05 December 2011

An interview with poet Robert Abbate

Below is the unedited text of an interview with Concord, NC poet, Robert Abbate. Abbate teaches English Composition at Rowan Cabarrus Community College in Kannapolis, NC.

Piedmont Poetry Project: What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?

Robert Abbate: What I achieve in poetry has always been concerned with reaching a broad reading audience, which, unfortunately, in contemporary times has become a readership of poetry editors, other poets, and critics in academe. I recently read Dana Gioia's essay "Can Poetry Matter?" and I have come to the realization that a general readership beyond the poetry coterie is the most coveted goal any poet might strive for. When collections of poetry like Alfred Lord Tennyson's _Idyls of the King_ or Marilyn Nelson's _Carver: A Life in Poems_ become best-sellers, then the poetry world has regained is lost stature in the publishing world. i can only dream about such a collection crafted by me.

PPP: What are your earliest recollections of poetry in your life?

RA: I decided I wanted to be a writer in elementary school through the encouragement of my fifth grade teacher who encouraged me to write stories, but poetry came to me later in middle school and high school. My high school creative writing teacher encouraged me to write poetry and serve on the editorial staff of the literary magazine. I developed a thirst for having my poems published that endures to this day. I eventually studied creative writing at Penn State University with nationally renowned poet John Balaban, now the MFA director at NC State. I also went on to study creative writing at UNCC and i am currently working on my MFA in craft poetry at Western State College of Colorado.

PPP: Why, in your opinion, is poetry important in our society?

RA: Poetry matters because it touches the human soul and transforms people's lives. Since people continue to memorize the poems of Shakespeare, Donne, and Blake, the evidence of poetry's relevance for society takes on the stature of a spirituality akin to the religious fervor found in studying the holy scriptures. I often joke with my friends that I have joined the Church of Holy Poetry and that I have become a Knight of Poetry's Holy Grail.

PPP: What inspires you to write?

RA: I am inspired by nature, especially birds and wildlife. I attempt to mine the metaphoric ore in what I see around me. i am also inspired by people's stories, the ethnogrpahic poems that capture the voices of people telling their stories. My first collection of poetry _Courage of Straw_ reflected on my decisions to donate a kidney to my sister and to speak out about physical and sexual abuse.

PPP: When do you write?

RA: I usually write in the morning or evening with a steaming cup of brewed tea beside me. I still draft my poems on paper before transferring the drafts to electronic format.

PPP: Is there a particular place that you like to write?

RA:I have been very productive with my writing at home in my living room in a comfortable chair. I like having windows nearby so i may look outside and see the beauty of nature. I also write in the local coffee houses.

PPP: What poets do you read?

RA: The most influential poets upon my writing have been John Balaban, Seamus Heaney, Fred Chappell, Kathryn Stripling Byers, Betty Adcock, Marilyn Nelson, Daniel Tobin, Mark Jarman, Timothy Steele, David Mason, and Richard Wilbur. I have been studying with the New Formalists and New Narrative poets at West Chester University Poetry Conference for the past eight years. Craft poetry pays particular attention to form, meter, and rhyme, the traditional modes of poetic expression.

PPP: What advice do you have for others who might want to get started writing poetry?

RA: The best advice I can give for those who want to write poetry is to read the best poetry available, to immerse oneself in the whole scope and sequence of the English poetry tradition, not just the latest trend in contemporary poetry. Once an aspiring reader gets a sense of their favorite writers, he or she may then emulate them. Also keeping a daybook or journal is helpful. I have kept a dream journal for years attempting to capture the vivid images from my dreams. Writing takes work and commitment, but remember composition isn't always about committing words to a page, its about meditating on lines and composing while you are busy doing other things like Wordsworth taking his daily round around the Lake District, Wallace Stevens composing poems in head as he walked to work at the Hartford Insurance Company, or Kathryn Stripling Byer forming her lines while hiking through the woods in the mountains of North Carolina. Be patient with the lines that that you cast and keep them pliable. Be willing to cast your lines in multiple ways until the poem takes on the "Sound of Sense" as Robert Frost called it, poetic expressions that pass for everyday conversations.

PPP: Have you noticed any trends or patterns in your writing over the past 5-10 years?

RA: My poetry has become much more formal over the last eight years. I have been writing fixed lyrical forms such as sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, rondeaus, rondolets. The West Chester University Poetry Conference has challenged me to experiment with form beyond free verse. Even my free verse pays close attention to stress meter now. I think Robert Frost was right when he said that free verse is like playing tennis without the net. The rules of meter help poets achieve lyrical effects. Otherwise, poetic lines in free verse are merely prose poems.

PPP: Share a comment or two about life, parenthood, nature, teaching, writing, or anything else that you'd like:

RA: Poetry is a mirror of the soul. When the mirror is clear, its expression can be transformative for both readers and writers. Keeping the mirror's reflection unclouded is a challenge that poets and writers may courageously face provided they are willing to revise their work for the sake of clarity and audience appeal.

22 April 2011

An Interview with poet Carrie Anne White

Below is the unedited interview with poet Carrie Anne White followed by her poem "Questions Addressed to Love".

Carrie Anne is finishing her senior year at Cannon School in Concord, NC. She will be heading to Colorado College in the fall.

Piedmont Poetry Project: What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?

Carrie Anne White: I write poetry mainly for myself, so I think the most rewarding accomplishment would be to keep writing.

PPP: What are your earliest recollections of poetry in your life?

CAW: I read rhyming children's books as a kid, and wrote my first "book" of poems in the third grade. Before I learned how to write, I made up and memorized lyrics to my own songs, so I imagine this fed into my need to write poetry.

PPP: Why, in your opinion, is poetry important in our society?

CAW: Poetry is the organized chaos we need in order to make sense of the generalizations and logical perspective that we have to have in business aspects of life. Poetry is the hard-edged, fun, raw, emotional, aesthetic, and melodic side of writing--and an outlet for disorganized expression. Without it, I know I'd have a hard time making sense of things.

PPP: What inspires you to write?

CAW: I'm most inspired by novelty in any form: new people, new tragedies, new perspectives, new challenges, and new places. Anything that strikes me as unfamiliar is fuel for poetry. It's how I decode the unknown.

PPP: When do you write?

CAW: I write when I'm alone at night, or if I have free time during the day and something especially inspiring comes to mind.

PPP: Is there a particular place that you like to write?

CAW: The most inspiring place I've ever written at was at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Massachusetts, where I spent three weeks dedicated to learning and practicing writing. I had the opportunity to write outside with my elbows in the grass on a hillside with near eighty other young writers. It was a really enriching experience to write in the presence of other students who are as passionate as I am about writing. As for now, I most enjoy writing by an open window.

PPP: What poets do you read?

CAW: I have a soft spot for Shel Silverstein. (I've passed that on to my baby sister; I buy her a Silverstein book every year and read to her from it.)

PPP: What advice do you have for others who might want to get started writing poetry?

CAW: Don't wait to start, just do it. The best advice I've ever had was to write about whatever I knew best. If writing on an unfamiliar topic scares you, try different genres or subjects of poetry until you find one that lets your ideas percolate.

PPP: Have you noticed any trends or patterns in your writing over the past 5-10 years?

CAW: I have always written in a sharp, almost cold way. My writing style has evolved to have a taste for dark edginess, unusual wording, and the occasional rhyme. I love short poems, partially because others will be more likely to read them, but mostly because they're challenging. It's difficult to sum up the ideas withing a poem in just 10 to 14 lines.

PPP: Share a comment or two about life, being a senior, nature, toasters, writing, or anything else that you'd like:

CAW: I've noticed that we remember small bursts of life rather than entire days. The more variety we put into our day, the more bursts of life we will be able to savor on a nostalgic afternoon later in life. I've been trying to keep this in mind as I push through these final days in high school. I'm realizing that I won't remember the thousands of facts I've put on flashcards, but I'll remember the spontaneous afternoons I spent with friends or family trying new things apart from my routine.

Questions Addressed to Love

I asked her who she was.
She showed me the clouds--
Molecules clumping and morphing,
Turning and running off the endless page of sky.

I asked her where she’s been.
She pointed to the silhouette above,
The raging mass of black wings,
Silently changing directions.

I asked her what she wanted.
Just then, her iris fogged, revealing
A lighter shade of blue.
She blinked and the vibrancy returned.

I asked her where she was going.
She took me to an empty room.
She sat with me by a stained mirror.
She sang to me and let the echo

She never really told me,
But it reminded me of a cliff dive.
A warm wetness on the tongue.
Absent-tasting, and it stung.

-- by Carrie Anne White

03 April 2011


I read that Johannesburg is the world’s largest city
not on a river, lake or ocean. That’s what I read.
Water is important. But what I know for sure

is that my grandmother could not drink water
just before she died and I remember feeding her
ice. My mother, well, she died like a vapor

before I could even feed her goodbye.
My father anointed his dry mouth with a swab
dipped in water the night before he passed.

And I wake up and reach for the bottle
on the nightstand and just before
the water passes my lips a thousand thoughts

enter my mind and I drink anyway,
thirsty, but what choice do we have, really,
but to stay close to water

for as long as we can

-- by Harry Calhoun

20 March 2011

An interview with poet Harry Calhoun

Bill Diskin: What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?

Harry Calhoun: I enjoy communicating with others, especially other poets, through my poetry. I also hope that I can continue to develop a reputation as a talented poet whom others would like to publish. So far, while I’ve had limited financial success, I have been lucky to have two books and two chapbooks published in 2009 and 2010, with more on the horizon.

Poetry is sort of the “odd bird” of the literary world. Even people who are voracious fiction readers, or people who paint or pursue other artistic endeavors, seem a little skeptical when you tell them you write poetry. The reactions range from, “Why?” to “I don’t understand poetry” to simple indifference. I guess one of my goals is to make my poetry so accessible that they’ll read it and see why ... and truly understand poetry.

Editor Shirley Allard once said “Your poetry is so real and easy to relate to. I don't know how anyone could read your work and still say ‘I don't get poetry’." That means a lot to me and it’s close to the heart of what I try to do when I write..

BD: What are your earliest recollections of poetry in your life?

HC: Well, of course I was exposed to it early on in school, but I guess I first started liking it — and writing it, badly — in high school. I remember I wrote a poem comparing a girl I had a crush on to a purple-and-green stuffed gorilla. Obviously, I had a lot to learn.

BD: Why, in your opinion, is poetry important in our society?

HC: Well, if you mean important to most people, it’s not. That’s not intended to sound bitter or cynical, it’s just true. There is a website called Outsider Writers for a reason … many writers, and I think especially poets, feel like outsiders, ostracized almost. But for people who care and understand it, poetry is a very pure and, at its best, beautiful way of communicating. One very different from reading fiction or nonfiction … something that connects in a visceral and special way. Poetry at its best either changes you or makes you feel deeply what the poet is expressing.

BD: What inspires you to write?

HC: My wife and my dog. Pain and joy. The ocean and rain and sunshine. It really can be anything, but it’s not an accident that I mention my wife and dog first! Also, I lost both my parents over the period from March 2008 to February 2009, and believe me, soul-searching to get to my feelings about those events inspired me to do a lot of writing. It’s a lot of therapy, sometimes not easy to go through, but it does get the emotions out there and lets you examine them. I have often said that one reason I write is to find out what I’m thinking about. I think that’s true. The poems sometimes surface emotions, fears or simple joys that would otherwise go undetected.

BD: When do you write?

HC: More or less when I feel like it, but often I wake up at night with a bout of insomnia and will write ideas for some poems. I almost never remember them the following morning, which I guess is why I write them down. When I walk my dog, I have developed the knack of ruminating about things and coming up with poems in my head, which I then write down later.

BD: Is there a particular place that you like to write?

HC: Yes, I keep a notebook beside my bed. When I have insomnia, as I mentioned before, I write then. But my wife and I like to take naps on weekend afternoons, and many times I wake up from those snoozes with poems in my head. And of course, I keep several books of poetry by authors I like close by. Just with any other type of writing, you have to read it to be able to write it. Reading newer poets keeps me current, and reading the old ones reminds me that the old dogs still have quite a few tricks to offer.

BD: What poets do you read?

HC: Well, the poets that I consider “mainstream” that I love are W.S. Merwin and Billy Collins. Early on, say in my 20s, Dylan Thomas was a great inspiration to me. Oh, and of course, Charles Bukowski, how can anyone live without some Bukowski? Now, I like to read the young’uns … Christopher Cunningham, out of Asheville in our own North Carolina, is one who bears watching. So is Hosho McCreesh out of New Mexico. I also enjoy people whom I have published in my magazine, Pig in a Poke, which has recently been revived as an online literary magazine. But poets I published there long ago — Jim Daniels and Louis McKee spring immediately to mind — still hold a special place in my heart. I have been reading a lot of McKee lately and marvel at his simple eloquence, the easy way he has of talking about difficult subjects. That is at the very heart of poetry.

BD: What advice do you have for others who might want to get started writing poetry?

HC: As Ray Bradbury once said in Zen and the Art of Writing,, don’t do it for money. Do it for passion, for love of the game, so to speak. And keep at it, and keep reading it and pick up pointers from your betters. Copy shamelessly if you must, and eventually you will become one of your betters!

BD: Have you noticed any trends or patterns in your writing over the past 5-10 years?

HC: Yes, I am writing more and thinking about it less. I throw the first draft on the page longhand and then savagely attack it and rewrite at the computer. I know other people — Christopher Cunningham whom I mentioned earlier — who like to write on the typewriter. Doesn’t matter how you do it, it’s getting it done that matters. As I’ve told my wife, Trina Allen, who is herself an excellent fiction writer, the important thing is to place the seat of your pants on the chair. Then, as someone else once said, just open a vein and let it flow.

BD: Share a comment or two about life, parenthood, nature, teaching, writing, or anything else that you'd like.

HC: Life is great. I have a good job — good enough that I can work part-time and still survive. I would recommend that to anyone. It always seemed unfair to me that a working man would have to relegate his passion, his poems, to two days and a few evenings a week. Having an extra day off means so much to me and I really don’t miss the money. Parenthood I wouldn’t know about it, except to say that there is a reason I have never had children. I’m sure they can be a joy, but I’ve also seen what pain they can cause. Nature: I love it … I am a huge fan of Hal Borland, the nature writer for the New York Times, and I incorporate the woods, the sea, the simple sights I see walking my dog Alex into my poems.

That’s about it. It is so gratifying to me that, at age 56, I’m getting some recognition for my poems. I mean, I had some publications earlier on, but nothing like this. Just call me a late bloomer and a baby boomer, and happy either way. And thanks for the interview!

Further reading:

Harry Calhoun’s articles, literary essays and poems have appeared in several magazines including Writer’s Digest and The National Enquirer.

Check out his trade paperback, I knew Bukowski like you knew a rare leaf, the recently published The Black Dog and the Road and his chapbook, Something Real.

He’s had recent publications in Chiron Review, Chiaroscuro, Orange Room Review, The Centrifugal Eye, Monongahela Review and many others.

He is the editor of Pig in a Poke magazine. Read Harry's poetry and more at http://harrycalhoun.net.