3 Questions for Anne Whitehouse

INTERVIEW FOR MIRIAM’S WELL
ANNE WHITEHOUSE

1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.

I think of the poetic line as a unit of breath, as words spoken in one breath, or perhaps two breaths if there is a caesura or pause in the line. The poetic line is a vehicle for building energy and momentum. Long lines are slower; short lines are faster. I think of the poetic line in terms of its music; the words that comprise the poetic line have rhythms, either regular or irregular, that propel the poem forward, sometimes urgently, at other times meandering. I prefer to break most poetic lines naturally, as a reader would pause to breathe. Generally, I try to use enjambment selectively, as a relief to a continuous progression of end-stopped lines. Poetic lines are organized into stanzas, and I think of the one in terms of the other. Sometimes I write in regular stanzas; sometimes I don’t. It all depends on what the poem requires. Sometimes it takes a while for me to find the poem’s form; at other times, it comes to me right away.

2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?

Writing poetry is a matter of intuition and paying attention. I have to be in a receptive mood in order to write. I like to be comfortable. When I am in pain or sick, it’s much harder to write. The physical body is connected to the mind. My body needs to feel good, and my mind needs to be clear. I can’t be thinking of my shopping list or my job responsibilities when I am writing poetry. When I was 22 years old, I took a transcendental meditation course, and I’ve been practicing meditation ever since. Sometimes I will be sitting over my computer, and my brain is so tired that my head hangs, and I start to fall asleep, and I know it’s time to meditate. Sometimes I will actually fall asleep while I am meditating, and somehow those naps are always more refreshing than other naps. When I am meditating, it seems to me that I can feel those alpha brain waves massaging the inside of my mind, and it feels great. Afterwards, my mind feels like a plowed field, empty and ready for growth.

In addition, I’ve been practicing yoga for nearly seven years, and it has changed my life. Yoga complements meditation; it’s meditation for the body. A lot of writers I know practice yoga and meditation; for me, it’s absolutely necessary.

I like to feel invisible when I am writing. I can’t write if I am too self-conscious or feel I am being watched. This is true for writing poetry and prose both. If I am afraid of being interrupted, I don’t feel free to let my mind flow. If the train of my thoughts is broken, it’s hard to go back. I like to write in a room with the door closed, or outside by myself. Sometimes I write in cafes or libraries where I am alone and anonymous. I carry a notebook with me wherever I go, and if I have an idea, I try to jot it down immediately. It’s like recording a dream; I think I will remember it, but I don’t. As I wrote in one of my Blessings of Blessings and Curses:

When inspiration comes, attend to it.
Drop everything else. Listen carefully.
You get one chance and one chance only.
To receive the blessing,
you must be prepared to receive it.
Let yourself be its instrument.
The intention and expression are up to you.

3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?

Poetry is my first love and my favorite of all the literary forms. For me, there’s no greater literary satisfaction than feeling inspired to write a poem, except for the feeling that comes after the poem is completed. And I find the process of creating a poem absorbing. I like playing with words and lines and stanzas. It’s entertaining and self-contained, like working out a finite puzzle. Of course, I’m speaking of the short lyric poems that most people write nowadays. In contrast, writing a novel is a lot of hard work and drudgery. You have to construct the architecture very carefully in order for it to be truly satisfying and make sure that everything fits and comes together in the way that it has to. For me, writing a novel takes years and years, but sometimes I’ve written a poem in an afternoon. As a writer, I’ve found nothing else compares to the instant gratification of poetry.

However, that’s also what’s hard about it. Just because I’ve written a poem doesn’t mean I can do it again. I have to feel inspired, and much as I would like to be able to will inspiration to come, I’ve never been able to do it. It’s not the nature of the beast. I can prepare for it, but I can’t force it, and I can’t predict when it will strike. For me, a poem is a gift. That fact is something to cherish, but it’s also a cause for despair during those long barren spells when inspiration doesn’t show its face. If my writing isn’t going well, I get up and do something else, anything, even cleaning the house. I began writing fiction out of a need to have something in progress that I could work on all the time. There was a period in my life where I didn’t write poetry for years, and I wasn’t sure that I ever would again. I am grateful that my muse has returned, and I welcome her in whatever guise she chooses to show herself to me.

Sometimes it’s sad to think of how far poetry has fallen from its former position when it reigned over all the literary arts. It used to be a popular art form, and that hasn’t been true for a long, long time, at least in English. Anyone who chooses to write poetry today has to be in love with it, because for the vast majority of poets, there’s no money to be made from it and no audience for it except other poets. I read somewhere that today there are more writers of poetry than readers of it, and I’m not surprised. Writing poetry demands sacrifice; it’s a habit that you have to support by doing something else to earn your livelihood. In the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth century, schoolchildren regularly memorized poems. That isn’t done anymore; it’s not considered part of what constitutes education. I regret that. When you have a poem by heart, it’s always with you, and no one can take it away. Recalling a poem from memory is like singing a song; it can transform your mood when you’re feeling blue.

Nevertheless, while poetry is far from being the popular art it used to be, the Internet has been a boon for poetry. Poetry on the Internet doesn’t have to conform to a profitable business model; anyone can start a blog or magazine online or a website, and anyone with an Internet connection can access it and read it. The Internet is a great way to bypass commercial publishing and deliver literature to readers who care about it. Commercial publishing, like all of the established media, has been contracting rapidly as of late, and while its outcome is still unclear, it’s certainly true that commercial publishing is no longer an option for more and more writers. I’m grateful for blogs like Miriam’s Well, and I hope they continue to flourish. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, poetry enjoyed a mini-renaissance. Poetry circulated widely on the Internet, because people hungered to read words that would touch their hearts. As long as poetry continues to fill that need for people, it will never die.

Anne Whitehouse’s poetry collections include The Surveyor’s Hand, Blessings and Curses, Bear in Mind, One Sunday Morning, and the latest, The Refrain, recently published by Dos Madres Press. Her novel, Fall Love, is available as a free e-book from Feedbooks and Smashwords. She was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, educated at Harvard and Columbia, and lives in New York City. http://www.annewhitehouse.com

LIGHTNING STRIKE

I

The house lay drowsing in the late afternoon,
a cooling shade crept across the valley,
punctuated by the crow’s harsh caws
as it landed briefly, rose up, and flew away.

From room to room I lingered,
caressing the door jambs, the walls,
in gratitude to Providence
for saving us from lightning’s strike.

I’d rarely seen a more even cut
than the one that split the Norway spruce,
when lightning shriveled its living sap,
and woke us with a thunderclap,

raining wooden arrows and stripped bark.
A board sawed cleanly as a two-by-four
hurled to earth, tearing up the hostas.
High in the tree, another perched perilously.

Lightning jumped inside the propane tank,
and the fireplace heater roared into flame,
as loud as wind, gushing black smoke that stank,
while we fled in a daze, and the firemen came.

II

The creature must have slipped inside unnoticed,
through the open door that stormy night,
as the firemen were moving their equipment,
their lights a tunnel from darkness to darkness,

and everything else was shadow and rain
falling quietly after the fire was put out.
Within that shadow moved another, never noted,
not knowing where it was, or how to leave.

All else was shadow and the sound of rain,
after the lightning died away, and the fire was put out,
only the sound of the rain was left
softly falling to earth, and at last we slept.

III

They are manuring the field next to us.
Inhale, exhale: odor of animal,
signs of cultivation, the life cycle.

Two nights past the fire, loud scufflings
disturb my rest; on the third,
I am startled as a wild, black bird
soars up the stairs in panicked flight
and orbits my head like a planet out of whack—

a trapped, lost bird that came in by mistake
and now wants out. To show the way,
I go down first, flick on the lights,
fling open the door, “This way to freedom,
it’s so close, if you can only see it.”

And the bird flies out the front door at last.

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