Barbara Crooker: Chronicling Life's Loves, Losses, and Disabilities Through Poetry
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Jul 30, 2016
"Her poems create haunting images that cut close to the bone...She is a remarkably connected poet; and her work often arises from these connections to the past, which sooner or later we all sense in our own lives, but which are here examined, expanded and illuminated." --Ruth Daikon on the poetry of Barbara Crooker
Moderator Pavi Mehta: I want to start by sharing how I first came across Barbara Crooker's poetry. Last fall my husband Viral was unexpectedly diagnosed with a severe form of bone marrow suppression and our lives changed overnight. I should share here that he is doing well now, and is not in an acute phase any more. But the journey of his continuing recovery over the last year has been riddled with what I've come to see as "fierce gifts". And finding Barbara's poetry was one of those gifts.
There are moments that you feel like the Universe is reaching out to tap you on the shoulder. Sometimes it's a gentle tap and sometimes it's a big 'thwack'!. The diagnosis was one of those big jolts. Then some months ago, a dear friend of ours in India went through the incredible process of a bone marrow transplant. We had just received the news that he was in intensive care waiting for his blood cell counts to be restored. As I was preparing to go to sleep that night, I checked my inbox and I discovered a poem that had come in from The Writer's Almanac -- the wonderful newsletter service by Garrison Keillor. I had to read the title twice to make sure that I wasn't dreaming it. The title said, "For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting for Her White Blood cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant." That was the title of the poem. That was my gentle tap on the shoulder from the universe. It was a beautiful reminder of the many ways that we are not alone in our experiences of joy and suffering. I shared this with Barbara when I reached out to her.
Reading that poem and many others by her, was like waking up one day and finding in the corner of your garden a breath-taking array of spider webs. Intricate, beautiful, painstaking works of art that hold at their center the difficult prints of life and death. I feel like the web of Barbara's poetry glistens with everything that is radiant, praise worthy and essentially good in our world. It also traps in its strands the difficult and the terrible and the broken-winged dimensions of being here and being human.
That ability of her writing to hold it all with grace and delicacy, with wit and compassion, makes her poetry arresting. It's tremendously inspiring, not just at the level of writing practice, but at the level of life practice. What she has done with her words and with her life experiences lights the way for the rest of us to hold our own experiences of light and dark with some greater measure of grace and gratefulness.
Barbara has powerfully said that all that she has written exists in the light of the difficult biography. Her first daughter died shortly before birth. Her first marriage ended soon after. Her second daughter had a traumatic brain injury as a teenager and was in coma for nine days. Her son, who is now in his 30's, and whom she takes care of, has autism. And still, Barbara turns to these words of Wendell Berry for her motto- "Be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts". Luminous joy and stark facts dance together in Barbara's work and her life and her world is better for what she has done with both.
Thank you Barbara for being with us.
Barbara Crooker: Oh my goodness! Thank you for everything Pavi. That was beautiful!
Pavi: Ah, well! This call doesn't feel totally coincidental. It’s a beautiful arrangement that life creates sometimes. I wanted to start off by having you locate yourself for us. Where are you speaking to us from? And from there, can you move into the story of how you discovered poetry?
Barbara: Ok! I am in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania on a very muggy hot summer day. I will say, its afternoon eastern time. I was doing Zumba, outside and it nearly did me in. (laughter)
How I fell into poetry? It’s such a story! The new traditional pathway now, is you major in creative writing as an undergraduate and then you get an MFA in creative writing again. I was a single mom. My first husband had left us. I was really very much trying to find my way again. One of the things that I did was pick up some books off the shelves that my ex-husband had left. One evening I was reading through a small journal, which was put out by a teachers college in northern Pennsylvania. I started reading these poems and they just blew me away. I really did not know contemporary poetry, even though I had taken a class as an undergraduate. What was considered as contemporary poetry in those days was - Dead White males. Not very contemporary. I am reading these poems by Diane Wakoski. Some of your listeners will recognize the name. She is a leading light in American poetry. But I thought, in my ignorance, because this was a college publication, that she was a college sophomore. I was reading these poems and I was just astounded by them. There was an interview with her and I loved every bit of it. And I thought, "Hah! Maybe I can do that!" So I started writing. Now, if I had realized that these poems were written by a very eminent person in American literature, I would have been intimidated and I wouldn't have even started. But because I didn't know any better I started down the writing path and one step lead to another and I never looked back.
Post-interview follow-up story from Barbara: OK, now fast forward forty-plus years. When “White Blood Cells” (my short version of the bone marrow transplant title) was reprinted recently, I put the link up on FB. Diane and I are FB friends (she’s not on it much), and she read the poem and put this comment under it, “I wish I’d written this one.” Talk about a 'pinch me' moment, and coming full-circle ! Thought you’d particularly like this, because of “our” connection to that poem.
Pavi: You were dealing with a lot during that period in which you first started writing?
Barbara: I was. But I was very young also. I am such a believer in the examined life, but at that point, (I am sure many single moms or people who are in deep mourning can also relate to this), at some periods you can't examine things. Because, you really just have to move forward. I was very much in a survival kind of mode; just trying to get through each day and trying to make the few dollars I had in each envelope, one for food, one for mortgage one for heat and trying to stretch till the end of the month. I really was not searching for the interior life at that point. But it came and found me.
Pavi: Beautiful. I'm interested in what you said about the distance or the time that's needed before certain things can be examined. I think one of the things that is so powerful for me and I'm sure for many of you readers is, the courage with which you are able to articulate loss and also write it so close to the bone. How long did it take to be able to weave that in?
Barbara: Certainly to write about that first loss it certainly took me ten-fifteen years. For example my daughter had a traumatic brain injury. One of my friends, who came to the hospital when she was recovering, brought her some gifts and brought me a gift. She is a writing friend. It might seem like an odd gift but she brought me Isabel Allende's book called Paula which is a non-fiction book of Allende dealing with her daughter falling into a coma, due to medical malpractice and she dies. It would seem like a very odd gift. But for me at that point I had been a practicing writer for quite a few years, and to me it was like what Adrianne Rich called, Diving Into the Wreck. I needed to resolve things. After we got our daughter back, although she was quite damaged in the beginning and it took a long time before she recovered, I needed to back into that wreckage. I needed to go back and examine where I had been. Allende just really nailed so many emotions, I felt 'Wow! This is how I felt!'. So it encouraged me. So I tried to write about - "This is how we felt", and our journey.
Pavi: That really resonates. When we first got the diagnosis for my husband I remember being not ready to write about it in the beginning month. And of course there was so much to do in terms of figuring out next steps and understanding the implications of all the different potential treatment pathways and the day is filled with what just needs to get done. There isn't the time for the self-examination. Yet, I think there is a place for that and when the time comes you sort of know it. And your work.. I can't say it enough... It's been such a well to return to and dip in for that kind of nourishment.
One of your poems, the most widely republished one is called The Lost Children. Was that the first time you were writing about that first loss?
Barbara: That was probably the first time that I wrote well about that first loss. I had some earlier poems, which weren't as good. When I wrote that one I thought, “Okay! That’s all I can say about this. I am done with this as a subject." And then years later another poem and then another poem.... If you go back to the traumatic brain injury, one of the poems I wrote about that, I used the distance of myth. Demeter and Persephone instead of my daughter, and myself even though I used the specifics of what happened with us.
Pavi: For the listeners, maybe you can give us a quick version of the Persephone and Demeter myth.
Barbara: Oh! You might need to help me on this. (laughs)
Pavi: I can do it quickly and you can pull up your poem to read.
The myth as I understand it is of Demeter, the Greek Goddess of harvest, and her daughter the beautiful Persephone. Hades, the ruler of the Underworld, kidnaps her. When she is taken away, the whole world falls into despair, nothing blooms, the earth turns barren in the winter of Demeter's agony. She has lost her daughter and she is inconsolable. In the end Persephone is returned to Earth and her coming back marks the advent of spring, the reunion of mother and daughter. But while held hostage in the underworld, she had eaten a few seeds of pomegranate and because of that partaking, every year for a few months she is forced to return to the underworld. And so we have this cycle of loss, separation, then reunion and rebirth that is mirrored by the seasons of winter and spring.
Barbara: To quote a few lines from the relevant poem --
I called and called her name
Offered to trade places in six pomegranate seeds
Their bleeding garnets tart on the tongue
The mother in the circumstance, us or the Goddess in the myth will do anything to bring our children back.
Pavi: I think many parents, and even children can relate to that. That awareness that the parent is always ready to take the fall for the child, and always ready to trade places. That's a powerful thing.
Barbara: I have 'The Lost Children' before me if you would like me to read that.
Pavi: Could you share a little bit about the circumstances that lead to the poem?
Barbara: Sure. The major circumstance was that my first child was still born twenty-four hours before birth. I very much dislike to word "closure". I don't think we get closure. After that point I went through, the rest of my life is a mourning. I am not a sad person. I've had actually a very happy life. But, I will always mourn that. You don't replace children either. Unfortunately, people with very best intentions often say the very worst things. "Well, you will have other children." That's no consolation. My late Mother-in-law of my present husband, she was in a position, which probably doesn't exist right now. Her son and his wife for various reasons gave up their child for adoption. So she lost her grandchild through adoption. We also had couple of friends who were not permitted to see their children after their divorce. So a line referred to that. We have all got different losses. What sustained me during that time, this was before the support groups, was my wonderful circle of women friends and their stories. In some of those stories were stories we don't talk about. Miscarrying children, for example. Because, our general culture doesn't want to talk about these things. "Okay, you move on. You'll get over it. This happens. This is nature's way." It’s a huge loss and huge sense of mourning. So, this is a long explanation behind a short poem.
The Lost Children
The ones we never speak of-
removed by decree
taken too soon, crossed over.
They slip red mittens in our hands,
smell of warm wet wool
are always out of slight.
We glimpse them on escalators,
over the shoulders of dark-haired women;
they return to us in dreams.
We hold them, as the evanesce;
we never speak their names.
How many children do you have?
Two, we answer thinking three;
or three, thinking four;
they are always with us.
The lost children come to us
at night and whisper
in the shells of our ears.
They are waving goodbye
on school buses,
they are separated from us
they are lost in shopping malls
with their fountains and pools,
they disappear in beaches,
they shine at night in stars.
Pavi: That is just an exquisite poem. What has the response been over the years? I can just imagine that for many women, for many people, it must have felt like you were echoing their thoughts.
Barbara: There are some poems that I really can't read at a reading. Because I'm afraid I will break down. This is one of them. Some of these are poems that people can read in print. The response has generally been some of the things that you've said. Although, this is difficult, difficult in our time in politics. I have had requests to use this from anti-abortion groups, which I have had to say no to.
Pavi: Right. I can understand that.
Barbara: I think it is something else that is also not rightly mourned. Sometimes women have to have abortions. And are in a huge amount of mourning because they had to make the best of several very bad choices. And as a mother of the severely disabled child, I just have to say that we are going to enter into an era where we deny women's right to choose, but we no longer provide services which are barely being provided right now for children with disabilities after they are born.
Pavi: That brings me to another thing that I admire about the way you write. I mentioned it in the introduction too, it’s that ability to hold the pain and yet not be submerged by it. To not deny it and yet to not have it be the last word. How do you do that?
Barbara: I don't know. How do any of us do it?
In another poem, I'm going to quote myself, probably not accurately even. How do we go on, if we knew how hard things were going to be? How could we ever have done them? I think it is one the key for going through this life is that we don't know how hard things are going to be.
Sometimes all we can do is to put one foot in front of the other. And it seems that after a period of deepest darkness, one day we notice again that the sun shining. Or you notice that there is a butterfly on the flowers. It happens very subtly, but one day things are somewhat better. And then you go on.
Pavi: I think we can all resonate with that experience. Your work has such a connection to nature. How do you locate yourself within that fabric? How do you see the connection between our human experience and the vaster drama of nature that surround us?
Barbara: Part of what's happened right now, where we are in our contemporary world, is that the world is conspiring to remove us from nature. I would love to see somebody do a statistical analysis of - for how many people, his or her images of nature are from Facebook or Instagram rather than in nature. We are so busy and we have so many demands on our time and we just aren't outside in the natural world, really observing this entire world with our senses.
I believe that's the way we most fully integrate ourselves with the world, through our senses. Whenever I teach creative writing classes, I love it when I get a five-day class, so that each day I give them an exercise based on one of the senses. Because I think the electronic world makes us out of touch with our embodied selves. For me, nature is a huge source. I want to be outside. I want to turn to it. I want to be observing it as much as possible because that's the source for everything. And by whatever name we call it, that’s where I have felt closest, is outside, in the created world made by the creator.
Pavi: I may be paraphrasing what you said, but somewhere I remember reading that- you had a friend who wrote to you about wanting to quit her job and not having enough time to do that. I believe then you wrote a poem inspired by this friend named Gail?
Barbara: Yes. She is my college friend. We sat next to each other in freshman composition. We are still friends. I have been very fortunate in this writing life to get a number of writing residencies, which are you go away and they take care of you and all you have to do is write! Heaven on earth! I visit her on the way usually. But all those years we sat next to each other in freshman composition and wrote notes in our book to each other.Would you like me to read that poem?
Pavi: Would love you to read that poem. I think it brings together some of the themes we are just talking about.
Barbara: Letter to Gail
You write, "Where has the fall fallen?"
and how time is escaping, leaking like a hiss
from a blue balloon. Outside, the sky
is that lapidary azure of mid-October.
You rush from meeting to boardroom,
while each day the leaves shift
in color and tone, red-orange, green-gold.
When you turn, they've already fallen.
You write that you would like to stop working,
but phone messages and faxes pile up on the floor.
This air, so cold and clean you could bite it,
like an apple. All of our stories have the same ending.
Still, we drone on, little bees, drive while listening
to voice mail, drinking take-out coffee, trying to do
too many jobs in too few hours. You say you'd like to wake
up in the light, go for long walks with the dog, not answer
the phone for months. Outside the window, the unreachable
sky, the burning blue fire.
Pavi: There is such intensity to the images and also a humor in your work that I think makes it all the more powerful. It's not preaching and yet there is so much wisdom that we're urged to open our eyes to.
Barbara: It's a tight rope to be on, wisdom without "preachiness". Heart without sentimentality. Anything political is really difficult to write about. I came across this quote yesterday. I was reading a book called- "This is a story of You" by Beth Kephart, which I really like. One of the characters is a teacher, has this quote for the class. "If you look at the world, you will love the world. If you love the world, you will save it."
It's not very fashionable to write nature poetry right now. It's all about the narrative or is about Surrealism or very edge oriented poems, which are possibly devoid of meaning. So this is a type of poem sometimes has difficultly finding a journal, or finding a spot in a manuscript for a book. But this is a kind of poem I want to write. Part of why I want to write is, the more connected we are with our natural world, the more we will try to do anything we can to save it and not destroy it. We are in a moment in our history where we could destroy everything. I think we need to be awake about this and not let it happen.
Pavi: That sense of communion is so important. We have friends who work with animals at an animal sanctuary and they bring in groups of injured children from the foster homes, emergency shelters. Wounded children to commune with these wounded animals. And it is incredible. You don't really have to say much. You share the story of the animal that is shot or hit on the side of the road. That's all they need to hear and an empathic connection is forged and a capacity to take the step in a stronger, braver, steadier way is born. I remember one of the facilitator/mentors saying that it is so important. Children think that they can talk to animals. They haven't been taught that they can't. And so they do. Because they speak to them, they understand them and because they understand them, they no longer fear them. And what we fear we destroy, what we understand we save.
Barbara: Yeah! Wow! That is very powerful.
Pavi: It's amazing how many people have understood this and are going against the tide of everything else that's happening. They are still lighting those fires and lighting the way.
I wanted to ask you, you have said somewhere that you are a self described Zen Lutheran. That's an unusual denomination that I have not heard before (laughs) Can you illuminate that for us?
Barbara: Sure. I actually said this at the National Lutheran writer’s conference at Luther College. All that I really mean by that is, I am practicing member of the small Lutheran church here in my rural Pennsylvania town. And yet I am also at the same time very drawn to Zen Buddhism, to meditation. The things that Buddhism stresses so much are awakened life and a life that is keenly in tune with nature. It's a flip remark. But I think I also mean that I am kind of against orthodoxy and rules which are man made "religion” and kind of away from the deeply spiritual values of Christianity, which I do deeply uphold. Particularly, if you have two coats, you give one coat to your brother who has none and that our chief purpose on Earth is to love our neighbors. I think we have gotten so far away from that. And that's what we need to come back to.
Pavi: I was looking for this one line of yours: "One of poetry's task is one that of bearing witness." We hear a lot about mindfulness, about becoming the detached observer and being a witness. What role has that played in your writing?
Barbara: I think bearing witness is a way of writing a poem without feeling attached to the end or come to some of sort of conclusion at the end of the moral fable. I don't think that is poetry's job. I think poetry's is just to keenly engage with the world, perhaps have a dialog with the world and present it for the reader. You are having a dialog with the reader without forcing the reader to forgone conclusions. Bearing witness also means writing about difficult subjects, that don't really have a particular resolution. I have a number of poems about my father with whom I had a difficult relationship and I want to show that difficulty and love at the same time. And it is one of the wonderful things that poetry does and can do, which is that it can hold two opposing thoughts at the same time, which we can't always do.
Pavi: Do you find that as you hone this skill of examining, witnessing in a way telling what you see without an agenda, has it over the decades shaped the way you see things? Has it shaped the lens that you use?
Barbara: That's a really interesting thought. It's like the chicken egg thing. Does that shape my experience or does my experience about writing shape how I have seen the experience? I am not sure that I can separate those things. It’s a really interesting thing to think about.
Pavi: Life is in flux, right? It's not a static experience. It's really hard to separate these things from each other, I suppose. We were talking about this a little bit when we had a call earlier in the week... there are certain experiences or stages in your life that is almost like you are setting foot on a new shore and you know that there is not a return journey from that place. How has that played out for you?
Barbara: I was reading a poem once about a set of friends, neighbors who lost a child in college. The only way I can think of describing it was that how they had entered a different country and it was one that had no path, no language that I, the friend wanting to help could access. There are situations like that that I think that separate you in some ways from everybody else who hasn't been through that experience.
I know that at one of my high school reunions, someone talked about those of us who had some losses. Sort of glibly said, "Gee, I've never lost anybody." All I could think of was, " Honey it is coming." It is just our life. We lost people already or we are going to lose people, we are going to loose our parents. It's just a given and we hope we don't lose our children. But people do. I think that is probably the biggest loss that anyone is ever called upon.When my daughter came back from the traumatic brain injury, someone from church said, "I guess one thing this experience shows you is that you can get through anything." and I thought, " Oh my goodness! You just don't know." Bacon said, those with children, "hath given hostages to fortune.' I can't even imagine anything happen to my grandchildren. And something happening to my husband, it takes both of us to take care of our son, and yet that loss is probably up ahead for me. And will we ever be able to find some care for our son after we are gone? That's a very difficult thing in today's world.
Everyone says, “There are group homes." And there are and they exist. But they cost $225,000 a year, so regular people can't pay for them and yet there re very few slots that are funded through the government programs, And some day all of us, parents of children who have autism, of whom there are half a million in this country, will be gone and nobody has done anything to think about how are we going to fund taking care of these children? Not to be dark this morning, but that is something that engages me all the time. I can't think that having experienced these losses, "Oh boy! I am ready for the next one." I don't feel that way at all.
Pavi: I want to talk about the incredible demands that life has placed on your shoulders and I guess what you were hinting at is- whether it comes now or later today or tomorrow, the story ends in similar place for all of us. I was reading a description that you have given of your day, where you have about 2-4 hours of writing time may be on a day, is filled with primary tasks of a caregiver. And there are so many demands and very crucial things that need to be done in caring for your son. I think it's a common affliction of modern life that we all feel there are many demands on our time and that we don't have time for what is important or urgent or crucial. When I look at the body of your work, these 900 poems, you don't shirk the responsibilities. The dance that you are dancing is not an easy one and yet I think it shows us what is possible with the hours that we are given with the life that we are given.
It is so beautiful that your experience with your son has been woven into so many of your poems. I think the tight rope you were talking about earlier, the wisdom without preaching and the heart without sentimentality; I don't think you just walk that tight rope. You are doing a ballet on it.
Barbara: I am sort of laughing underneath because, certainly in a yoga class, things that used to be so easy to do, "The tree" pose, I can't do it all.
Pavi: [Laughter] Is there anything you want to say in response to what I have shared, before I ask for a poem.
Barbara: I was actually thinking about a poem that I wrote when my oldest daughter was about to have her second child. She went into labor two months early and she was sent to NICU. I actually wrote about life. May be I can quote a little bit of the beginning of it.
Life After “Starfish,” by Eleanor Lerman
This is what life does. It hits you like a stone
through the window in the form of a phone call
from your son-in-law who says your daughter’s
water has broken too early, and she’s in the hospital
in antenatal care. It fl ips you back to forty years ago,
when your first child was “born asleep,” as it read
on a gravestone in Ireland. But life also gives you a car
and a tank full of gas, so you can drive to the city
to see her again and again for three long weeks.
Your grandson turns this into a quest: Big Green Dinosaur.
Stone Jesus. The Bridge. Gold Dome. Ben Franklin’s Kite.
Lincoln on the Wall. White Greek Temple. The Swirl,
aka, the parking garage. And life gives you dollars
for the machine, which you gladly pay, hoping
you don’t need to save coins for Charon, not yet, not now.
Your daughter is miserable, and scared. But every day is money
in the bank. The babies in the NICU are so small. Some of them
don’t make it. Life shrugs. No skin off his teeth. It’s all a coin toss.
Then one night, some switch is flipped, and whoosh, here comes
Caitlin Isabella, out in nine minutes. It could have been
a hundred years ago, when babies this small didn’t survive.
But it isn’t, it’s now, and she’s claimed us with her dark-eyed stare.
Sometimes you put your coins in the slot, and it’s cherries!
cherries! cherries! Goodness has nothing to do
with it. Look at this little one with her fleeting
smile, the thinnest of commas. Which could have
been an ellipsis, but isn’t . . . .
Pavi: It feels like the pause could go on forever after these poems just to let it sink in. But our conversation must charge on. There's a little tension I feel in wanting to let the words settle in and wanting to hear more, which is another subject you speak of. You wrote a whole book of poems, titled - More!
Barbara: I think you wanted me to read about the poem on my son?
Pavi: Yes the one on stones.
Barbara: What's interesting is, when I teach writing workshops, I often bring props. At a yard sale I found a whole container of polished stones that may have prompted me into this, Just looking at a stone.
Pavi: Oh! Wow!
Barbara: This poem is also about the family dynamics which don't come with good statistics. 85% of marriages with disabled child break up. This is a dynamic of a family where one family member needs more help than the others.
The family carried it
with them, all day.
it's weight alone.
Yet how they loved it.
No other stone had
it's particular way
of bending the light.
They could not take
out in public,
had to keep it home,
let it sing songs
in it's own strange language,
syllables of schist and shale.
When the mother's back ached,
the father took the stone
for a while, then passed it
from sister to sister.
became a part of them
a bit of granite
in the spine,
a shard of calcite
in the heart.
left in the dictionary.
did not talk.
But it shone.
Pavi: So exquisitely captures that experience. What a tribute to all families who are holding that similar experience. Like you said there are so many. But it's not necessarily a part of the daily discourse.
Barbara: This was the daily life when he was three and four; certainly it's not the daily life now as he does have some language now.
Pavi: Right. I wanted to shift gears a little bit because, like we talked about, I wanted to give the listeners a platter of all the different strands of your work. I think when I first read your writings, the poems that I came across were lot more of the nature poems. It was only after I started to read more and more that the revelations of your life unfolded. To see how large the container of life can be, how much the container of life can hold is in itself a lesson. I wanted you to read the poem titled "Yes"
Barbara: I actually wrote this driving to job in Pittsburg, listening to Frank McCourt who wrote "Angela's Ashes". He also has a book called " Teacher Man". He was a high school teacher in America in a tough school in the Bronx. He is reading this on the tape and I am writing it down while I am driving a stick shift car. And this student said," Yes, was the best answer to every question." And I called this poem "Yes"
So I said yes to everything, yes to the green hills
rolling out ahead, yes to the hayfield tied up in rolls,
yes to the clouds blooming like peonies in the sky's
blue meadow, the long tongue of the road lolling
out before me, yes to the life of travel, yes to the other
life at home, yes to the daisies freckling the ditch,
to the sun pouring down on everything
like Vermeer's milkmaid and her endless
jug of milk, yes to the winds that pulled the clouds
apart like taffy, then turned them into a classroom
of waving hands punched into fists: yes yes yes.
Pavi: Love that poem; it just rises in the heart.
Barbara: I also write a great deal about art. That kind of poetry is called Ekphrastik poetry. I have a lot of poems about paintings. [See "Les Fauves"]
Pavi:I noticed that. Was that something you deliberately set out to do? How did that connection happen? It seems like an important section of the work that you do.
Barbara: Let's face it. I don't have a job. I work for myself for no money. So I might as well do the things that I love. Apart from writing I love looking at art. So it's just been a way that I could merge two things that I love. I was artistry minor in undergraduate. I feel like my masters degree is the masters of the three thousand books that I bought read and studied. My degree in art history is really the many museums and many shows that I have gone to, listened to the curator’s notes, bought the books and thought carefully about.
Pavi: Is there something like an approach that you set out with when you do that. You are not trying to necessarily describe the painting, right? So what is the intention?
Barbara: I kind of want each one to be a different kind of conversation. Somehow some different approach and to be able to say something, looking at a painting, about human condition.
Pavi: I want to shift now into this idea of looking for the sacred in the everyday. That seems to be another important theme in your work. Can you speak to that a little bit and it would be lovely to have you share the poem "Sanctus"
Barbara: Oh! Sure!
Pavi: It's particularly dear to me because we have been visited by morning doves very regularly all of a sudden. I couldn't find much poetry on them until I found this. It's perfect!
Barbara: It's so interesting. Part of my practice... writing as my spiritual practice is looking for the sacred in the every day. I think I'm never aiming to write something. I'm just always trying to be open to something. Sometimes I take my book bag and I go down to little stream behind where we live, off in the woods and that day a lot of morning doves were coming down to the stream to take a drink. And I thought of all the paintings where the Holy Spirit is represented as the dove and then all this sort of ...
I think of mind as kind of blender. This is what came out.
A goldfinch, bright as a grace note, has landed
on a branch across the creek that mutters and murmurs
to itself as it rushes on, always in a hurry.
The ee oh lay of a wood thrush echoes from deep
in the forest, someplace green. In paintings,
the Holy Ghost usually takes the form of a stylized
dove, its whiteness a blaze of purity. But what if
it’s really a mourning dove, ordinary as daylight
in its old coat, nothing you’d ever notice.
When he rises from the creek and the light flares
behind, his tail is edged in white scallops,
shining. And when he opens his beak,
isn’t he calling your name,
sweet and low, You, you, you?
My bird song imitations are probably as bad as the singing. Actually to read the poem properly, you've got to sing it.
Pavi: In this poem, I love this phrase, ordinary as daylight. And suddenly as soon as you read it you realize that there is nothing ordinary about daylight. So much of your poetry does that. Georgia O'Keefe famously once said, " Nobody has time to really look at a flower." Her skill was taking the time to look. When you do that there is an incredible opening up that happens.
Barbara: She also famously said, " I'll paint a flower really large so you can't miss it.
Pavi: Exactly. In some ways, your poems do that. Let me this take this morning and "tell" it really large. They are so beautiful, rhythmic and musical that it cannot help but be paid attention to.
Barbara: You know, behind all the poems like this, there are poems that don't go anywhere. Poems that just can't live off the page, poems that are flat. There so many poems... I still keep parts of them in my folders to may be use them to jump start something else, but there are lots of failures of poems, like the tiny tip of the giant iceberg of rejection. That is the lot of the writers’ life in America or anywhere probably.
Amit: You know Barbara, I was hoping I could actually Jump in right there. I've always been curious about the writing process. There is a tendency especially for those of us who are not writers or perhaps novices, we tend to romanticize this creation process as if you are pulling down inspiration at will and writing perfection in single draft. We don't often think about how arduous of a process it can be at times. How do you when you have written a good poem? May be you can walk us a little bit through your writing process.
Barbara: If I could be said to have anything it is organization. Years ago, there was this returning student, my unpaid intern.. I was like do you want to come to my house and watch me stare out the window and watch me write? There's not a lot going on most of the time.
Some of it is completely mysterious. I’ll be in the grocery store and I'll hear a line. I'll see something that visually strikes me, as this is something I might want to write about. During the long dry periods, which I'm having more of as I grow older I feel like the material is running out. There are certain stages in the writer’s life when you are just starting out who have got everything to write about. But as you get older and especially because there are certain tricks, I can easily write a little poem and may be publish it even. But I want to write better poems. That means having a longer wait in between them and not settling. That is kind of part of the process. I tend to write like a sculpture. I try to amass a lot of material. Say I thought I want to write about lemons, I'll just let my mind go over may be three or four days writing whatever comes to my mind. I'm teaching creative art in classes, I'll say keep that pen moving. Even if you are just writing, the pen is moving, keep the pen moving until something good starts to come out. I think when something good starts to come out you recognize it. Emily Dickinson said it made her feel like the hair on her head is going to stand on its end. I think you recognize when you start to write something real. Once I get to that point, I'll let the lines or the images that's leading me somewhere, where else can they lead me? This involves awful lot of crossing out, throwing away, discarding, and chopping things, moving things around. An important thing that doesn't ever seem to come up a lot when you are reading about the writing process is waiting. I've had things that have taken me five years to write, because I put them away because they are not going anywhere. But I don't give up on them. I just wait. And sometimes when I look at all the notes that I've got and the cross outs that I've got, may be five years later, I realize that the bones of the whole poem were there in the beginning, but I couldn't see them then. I just needed to wait until I could see where the poem was really trying to go. Somebody much more famous than I said," The poem is supposed to be showing where to go. You aren't supposed to be driving the poem." Robert Frost said, "If you think you know where a poem is going, start there. Because if there is no surprise for the writer, there is not surprise for the reader."
So it definitely doesn't happen by formula. Certainly poems about the paintings came from staring at the paintings. What is absolutely wonderful about our world as compared to my world in the 60's when I went to college is that, you can see any painting in the world on your screen. We had to try to sketch them on our note pads and then try to remember what the paintings looked like. Now we have everything at our fingertips! I am still amazed.
Amit: Fantastic! I was curious about. When you write about your son, is there something you attempt to do? What I mean by that- Are you trying to paint a picture of his view of the world, may be give him a voice or are you just trying to create a relatability for other family members who also have kids or members that are autistic? Or you just expressing yourself or is it "D", all of the above?
Barbara: It is probably some of the above. In some of the poems I have written about him, I definitely try to give him a voice. And the thing is I never really know if I have. He has read the poems, or heard me read the poems and likes them. But I don't know that it necessarily means anything. If I can describe him, at this point right now, he is 32, he has conversational skills in language but there is not always meaning behind the words. Sometimes he grabs out of the air words that he thinks that you want him to say, rather than what he really feels. So It's a guessing game and certainly in some of the poems..
I have one I could read right now if we don’t have other questions, which tries to do that. Would you like me to?
Amit: That would be wonderful.
Barbara: It's called-
A black and yellow spider hangs motionless in its web,
And my son, who is eleven and doesn't talk, sits
On a patch of grass by the perennial border, watching.
What does he see in his world, where geometry
is more beautiful than a human face?
Given chalk, he draws shapes on the driveway:
pentagons, hexagons, rectangles, squares.
The spider's web is a grid,
transecting the garden in equal parts.
Sometimes he stares through the mesh on a screen.
He loves things that are perforated:
toilet paper, graham crackers, coupons
in magazines, loves the order of the tiny holes,
the way the boundaries are defined. And in real life
is messy and vague. He shrinks back to a stare,
switches off his hearing. And my heart,
not cleanly cut like a valentine, but irregular
and many-chambered, expands and contracts,
contracts and expands.
He could also at that age with nothing in front of him, do a Mercator projection of the world on our driveway. Do you know what that is? They flatten the world out into a giant rectangle and have all the continents. It’s not something I could ever do.
Amit: Oh wow!
Barbara: It is very visual. Everything that I have read about people with classic autism says that they could often be very, very visual. One of his unusual skills is, he is not particularly interested in it anymore, but for a while he was doing 3-D puzzles. Biggest one had over three thousand pieces. It's a puzzle of New York City. So our entire family room.. You could have locked me somewhere and told me that you are getting no food until you put this puzzle together, you would have just found my body. But he did the whole thing including the Word Trade towers. After 9/11 happened, his biggest concern was, "They need to build those towers again. They need to build the towers again." This is the model of New York as it was before.
Pavi: I was thinking about how a lot of your poetry is set in the home space and I feel like domestic is just a wrong word for it. It's not domestic poetry.
Barbara: It's okay.
Pavi: In the sense that... it's not that there is anything wrong with the word, but I think that we have these assumptions that things that are familiar are not mysterious.
Barbara: That is very much a subject of ours!
Pavi: And this idea that, just because it is something that is daily or something that is very close and available does not mean that it has been examined or that it can even be fully understood. That kind of sense of continual unpacking of what is close at hand. Does that feel like it comes naturally?
Barbara: No I feel like I am writing the same poem over and over again. And I have. I know I have. I want to try and do something different. I know one time, I said, "Nobody has written a poem about a paper clip." So I have a poem about it. But then I ran out of objects that I really wanted to write about.
The newest poem that has been accepted is about a Dickson Taekwondo number 2 pencil.
Pavi: There you go. I love it.
Barbara: And again that's not what I intended to write but, I had bought some desk objects to writing workshops as a prompt. Ted Kooser I think has a wonderful poem on a little tiny spiral notebook. And I think I used that as a part of the prompt. Then I was thinking about a try and then I don't know. Dickson Taekwondo took over.
Pavi: I am looking at these lines by one of your other reviewers Kathryn Machan. " When I read her poems, I smell bread rising, hear children cry out at snow on red leaves, taste sour cherries sharp and lasting as love. She writes of all a woman can make and takes us with her into that power." That's quite a testament!
Barbara: Aw! Yes!
Amit: I think that's one of the things that stands out to me as well. A poem that speaks to my heart is, one when you can literally see things popping up in your head. It's wonderful! I keep coming back to that writing process. I know that at times where I've actually intentionally sat down to write, poetry or prose, everything has to be perfect. I have to find this comfortable place on my couch and I got my drink here, and this there and I have my music and it all just has to be perfect. I have to imagine as a caregiver, there is no setting like that. I am just kind of curious how you handle that.
Barbara: True. My writing life is in some fashion schizophrenic. There's the everyday writing life and there's writing in the writing colony, where all I am doing for two weeks is writing. You keep meal preparation out of the equation, even though food is another topic that I've written extensively about. But once you take meal preparation out of your week, it's amazing! It's truly amazing.
There is that. But I am usually trying to write along the prompts that I give when I teach a writing class, and often I'll be stuck. And there is just nothing coming out, but really garbage. And I try to say to myself, " Follow your own advice. Go back to your senses. And usually it's with the visual, look for the visual cue." What are you seeing? Once you have the image, say it's a lemon, like I mentioned before, 'What's the emotion? What am I feeling right now? Where am I going with this?' When I wrote the poem about the lemon, I ended up with several actually, probably from several different writing workshops. One was very much tied into my mother's death and dying and the other was tied into that first loss and the joy at the birth of my first grandchild. So, again, it's hard to follow your own advice, usually I don't but that's what I try and make myself do.
Amit: We just have one of our listeners Albert, who wrote in and said," Thank you Barbara, for your share this morning. It's a wonderful gift. Your energy and words, selfless and universal. Thank you."
Barbara: Ah Albert! Thank you! That was a wonderful thing to say. I will take your words and put them right in my heart.
Would you like me to read one of the lemon poems?
The pebbly map of its thin skin,
the pith, the thick walls,
the tough little seeds.
It needs to be married
to sugar, white beach sands.
My mother and I are pretending
we're at the shore, sitting
on the patio of her nursing home.
A yellow raft sails off
on a sea of cold tea--
The citrus light of summer
washes over the moonbeam
coreopsis, the lemon lilies,
sundrops, button headed daisies--
My mother is saying goodbye
in many little ways.
She has held her first great-grandson;
his skin's tender as a peach,
while her hands, gnarled by arthritis,
are trees left unpruned in an orchard gone wild.
O holy church of the lemon, chapel of wedges,
acidic juice, the slick shine--how the oil
clings to your skin, lingers on your fingers,
blesses the flesh of fish swimming in the plate,
kisses the filling of pie on the shelf,
remembers life is bitter,
remembers life is sweet.
Pavi: How much you packed in there! A poem on lemons, and so much more.
Barbara: It's just this time in my life. My ear, it just got more finely tuned, so that I am always searching for words that bounce off of each other. Thin/skin, pith/ thick. I am doing that a little bit easily than I did when I was a little bit younger. So I am trying to go farther with things like that. I care a great deal about the sound to define the image and the emotion.
Pavi: That kind of attention to the sound to the words to the rhythm, the texture of each words is as one reviewer described it -- a form of love.
These are his words: "Barbara Crooker's poems have been written with a deft touch and with that affection for their textures and pacings that we're accustomed to call, a little dryly, "technical skill." It's a form of love, actually, and since she's expended it on her poems, we can, too." [William Matthews]
Barbara: Wow! I'd completely forgotten that.
Pavi: I thought that was remarkable. To transform the dry technical aspects of writing poetry... to bring such care to the discipline, that it reverberates with the form of love such that the reader can experience it. That is one of the greatest gifts that great poets have to offer us.
I think a lot of what we've touched on in this call and a lot of what your work surfaces is an antidote to some of the things we have been experiencing more broadly as a culture. We have forgotten to pay attention to the morning dove, to the lemon, to the sky, to the ground beneath our feet, to our own hearts and to our own lives. And we have also forgotten to pay attention to the words that we use. Texting is a very different form of communication. Emailing and the rapidity and the abundance that we have access to, in communication, I think, has impoverished our capacities in some way, because, we haven't safeguarded it against it. And your poetry, I think, the themes, the insights and the witnessing that it does... like I said, I do feel it is an antidote. This call has been a testament to that. Everyone is feeling nourished.
Barbara: Thank You! You also touched on something earlier. When people write about literature, they tend to not think about the role of the reader. We need our readers there. People, who are hungry for the written word. People who want to hold books in our hands and I am just enormously grateful for your close reading of my work and your questions today and for the readers who might be listening.
Pavi: We have one more question before this call comes to an end. And that is, what can we as a community on our end, Barbara, what can we do to support the work that you are putting out in the world and your vision?
Barbara: Read! Read!Read! Read widely. Read eclectically. Read the past masters and the current practitioners. Read online. As you mentioned, the Writers Almanac comes out every day. You can either listen to it on the radio or you can subscribe to it. There are other sites, poetry daily and verse daily. I love to have readers come to my website and write me a little note. Engage in written word and then you will engage with your life more deeply and more meaningfully. I don't mean necessarily read me. Read lots of people.
Pavi: Sage advice. In the follow up note that goes out, we will include links to your website and will definitely hope to keep this conversation alive in one form or another.
Amit: Perfect. You know Barbara, more than anything, we just want to say, thank you very much for joining us today.
Barbara Crooker has been writing poetry since the late 70's and now has more than 900 poems in print. She and her work are the recipient of many awards. Among them are the 2007 "Pen and Brush Poetry Prize", thirty two nominations for the Pushcart prize, five "Best of the Net" nominations, and she was also 1997 Grammy Awards finalist for her part in the audio version of the popular Anthology, "Grow Old Along With Me- The Best is Yet to Be" by Papier Mache press.
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