Interview with Naomi Thiers

Exploring 1920s California, Farm Lives, and Personas in Poetry While Writing a Family Love Story: A Conversation with Naomi Thiers

by Ramola D

Naomi Thiers3-smallNaomi Thiers lives in the Washington, DC area. Her full-length book of poetry, Only The Raw Hands Are Heaven, won the 1992 Washington Writers Publishing House competition and her chapbook In Yolo County was recently published by Finishing Line Press. Her poetry and fiction have been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, Colorado Review, Pacific Review, Antietam Review, Gargoyle, Town Creek Poetry, Potomac Review,  Iris, Sojourners,  and many other magazines. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and featured in anthologies. She is an editor with Educational Leadership and lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Ramola D: In Yolo County, which chronicles stories of courtship, migrant farm work and life based on your grandparents’ life in the 1920s, opens with a wonderful descriptive poem surveying the fruit trees, rice fields, vegetable farms of California—“The stretching orchards burst/in ordered energy, increase nearly/before your eyes in the blasting sun”–and all through the book in fact you have exquisite pictorial glimpses of the country—how did you approach these poems, did you go out to Yolo County to research the places appearing in your poems, or keep a travel journal on family visits, was there field work involved?

Naomi Thiers: I wouldn’t call it Field Work, but that question makes me think. My father’s roots—the roots of all his side of the family—are in Yolo County in Central California. My grandmother’s family was there, in Woodland, since the early 1900s, and my Dad’s father (these are the grandparents in my book) came there as a youngish man and then brought some of his family to Woodland, from Minnesota. It’s a lovely, Thiers cov-smallludicrously fertile place, yet also a very industrious place. The county motto:  “If it grows anywhere, here it grows everywhere.” The motif of this sun-drenched place is repeating fields, orchards and flowers; fields, orchards, and flowers. But you can’t call it lush or jungly because all this growing green is very ordered, blocked into rows. What you see from the road driving around isn’t a tangle, but stripes–fields. I tried to capture that in the first poem.

Even though I never lived in Yolo County, because my family came East, I would go visit my grandparents and aunts in their homes in Woodland and I guess the place made an impression. But the impression for many years was more my relatives’ houses and lifestyles—my aunt and uncle ran a bird farm near the county for instance. I was just trying to know who my kin were—not focused on soaking in the landscape. At my Grandma Bertie’s funeral in 2006, I actually spent a few days in Woodland and I think seeing how many people came to her funeral at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where her family were sturdy pillars, and realizing how deep the Thiers /Kram roots went in the town made me think maybe I did want to write about the area itself. I began deliberately looking at the land and paying heed to what was going on in those fields, taking notes, jotting details about flower colors, how rice grows, what the old houses of prosperous farmers looked like—noticing.

Four years later I went to a big Kram family reunion and began really taking notes, trying to look with writer-eyes. And I wrote the first poem in the series on the long flight back to Virginia. And I’ve spent time looking at photos and reading accounts of central California from the 1910s to 1960s, mostly in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, the time the book covers. Historical images of Woodland and even Reno, where my grandparents scandalously eloped to.

RD: Did something in particular initiate or inspire you to write the whole series?And did you decide at the start to take a historical/narrative approach or did you make decisions to fictionalize/imagine your way into your grandparents’ lives?

NT: The day after my Grandma Bertie’s funeral, just the family—Bertie and Curly’s children, grandchildren, and their families—gathered at her grave to share memories of her. She died at age 92, so this wasn’t a terribly tragic occasion. We came there very early in the morning, standing in jeans and sweatshirts around her new grave (which was at the edge of the cemetery near woods, still dew on the trampled grass) and my Aunt Mona brought out these postcards she’d found that my grandpa had sent to Bertie when they were courting but he’d gone away doing seasonal farmwork.

We read aloud from the postcards. We all—especially my Dad and his sisters—were stunned at the SweetheartBertieCurly-In Yolo--smallendearments from their flippant father, someone who always had his hands in dirt. That he called my Grandma “Lollipop” and wrote things like “How glad I’ll be when I see your dear sweet face.” They’d had a solid marriage but my grandparents were practical, work-crazy people—Grandma was VERY German–and no one had really thought of them as having a long-time passion.  But I knew there was a great story to their courtship (my Aunt Mona wrote a long, narrative, light-verse poem about it on their anniversary). The contours of it were my hobo grandpa drifting into Woodland where Bertie’s family had a flourishing dairy-and-orchards farm (with herself  as the hardest-working farmhand), her father forbidding their love, their running off to Reno and then their firstborn baby dying practically at birth.

As we walked away from the grave, Mona said to me, “Naomi, you’re a writer, you should write out Bertie and Curly’s love story.” Of course at the time I thought, Oh, Crap, it’s not in me to write this! Because I’ve not written any kind of fiction for so long and how can you write about your own family, and kind of  “to order”?! But something stuck.  I started asking for a little more information about these kin, paying more attention to stories, and four years later I knew I was dying to write about it.

I guess I took a historical approach because just about everything in the poems truly happened in some fashion, according to stories from my aunts and great-aunt, letters, and some pages of memories my grandma wrote when she was very old. I invented a few stories—like my Grandpa quitting a good job in North Dakota early—and I definitely had to try to imagine my way into their thoughts, perceptions, and motives. Because I really didn’t know them well, living on the other coast.

RD: Did you take inspiration or guidance from other poets or books when you began this project—as Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah for example?  And how would you say they may have influenced your approach?

NT: The only book of poems I consciously took inspiration from was Thomas and Beulah, such a marvelous book. I studied it deliberately, soaking it in as I tried to write these. I’m not sure how it influenced my approach, but probably in appreciating Dove’s very restrained tone–even in writing about dreadful, hurtful events–her way of arranging just the right telling details—just a few, both nouns and actions—to lay bare a whole character and situation. I’ve also read a lot of Gwendolyn Brooks, her portraits of everyday people (including in her long poem “The Anniad” and her novel Maud Martha) and I’m sure she influenced my attempts to paint portraits.

RD: You note at the end of the book your use of family letters, photographs, conversations. What considerations of family prompted any decisions you made regarding the poems?  Were there any particular areas or moments where you found yourself treading lightly?

NT: Well, there’s the rub in writing poems about family. You want to make your characters full-bodied and interesting, which means they’ll have rough or even repulsive edges. And if you describe what really happened, you might truly make your relatives look bad, or portray something raw in a way that’s hurtful or that someone will feel bares dirty linen.

It’s like that dilemma Yeats mentions—do you go for perfection of your life (sparing people’s feelings, acting nice) or perfection of the work. The question was complicated more in writing the poems about Bertie and Curly because I didn’t have much accurate info about how some of the things with my grandparents happened. Was my grandma actually ordered by her strict Papa to quit high school and work on the farm—as I’d always heard when I was young—or just encouraged strongly to stay home and work, which might have been her bent anyway? Did Grandpa Curly run away because there wasn’t enough food at home, or because of wanderlust—or some dark secret? The people who could really tell me were unknown or long dead by 2010. We weren’t a family that talked seriously about our own history or foibles much.

As I said in the book’s last poem “Birthright,” Curly loved to tell stories on his life and escapades on the road, but he made them just tall tales. I tried to portray my grandparents and their families as they were, with the less pretty realities. I didn’t worry too much because there weren’t dark secrets or serious nasty behavior on the part of these two; they were decent, resourceful, rather fun people who worked their tails off and helped their friends. This isn’t a book of revelations. I only had two sticky questions

  • whether to portray my great-grandfather Willie Kram, as he was: overstrict, curmedgeonly, bit of a terror. I didn’t invent that—people who’d known him hinted or told me he was a hard man who made life difficult for his children, though a successful farm-owner and community guy.
  • Whether to give in to a nudge that came as I wrote a poem about Curly at a big migrant camp in Wilder, Idaho (“All that Prairie, All that Quiet”). It felt right to me to have him commit some kind of pre-marriage cheating on Bertie, bit of making out with a Native American girl.  I’ve no evidence that such a thing happened (there’s never been talk that he was unfaithful) and it tars his goodness, but I thought it added a dimension to his character, his voice, and the poem, so I wrote it. Just two ambiguous lines!

My relatives seem generally happy about how I’ve told the story. One said I violated privacy and I shouldn’t have used real names. I think that relative missed the point completely; this poem series is to honor these two specific people, to put some gold leaf on a typical rural American love story.

RD: That’s beautiful, gold leaf on a rural love story!

I have a question about fiction versus poetry. Many of these poems are persona, voice, and character poems.  The speaker across the book seems to shift from third-person-limited to first- to omniscient, offering us moments inside “Curly’s” view, then “Bertie’s,” then pulling back to offer a view from the outside, looking in. The effect overall is of a polished fiction in different voices. At the same time, as in your previous book Only the Raw Hands are Heaven, where the character poems rise from your own personal experiences and observation, there is meticulous detail, lovely figurative language, and attention to music and rhythm.  To what extent did you aim to or feel you were writing fiction when you wrote these poems, what kind of decisions did you find yourself making on behalf of poetry, and did you ever feel constrained that these weren’t personal poems from your own living experience or observation?

NT: Oh, thank you for saying “polished fiction in different voices and lovely, figurative language”! Although the poems tell a story with a definite arc, I never felt I was writing fiction, I always had that rich feeling of being immersed in writing poetry, which to me is the best sensation there is. It was like fiction, however, in the sense of creating characters: in a way I wasn’t writing about two actual individuals–Alberta Kram and Curly Thiers–because as I said, I really didn’t know intimately what their personalities were like or what went on in their heads. They’re semi-fictional personas acting out things that really happened, these personas drawing heavily on what these people acted like as I knew them in their 50s through their 80s.

It was freeing that these were not personal poems. My emotions or ego didn’t get in the way so much. I chose to write some poems in Bertie’s voice, some in Curly’s, some in third person but from either her or his viewpoint, and some “omniscient narrator” deliberately, as a craft choice. The poems as a group seemed to demand a shifting around of focus, a variety, so it wouldn’t be a series of all interior monologues, or all formal poems in third person (like Brooks’ “Anniad”).

The poems clamored for different kinds of language-charged moments—some lyric; some detailed, repetitive description of the land; some range-y first-person storytelling. One of my best readers told me at one point to stop this switching around of viewpoints and make all the poems either first person or third person narrator–else the collection wouldn’t hang together–but I had an instinct to keep that variety. There’s a kind of back and forth to the storytelling; we zoom in on Bertie musing in first person as she sneaks out to go to a dance, then pan out to a wider look at downtown Woodland, then a bird’s eye view of hobos on a freight train, back to Bertie’s sister’s view of things, and so on.

Another choice for poetry was to put many of the poem-stories into what you’d call nonce form—a form that felt right for that language moment, usually by using short stanzas of the same amount of lines each. I love writing in form and often do a stanzaic form. It organizes, channels, and charges the language in my opinion—especially great for a narrative poem.

RD: Do you mean creating your own nonce form mostly as you go along, or using extant nonce forms from other poets?

NT: Creating my own forms as I go along. Often as I start writing a poem the lines begin to fall into stanzas of equal lines on their own accord—so I continue with it.

RD: Staying on the question of voice, the thoughts running through your characters’ heads come through in such rich and textured detail, the use of colloqialisms evoking a nearer sense of speech in that time—as in Curly musing on words he’s heard: “Going to hell in a hand basket./Like a one-legged man in a butt-kickin’ contest.”—or Bertie’s recalling her dad’s words: “Never talk to dem….lazy bo-hums,” and really, especially in Curly’s voice throughoutwhat issues did voice pose for you as you strove to recreate these characters, what helped bring them alive for you as you wrote?

NT: Writing in my Grandpa Curly’s voice was a delight and not that hard. He was a garrulous character who loved to josh and tell stories. He had a wonderful voice—I mean even just the sound of it. He spoke both quickly and cheerfully and although his voice was a little growly, there was a lilt to it as if he was always suppressing amusement even when talking about something ordinary. For someone with little education, he had a very colorful, precise vocabulary and he was really witty.  Without being cruel, Curly could jibe at people or situations in this way that was both subtle and pointed, what you’d call “signifying,” and he used fantastic slang. There was a kind of rhythm you’d hear listening to him, as with all storytellers, so I tried to imitate that colorfulness, that rhythm and the jibing beneath the surface, and the poems narrated by him just spun out, in terms of the voice.

Getting my grandma’s voice in the poems was harder. She was much quieter, more plain-spoken, and kind of in Curly’s colorful shadow. So her speech is plainer in the poems, but I tried to bring layered, compelling ideas into her interior monologues so she wouldn’t seem dull. Bringing out her voice, her as a character, sort of helped me feel I knew Grandma–more than I did when she was alive.

RD: That’s interesting—so, like writing fiction in a sense, fictionalizing her seemed to give her a greater feel of reality?

NT: Fleshing out her character and her voice required me to really imagine what her inner thoughts and feelings would’ve been—how she likely would have talked to herself.

RD: Turning to Curly, there’s a richness to his life, of adventure and travel, that comes through, as he moves across states, hitching rides, hopping on freight trains, to pick peaches in California or hops in Idaho, or plant and harvest sugar beets in North Dakota, and the converse side of “batchin’ it” after an injury, in the revealing poem Batchin’ It, 1929—all of which unmasks as well the deeper narrative of migrant farmworker life through those Depression years—what did you find interesting or find yourself uncovering about this larger social context?

NT: I should clarify that neither of my grandparents were true migrant workers in the sense of people born into a rather desperate life of traveling the circuit, picking different crops with no fixed home. They were born into rooted farm families.  I put in a few historic details about seasonal farm work in the ‘20s, because Curly did plenty of it and so did Bertie after they eloped. But these poems don’t touch on life for true migrant workers. And most of the book takes place before the Depression or at its very start.

Adventure is the word, and what I found interesting was the contrast between Curly’s chosen wandering life, Bertie&Curlyphoto2-smallhoboing and picking up farmwork, and Bertie’s secure but sort of stuck life in Woodland, constantly with the cows and crops. He left home, Minnesota, at age 14. I don’t think he fled abuse or deep poverty—it’s a bit of a mystery why.  But after leaving home, he must’ve found he had a taste for the unknowns, the sights and the scrambling to live by your wits, because he stayed on the road going west for 10 years.

My mother still says Curly was the most intelligent man she ever met; maybe he relished the problem-solving part of living on the road! In many poems I show him savoring the dramatic beauty of the western states once he left the prairies. Yet when I really picture him hopping freights and living on the ground in hobo camps, I can’t believe it would’ve all been the rollicking adventure as in his stories. So I put into Curly’s persona regret, misery, and the gnawing of too many years on the road. I believe when he got too far out and lost the tether that held him to his parents, he knew some longing—so that when he met Bertie, so rooted in Woodland, he saw a shot at a home.

I did learn and put into the poems some fascinating things about central California in the ‘20s, like about the working conditions in fields and canneries and the bloody labor unrest in the battle for fair pay and decent conditions, in spots like Fresno.

RD: Your earlier work which chronicles lives in Nicaragua and Washington DC among others shows an interest in poetry as witness and an unflinching embrace of the personal as political—did you at all find yourself drawn to this subject through a feeling for the importance of documentary, did any particular poets or writers inspire such a feeling?

NT: No, I didn’t at all feel in writing these poems that I was trying to shed light on any social conditions or express the personal as political. With these poems, the personal was personal!  What I mean is, I was trying to paint two individual people, their milieu (Woodland and the land) and their way of looking at their rather constricted world, discovering each other and grabbing for this brass ring of a happy coupleship. It’s a joyful story really, with these two saying “We’re going for this, we’re setting up a healthy life together no matter what her parents say and no matter the hard times.”

I guess I tried to portray what it was like to be a hobo in the ‘20s, but mostly I wasn’t showing unjust social conditions, I was showing Bertie and Curly and their world in its particulars. They were NOT political kinds of people. They had hard times and probably saw injustice in some of their farmwork. But their way of dealing with an exploitive boss, say, would’ve been to work real hard, save money, then move on. Curly would’ve muttered some funny remark about the “damn-fool Swede skinflint” and Bertie would’ve just shared whatever they had with a fellow worker who was worse off.

RD: So the research you did on Central California in the ‘20s was more to give a sense of the background or context back then?

NT: Yes, and to give myself insight into what their world would’ve been like—what chores Bertie would’ve had, what people did on a date in 1927. . .. To help me know them better, and add historical color to the poems.

RD: What would you offer as advice to any young poets out there contemplating writing poems about members of their family, from family histories?

NT: This is something I need to think more about, but on first thought I would just encourage anyone who feels a desire to write about old family stories—especially stories from the long-past that might need some excavating—to plunge in.  Dig for details, the extra edges of people’s characters, ask for letters, look at artifacts from the place and decade. I found even the less-bubbly relatives, even when I was leery of prying, often wanted to tell me so much. If you’re sincere, someone will help you find the flesh of the stories. I just believe when you tell, you honor your relatives.

For more information:

Read a poem from In Yolo County: In a Boxcar

Visit In Yolo County’s Facebook page.

Check in at Finishing Line Press and search by title.

Or order from Amazon: In Yolo County

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