An Interview for The Cracked Pot
by Janis Gaines
One of the student editors for our school newspaper The Cracked Pot wanted to interview me about poetry. These were her questions and my responses. I will post the article here as well when it’s finished. This was a great honor — thanks for thinking of me, Abby!
First, tell me a little about yourself, especially about your writing journey (when did you start, did you pursue it in college or for a career, what are you writing now, etc.)?
English was my favorite subject in school. I always had my nose in a book, and I loved to read and write. I won an English award in 7th grade, and I think that helped to set my course early on. In college, I started out as a political science major, but eventually switched to English and decided to teach because I believed that would be the best career to have and still raise a family.
I don’t have as much time to write as I would like to have, but since 2012 I’ve been working on a poetry blog and cataloging all of my writing that I’ve saved over the years. This has been a time-consuming, but rewarding project. I recently took a memoir writing class, and I enjoyed that too. I believe it’s important to preserve and honor your work.
What are some disadvantages and advantages of poetry, as compared to other types of writing (essays, short stories, etc.)?
The advantage of poetry is that it can pack a powerful punch in a short space. It’s like taking a snapshot with words, and when it’s done well, it can be just as breath-taking as the best photos. Most poems are relatively short, and that appeals to some people who otherwise wouldn’t take the time to read.
The disadvantage of poetry is that it is often ambiguous. The meaning is not always clear right away, and some won’t take the time to decipher it. Or, even when you do decipher it, you still can’t relate. Poetry tends to be more personal in nature; just like there are certain people or personality types we don’t connect with, there will be certain poems that, no matter how hard we try, we still won’t connect with.
As a teacher, what are some common problems you see in students’ poetry, and what are some ways to correct them?
The main problems I see in student poetry writing have to do with structure and cohesion. Students are usually good at having consistent rhyme, but some struggle with having a consistent meter. This would be like trying to listen to your favorite song on the radio, but it’s off beat. Imagine someone clapping off beat. That’s how some amateur poetry comes across.
In terms of cohesion, some students will mix metaphors or switch themes mid-stream, and that’s just as weird as if you were to do the same thing in a formal essay. You wouldn’t start out writing a character analysis on To Kill A Mockingbird and then end your essay with a treatise about how kids need more exercise. That’s best separated into two papers, and it’s no different with poetry. Stick with one key them or emotion to create your best work.
Because poetry is so varied in terms of structure and so subjective, as with all art, how do you personally decide whether a poem is good? What are some things you look for in a good poem?
You’re right — there’s both a science and an art to any type of good writing. Some of that can be taught or “caught” through good mentoring, reading other good writers, etc. To me a poem is good if I connect with it on some level — like a batter connects with a baseball. Sometimes you miss and every hit may not be a home run, but a game is won through consistent contact with the ball. Success in poetry is gained through consistent connection with your audience in ways that they can appreciate and relate to.I believe every writer has an audience. I also believe in fostering young talent. Just like an athletic coach can see an athlete’s potential, I try to encourage your writers as well when I see the same glimmers of potential. I know how far I have come from my first writing attempts, and I appreciate the support I’ve received along the way, so I try to pay that forward, so to speak.
I like poems with creative word play or language that makes me see or, better yet, feel something in a new way. I’m impressed with poems that follow a highly-structured pattern, like the sonnet. I like spiritual poems written several hundred years ago, like those of John Donne; they make me feel like I’m connecting with a rich legacy of faith that’s just as alive and relevant today. Writing poetry leaves a legacy for generations to come and continues to speak even long after you are gone.
How does poetry, and writing in general, affect your life—faith, ministry, relationships, doing the dishes? =)
Poetry enriches my life. When I write poetry, it’s an outlet for my emotions. It can help me to process a mood like sadness or regret — and then be free from it and move on. I think people can find this same relief through many creative forms of expression, such as music or painting. For me, poetry also reflects my connection with God. Through times of prayer and meditation, He will often speak to me in songs, and many of these have truly been “songs of deliverance” that have helped me through difficult times.
Psalms 107:20 says, “He sent his word and he healed them…” This is often the power of poetry. Sometimes there’s a word or a phrase or a whole poem that will speak directly to you or your situation, and the beauty of that cannot be overestimated.
Lastly, what is some of the best advice you’ve either heard or come up with concerning writing poetry well?
Leonard Cohen, the songwriter who wrote the classic “Hallelujah” song, has a great line about poetry: “If your life is burning well, then poetry is just the ash.” First, you have to have a fire within that must be expressed; you can’t “hide it under a bushel, ” as Jesus said. Study the greats. Read a variety of poetry styles. Feel and think deeply. Practice often. Take a class. Become a wordsmith. Find a mentor. Sometime less is more. Know when to end.
Also, there are some websites where you can register and sign up for a poem a day. If it’s something you love and feel called to, surround yourself with it, in books, on Facebook, or Pinterest etc.
@ April 19, 2015