What brought you to poetry?
As an adolescent I created my first book of poetry. The cover was a black sheet of colored paper. The poems had abstract titles: “Life,” “Death,” “Love”… They were poorly wrought, melodramatic, but they showed me I could give shape to a chaotic world. No one in my family wrote or read poetry. The love affair was seeded in school. I remember walking home from Benjamin Franklin Junior High so enthralled reading Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence,” too late I noticed I had peed in my pants. When I was in high school my family moved from West Englewood, New Jersey, to Greenwich Village. The 8th Street Bookstore became my teacher, the spontaneous poetry happenings in Café Wah? and The Fat Black Pussycat my seducers. I read cummings, Ginsberg, Whitman, Ferlinghetti, Baraka… I was hooked.
What are your writing habits?
When I gave up smoking in 2007, I thought I would never be able to write another poem. My writer’s placemat for over forty years had been a typewriter, ashtray, cigarettes, a cup of coffee. When an x-ray revealed a spot on my lungs, I felt I had to choose between my creative life and my life, a decision akin to deciding between breathing and eating. Happily, I’ve adjusted, scrawled hundreds of poems since, and the only difference I notice is that I no longer have to repeatedly clean my computer screen.
Who has had the greatest influence on your poetry?
In 1978, in partial fulfillment of my master of arts degree in humanities from Old Dominion University, I was working on a creative thesis, a collection of poetry titled “An Outward Track,” when the university provided a life-changing opportunity. W. D. Snodgrass was invited to serve as Visiting Writer. I had known of Snodgrass. As an undergraduate at Sweet Briar College, I had heard him read from his Pulitzer-prize-winning Heart’s Needle. What good fortune when he agreed to serve on my thesis committee! Under his mentorship, ironically he turned me from confessional poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, deepening my appreciation for the likes of Rilke, Jarrell, Frost. I still have my many poems annotated with his copious remarks, correcting, encouraging, inspiring me to become a finer writer. We became friends (he gave me the sobriquet “Chaney” until “that prick Dick Cheney” appeared on the political scene) and remained so until his death in 2009.
What inspires you to write?
A bird fisting into a window, the mourning dove’s lament, an egret fishing mid-river…
My first two books, Naming the Darkness and Light Persists, are indebted to the back yard of my home in Norfolk, VA, where I lived for thirty-nine years. A collector of images from the goings on between my back patio and the Lafayette River, when one resonated, I’d bring it to the page. Nature has often served as a springboard for discovery. I love the mystery of not knowing what a poem is going to say. June birds smacking into my windows yielded a poem about love. A heron balanced on one leg became a Zen master. A painting, a photograph can deliver words. Here, too, I begin with a concrete image that ramifies for me. Recently, Chagall, Botero, Seurat, Ingres, Manet and Arbus have inspired ekphrastic poems A real-life event sometimes demands to become a poem. Love will do this. As will death. When my daughter Jessica died in an accident at the age of twenty-two, the unsayable was given form. Those poems saved my life.
What have you done to cultivate an audience?
Before cell phones became de rigueur, at the insistence of my two daughters, I had a telephone with an answering machine; god forbid a boy’s call would go undetected. Writing can be a lonely act and a poem doesn’t feel it’s fully alive unless it has an audience. So I had this brainstorm. Instead of the typical “I’m sorry I’m not home right now…,” I started putting poems on the machine. Some called especially to hear the latest poem. Some hung up on the first line.
What are you currently reading?
Spanish for Dummies. In high school and college I chose the most romantic of the romantic languages—Français. Convinced I was destined to frequent the salons of Paris, or at least honeymoon in France, I spent a summer studying French at Chateau Beau-Cèdre in Montreux, Switzerland. The fact that I can readFleurs du Mal in its original tongue has not served me since I moved to South Florida two years ago. If I want to talk to my neighbors, solicit the help of my condo’s handyman, or get my hairdresser to understand what I mean by “just a trim,” I will have to learn their language.
How has the subject matter of your writing changed over the years?
My poems have gotten lighter. From Naming the Darkness, my first book, to Light Persists, I’ve moved away from a fascination with doom. People used to ask me why my work was so dark. I once believed that writing about what disturbed me, what was wrong in my personal life, would impose shape on chaos, give me control over my world, and create something lovely from pain. Bad Mother, bad marriage made for good poems. My upcoming collection, The Long Life, does not bypass difficulty but its dominant theme is one of gratitude. In lines from “How to Start a Day,” small, ordinary occurrences become reason for celebration: “Be thankful/ for the small favors of sunlight/ walking across the lawn, a cabbage// butterfly teasing the azaleas,/ the pink rain of cherry blossoms./ Even the neighbor’s dog barking/ ducks from his yard is sacred.”
What has been your greatest accomplishment?
I am happy when my poems win awards (though I know that is a lottery); I feel substantiated when my poems find homes in journals (though I know submission is at heart an act of masochism); I was honored when Light Persists won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry (though I’d starve on the royalties). I have only to turn to Facebook to be reminded of my greatest accomplishment. Messages I receive regularly from the hundreds of students I taught over sixteen years at Norview High School tell me I have made a difference.
If you had to pick a poem you wish you had written, which one would it be?
“The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz.
What has your psychiatrist told you about your future?
“I am not done with my changes.”