28 September 2010

Interview with Barbara Crooker, poet

This is the twenty-seventh interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to see if you have missed any interviews, take a look at my conversations with those guests of most interest to you, leave some comments, or suggest future interviewees. Enjoy, leave your comments at the end of this interview, and share this series with your friends!

Interview with poet Barbara Crooker
at her home in Fogelsville, PA
2 August 2010
and via email

IA: Let’s start by talking about your writing. You can tell my readers what you’ve done, a little bit about your work. If my count is correct, you have ten chapbooks and three full-length books; is that correct?

BC: Actually twelve chapbooks. Twelve chapbooks and three full-length books.

Barbara’s books are listed on her website, here

I’m one of the people that took a long time and a very arduous journey to get a first full-length book. I spent fifteen years entering contests, being a finalist, being a top-ten. It’s like the game of Chutes-and-Ladders; you get that close to the top and if you don’t win, you go all the way down to the bottom again. And you have to do it again. I probably sent out my manuscript fifteen times each year, and I sent out queries to anybody that I thought was reading. So I was getting to the point where I thought it was going to be “posthumous.” Then I was overjoyed to learn that I won that Word Press First Book Award. It turned out to be the last Word Press First Book Award. They’re under the umbrella of WordTech Communications, and they’ve gone to simply having open reading periods and no more contests. But once I got my toe in the water that way, then my second book came out three years later, and now my third book two years after that. So that’s three books out in five years, which is a lot, because of what a writer has to do in order to get a book noticed.

IA: You have a big job to do with “self-promotion,” in addition to the writing. But you have a huge output of writing, as well. Do you work on a rigid routine every day?

BC: Well, I only seem to have a huge output because I’ve been writing for a long time, probably thirty-five, forty years. And although I’ve published in well over two thousand publications, some of these are the same poems which were published first in a magazine, then in an anthology, then in one of my books, and maybe later on a website. So poems can be recycled! I think the hard work of being a writer is the writing itself. That’s the most important work. The rest of it is just busy work. But back to the question about getting the work out there. Even writers at the highest level have to do their own promotion, because presses don’t have publicity budgets any more. So some of the things that we have to do are: send out email notices, provide addresses for mail order notices, try to do readings, try to get reviewed, which is also becoming more and more difficult. One of the things I try to do is to review other people’s books, because I know how hard it is to get books of poetry noticed.

IA: So you’ve got all this other work: writing reviews, doing readings, sending out emails….

BC: Writing essays…. I feel that with prose projects, I just finish seem to finish one piece thinking, OK, now I can get back to my own work, and then somebody asks me to do something else! But there seems to be a hunger for reviews and essays, whereas sometimes one of the things that stops me from writing (and I know that this also stops some of my friends) is that I have about a hundred unpublished poems trying to find a home. Do I need to add to my store of unpublished work? But that's only a slight impediment. We’re flooded with poetry, actually. With the proliferation of MFA programs, there are so many writers being churned out. Some of them are excellent writers, as well. It's an exciting time in American writing.

IA: Yes, it is! But this is a very hard time economically, for poetry: publishers don’t want poetry unless it’s someone who’s already very established and a big name who’s going to sell, which is a very small handful of poets, or unless you’re going to do all the work, all the publicity yourself. But you’ve been very successful, as a poet. I don’t know about economically, but your poetry has appeared in so many various important places. You’ve won many prizes, you’ve been read on Writer’s Almanac many times: What do you think it is about your poetry that has worked for people?

BC: That’s an interesting question. I would go back and say that “successful poet” is really an oxymoron in this country. And it’s interesting, too, to think about "what is success?" It used to be gauged by getting into a certain magazines or winning certain prizes. I had a writing friend who’s no longer with us who had wonderful success, but he was never nominated for a Pulitzer, so he always felt like a failure. We set up these little gates for ourselves to try to jump over. I don’t think there’s any morning when I wake up and say, “I’m a successful writer!” Some days I'm tough about dealing with rejection, some days I'm not. Yet everyone gets rejected. I have a friend who knew John Updike, and he still got rejected, even by The New Yorker.

So, what appeals to readers about my work? That’s a tough question, it really is. One of my friends was just interviewed in a blog, and she said, “To answer that question, I think you'd have to ask somebody who writes criticism, not me.” It may be because I’m accessible, but this is a double-edged sword, because for every reader who comes to you because you are accessible, you have a critic who wants to sneer at you for the same reason. My ideal reader is my former next-door neighbor, who didn’t go to college, but who is an avid and eclectic reader. I’m not looking for someone who, say, spends a lot of time watching reality shows on TV; that person isn't going to turn to poetry. But I am looking for somebody who loves good literature and whose life is enriched by reading.

IA: Let’s discuss some of the topics that you tend to write about, that tend to occur in your poetry quite frequently. You write nature poetry, you write poetry in which you examine everyday occurrences or objects or situations, you write poetry about your family. You also have a recurring theme in your work which is quite admirable, which is quite a challenge: which is life-long love. Love that lasts through a marriage. And it’s notoriously difficult to write about married love. It’s much easier to write about unrequited love, or a quick passing passion. Do want to talk about those, or are there other topics that occur?

BC: Definitely those. You've struck a chord with the love in a long-term relationship theme. Something that pleases me is that I have some male gay friends who also respond to the same things that I’m writing about in my relationship. I think that’s great. In contemporary writing, there are a whole lot of break-up poems, unrequited love poems, good love gone bad poems. But there isn’t a lot written about the struggles (and joys) in a love that lasts, so it’s sort of a niche I fell into.

Some of my other themes include my mother’s long decline. We brought her down here to live, so I was her caregiver for her last eight years. I have a section about this in my new book, More, and then I deal with her death and grieving in the manuscript I’m currently working on. It was a profound experience, a door we all go through in this life. Only in poetry can you really examine this dualism, this feeling doubly about things. I wish she was still here with us, while at the same time, I can't wish her back in that body with those lungs that didn’t work. These two desires can exist in a poem, but in real life, they can’t. And, of course, in real life we don’t get to choose. I have a friend who has written a long series of poems in which she resurrects and reconstructs a difficult relationship with her mother, rewriting their personal history. Every woman who is born is a daughter, and so this is a fascinating relationship, which is, in some cases toxic, in others, life-affirming, with many, many shades in between.

Other things I write about: the dynamics of a family where there is a profoundly disabled member, my son, age twenty-six, who has autism. Some of my earlier poems in chapbooks were more about the day-to-day experiences; my later poems are quieter, showing how we go on. We live in a country that has few if any social services any more. Here is a person who is profoundly disabled, and yet we’re being told by our social worker that not only will he never get into a group home, but that after we’re gone, the best that she can do is maybe get him into a homeless shelter. We lost so much ground during the Bush years, as social services money went to fund the war in Iraq and was never returned. The country is running out of money, the states are running out of money. We’ve seen terrible cuts to education which will have long-term repercussions. But the fact is that there are at least half a million disabled children whose parents, like us, are aging, and there’s nothing being funded. There’s a big elephant sitting in the room, folks. Private pay for group homes is about the same as it is for Assisted Living, but for many more years. So this weighs on my mind, always. Several poems about this are in my second book, Line Dance. Many writers come back to the same topics; the difficult trick is not to keep writing the same poem.

Another area is my love of the visual arts. I have an entire section of Ekphrastic work in More. I was an art history minor as an undergraduate, so this is the perfect merger of my two loves, poetry and art. I can give myself permission to go off to a museum, thinking it might lead to new poems. This part of my life has also been fueled by an artists’ colony, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (the VCCA), starting in 1990. When you go to a colony, you're in residence with not only writers, but painters, sculptors, musicians; all the arts are represented. At night when there are presentations, it’s a rich cross-fertilization, a meeting place of all the arts. I’m happy to report that I got in again, so I’ll go back there in November. That’s where I met the two women who did the cover art on my last two books. Being able to talk with, say, a painter, listening to her talk about her struggle with new media and its frustrations, spills over into the challenges of writing, and is enormously helpful.

I also write about contemporary events, although again, there’s that double-edged sword. I have a poem about the oil spill, but a thousand other writers have a poem about this, too, and it's going to get dated. So this might be a poem that doesn't make it into a book. But being concerned about the world, the environment, the ever-presence of war, these are things that engage me. At the same time, they’re only the way in, into writing a poem. They’re never the poem itself. Even when I use autobiographical material, it’s not exactly me or my family, because in the act of creation, your material changes even while you're using it.

IA: Now, another topic that comes up often is, I think you called it a minute ago: “The edge of the spiritual.” The spiritual edges its way in, or you’re edging your way into the spiritual in your work.

BC: Yes, yes. Absolutely. My first book, Radiance, for me is a spiritual/religious book, but without mentioning any specific theology or tradition. I was aware of and was purposeful in doing that. You and I have both read widely in contemporary spiritual journals. The poems that I love are almost never the ones that have direct Biblical references. I want to do something a little bit different. Contemporary religious poems that don’t appeal to me are ones that simply retell familiar stories using slightly different words. Nothing new happens. It's the same sort of thing that bothers me in a sermon. I like work that come at things from a different angle. I've been writing a blurb for Tania Runyan’s first book, and I like the way she takes an unusual slant, for example, the point of view of an angel in the corner. I like a different way of looking at something familiar. And although I have work in many Christian publications, I think of myself as a sort of Zen Lutheran. I'll be reading at the National Lutheran Writers’ Conference in Iowa this October, but I feel like of my sensibility is sometimes more informed by Eastern writers, such as the writing of Thích Nhât Hạnh, the Vietnamese monk, some of the early Japanese poetry (Basho), Rumi, et al. I feel like a filter-feeder, such as a sponge or an anemone, as I read widely and I try to be open to experience. I try and write without preconceived notions, following Robert Frost's dictum: “If you know where a poem is going, start there.” So when I’m writing, I try to let it be a journey, see where it takes me.

IA: I’d like to talk technique for a moment. Let’s discuss, as specifically as we can, techniques that you use. You can describe these for our readers in layman’s terms, but also however technically you want to get. So you tend to write free verse. But what informs the structures of your poems? For instance, how do you know when to break a line?

BC: I’d say probably ninety to ninety-five percent of my poetry is free verse, but I am interested in formal poetry as well. I’ve been part of the West Chester Conference on Formal Poetry for the past five or six years, and have had work in Mezzo Cammin. So I find it instructive to work in form from time to time. Those kinds of poems take me much longer to bring to completion, but there's a certain shimmer that formal poems send out that influences the free verse work I’m also working on.

I do tend to work simultaneously. Right now, in my folder I’ve got older poems that I’m revising for the next manuscript, plus newer poems in various stages, ranging from just a couple of words, to ones in the throes of revision. I like to work on one poem, put it away, work on another one, ditto, never removing something from that working-on folder until I feel it's finished. (And is a poem ever finished, or merely abandoned, as Paul Valery said?) I know I’ve got at least two poems right now in two different versions, and boy, I just can’t decide. But you know, we’ve got nothing but time. So I like to wait until something surfaces to tell me which is version is right, because intellectually the argument could go either way. I usually start with an image, or with something that nags at me. I thought that I had pretty much written everything I could about my son, but in the past month or so, there was a phrase that kept repeating itself in my head, and I knew I had to finish the poem that the phrase wanted to be part of.

Whenever I am given something, I want to say thank you. Some writers call it "the Muse," others the Holy Spirit, but what ever you name you give it, something is there, saying “This needs to come into being.” And my job is to catch it, to jot down on whatever paper is close at hand, all those raw beginnings. Sometimes it’s the worst-looking prose you've ever seen. Once I start writing, I try and let that pony run. It might be page after page after page of junk, but I try to be patient until something that’s starting to sound like a poem comes through. If it’s a musical line or phrase, I’ll try to go back and use that as a template, try and make everything else as good as that one bit. It’s kind of sculptural: there’s this big mess, and I chip away at all that isn't a poem— There's an old anecdote that goes, the way you create Michelangelo’s David is that you chisel off everything that isn’t David. . .

How do I decide when the lines break? Well, I use a lot of different things. Because I have sometimes work formally, I think I hear those iambs trotting in the back of my mind. What I’m most drawn to, though, is breath units. I try to be organic and see where the natural pauses come. I like to use enjambment, too. But then I’m also visual. I start writing on yellow paper, so there’s a real shift once I move to the computer. I dislike dangling lines, lines that aren’t beautiful visually, while on the other hand I try to fight against too much shapeliness, which can be boring. Then there’s the use of white space. Do I want this to be a poem that’s compact, hard, and solid, in little square stanzas? Or I want this to be a poem that stretches and dances; if so, I might break it into two or three line stanzas, so there's more white space and breathing room. Again, I rely to a great degree on intuition and listening to what the poem is telling me about where it wants to go, how it wants to look on the page, what form it would like to take.

Then I do a lot of revision. That’s one of the things I find difficult in talking to beginning writers, particularly high school ones. I do a workshop at DeSales University once a year for high school students. This festival has been going on about twenty-six years, and it gives a four-year college scholarship to the winning poem; one year the winning poem was only four lines long. But sometimes, when we talk about process, the kids will say, "This came to me, I wrote it down, that's it." If I try to talk about revision, they say, “Oh, but then that won’t be the way I heard it." Or "if I show it to a workshop and other people give me input, then it’ll be their poem and not my poem.” This is a very difficult hurdle to get them over.

I workshop myself; I have two that are in-person, one with two other women, one with a man, plus I have some folks online I exchange work with. Sometimes I get decent editorial advice from editors, but usually, they're overwhelmed, so all that comes back is "accept or reject." You don’t often get, “We’re interested in this poem but think the ending could be stronger,” which would be useful.

I find that most of my poems end up in the twenty-five to fifty revisions area. I’m still old-fashioned enough that I print them all out. That's one thing I’ve learned from observing painters, that sometimes when they’ve built up to be a layer too much, they can’t go back. But if we’ve overwritten or taken something that was a lot better, say, in the fifteenth version, we can return to the earlier version. I often go back when I have things I’m struggling with, to find that the answers are already there, but I couldn't see them at the time. Again, we’ve got nothing but time. I think we all need time and distance to be able to look at our own work critically. I try not to think I wrote a particular poem; rather, I try to look at it as a piece of writing and ask how it can be improved.

IA: Pretend you’re workshopping someone else’s piece?

BC: Sure. It’s so interesting; in one workshop it seems like we’re constantly saying about the other person’s piece what needs to be fixed in our own. That’s the old mote-in-your-eye, log-in-somebody-else’s thing. And while we're using Biblical references, writing reviews for other people has ended up exemplifying the adage that you can throw your bread on the water and you won’t get soggy crusts. Instead, it engenders good will and the gratitude of other writers, which is very satisfying.

IA: So, because of your reviewing and your wide reading, and also you write a lot of back-of-the-book blurbs as well [Barbara very kindly wrote one for my chapbook], you really know a lot of other contemporary poets working right now. So do you think that, with the exception of love in a long-term relationship, do you think that a lot of your techniques and topics are typical of other poets right now?

BC: I don’t think my work is different than anyone else’s in terms of technique. I’m always learning. People are coming up with wonderful invented forms. So if I read something new, I might say, “Ah, I’d like to try that!” Or I might like to try and figure out the way someone gets from here to there in a poem. A writer whose work I’m admiring a great deal is Barbara Hamby, who does poems that are like jazz rifts. The poem I read today was on barbeque, souls, and Hell. And it was so inventive, the way she wandered throughout the poem, but came back home at the end. I'm in awe. Maybe I'll try and do something like this, some time.

IA: Do you identify yourself with a particular type of poetry, a particular school or movement or group?

BC: Probably not. I'm not very interested in schools, but I’d consider myself a contemporary woman writer. Which brings up something interesting: I'd mentioned the Westchester conference, which is called “Form and Narrative.” In the past two years, I've been on a symposium that has undertaken a large project called The Women Poets Timeline, which plans to identify and have a paper written on every woman poet of all time and from all countries. One of the men at the conference said to the woman in charge of the Timeline project, “Well, what are you going to do next, when this is done?” She said, “This is not going to get done in my lifetime.” He was clearly thinking, “Well, there’s only a handful of women writers, so there’s not much to write about,” but he was wrong, and this project will showcase the rich and varied world of women’s writing. It's an exciting time to be a woman writer and yet, it’s curious, because some women writers in the past have not wanted to be identified this way. The woman who was writing about May Swenson had trouble with her estate, as Swenson didn’t want to be identified with “women writers,” but wanted to be considered “just a writer,” like the men. But I have a friend who was making up his own curriculum up for contemporary poetry next semester who asked me where he could find women writers, as he didn't find many represented in the books he was using, and I sent him to the Timeline to see the papers that were already up there to use in planning his course. I’m proud to have had a small part in this.

IA: So: you identify with contemporary women writers.

BC: Sure. And contemporary spiritual writers. Contemporary nature writers. Writers on disability. I was on a panel on this topic at AWP in Denver. That’s a field we’re not done with yet, either.

IA: And do you feel it’s a very new field? Not the subject matter, but more self-conscious?

BC: I think it’s a new in being treated as an academic subject, or as something to have anthologies created around. In some ways, we’re the last bastion of self-identified communities that still experience a great deal of prejudice. For example, people now realize that jokes with an ethnic reference are in bad taste, as are jokes that sneer at someone else's religion. But the “R-word” is still being thrown around; finally, thankfully, it's starting to be banned in schools.

IA: I heard a man speaking on NPR, saying that he’s trying to get the FCC are whoever to ban it in media usage. And also discussion about redefining the quote-unquote “normal,” because, statistically speaking, the majority of people have some sort of disability.

BC: Or sometimes we’ll use the term (this is not original to me), “temporarily abled.” Because everyone is just one unclicked seatbelt away from needing the ADA. We take our bodies that work for granted….

IA: This ties into what’s sort of the last question I like to ask people, but it’s such a big question that it can generate half a dozen sub-questions! I’ve been looking around a little bit at “movements”; I say that in quotation marks because movements are either artificially self-defined or they’re defined later in retrospect. But anyway! Literary theorists are saying that we’ve left Postmodernism behind and that we’re in the Posthuman phase. And actually disability studies is concerned a sub-set of Posthuman studies, because they’re looking at what does it mean to be human, to be human amongst other species, to be human with all of our great variety, including variety of abilities. So I think what you’re writing, even though it’s autobiographical material, it’s also very cutting-edge as far as the way people are thinking about literature and the human.

BC: That’s really interesting. There's a thread that went through the panel about the nature of what is “normal,” the need to put normal in quotation marks, the need to encompass whole range of human experience. I'm not especially interested in poetic theory, but something that does engage me is deep ecology, the wordless communication we have with non-human species, and the way this extends to communication with my largely non-verbal child.

IA: Another part of this question about movements that I’m interested in is that I’ve been asking some people: What do you think about the “Eastward” orientation of economics, of Christianity, of manufacturing? You mentioned at the beginning of our discussion today that you have a lot of Eastern influences. Is that just a taste of yours, or have you been intentional, that you say: “I see where civilization is going, so I’m going to jump on board”?

BC: Another interesting question. I don’t think I do anything intentionally. My life is busy and spread about in so many different compartments. In the large part of my writing life, I was raising three children plus we took in three young adults (not at the same time; we weren't doing foster care, they just happened to need homes and ended up living with us.) There was a great deal of driving involved. Hand-held recording devices would have been helpful, but I'm not much of a techie, so there I was, scribbling on little pieces of paper while driving, using a stick shift. (Okay, I'm still doing this.) And grabbing writing time as I could.

The whole idea of “writing mothers” is one that I connect with. Eavan Boland is my great hero in this. She was the first writer I read who lived in suburbia, raised a family, and wrote, “When my children were little, sometimes I only wrote during naptime. Some days I only wrote a sentence. Some days I only wrote a word.” She gave me permission to write, to say that my life was just as valid as my contemporaries, men who had wives who took care of things at home and department secretaries who took care of things at work. Those of us outside of academia are in a very odd parallel universe, especially those of us without MFAs, without that kind of connectedness. We don’t have people saying, “Oh, I know so-and-so; she studied with me, she'll look at your manuscript” or “My best friend from undergraduate school was your mentor, so I’ll publish your work.”

But honestly, I don’t have the time to be intentional. So I believe a lot in serendipity and chance. Someone might say, “I just read this book and it’s really fabulous” and so I’ll read it. Maybe it's a great book but it doesn’t open any doors, but maybe, sometimes, it does. That’s the wonder of the internet; so much material crosses your virtual desk, and it’s often people whose work I might not read, because as we talked about earlier in the interview, there's this wealth of wonderful writers. You just can’t read everything. And this point in my life, I’ve got a house full of books, but am running out of room. I'd love to find a college that might be interested in a donation, but instead I’m hearing, “Books? We don’t want any more books.” We've moved into The Kindle Age, where in July 2010, more books sold on Amazon as Kindle files than as actual books.

IA: For the first time?

BC: Yes, it just made that transition. And while I think it’s okay to read poetry online occasionally, the idea of substituting reading on a Kindle for reading in a book is not appealing. For one thing, poetry books are generally beautiful books, with nice covers and good paper. Poetry is something you want to read more than once. But the Kindle World's an ephemeral one, where you read and then delete. I'm going to guess that poetry will be making some sort of transition (on the publishing level, not on the writer’s level) to the Kindle, and it will be interesting to see what happens next. Will books come out in two versions? Will that increase our readership, and will that be a good thing, or will that totally undercut physical books? Stay tuned. . . .

IA: And then how do you collaborate with a painter and have a book with a lovely cover, or a book that involves visual art. I interviewed another poet, Heather Thomas, who produced a chapbook in collaboration with a fiber artist. It didn’t go just one way; it wasn’t just that she wrote a poem and then the fiber artist made a piece; sometimes it went the other way, sometimes it was in conjunction. So they produced this beautiful book that you could not experience it any other way. The book is funny dimensions, to make it fit the fiber pieces, so how will you do something like that on a Kindle?

BC: On the other hand, what if we end up in the post-electric age? What if the power grids fails? What if all of these things suddenly go poof?

IA: But then on the positive hand, it produces other genres that were not possible on paper. You can have books that are somewhat live, that the reader has some kind of interaction in the order in which they go through it…

BC: Very true. And thinking about Ekphrastic work again, because of the cost of reproducing paintings, books rarely have poems and paintings together. But I’ve been on a number of websites where both the art and the poem about the art share the same page. This is a great use of electronic media.

IA: Or you could do Ekphrasis about music; you have the poem on the screen while you’re listening to the music; watching a dancer, or something like that.

You can also have things can happen that couldn’t happen geographically. I've had poems appear all over the world in places that I’ll never get to see in person. So there’s a lot that’s enormously exciting, and there’s a lot that we just don’t know about. For example, there's Facebook--remember when MySpace was huge? And now it's not visited very much. So we can't always see the future. But it’s a great time to be alive and to be writing. Sometimes people ask, "Do you love writing?" "Um, it's hard, work" is usually my answer, “But I love having written.” Part of doing book promotion means that you go on the road, giving readings. I think I did eighty-five readings from my first book. So you have to love those poems in order to be able to read them many times and not put yourself to sleep. I’m getting much pleasure in reading poems from More right now. I want my poems to live off the page and be alive for my readers. That’s my wish in writing.

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