As poet William Carlos Williams famously mused, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” What better way to examine Williams’s claim of “what is found there,” while also addressing “the news” that poems often can and must convey, than to have two poets together in conversation?
Poets Barbara Crooker and Marjorie Maddox did just that. The two corresponded by email about the extraordinary within the ordinary, the body and its betrayals, new books and old obsessions, process and discovery, grief and growth.
Marjorie Maddox: Barbara, I was introduced to your work through your quietly powerful poem “Ordinary Life” while I was helping judge Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s Public Poetry Project at Penn State University in 2004. What struck me then, and continues to strike me now, is how incredibly well you capture and present to your readers the extraordinary contained within the ordinary moments of our lives. You do not shy away from the sometimes difficult experiences that many of us face—raising children, (including in your case, one with autism), losing a parent, facing the limitations of our bodies, negotiating relationships—but you also allow in the midst of these realities healing glimpses of, or full meditations on, humor, hope, joy, art, nature, and faith. I believe this is one of the reasons you are such a popular guest on Garrison Keillor’s NPR show The Writer’s Almanac.
Might you discuss how poetry in general and your work in particular give us such moments of the ordinary and extraordinary?
Barbara Crooker: For me, this is the job of poetry, to give us moments of transcendence in the face of our difficult and complicated ordinary lives. One of the things I was trying to do in the poem “Ordinary Life” was to present a child with autism in the midst of a “normal” family setting. The family in the poem is both ordinary and extraordinary. I think all of our lives are this way as well. And while I know the casual reader wouldn’t recognize autism in the baby who is lining up his cars (what’s the difference between a self-stimulating activity like putting cars into a pattern and “real life,” i.e. traffic), I wanted to use this portrait, this idealized day, to include everyone. I think it’s one of the jobs of poetry to look at ordinary otherwise forgettable daily tasks and activities and focus “the rich lens of attention” (Mary Oliver) on them to burnish them until they shine.
In your recent writing, what has been your “rich lens of attention”?
Maddox: I love this Mary Oliver quote that allows for such sight and insight in the midst of the every day. Recently, the August re-release of my book Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (about my father’s unsuccessful heart transplant), has refocused my attention on the medical. I now find myself reexamining, on physical and psychological levels, changing parent-child relationships. As my daughter moves into adulthood and my mother into dementia, I am particularly intrigued by how memory affects how we process and interpret the world around us on a personal and national level.
In what ways and to what extent do you find yourself returning in your poems to certain subject matters or techniques? In what ways do you find yourself entering new realms?
Crooker: One of the subjects I’ve kept returning to is neonatal loss. My first child was stillborn at term, and I’ve written a fair number of poems on this. Each time, it felt like closing a door, and then another poem surfaced. A loss like this is something you never get over. At this point, I’m not saying I’m done with anything. I let the poems come as they come. But one of the things that I’ve done in my writing life is to have a number of international residencies, which required coming up with a project. The first one was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts’s studio in Auvillar, France. I went there with the vaguely formed idea that I would write some ekphrastic poems on Fauve paintings (Matisse, Dufy, Cross, Derain), as Fauvism started in that part of France. While I was working on them, I challenged myself to do the equivalent in words what the Fauves (aka “The Wild Beasts”) did in paint. Weirdly, for me, that meant writing poems in form (sonnets, end-rhymes, abecedaries), and I pushed in some very new directions. One of the poems was a double helix, which meant that line 1 began with “a” and ended with “z.” The lines that are flush left (odd-numbered) begin with the alphabet in order and end with the alphabet in reverse order. But wait! There’s more! The even-numbered lines, which are indented, start with “z” and end in “a” and do the same thing with the initial and ending letters (the alphabet in reverse on the left and in order on the right). As you might imagine, this poem was a huge endeavor.
Struggling in form ended up informing the other work, as the rhymed poems helped increase the music of the free verse poems, and the wrestles with the alphabet heightened my awareness of the importance of varying my diction and vocabulary. These poems ended up in a 2017 collection, Les Fauves.
My new book, The Book of Kells, (Cascade Books, Poiema Poetry Series, 2018), sprung from two residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Co. Monaghan, Ireland, and a series of meditations on the Book of Kells plus a series of glosas. I’d thought, before I went, that I would be doing another ekphrastic collection, but I ended up doing a fair amount of research, with poems not just on the visual images, but on ink, pigments, vellum, marginal doodles, the anonymous scribes. I’m a big believer in serendipity, so there are several poems (it’s in Trinity Library, Dublin, and they only turn one page a day). The glosa is a somewhat obscure 14th-15th century Spanish form where you take a four-line stanza from another person’s poem, use it as the epigraph, and then use each of the four lines to end a ten-line stanza. Lines 6 and 9 have to rhyme with the embedded and borrowed tenth line. And I decided to use Irish writers as the sources for the quotes. Again, when I forced myself to do something I hadn’t attempted before, it opened up the rest of the book and made the work richer. In addition, listening to the music of conversation around the dinner table altered the rhythm of the free verse poems. I hope to continue trying new things, whether received forms or residencies in new parts of the world.
And what about your manuscript construction? What was your organizing principle in constructing Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation?
Maddox: From your descriptions, I very much look forward to reading The Book of Kells. In addition, your writing process for Les Fauves, for which I had the privilege of recording a review, underscores how well you return to favorite topics in fresh, intriguing ways, while also pushing your work into surprising territory. This is something that I particularly admire about your poetry.
To address the issue of repeating oneself, like you, I write about many topics (the world is so full, after all, and there needs to be some room for baseball poems and feminist fairy tales. However, often I feel that in my lifetime I am writing one very long book!
My poetic obsessions remain the same (the interaction of body and spirit, how we respond to the worlds around and inside us). Although on the surface the content may appear quite different, the central tensions are similar. I believe this is true for many writers. The specifics of personal “local news,” even when living in an unsafe world, as my book Local News from Someplace Else argues, is universal.
Writing helps us to discover not only how and what we think, but also the lives of others. If we are fortunate, poetry allows us to see from new perspectives, to better empathize with those unlike ourselves. That being said, because the world keeps changing and we as individuals and communities change with it, different experiences beget different poems. The challenge, as you mentioned, is to continue the process of discovery.
As far as inviting individual poems into the “community” of a full-length collection, this is an activity I particularly enjoy, printing out poems and rearranging them on my office floor. While I have written some books from the start with a particular theme in mind, such as True, False, None of the Above, for me this is not typically the case.
Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation was written in stages. At the age of thirty-nine, my father suffered his first of ten cardiac arrests. The years of my youth were filled with ambulance sirens snaking their way to our house. As a pre-teen, I gave him CPR. My father lived until sixty-five, but did not survive the heart transplant. Although I had been writing about my father’s health since I was young, writing the trauma of his death required much more time and space.
For me, it is as hard to write an effective grief poem as it is to write a powerful love poem. The trick is to make the experience real while avoiding sentimentality and cliché. Because my father received his heart during the blizzard of 1993 from a donor killed in a car accident, I begin my collection with that stranger whose “heart is buried in my father / who is buried.” The book ends with discovering an old answering machine tape, which my mother had labeled simply, “Dad’s voice.”
In between are poems about new marriage, travel, the Sacraments, and the long series “Body Parts,” the latter composed after my father’s death as I carried around Gray’s Anatomy one summer writing thirty-five pieces on hearts, kidneys, spleens, lungs, big toes, etc. What brought together the book’s organization, and also gave me the title, was a newspaper article and my subsequent poem about an individual who transported donor organs to other countries. The book, which originally won the 2004 Yellowglen Prize and was one of three finalists for the Brittingham and Felix Pollak prizes, has just been re-released by Wipf and Stock. On a personal level, this is an especially important book to me, and so I am grateful to have it again in the world.
Your book, Gold, focuses on your relationship with your mother and her final days. Might you discuss your own process of writing about such a personal grief?
In addition, elsewhere you mourn on a national level what you see occurring in our country. I’m thinking of such anthologies as Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, edited by Grace Bauer and Julie Kane, where your poems are featured. Might you also, then, discuss this national “poetic” mourning or, if you prefer, what you see as the personal and public roles of poetry?
Crooker: I’m delighted that Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation is back in print. It’s a necessary book and deserves a wider readership.
I didn’t have a book in mind when I started writing the poems in Gold. When I teach creative writing, my mantra is to tell my students to write what you know, and don’t be afraid to engage the heart (“God wants the heart,” says the Talmud). I think part of why I write is to make sense of the world. I seem to process it through the written word. After the book came out, I realized this was also a book of food poems. There was nothing I could do to keep that boat (her death) from slipping its mooring, heading out to sea, but I could make or bring her food. So included in the book is what might be seen by some as a transgressive poem, “Peeps,” which looks at her death and the unorthodox funeral and communion ceremony through the lens of marshmallow candies. I wrote poem after poem in the midst of dealing with her various illnesses, her final days, and then on the path through grief, writing these poems because I was compelled to. And when I was done, there was enough for a book.
As to mourning on a national level about the political climate in our country, I find myself in the odd position as a primarily lyric writer trying to write poems about nature that get hijacked and turned into political poems. It’s as if the poems can no longer help themselves, which seems to be my position as well; I can no longer be silent.
This moves me into a question for you: as a writer who addresses many issues, including questions of faith, how do you reconcile this with what’s currently occurring, that some in the church are fervently supporting a person in power whose actions are diametrically opposed to everything Jesus ever said or stood for? I find myself in conversations where Christianity is equated with racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc., and I feel like I should wear a sign saying “Yes, I’m a Christian, but a left-leaning Christian who believes in equality, welcoming the stranger among us, caring for the environment, etc.” But it’s become impossible to talk across the Great Divide.
Maddox: I hope that it is not impossible. Like you, I find myself horrified, outraged, confused, and anxious by what I hear coming out of this individual’s mouth. Such words and actions are diametrically opposed to so many religious traditions (as well as basic human decency). And yet, everywhere I go, I meet or interact with individuals of faith who also are horrified, and from both sides of the political aisle. A growing number are quite vocal in their dissent. I think of the good work of our friend Anya Silver, as well as such gatherings as Festival of Faith and Writing and New York Encounters, among others, where writers of sometimes diverse political and religious persuasions come together not only to discuss writing but also ways to combat injustices. So I am saddened when persons of faith, and perhaps Christians in particular, are too quickly equated by others with this man’s rhetoric and actions. I simply do not find this to be the case. When I do read or view fervent support of (or turning a blind eye to) this individual’s treatment of others, I am completely baffled and saddened. I do not understand it.
The short answer to your above question is I weep. But that’s not enough, is it? I know that you have been politically engaged for much of your life. Although you and I may not agree on every single issue and I do not see myself as primarily a political writer, more and more I’ve found my work veering in this direction.
I’ve also had the privilege of serving twice as Poet-in-Residence at the Chautauqua Institution, where I recently spoke on the topic “Confronting This World One Poem at a Time,” which included discussion of “Poetry as Protest.” Although it may sound naive, for me poetry is one of the many ways we can and must let our voices be heard. It is my small part of opening up the conversation.
We’ve now talked about returning in our work to earlier themes as well as addressing current social and political issues. With this in mind, I am interested to hear how you compiled your Selected Poems.
Crooker: Having come of age and come to poetry in the 70s, I realized that most of the anti-war poetry coming out of the Vietnam War era wasn’t very good poetry, so I shied away from letting the political seep into my work. Your response of “I weep” seems to me to be the best response we can have today. The day after the election was one of the worst days of my life, and I found myself in tears checking out in Wegmans. Uncharacteristically, I went home that day and wrote this poem in a white-hot heat, let it sit for few hours, sent it to Tim Green at Rattle around 3 p.m., and by 6 p.m. it was online.
Thank you for asking about my Selected Poems. Usually, constructing a manuscript is an arduous project taking many years for me, but this one was fairly simple. I took the best poems from my out-of-print chapbooks and then added a handful of poems at the end from those years (up until 2005 and the publication of my first full-length book). So it’s really an Early Selected, Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems (FutureCycle 2015).
What project/poems are you working on next?
Maddox: As you know, my “day job” is as a professor of English and creative writing at Lock Haven University, which I enjoy. This semester, however, I am especially grateful for a sabbatical, readings across the Midwest and East, and a residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Interestingly enough, much of what I’ve begun drafting is echoed in our conversations above: poems addressing memory, psychosis, disease, and their ramifications within several parent/child roles, as well as work that explores similar issues on a national level, particularly in the ways that we distort or preserve memory, define or alter reality, see or don’t see those around us.
Barbara, thank you for this good conversation, for your insights, and, as always, for your poetry. May our adventures in writing continue!
Crooker: Margie, I loved talking to you over email. Yes, may the adventures continue!
Photograph of Marjorie Maddox © Dawn Snyder.