Riverton Ranger Full Interview with Emily Etheridge, Staff Writer, Riverton Ranger (2012)
EE: When did you first start writing poetry?
CD: A ninth grade English assignment to write a short poem got me started. I was a good student, did my homework, but this made me stop and wonder how. There were no questions to answer, and no formula to plug into. That night I sat on our front steps, watched the first stars come out, and realized that some things just happen, and I needed to make a poem just happen. Throughout high school I wrote definition poems (like “Happiness Is…”). I’m thankful none of those early attempts survived!
EE: What typically inspires you to write something?
CD: I did some thinking about this last month, when I was asked to coordinate a small group of writers to read some of our work and discuss our processes for writing teachers from around Wyoming. We read under a large tent at the CWC Sinks Canyon Center, on the solstice evening; it was magical. I found that many things inspire me: sometimes it’s an actual experience, sometimes a reaction to nature or music or art, wordplay, a tribute to someone or something… I’ve been keeping a journal because, when Naomi Shihab Nye was here last fall, she suggested one way to stay creative: write descriptions and questions, then find linkages. So at breakfast I look out the back door, read, sip coffee, and scribble. The cottonwoods, passing deer, sunlight on grasses, etc., have been great to watch. The changing sky, the moon, listening to a flute or tenor sax… Actually, I think, more than anything, inspiration is about focusing. Paying close attention and getting the sense or feel of something. Becoming something else for awhile. I don’t always manage that last step, but you can benefit greatly from slowing down and focusing. And writing every day.
EE: How many poems have you written?
CD: Ha! I had to look at a list and count. Aside from the untold rough sketches and notes waiting for me to figure out, and those which apparently aren’t quite ready — I’ve had 50 poems published, mostly in journals, some in anthologies, a few in both; and a few more will come out this summer.
EE: Do most of your poems rhyme?
Many do, but just barely. You only notice if you pay close attention. I don’t like obvious end-rhyme – I think it’s overrated. When my sounds bounce off each other it’s typically from the middle of lines or from the middle of one to the end of another. They’re understated, not perfect rhymes, but playful. And they’re not sprinkled all the way through, since I’ve found that too much rhyme can distract from understanding. When read out loud, following the line breaks and punctuation, the rhythm (if I’ve done it right) emphasizes the subtle rhymes. I have a poem which plays a lot with sounds bouncing around; here’s a snippet from “Gargoyles”:
We are old and may breathe fire,
but we are cold, prey to desires, fantasies.
Rain gutters through us, again and again, tears
and a feeble moan.
We are many, yet think we’re so alone.”
I have others where the imagery carries them, and there’s no true sense of rhyme at all. But, yeah, I usually I play with sound.
EE: How often does it take you to construct a poem?
CD: Wow! Each poem is different. I wish I had a recipe, so I could tell you that I whip up a poem in three days – but, no. Some drag on and I wonder if they’ll ever be done. I have struggled for months on a poem, only to look up and instantly get inspired for another poem that just flows. Years ago I interviewed Richard Hugo, a Northwest poet still quite celebrated at the University of Montana though he passed away nearly three decades ago. I asked him about the struggle and the flow; he told me, “The work you do on one poem is the work you do on all poems.” I’m sure it’s like that, also, with music, art, Olympic games…
In general, I scribble down images of what I’m feeling or sensing or want to achieve, type it into a document, then let it sit until the next day, when I look at it briefly, scribble changes or questions, update and print the new draft, then let it sit, and so on, until finally one day I think it’s pretty close to done. That’s a lot of printing, I know, but I need to keep seeing it fresh, not all scratched and scribbled.
EE: Do you ever get frustrated when writing?
CD: I have. But when I look back now, I realize that the frustration comes from trying to force a poem. If you have patience, and let the poem figure out how to tell you what it wants, you both come out at peace.
EE: Are there times you struggle with thinking of something to write? If so, how do you deal with this?
CD: No, not something to write about – there are so many topics (people, places, animals, the scent of lilacs…)! But I struggle with how to write about them. How to describe, why to describe, what do they say to me, and do I think that’s helpful or relevant. How do they go together: juxtaposition, metaphor, like that. Can I deal with what might come out of the process. Some poems, especially about a death, I have to put away and ignore for years before I can reflect on them again. Of course, I keep on writing new stuff in between. That’s how I deal with writer’s block…
EE: How long have you lived in Wyoming?
CD: Twenty-nine years this month. I was born and grew up in New England, where I started writing, but my poems didn’t take off until I came West. That was Arizona first, then Washington State, where I interviewed Richard Hugo. The West, I guess because it’s so open (clear view of mountains) and simplified (fewer species of tree in a forest), makes it easier to grasp what’s happening and stimulates powerful images (fire, horses, ancient civilizations, the many personalities of the wind).
EE: Do you think living in Wyoming provides you with inspiration (such as nature, agriculture, people, etc.)?
CD: Absolutely! Because we’re so sparsely populated and so distant from one other, there is space and time to focus and ponder what we see, hear, question, remember, wish. Nature is a huge inspiration (aspen, buttes, bears, a spider)! And agriculture (seeds, water, cows, the fair)! They’re in our faces, like the wind. A writer has to describe them, wrestle with what they mean.
People inspire me, yet the closer they are to me, the harder they are to describe. I try to learn about other cultures, to see my own through fresh eyes. And from people come the arts (concerts, plays), sports, different trades or lifestyles, reading matter (poetry, the news), etc. And this way, people or characters, and their habits, insecurities, and idiosyncrasies, can raise our consciousness about humanity. Sometimes we need to approach the larger topics obliquely…
EE: You mentioned you have had some of your work published-where has it been published?
CD: Apparently I’m a little hard to find. When my husband and I moved to Wyoming, back in the 1980s, the Casper Star-Tribune (can we mention this in the Ranger?) used to have an Arts Edition, edited by Charles Levendosky. I had a couple of poems there. And I’ve been a member, fairly regularly, of Wyoming Writers, Inc., and WyoPoets; I’ve had poems published in their contest booklets and anthologies. Also in Wyoming, I’ve been published in Westering (Eastern Wyoming College), the Owen Wister Review (UW), and just recently, High Plains Register (LCCC). In addition, I have poems in some Colorado publications (Colorado North Review, Front Range Review, Matter, and Pinyon) and beyond (the Rio Grande Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and EarthSpeak Magazine, online). Some of what I read at the library will come out this summer in Riversongs (Salt Lake) and Sugar Mule’s special issue, online, Women Writing Nature. I was privileged to have three poems selected for the anthology Ring of Fire: Writers of the Yellowstone Region, edited by Bill Hoagland, back in 2000. Several Wyoming authors, more famous than I, are also included in that book, which should be easy to find. According to WorldCat, it’s in nearly every Wyoming library and in libraries in six other states.
EE: Talk about your writing group in Yellowstone-do you gain inspiration from one another when you meet up? How many poems do you write when you meet up?
CD :I’m a founding member of West Thumb Poets, a group of six of us who live scattered across western Wyoming (including one who’s crossed the line into Montana). We decided on the name because a.) we live in the West, b.) we’d need our thumbs to hitchhike to get together, and c.) we meet in summertime in Yellowstone, near West Thumb. We’ve been a group for about eleven years, usually meeting tri-quarterly (staying home in winter), in libraries around our homes.
But there is no greater way to get charged up about writing poetry than to meet with like-minded poets in a gorgeous natural setting! We don’t actually write while we’re together; we critique each other’s work. Some of us do that by email every month, as well, but getting together is the ultimate energy. Sometimes we hike in the park. This summer (August 25, from 4 to 5 p.m.) we’ll be reading our poems in the Sun Room at Lake Lodge. We laugh. We make plans. And we go away renewed.
EE: For those who may not be sure how to go about writing a poem, what are tips you could provide for them?
CD: Ah, the recipe. Well, I’ll try. But, just as every poem is different, so are poets. First, I’d say turn off all phones and other intrusive devices. You need to clear your head and be ready to “receive.” Go sit in your backyard or in front of a work of art — or, if you actually like lots of chaos (some people do), go to a carnival or a busy store. We each have places that conjure up inspiration or stagnation; go to the former. Wherever you are, take time to focus in on something (an old photograph, a dragonfly — use a magnifying glass, if you like), or close your eyes, take in the sounds (traffic, music, talking), and try to make sense of it all. Jot down what you think, feel, recall. Sketch it, if that helps. Notice the images that stand out most. Play with those images and any rhythms that seem to fit. Play is really important! Don’t worry about how it will all end up.
Later you can question the origin of a word or phrase, the raw materials of a man-made object, the steps in a process, synonyms, etc. Ask how, why, when, and translate it all to a bigger or smaller picture. But, above all, slow down and focus. Cut the unnecessary words. Tell it slow, the best way you can. Set it aside for a day or so, then look at it anew. Fashion it as you would a present, and, if you’re so inclined, give it to your grandfather or your kids. A poem is a form of handiwork. If you don’t like what you’ve made, take it apart and try again. Don’t throw it away! Reduce, reuse, recycle…
EE: What poem have you written that has been your favorite so far? Why is it your favorite?
CD: I guess my favorite for now is “Wind’s Apology.” It came to me one night last winter while I looked through what I’d written in my journal that day. I picked up some of the images and wove (or hooked?) them over and over, until I thought I had a poem. It’s short, as many of my poems are, and has aural as well as visual imagery. It doesn’t have a lot of rhyme, though there’s subtle playfulness with sounds (obsidian, if you could run, horizon). It speaks of forgiveness and renewal, and it should probably be read slowly, line by line. Here’s the ending:
Now he’s polished the sky
obsidian. If you could run
your finger around the horizon,
it would sing like a bowl.”
EE: Do you have anything you are currently working on? If so, what is it about?
CD: Oh, yes. On the writing side, I have a manuscript of 31 poems for a chapbook I hope is someday selected for publication. It’s been growing, but 22 of those poems comprised my first attempt, which was a finalist last year in the Flying Trout Press chapbook contest. I’m currently working on several poems, on topics as far afield as an idle basketball court, childhood on the monkey bars, cutthroat trout, a spider… Oh, and a challenge from a photographer friend to write a poem on or using “the rule of thirds.”
On the reading side, as a board member of Wyoming Writers, Inc., I’m involved with providing regional readings or writer training. This is still in the planning stages, but soon we’ll be up and ready to learn community writing needs and create or suggest events.
Thanks for letting me ramble!