Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Habitual Poet: Barbara Crooker

Installment #11

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The Habitual Poet is an ongoing series of contributor interviews. If you are a Poemeleon contributor and would like to participate copy & paste the Q's from below and e-mail your answers to: editor@poemeleon.org.

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Q: Where do you prefer to get your books?

From other writers at readings.

Q: How many poetry books do you think you own, and what percentage of these have you actually read?

I don’t just think, I actually counted them: 1559 in 9 bookshelves. I’ve read them all, as I don’t shelve until I’m done. I also have 320 non-fiction books about poetry, the writing life, etc.

Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

For poetry, I read at my desk, which is metaphorical (I don’t have a room of my own)—a corner of the dining room table, the wrought iron patio table, the picnic set down in the woods. . . . I read poetry books cover to cover, twice. I also read non-fiction books relating to poetry during the day, in my writing time.

For fun reading (fiction), I do this in the interstices of everything else—waiting for the pot to boil, waiting in a doctor’s office, etc. And just before bed—I can’t sleep without reading.

Q: What books of poetry have you read this month?

I shelve them once I’ve read them, so I can’t tell. But here’s what’s in my current to-read pile: Beloved on the Earth: Poems of Grief and Gratitude (Holy Cow! Press), Borderlands: The Texas Poetry Review (summer 2009 ekphrastic poetry issue), Calyx (Summer 2009 issue), Women. Period. (Spinsters Ink), 50th Anniversary Issue, Midwest Quarterly, Jazz Funeral by Julie Kane (Story Line Press), Van Gogh Poems by Carol Dine (The Bitter Oleander Press), The Hardship Post by Jehanne Dubrow (Three Candles Press), Present Vanishing by Dick Allen (Sarabande Press).

My other pile, which is actually a book bag, contains 20 books of poetry, 2 of lit crit/non-fiction. I can tell I’m behind when the piles start resembling small pieces of furniture. . . .

Q: What other books/magazines/backs of cereal boxes have you read recently?

I can’t say exactly, as I shelve or return them (I’m a big user of Interlibrary loan services), but again, here’s what’s in the pile: three thick catalogs from a New York gallery on Hudson River School art, The Castle of Indolence by Tom Disch, Poetry as a Spiritual Practice by Robert McDowell, Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley, Black Potatoes (on the Irish potato famine) by Susan Bartoletti, Women Poets on Mentorship, edited by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker. I’m also re-reading Harry Potter, books 6 and 7.

In the “for fun” fiction area, right now I have out books by Francine Prose, Laurel Corona (The Four Seasons, an imagined work on Vivaldi), a mystery by Anne Perry, Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly (we’re going there in September), and one by Brunonia Barry (The Lace Reader)(I have three newish poems on lace making).

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Q: When, where, how do you write, and why?(i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

I write anywhere and everywhere; I remember once finishing a draft while driving stick over twisting mountain roads . . . . If a poem wants to be written, I let it come out. On the other hand, I show up at my “desk” every day, and even if nothing new comes out, I read, revise, catch up on correspondence, etc. I write in longhand first, with a cheap black rollerball pen, on yellow lined notebook paper. Or on napkins, tissues, whatever’s at hand. . . .

Q: How many first drafts do you think you complete in a week? A month?

Maybe one a month, unless I’m at a colony (or teaching, and giving prompts).

Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

I work in layers, so I do draft after draft right away. Then I put them away for a while, in Donald Hall’s “dark desk drawer” (in my case, a manilla folder). But I’ve also revised poems that have been published years ago, if I now see something that needs changed (as they say around here, the land of the Pennsylvania Dutch). . . .

Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

When it comes clean with a cake tester.

Q: Have you ever given up an invitation so you could stay home and write?

No. Writing is a stream you can always dip your toes in. Spending time with family and friends is equally important.

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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

The low-tech, ever-elegant 3 x 5” card system. Each poem has a card; so does each magazine.

When I send out a poem, I write out the name of the magazine and the date. On the magazine card, I jot down the title of the poem, and cross it out when sending (sometimes, I’m saving up for a particular place, so then I’ll put down a number of titles). The poems are rubber-banded in groups: Poems Out, Waiting to Resubmit, Published. The magazines are also banded: Retakes (places I’ve been in that I’ve liked), Probably Don’t Retake, New Places to Try, etc.

Q: What have you more recently received: a rejection notice or an acceptance? Was it what you expected?

An acceptance, from The MacGuffin.

I’d hoped they might take one; they took three. I never expect to get anything; that way, I’m always pleasantly surprised. . . .

Q: Where do you generally publish: online, in print, or a mix, and do you have a preference?

I prefer print for its elegance and beauty, online for its availability. In the best of all possible worlds, someone will allow me to do both. . . .

Q: What is the worst (or weirdest, or best) experience you’ve had with a journal/magazine/press & its editor(s)? (No names, please!)

The weirdest was the woman who, on receiving my corrected proofs where I took out the apostrophes she’d put in (for the possessive “its”), then went and took out the apostrophes in my other contractions (“it’s”)—she was either dyslexic or misunderstood the rule. I was disappointed when she wouldn’t reprint the poem correctly, as I looked like a subliterate idiot, but it led to my writing, “Your” (in which I tried to make as many mistakes as possible crammed into one little poem).

Q: Have you ever received any fan (or hate) mail? If so, what was that like?

Whenever the wonderful Garrison Keillor has read a poem of mine on The Writer’s Almanac, it’s been like Christmas morning in my inbox. . . .

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Practical considerations:

Q: What is your day job, and how does it affect your writing?

My day job is my other unpaid job, caregiver for our son, 25, who has autism. Because there was no day care available for disabled children, I couldn’t go back to work after raising my family, which actually freed me to be able to write at home. Of course, there are many disadvantages—loss of income, the difficulties of raising a child with this disability (tantrums, perseverative repetitive behaviors, lack of language being the tip of the iceberg), but then, weighing this against faculty politics, endless committee meetings, reading mountains of really bad papers. . . . .

Q: How does your significant other’s occupation affect your writing life?

He’s retired, so he’s my “staff”—ie, he watches our son so I can travel, runs to Staples for supplies, ditto the post office. Before retirement, I did all of this, plus took care of our two daughters (and the three young adults we took in). 

Q: Have there been periods in your life when you couldn't write?

If I’m not writing, I’m reading; to me, that’s part of the writing life. . . .

Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

My “budget” is based on what I’ve brought in; ie, there’s a “Chinese Wall” between the family finances and my writing money. So if I want to, say, pay my way to go to the AWP Conference (a disadvantage of not having an academic appointment is not getting my way paid, even to conferences where I’ve been invited to be a presenter), I need to have enough money in the bank to cover airfare, hotel, etc. My thinking is, as I’m getting older, that if I have opportunities to travel, I’ll take them. Unless I run out of money. But I’ve been lucky enough to have had my way paid on a number of occasions to do readings at colleges and universities from Portland, OR to Portland, ME, which have also paid a stipend; I’ve gotten some nice reprint fees for textbook and anthology usage; I get royalties from my books; so I’m still solvent . . . .

Q: Have you ever suffered (or made someone else suffer) in the name of your art? (i.e. picked up your kids late from school so you could finish a poem, forgone lunch to buy a book, left a relationship because the other person just didn't understand, etc.)

It’s poetry. It’s short. I can write any time anywhere; I don’t need to make someone else suffer for the sake of art. Life is suffering enough. . . .

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Random nonsense:

Q: Do you have any superhuman abilities? (i.e. can you tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue, or write a double sestina with both hands tied behind your back?)

I’m a mom; watch me multi-task. . . .

Q: You write a scathing poem about your mother and she learns about it. You:

a.) Move to South America and leave no forwarding address
b.) Delete the poem and insist it never existed
c.) Show it to her (she’s already written you out of the will anyway)
d.) Do none of the above; instead you: _____

It’s poetry; why would you think she’d see it?

I think what you’re really asking is, would you chose poetry or relationships; I’d choose relationships, but why do we have to choose one over the other? 

Q: If the best medical specialists in the world told you that if you didn’t give up your poetry habit today you would die in six months, would you get your affairs in order or would you leave that up to your family?

What affairs? See above question. It’s poetry. . . .

Q: If you could be a vowel, which one would you be and why?

u, because i need u, dear reader. Whitman said it best, “Great poetry needs great audiences.”

Q: Finally write a couplet for a collaborative ghazal using the following kaafiyaa and radif: “said the poet”.

With all the world’s troubles, will anything from our time last? I doubt it.
Still, I was here, for a short time, and I wrote about it, said the poet.


Barbara Crooker’s books are Radiance, which won the 2005 Word Press First Book Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize, and Line Dance (Word Press, 2008), which won the 2009 Paterson Prize for Literary Excellence. She received the 2007 Pen and Brush Poetry Prize, the 2006 Ekphrastic Poetry Award from Rosebud, the 2004 WB Yeats Society of New York Award, the 2004 Pennsylvania Center for the Book Poetry in Public Places Poster Competition, the 2003 Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, the 2003 "April Is the Cruelest Month" Award from Poets & Writers, the 2000 New Millenium Writing's Y2K Award, the 1997 Karamu Poetry Award, including three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, and thirteen residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her poems have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including The Christian Science Monitor, Yankee, Highlights for Children, and The Journal of American Medicine (JAMA), The Bedford Introduction to Literature, and Good Poems for Hard Times (Garrison Keillor, editor). Garrison Keillor has read sixteen of her poems on The Writer's Almanac, and two poems have appeared on Verse Daily.

1 comment:

  1. Barbara Crooker is not only my "habitual" poet but she has a wicked sense of humour too...Irene Miller, Stratford, Canada