A few months ago we were delighted to receive letters from two of our poetry prize winners. Julie L. Moore won our 2008 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize; Melissa Reeser Poulin is the 2016 Poetry Prize winner. They wrote to us, independently, about the role Ruminate played in affirming their journeys as a creative people.
We wanted to extend that conversation beyond the thank you note, and so we introduced these two poets and they started a wonderful conversation around life, faith, creating, and calling. We're thrilled that they've allowed us to share their conversation with you in this series titled "Creative Lives." It starts with a reflection on beginnings, the first spark of creativity as a child, and the return to that desire in a deeper more complete way as an adult, after life has very thoroughly demanded your attention.
JM: I have vivid memories of my mother reading to my brother, sister, and me often and loving that time when words created stories and ignited my imagination. So my first step may have been that—being read to, then later, doing my own reading.
But soon enough, I was filling spiral notebooks with my own stories and poems, writing whenever I could and even giving my work as gifts to my unsuspecting family. Even then, I wasn't sentimental, so such gifts were rather shocking when they dealt with tough themes or were even violent! My poor parents and brother and sister . . .
At that age, though, I didn't have any idea that what I wrote might not matter. I think that's how it is when the luxury of youth is still upon you—so egocentric, it never dawns on you that your writing might not be worth reading or that your potential readers could be so busy doing other things, they wouldn't have the time.
MRP: Yes, when we are young and writing in our spiral notebooks, it is all gift—there's not yet the later fretting about "mattering". What you say makes me want even more to nurture that in my daughter.
Returning to a regular writing practice after giving birth and becoming a parent took some time. Maybe I needed every ounce of energy for the intensely creative act of making a human. Maybe I needed time for postpartum depression to lift, this heavy woozy feeling that came from sleep deprivation and hormonal adjustment. Maybe I was writing poems in secret, way far inside my soul.
My first step forward felt like anger, joy, and love, all mixed into one. On the outside it didn't look like much: in one frame, a woman sits down at her desk and opens to a blank page. In another frame, she gathers a haphazard pile of notebooks, wrinkled loose-leaf pages, paperbacks and manila folders, and starts creating order. In another, she hits the "submit" button on a Submittable page and sends some poems whirling off into cyberspace.
But on the inside, I think it was God's work in me. There was a shift in my thoughts, from "I can't do this, what's the point, I'll never make it" to "Why not, this is my purpose, I must do this." My first step was deciding that no matter what happens, I am going to write poems and chase my dream, because not doing it feels worse than anything else. Not writing feels more like failure than any objective picture of "failure" that fear could create and use to keep me silent.
I remember pushing my daughter's stroller one morning last fall and thinking of all of the bookstores in the city, then the state, the country, and the world. I was suddenly flooded with a sickening sense of futility. There are so many books in the world, and so many more being produced every day, how could my writing possibly matter? It seemed so absurd and bleak that I laughed out loud. Then I got this bubbling excitement in my belly, because if it didn't matter, if it couldn't possibly matter, then—yes!—I am totally free to make my work, as I am.
JM: The step later on in my life that was equally important was the same one you talk about, Melissa—realizing that no one may read what I write, that maybe it won't matter, but that I have to write, that writing is one of the God-instilled purposes of my life, and that it just doesn't matter who or how many read my poetry (soli deo gloria), that writing literature is, in our present fame-obsessed and money-driven society, countercultural.
Because of my childhood passion for reading and writing—and imagination and nature—I always wanted to become a writer. I even chose to teach English in order to pursue writing. But grad school, academic teaching, marriage, and children—all good things, all loves for me—took up all my time. I even forgot about writing for a while.
But sometime in my mid-thirties, I began to feel a sense of ennui. Despite all the joys of my life, something was missing. I wasn't fulfilling that calling to write. This was a couple years after the turn of the new millennium. A colleague of mine had worked on a documentary about Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon in her doctoral program. I couldn't make the showing on campus because one of my children was sick. So I watched it at home. Alone. And I just wept. That deep, undeniable calling came through loud and clear to me at that moment. I could no longer ignore it.
MRP: Yes to all of this, Julie! I know that documentary well. I had to hunt it down through inter library loan when I was in school, and it meant a lot to me, too. I have Donald Hall's "Without" and Jane Kenyon's "Constance" on my shelf, and they are two volumes I return to often.
JM: How very cool—in the coolest sense of the word!—that we both appreciate Hall and Kenyon's poetry and go back to it time and time again. I have read Kenyon's posthumous collection Otherwise more times than I can count.
Julie and Melissa share the way their community informs their writing—in Part 2 of this series—starting with their shared favorites of Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon’s poetry
Julie L. Moore is the author of Particular Scandals, published in The Poiema Poetry Series by Cascade Books. Her other books include Slipping Out of Bloom and Election Day. Moore’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Christian Century, Image, New Ohio Review, Paterson Literary Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and Verse Daily. Her work also has appeared in several anthologies, including Becoming: What Makes a Woman, published by University of Nebraska Gender Programs, and Every River On Earth: Writing from Appalachian Ohio,published by Ohio University Press. You can learn more about her work at julielmoore.com.
Melissa Reeser Poulin is a poet and essayist who lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and daughter. Her most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Coffee + Crumbs, Hip Mama, In Good Tilth, Mothers Always Write, and Relief Journal.
Comments will be approved before showing up.