Lisa Zerkle has served as president of the North Carolina Poetry Society, community columnist for the Charlotte Observer, and co-editor of Kakalak: Anthology of Carolina Poets. Zerkle currently lives in Charlotte with her family.
Piedmont Poetry Project: What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?
Lisa Zerkle: To me, a poet’s first job is to notice. Our second job is to convey. A journalist seeks to be objective, while a poet seeks the opposite. I want someone who reads my work to recognize part of their emotional selves. I want them to think, yes, that’s exactly how that feels.
PPP: What poets do you read?
LZ: I’ve studied (and love) now-deceased poets like Elizabeth Bishop and James Wright, but day-to-day, I prefer to read contemporary poets like Ellen Bass, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Kay Ryan, A.E. Stallings (her ease with form is remarkable), Billy Collins (he is a joy to hear live), W.S. Merwin, Lucia Perrillo, Sarah Lindsay (Twigs and Knucklebones is a favorite), among others.
PPP: What are your earliest recollections of poetry in your life?
LZ: My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Woodward, had our class go through Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky line by line. She compiled what we thought the poem meant. Our class performed this interpretation as a play, complete with student-made costumes, for the rest of the school (I was the frumious Bandersnatch). It was a compelling illustration of the power of imagination and words. I still love that poem.
PPP: Why is poetry important in our society?
LZ: I’m for anything that increases the level of empathy in the world. At its best, poetry helps articulate what it means to be human -- when you read a poem you get at felt experience. Poetry is particularly appropriate at times of celebration and grief, but some of my favorite poems are ones that describe an everyday happening.
In our ever-busier world, poetry has the advantage of being concise. As Rita Dove says, "Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful ... like a bouillon cube: You carry it around and then it nourishes you when you need it." You can’t read a novel in one sitting, but a poem can transport you or make you laugh or cry, often in only one page.
I find intellectual and creative fulfillment in poetry, the way I imagine others do from music or art. There are others out there like me who perhaps haven’t found their way to poetry just yet. When they do, I want them to experience the rich, vibrant expansion of the world that I did.
PPP: What advice do you have for others who might want to get started writing poetry?
LZ: That’s easy: read. If you want to be a good writer of poetry, you must also be a good reader of poetry. If the last time you read poetry was in high school, connect with current work from contemporary poets. Look for magazines and literary journals that have a national distribution, but also seek out the regional and local publications (print and online) that feature poetry.
Participating in a writing group or class where you receive honest, but specific, constructive advice, is invaluable. The North Carolina Poetry Society, North Carolina Writer’s Network, and Charlotte Writers’ Club are all excellent resources for people trying to connect to other writers.
PPP: When do you write?
LZ: I have three teenagers who participate in many activities. I keep a portable “poetry bag” with drafts, revisions, and background material ready to go at all times. I’ve written poems at the karate studio, the rock climbing gym, in the library, the oil change garage -- you get the picture. I’ve seen a quote that says something along the lines of, If you wait for the perfect time to write, you’ll never write a word. True for me. I find if I work on a poem, even for a short while, my mind will continue mulling it over and I’ll have something to add when I next sit down to write. There have been times when I’ve been able to block out writing time on a regular, weekly basis. That’s a great practice if you can make it work with your schedule. I’ve learned to carry a small notebook with me everywhere. If a phrase occurs to me while I’m walking or driving, I’ll lose it if I don’t write it down.
PPP:Is there a particular place that you like to write?
LZ: See above! When not writing on the move, I write at a desk next to a window, surrounded by books of poetry.
PPP: What inspires you?
LZ: Snippets and scraps. I’ll hear something on the radio, read an article, or come across a phrase I can’t get out of my head. This is where my poems sometimes begin. My writing groups also inspire me. They are open to criticism and dedicated to finding exactly the right word. Editing is a different, but related, skill to writing poetry. Helping others fine-tune their work has helped me look at my own writing with an agnostic eye. And I’ll say it again, because it’s key -- reading good work of all genres.
PPP: What is your opinion of the poetry community in Charlotte and surrounding areas?
LZ: We are fortunate to have an active, dedicated group of poets in our area. I’ve found the community supportive, welcoming, and professional. Writing poetry in a banking town can seem somewhat arcane. It helps to find your people.
Park Road Books has been a steadfast supporter of local poets. Main Street Rag and Iodine are two well-regarded literary journals based out of Charlotte. CPCC’s Sensoria Festival always has a strong presence from local writers, including poets. Charlotte Viewpoint, an online magazine, regularly publishes local poets and writers.
My one beef -- and it’s a big one -- the audience for poetry readings and events tends to be other writers. It will be a good day when the public-at-large shows robust support for literary events.
PPP: Where has your poetry been published?
LZ: My chapbook, Heart of the Light, has just been published by Finishing Line Press. Press 53 featured my work in one of their Spotlight anthologies a few years ago. Poems have also been published in Nimrod, poemmemoirstory, Main Street Rag, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Pinesong, Crucible, Literary Mama, among others. I have work forthcoming in Charlotte Viewpoint, The Ledge Magazine, and Sixfold.