Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Don't bully your poem along too much. They hate that." an interview with Linda Connell

I have loved a certain family from Bloomington, Indiana since meeting them during my first year of college.  They are a mythic family.  Seven sons each with a gorgeous sense of groundedness, though they would laugh if I said that seriously.  I met poet Linda Connell when she married oldest brother Bill, and I have admired her own groundedness and honesty.  They currently live in New Zealand, far, far away, and she has kindly agreed to be a guest this week on “of all possible worlds.” 

Q: Linda, give me a little background about you: your education, your work, maybe a favorite book/movie/musical group or three.

A:  Catholic schools and a dismal failure of a year at university. I forgot that the purpose was to go to classes and not really to sit around smoking and drinking and talking. Never sat any exams! I've worked at several different things: office work in government departments, hospital xray dept, secretary for a pediatrician, occupational therapy assistant (basically, providing activities and nursing help) for advanced Alzheimers patients.

Favourites? Hm. Anything by Robertson Davies, AS Byatt and John le Carre, 'Lolita', 'The Favourite Game' by Leonard Cohen, 'Sula' by Toni Morrison.
Movies: American Beauty, Once, Magnolia, 'The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls' (NZ documentary about our fabulous national icons, hugely beloved!)
Musical groups: Leonard Cohen (naturellement!), Bonnie Prince Billy, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Grandaddy, Tom Waits.

Q: In your most recent book of poetry, “Guarding the Cellar Door,” you use very personal moments as poetry. Where did you find the courage to use your life as a poem? Do you ever find yourself thinking of poetry in the middle of an experience?

A:  This can be tricky. There are many things I'd like to write but won't because I worry about how my words will affect others. I don't have the 'courage' or whatever it is of, say, Sharon Olds, whom I admire hugely. Also, I don't really feel the need to share all personal experiences. For the most part, I detach myself while writing. I guess that's how it doesn't feel hard. Though when a couple of extremely emotional lines have come to me, I've felt quite shattered - namely (from Poem to Kate from Florida in my first book) "thinking about the frost-tender girl I left in mid-winter". That destroyed me at the time, left me wailing on the bed - what kind of mother leaves a frost-tender child in MID-WINTER?!!! But, and here's the crunch, I loved the line, and wouldn't have dreamed of not using it. It was precisely what I was feeling, and precisely how I saw Kate then. I've read that inside every writer lies a sliver of ice (can't remember where), and I suspect that's true. I've tried for many years to write about my lost baby and have finally found ways of doing it that aren't maudlin or sentimental. I like to think the poems are more poignant for the reticence. But it's important to remember that poems are often just works of fiction. Not all the poems are factual!
And yes, of course I do find myself thinking of poetry at very inopportune times! Often, I'll simply think Gosh, that'd be a good name for a poem (or book) when someone says something. But other times, I feel like jotting things down.

Q: When did you start thinking of yourself as a poet? What was the <<aha!>> moment for you?

A:  I don't really think of myself as 'a poet'. I'd never describe myself as such. I think of myself as someone who writes poetry. I can't explain the difference - maybe it's just semantics - but I don't feel I've earned that title. But I've scribbled verse since I was nine or ten. My parents both wrote when young, and we had a lot of poetry on the shelves so it was normal (though my brothers don't have the slightest interest in it). I started seriously as an adult when I was a single parent of two pre-schoolers, desperately needing to feel alive. My father babysat while I went to night classes where I was told I was ready to share poems, not learn the mechanics - that was a defining moment!

Q: Who are some of your poetical influences?

A:  Beginning from very young years....Mathew Arnold, Yeats, TS Eliot (huge; Prufrock enthralled me and I knew it by heart; it's rhythms were exactly akin to what I was writing, and I adored the wit and excruciating situation!), Leonard Cohen (for simplicity), NZ poets Bill Manhire and Vincent O'Sullivan, Anne Sexton, Billy Collins, Robert Bly (huge, again), Stanley Kunitz's poem 'The Layers', Carol Ann Duffy, Stephen Dunn, and innumerable poets in the Best American Poems series- I have every issue since 1997.

Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

A:  I dip into favourite books at any given moment when I want to 'feel' the words again. Usually in a comfy armchair, though I always have a couple of goodies by the bed. I often read a few before settling for sleep.

Q: When, where, how do you write, and why?(i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

A:  By hand on A4 paper, always. I like to see the shape of whatever the poem is going to be, and a notebook is too small for me. I jot down lines/ideas/thoughts/sounds even fairly randomly over the page - more or less where I imagine they'll end up, leaving big white space in between. The first draft is actually the tenth or whatever, because I use that same page for innumerable changes - I like to see what was before. Tiny writing with many asterixes and arrows and crossings-out. No-one else could follow it! I don't type it up till I'm fairly certain I have a poem. I still have many vaguely written thoughts and images waiting for some sort of shape someday...

Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

A:  No specific time. No system. But I labour over them for a very long time, months or years.

Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

A:  Before I decide that, I do put it away and try to read it with fresh eyes some time later. When I feel I've said just what I wanted, and can't think of a way to do it better, I accept that it's 'done'. But are they ever really done? Hmm.

Q: Finally, what piece of advice would you most like to share other writers? (This can be on writing, the writing life, or anything else...)

A:  Trust in your own process and instinct up to a point, but read read read others, and be prepared to take a different tack if necessary. Don't copy, but allow the rhythms and gorgeous lines of other beautiful poems to seep into you, just sink into them too, and then look at your own words afresh. Try to figure out what it is that moves and inspires you about your favourite writers, and realise that it takes an enormous amount of effort and craft to produce an effortless-looking poem! Don't bully your poem along too much. They hate that.

The extra doors
            By Linda Connell

There were the usual,
of course, front and back,
but my grandparents’ house
had two more—whimsical escapes,
rectangular surprises tucked away
in the corners of rooms
lit by the psychedelic gleam
in a glazier’s eye.

I’m all for
the swoop and flourish of things:
stilts and unicycles and the Frenchman
on his windy high-wire,
handwriting that leaps
and tumbles across the page—
acrobats performing
in the circus of language
while contortionists squeeze into
the cramped little boxes
of themselves.

There’s much to be said for
an absurdity of doors.

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