Below are the unedited responses from poet Helen Losse to questions I asked her in preparation for a column I wrote for the Independent Tribune (Concord, NC).
Bill Diskin: What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?
Helen Losse: I want to share the hope that is in me through my poetry. I want to explore and discover “truth.” I want to allow others to think with me and to come to see that the truth matters so much more than the facts. I write to give glimpses of what it means to be human in God’s world. I want to share the hope that it is possible for us to be human together and live in peace.
BD: What are your earliest recollections of poetry in your life?
HL: I was exposed to poetry as a child without being told it was poetry. My mother read and quoted nursery rhymes and songs, and sometimes she read poems she had known from her childhood—poems her mother had read to her. I had no idea I was listening to poetry; I just liked listening to my mother recite and sing.
BD: Why, in your opinion, is poetry important in our society?
HL: Poetry can present useful and powerful ways to look at life. Important ideas (and ideals)—such as love and hope—can be expressed through images and in the musical element of human language. Imagery and musicality are exaggerated in poetry (as opposed to prose). These images (and music) can change the world. Because images are not judgmental, they allow readers to bring their own experience to the poem (as though anyone ever leaves his/her experience behind) in an honest way that informs the very image itself and makes it useful to the reader. Poets—in their search for truth—can say things no one else can, because poets are not bound to a particular set of doctrines or world views. Poets can bring truth and, therefore, social change to the world in ways no preacher, columnist, historian, or teacher can; poets may but do not have to work in opposition to others. Poets challenge the status quo.
BD: What inspires you to write? Do you have a story about what inspired "Negating Natural Erasers"?
HL: Natural beauty, human love, social injustice, memories of a happy childhood, and God deep within my soul inspire me to write.
I started to say, no to a story behind this particular poem, but the reality is I began it by recalling the evening walks, I took with my Mother, Dad, and older son Troy the year I was pregnant with my younger son. My husband had left Troy and me in Missouri to spend about six weeks with my parents. While there, we often spent part of the week at my parents’ trailer on The Grand Lake of the Cherokees near Grove, Oklahoma. The trailer was in a quiet, rural retirement village, where many of the residents walked in the cool evenings. The “rocky road” and the “dusty weeds” were located there, but we never walked it after midnight, and I can’t recall walking the road that circled the development alone. The ocean scene was an extension of the lake scene—connected by the presence of water. The ocean must be the Atlantic; I’ve seen the Pacific only once and never felt its waves on my bare feet.
I love the ocean because its vastness puts life in perspective. The tide (and the wind) wash away much that “proves” we were here. And thinking about something that big (and powerful) opens me up for large questions. I can make my mark on the landscape, but will it remain? Is making (and leaving) a mark on humanity more important than the one we make on nature? Can I change the world so that it is a better place when I leave it than when I came? How? Is it “by writing love songs?”
Poets use metaphor to compare and contrast. I meant “love songs” in the broadest way one can imagine. An ode to the ocean is a love song. Poets also make mental leaps in which the subjects are related then leave it to the reader to figure out how they are related.
BD: When do you write?
HL: I write when I have the time to do so and when I feel that anxiousness that tells me to do so. I don’t have a set routine. I often write as a response to natural beauty—God did make a lovely world.— and more recently from prompts. Having said that, I know, it is easier to write form negative rather than positive emotion. I write to make the world better.
Since I am a happy person by nature and choice, I must allow myself to go (mentally and emotionally) into places where I do not dwell in my “real life” in order to write poetry. Many creative people have a melancholy side that is or borders on depression; I do not. I have said many times that I am too well adjusted to be a poet.
BD: Is there a particular place that you like to write?
HL: I write at my computer, because it works for me. I used to write poems longhand first, but “cut and paste” seems more efficient.
[I just stopped answering a different question to write this one.]
Just seconds ago, three young deer came running across my back yard. I saw them from my seat at the computer. Yes, I know deer eat azaleas. But what further inspiration does one need to write? I named my blog, “Windows Toward the World,” because I spend a lot of time at my computer, and my poems begin here. From my window, I can see several trees—evergreen and deciduous, a dogwood and a crepe myrtle, whose blossoms look like fire, when seen from a distance—various bushes, the deck, hanging baskets, a bird house, bird feeders, the ditch in front of the Duke Power right of way—they do things to nature that I hate—long and short grass, a falling down metal storage shed, an outdoor fire pit, a fallen-and-cut-up but not-yet-hauled-away tree, a concrete mixer and unidentified junk. Deer, dogs, and children run through from time to time. My back yard is my “triggering town.” (See The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, which is my favorite book about writing poetry.) I can go anywhere from my back yard. The view from the window gives me a place to start.
BD: What poets do you read?
HL: I read a lot of local poets that I hear at poetry readings. And I read a lot of southern poets who submit poems to The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, where I am the Poetry Editor. But you want names, right? I always hate this, because I might leave someone out.
Jane Mead, Dennis Sampson, Christine Garren, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Cathy Smith Bowers, Carter Monroe, Tim Peeler, Scott Owens, Jessie Carty, and many of the poets who have read at Poetry Hickory. That’s just a few. I do try to support poets by buying and reading books at poetry readings. Sometimes I just reach for a book I’ve already read. I keep all the poetry books I buy.
I read a few journals: The Main Street Rag, The Iodine Review, ….
BD: What advice do you have for others who might want to get started writing poetry?
Show, don’t tell.
Find your own voice.
Listen for the music in the words you choose.
Be careful when you use rhyme.
Showcase your vocabulary in appropriate places.
Revise. Revise. Revise.
taken from my essay, “Suggestions for Poets.”
BD: Have you noticed any trends or patterns in your writing over the past 5-10 years?
HL: Oh, yes. Of course, I have. Jane Mead, with whom I studied poetry at Wake Forest University, once remarked—probably quoting someone—that poets seem to write the same poem over and over. And we do. Much of the imagery in my poems can be seen out my window. Trees, deer, wind, grass, rivers, the ocean, the cabin our family had in Oklahoma when I was a child, the ocean, the Mulberry Tree at the back of our yard when I was a child, all appear in multiple poems. The mountains and the coast of North Carolina provide rich settings that appear over and over.
Although I grew up and went to college in Missouri, I have lived all of my adult life in North Carolina: 15 years in Charlotte, where I taught English, etc. at Charlotte Christian School and Carolina Christian Day School, 2 years in Walkertown just east of Winston-Salem, and the last 24 years in Winston-Salem. This gives me two homes—two setting from which to write—one as a child and one as an adult, one in distant the other in recent memory.
I often write dream sequences in which imagination and reality are blurred. My first book, Better With Friends, explores the intersections of memory (factual and embellished), dreams (daydreams and night dreams), reverie, and prayer, so that all of one’s thoughts can be envisioned as prayer. Although the book has strong spiritual overtones, it is not a religious book nor a book of poetic devotions. The events that serve as story in the poems make possible a life in which one can “pray without ceasing” (II Thessalonians 5:17) through the bad and the good. Being a Christian always colors my point of view.
BD: Share a comment or two about life, writing, art, the poetry scene in North Carolina, toasters, or anything else that you'd like:
HL: I am glad that I learned very early in life that happiness is a choice. As an adult, I have learned that it is a choice that is easier for some than others. I am glad I made that choice early and that happiness is a habit with me. I do not shoulder the unhappiness of the world (and there is much). but I do try to empathize with others. I did write a poem about depression, which a bi-polar friend said rang true. My goal is to live one life well. Living life well has little to do with one’s vocation.
The poetry scene is North Carolina is vibrant. The more poets I meet, the more I feel I am a part of something large and diverse something that matters. I see that through submissions at the Dead Mule, where I am the Poetry Editor. Because the editors and publisher of the Dead Mule are located in North Carolina, we get lots of submissions from North Carolina poets, although we publish literature from all of the south. I’ve met a lot of poets through the Dead Mule. Scott Owens, a poet from Hickory who organizes Poetry Hickory, where I’ve met a number of poets, shared with me that you might be receptive to including me in this project, and here I am. Poets share; they are that kind of people.
Ah, toasters. Actually I have two: a toaster oven that is good for baking the small packages of biscuits that we use when I cook sausage on Sundays and the $8 pop-up kind that toasts cheap bread for BLTs. My husband and son once saw a toaster at the mall that cost several hundred dollars. I’m glad I know, no toaster on earth is worth that kind of money.