. Puss on
table lie quiet, black-white like me.
He big fluffy boy with paws curled
and hay in tail. “What barn cat be this?”
I not want new enemy and he mighty
long fur but no move, him. Red earstick
and face shut off. “He be you, name Sam.”
Now I not smartest scratcher in litter box
but I know me and not-me, and him not me.
He stiff as shavings frozen in stall when I
dig for cover pee. He a dead old buddy.
I with friend who glowing all around.
It dark everywhere but Gold Mister jump–
just like that–off table in air. “Hurry,”
he call me. “You not my only today.”
And we outside, where is car and Two-leg
mother. She cry water salt on box in arms
and other two-leg carry cage but it empty.
We watch her go away and I very sad
for I remember she have love me.
“You tell goodbye,” Gold Mister speak
and surprise me. “Where your barn is?”
Before I answer, we there. Stray tom stand
in loft where I like fight him. “No,”
Gold Mister tell me though I not talk this.
“His now. He need home; you have fine
other place. Not worry about him more.”
Tom my enemy once but I no problem
for him now. Farm dogs run, maybe smell
me. They stop in path and grin so I tell
what happen. Hope they figure out.
“You gone away?” young stupid one ask.
Grey-muzzle lick at shadow and understand.
“We meet soon,” I tell her. How I know?
Others not outdoors but we are in house
and not through window, either. “They
allow see you this one day,” Sun Cat
explain, so I say we miss each other.
I make sorry for not always be friendly.
I mean son-of-a-tabby sometimes.
Car in driveway and Gold Mister
show me strange thing. Two-leg mother
dig deep deep deep, toss earth stones roots
and put plastic bag at bottom. It have
paw press against, white like Sam foot.
Wet in there so she shovel throw sawdust too.
“That from pile beside window where I napping
in winter.” Gold Mister not speak. “Why I
leave her? Just young fellow; needed here, me.”
He spin bigger than fireball that fall
from summer. “Job done,” he roar. “You get
her ready for bigger sorrow.” I understand
what he mean. She have little mother-
woman who very sick. She lose me, learn
get strong. But hard not tell her I watching.
She never even hear meow or feel tail brush,
before snow cover not-me. “You visit back
one time,” is all what I allowed. Then he
tell me stare at sun, no see home anymore.
They aster flowers where we hunt today. Old
cat mama near, even Siamese friend find me.
Gold Mister teach me how go back,
be some new kitten when I finish learning.
But this good place and I happy Sam now.
C: “When I stopped thinking about what other people were producing, then my own creativity took a huge leap forward. And what I was writing became more authentic.” I think this is wonderful advice. Being authentic to one’s own voice, pulling from what you know, what you’ve lived through to create a poignant and moving piece. This is an amazing skill or process and you have the gift for both formal and free verse. Do you prefer one over the other?
I started out with formal verse. I love the cadence of iambic pentameter because it’s so close to the underlying rhythms of normal English speech. And I find it a challenge to work other elements, such as a complex rhyme scheme, into the meter. I enjoy sonnets and villanelles because they stretch my brain and draw somewhat on the mathematics of language, the left-hand side that I don’t use all that much.
I came to free verse much later. It took awhile before I was at all happy with the results. I self-edit mercilessly. But in the end, it goes back to that authenticity aspect. I think it can be a bit easier to create a realistic and convincing, contemporary voice without having to worry about the constraints of formalism. Not necessarily “better” by comparison, mind you – because when a formal poem works, I don’t think anything can have a greater impact on the reader. Look at Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle …” or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. Even non-poetry-readers recognize those pieces and can relate to them. The formal structure directs the focus, like a lens might condense a beam of light to make fire.
So I write fewer formal poems these days. Oddly enough, they tend to show up when I’m experiencing deep personal conflicts. I can delve into painful emotions more successfully when there’s a way to keep a distance between feeling and expression. When my mother passed away, the first poem that followed was a sonnet. “I No Gone Cat” – arising from loss – even started out in rough iambics but that didn’t stick. I often write in IP and then reshape the lines so the meter either disappears or is concealed, while still retaining a heartbeat. So I can’t quite come down on either side of the fence. Bit of a cop-out, right?
But for me, a poem without a cadence – no rhythm or musicality – isn’t going to have much appeal. Perhaps that’s because I also sing and the underpinnings of music demand these elements. Every time I’ve tried to ignore the sheer sound of poetry, it never works out well.
My non-poetry-oriented friends, as well as the students in classes where I give workshops, seem to prefer formal work over free verse because they tell me they can understand it better. I do think that formal writing might be more accessible to the average reader, who often likes to have structure and is uncomfortable with exploring unfamiliar ground. My free verse tends to veer into the surreal and then I get comments like, “Brenda, what in the hell is that all about?” Since I want to write for more than just other poets, there’s another reason to shift between styles and genres. But that moves into the issue of whether we write more for ourselves or for an audience and, if the latter, what kind of audience. A whole ‘nother animal there!
C: I like what you say about ‘poets mining themselves’. Do you ever feel exhausted from that experience after writing a poem?
Yes! Not only exhausted, but detached. I frequently feel a bit bewildered as to where the words came from, how I could possibly have written them. I’ve talked to other poets who say they’ve had similar reactions. It’s as if some inner force takes over, something that knows what to say, and suddenly there’s a poem (or short story, or whatever). And I just sit back in awe that I’ve actually created this thing from blankness. Maybe a poem is the graffiti of the subconscious and all it needs is a wall. Afterwards, I have little recollection of how I actually came to create a piece. I can go back and revise it, but I can’t mess too much with the foundation.
Sometimes, a particular thought or detail won’t fit the final form of the poem, but can be filed away for future use. If my imagination created it, then I figure it’s meant to be shared at some point so I tuck it away and haul it out later on.
C: I read once about a poet that took twenty years to finish one poem. How long does it take you to write a poem from the first draft to the final version?
I tend to spend a lot of time thinking, before I try to write even one line. I know beforehand what subject or theme I intend to tackle, especially if I’ve been working with a series around one or two major ideas. But when I’m writing, the emphasis might totally change. As I mentioned above, I just let the words come and try to impose a bit of order onto the chaos – but not too much. I write quite quickly once I’ve decided to sit down and do it.
Then I reread and revise. Usually there’ll be one or two lines that just won’t click, so I concentrate on those first. Sometimes, one change leads to another and on to the next, in a domino effect. I don’t like to stop editing until I’m finished. I might leave a piece for a few days while I tweak it, but not longer than that. I know when it’s either what I wanted, or a complete waste of further time. Then I put it away and move on.
I sometimes revisit a poem long after I’ve written it (and possibly forgotten about it), then see something that screams for change. So I’ll edit again, and retain both versions. But I don’t believe in making such extensive changes that a poem is essentially recreated into a new creature. The original freshness – “trailing clouds of glory,” so to speak, from its source – can easily be watered-down or destroyed. Wordsworth’s glory-clouds (although he wasn’t talking about poetry at the time) will dissipate if they’re forced into a radically different mold. I sometimes see this happening to poems on critiquing sites. By the time all the critics have had their say, and the poet has tried to follow a whole chain of conflicting suggestions, there’s often not much left of the original and what gets lost might be the living soul of the piece.
Sometimes, even with the most beautifully-written work, it turns out to be show without substance. And once in awhile, a clumsy or less than polished piece might be explosively powerful. We need to be careful not to mistake craft for inspiration. It’s great when they combine, but this doesn’t always happen.
C: “But that moves into the issue of whether we write more for ourselves or for an audience and, if the latter, what kind of audience. A whole ‘nother animal there.” Let’s talk about that- do you feel it’s important to write on a personal or universal level ?
I think universality matters more in the end. If we’re writing about something so deeply personal that the perspective is restricted to our own small view, then its purpose seems less about shared experience than about emotional release for the writer’s own benefit. There’s room for both, of course. But the poetry that has affected me most profundly has always been work that resonates inside my own skull. If someone has written about his or her intimate agonies (or ecstasies), and I can’t in any way relate to them or even access them, then I become a voyeur. I peer through a dusty window but can’t see more than that narrow rectangle. I don’t feel as if I’m affected in any way by what I’ve read, and I want to be affected – maybe even changed. A writer’s own encounters with life – the fodder by which much of great literature is nourished – have a transformative quality, if the reader can enter the writing. But extremely personal material can be difficult to enter unless its creator cares to invite us in. It’s interesting in the way that watching a talk show is interesting, but I don’t carry it around inside afterwards. The view through the gate may be tantalizing but unless the owner of that view pushes the gate open, what’s inside can never offer more than a transient curiosity.
That having been said, I don’t think any poem can expand to include its audience unless it first comes from someplace real – and that place has got to be based on experience, insight, awareness. The poet must have an individual investment in and commitment to the subject. “Write what you know” is a crucial bit of advice for poetry in particular. And it goes back to authenticity, again. The voice must be real.
I don’t believe that speaker and poet must be identical, however. I believe any writer should always strive for a bit of distance between self and first-person narrator and that the reader should be made to understand the difference. Otherwise, the “I” of a first-person piece might be viewed with a certain skepticism or, worse, with distaste – a flawed mouthpiece. Look at some of the largely-falsified “confessional books” that have become briefly notorious in recent years. The eternal “I-as-speaker” is a dangerous identity to assume. I use first person more often than not, and draw on various events from my own past, but my speakers are never entirely myself. I want the liberty to create them as personae who can stand apart from me. Otherwise, I think it would make the reader quite uncomfortable by times. “Too much information”, in essence.
C: You mention having a contemporary, convincing voice. Is there any one theme that you enjoy delving into more than another that might encourage that voice to come through?
I often examine metaphysical themes – the spiritual dimensions that imbue our existences. I have no clue as to their nature but I enjoy wrestling with possibilities. There’s a dimension beyond the physical, or we’d all be robotic constructs programmed to behave and react in similar ways. The concept of deity intrigues me. I’ve met so many people who are sure they know what God(dess) actually is, and says, and tells them to do. And I always wonder, “OK, exactly how do you know this?” I’ve read the same literature as they have – but I don’t get the same meaning from it. I don’t even see Genesis in the same light as others might. It seems to discourage the pursuit of knowledge, especially among women, and I can’t buy that. No divine power who’s responsible for me could possibly want to deny me the option of exploring my own universe. Eve wasn’t tempted by sin – she was sidetracked by the lure of knowledge. And ironically, that polished red apple still ends up on teachers’ desks – an offering by students who are on the other side of the tree. They want to know things. The apple has changed from a symbol of evil to a popular icon for education itself. I can’t help but chuckle about that.
Back to Genesis, I especially love digging into that particular book. The Old Testament in general intrigues me far more than the New. Jesus Himself grew up in a faith based on the Torah. He never tried to convince us that we shouldn’t respect what it says. Since my adoptive father’s ancestry was Jewish, I feel a certain bond with that side of my family. It shows up in my writing, quite often.
I also write about people searching for an impossible something that they’ve either lost or never had in the first place – love, understanding, safety, roots, growth, freedom, equality. I’m a searcher too, so I know how it feels to keep going around one more bend, up one more hill, always hoping that the answer will be right there. But it never is; it keeps moving away like Ulysses’ margins of the world. Maybe the chase is the point, after all, rather than the capture. Maybe if we find what we think we’re looking for, then we don’t live as long – not literally, but figuratively. We stop yearning to create and become complacent. I don’t believe that anyone who’s complacent will ever create memorable poetry. The idea of the “tortured artist” does have a certain basis in reality. I think that happiness and personal comfort tend to work against profound and moving expression, because the emotional coloration simply isn’t there. Not even recollected in tranquility.
I often use the natural world as a metaphor for human situations and incorporate it into the themes I’ve noted above. In general terms, I feel more positive towards animals than I do when it comes to most people. Nobody ever has to question a hummingbird’s authenticity. Or argue about why a Russian sunflower is yellow and not some other color. It just is. Animals may do vicious and disgusting things, from our human point-of-view, but at least they’re honest.
Yes indeed, there are many harsh and unavoidable truths in Nature. Since I’ve gotten into macrophotography, I’ve discovered a whole lot of bloodletting that goes on all around us. A female crab spider biting the head off her mate after copulation – well, she’d make the Eden serpent sound like a Boy Scout. A bluejay tossing newborn swallows out of their nests just because he can – that’s a pretty unsettling sort of image. But there are no excuses made. You can’t start studying Nature close-up unless you’re prepared not to flinch, no matter what. I think this is a useful quality for a writer to possess. We may not like what we see, but we can’t recoil and refuse to confront it. Or make up some feel-good explanation for it. That turns us into charlatans who claim to be what we’re not, and pretend to write truthfully when at best, we’re churning out pretentious and misleading fiction. I’ve done my share of that and I’m not especially proud to admit it. These days, I try to be upfront even when it gets a bit awkward. I keep hoping that nobody in our local church will ever pick up a copy of my first poetry book and sit down for an attentive read. But if that happens, well, I won’t apologize. I will feel awkward, though.
C: I love your observation about the apple and your comments about the divine power. I completely agree. You say you’re a searcher too and go on to mention how “happiness and personal comfort tend to work against profound and moving expression, because the emotional coloration simply isn’t there” which brings me to my next question: I was reading your chapbook Beeline last night. I’m wondering about the poem “Show But Never Tell”. That poem moved me and I love the narrative style of the writing. I think it’s an important piece as it speaks to the issue of sexual abuse. Do you ever find that poetry becomes a vehicle for writing about topics that might otherwise seem taboo?
Absolutely! It goes to that sense of distance I mentioned earlier – the speaker-who-isn’t-totally-the-poet. This allows us to write about extremely difficult subjects as if we’re relating fiction, even when we’re actually incorporating real-life experiences. For some readers, I suspect it’s more palatable to accept hard-hitting material if they tell themselves it’s not really true. That having been said, some of the most honest and truthful writing ever created has been, at least in theory, fictional.
With fiction, we can select specific aspects of the story that we want to emphasize and ignore the parts we don’t consider useful or relevant. The poem we’re discussing is based on a real situation. It attracted considerable media attention at the time, and the family gained notoriety that will stick with them, every time someone hears their particular surname. I’ve changed identifying details and either embellished or excised certain snippets of the story but in essence, it’s pretty close to what went on. But the only way I could deal with it, even remembering after many years, was to create a speaker who could tell the tale in a detached way – separate from myself. I had to use a rather flat, unemotional tone. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to handle all those resurrected memories. I’ve never written about this experience, before or since. Maybe the topic was taboo even to me. So I didn’t dare inject myself into it except as an objective narrator.
Tone is crucial when writing this kind of poetry, though. If the reader is going to buy into the scenario, then it has to be completely convincing and the authorial voice needs to establish a tone that’s right for what is being dealt with. Too cynical, and you risk losing the reader’s empathy. Too sentimental, and the poem might get dismissed as being maudlin or overdone. Too shockingly graphic, and the reader might decide it’s just wildly improbable. Taking a true event and translating it into poetry can be a tricky task. And there’s still the danger that the poet will intrude too much into the unfolding narrative. So opting to just tell it like it is, very matter-of-fact, can be a good option sometimes. And although one can call it a product of the poet’s imagination, readers are usually smart enough to figure out that this is a writer who knows whereof s/he speaks.
C: You’ve already mentioned Dylan Thomas, Frost and Wordsworth; what poets today have had the most influence on you and your writing?
Tough call! Some are Canadian – the late Margaret Avison, Margaret Atwood, Maxine Tynes, the late Alden Nowlan. After I read Avison’s sonnet, “Snow”, I never forgot it. Recently, a Canadian sonnet anthology called Jailbreak 99 was published, and the title was a tribute to that poem. I was blown away when the editor asked to have one of my sonnets included in the book. Atwood is … well, Atwood. She’s an iconic novelist, but I’ve always been more drawn to her poetry; it’s so quirky and unexpected. Bleak too, sometimes. Maxine’s a friend, with the most unpretentious – powerful! – voice. She writes about her own African-Nova Scotian community, and shows people in ordinary moments that briefly transcend their ordinariness. Before I met her, she came to the school where I was teaching and gave a reading for the students. Later, some of the staff went to lunch with her, and we talked poetry and kids and writing for an hour. I was so energized by her perceptiveness and enthusiasm! I’ve gotten to know her since then, and she inspires me both as a writer and as a human being. She’s a unique and delightful person. Alden Nowlan’s poetry is so convincing, so real – totally accessible, whether you’re just a casual reader or a dedicated poetry guru. He creates such vivid characters and memorable scenes. He’s remarkable – and a great example of a truly authentic voice. Funny, too! Humour is poetry is tough to do well. His is subtle, sly really. It creeps up on you. Gives me something to aim for.
Who else? I’m including a few more poets who are contemporary but no longer living, along with others who are still very much alive: Elizabeth Bishop (who had connections to Nova Scotia), Pablo Neruda, Louise Gluck, Mary Oliver, Kim Addonizio, Gary Snyder, Charles Simic, Robert Pinsky … not to mention people like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Dan Fogelberg who wrote such amazingly poetic songs that I enjoyed them as much for their own sake as for the music. Sylvia Plath isn’t a personal favourite, but some readers have told me that one or another of my darker poems reminds them of Plath. That always surprises me, but obviously the influence must be there even if I don’t see it, myself.
C: Lastly, If you had a young poet coming to your for advice about becoming better at their craft, what would you tell them?
This actually does happen, since I’ve taught so many years at senior high and there’s always a budding poet or two in every class. I usually tell them three things – write what you know, tell me something I’ve never heard before, and don’t be tied to rhyme or meter until you can handle the other elements.
I find that young people often want to write about subjects that are beyond their realm of experience. Unfortunately, these often include whatever they’re watching /listening to on TV or music videos. I see way too many poems (and other creative pieces as well) about pimps, guns and violently dysfunctional relationships. And many are more or less interchangeable. But half these kids have no personal knowledge of these subjects – so nothing rings true. When they can start digging into their own experience, they often come up with much more interesting material. They just don’t always realize that they have something valid to offer, that it doesn’t always have to be shaped by the media. Then it’s astonishing what they’re able to create.
When they do start writing about familiar themes and issues, then they have to be careful not to get so self-absorbed that they shut out the reader. This goes back to the idea of universality. Intensely personal poetry can be really awkward to read. And again, it’s often repetitive – boy meets girl, one of them breaks the other one’s heart, and the speaker spends weeks in an emotional tornado after they split up. So I’ll tell them to focus on a very specific incident – something as simple as skipping stones at the lake, or waiting to have a grad photo taken. Either that, or to adopt an unusual outlook on a fairly commonplace event, maybe by shifting the point-of-view from a main character to someone in the background, observing. It’s hard to communicate the idea of freshness. But the few who understand this concept are the ones whose writing is going to just keep getting better and better.
Then there’s the maddening dependence on forced rhyme, because many of them think this is what makes a poem “poetry”. I want to tell anyone who will listen: use the exact word you need, not because it will rhyme with another word but because it perfectly fits that line and context. There’s nothing worse than reading a whole poem crammed with artificial-sounding end rhyme! I think that young people should work with mastering the language first – memorable imagery, surprising metaphor, syntax that sounds natural. They often need to have a wider repertoire of diction choices. “Nice”, “bad” or “beautiful” as preferred adjectives just won’t cut it. Learning about alternatives definitely enhances the quality of the writing. Then rhyme, if they still want to use it, will at least become more innovative. I’m a huge believer in language and content first, then structure afterwards. Meter is probably the very last thing I’d ever want a beginning writer to tackle. Without language skills and effective diction, there’s a fair chance the result will sound like doggerel.
Kids who are into making their own music – singing, playing guitar or whatever else – usually have a readier grasp of metrical poetry than most of their peers. They’re already aware of rhythmic patterns and how important sound is. I always enjoy working with young songwriters for that reason. Their ears are more attuned to lyricism and cadence.
C: Thank you Brenda, this has been a privilege.
For me as well! I appreciate this wonderful opportunity to share something of myself.