Interview with Barbara Crooker

Paying Attention, Discovering Joy: A Conversation with Barbara Crooker

by Margaret Rozga

Barbara Crooker-2BARBARA CROOKER’s poems have appeared widely, in magazines such as The Green Mountains Review, Poet Lore, The Potomac Review, Smartish Pace, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, The Denver Quarterly, and anthologies such as The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Good Poems for Hard Times (Garrison Keillor, editor), and Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. Her poetry has been read on the BBC, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company), and by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac, and in Ted Kooser’s column, American Life in Poetry.

A highly awarded poet, her prizes include the 2007 Pen and Brush Poetry Prize, the 2006 Ekphrastic Poetry Award from Rosebud, the 2004 WB Yeats Society of New York Award, the 2004 Pennsylvania Center for the Book Poetry in Public Places Poster Competition, the 2003 Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, and others, including three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, sixteen residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; a residency at the Moulin à Nef, Auvillar, France; and a residency at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Ireland.  

Her books are Radiance, which won the 2005 Word Press First Book competition and was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize; Line Dance (Word Press 2008), which won the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence; More (C&R Press 2010); Gold (Cascade Books, a division of Wipf and Stock, in their Poeima Poetry Series, 2013); Small Rain (Purple Flag, an imprint of the Virtual Artists Collective, 2014); and Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press, 2015).

Margaret Rozga: When I reviewed your book Gold for Verse Wisconsin, I loved the joy, the optimism, in many of your poems, even those thatGold-1 pay their respects to sorrow. Those poems focus on your grief at your mother’s death, but in the third section of the book, you turn from fall to spring, from night to dawn. You write in “Soft,” “Let’s praise / what’s still working.” Does writing the poems help to give you that joy which the poems express?

Barbara Crooker: I write from personal experience. If you look at the facts of my life, you might not think that there would be much reason for rejoicing. My first child was stillborn and my first marriage fell apart partly because of this, my third daughter had a traumatic brain injury when she was 18, my son has autism. So I write in spite of, or in face of, the darkness, the suffering, that is part of the human condition, and if joy is the tone that comes through the most, I’m happy to hear this.

MR: You write poignantly about your son’s autism. I think of the lines from “Autism Poem: The Grid” in Radiance, also available online, where you try to see the world through his eyes: “What does he see in his world, where geometry / is more beautiful than a human face? (Published on The Writer’s Almanac, November 7, 2005).

BC: When I’m writing about my son and autism, I think my task as a writer is somewhat different than in the rest of my writing, in that I’m trying to give voice to someone who is essentially voiceless. I’m very concerned about “getting it right,” and yet I’ll never really know if I do.

MR: Does it help when others, whether poets or parents, tell you they think you got it right? What feedback, for example, have you gotten on “Form and Void” in your Selected Poems, especially the ending?

This is the only magic the mother can conjure,
she cannot help him talk or say his name.
But they can do this together,
blow bubbles on a breezy afternoon,
make a strand of hand-blown beads
to grace the throat of the lawn.

BC: Most of my readings are for poetry audiences, but there have been a few parents in them, and often, I’ll get a sigh or a nod at the end of this one. I like poems that end with a click, like Yeats’s well-made box, and I hope this poem does that.

MR: You raise the question of persevering in light of the fact that “things are always ending.” This is in your poem “Poem on a Line from Anne Sexton, ‘We Are All Writing God’s Poem’” (published on The Writer’s Almanac, March 21, 2009). The image at the end of that poem suggests your answer to death, illness, mutability, comes from observation of nature: “The moon spills its milk on the black table top/for the thousandth time.” Though not explicit in the poem, the title adds a religious note. Are those important sources of your joy, God and Nature?

BC: Absolutely. As Teilhard de Chardin has written, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” Yes. Wendell Berry, poet and environmental activist also emphasizes joy. “Be joyful,” he says, “though you have considered all the facts.” And then there’s Bruce Springsteen: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

More-1MR: There is something about your attention to the natural world that reminds me of Mary Oliver‘s work. To what extent do you see that resemblance?

BC: I thank you for that comparison. Mary Oliver says, “I don’t exactly know what prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention.” And that’s my task, I think, both as a person and as a writer, to pay attention to the world around me, the world that we’re in danger of losing if we don’t wake up and do what we can to stop contributing to global climate change. Maybe “poetry changes nothing,” but if enough of us do our small bits to raising awareness . . . . David Hockney said, “Looking is hard. Most people don’t.”

MR: Robert Frost is another poet for whom you have some affection, but with whom you have important differences. How do you see both of these unfolding in your recent book, Gold?

BC: When I was organizing Gold, I knew that I was looking at a book that would unfold in a fairly straightforward narrative order, but I also knew I didn’t want those poems to be the whole book. As I was looking at what I might include, I saw that I had a fair number of fall poems which were on different aspects of gold (the color), and I saw how this would also work metaphorically, as, let’s face it, I’m in the autumn of my life, too. The Frost poem immediately surfaced; in the fall, everything in the natural world changes, turns colors, shines, while at the same time, there’s winter with its black and white palette waiting in the wings. “Nothing gold can stay.” One of my blurbers, Robert Cording, summed this up nicely, “Gold, ‘invoices’ the losses and worries of the last third of our lives: the deaths of old friends; the illness and deaths of parents; the breakdown of our own trusted bodies.”Selected-1

I think the most notable difference between Frost’s poetry and mine is that his concerns remained formal; he felt that free verse was “playing tennis without a net,” while I’m comfortable with letting my rhythm, for the most part, be the language of conversational speech. I play with form from time to time (there’s a crown of sonnets in my Selected) and feel that it informs my free verse (I care a lot about sound and rhythm), but it’s not my natural voice.

MR: My question about Frost grew out of the contrast between your sense of upcoming spring and more gold and his assertion, “Nothing gold can stay.” But I see your point about the difference in form. The long lines in some of your poems are, as you say, conversational. Who are one or two of the poets, whose sensibilities or rhythms may filter your work?

BC: That’s a really interesting question; I’ve not thought about other poets influencing my lineation or tone. If they have influenced me, I think it’s been through unconscious absorption. Two names that come to mind are Christopher Buckley (although his lines are often much longer) and David Kirby. Typically, when I’m thinking about influence, I’m thinking of poets whose work I love and what I’ve learned from them. How does this poem work? is the question I’m usually asking myself. Where does the sound explode in my mouth? What is it about the use of imagery and/or metaphor that stuns me? How did all those balls get tossed in the air (threads in the poem) and still land plink plank plunk at the end? Where is the turn, and how did it get slipped in? I like to say I went to the MFA of the 3,000 books (the approximate number in my library); some of the other writers whose well I draw from are Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Rumi, Hafiz, Charles Wright, Ellen Bass, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty, Philip Levine, Maxine Kumin, Ted Kooser, Stephen Dunn, Betsy Sholl, Liesl Muller, Dorianne Laux, Linda Pastan, Barbara Hamby.

MR: I’d like to use in my own reading your questions for thinking about how a poem works. They’re terrific.

BC: Thank you.

radiance-1MR: Radiance won the Word Press First Book Prize. In what ways was winning this prize important to your career as a writer?

BC: One of the poems in Radiance is “Twenty-Five Years of Rejection Slips,” and that sums up my experience in trying to get that first book out. I was starting to think it wasn’t going to happen or that it was going to be posthumous, and then. . . . Radiance went on to be a Finalist for The Paterson Poetry Prize. Both of these awards gave me much needed validation and helped restore my faith in my own writing.

MR: You often write about family events and concerns. What caution, if any, do you feel when bringing those you love into your poems?

BC: In writing about family members, my concerns are first and foremost, for the poem. Am I keeping it real? Am I being honest? After the poem seems finished (I’m of the Paul Valéry “a poem is never finished, merely abandoned” school), then I try and look at it and decide, if this poem is published, would it hurt a relationship? I spoke once on a panel about this; I think we were evenly divided vis a vis relationships versus literature. (I’m on the side of relationships.) My Selected Poems, which came out recently, has a poem, “Making Strufoli,” about my difficult father. I wouldn’t have put that one in a book while he was still alive. . . .

The other side of this, of course, is that we’re talking about poetry—most of the people I love wouldn’t be reading what I’ve written unless I’ve sent them a copy.

MR:  In “Listen,” as in many of your poems, the metaphors are striking, for example, these lines: “I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, / a slice of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils.”  Does this ability to think and write metaphorically come easily to you?

BC: Much of my work begins, as Anne Lamott says, with the “shitty first draft,” but then I work as hard as I can to put pressure on the language, to make every word count (metaphor does this, gives you the most bang for your buck), to not be satisfied until I think I’ve done something different, something original. I’m definitely a fifty draft or more kind of girl, working through layer after layer, like an oyster creating a pearl through excrescence around an irritating piece of grit (the place the poem originated).

MR: Fifty drafts! And another fine metaphoric leap. Both the comparison and your work on revising surely points the way for young writers. What other advice do you have for those developing their craft?

BC: I think the best way to develop this is to read, read, read a lot of poetry. I come across beginning writers all the time who say things like, “I don’t really read much poetry,” and that makes me absolutely nuts. It’s part of our job as writers to be readers, first and foremost. I read “the dailies” (Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer’s Almanac), links to poems put up online by friends on Facebook, journals (both print and online), anthologies, individual collections of poems. I have no more room on my shelves to keep new books, so I donate older ones to my poetry collection, which is housed at DeSales University. But always, I’m reading!

MR: Please tell me about your current writing projects.

BC: I have two books which just came out, Small Rain, a collection of nature poems, and my Selected, which covers work up until 2005 (when small rainRadiance was published). Now I’m going to start sending around another manuscript, Les Fauves, which contains poems on Fauve painters and paintings as well as other Post-Impressionist work, plus what I call my Word Salad poems, poems which are a bit on the wild side (for me). A number of them are abecedaries and variants thereof. Then I have another manuscript, The Book of Kells, which is about 3/4 finished. It has, obviously, poems on the Book of Kells, not just on the book as a whole, but poems on the various pigments, the ink, the scribe, poems on the small animals that appear in the margins, etc. These are coupled with poems about Ireland, some of which are in glosa form, using as their starting quatrains parts of poems from Irish writers (Heaney, Yeats, Hopkins, etc.). I need to go back (I had a residency in 2013 at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co. Monaghan) to finish it. And then I have other unconnected poems from my recent residency at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (the VCCA) that I’m still working on.

MR: It sounds like you work on these various subjects simultaneously. Can you describe your process, how you manage working on multiple projects?

BC: I’m not so much working on multiple projects as I am sending out said projects. It’s a lengthy process, getting a book out in this increasingly non-reading world. So, for example, while it sounds like I’m working on the Book of Kells, really, I’m just trying to publish the individual poems, while hoping I can juggle my schedule enough so that I can go back and finish the book. I don’t seem to be able to work on those poems here. Ditto for Les Fauves.

small rain poemMR: What inspires you to keep going?

BC: For me, it’s not so much inspiration as it is finding the time to work. Because I’m a caregiver, most of my writing time is done in fragmented snatches, and happens in the middle of constant interruption. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had sixteen residencies at the VCCA, plus two international ones (the aforementioned Guthrie Centre plus VCCA’s studio in Auvillar, France), and that’s where the bulk of my work has gotten done. It’s a luxury—days without having to spend time on food (planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning up) (or going back even farther, digging a garden, planting the seeds), plus other domestic duties. It’s amazing how many more hours there are in a day once you take that stuff out of the equation! When all there is to do is reading, writing, thinking about writing, more reading, it’s also amazing how much work can get done; usually, it’s a whole year’s worth in two weeks. And I’m very, very grateful. I know that it sounds like I’m prolific, but really, I’ve just been writing for a long time, plus I’m unconnected in the larger writing world, not having been able to go for an MFA, not having a mentor, so it takes me a long time to find homes for my work. But what can I do, but write? And so I do. . . .

Margaret Rozga‘s review of Barbara Crooker’s 2013 book Gold can be found here.

Margaret Rozga is also featured in this issue of Delphi, read about her own work and writing here.

For More Information

Visit Barbara Crooker’s website.

Pick up her new books: Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems, and Small Rain.

Read some of Barbara’s ekphrastic work online at Verse-Virtual. (More can be found at this site by looking at their archives.)

Read another ekphrastic poem by Barbara, this one without the painting, at Valparaiso Poetry Review.

Read one of Barbara’s “word salad” poems, at Cumberland River Review. (These are in her Fauves manuscript.)

Here’s a link to two of the Irish poems in her manuscript, The Book of Kells, in The Rose Red Review.  One more at The Christian Century.

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