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 and part 2 here. In this installment Julie and Melissa talk about the particulars of their creative process and the necessary blessing of having readers contribute to the narrative.
MP: I would love to hear more from you about conceptualizing your book. I'm at a point right now where I am wondering what it would be like to build a collection around a narrative. Letting the conception of a project actually generate it. It's funny how that seems an obvious approach for prose. Yet for me at least, I've always thought of a book of poems as being completely unplanned, like I just need to write poem after poem until I've amassed enough for a book. Maybe I'm impatient and/or frustrated with that as an approach.
JM: As far as how this book came to be, well, writing for me is a natural consequence of living! As my life unfolds, I reflect on it in contemplative ways, work through it in therapeutic ways, enjoy it for the blessings it yields, and of course, witness others' experiences—all in writing. Because my first two books, Slipping Out of Bloom and Particular Scandals, detail various illnesses, they lent themselves to a sort of narrative, at least at their cores. Similarly, in Full Worm Moon, one section details the chronology of my 27-year marriage's collapse—and the trauma I endured as the relationship ruptured in shocking and irreparable ways.
But as is the case with everyone, so many other aspects of life unfold simultaneously during both illness and heartbreak, during healing and survival. I want my books to preserve that truth, too—illness doesn't define me nor does divorce now. Both are just aspects of what I hope is a life being well lived.
So poems about art, family (including childhood), faith, our fragile environment, and even education (I'm a writing center director and writing professor) infuse my books, too. The chronology that ties them together is merely my life itself and its seasons, both literal and figurative (I am very much tied to the four seasons). But several motifs (like each month's full moon in this new manuscript) help the book develop and maintain a certain sense of cohesiveness (I hope!).
MP: I admire the confidence in what you write about how your poems come to be and develop alongside one another. That is inspiring and affirming, so thank you for sharing it. Maybe I don't need to come up with a book concept ahead of time after all.
I’ve noticed recently that the work I did in graduate school and the work I'm doing now is very different, and even poems written within a three-month time frame might be very different in tone and style than a string of poems written in a week's heat. It's why I want to get this chapbook out there so I can "clear the deck" so to speak and move on to the right-now poems. I wonder if you can speak to this publishing aspect of poetry—I guess it's somewhere at the intersection of both composing and publishing.
JM: I always get in trouble when I try to pursue a concept for a poem, so I can't imagine doing that for a book, at least not from say, the very beginning. It feels like I'm "forcing" a poem into submission to a concept if I try to write that way. Usually, for me, a poem emerges from a phrase that comes to mind (or that I hear or read) or an image that won't let go of me. (Poet Cathy Smith Bowers calls that an "abiding image," and I really like that term for it.) Sometimes, it's a situation I live through, but usually, it's an image from that situation that won't let go of me. All that to say: No, I don't think you need to come up with a book concept ahead of time!
The concept for Full Moon Worm emerged over time. I had written a couple of "moon" poems as well as work about my marriage's collapse, when the two converged and I realized I could pursue both. From that point on, I became more intentional about that, but also by then, the poems seemed to be conversing with one another, too. They took on a life of their own.
MP: Who helps you organize your books? I have a dear friend and poet in my life who read my chapbook and was very helpful in noticing narrative strands and arranging the poems in a way I would not have thought to. Another friend recently recommended the book Ordering the Storm, ed. Susan Grimm, a collection of essays on putting a book of poems together, which I am reading now.
JM: As far as organizing my books go, some poet-friends have helped in the past. A colleague helped me with my chapbook Election Day, giving me the idea to follow a sort of narrative arc. I took that idea into Slipping Out of Bloom to a certain extent as well. Jeff Gundy, who has an essay in Ordering the Storm (yes, a fabulous book on this very topic!), also was helpful. Those essays have stuck with me. But still, it is hard. Sally Rosen Kindred helped me figure out a structure for Particular Scandals—she really made a breakthrough for me when I absolutely was stuck. She expanded my vision, so to speak, to consider not just theme or imagery (or chronology) in the poems but also voice and tone when choosing which poems to juxtapose. And my son Alex, a Taylor University English/creative writing alumnus, has helped me compile Full Worm Moon, my most recent manuscript that has yet to find a publisher (and I hope I'm not jinxing it by referring to it so much—poets are as superstitious as sports fans, aren't they?).
In short, I need help organizing my books. I seem incapable of doing it on my own. But because readers' perspectives are so valuable, I think that's a good thing.
Readers bring helpful perspectives to our work and definitely interpret images in ways I never anticipated but also in ways that are really fitting. It's quite rewarding when that happens, actually! I've saved the cards and emails I've received from such readers. Not many write but I am incredibly grateful for the dozen or two who have. It helps me feel as though my suffering isn't in vain or my praise doesn't go unheard.
MP: I am not often sure of the narrative strands in my work. Maybe that's why I so love sharing my work with others. Readers bring such different perspectives and often see things I don't. This is what keeps me pursuing publication, even as I struggle with it, because I feel like it is part of how a poem comes to life. I have felt so deeply grateful when readers have shared with me that a poem I wrote has had meaning for them. Especially because so often I am writing through one of the many episodes of growth/pain that life brings us—as it sounds like you do, too. Knowing that a poem has been helpful or illuminating to someone else is redemptive and healing for me as the writer. As I've mentioned, I have often doubted the purpose of publishing, and yet I can say for certain what a powerful impact reading poetry has had on my life as a person of faith.
I know Ruminate has had an incredibly healing role in my life as a reader, bringing poems and essays and paintings to my mailbox that have touched me and given me strength. So I want to participate in that gift, and being published in Ruminate has been very meaningful for me. Knowing that Alice Fulton, a poet I deeply respect, found something good in my work was also affirming and cheers me on on days like today, when I am slogging through a head cold and running after an active 17-month-old who gets up at 5:30 a.m. Okay, let's just set down some words on a page today.
JM: I feel like you do about Ruminate, too. I am so grateful for a journal that is committed to contemplative work, writing that recognizes the metaphysical realities embedded in the physical. There are, of course, other wonderful journals along these lines, too—Image, Relief, Rock & Sling, among others—but they are few and far between. Ruminate came along when there were even fewer.
When I won the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Award years ago, the monetary prize was quite a bit smaller than it is now ($300, I think), but it gave me affirmation at a time when I was so discouraged, I wasn't sure why I was trying to publish at all. I had no one in my personal life then supporting my efforts, and although some kind poets I'd met were encouraging, they weren't living in my town, spurring me on. I just felt alone and very disconnected from the literary world. I was consumed by self-doubt and self-deprecation. But then I received the news from Ruminate: My poem "Confession" had won! And Luci Shaw had chosen it! Cliché though it is to say, it was a game-changer for me. It really was. And I haven't looked back, haven't given in to such negativity again. And that Ruminate continues is such a gift: To be able to read new voices and discover a poet like you, these are the glories of being a reader.
And more so: These are part of the glories of being a Christian who's committed to creating culture, to glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.
I'm one reader who can tell you that your award-winning poem in Ruminate is deeply moving and meaningful. I greatly enjoyed reading it—several times over, in fact. The poem certainly rewards multiple readings! I look forward to reading your forthcoming chapbook Pale Circle; it sounds like my kind of poetry.
MP: Pale Circle has a lot to do with the natural world, especially plants; the human experience of loss; and becoming a mother. If there is a motif, it might be the circle: the cycle of life and death within the natural world, loss and rebirth in human relationship, cycles of spiritual longing and being aware of God's presence.
I'm exploring similar things in my essays. Hip Mama published a recent one about the role of anxiety and prayer in my life as I've grown, and how parenting a child has changed my relationship to both. I have two other essays I am hoping to publish about scenes from a marriage being stretched and changed through parenthood, touching on the creative life, as my husband is also an artist.
I would really like to buy a book of your poetry—which one should I start with?
JM: I think Particular Scandals has some poems, especially in the first section, whose meaning is deepened if you've read Slipping Out of Bloom first. "Shadow of Death," for instance, reflects back on the depth of my illness back in 2004, a time when I experienced suicidal ideation, which Slipping Out of Bloom depicts. Particular Scandals picks up where that book left off, describing yet more surgeries I underwent as well as my then-husband's serious heart problems—how everything was happening simultaneously in those years. So hard on both of us. My books do seem to build on one another in some ways. I can see my development as a poet, however, and feel my craft in Particular Scandals is stronger.
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.
You can purchase Julie Moore’s poetry at www.julielmoore.com and experience Melissa Reeser Poulin’s writing at https://melissareeserpoulin.com/writing. Join us next week when Melissa and Julie consider the responsibility of the writer in a broken world.
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Jessica Yuan's poem "Fluorescent" appears in Issue No. 46: A Way Through.
It took years to arrive and your eyes
became accustomed to light at all hours,