Poets at Play–An Interview with Laurie Klein

Laurie Klein and I first met online after I’d been following her work in print for a number of years. We share a common decade and a love of poetry and song. I then discovered she was blogging and we’ve been corresponding ever since.

Laurie is the author of the prize-winning chapbook ‘Bodies of Water, Bodies of Flesh’ and the classic praise chorus ”I Love You, Lord.” Her poems and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ascent, The Southern Review, Atlanta Review, Terrain, and the Holman Personal Worship Bible. She is a recipient of the Thomas Merton Prize for Poetry of the Sacred.
Her most recent release in the Poemia Poetry Series from Cascade Books is  “Where the Sky Opens.”
Here are a few questions and answers so you can get to know Laurie, a Poet at Play. (for the other poets interviewed on this blog, click here.)
1) Tell me about your writing path–how did it lead you to where you are today?
Twenty years ago, sadness launched my writing path; death and depression arrived, pushing me on my journey.  Losing my dad in 1996 propelled me into journaling, then poetry. There was lots of baggage to sort through. Literally everyone in my family died, except for my sister, who beat breast cancer, twice.
But here’s the godsend: Two friends with MFAs mentored me, in poetry and prose during that time. Eventually, we co-founded a print litmag called Rock & Sling: A Journal of Literature, Art and Faith and ran it against all odds for five years.
2) Have you had any other ‘careers’ other than writer? or perhaps some that dovetailed with that vocation?
I feel outrageously lucky in the work opportunities I’ve enjoyed. Former jobs fed my word banks, my ‘image archives.’
Teacher: I taught in preschools, then as a Theatre Arts adjunct at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, never suspecting commonalities between these age groups.
Freelance Professional Storyteller: I performed in schools, churches, community centers, writer’s conferences, and retreats, in the States as well as Thailand, England, and Germany.
Program Director at Calvary Chapel: Remember Deborah of old, who had “a heart for the willing volunteers”? I loved directing and wrote drama sketches our creative team synced with thematic music and stage sets. Several full-length musicals followed.
Audiobook Narrator: I’ve narrated fifty or so books. When I undertook Theatre Arts study, I wanted the skills to play 100 characters. I never meant all at one time! Some novels call for that many voices. (TIP: novelists, reign in your cast if you want publication in this arena.)

Singer/songwriter and itinerant Worship Leader: My husband, Bill, and I shared this work for three decades. Four recording projects emerged from that wonderful season of life.

Poets at Play–an Interview with Barbara Crooker

           Barbara Crooker is a quiet soul and a richly talented woman. I first heard Barbara’s “voice” via a broadcast of ‘Prairie Home Companion’ when Garrison Keillor read one of her poems. I continued to discover her voice and work as it appeared in various publications, Rock and Sling, Christianity and Literature, The Christian Century, Spiritus,  and most recently in Tweetspeak Publishing’s “How to Read a Poem” by Tania Runyan (TSPoetry Press).

      In February of 2014 we both attended the AWP Conference in Seattle and ‘happened’ to be at the same poetry workshop. I noticed her in line behind me while we waited to speak with the workshop leaders. Sounding just like a groupie I gushed about her work and unashamedly asked for her email address. We kept in touch and she agreed to participate in an ‘interview’ via this blog.

Here are some of her thoughts on writing poetry.
First, from  her most recent poetry collection Gold (Wipf & Stock, 2013) 
We’re writing out names with sizzles of light
to celebrate the fourth.  I use the loops of cursive,
make a big B like the sloping hills on the west side
of the lake.  The rest, a little a, r, one small b,
spit and fizz as they scratch the night. On the side
of the shack where we bought them, a handmade sign:
Trailer Full of Sparkles Ahead, and I imagine crazy
chrysanthemums, wheels of fire, glitter bouncing
off metals walls,  Here we keep tracing in tiny
pyrotechnics the letters we were given at birth,
branding them on the air.  And though my mother’s
name has been erased now, I write it, too:
a big swooping I, a little hissing s, an a that sighs
like her last breath, and then I ring
belle, belle, belle in the sulphuric smoky dark.
1.      Although you have undergraduate degrees in English Lit and Art History, (and a graduate degree in English Lit), you said your real education came from “The School of 3,000 Books.”
Tell me what you mean.
I’m one of a handful of writers without an MFA or a PhD; when I first started writing, I had small children, and if I’d wanted an MFA then, I’d have had to leave my family and live somewhere else for two years—no way that was going to happen!  Later, of course, the “distance” MFAs were born, where you only have to be in residence for a couple of weeks per year, but even that was impossible, partly because of the cost, and partly because my youngest child (who’s now 30) was diagnosed with autism, and so even being gone for two weeks would have been too much strain on the family.  
So I went to “school” by buying books—anthologies, individual collections, literary criticism, and the like, and studying, studying, studying.  Then the internet came into being; that vastly expanded the availability of critical articles, poets to read (especially in “the dailies,” Poetry Daily, Verse Daily), and The Writer’s Almanac, plus “the weekly,” Ted Kooser’s American Life in PoetryI’m constantly running into writers, especially beginning writers, who say they don’t read much poetry, and I don’t understand this; our job as writers is to be readers, first.
And I’m constantly learning.  I might fall in love with something, say a new form, and so I research and read as many poems as I can find that exemplify the form, then try my hand at it.  I’m also constantly falling in love with new writers, and falling back in love with old favorites; in both cases, I make sure  I buy their books. 

Poets at Play–an Interview with Tania Runyan

With Tania at AWP Conference–Seattle WA
     Some poets’ work take your breath away or stop you in your tracks with an ‘aha’! Some will challenge you to see the world a different way than before.
     Tania Runyan‘s work does all that. Of her many works, her two volumes of poetry based on Scripture prompts intrigued me the most. “Second Sky” is full of Pauline-Epistle-inspired musings,  “Thousand Vessels'” pays a powerful and provocative tribute to 12 women of the Bible.
     When I found out Tania would be in Seattle last Spring for the AWP Conference (Assn. of Writers and Writing Programs), I took the day off and got a free pass to attend the poetry panel she was participating in. (say that 3 times fast).
     She let me hang out and drink coffee with she and her panel mates who were delightful as well. Then we schlepped about the books, visited her publisher’s table and I headed home.
I contacted her a few days later about an ‘interview’ for the blog and she was game.
Herewith the first installment of ‘Poets at Play–the Interviews’
1. “A Thousand Vessels” is filled with poetry prompted by your reading of particular women in the Bible.  What was the catalyst for this volume?  Any particular idea or incident?

While pregnant with my second daughter (and busily parenting a toddler), I decided to create a “non-materialistic” Christmas for my extended family by writing a suite of Nativity poems as a gift. I wrote each poem from the point of view of someone present at the Nativity and the days immediately following–Mary, Joseph, an angel, a shepherd, Anna, and Simeon. I was especially drawn to writing from Mary’s perspective and continued writing in her voice after Christmas. Then I moved on to Eve and Sarah, again drawn to their experiences with pregnancy and motherhood. At that point, I got the idea of writing an entire book arranged around women in the Bible. I determined to finish the manuscript before Rebecca was born–then went on to revise it several more times!

2. How do you start a poem? For example, in ‘Queen Esther’s Name Change’ (p. 42)
“With one word they have hurled me
 To the heavens. I cannot believe…”
I don’t remember how I started that one, as it was written around a decade ago. But even with that excuse, it’s generally a hard question to answer! I usually start the process by freewriting rather stream-of-consciously and getting a “skeleton” idea of a poem. Then I isolate phrases I like and start forming lines and structure, changing, moving and sculpting as I go. It’s intuitive but not arbritrary, even if I have trouble explaining it! When it’s how it needs to be, I just know. Then when I look at it several months later, I change the lines all over again.

3. What about form?
Regarding the example above, it’s set in couplets.  Then in ‘Children of Near Death’ (Jairus’ Daughter) you begin, “Edward, Drowning” with triplets (and they’re not rhyming triplets). How does one decide such a thing?

I tend to write a lot in nonrhyming couplets or triplets, but again, I’m not entirely sure why. I just know when a poem needs one or the other (or something completely different, like no separate stanzas at all). Sometimes thoughts cross my mind–is there some sort of dualism here? Or a trinitarian theme? But usually my gut makes the decision, then a person smarter than I points out how it all works together. I like it when that happens.

4. How do you find the TIME to write, given you’re a mom of 3 and have a more-than-part time tutoring job?
I’ve always tried to squeeze in some time, whether it be before the kids wake up or after they go to bed (though I’m not a great night writer). The biggest help arrived in the form of an NEA grant, which helped me pay a sitter to watch my two younger kids a couple afternoons a week as I worked on Second Sky. Now all three kids are in school all day, but it’s still tough to fit in quiet writing time. Always so many distractions, and it’s easy to get distracted from the hard work of poetry. Retreats and conferences do give me little boosts throughout the year. Often I generate several rough “skeletons” at a place like the Glen Workshop then work on them at home in the following months.
5. Many people write prose and poetry both.  How did you decide (or what lead you) to go the route of poetry?
I started off wanting to be a playwright but found myself obsessing over the rhythm and sound of dialogue over anything else. Plot stressed me out. As I became more deeply immersed in poetry, I ended up choosing it as an emphasis for both my undergrad and graduate degrees. That said, I’ve been writing quite a bit of prose this past year or so, experimenting with flash fiction and writing creative nonfiction regularly for Image Journal’s Good Letters blog. I released How to Read a Poem, which, though about poetry, is prose. My wheels are turning again about writing another nonfiction book.

Any last words or thoughts?
Read poetry. Read it slowly and savor it, even if you don’t think you “get” it. The words will slowly infiltrate your bloodstream and enrich your life.
Please visit here to order ‘Second Sky’ and ‘A Thousand Vessels’.  Tania’s book for teachers, ‘How to Read a Poem’ (Tweetspeak Poetry) is a great classroom resource.  I wrote about my experience with middle schoolers using it here.

Book Review: In a Strange Land-Ten Kingdom Poets


The kingdom of God has been compared throughout the Gospels as everything from a pearl of great price, to a vineyard, a man going on a journey, a mustard seed, a field of wheat and many more.

And if the Kingdom of God had poets, which I’m sure it does, then you’d find their work in the slim volume “In a Strange Land-Introducing Ten Kingdom Poets” from Poiema Poetry Series (ed. DS Martin). Editor Martin explains the occasion of this printing, “This poetry collection gathers into one volume works by ten talented poets who…each (are) well deserving of having their own full-length poetry books, but as of April, 2019 have not quite reached that milestone.”

The Poiema (Greek for ‘a made thing’, or ‘workmanship’) Series is all about “providing a home for the finest poetry by people of Christian faith.”

Contributing poets include: Ryan Apple, Susan Cowger, Jen Stewart Fueston, Laura Reece Hogan, Burl Horniachek, Miho Nonaka, Debbie Sawczak, Bill Stadick, James Tughan, Mary Willis

Until these writers each have their own books, you can find this poetic gathering  and enjoy all ten. The selections are rich and varied, as each writer renders from their own perspective a fuller vision of what God’s kingdom looks like. By turns amusing, descriptive, thoughtful and downright take-your-breath-away, we are handed a lens to view a particular version of faith experience as they see it.

Laura Kauffman-Carolina Clay

Editors at Whale Road Review were kind enough to feature my interview with the ridiculously talented Laura Kauffman. Here is “Grounded in Poetry” from WRR’s online journal, March 2020

Carolina  Clay by Laura Kauffman Dustlings Press, 2019

Laura Kauffman is a poet and writer from the Loess Hills of Iowa. She is the author of Carolina Clay: A Collection of Poems on Love and Loss. Her writing gifts also include the creative work of Typeset Poetry: Words for Your Wall, a collaboration with Emily Queen. She had some remarkable responses to my questions.  Her fresh take on language shows up in this interview as well as in her book.

I’m learning to love the ground that lies
beneath my feet in the fallow season:

the ground of the dormant, of sleeping life
that carries no promise of certain production

the ground of the nourished, fed by the death
of the things that once bloomed

from “Use-less”

Jody Collins: Tell us about the title of your book. Why Carolina Clay?

Laura Kauffman: Perhaps I’d been thinking too much about creation; I couldn’t get the phrase “Carolina Clay”out of my mind after we’d buried my grandmother. The day was beautiful: gentle breezes, rippling ponds, chirping birds. But what I remember most was the dirt—mounds of bright red, North Carolina earth. That’s when I thought of Adam. He was shaped from the soil of Eden; was I shaped from Carolina Clay?

Often, when you create a title for a book, it’s the last thing to happen. But I think I jotted down the words “Carolina Clay” before I’d written a single poem. Little did I know that it was not a title, but an invitation.

My grandmother was from North Carolina, but I was not. In fact, I was remarkably absent most of her life. Some of that was due to distance, some to the disease of dementia. I wondered if there was a role I could play in her death that I had not played in her life, so I decided I would write my way into knowing her and the ground beneath her feet.

Collins: Readers will find several of your poems deal with soil, ground, or dirt. Is your place on a farm and as a gardener part of what informs this, or was there more?

Kauffman: Earth-imagery runs deep for me. John Muir once wrote that the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. I feel that statement in every fiber of my being.

A survivor of the suburbs, I now live in the wild places of the Loess Hills in Iowa. My husband and I staked our claim on 20 acres there and filled it with children and chickens, cats and dogs, wild blackberries and weeping willows. We bought a house of windows…we’re addicted to the light.

As with most of my writing, nature does most of the heavy lifting in Carolina Clay. On the night before my grandmother died, a freak tornado descended on the April plains. The day she died the temperature dropped 80 degrees; the roads froze over in a crippling ice-storm. I watched it all from the windows and thought, “The earth is grieving in poetry.”

Collins: Your degree is in counseling—how did this inform your writing of these poems, particularly dealing with grief?

Kauffman: The ways my counseling education has enriched my writing continue to surprise me.

I used to sit in an office with armchairs and clipboards writing treatment plans and referrals. Now, I work in my living room, plopped on my raggedy couch with a laptop on my knee. That’s a pretty drastic career change. But I’m finding the things I learned from counseling weave their way into my words.

Of course, there is the obvious: counseling has softened my heart, taught me to dig deep, cultivated my perspective. But the greatest of these is presence, being present to pain.

A helper by nature, I want to fix, console, to rush the redemption. Counseling taught me to slow down and face emotion without fear, for there is a holiness to sorrow. Poet John Blase warns against a Picardy third—the major chord resolution at the end of a modal song. Sometimes we must learn to sing in a minor key.

My education taught me how to dwell in irresolution. Patience with pain leads to stirring songs, as well as well-lived lives. It makes for decent poetry, too.

Collins: Your writing reveals a wisdom beyond your years. Tell us about your training or education in writing poetry.

Kauffman: If I use words like “self-taught” or “autodidact” to answer that question, do I sound more legit? Because when it comes to formal literary education, I’ve got nothing.

I guess that’s not completely fair. In the fall of 2018, my youngest son skipped off to kindergarten, and I found myself alone during the day. Though my master’s degree is in counseling, “writing” has always been the specter of my life, patiently waiting for me to notice I was being haunted in a way. Billy Collins says poems are simply words that “say less and mean more,” so I intentionally began experimenting with poetry. Falling in love with the genre was merely an accident. To educate myself, I read. Actually, I consumed poetry: Oliver, Collins, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Neruda, Berry. I would read entire books in a single sitting, hungry for more. I took Billy Collins’s master class. I e-stalked local poets into friendship. I scribbled poetry quotes on sticky notes and plastered them on my walls.

Then one day, when someone asked me what I do for a living, I answered without thinking. “I’m a poet.” And it turns out I was. 

We Were Made for Connection

IMG_20200605_130201Last week I wrote about#loveinthetimeofthecorona–illuminating what or how we can embody love in the world in these very challenging times, especially as believers in Jesus. (And? Did you know, #loveinthetimeofthecorona is actually a hashtag on Instagram and Twitter. If you are on either of those social media platforms, type in the hashtag and be inspired.)

I was originally going to title this wrap-up, “Thank you Al Gore for the Internet” (which is partially true. Thank you Wikipedia). People all over the globe are working and connecting and chatting via Zoom and Facetime, Facebook live and Marco Polo videos and so on, all thanks to the world wide web.

How starved we are for the sight of our friends and loved ones’ faces! And a voice–who knew how we would miss that? I was serenaded last week via Voxer by a friend on the opposite coast as she sang “It is Well” in her lovely alto voice and tears rolled down my cheeks as I harmonized with her.

Our church has live streamed “services” from an almost empty sanctuary (with stuffed animals in the audience) and the attendance last Sunday was nearly double what we have on an ordinary Sunday. This week our pastor shared a message about Jesus calming the storms, with a painting on the living room wall behind him as spoke from his home. Viewers were given his cel phone number to text in answers to trivia questions from the Bible and even the young kids got to play along. Necessity is the mother of invention, yes? Virtual or not, is a great way to be connected with those we know and love.

In that vein I’d like to share some of the goodness I’ve found online with you–a quiet word on how to deal with sadness or fear, and talk to your kids about their feelings. Orchestral music via Skype, a library tour with poet Malcolm Guite, the Quarantine Song from two very talented Grandparents, never before seen photos of crystal clear canals in Venice, Italy and opera singers and everyday folks serenading from their balconies and plazas.

I hope you’ll take some time to listen and watch; maybe you’ll find a way to connect just a little bit more with the beauty and goodness around you.