Pamela Murray Winters grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland. Her poems have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Gargoyle, the Delaware Poetry Review, JMWW, the Fledgling Rag, and Takoma Park Writers 1981, among other publications. A former music journalist, she plans to publish a collection of poems on the relationship between performers and audiences.
Part 2 of this Interview will be posted next Tuesday, April 24, 2012.
Jan: Pam – We met a few years ago at Tinker Mountain Writers Conference Workshop at Hollins University. I remember being impressed by your poetry readings there. How have summer workshop experiences helped you grow as a poet?
Pam: Tinker Mountain was my first “residential” workshop. It’s an incredibly fulfilling experience to immerse yourself in a poetic identity like that. “I remember walking around the beautiful Hollins campus–a campus where my niece Catherine is now an undergraduate studying creative writing–and thinking ‘I’m a poet. This is me being a poet.’” Which probably sounds silly if you haven’t experienced it, but I think that identifying as a poet has a certain burden, because it carries all the stereotypes of narcissism, dissolution, dysfunction. Such pernicious concerns got in my way for a long time.
I grew up thinking that the best thing to be was a writer and the best kind of writer was to be a poet. “I no longer rank ‘things to be’ anymore–at least not consciously. But “poet” was an identity I wanted.“ At some point, as an adult, I lost faith in poetry for the better part of 25 years. So to be able to be in a place where my job was to be a poet, where I was around other writers, was immensely satisfying.
Besides being able to live for a week with “being a poet” being first and foremost, I benefited from the guidance of my workshop leader, Thorpe Moeckel, and interacting with my fellow workshop writers. It’s great to be in such company.
“I love sitting around that table the first day of a workshop; I feel like we’re all at Hogwarts.”
Jan: Which of your current poems are your favorite poems to read before an audience and how do you select particular poems to read aloud?
Pam: Let me start by saying I’m a ham. It’s a weird thing, because I’m basically shy, and I tend to be brutal on myself, at least after the fact. But I get a real rush from doing readings. It’s something every poet should try.
That said, I don’t know that my poems go over as well in readings as they do on the page. I have a big, weird vocabulary and a blend of high and low diction that sometimes takes a while to get.
One of my favorites to read is “Ernie’s Foreign Legion.” It’s about my father, and the last time I read it aloud it caught me up short; my eyes teared up. I love doing the poem I wrote for my favorite musician: its title is something like “To Richard Thompson, age sixty, from Pam Winters, age forty-eight, on the occasion of the most recent of hundreds, yes hundreds, of his concerts that she’s attended, leading some to fear for her psychological wholeness.”
I’m aware of a tendency to put things in my poems that can be a little scary to perform. A poem I wrote about the Cropredy Festival in England has a few lines of a song by Fairport Convention, which I sing when I perform it. “Ernie’s Foreign Legion” has a hog call in it!
Jan: What happens when a poet reads her work aloud before an audience? Based on audience reactions, tell us about how that experience best empowers the poet’s resolve to write?
Pam: Performing a poem–I’ll say “performing” here rather than “reading,” to distinguish between reading aloud and reading as in consuming words–is empowering because it gets us out of the garret. Writing is largely a solitary art; even if we’re doing research and interviewing–when I was first a music journalist, I was astonished how much “being a writer” required me to engage with people–a lot of the act is staring at that screen or that page, playing a song to ourselves on the keys. Then again, getting the work out into the world, in real time, isn’t necessary for everyone. Can you imagine J.D. Salinger at an open mike?
For a poet, the greatest value in reading aloud, aside from getting to feel like a rock star for about 15 minutes, might be in hearing the sounds of your words. Even errors–“slept” for “swept”–can be instructive. Sometimes you can hear that a word or a line just doesn’t work, that it doesn’t sing. Sometimes you hear that it does, and your heart sings with it.
Jan: Recently you read three of your poems at the DC Swan Day reading. Tell our readers about the DC Swan Day project and your involvement in it.
Pam: I got an email, a call for women poets to read at DC SWAN Day. SWAN stands for Support Women in the Arts Now. There were women making art all over DC that day–as there are every day, if not in such a way that the whole city can enjoy and participate. I could go on and on about the incredible and under-recognized arts scene in the DC area, but I’ll leave that for another venue.
There ended up being 20 of us billed (get it? “swan” “billed”?!), although a few were ultimately unable to make it. We each read four minutes of poems, which worked out to about three poems for most of us. We read alphabetically, so I got to be last, which is a sweet spot—you get the accumulated good will of the crowd.
“The coolest thing was that there was such a wide range of self-chosen poets, different from each other, and most of us not really “known.” And the quality was amazing. I was so happy to be a part of it, sharing my work with a small but appreciative audience. I look forward to next year.
Here’s a link to my YouTube reading, : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KysndIvU9s
Jan: One of your poems, “Guitarslinger” is one that I liked immediately when I heard you read a version of it several years ago, and now it’s in the latest issue of Gargoyle. Can you tell readers a bit about this poem and also talk about how it connects to your passion for music?
Pam: As a music reviewer, I saw the icky blemishes on the dull business side of a glorious art. For example, image making. Press releases, publicity photos, album design, all crafted to create some simplistic, edgeless snapshot of an artist that, the machine hopes, will cause people to notice and buy and consume.
Anyway, I’d been pondering the fact that two of my favorite musicians, Lucinda Williams and James McMurtry, both of whom have a sort of rough, rootsy vibe, are the children of literary figures, academics.
McMurtry’s a favorite of mine. He’s a real maverick. He cuts quite a figure. The last piece I read on him talked about his gun collection and featured him eating venison in a cabin. You get the idea. I got to interview him one time, and it was awesome–a word I don’t use often unless I’m being snarky. He’s a keenly intelligent man, taciturn and not necessarily quick to eloquence in an interview setting, even though his lyrics are among those rare lyrics that can often also work as poetry. That man can turn a phrase like Audrey in “Twin Peaks” twists a cherry stem…
Yeah, I probably have had a little crush, too. So as I started writing, with this image of a sort of ersatz-Western typeface on a CD booklet, other things got woven in, like McMurtry’s hat and his smoking–I don’t like the smell of cigarettes, by the way, but the speaker of my poem clearly does–and the exaggerated romanticism of the imagery in the third stanza.
I’ve never slept with a musician, unless you count the fact that my husband is extremely adept at crooning the incidental music from “Star Trek.” One has to use one’s imagination as a poet…Anyway, it’s a poem about image becoming truth.
Jan: Your poem, “The Limits of Culture” is in the latest issue of The Gettysburg Review. That’s an amazingly powerful poem. Tell us about how this poem arrived in your writer’s consciousness?
Pam: From 1987 to 1997, I was a copy editor at the American Society for Microbiology. I’m not a scientist; they hired me on the basis of a spelling test and trained me in the work. I ended up among this extraordinary group of people…I can’t speak highly enough about my workplace. While I was there, I began doing some freelance music reviewing–one of my first reviews was of James McMurtry’s first album–and I left in 1997 to pursue that for a while. In 2009, I came back to my old job at ASM.
This work isn’t for everyone. You get a manuscript from one of the journals we publish, you edit it, you turn it in. Then you get another one. I have spent much of the past three days reading about horse feces, but more often, the subject matter is so highly technical that the copy editor is mostly doing a sort of visual dance: subject-verb, subject-adverb-verb.
On one of my first days back at the job, I read a case report about a soldier injured in the war. It was heartbreaking, even more so because of the standard scientific prose: the passive voice, the flat recounting of horrible incidents. There was this horrible time lapse in which by the time the medical people figured out what had infected him, it was too late to do anything. Also, if you’ve ever seen photos of magnified fungi, some of them are quite beautiful; that juxtaposition of the flower like images in the figures and the horror of war just knocked me sideways.
The poem just happened. I don’t remember whether I went home and wrote it or took a break or what. I wrote it all of a piece, as I often do. I really thought it was kind of over the top, frankly, with the sort of magical realistic turns I took. And I wondered whether the structure, which evoked the manuscripts I read, would work for a poetry audience. But I took it to a master class with Stanley Plumly, who is a very tough audience, and he had good things to say, so that made me rethink it.
Note: Part 2 of Interview with Pamela Murray Winters will be posted next Tuesday, April 24, 2012.
Thorpe Moeckel: at a reading:
Richard Thompson: here’s a video clip of a lesser-known song that I like a great deal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZGa6p3xSAg
DC Swan Day: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/theater/2012/03/30/d-c-swan-day-branches-out-in-its-fifth-year/
Gargoyle: http://www.gargoylemagazine.com/gargoyle.php (“Guitarslinger” was in #57; another poem of mine, “Exegesis of a Bootleg Tape of ‘Truckin’,’” will be in #58.)
James McMurtry: his primary website: http://jamesmcmurtry.com/
More Next Week
Note: Pamela Murray Winters: Website – under construction – http://bowlingwithpoets.blogspot.com