Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Barbara Crooker

Barbara Crooker’s work has appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies, including Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania and The Bedford Introduction to Literature. She is the author of eight books of poetry; Les Fauves is the most recent. She has received a number of awards, including the W.B. Yeats Society of New York Award and the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, as well as three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts writing fellowships.

Crooker’s poem, “Road Trip,” was published in LPR’s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: Pardon my poetry ignorance, but I was surprised when I first saw “Road Trip” that it appears as two big paragraphs of text. You don’t seem to utilize line breaks the way other poets in the winter issue did. Am I right in this observation, or missing something? And is there a name for this sort of style of presentation?

The short answer is, this is a two-stanza poem. And it’s not in paragraphs or sentences, but rather, pretty carefully delineated lines. Let’s take a look at the first couple of lines.

Spring ahead, the weatherman said, which is what we did,
driving down I-95, watching its scroll unroll before us:
purple and yellow crocus in Maryland, a smudge
of green on the trees. In Reston, VA, the buds start popping,

See how differently it would read if I broke it like this:

Spring ahead, the weatherman said, which is
what we did, driving down I-95, watching its
scroll unroll before us: purple and yellow crocus in
Maryland, a smudge of green on the trees.

I typically create my lines based on breath units, where I would naturally pause to take a breath.

Then I think about where the line ends, as that’s where the emphasis should fall. I have an aversion to lines that end in “a” or “the,” or prepositions like “in.” Then I pay attention (usually by reading the poem out loud) about how the punctuation works with the pauses (noun + line break is a shorter pause than noun + comma, for example). Finally, I look at the poem as a whole, looking for shapeliness. . . .

Also, if this were prose, it would look like this:

Spring ahead, the weatherman said, which is what we did, driving down I-95, watching its scroll unroll before us: purple and yellow crocus in Maryland, a smudge of green on the trees. In Reston, VA, the buds start popping, and a cardinal sets his road flare on a bare bush.

Great question!

Q: Sometimes you write about spiritual themes—at least I assume that from your bio. Do you have any guidance for writers who would like to venture into this territory? It seems to me like writing on these themes comes with a high risk of seeming overwrought.

These are the best of times, the worst of times for spiritual writers, a time when 70 percent of Evangelicals support a person in the White House whose agenda seems to be in direct opposition to everything Jesus taught us. Yet it’s also an exciting time, when so many excellent writers are also tackling spiritual themes. Look at the line-up for the recent Festival of Faith and Writing (disclaimer: I was on two of their panels.). Check out collections like The Turning Aside: Contemporary Christian Poetry or The Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems (ditto on the disclaimer thing). I think reading some of the writers in these collections, Wendell Berry, Joy Harjo, Jane Hirshfield, Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, Dana Gioia, Richard Wilbur, Sydney Lea, Jeanne Murray Walker, Mark Jarman, Scott Cairns, Paul Mariani, Christian Wiman, Anya Silver will give you some insight as to what contemporary spiritual writers are up to. And, as you can see, I have a foot in both of these camps, as a practicing Christian with an emphasis on social justice, and as a writer who feels strongly that being mindful is essential to writing good poetry.

Here’s my poem that won the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award (chosen by Stanley Kunitz) so you can see an example of what I’m talking about:

POEM ENDING WITH A LINE BY RUMI

White-throated sparrows dart in
and out of the hedgerow,
their sweet long notes rising
above the thicket, the tangle of rosa multiflora,
honeysuckle, and catbriar.
It’s late autumn, and everything diminishes.

One winter, a coyote crept down our path, lean and scrawny, following
the ragged thread of his hunger. One year, a red fox. In the summer
of the drought, a black bear. Our white cat was crouched by the daylilies,
thirty feet away. He flattened himself out like an envelope, shook for days.
The pile of scat remained, full of bird seed raided from backyard feeders.
Each time the dog and I passed it, I shivered.
Something wild came by this way. Each of these sightings, only once.
A naturalist told me, these small intersections, our only miracles.

Standing upright, it’s hard to see clearly from this height;
we have to get on our hands and knees to find
scarlet pimpernel in the lawn, blue-eyed grass,
or a mourning cloak, the row of cobalt dots hidden
in the black stripes on its tawny wings.

Once, down in the woods, four deer crossed
the road in front of me. It was first frost,
and every blade and twig was etched in white.
Their breath plumes hung in the air long after
they vanished in the underbrush.
The silence was so deep, the only sound, leaf falling on leaf.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Q: Little Patuxent Review wants to contribute to cultivating a vibrant literary community in Maryland. How have you found a writing community in Pennsylvania?

I wish! Alas, I’m envious of what you have in Maryland; there’s just nothing going on here in rural northeast Pennsylvania, other than the big name writers that the local colleges bring in. And those readings aren’t well-publicized, so I always seem to hear about them after the fact. For most of my writing life, I’ve been the full-time caregiver of my son (now 34), with autism, and so I’ve been unconnected to the larger outside writing world. But there’s this thing called the internet, and that has been my lifeline. . . .

Q: I notice you’ve done a fair number of writing residencies. What are those all about and how have they helped your writing?

What they’re about is a little slice of heaven on earth. You go there and write; they take care of everything else (meals, primarily). I wasn’t aware of how much of the day was taken up with food prep (making a list, doing the shopping, putting the groceries away, cooking, cleaning up afterwards) until I went to The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (the VCCA) for the first time. As a caregiver (see above), who has kept our son on a gluten and dairy-free diet, I couldn’t believe how many more hours there were in a day. In the beginning (with two other children at home) (and three others we took in, although not at the same time), I could only go for 9-10 days, but I did six months worth of work then, easily. Now I go for two weeks (I’ve been there 18 times), which, for me, is just the right amount of time to get some significant work (and reading) done. At a residency, you can really dive in, immerse yourself. I also do a lot of walking when I’m there, but all the time, I’m either writing or thinking about writing. I’ve also been fortunate to have had four international writing residencies, two at the VCCA’s studio in southwest France (in the village of Auvillar) and two at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan, Ireland. These have widened my experiences, deepened my work. My last book, Les Fauves, came from the first Auvillar residency, plus one in Virginia where I pretended I was back in France, and my forthcoming book, The Book of Kells, was written on the two residencies in Ireland. I couldn’t have written either book at home, and I’m deeply grateful to have had these weeks “out of normal time” to do this work.

Q: Now that we’re safely into May, can I dare ask you about your “April is the Cruelest Month” Award from Poets & Writers?

OK, so this was an interesting contest. You were supposed to use all the words from that TS Eliot quote in a poem. I’m not very good about “writing to the prompt,” so I took an existing poem and replaced some of the words. Here are the two versions, if you’re interested:

WHITE LILACS
after a painting by Édouard Manet

In the last year of his life, wretchedly shortened through illness,
Manet painted several of these vases of simple flowers.
Sister Wendy, The Book of Meditations
 
When the world
was reduced to a black flag
of pain, what else could he do
but paint flowers, white
lilacs in a crystal vase,
prismatic in the May sunlight,
their heavy perfume
filling the room?

And what can I do
when my autistic son
shuts down, talks nonsense,
flicks and stims?
I want to go out
and swim in this river
of drenching scent,
so thick you could lick it
from the air. I’d like to shrink
to the size of a raindrop,
make my home on this branch
of white clusters, let the ether
of their odor anesthetize the evening,
a field of blank white snow.

 

WHITE LILACS
after a painting by Edouard Manet

In the last year of his life, wretchedly shortened through
 illness, Manet painted several of these vases of simple flowers.
Sister Wendy, The Book of Meditations

When the world was reduced to a black flag
of pain, the cruelest failures of the body,
what else could he do but paint flowers, white
lilacs in a crystal vase, prismatic in the April sunlight,
their heavy perfume filling the room all month long?

And what can I do when my autistic son
shuts down, talks nonsense, flicks and stims?
I want to go out and swim in this river
of drenching scent, so thick you could lick it
from the air. I’d like to shrink to the size of a raindrop,
make my home on this branch of white clusters, let the ether
of their odor anesthetize the evening, a field of blank white snow.

Alas, part of the prize was a reading in New York, but I was in residence at the VCCA, and it seemed too daunting to travel from there (an expensive train ride, overnight in a hotel, plus it would have taken at least two days out of my nine-day residency). Of course, some years later, I heard it was a really fabulous reading. . . .

Q: What’s next for your writing?

I have a new book coming out in 2019, The Book of Kells. We’re a quarter of the way through the editing process right now. And I’m sending around book #9 to the various contests. I just heard this morning that it’s a finalist in one of them, which I’ll not mention, for fear of jinxing it. It’s called Some Glad Morning—wish it luck! It’s not easy out there right now. . . .

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