Questions and Answers about Poetry

The Color of Lost Rooms includes poems from a series you've written about historical women. What inspired you to dive into history?

The historical women series sort of evolved as I was also working on two different historical novels. After I had written a few in women's voices, I realized there was a theme emerging -- historical women who were somehow attached to more famous men. So I began to pay more attention in my daily life to bits of history that might fit the theme. My goal has become, in part, to give those "overshadowed" women more of a voice.

Your poetry has been described as "brave." In what ways does bravery find its home in your writing?

Poetry, for me, is all about emotion. I find the poems I am most excited about both in terms of writing and reading are the poems that speak to the hidden, often unpopular parts of me. I enjoy unearthing secrets about human nature and relationships... I suppose for some, that is considered a brave thing to do.

Name some other poets whose work you find to be brave.

Sharon Olds. She wrote about sex and motherhood, when those were unpopular subjects. She shows us brutal truths about ourselves in very frank language. It was my great privilege to hear Sharon speak in Atlanta in 2008, and I loved how she claimed it was poetry that allowed her to be brave - the words themselves -- when in actuality she believed herself to be a timid person in real life. To me, it was a perfect example of what I've been saying all along: poetry gives us permission to be true to our selves. Another poet whose work I greatly admire because it feels so brave to me is Bonnie Roberts. Again, I don't think she would ever claim to be a super-brave person in real life, but she sure can put the words on the page that reveal secret emotions and longings.

Tell us about your earliest experiences with poetry. Which poets do you consider your major influences?

The first poems I remember are by Shel Silverstein. I can still hear my father's voice reading "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out." Shel had such fun with language and rhythm... although I don't often write funny poems, his humor really appeals to me, even now. As for major influences, I read a lot of Raymond Carver's poetry when I first began to get serious about writing poetry for publication. I love poems that use simple images or experiences to evoke powerful emotion. Of course I would also cite Sharon Olds here as well.

You were named Poet of the Year and your book WHAT CAME BEFORE was named Book of the Year. Yet you didn't take a single writing course in college. How have you educated yourself?

I've educated myself mostly by reading and writing. This includes not just volumes of poetry I'm drawn to, but how-to books as well. And right away I got plugged in with the poetry community in my state by attending conferences and readings. Probably the biggest help to my education process has been participating in various critique groups. Each group is different, and the feedback I've received over the years has been essential in terms of helping me to see what's working in a poem and what isn't.

You also write prose. What is the difference between writing poetry and fiction?

There are so many! The biggest difference is that poetry is feline and prose is canine. Poetry disappears for a while but then when you least expect it, it crawls into your lap and starts purring. Prose, on the other had, is always there waiting for you, constantly needing to be fed or watered or walked. And there are little things too. Because of my background in poetry, I tend to over-use analogies in my prose. And unlike many prose writers who spend the majority of their editing time cutting words, the poet in me starts with a skeleton of a story then has to flesh it out during the editing process. I find that poetry can lend a certain lyricism to prose, and prose can add meat to the bones of a poem.

Tell us about your process. When is a poem finished?

Never. I used to think a poem was finished when it was published and put in print, as if that captured it somehow. But now I know not even that is true. A poem will continue to evolve as long as there is language. Publication is merely a rest-stop along the way.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers?

I always fall back on Ray Bradbury's words, because they have been essential to me as a writer: "Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for." So LOVE and JUST DO IT. That's really all there is to it.

You also work as an editor for Birmingham Arts Journal. How do you select poems for that publication?

Being an editor can be such a thrilling job, because you get to see so many different people's viewpoints on life and love and what this whole journey is about. I truly believe everyone has a story to tell - one that ONLY they can tell, and I find it a great honor to be the reader of these stories. So basically I ask two questions: First, does the poem achieve what it sets out to achieve. In other words, does it work? If the answer is affirmative, I move on to the second question -- does the poem make me feel something? If the answer to that question is YES, then I accept the poem. I'll choose a raw, less polished piece if it evokes emotion over a super-worked devoid-of-feeling piece any day.

Tell us how you came to write poetry for children.

It started with a poetry retreat where I learned I didn't have to be Shel Silverstein; I could write beautiful (not funny) poems, like I write for adults. I got my start writing for Scholastic's classroom magazines and The Poetry Friday Anthology series compiled by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong. After three failed manuscripts, I wrote Dear Wandering Wildebeest: And Other Poems from the Water Hole, which was my first children's collection to find a publishing home. Now I can't imagine NOT writing poetry for children --- it's the perfect fit for me!