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 Poetry. I’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 most joy?
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!
Click here for Barbara’s website. Some of her best work is available (free!) by clicking the ‘Online’ button. Enjoy!