Q&A with Poet Stephanie L. Harper (Part 2)

I’m pleased to present part 2 of the Q&A with poet Stephanie L. Harper:

If you were a poetic form, which would you be?

I would be a poetic form that could seep down into darkness, molecule by molecule, through miles of porous rock, to return to the wellspring, then rise again to the surface, and wash over the grief-stricken with the all immensity of love and joy in my depths. I’m pretty sure that would make me an elegy.

What themes or traits will readers find in your work? What will they not find?

My work is chock full of mythological creatures, archetypal symbolism, and nature imagery (i.e., birds, seascapes, wolves, forests, volcanoes). It touches often on spirituality (and/or religiosity), sometimes alludes to current events (and associated dismay), and has an overall feminist and philosophical bent. My love for and awe of my children shows up a lot, too. Some of my poems address such uncomfortable subjects as child abuse and misogyny, but I try to avoid any superfluously vulgar or violent language. It occurs to me that I’ve tended to give the explicit erotic love bandwagon a wide berth, which I don’t anticipate will cease to be the case, but I suppose stranger things have happened…

List three favorite poets, an admirable animal, and your go-to beverage.

Ocean Vuong, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/04/someday-ill-love-ocean-vuong

Melissa King Rogers, https://www.rattle.com/deus-ex-machina-by-melissa-king-rogers/

Emma Gonzalez, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/03/emma-gonzalez-is-responsible-for-the-loudest-silence-in-the-history-of-us-social-protest/

It bears mentioning that on another given day, I’d likely have chosen three different poets, but it’s also true that anyone I’d think to include would be someone whose work I return to again and again.

Animal: I think animals, in general, are admirable for being better and more pure in every moment than we humans ever will be in our best, most authentic moments, but sometimes an animal will stand out for me as being exceptional, even by animal standards. One example that comes to mind straightaway, is a she-leopard whose brutal and remarkable story I once followed in a nature documentary. It was years ago, when my kids were still quite young. In one of the episodes, the leopard returned to her den to find that her cub had been swallowed by a giant python. Desperate to retrieve her cub, whom she must have known was already dead, she relentlessly attacked the python, issuing blow after calculated blow clearly designed to maim and traumatize the snake without killing it, so that it would regurgitate the cub, which it eventually did. The mother leopard then performed a harrowingly elaborate mourning ritual, during which she paced and mewled and roared, and ultimately ingested her cub, presumably to protect its body from the elements, or, perhaps, to achieve a final moment of closeness. In any case, that ordeal was devastating, nausea-inducing, heart-rending, absolute perfection, like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed. I still can’t recall or write about it without tears welling up.

Go-To Beverage: This is where things get really interesting! Sorry, NOT. I drink a cup of coffee with a splash of almond milk pretty much every morning. Without it, not only is my ability to interface with the world on a conscious basis severely impaired, but my chances of experiencing a raging migraine by late afternoon are increased by a factor of ten. That is all.

And your creative process? Could you offer us a glimpse into how your poems develop from first glimmer to fully realized piece? Do you follow a regular writing routine? Do you listen to music while writing? Write in public or in solitude?

There’s a ubiquitous voice out there in literary world that would have us believe no one can be a serious writer without following a strict writing practice. As someone who doesn’t operate well with routines (which is far from saying that I’m not a creature of habit, but that’s a story for another day), that’s always been a sore subject for me, and so I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about what does or doesn’t constitute success as pertains to who I am and what I do. For one thing, I’m learning that my tendency to get obsessive over whether or not I’m performing to some prescribed standard of “real poet” (as opposed to “full-of-shit pretender,” that is), is a recipe for performance anxiety tenderloins braised in a tangy reduction of doom. I suppose it’s true that a heaping serving of doom has on occasion successfully fed a convincing performance, but it’s not a sustainable diet for me.

So, while I’ve never figured out a methodical way to conjure creative output in written form “on demand,” I’ve come to realize that this fact doesn’t necessarily mean I’m any less invested in the work. I’m finally understanding that everything I do in the course of living (i.e., being in the world each day, reading, sharing in the joys, frustrations, and griefs of my family and friends, everything that goes into raising and championing my kids, even menial chores and any and all associated avoidance tactics, and did I mention reading?) is oriented toward the work of poetry. Eventually, invariably, the imagery-laden phrase-fragments I find myself chanting in the shower, or in the car, will rise to a critical point of insistence that they be born, obliging me to do something about it—a something which tends to involve either a journal, a screen, or the back of a receipt. Then, once such a creative burst has resulted in a new, nebulous little life-form, said infant poem may demand extensive attention in the way of crafting, cross-referencing, cajoling, and other various cerebrations over the course of months, or sometimes even years. Occasionally, though, a poem will learn as a result of my ministrations to pull off a pretty persuasive full-realization act.

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…

* * *

This concludes our Q&A, but while you’re awaiting your copy of This Being Done (the pre-publication sales period ends April 27), you might read Stephanie’s poem “How to Be a Malacologist” in Panoply, or visit her blog.

Q&A with Poet Stephanie L. Harper (Part 1)

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.

* * *

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.”

I Must Be Doing Something Right, Somewhere, Sometime, Maybe?

Since New Year’s Day, 24 publications have turned down my writing. Before that, I received ten rejections in December, which only tied my sixth worst monthly total for 2017! So yeah, I know the sting of rejection. Mostly it resembles a mosquito’s bite – a bit annoying, it disappears quickly. But one will occasionally strike like a scorpion – WHAM – and it swells and throbs for a while and I wonder why the hell I continue dallying with this odd thing we call poetry. I suppose it’s enough that from time to time a complete stranger will respond kindly, or an editor will ask to see a few pieces for consideration. Or a few poems get published in print…

My poetry has appeared in these print publications over the past year. Although much of my writing is published online, I’m still enamored with print. Something about the smell, the feel of paper. Ah, bliss.

And why do I continue writing? It’s the doing of it, the process. That is what really matters.

Your Armpits Smell Like Heaven

glacier

Your Armpits Smell Like Heaven

But your breath could melt a glacier at three
miles, she says, and then we might consider
the dirt under your nails, the way you slur
your sibilants, and how you seldom see

the cracked eggs in a carton, a downed tree
branch in front of you, the ripened blister
of paint in the bedroom, or your sister
lying drunk on the floor in her own pee.

Back to your armpits. Do you realize
we could bottle that aroma and make
a fortune? I inhale it and forgive

your many faults. The odor provokes sighs
and tingles, blushes I could never fake.
Ain’t love grand? Elevate those arms. Let’s live!

Never in my wildest dreams did I envision writing a poem about armpits. But the August 2015 Tupelo Press 30-30 challenge, and Plain Jane, the title sponsor, provided that opportunity. This first appeared here in April 2016, and was subsequently published in Algebra of Owls. Many thanks to editor Paul Vaughan for taking it.

armpits

Never Drink Anything Blue

blue drink

Never Drink Anything Blue

But always keep your options unzipped and
available to whatever slips in; the snake

lives in the attic for the rodents,
but occasionally takes a fledgling peewee

from a nest near its exit, while the scorpion
generally avoids light except for those nights

when moths seem too delectable to pass up.
Our governor whistles Beethoven but switches to

the hymnal when campaigning, and I’ve announced
a need for organic zucchini when craving a craft

beer. Confession is good for the soul, except
when it’s bad for the body. “Think with words,

not with ideas,” Sontag wrote, and Williams said
“no idea but in things.” Of course he was just writing

a poem. Baking is chemistry – measure carefully –
but cook with abandon! Whoever said “keep your

friends close but your enemies closer,” slept
alone most nights, or not at all. Born in Louisiana,

I am the product of an illegal union, but which
half should be interred where? Both sun and

moon rise and set. Is anything incorruptible?
Drink everything blue. Everything.

hymnal

“Never Drink Anything Blue” was drafted during the August 2015 Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, and appeared here in March 2016. Many thanks to Stop Dragging the Panda, who sponsored and provided the title.

Journal Publications (March – May 2017)

Links to my publications, March – May 2017.

West Texas Literary Review
“Gulf”

Quiet Letter
“Memory and Closets”
“Strollermelon”
“Cutting Down the Anniversary Pine”

LCk Publishing
Sault St. Marie

Rat’s Ass Review
“Sensing My Dismay at the Election Results, My Wife’s Dog Presses against Me”

La Presa
“Even the Light”

Oxidant|Engine
When to Say Goodbye

GFT Presents: One in Four
“Scarecrow Believes”
“The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn”

Journal Publications (June – August 2017)

Mantle

I thought it might be worthwhile to assemble these in one place, to make it easier for anyone interested in reading my recent publications.

MockingHeart Review
“This Island is a Stone”

Vox Populi
“Scarecrow Calls Out the Man”

The Icarus Anthology
“Shadow Charm”
“Forgetting Charm”

Blue Fifth Review
“Heroes”

The Mantle
“Overlooked”

The Lake
“Letter to Wright from Between Gusts”

Eclectica
“A Word Bathing in Moonlight”
“Scarecrow Dreams”
“Missing Loved Ones”

Birch Gang Review
“Landscape with Jar”

Blue Bonnet Review
“Buddha’s Not Talking”

Picaroon Poetry
“Memorial Day, 2015”

Bright Sleep
“The Sky Withholds”

Crannóg
“Scarecrow Sings the High Lonesome”

Outcast Poetry
“The Theory and Practice of Rebellion”

CrannogFront