Are you interested in writing poetry, and connecting with other writers? Are you wondering whether there are any benefits to writing and reading poems?
To explore these questions, I’m inviting you to eavesdrop on my long, virtual conversation with Violet Nesdoly, as we cyber-talk (or, more accurately, as we type back and forth) about a 10-year-old friendship built on a mutual love for poetry.
For the love of poetry…
TLK: Writing poetry is not something we do for money or fame. It’s about intangible rewards–the quiet pleasure of attentiveness, the power and mystery of words, and the meeting of minds. Something amazing happens when a writer and a reader meet in a poem. It can build human understanding and compassion, and sometimes it evens builds a friendship.
I met, you, Violet in a Christian poetry discussion forum back in the stone ages of social networking. With an entire continent and an international border between us, (you living near the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada, and I near the Atlantic in New Hampshire, USA), we managed to meet weekly (and sometimes more frequently) for a year or more to share our love of poetry and to critique one another’s works in progress. Although I haven’t been involved in that forum/discussion since 2006, I’m amazed that we’ve managed to stay in touch via email, on facebook and through blogging. We’ve never met face-to-face, never even heard the sound of each other’s voices, and yet I consider you a friend, someone I can really “talk” to.
VN: Thanks so much, Tracy, for inviting me to your blog. What an honour!
TLK: Your poem “Wear a Scarf” seems to celebrate unity in diversity, and reminds me of what poetry itself does for me. Do you also feel a “oneness” or the call to “be one” with other poets?
VN: In the poem “Wear a Scarf” the thought of unity was part of the inspiration for sure. But it was more the idea of how we females are one, illustrated by how women of all ethnicities wear scarves, shawls or whatever we call them.
TLK: In some ways that sense of human interconnection is what drew me to poetry. How about you? What drew you to, and keeps you immersed in, poetry?
VN: I was drawn to it from high school on, inspired by the enthusiasm of my English teacher. In my teen years I was a sometimes-contributor to the youth page of a farm tabloid that my parents got. Poems on that page (The Young Co-Operators in the Western Producer) were my first publications (long lost in the archives of the farmhouse attic, I’m afraid). I went back to poetry from time to time when traumatic experiences or lyrical lines in my head enticed me to try writing more. And then, about a dozen or so years ago, I started reading, studying, and writing poetry more intentionally.
For me now it’s not the urge to be one with other poets that gets me writing—although that feeling of unity comes when I read resonant poems. At this time poem-writing has become a way to pay attention, to notice the details of my life. In a way poetry (and photography) are my ways of cataloging my blessings and thankfulnesses along with yearnings, and memories, and lessons learned—really all the topics that lend themselves to poetry. So in many ways now I write for myself first (and sometimes only), and the process is almost as important as the product. I came across a quote a few days ago that expresses it well:
“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty” Rainer Maria Rilke.
TLK: Yes! I first read that quote when I was in my twenties, and it influenced my decades-long focus on living a deliberately creative life. But there are so many ways to create–visual art, dance, crafts, theater, music, baking, gardening… even science and mathematics have creative opportunities. Why poetry?
VN: Like most people enamoured with poetry, I also get off on words. I love fitting them together with regard to meaning, sound, even the feel of how they roll off the tongue.
TLK: And that’s exactly what I enjoy about in your poems–your attentiveness to sound, your playfulness with words. I have to tell you, I was somewhat intimidated, perhaps even a little bit put-off, when I first came to the poetry forum, by your title of International Christian Poet Laureate. But you quickly put me at ease and made me realize that you don’t take yourself too seriously or see yourself as someone who has all the knowledge/answers about poetry, but rather…
…you’re a person who loves poetry and sees the world through a poet’s eyes and sensibility. In what ways has this sensibility been a blessing to you?
VN: Yes, Tracy, that was a hefty title and an honour too! Actually the longer I write the less I feel sure of myself as a poet, or maybe the more respectful I am of other poets. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with that title now. At the present it feels great just to be one of the crowd—a crowd that’s grown bigger, it seems, since many of us have found each other online.
For me a poet’s eyes and sensibility are a great advantage in prose writing. They aid brevity, sharpen one’s ability to create images, make one sensitive to the precise meanings of words and the importance of using the right ones, and hone the ability to write musically.
And, as I mentioned above, poem-writing has proved to be a wonderful way to capture the essences and nuances of my life in a succinct way, both the physical details and the below-the-surface significance of things, people, and experiences.
TLK: I hadn’t ever thought of it that way, but yes, it is about capturing nuances of an experience. And speaking of experience, what do you most remember about when we were first getting to know each other through poetry?
VN: I remember your sensitivity and ability to express critique in a positive and encouraging way. I always thought twice about your suggestions and used many of them.
TLK: I’m so relieved to hear that. I find critique a very difficult area, and wonder whether I’m saying too much, or not enough. I’ve been in critique groups where, over time, people start taking over one another’s poetry. That didn’t happen in our forum when I was there, and that’s not why I left. I had to make some hard choices about where to focus my energy, and the forum was taking a lot of time. I began to see that it was going to be necessary, if I wanted to grow as a writer, to focus my writing energy in a more solitary pursuit. That was a hard decision. But I’m certainly glad you and I managed to stay in touch, even though I essentially disappeared for a while (as people in cyber-space so easily can do).
The study of poetry…
VN: After you left us you studied for a while with a well-known poet. I’m wondering, did that make a difference to your work? How?
TLK: It made an enormous difference. It set the course for the rest of my writing life. For a year I worked in a one-on-one mentoring relationship with Patricia Fargnoli, who was the New Hampshire Poet Laureate at the time. It was a serious and intense time of immersion in poetry.
I read tons of poems, lots of criticism and wrote notebooks full of stuff that turned into some of my best poems. I wrote long letters to Patricia about my studies. Those became the basis for my essays about poetry and a formulation of my personal poetics. I also read a few of my poems at a reading in which she was the featured poet. The whole year was a terrific experience. But my working with her gradually became less and less about poems, and more about how I wanted to live my writing life–my process and my topics, my direction, purpose and goals for writing.
Patricia was incredibly encouraging and also challenging. She’s kind-hearted and highly intelligent. I learned from her to question every word and every thought, to never settle for the easy or the obvious. She taught me to be a brutally exacting editor of my own writing.
At the beginning of our time, I definitely was not ready to publish in literary journals, but at the end, she felt I had a number of good poems, fit to publish. She suggested I send some to editors she knew, with a note that she had read them. Although none of the editors poems chose to publish those poems, they all wrote back to me (and you know how rare that is), and requested to see other poems. But I didn’t follow through. I stopped submitting poems, and I basically stopped writing poetry because I wanted to focus on memoir, essays and fiction. Still that year of in-depth poetry influenced everything I write now. Poetry gave me the tools to be a better writer. I still write the occasional poem, usually when a strange but rhythmic phrase or an evocative image won’t leave my mind.
VN: So what do you do with your poems once they’re written and tweaked to your satisfaction? Have you ever considered putting together a poetry book of your own?
TLK: Sometimes I think about collecting them into a book someday, to leave for my granddaughters. For now, I tuck them in file, unimaginatively marked “Finished Poems.” Occasionally I share a couple of them with other poets, and rarely (about once a year), I post one on my blog.
I suppose it’s strange that I don’t care to publish my poems, when in my heart I consider myself a poet, someone who, in Patricia Fargnoli’s words, is “open to the world and its impact on us, perhaps because we [poets] are so often in a state of amazement at life.”
Poetry, for me, is not about publishing or being known in the world as a poet. It’s about being in that continual state of amazement, and it’s about connecting with other people who understand that amazement–people like Violet, who know that experiencing the world through a poetic sensibility expands and enriches our lives.
I’m thankful to Violet for enriching my life. It’s amazing that we’ve connected, and that we’ve stayed in touch.