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.
Note: The first part of this interview was posted April 17, 2012 as Entry #55.
Jan: What “rules” for poetry do you reject as too constricting? Are there any particular “rules” that you believe are essential for the full development of your work?
Pam: Outside my day job, where rules are the norm, I’m not a rule-oriented person–or I try not to be. One big prejudice: I’m really squirmy about slant rhyming being called rhyming. I’m really old-school on rhyme. Call it rhyme only if it rhymes!
I try not to edit myself too much on the first draft. Someone–I don’t remember who–said, “The first draft is for the writer; the second is for the reader.” I think it’s a sound guideline.
I try to be open to all possibilities. I’m firm in my belief that the “I” in my poems isn’t necessarily me, and I have to not let fear of misinterpretation get in my way. One poem, based on a trip to San Francisco with a friend, became a sort of love poem as I was writing it; I went with that literary discovery even as I worried, and still worry a little, that my friend thinks I carry a torch for her.
I have on my bulletin board some notes from Deborah Digges, the full text of which can be found here: http://lpei4.wordpress.com/on-writing-esp-fiction-and-creative-process/deborah-digges/
One of them is “Never ask ‘Why?’ about your obsessions; ask ‘How can they transform?’” I love that idea. It frees me to be a total crazy person as a writer. I’ve already got enough of an editor in my makeup to balance the sort of wildness that, while dangerous in the mundane world, is essential to poetry. I could stand to be wilder still.
Jan: Who are among your favorite poets alive and writing today? And of course, I must ask who are your favorite poets who are no longer with us?
Pam: I just mentioned Deborah Digges; she’s a recent favorite. I didn’t hear about her until her death, and I didn’t know when I first started reading her work that she was the ex-wife of my favorite mentor and teacher, Stanley Plumly. Among her many gifts are descriptions of actions with a naked clarity, that in some cases, ought to come off as prosaic but never does. She’s triggered at least three poems for me.
I have a thing for Philip Larkin. That darkness in him that’s redeemed by flickers of light: that’s a quality I first saw, and was drawn to, in the music of my favorite musician, my muse, Richard Thompson. I’m pretty sure that Richard saw it in Larkin as well.
There’s a younger poet called Adrian Blevins who, unlike the previous two, is still living and working. She’s from the same part of the country as my maternal family, southwestern Virginia. She’s funny and bleak and she has these long, long lines that are conversational and odd and entirely hers. In fact, that’s what moves me about each of these poets: each has a distinctive, unmatchable voice.
Jan: When did you begin to write poetry? Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote? How does it “stack up” next to your current work?
Pam: I’m not sure. I know I wrote odes to Theodore Roosevelt in fifth grade or thereabouts. By high school, I was deeply into poetry; rumor was that the school principal was mad because I’d written a disproportionate number of the poems in our school literary magazine.
In college I studied with Rod Jellema and Reed Whittemore, who died just a few days ago. There are a few poems I wrote in my college years that I still like, but for the most part, I wasn’t nearly as good as I might have been, mostly because I was hobbled by shyness and depression. It was working with Rod Jellema again, maybe five years ago now, that showed me how far I’d come as a person and thus as a poet and how I’d gotten rid of so much of the preciousness and fear that had stopped me in my tracks before.
Jan: What are the greatest obstacles to your writing at this point in your life? And of course, what do you know now about writing, poetry and the poet’s world that you wish you’d known when you were twenty?
Pam: I want more time! I don’t want back the 20-odd years when I wasn’t doing much with poetry; clearly I needed those years for other things. And I don’t mean that I want to live forever, although maybe I do; that’s a whole “nother” topic! I mean I want more time, day to day, to spend with this thing that matters more to me than almost anything. The need for full-time work, even though I love my job, is pretty constraining.
I’m not complaining; I’m grateful to have a job, especially one I like. I’m just saying that it’s harder to switch gears at my age (I’m 51). One has to sleep. One has to commute. One has to feed one’s cats. One has to watch “Law & Order.”
Jan: Our readers are always interested in your process. So how do you write a poem? How would you describe your particular process?
Pam: Oh, jeez! This is a hard one…First off, it’s nearly impossible for me to write a good poem “about” something. Here’s an example: I’ve tried to write a poem about a childhood friend who was murdered. I know that there are emotional boulders in my way: not only would such a topic be upsetting to anyone, but I have to be particularly careful because of my tendency toward depression; I don’t always feel strong enough to tackle such things.
|The Poet’s Muse – “Bear” – 2012|
But even with more mundane topics–I’d love to write about my cat, Bear, who’s the most fascinating four-legged creature in the state of Maryland–I can’t point myself that way and expect the words to come.
Once I allowed myself to be open to the idea of poetry, poetry started coming to me. It’s when I’m falling asleep that a lot of it comes. And I often get pretty full first drafts. I write down what I can –when I can–but there are also health and professional concerns; I can’t be staying up all night writing poetry, or at least not that often.
I have found the book The Practice of Poetry, by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, an excellent resource for exercises that spur the creative process. One that I love, in the modifications with which I use it, involves finding a poem in a language you don’t know, making a “fake translation” by riffing off the sounds or connotations of the words, and then seeing where that leads you. I’ve gotten some unusual poems that way.
Rod Jellema, in whose workshop at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda I learned about the Behn and Twichell book, believes that word leads to word and sound leads to sound. That’s how a poem is knitted: by following a path that seems utterly natural even when you can’t explain the logic behind the sequence of steps. (I know. Mixed metaphor.)
Jan: And what advice do you offer to a budding poet that would help and encourage him or her? What should you know if you want to be a poet?
Pam: Make yourself open to occasions of poetry. Learn to trust your own voice. Learn to take criticism humbly–but if it feels wrong to you, do your own thing.
Don’t be cowed by the name-dropping you’ll encounter in poetry circles; if a teacher mentions May Sarton and 10 students nod sagely, there’s a good chance that at least three of them haven’t read a word of hers! Just gather those names and go see what the fuss is about.
One thing I love about poetry is that there are no rules. Another is that the stakes, in a worldly way, are incredibly low. I’m a poet because I write poetry, because I channel poetry. I’m not going to make a living at it. I’m not going to become famous because of it. Therefore, I’m going to do it either because I need to–because of some inner drive–or because I want to. I’m grateful every day that I wake up and I’m a poet.
Pamela Murray Winters was just notified that her poems will be featured at a Miller Poetry Series Reading at Rock Creek Park in DC this summer – on July 8, 2012. Contact her for more information.
More Useful Links:
The Gettysburg Review: http://www.gettysburgreview.com/
Stanley Plumly: here’s a poem: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2008/06/02/080602po_poem_plumly
Deborah Digges—aside from the link I had in the interview, here’s one of her reading: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLbuzHyDqlg
Philip Larkin: http://www.philiplarkin.com/
Adrian Blevins: http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com/2009/01/adrian-blevins.html(a site much like yours, in which she’s interviewed about her process)
Rod Jellema: http://authormark.com/artman2/publish/Innisfree_12_27ROD_JELLEMA3.shtml
Reed Whittemore: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/11/books/reed-whittemore-former-poet-laureate-dies-at-92.html
The Practice of Poetry, by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell: http://www.amazon.com/The-Practice-Poetry-Writing-Exercises/dp/006273024X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334385010&sr=8-1
The Writer’s Center: http://www.writer.org/
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at:
Website – www.janbowmanwriter.com
Blogsite – http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com