I’m pleased to offer this Q&A with poet Stephanie L. Harper:
You have a chapbook, This Being Done, coming out soon. Can you tell us something about it? From where did the title come?
Yes, I’m thrilled that this debut of my work in book form is making its way into the world. The title, This Being Done, is an excerpt from my poem, “An Elegy for Birds & Bees,” which, the more I think about it, the more I believe is the crux of the collection. The poem came to me when I was profoundly depressed and drifting—feeling as if my childbearing days being behind me was somehow synonymous with not having (and not deserving to have) an identity or purpose for my own sake. The poem’s opening lines, “over & over in habitual drone /i repeat a phrase in my mind that no one knows i say / because i have not told / i am saying i’m done,” are at once a funeral dirge, and a spiritual awakening; with the aggrieved instance of awareness that the “being done” is my effective death, comes the terrifying sense that “thisbeing done” could be the only segue through which I might return to some kind of viable life. What ensues is a deliberate and laborious taking up (again) of the direction I’ve always been going in, because the alternative to doing so is simply not tenable; and I’m grateful to say that it’s the way I’m headed still. So, what I hope the book as a whole will offer readers, is something to hold onto in the way of resonance, or solidarity, to bolster them for their respective journeys.
(Note from RO to blog readers: You must read these poems. If the book is not within your budget, ask your library to order it.)
Please tell us how or why you turned to writing poetry?
When I was a youngster, my teachers used to call me a “gifted” prose writer (go figure), and anyone who’s ever received a personal letter (whether in handwritten, or electronic form) from me would attest to my proclivity for words, and lots of them, but I’ve actually always preferred poetry as my vehicle for creative expression. I don’t believe I ever had a pivotal moment of “turning to” writing poetry, but rather, simply, that I am a Poet. It’s a fact about my life that it’s taken me the better part of my lifetime so far to figure out, but I’m learning that it’s more a matter of how I’m wired to relate to the world and others in it, than of my having chosen to practice one form of art over another.
I think of poetry as an attempt to account for and share the truth (in terms of emotional, experiential immediacy) as accurately and proximally as human language will allow, given that language can only at best be a pale stand-in for any actual thing we mean to express. Insofar as telepathy hasn’t yet evolved in humans to the extent that it could viably supersede our linguistic systems as the primary mode of communication, poetry strikes me as the closest we can get to understanding one another.
I am a Poet, not because I think there’s something special about me that I need to tell everyone, but because I’ve found nothing more fortifying and validating than those moments in which I’ve recognized myself in someone else. And so, what moves me to give something of myself to the world in the form of poetry, is not so much a hope of getting something in return, as it is of being a gift that’s received.
Would you mind sharing a bit about your background?
You might say that I’ve taken an anti-establishment approach to achieving Poethood, in that I never earned an MFA, or even studied in any writing program. But the truth of the matter is, my sans-MFA route was not for a lack of trying to pry my way into the establishment. When I was a senior at Grinnell College (IA), graduating with a double major in English and German, I applied to a boatload of graduate programs in creative writing. Several of my professors made a point of advising me against including any of my poetry in the writing samples I submitted with my applications, stating euphemistically that it “wasn’t ready.” The non-conformist in me did not heed, and did not prevail. A year later, stubbornly submitting more of my “poetry” with my applications to yet another batch of writing programs, resulted in more resounding rejections. I did, however, manage to find my way into one of the top Ph.D. programs in German literature in the country at the time, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I studied and taught for four years while completing my MA, and two additional years of coursework toward my Ph.D. After the accrual of much debt, my life took an abrupt, yet immensely welcome turn toward marriage and motherhood. I’ve since made a show of pursuing other “respectable” career paths, including completing the prerequisite science courses for a nursing program I ended up not applying to, and a stint in theological seminary as a Master of Divinity candidate, during which time my son was diagnosed with autism, which suddenly made my true calling crystal clear… Societally-induced guilt over “wasting my education” be damned: I’ve spent twenty years so far as a Mother, doing exactly what I was meant to do—which, as it turns out, has amounted to a pretty stellar education in the poetic arts…
Would you offer up some of your influences – poetic and otherwise? What draws you to that work?
Whenever someone asks me about my influences, everything I just knew perfectly in the second prior congeals into a blur of inaccessibility. It’s kind of like when something suddenly reminds of a film I saw decades ago, and I need to tell my husband immediately what it was called or who was in it, because it’s now the only thing that matters, which usually goes something like this:
Me: You know, the one about aristocrats in France in like the 18th century? And the bad playboy guy tricked the faithful married woman into falling in love with him, but then he accidentally fell in love with her, too, and he tried to set things right, but then she died of a broken heart? Oh yeah, and that actress was in another movie—something about witches, maybe—with the guy from that horror movie in the late 70s that was filmed in part at the Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood… I’m sure the title has something French in it, but it was an American film. I think it came out in the late 80s or early 90s? Oh, yeah, and the Fatal Attraction lady played some kind of villain…
Husband (never surprised, always a bit concerned): Dangerous Liaisons?!!??
Well, now that my expertly executed stall tactic has bought me a semblance of clarity, I feel compelled, first off, to mention Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols and Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ (also a Jungian psychologist) amazing work on the female psyche, Women Who Run With the Wolves. Other “poetic and otherwise” influences that are making their way to the conscious fore, in no particular order, are Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies; Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk; Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer and Our Greatest Gift; Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series; Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia; Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet; John Keats’s everything; Paul Celan’s Death Fugue; Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and Letter on Humanism; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn; Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven; Elizabeth Barret Browning’s How Do I Love Thee…; and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg.
I generally admire literature that is meticulously crafted, with strong musicality, exquisite observations about the human condition, and/or wry humor; but what the works that have had the deepest impact on me all have in common, is something I experience more viscerally, as a singular degree of earnestness, or a rarity of insight that can only be described as one thing: genius.
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We’ll continue Part 2 of this Q&A in a few days, but in the meantime, you might read Stephanie’s poem “How to Take an Amazing Photo of a Solar Eclipse,” or listen to her read “Anatomy of a Fustercluck.”