Is it true you have a relative allergic to the pepper in his mother’s house and that’s why he won’t visit her?

Yes, but it is not the same relative who tells me all water is old. Nor is it the relative who tells me every curve needs its own line. Some of the best layers in poetry are revealed by listening quietly to these anonymous relatives, but as sometimes happens in my poems, I try not to intrude upon their privacy when I write.


Richard Hugo once said, “Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life.” Any comments?

I think this is true for me. When I first started to write a few years ago, it was out of a need to sort things out. The more I wrote, the more I began to tune into emotional honesty not only in my own poems but in the work of other poets I admired. It’s easy to trick ourselves about what is and isn’t true. But when a poem is emotionally honest, the tones are infinite and clear. Like true harmonics in music. The more I listened, the more music I heard in poetry and (I’d like to think) the less confused I became about my own reality. (May need to get a second opinion from those anonymous relatives . . .)


So you mentioned music . . .?

I started playing viola when I was eight years old. My family had little money and we lived in a remote power camp along the Missouri River in Montana. Two trips to town each month meant no music lessons, which in turn meant learning to listen to and absorb whatever I could around me. In high school I was awarded scholarships to study with a string quartet from Juilliard which came each summer to teach at the University of Montana. We were encouraged to close our eyes and listen. Such subtle phrasings and dynamics! While I eventually quit the city symphony I played in for some years, the way music informs my life remains. I feel so much music in poetry–not as much the metered beat, but the phrasings, texture, and counter rhythms and melodies a viola’s voice lends to a full symphony.


A remote power camp?

We lived in a company camp down river from a hydroelectric dam, up river from the power house. The mist and spray from the waterfalls filtered through the camp. We could also feel the force of the river at all times–a low-key rumble not noticed until we moved away. Because we were too far from town, we had to rely on ourselves for our own entertainment. My siblings were creative story-tellers and the games we played in the hills were imaginative. We lived with few rules: Don’t pick the boss’s wife’s flowers; If the weather is at all bearable, play outside–the further from camp the better; Be back in time for dinner; Don’t dangle your brother by his ankles over the edge of the dam. If the weather was not bearable, then we could be inside. But without a radio signal and only one TV station that could be tuned into, we all read a lot of library books.


It seems like this sort of isolation was good training for the solitary life of a writer. As a writer are you on the outside looking in, or are you inside looking out?

Observing is a writer’s lot, I think. The more time spent observing, the less time spent actively participating. It’s good to remember to also stay involved in pursuits outside of writing if for no other reason than to maintain a healthy balance in my life. For me, this involves photography, art, camping and fishing. But my gosh, it’s hard to ignore the writer inside me. That writer is with me everywhere I go– distracting me from the moment at hand. I get lost in conversations because someone says something so poetic that by the time I’ve made a mental note of it, I’ve lost track of the conversation’s thread. Everything becomes a writely moment. I am outside looking in. I like the wide open, the sense of not being contained as long as I remain outside, but I also miss the connections I sense between those on the inside.


Can we talk a little bit about the poem? Much of what you write seems to be informed from your personal life. True?

True, In the case of this poem, I had been looking for bells for sheep on my sister’s farm. I ended up listening to sheep bells on the internet. There were four different pitches. At one moment I was jotting down notes about the bells I would purchase, and the next moment I was writing the poem for a woman standing at a stone wall, wondering if in fact her lover had strayed.

The poem wrote itself, but it led to two debates. One– what is the difference between stray and wander. Two–what does it mean to bear up and carry on? At the time, I thought it would be to wrap the shawl tighter, and not let anything else in. That’d be the way to carry on, right? But when I shared this poem with a few other poets, two of them both spoke up immediately and said the only way to carry on is with the shawl fully open.

Wow, a life’s lesson while working on the draft of a poem. Writing the poem became secondary as I contemplated such advice. My own life at the time was at a turning point–should I bear up by tightening my shawl, or should I risk more harm, but invite more life in by opening up my shawl? Thanks to those two poets, I’ve opened up the shawl.


William Kittredge once pointed out that if you aren’t risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self. I know you are a fan of his, are you a fan of this advice as well?

Yes, I like the way his work tunes into our planet, but I didn’t know he said that until you pointed it out. I think there is a fine edge for the poet to locate when striving for emotionally honest work. We can be open without confessing. We can remain private and yet allow our work to speak to the common denominator we share with each other. This quote from Richard Hugo inspires me: “The poem is located in a specific place. You [the reader] don’t know where, but you know the poet knows where. Knowing where you are [as a poet] can be a source of creative stability. If you are in Chicago you can go to Rome. If you ain’t no place you can’t go nowhere.”

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SHERRY O'KEEFE, mother to two, sibling to four, and cousin to dozens is the author of Making Good Use of August and The Peppermint Bottle. A descendent of Irish-Montana pioneers, she attended MSU-B on a music scholarship and studied rehabilitation counseling. Too many years of counting to four repeatedly and thriving on the off-beat playing viola in a handful of Northwestern symphonies still influence her work. Her most current work has appeared in Camas: The Nature of the West, Switched-on Gutenberg, THEMA, Sugar Mule, Terrain. Org., PANK, Avatar Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Prick of the Spindle, Inkwell, Pirene’s Fountain, Right Hand Pointing and Escape Into Life. She is the poetry editor for IthacaLit, co-editor at YB Journal and an assistant poetry editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. A full collection of her poetry, Cracking Geodes Open, is under consideration and a collection of her creative nonfiction essays, On the Corner of First and Prairie, is scheduled to be released in 2013. Visit her at: Too Much August.

5 responses to “Sherry O’Keefe: The TNB Self-Interview”

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  2. Rose Hunter says:

    I like so much about this. Especially: “when a poem is emotionally honest, the tones are infinite and clear. ” And:”[w]e can be open without confessing….” And: “what does it mean to bear up and carry on?”
    And I love that Hugo quote too.
    Thank you Sherry.

    • rose,

      thank you! that hugo quote has been timely advice for me lately. finding out we have an inner life, we learn to listen to it more . . . nuture it with better things (corn, con todo–for example). it’s all good, a circle taking us to new places.


  3. Amy Monticello says:

    Sherry, you’re so wise and explain such a mysterious process of poetics so clearly here. I, too, love the Richard Hugo quote. Thank you!

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