The Umbrella Interview
by Rachel DacusB arbara Crooker is the author of two poetry collections, Radiance and Line Dance, both from Word Press, and no stranger to Umbrella’s pages. Her lyrical, deeply felt poems are widely published in both print and online jourals, and in anthologies. Umbrella contributing editor Rachel Dacus, who shares with Ms. Crooker a passion for writing ekphrastic poetry, conducted this interview via email in November 2008.
Q: You often write ekphrastic poems, many of them about Impressionist art. When did you begin to write about this era in painting? What sparked your interest in these painters?
A: We’ll need to go back to 1963 or so, when I was starting college as a pre-med student, an odd choice for someone who got queasy watching Dr. Ben Casey on TV, but what many overachieving students picked. The only classes I did well in were English ones, though, or ones where the grade was based on writing papers. Then I took my first Art History class, to fulfill one of my Liberal Arts requirements, and I was a goner, hopelessly in love, as I also was with English literature. I probably ended up with enough hours in both to have a double major, but I think I lacked the “right” courses for Art History, so my major was English, and Art History was my minor. The years rolled by. I started writing seriously in the mid-seventies, and I can’t remember now when I wrote my first ekphrastic poem, but I’m pretty sure I did it before I knew there was a term to describe it.
Then at some point, around 2003, I realized I had a lot of poems about art, and most of them were on Impressionism, almost enough for a chapbook, so I assigned myself the task of writing two or three more poems to complete a manuscript during a residency at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). Then I entered it in the Grayson Books chapbook competition and Sue Ellen Thompson picked it as the winner in 2004. Garrison Keillor read some poems from it on The Writer’s Almanac and it quickly went out of print. Most of these poems are also in my first full-length book, Radiance (Word Press, 2005).
My ekphrastic poems are not all about Impressionism, though. “All That Is Glorious Around Us,” the inspiration for the title Radiance, is based on a Hudson River School painting, “Kaaterskill Falls,” by Worthington Witteridge, which is also that book’s cover art. The collection has three poems about Cézanne and five about Van Gogh, who are post-Impressionists, plus one on Rodin’s sculptures, and another one that references Odilon Redon’s pastels. My second book, Line Dance (Word Press, 2008), has one traditional ekphrastic poem about the Impressionists (“Les Effets de Neige: Impressionists in Winter,”) and then a non-traditional one about visiting Andy Warhol’s studio in the sixties, an event that was either the highlight or the lowlight of my college career, depending on your perspective. (How could anyone be nervy enough to barge in on a famous painter? But we were clueless, my friend and I, so that’s what we did.) My new manuscript, At the Museum of Modern Art, has poems about Manet, Renoir, Monet, Redon, a medieval statue of the Virgin Mary, Matisse, Dufy (love those Fauves!), Magritte, Hopper, and Frida Kahlo. I also have a crown of sonnets on Vermeer (among other things) that doesn’t fit into any manuscript, yet.
So I don’t consider myself tied to a particular school or era of painting. One thing, though, that I’ve purposely tried to do is to use paintings that would be familiar to a general audience and that could resonate with readers even if they didn’t have the painting either in front of them or in their visual memory base. There is a lot of contemporary art by the not-yet-famous that I love, but that might be difficult to “see” in a poem, if you didn’t know the artist’s work. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to use a contemporary painting as the cover of Line Dance, a triptych by Barbara Schaff, an artist I met at VCCA, and I hope to use one for my new book (the one in manuscript now) by Marilyn Banner, also a VCCA artist.
Q: When writing ekphrastic poems, do you start with a theme that draws you to find an image, or do you seek out specific works or artists to write about and then develop themes from the artwork?
A: I don’t start with a theme; I wish I did, maybe then book construction wouldn’t be so difficult. But I almost always start with an image; it’s the visual that draws me in. And usually, it’s one specific painting, although sometimes, when I’ve wanted to write about, say, Hopper, I then looked through my books to find the one painting that compelled me, the one that kept calling my name, saying, “Write about me. Write about me,” as a way to begin. Right now, I’m struggling to write something about Turner, but it’s not coming. “Fail. Fail again. Fail some more.” (Abraham Lincoln, I think.) That’s my motto.
Q: What are your writing habits? Are you a daily, disciplined poet, do you have regular writing exercises, prompts or workshop activities that you use to keep a flow of new work coming?
A: I do have writing habits and I hope they are good ones. What I love to do is read books and look at pictures. So I begin each session with my reading pile, where I have quite a variety—poetry magazines, individual collections, anthologies, criticism, spiritual writing, art books. I give myself the “treat” of reading for a while, then I have the “job” of writing something. It may be an article, a review or an essay, or it may be one of the poems in my “working on” folder, which are in various stages of completion/incompletion. I also have, in the same folder, poems that I think might inspire me, and so even if all I do is to keep re-reading them, it makes me happy just to have them there. By working on multiple poems, I’m trying to fool my “monkey mind,” the one that’s terrified of the challenge of the blank page. This way, I can tell myself, “Oh, I’m just taking notes, “ or, “Oh, I’m just revising. I’m not really writing,” and then little by little, the poem gets done. I like the way this inefficient method seems to get more layering and texture in. When I’m at VCCA, I work the same way, only it’s all day long, and often, into the night, instead of the 2-3 hours a day I get at home. . . . Anyway, that’s my “method”: read a little, write a little, move on to something new. Right now, I have ten poems in my folder, some almost done, some such a mess they may never get done. But it’s all work, and that makes me happy.
Q: If you had to identify your two major themes, ones that you feel you haven’t exhausted, what would they be? What keeps you going to the blank page to work out new ideas and feelings? Which themes won’t let you go?
A: Love and loss. To quote myself, which I know is cheesy, “it all / can be reduced to love or loss / when you get right down / to the heart.” Here’s the poem in full; it’s also about my son, who has autism:
The Lowest Common Denominator
My son and I sit at the kitchen table,
It’s from Line Dance. I think I kept it in my folder for about six months, while I thought about various novels and poems, and what they were about. “Yup,” I’d go, “that one’s about death, which, of course, is loss. This one’s about being crazy about your work, which is love. . . .” Branching out from this, would be the big losses: losing my first child, when I was 25, losing my mother, this year. And the big loves, my two daughters, my grandson, my son with autism, and my second (current) husband.
Q: Who are the poets you most often reread, and how has that reading shaped your own goals?
A: In no particular order, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Mary Oliver, Linda Pastan, Marilyn Hacker, Maxine Kumin, Jane Kenyon, Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio, Fleda Brown, Jeanne Murray Walker, Lisel Mueller, Brigit Kelly, Sharon Olds, Christopher Buckley, Charles Wright, Harry Humes, Jim Daniels, Stephen Dunn, Alicia Ostriker, Betsy Sholl, Mark Doty, Jane Hirshfield, Phil Levine, William Matthews. Right now, my new favorites are David Kirby, Albert Goldbarth and Tony Hoagland. In a nutshell, these are poets I go back to, because they’re writing the poems I wish I’d written, and I’m trying to learn from them as I go.
I’m an audodidact; no MFA, no mentor, have never taken a workshop with anyone famous. These poets and poems are my teachers. They inspire me to keep setting the bar higher, to not settle for “the easy poem,” but to try and write the kind of rich and complex poems they write, the ones I admire.
Q: Who was the first poet who made you want to write poetry?
A: Diane Wakoski. I was in my late twenties, a single mom, and my first husband had moved out. Among his books was a copy of the Mansfield Eagle, a small press publication from what was then Mansfield State Teacher’s College (now University), in northern Pennsylvania. I knew nothing about the world of publishing and assumed that if this was a college publication, then she must be an undergraduate student. If I’d known that she was one of our most famous poets (ah, America! Where “famous poet” is an oxymoron!), I’d have been totally intimidated. Instead, I thought, “Hmm, if an undergraduate can write like this, then maybe I can do this?” (What struck me most about her work was her use of everyday speech and also her use of the personal, the autobiographical, to create mythology.) And so I began, pen to page. My first adult poem was based on one of hers and yet it’s nothing at all like her work. I can see the connections, but they’re invisible now. If we fast-forward some thirty-odd years, there I was, upside down in a yoga posture in the library at VCCA, and what did I see on the shelf? That very issue of the Eagle, the one that got me going. I felt an electric charge when I grabbed it, flipped to her work, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up all over again. (Dickinson). And, oh, dear reader, I took it home with me! Shhh. Don’t tell.
Q:What single poem has had the most impact on you?
A: This is one tough question. I don’t think I could find just one poem that’s had the biggest impact, but I could talk about one significant poem, which would be “Gravy,” by Raymond Carver. To me, it’s just about perfect, as compact and spare as a poem can be, while packing a powerful emotional punch. No frills, no filler, no fancy wordplay, just hard-won truth-telling, direct and immediate.
So, here it is, such a short poem, and such a beauty:
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
That’s what I’m after, the deceptively simple, and ordinary. Sometimes, I think all I’d really like to be able to do is come up with one good line or even one good phrase, like “the green fuse” (Dylan Thomas). And so I keep going.
Please read some other poems by Barbara Crooker, published in Umbrella:The Last Woman in America to Wash Diapers and Patty’s Charcoal Drive-in
Les Effets de Neige: Impressionists in Winter, Worlds End and Glitter
Nature Morte au Plat et Pommes