Two poets published by Five Oaks Press, Lois Marie Harrod, author of Nightmares of the Minor Poet, and Christine Beck, author of Stirred, Not Shaken, discuss their works.
How we met—
Christine: Lois and I met at the Poetry Getaway in Cape May, N.J. in 2010. Lois was leading a workshop on how to put together a poetry manuscript. I was impressed with the generosity of her critique and used many of her ideas when I wrote my first book, Blinding Light, as my M.F.A. thesis three years later. I love coincidences, so when I discovered Lois lives in the town where my grandparents had their farm, I figured our paths would meet again.
Lois: That workshop was the first one I did on putting a poetry manuscript together, and I remember that there were 8 poets and 8 manuscripts which we looked at in 5 3-hour sessions. I remember thinking it was too rushed, so I am so pleased that Christine found it helpful. In workshops since then we have had fewer participants and spend 3 hours on each manuscript. Maybe this is the place too where I should put in a plug too for Peter Murphy’s workshops and getaways—which offer “insightful feedback and an encouraging community” to poets and writers: http://wintergetaway.com/
I believe that writers write best when they are part of a community of writers.
How our collections came about—
Christine: The title poem of my collection, Stirred, Not Shaken, was written as part of a collection of poems about a protagonist named Charlotte (who no longer appears named in my chapbook). Writing these persona poems freed me from my impulse to write about my actual life experiences. Charlotte could be much more interesting and fanciful than I am. (I hope the title also resonates with the reader’s reaction to the work.) Six Charlotte poems were published as a “mini-chapbook” by The Centrifugal Eye. When they asked if I saw an entire manuscript of Charlotte poems, I said “only if she decides to run for office!” I’m glad now she didn’t.
Lois: The first poem I wrote for what became my collection Nightmares of the Minor Poet was “From Nightmares of the Minor Poet.” I composed it 6 or 7 years ago after a particularly bizarre reading in Philadelphia or was it Hoboken? I seem to have been asked to read at any number of strange venues.
I believe I was at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 2012 when I suddenly realized that I could expand my growing collection of poems about semi-fictional events in my life as poet and teacher into a chapbook. I suspect that most of us—many of us very good poets—are minor poets.
We both have Biblical references in our poems—
Christine: I became a Jehovah’s Witness at age ten when my mother converted, so I know a lot of Bible stories. Even then, I was questioning how they made sense or fit together. My book Blinding Light is more overtly about my questions about the Bible and my decision to leave the religion. I present a Mary in the collection as a woman who has doubts about divinity and feels unjustly abused.
Lois: Like Christine, I was brought up in a religious home, in my case Lutheran. My father was a Lutheran pastor who insisted that we listen to chapters of the Bible at breakfast every morning and after dinner every night. We were also expected to read the Bible before we crawled into bed. Even as a child I argued with many of the parables—I thought, for example, the Parable of the Ten Talents was one of the most unfair—and I lost my faith if I ever had it. I don’t seem to have the belief gene. However, I am indebted to that King James Bible for its gift of language.
Christine, you seem to weave a lot of humor into your collection. Do you consider yourself a humorous poet?
Christine: I really don’t think I have a gift for humor. I do have a wry take on life, but I’m probably the most humorous when I’m trying to be serious. In this collection, I write about an art dealer in Santa Fe with a pickup painted with Jesus on the side. I didn’t make that up! Then in my final poem, which is actually pretty dark, the pickup appears again. I guess I’d say I’m always on the lookout for the quirky detail.
Lois, your poems seem more obviously funny, particularly your send-up of the pretentious Old Poet, and I love your final poem about having just “two more.” Did you deliberately decide to end on a humorous note?
Lois: Several years ago I noticed that most poets give a “two-poem warnings,” as their readings near their end. It’s as if they are saying, “Better listen up. I won’t be here much longer.” That amuses me, and the minor poet in my poem is one of those disorganized ones who does not plan his readings, who flips through his books and notebooks on the podium because his time is up and because he doesn’t know how to close. So yes, it is humorous. But it is also a reminder that all of us poets can’t stop writing. We continue, chaotically but purposefully, to write about whatever seems important at the moment.
Christine, tell me a bit about the narrator of your collection. If you had to describe the narrator, what would he or she look like? What would his or her life experiences have entailed?
Christine: My narrator is a woman pretty much like me, middle-aged, a child of the sixties. Her voice is consistent throughout the collection. There are some flashback poems to her younger years, but narrated from her current age.
Lois, your poems are clearly persona poems with different voices and even genders. We may be tempted to see the writer as the poet in the turtleneck, but we quickly see there is no consistent voice or point of view. You have a Minor Poet in some titles and an Old Poet in others. Are they the same poet at different ages? (I see Poet as Seducer as the same poet in The Old Poet.) Are we meant to link certain poems as being about the same poet?
Lois: Well, first, there is no over-riding narrator in my collection, but many poems are narrated by an observer of quirky minor poets and artists: e.g. the minor poet who gives a reading in a library room that smells like an urinal, the minor poet who compares herself to the cleaning maid at a hotel writers’ conference, the poet who writes wacky haikus, the poet who writes a formal villanelle about his turtleneck, an ill old poet, a verbose old poet, the pianist who did not achieve greatness, the photographer of road kill.
Only one poem is a persona poem, the one with the outlandishly long title, The Minor Poet Translates the Villanelle ‘J’ai Perdu Ma Tourte-Cou’ by the Minor 17th Century Poet Blaise Passerat. The imaginary French poet is male, but I thought of the translator as male too, since he says:
I’m main and mute, a naked wreck—
I’ve lost my shirt so tight it’s dude,
No more readings, no more treks.
When I wrote this poem, I was thinking back to the 80’s and 90’s when black turtlenecks seemed to de riguer at reading. It is still interesting to note what individual poets at readings wear to define themselves as poets.
What is the relationship of the minor poets? How are we to understand the writer’s stance toward the “minor poet?” In what respect is the poet “minor?” Do we take this as facetious? Are all poets minor in some sense (i.e. acceptance in the marketplace?) How do you personally relate to the term “minor poet?”
Lois: As I said, most of the poems are written from the point of view of an observer of the poetry world. Some are the imaginary poems the fictional poets wrote. I suppose I am creating fiction as opposed to confession. As Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
My point, I hope, is that there are thousands of minor poets. Hundreds of old poets who barely creep across the stage, hundreds at writers conference who prey on younger writers, hundreds who teach senior citizens, hundreds who write silly haiku, and yes, hundreds and hundreds, I suspect, who just want someone, anyone, to sit and listen.
As for considering myself a minor poet, I learned from teaching in high school that there are ONLY THREE MAJOR poets: SHAKESPEARE, ROBERT FROST and SHEL SILVERSTEIN. Those are the ones my students heard of, for who but a minor poet knows the names of major poets such as Juan Felipe Herrera, Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, Kay Ryan or Billy Collins—let alone one of their poems? As William Matthews pointed out in one of his poems, famous poet is an oxymoron. I remember too that Harvard critic Helen Vendler scolded another famous poet Rita Dove for including so many minor ones in an anthology of 20th century verse: “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?” The question I keep considering is in my book just why do so many of us—long and short, florid and spare, deft and not so deft, 4,800 MFA’s graduating in poetry a year—continue to write?
What is your intention about what you would like your reader to understand is the “work” your collection is meant to do? Are they meant to take it lightheartedly or more deeply? If more deeply, what is the “deep” message you are trying to evoke?
Christine: If I had to choose one poem that stands for the intention of the work, I’d choose “Take It,” which is both a prayer and a resistance to prayer. It works back and forth giving something up and then deciding “No.” I am attracted to working with “contraries,” those moments of ambivalence or doubt that power through our lives. I suppose you could see the ending as humorous, if it wasn’t so true.
Lois: For me it’s not either or. It’s both. For example, “The Glutton of Eternity” is about those poets who decide to be expansive, to give up minimalist poems for epics (and I know quite a few of these). They are so hungry, still hopeful to find listeners to their bodacious desires.
Tell me a bit about the title. Did it arrive early or late in the process? What is it meant to signify?
Christine: I mentioned earlier how I chose the title. But I was not aware at the time how it would signal my age. When I taught this poem to undergraduates, I asked who knew what “stirred, not shaken” meant. Only one student raised his hand, and he said, “James Bond?” And now I recall, too late! that Lois advised me not to signal to my readers that the book is written by an older woman.
Lois: The title is from the first poem: “from Nightmares of the Minor Poet.” When I wrote that first poem, I had already imagined such a volume, though I hadn’t imagined writing it myself.
Christine, what poem do you particularly admire in Lois’s book?
Christine: I particularly like At the Writer’s Conference. This poem sets up issues of class, with the narrator thinking about the woman cleaning her hotel room, as well as “women’s work,” moving to a contemplation of the grace of the quotidian task. The narrator regrets her grumbling gracelessly through chores, and then treats the reader to an amazing list of chores, from licking honey off a spoon to brushing her teeth. Brilliant! The turn at the end reminds us of Mary, the good girl sitting learning at the feet of Christ (like the Minor Poet in the writing conference) and Martha, toiling in the kitchen without help (like the maid “wiping the face of the television as if it were a child’s, slowly and gently.”) The Poet entreats “Let me be Martha.” Although the sobriquet “Minor Poet” does not appear in this poem, I feel that this narrator shows she is a Major Poet!
And Lois, what poem do you particularly admire in Christine’s book?
Lois: I enjoyed the whole book as an uber-poem. I admired the sound and deftness of poem after poem, but I really liked most the way that the last poem “I am Writing to You from the End of the World” closed the book. It was so satisfying to have the images recur—especially that pickup truck with “Jesus painted on its side.” This poem, for me, suggests all the ambivalence about the world that a good writer brings to poetry. It made me feel, “Oh, yes.”