November: the run-up to the delights of Thanksgiving following the hangover of Halloween. Who better, then, to lead us in than Barbara Crooker?
Once again, it was a dear friend who introduced me to Barbara’s poetry. All I needed was to read a sampling before I decided that yes, she’d be an ideal candidate for our little Poet’s Corner. I e-mailed her, she responded the same day, and the rest – as they say – is her story.
We must’ve exchanged a dozen or more spirited e-mails before settling down to this interview, and I consequently feel that Barbara is anything but a stranger.
Before we begin, then, her bio:
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 competition, the 1997 Karamu Poetry Award, and others, including three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, thirteen residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and a prize from the NEA. A twenty-six time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, she was nominated for the 1997 Grammy Awards for her part in the audio version of the popular anthology, Grow Old Along With Me--The Best is Yet to Be (Papier Mache Press). She is the author of ten chapbooks, two of which won prizes in national competitions: Ordinary Life won the ByLine Chapbook competition in 2001 and Impressionism won the Grayson Books Chapbook competition in 2004. Radiance, her first full-length book, won the 2005 Word Press First Book competition, and was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize. Line Dance, her second book, came out from Word Press in 2008, and recently won the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. Garrison Keillor has read sixteen of her poems on The Writer's Almanac, National Public Radio.
INTERVIEW WITH BARBARA CROOKER
by Russell Bittner
The author of more than 625 poems published in over 1950 anthologies, books, and magazines such as Yankee, The Christian Science Monitor, Smartish Pace, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, The Denver Quarterly, The Tampa Review, Poetry International, The Christian Century, and America, Barbara Crooker is the recipient of 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
RRB:Barbara, this is a rather impressive publishing record. And yet, I don’t see Poetry or The New Yorker among your credits. What gives? And don’t you dare pull your punches now just because I’ve turned the mic on! Remember: you’re answering not just for yourself, but for every one of us schmucks here at the “Poet’s Corner” who’ve ever submitted to one or both of those august reviews.
BAC:Well, Russell, the simplest explanation is, I don’t send out to either of those two places because I don’t much like the poetry they select these days. Here’s an example from the recent issue of Poetry:
In the same issue, to be fair, are also poets whose work I admire: Tony Hoagland, Albert Goldbarth, Jane Hirshfield, Philip Levine, Sandra Beasley, Bob Hicok, Dick Allen. But in the little insular world of poetry, they are much, much better-known than I am, with multiple books from big name presses. It’s a world of smoke and mirrors, where “goodness has nothing to do with it.” (Mae West)
RRB:I quite understand. ‘Goodness,’ I suppose, ‘is in the eye of the beholder.’ But at least we can’t fault the man for sloppy syntax or spelling – speaking of which, you showed me not so long ago a delightful little piece titled “Your.” Can you share this piece with us now and give us a bit of the background to it?
BAC: There are two stories that go along with this poem. First, I had a very frustrating experience with an editor who took the copy I’d sent her and put apostrophes in each spot where “its” was being used as a possessive. I corrected the proof sheets and sent them back with a little note citing the rule (oops, maybe this was the problem).
To my chagrin, when the magazine was published, she added apostrophes in other incorrect places. When I politely pointed this out and asked that she reprint the poem (so I didn’t look like an illiterate fool), she said, “Typos happen.” Sure, sometimes they do (good places usually reprint the poems), but that wasn’t the situation. She didn’t know her its from her it’s – or a hawk from a handsaw, for that matter.
Then – the second story – my local newspaper used the headline quoted in the poem as the front page lead. But they didn’t print my letter to the editor pointing this out. So, I took my anger and turned it into this poem. I’m the kind of cranky lady who takes out her marker in the grocery store and scratches out errors, as in “Cheerio’s”….
RRB: Three cheers for cranks! Your piece is an absolute hoot, by the way.
BAC: Thanks. Writing well is the best revenge.
RRB: Barbara, are you by chance familiar with Lynn Truss’s Eats(,) Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation? I suspect you two would see very much eye to eye on this particular issue.
BAC: Yes, I am, and I highly recommend that book. Also Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh.
RRB:I’d like to suggest something about this piece that, to my way of thinking, too many people neglect in poetry – namely, its value as entertainment. Poetry is an art form. ‘Art’ can mean many different things to many different people, and I don’t want to suggest that it should be one thing or another. However, in the world we now inhabit, the reality is that we all have to contend with competition for a reader’s or viewer’s attention.
Good poetry requires a good bit of work. (I would even go so far as to say that the simpler a piece looks, the harder the poet had to work to get it into that condition.) But it’s not only the poet who has to work at his or her composition. A reader also has to work to understand whatever layers a given piece may contain. It’s therefore my contention that a piece should also entertain – should make the work of reading and understanding a pleasurable experience and not a laborious one. Do you agree?
BAC: I do indeed, and good old Willy Wordsworth said it best, that poetry should bring pleasure. I deeply appreciate what you said above, which says, better than I can, what I’m trying to do, working in layers. That’s the trick, to make a poem appear simple, as if it just rolled off the pen, when in reality, it went through 25 drafts, and underwent a struggle (hopefully, you don’t see the bruises) in revision.
RRB:Only 25? I must be doing something wrong.
BAC: I recently heard Donald Hall read a poem he told us had gone through 125 drafts.
RRB:And I once read that Philip Larkin had worked for a solid five years on “Myxomatosis.” It could be it took him four and a half to come up with the title, then another six months to complete the piece to his satisfaction. But five years for nine lines? Can you spell “obsessive-compulsive?”
Barbara, why don’t we take a look at a second piece of yours – maybe the one I saw a couple of months ago posted on your Website as “poem of the month.” I believe the title was “Peaches.”
BAC:“Peaches” it was, and it was recently published in the Concho River Review. Here ya go:
BAC:Since you mentioned my website, may I put in a plug for it (www.barbaracrooker.com), and also for my “poem of the month” button? A new poem goes up automatically (magically) on the first of every month, though they’re not archived. There’s a sign-up button at the bottom of the front page to receive this and other new work going up online, as a short email with a link.
RRB: You may indeed. I’m all for promoting poets through (and out of!) this little corner. But if I don’t do the job adequately and sufficiently, they – and you, Barbara – have my blessing to self-promote.
So, now, please tell us if you will what inspired this piece.
BAC:As a teacher, I finally took my own lessons to heart and started writing to prompts along with my students. I was teaching an all-day workshop in a beautiful garden north of here, and this was one of three prompts. I like using edible prompts during long workshops because, even if no one gets a poem out of it, at least everyone gets a snack. I have a very pretty sky blue pottery bowl (which I got at a garage sale), and which I filled it with ripe peaches. I then had my students write away. This poem is also an elegy, as the farmlands around us had turned into developments. The farm stand mentioned in the first line, which had a different variety of peaches coming in every week for at least two months, is no longer operating. It’s also a love poem, of sorts, to my husband, whose first project in retirement was to start a small orchard behind us: two apple trees, two pears, two peaches, one plum, and three cherries (two sweet, one sour, for pies). Of course, we also have deer – need I say more?
RRB:You needn’t. We gardeners know from deer – and squirrels. Instead, why don’t you share one final piece with us, and we’ll call it a wrap.
BAC:With pleasure. This one is an example of my ekphrastic poetry (“writing that comments upon another art form, for instance a poem about a photograph or a novel about a film,” of which Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a prime example) and is titled “The Young Girls, the Yellow Dress and the Scottish Dress.” It was originally published in The MacGuffin. I wrote it while reflecting upon the painting “Two Young Girls, the Yellow Dress and the Tartan Dress,” by Henri Matisse.
RRB:Barbara, it’s been a real pleasure – both getting to know you over the past several weeks and conducting this interview. I thank you.
Poems About Trees
by K. Silem Mohammad
I have written a couple of poems about trees
poems about trees and snakes and lakes and birds
poems about nature and life in New England
I write crappy poems and eat babies
if you like poems about trees you’re in for a treat
when I get nervous I get hyper and bump into people
I read to them what MapQuest gave me. . .
not always going to get what you
bargained for, not in this life, thats
for sure. Take the apostrophe, such a small
stroke, who cares if its missing?
All this fuss and flap over usage,
the headline blaring Truck Crash on I-78,
Driver Found Laying in the Road; I mean,
we all know he wasnt a giant mutant chicken,
dont we? Their isnt any need to get upset.
Grammars only for the picky, the stickler’s,
the cross-you’re-tee school teacher’s.
At the end of the movie, the hero always
kiss’s the girl; they mash they’re lips together
in the final seen, as the credits’ role,
and the screen go’s dark.
(Originally published in Oregon English)
In pecks and bushels
at Shoemaker's stand, they fill
the baskets with their golden heft,
their plush shoulders, handfuls
of light. Cut in wedges arranged
on a blue-glazed plate:
slices of sun in the August sky.
Take and eat, for this is the essence
of summer, given for you, in spite of
winter's sure return, the short grey days,
the icy nights. Right now, there are wheat
fields and sweet corn, daylilies and chicory
by the dusty roadsides; in the long dusk,
fireflies decorate the grass, rise up
to meet their doubles, the stars.
Tonight, there's fried chicken and sliced
tomatoes, hot biscuits, butter,
and peach jam. And later, you,
next to me on the rumpled
sheets, fuzz on the curve
of your cheeks and thighs,
your slick sweat on my skin.
And tomorrow, another hot one,
and that sweet juicy sun
will pop up again, staining
the horizon red, orange, gold.
I am the young woman in the butter
yellow dress; my plump arm resting
on the checked couch, same color, the one
the sun might take if it decided to become fabric,
lose its heat, come down from the sky.
My hair is pulled back from my forehead,
combed high; I look like I am ready
to dance the tarantella in a dusty square
in Naples, where half my grandparents
came from. And I am also the woman
behind her in the Scottish dress, a primary
plaid, hair the color of shortbread, eyes the color