Recently nominated by Wild Goose Poetry Review for the 2010 Pushcart Prize for her poem "I Wanted to Hear Her Howl," Linda Annas Ferguson could not be more approachable. Her poetry is honest and perceptive. What a great person (and poet) with whom to jump off the Interview Cliff.
I'm always interested to learn of a poet's process. Do you have certain rituals you follow before you write, like Tibetan singing bowls and 15 minutes of meditation? Do you proceed through your day with a notebook in your pocket, sometimes squatting in the middle of the grocery aisle when inspiration hits you between the seafood display and the chilled white wine?
I don’t own anything as exotic as singing bowls, but I seemed to have developed an intimate relationship with a chair. My writing process is to curl my feet up in it with a fleece blanket. It’s tucked in the corner of a room where I have cultivated a quiet, private place. I use it for writing, reading and meditation, so it feels like somewhat of a sacred space. Even when I get to the editing stage and use the computer, I still go back and forth to my chair. This is the closest I come to a ritual, although I sometimes play music or light candles. In stark contrast, I also begin poems in noisy restaurants or on a park bench, wherever the inspiration strikes, but I usually like to retreat to my chair to finish them.
I definitely have to keep a small pad close at hand. There is one in my purse, one by the bed, and one in the car. I often write tidbits on the margins of the newspaper or on a napkin half-way through lunch. I have a mini-flashlight on my key ring, so I can jot a note during plays and movies. I scribble in the dark at 3:00 a.m. while still half dreaming. It’s often a challenge to read what I wrote the next morning. Being locked away without pen and paper would be the worst torture I could think of for a writer.
You use a lot of different themes in DIRT SANDWICH, religion and family in particular. Is there a particular subject that inspires you more than others?
My work seems to reflect where I am at any particular moment in life. I needed to write the family poems after losing my parents and two brothers to death. The newer poems are still discovering how impermanent we are in this brief life. I also like to muse over our shared imperfections. Humans, like treasured creations of art, become more beautiful and interesting because of their cracks and scratches.
Since I reviewed "How to Forgive," could you expand on your notion of forgiveness as a circular process and the poem's use of punctuation to alter word choice?
Forgiveness was, and still is, an internal growth process for me. At the same time I was struggling with it, I received an invitation to write new poems about the theme of “forgiveness.” I felt humbled and truly unqualified, since I was still working on it myself. It took lots of writing until I came to realize that it wasn’t about the other person I was trying to forgive, but what I was supposed to learn from it all.
If you mean by full circle that it all comes back to you, I think it does. I had to ask myself, “Am I totally innocent of ever needing forgiveness myself in all the choices of my life?” Most of the time, the person we are trying to forgive has already justified everything in his own mind. We are the only one who is miserable, because we can’t forget about feeling “wronged.” The best treatment for me was to send him love in my thoughts. It has a way of changing your perspective.
In the poem, “How to Forgive,” the punctuation was not totally deliberate from the beginning. It began to reveal itself as I worked on line breaks. I like how poetry makes the work feel effortless now and then. In this case, I can’t say I deliberately planned this or that. I was fascinated at how the poem unfolded as well.
Speaking of word choice, several of your poems like "Tower of Babel" and "Genesis" and "The First Word" bring to mind the aesthetic process of word choice. Do you get lost or caught up in words? I guess what I'm asking is do you find, when you write, that the rhythm follows the word or the word fits the rhythm? There's a fluidity where the two elements meet and I'm wondering what means more to you as a poet.
In the early stages of the poem, I try to let the rhythm and word choices flow naturally without a great deal of intention. I am however very conscious of words and rhythm when I am editing. To answer your question about the rhythm following the word or the word fitting the rhythm, I don’t know if there is a separation. As you said, “there is fluidity where the two elements meet.” For me, there is a synergy in poetry that makes words and rhythm end up in each other’s pocket.
I love your title poem. Is Sheila admitting defeat or attempting one last rite towards redemption and reprieve?
In the title poem, as in most poetry, I find it intriguing to discover what different readers take away from the same poem. Some see defeat, some desperation, some courage, some hope. Once I have released the poem through publication, it doesn’t seem to belong to me anymore.
Most often, I don’t approach the poem with intention. I would rather it be what it wants to be, as complex (or as simple) in meaning as we are as individuals. This poem sees life as “a glass half full,” as well as “upside down in a cherry tree.” We are all that at different times and at the same time. Perhaps we identify with this poem because most of us feel defeated and desperate at times. We are all looking for consolation from something beyond us.
What do you learn from poetry, from the process of writing it?
Wow! What a good question. I learn every day from reading other’s poetry. That is probably one of the reasons I want to write. If I thought just one of my poems could offer an inkling of what I have gained from reading other’s work, it would have all been worth the effort.
When I first began writing, it was a cathartic process in some ways, but also energizing and liberating. We all probably learn something different in the writing process. If you ask me a different day, I might tell you something new, but what I learn most is that I am never through learning. I can read words written two hundred or two thousand years ago and maybe one day will pass them along to my grandchildren. Language is an amazing living thing.
Read Linda Annas Ferguson's impressive accolades and pick up a copy of DIRT SANDWICH on her page at Press53.com, and check out her website at http://www.lindaannasferguson.com/