I started writing poetry at the age of 27, late by many poets’ standards. I’d always written, but not with poetry as my center or focus. I happened upon the Pueblo (Colorado) Poetry Project at that age, and from the first poem written, which was published almost immediately, I never stopped.
Poetry was able to capture the rhythm of spoken language that I love. I was born in Philadelphia, and grew up on the Jersey shore in a fishing village. People from different regions have distinct language patterns that, to me, are musical. When I fly into Philadelphia, from the first conversation on the shuttle bus to pick up a rental car, I love what I hear. I know I’m home.
In many of the longer, more lyrical poems, I try and capture those rhythms. My mother, a Philadelphia native, was a great storyteller, and I will often use her rhythm of telling stories in poems, especially if they’re about her.
2. Describe some aspects of your writing process (how you get ideas, how long you usually spend on a project, your editing process, how you know when a piece is finished, etc.)
Ideas often come to me based on what I’m reading. I try and read a wide variety of material, aided by belonging to reading groups. I’ve gotten some of the most interesting epigraphs for poems from reading upscale romance novels by a Pueblo author, Western writers like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, and one of my favorite writers, George Sand. A chapbook just came out with the title George Sand’s Haiti, based on travels to Haiti. I read her Lettres D’un Voyageur on those trips. The chapbook was co-winner of a contest sponsored by Poetry West, a community of writers in the Pikes Peak region.
The George Sand’s Haiti project spanned three years of trips to Haiti, both before and after the earthquake, and two years of editing what became the collection. Right now I’m working on a project that I began in 2007. So the gestation period can be quite long for what I would term a project. Many times the individual poems are written based on what I am reading, doing, or researching at the time, but what will become the book is not yet formed in my mind.
How poems are put together in a manuscript, along with what’s included and what’s not, can tell very different stories. So I have to decide exactly what story I want to tell, and then put the poems together to tell it. For the first time this year I had an idea for a book and then set about deliberately writing the individual poems for it; that’s been the exception for me. I usually work on at least two projects at a time, moving back and forth as inspiration strikes me.
I’m a tireless editor of my poems. I will edit even after they’re published, often to fit the manuscript they are going into. The form is edited, not so much the content. But sometimes when I take a poem apart to reshape how it looks on the page, I see what I couldn’t see before regarding word choice and order. Rarely do I change the idea in a poem; I consider idea central to the poem. And if it is to be changed, another poem should be written.
I know when a poem (essay, or story) is finished when, after I’ve edited and edited, I go back to what I had before. It means, to me, that there are no new or better ways to put down what I wanted to say.
3. How do you choose what subjects to include in your work? Is there anything you most like to write about and why does it intrigue you?
I would say I most frequently write about my family and their place in history surrounding World War II and its aftermath. They are a consistent theme throughout my work. My father’s parents were both Salvation Army ministers who came to America to save souls found on the streets. My father rebelled against that. My mother’s mother was Anabaptist on the fringes of Pennsylvania Dutch. My mother’s father was Catholic claiming a Scottish background, hiding for generations that his family had come from Ireland. All were steeped in rejected religion and what remained eradicable under the surface.
I often write about historical subjects. My first series was about Yellow Woman: the second Cheyenne wife of William Bent, of Bent’s Fort on the Santa Fe Trail. This series was published as a feature in Look Quick, a small press magazine of the 70s and 80s. Georgia O’Keeffe has appeared in quite a number of poems. Tango, a joint book with Tony Moffeit, featured Frida Kahlo.
A book coming out later this year from Lummox Press, Wildwood, has my mother, Kathryn Mae, or Kay, as one of the main characters. A recent anthology out of London, Journey to Crone from Chuffed Buff Books, has a Kay poem in it. I also have a chapbook from Dancing Girl Press due out with the title My Visions Are as Real as Your Movies, Joan of Arc Says to Rudolph Valentino. And then there’s George Sand’s Haiti. Sor Juana shows up in poems too. I love strong female characters. Kay was also featured in a series of linked stories published as Storm Inside the Walls (Little Books Press).
For three years I worked on a series of poems in response to the psalms. They all begin with an epigraph from the 30-day cycle of morning and evening prayer out of the 150 psalms. Excerpts from that collection were published as a chapbook supplement to the magazine Abbey as Going into Exile.
There is also the series based on my experiences in an Episcopal Church led by a priest who was seen as virulently opposed to gay members of the clergy. It was a situation that I was dropped into without much foreknowledge, and stayed in as a voice of opposition. It was a difficult eight years. I wrote my way through it. In the end, he left for complicated reasons, but his ability to exercise influence was waning, and he started to soften his position. Times had started to change.
Another consistent theme in my writing is place, landscape, and the struggles of those that inhabit its harshness, be it the lonely winters of the Jersey shore in the 50s and 60s, or the wind swept high plains and desert of the Southwest The series I’ve worked on since 2007, about the atomic bomb and its development in New Mexico together with other aspects of World War II, is one of the more challenging so far.
4. How did you find out about the St. Sebastian Review? Why did you choose to submit work to us?
I saw a call for submissions in Poets & Writers for the St. Sebastian Review. It was while I was writing the series of poems about the Episcopal Church and my experiences. It seemed a perfect fit for many of the themes. I am happy that some of my poems found a home there.