I’d like to have a few words with you men who need a welder’s mask to regard the full glory of your blazing birthday cake. Are you as strong as you used to be? Take this simple test:

1) When was the last time you deployed your muscles?
2) Did you ever have muscles?
3) Do you lose your superpowers under a yellow sun?

If you answered any of these questions, you are not only wasting your time, you are exactly where I was five years ago. To restore my manliness, I knew I had to change something, and that something was going to be my car. However, before I could surprise my wife with triple-chrome spinning hubcaps and a sound system loud enough to strip-mine coal, I spotted a rack of cards profiling the trainers at our gym.

What a simple answer, I thought. I’ll take a pill. No, I’ll hire the biggest, meanest, oldest guy I can find to make me stronger. And that’s how I spent six months working out three times a week with a former county sheriff who was built like a dump truck but was better able to withstand collisions. His nickname was No Neck.

More intense than RoboCop
No Neck stomped into the gym every day at dawn and he wasn’t there to teach people how to do sit-ups. He was a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, ready and willing to reduce Division I NCAA athletes to a puddle of tears. Or blood. It was all the same to him.

“Ninety percent of everyone you see down here is doing 100 percent of everything wrong,” No Neck told me before demonstrating the proper use of everything on the premises: the dumb bells and bar bells, the machines that tormented specific parts of the body, and the many ropes, balls, bars, bludgeons, battering rams, and harpoons. The regulars enjoyed hearing the noises No Neck wrung from me as he tried to turn my life around.

We had a lot to turn. No Neck introduced me to the front shoulder press and discovered I could barely lift a bar fitted on each end with 10- and 5-pound weights. (No Neck called these “baby wheels.” He called me Big Wheel, rejecting my suggestion of Thor.) “What have you been doing all your life?” he asked as I struggled through another series of kicks, rows, curls, and flies. “I’ve been reading books!” I gasped. No Neck wasn’t buying the American Library Association defense. “Give me one for God,” he said as I reached the end of my reps, and when I had done that, “Now one for me!”

That’s a lot of power for a lifelong intellectual
The squat press was the foundation of No Neck’s strength-training regimen. If you’ve never done this particular exercise, it’s simple: You stand in one place, then squat down. And stand. And squat. And stand. The only complication, and this is really quite negligible, is that you’re wearing a bank vault on your shoulders. When you feel that weight settle on you, a hundred thousand years of instinct immediately tells you to put the damn thing back.

Try explaining that to No Neck. He slowly increased the weight I was lifting, telling me I had a problem believing in myself. I hadn’t believed in myself as an athlete since the summer I learned how to copy Carl Yastrzemski’s batting stance, and you can see how far that got me. But I tried to believe, and not just in what we were doing in the gym. To trick my mind into accepting the punishment my body was taking, I came to see each battle-scarred steel wheel as another of my dreams that had gone astray or had never happened. I wasn’t depressed that they were so heavy; I was thrilled that I could throw them around! (I also bought black lifting gloves at a garage sale. Looking cool is worth half a victory in any sport.)

After months of work, my chest and shoulders emerged from my customary slump. My skin tightened as my muscles expanded. You could twang arrows off my thighs. I bought new dress shirts not because I’d gained weight but because I’d gained half a neck size. I stood tall. And after six months I achieved my greatest athletic feat: I hit 250 pounds on the squat press. I did three reps with No Neck behind me in case of trouble, and when I racked the bar with a gratifying crash BANG and did a victory lap around the room, everyone cheered.

How manly does a writer have to be?
When the thrill of victory had worn off and I had told all the people who might conceivably be interested and some who were borderline and at least one guy I didn’t know, I faced a serious philosophical inquiry: What the heck was I doing, lifting 250 pounds on my shoulders? That’s a hundred pounds more than me. That took tremendous effort. It’s good to be strong, but when would I ever use that much strength? I sit and I write all day. Plus I didn’t want people to start asking me to help them move.

About this time, No Neck and I parted company when I beat him at arm wrestling and he cried, though he claims he left town on a mission to train college athletes in Arizona. This happened five years ago and I might have some of the details wrong. I’m still doing his exercises, but at my own pace. I am much stronger than I used to be and just as strong as I need to be and I find that to be a winning formula.

(When the NCAA ran out of athletes and shipped No Neck home, he called to check on me. When I jokingly said I was up to 450 on the squat press, he growled, “If you were still with me, you would be!”)

God likes to throw the change-up
Your middle years are all about family, career, loves, hates, hobbies, and causes – pretty much what you deal with at most stages of your life. They’re about the dreams you had when you were small and whether you’ll ever make them come true. But one of the compensations of your middle years are the unexpected voyages. Like strength-training with No Neck.

I’ve been a devoted chess player since I was a kid, so in alignment with the trajectory of my life I once spent a year studying with a chess master. From this experience I learned that I was never going to be a chess master. And yet this bookish, bird-watching pawn-pusher went much farther in the weight room than he ever did on the chess board. Emily Dickinson was right:

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies

Emily, by the way, had killer triceps.

A good friend in Oregon once showed Andre Tarkovsky’s Solaris to his movie group, resulting in him never being able to choose a film for the group again. Complaints about slowness, confusion about who is who. Solaris is slow and confusing. That is the crux of its art.

In Solaris, psychologist Kris Kelvin is summoned to go to a space station orbiting an ocean planet called Solaris. The crew there has endured severe emotional traumas and the goal of trying to study the planet has gotten nowhere. Kris is to assess what is going on but shortly after he arrives he starts to have hallucinations himself.

Solaris defies expectations for a “science fiction” film but it also defies itself. It is jumbled, like our brain pans, by design. Its mysteries manifold, it is a film that communicates through its cinematography, a rarity, but this communication is something so rich that it can’t digested in one viewing, or two…

Most of your poems are metrical and rhymed. Why? Do you see 21st-century metrical verse as a rejection of Modernism?

No, I don’t see using meter and rhyme as a rejection of anything. The opposite, in fact. It’s an affirmation of what drew me to poetry as a reader when I was young—the love of poems that lend themselves to being memorized, for example. I started writing verses for pleasure when I was 12 or 13, and it seemed natural to use the verse techniques of the poets I loved to read—Dickinson, Frost, Yeats and Millay were poets I fell for early and hard. Hopkins and Auden a few years later. I wrote bad imitations of all of them, too. But that’s part of learning to write poems and finding what you have to say.

One of the biggest advantages of rhyme for a poet is the way it brings randomness (via the arbitrary similarity of sounds) into the writing process. I often surprise myself, looking for rhymes, by coming up with an image or metaphor I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise or having a poem take a turn I couldn’t have predicted. Creative constraints can be freeing. But the short answer is that I write in rhyme and meter because doing so gives me pleasure. It’s not part of any program of opposition—to modernism or postmodernism or feminism or any other ism.

But why would a woman poet in 2010 want to use old-fashioned, patriarchal forms like the sonnet? Why not make up your own?

Forms don’t belong to anybody. Why cede a long-lived, flexible form like the sonnet to men? Or to Caucasians, or Christians, or Europeans? Take them and make them your own, I say. And sometimes I do invent my own forms. “Experimental” verse isn’t necessarily free verse.

Do you ever write free verse?

A poet I know who uses meter and rhyme exclusively says that he tried to write free verse once, and it nearly gave him a nervous breakdown. (Maybe he should be featured here.) I’m not quite as extreme as that, but to write free verse I seem to need a model or template of some kind. I’m paralyzed by total freedom, where every line can be broken anywhere. A few years ago I wrote a free verse poem that borrowed the basic structure and some of the rhetorical devices of “My Cat Geoffrey” by Christopher Smart. That poem, which is about Guinea Worm Disease of all things, originally was in an elaborate stanza form. It lay dead on the page until rereading Smart showed me what I needed to do—two or three years after I put the draft in a drawer.

Who are some of your poetic loves and influences?

Loves and influences aren’t necessarily the same thing. I love Whitman, but I don’t think his poems have influenced mine much. I love the Metaphysical poets, especially Herbert and Donne. I used to think that Dickinson wasn’t much of an influence, but as I’ve gotten more and more interested in verse riddles and in shorter meters than iambic pentameter, I think she’s there. Frost, Wilbur, and Larkin, definitely. Christina Rossetti, Elinor Wylie, and Louise Bogan, too, though I discovered them later than the others.

Among contemporary poets, I’ve been lucky to have generous mentors who encouraged and challenged me to do my best work, both directly and by example—among them Dick Davis, Carl Dennis, Rhina Espaillat, Dana Gioia, Sam (R.S.) Gwynn, and Timothy Steele. Among poets of my own generation, I feel an especially deep affinity with Joshua Mehigan, A.E. Stallings, and Greg Williamson, all of whom I admire and have influenced me.

It can be misleading to talk about poets as influences, though. More often it’s individual poems influencing other poems. And poets influence themselves, too, if only in the effort to avoid repeating themselves.

The main thing is to read deeply and widely and not worry too much about influences. In graduate school, I once invited a poet in the MFA program for coffee. I was thinking then of switching from the Ph.D. to the MFA program, mainly because reading literary theory was making me miserable. She seemed like (and was) a nice person, and I was eager to talk poetry, so I asked her which poets she read for pleasure. She named one contemporary American poet, and then said, “But I don’t like to read much poetry. I don’t want to be over-influenced.” I was stunned into silence. I doubt her attitude was typical—at least I hope it wasn’t. But I decided to finish my Ph.D.

Say a little about “Aubade.” What inspired it?

It came out of the experience of new motherhood. Those first weeks and months are so all-consuming, and you sleepwalk through them in a haze of sleep deprivation, a sort of timeless time. You’re up crazy hours, and the days and nights blur together. We were living in Brooklyn then, and I’d run into other mothers at the park with their toddlers or older kids, and often they’d say, “Oh, it seems like you’ll never forget the time when they’re tiny babies, but you do.” I remember vaguely thinking there might be a poem in that (everything I thought was vague at the time!). And of course my daughter wouldn’t remember any of what we did together in those early days—that struck me too. I scribbled one line from what became the poem in a notebook when she was a few months old—“You will remember none of this.” That’s where it stayed for… well, I didn’t get the poem on paper until the form finally revealed itself, about six years later.

Revealed itself?

That’s the way it feels—that the poem discovers its form. You have to be very patient sometimes, or you force it into being before it’s ready and ruin it. On the other hand, you can’t give up on the failed drafts and partial drafts if you think they have potential. You have to exhume the bodies now and then and check them for signs of life.

What’s the form of “Aubade”?

It’s in 8-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, each stanza having two rhyme-endings, with the seventh and eighth lines identical to the first and third.

Never heard of that.

I made it up—at least I think I did. But the form was inspired by a Louis MacNeice poem called “Meeting Point,” about two people having a love affair who share the illusion that their love can make time stop. That poem, also tetrameter, uses five-line stanzas in which the last line repeats the first. It’s a wonderful poem. I’d come across it a long time before, in college maybe, and then a few years ago I encountered it again and was fascinated with the music it made. I memorized it and carried it around for awhile. And that one little line of my own germinated.

Why the generic title? Isn’t it like calling a villanelle “Villanelle”?

Not quite, I think. A bigger strike against it is that Larkin used it for one of his greatest poems. But titling it “Aubade” let me frame the poem as a conversation with the many other poets who have written aubades, in various cultures and over centuries. I could participate in that tradition in my own way. That early, all-consuming bond between a mother and an infant is like the early stages of a love affair, and even as you suffer sleeplessness and mood swings and feel completely overwhelmed, like someone in love you want that time to last forever. And you know that it can’t. I could say a lot with the title without having to say it outright.

Is it typical for you to take years to finish a poem?

Unfortunately, yes. It seems to take me ten years, more or less, to collect enough poems for a book.

So we can expect the next one in 2014?

Maybe. If I’m as lucky with finding a publisher as I was the last time, which is a big if.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing or working (or taking your daughter to play rehearsals and softball practice)?

My husband and I just finished watching an excellent Brit TV series called Foyle’s War, about a police detective (played by Michael Kitchen) investigating murders in Hastings during World War II. We felt bereft when we’d watched the last one. Another of our recent enthusiasms is Breaking Bad. Right now our recommendations on Netflix are divided into two categories: “Understated British Dramas” and “Critically-acclaimed, Violent TV Shows.”

I started studying piano a year and a half ago. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Getting your hands to do different things simultaneously is not an easy skill for a middle-aged person to pick up, so I have to be patient with myself. My favorite genre is blues, which sounds good even when arranged for a beginner. I take lessons every other week, and my piano teacher and I exchange “words of the day” at the end of each one. My word of the day last week was “opsimath”—somebody who learns something new later in life.

Why have you been putting off doing this interview for months? Why have you stood me up and screened my calls?

I don’t know. Sorry! I couldn’t sit down and do it until the deadline was bearing down on me. I guess I have a horror of coming off as self-centered and self-indulgent.

But you’re a poet!

Right. It comes with the territory! Might as well embrace it.

Anything else you’d like to say?

That I’m really jazzed about being featured on TNB, especially now that I’m done with this interview. Please tell Uche thanks!