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) 
Sparklers
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.
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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. 
2.      When I asked about your faith background you responded with the term,
“Zen Lutheran.”  What did you mean?
I’m an active member of a small Lutheran church, but I feel that my faith walk casts its net wider.  One of the things that Buddhism teaches us is to be present in the moment, to pay careful attention to the world around us, particularly the natural world.  To be alive in the senses.  To honor all living things.  To respond to the light that’s in all of us.  To be fully open.
3.      What about your writing is the most difficult?
To make the poem on the page live up to the promise of the poem in my head.
4.      What about your writing brings you the mostjoy?
When I feel I’ve “got it right,” that I’ve been able to apply all I know about craft to a poem without losing its emotional heart.  This doesn’t happen all the time; along the way, many poems are either discarded, or cannibalized into poems that go off in another direction.
5.     You have been writing a very long time (over 40 years) and your beautiful work is being discovered a little at a time. Your Selected Poems comes out next year, Gold is touching many people with the words about your mother’s passing. During this time, I’m sure there were rejection slips. What kept you going?
Oh, rejection slips!  One of the poems in Radiance  (Word Press, 2005) is called “Twenty-Five Years of Rejection Slips,” and that’s about how long it took for me to get my first book out.  There’s a Scots prayer that goes, “Lord, grant that I may always be right, for Thou knowest I am hard to turn.”  
One of my better (or worse, depending on your perspective) qualities is persistence (and its cousin, stubbornness).  Plus, I take as my model Claude Monet, who said, “Apart from gardening or painting, I really don’t know how to do anything.” (I’m paraphrasing.)  That’s me, if you  substitute writing for painting.
6.     Any words of wisdom for struggling poets?  Any last thoughts?
Read, read, read!  Read widely, read deeply.  Read poets of the past, read contemporaries.  Read journals, read anthologies, read individual collections. Eat those books!
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Click here if you’d like to visit Barbara’s website. Some of her best work is available (free!) by clicking the ‘Online’ button. Enjoy!

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’
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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.
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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.