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 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. I'm thrilled that they've allowed us to share their conversation with you in this series titled "Creative Lives". You can read part 1 here—part 2 starts with a shared love of Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon’s poetry, and the way that those works and others informed the writing lives of these two poets.
JM: My favorite poem of Kenyon’s is "Let Evening Come," which is incantational and prayer-like.
MP: I think Hall and Kenyon’s writing through suffering and grief is powerful and inspiring. One of Hall's poems has the lines "A year hence, would he question / why he was not contented / now? Therefore he was contented." Kenyon's "Otherwise," which is one of my favorite poems of all time, is a perfect companion to those lines. They both write about knowing how fleeting and beautiful and good life is, and how painful, and they reflect the human difficulty in holding those two things together with such grace and honesty. I think there's something in that about the creative process, too. How charged and exciting it can be, and also totally boring, and painful—and how lucky we all are to have been given the gift of creativity.
JM: Hall's Without has helped me write one of the sections in my next book—poems about the unraveling of my 27-year marriage, which ended a few years ago. His use of third person in that book inspired me to do likewise, a decision that enabled me to write about my intense suffering through that time of shock, betrayal, and upheaval. First person was claustrophobic for me. It limited me as a writer, too. Once I started using third person instead, I immediately understood why Hall chose that viewpoint as well. It gives much-needed distance to write about the greatest pain of one's life and yet not get completely lost in that pain. It stays particular but expands beyond that, to the universal, and gives the poet freedom to zoom in and out. I owe a lot to both poets in terms of their influences on my own work.
MP: That sounds so difficult to write, and it sounds like an amazing project.
Another thing that is s so interesting in what you wrote: how the shift in perspective at a grammatical level can give a poem a wider perspective in a broader sense, too. I read a ton of narrative poems for a while and one of the books that comes to mind is Margaret Gibson's The Vigil, which is a braid of four voices telling a story together through verse. I love this book. It's all first person and spoken, but I wonder if that, too, gave the poet some distance from the story.
I remember looking at persona poems in graduate school and seeing how that changes what we're able to say—gives us more license to fictionalize. How the literary genres, which can seem so separate, actually blend together. There's fiction in poetry, poetry in essay, nonfiction inside of fiction. I'm writing more essays now as a mom—something about this most recent change in my life seems to want more space. But I am also feeling how the intensity of poetry, its compression and intuitive leaps, really lends itself to essay. It's exciting to discover that.
How does prose play a role in your work as a poet or vice versa?
JM: I've experimented much more with point of view the last few years. I used to use the first person almost exclusively—that lyric "I." But then second person and third person points of view expanded my work.
I've written several persona poems and prose poems, which will be included in my next book, tentatively titled, Full Worm Moon (and Particular Scandals included several prose poems, too). I enjoy lyrical fiction and creative nonfiction alike. My favorite novelists are those who are likewise lyricists—Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Anthony Doerr, Cormac McCarthy's lyrical voice in The Road. I adore Mary Oliver's lyrical essays. Though it may be anathema to admit, Hemingway doesn't do it for me. If I want to read terse, laconic prose, I can read newspapers. I would love to write essays—I am drawn to the form. But I just don't have the kind of time I feel I need for that.
The beauty of writing poems is that I can scratch out ideas an hour here and an hour there. Working full-time as I do in a job whose responsibilities are ever-expanding, including during the summers now, I just don't have the space and time I need for longer pieces of work. I'm one of those writers who goes in deep when writing—then needs to stay there. An hour on a poem is doable (even though it'll always take me many more hours to actually revise the poem—revisions, as you well know, can take years). An hour on an essay would get me one paragraph. And I'd just get going, then have to stop. It'd be torturous for me! (I do write academic essays, but that work is so different; it doesn't require soul-commitment.)
MP: You've named some of my favorite prose writers! Gilead remains one of my favorite books. I also love Brenda Miller's Season of the Body, which I read as a freshman and which showed me the way to the kind of prose I'd like to write.
The essay I am working on currently is about my journey back to the faith of my childhood via an unexpected detour into agriculture. As I write I am rereading Wendell Berry, who had a major impact on me in my twenties when I was grappling with big questions about vocation, writing, God, and justice. His work strikes me now as much more radical and urgent than I remember it, and I love that! I love how really good writing has the power to reinspire us in new ways at different points in our lives. His book Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community was published 23 years ago and I am amazed at how utterly current it is.
How does the big broken world come into your notebook, or how do you bring your notebook into it?
JM: Goodness, Wendell Berry. Like you, I could start quoting essays and poems. A lot. He has been so influential to me. Mary Oliver writes in one of her poetry handbooks about having mentors—not people you know personally but people you read. And the reading, the close, repeated, ongoing reading of those voices, those minds, becomes the mentoring one needs. Wendell Berry is one such mentor for me.
The broken world is the only one I know, to loosely paraphrase Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (another mentor a la reading). It is a particular, painful, yet also beautiful and good world. I am witness to its disintegration and glory; I am participant, sometimes, in both. I am living a life right smack dab in the middle of it. What else could show up in my notebook, I wonder?
Next week Julie and Melissa talk publishing and the nitty gritty of the creative life: How do we take all of these voices that feed us and mentor us and create with them, craft narratives and words in order to send them out to the world? What does it mean to send your work out into the big broken world and have it reflected back to you? Don’t miss it—sign up here to be notified of the next blog post!
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.
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