Interview with Carole Bugge
Interviewing Carole Bugge about poetry is like interviewing Albert Einstein about Algebra. She is an accomplished poet, as readers of Quill and Parchment are aware, and is a 2006 Pushcart Award nominee and Eve of St. Agnes Poetry Award winner. She is also a novelist, playwright, composer and lyricist whose works have been published by St. Martin’s Press and Doubleday. Her plays have appeared on stages from Buffalo to Woodstock to New York City. She is also a gracious lady willing to share her craft and art with Quill and Parchment.
I wanted to begin with the usual question of "when did you start writing poetry". The question becomes more complex with you since you write mysteries, plays and essays as well as poetry. Maybe I should ask what genre came first?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories – scribbling pictures and cartoons to illustrate them (sort of early storyboards, I guess). Later came the little plays – parodies of TV commercials and sketches about my parents playing bridge – and I would conscript my siblings, cousins and neighbors to be in them. I was always putting on some kind of show. And my parents were very appreciative, bless them – I’m sure my little shows were pretty lame, but they always laughed at the scenes of them drinking and shouting out bridge bets like “Ten no trump!” (Of course I knew nothing about bridge or drinking.) So I’m not sure anything came first, but I wrote from a very early age.
My poetry “career” – if you can call it that – started in a rainy dressing room on a Friday night in between shows when I was doing comedy improv for a living. Suddenly a poem fell on me – I can’t describe it any other way. All I did was scribble it down. I had no idea if it was any good, but I submitted it to a contest and it won the Eve of St. Agnes Award in Negative Capability Magazine. I was surprised, but I guess that gave me the encouragement I needed to continue. The poem was “A Mother Speaks of Boston,” and it was a first person poem from a mother’s POV – about my early childhood in Boston, but somehow I felt like I was channeling (for lack of a better word) my mother’s voice. It was spooky, but then my best poems usually feel spooky.
Why do you write poetry?
To me it’s just another way to explore the world.
I think I write poetry as a way of exploring the deep mysteries of life. As Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” I guess I want to keep my eyes open.
With so much fine writing across these genres, it begs the questions: how often do you write and how often do you write poetry?
I write almost every day, especially these days when I’m under so many deadlines. Honestly, I write poetry when a poem “falls” on me – and they do continue to fall – or when I have an emotional crisis I need to process (I wrote a lot of poetry after 9/11, for example).
Is there a "tipping point" in your inspiration, i.e., does any one thing move you to write prose as opposed to poetry?
Poetry is usually a response to some specific experience of great pain or great beauty – or both, because to me they are related. When I write prose these days, it’s because I’m under contract for a novel – though if I write a story on my own, as my recent “Why I Live at the Laundromat,” I was trying to capture something essential about living in Woodstock, which is a quirky and unique place. I wanted to play with the idea of a POV character very different from myself, but who understood what life in that town is like on some deep level.
Poetry is sort of like a photograph, I guess, which tries to capture a fleeting moment. Nature very often inspires me to write poetry, but so can city life. Death often inspires poetry, but it can also lead to prose. When my dad died, I wrote two shorts stories about him, which both won awards and were published, to my surprise – again, I was writing to make myself feel better and to honor his memory. It’s always a little bit of a shock when my work touches someone else.
You live part of the year in New York City and part of the year in Woodstock, NY. Do you belong to writer's groups in these places?
Not right now. I teach writing, and that’s enough for me! Though I do think they can be a very good thing. I was a member of a playwriting group in NYC for a while that I loved, Alice’s Fourth Floor. I was very inspired by everyone’s wonderful work, and “Counterpoint,” a one act comedy I wrote while I was with them won an award and was produced by the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo. I’m still good friends with one of the members, the very talented playwright Beth Links.
You teach as well as write. How does teaching affect your poetry?
The thing I like about teaching is that it forces you to look at your own work more objectively. So I think it’s affected all my writing in that way – I’m a better editor (I hope.)
Your poem "Sartori on a Rainy Night" is heavy with allusions to New York City yet other works like "Migration" have a more rural voice. What draws poetry more readily from you, urban or rural settings?
I’m a country girl at heart, so Nature always feeds me in a way that is irreplaceable. I’ve always been most at home in the woods. But I’ve lived in New York long enough that I truly feel like it’s a part of me now. I like to roam the streets late at night when everyone is asleep and let my mind wander; I’ve come to see the beauty of community through living in a place like New York.
In the city, it’s all about connecting with people, and in New York there are so many kinds of relationships that you can explore in poetry. We all need each other, in ways more than just physical and practical. The other thing I find thrilling about the city is its sense of history – I love to roam the narrow streets of downtown and think about all the events that have taken place there, and the people who have walked these same streets. It’s all about exploration.
I'd like to talk a bit about influences. Your poem "Migration" begins with the migration of geese during Autumn and then the narrator mentions a recent loss of someone close. One of the most riveting images of the poem is that of the soul of the deceased being carried south by the geese. The reader is taken from a pastoral scene and is placed into a Chagall - like image of souls flying through the air. How deeply does art influence your poetry?
What a beautiful analogy, Chagall – that’s great. It’s funny, but I would say I know more painters and artists than I do writers. I really love the way their brains work: they have this playfulness about form and color and the abstract image that is so different from the way I process the world.
I’m always looking for meaning in narrative, whereas artists have the ability to see the world in a way that isn’t necessarily tied down to narrative; it’s non-linear. I find that enormously fascinating. I was with an artist friend the other day, Pamela Blum, and we were talking about this, and I felt I was having trouble expressing what I meant. I know so many wonderful painters and artists up here: Lucy Nurkse, Elissa Gore, Mariella Bisson, among others. And I was lucky enough to make friends recently with the great Audrey Flack, who I met in a Barnes & Noble, of all places!
But I would have to say that when “Migration” took shape, I couldn’t help think of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” which is one of my favorite poems by my favorite living poet. I have read it again and again, and I quote it in my physics play, Strings.
"Meditation on an Ancient Widow" is a poem that touched a chord in me. A wife of 61 years mourns the death of her husband but not with the usual sorrow one would expect. She has:
"the curve of her back bent with age
This is a strong woman and her portrait has been drawn with such stark beauty. Are there any specific women in your life who have influenced you in your poetry?
I guess we’re all influenced by our mothers, to a greater or lesser degree. My mother is famous in our family for coming up with doggerel to fit any occasion – and my sister and I discovered a few years ago that all of her light verse can be sung to the Yellow Rose of Texas – which is appropriate, since she lives in Midland.
I wrote “Meditation” after my friend Mary Kelleher lost her husband, and I was staying with her in her house on Peconic Bay. After a few days with her, the poem began forming itself in my brain. (I never showed her the poem – I was afraid she would find it intrusive.)
What poets influenced you when you began writing poetry?
Well, I love William Blake. I had a crush on a teacher at Duke who taught a course on Blake, so I took it, and he’s fantastic. And who can resist the Bard himself? I think I’m even more impressed with his talent as a poet than a playwright. It’s that unexpected, out-of-the-blue but perfect phrase that he comes with time and time again that just blows me away. He’s like Bach; so good, and so modern. I love T.S. Eliot and Yeats and the Coleridges (both brother and sister), Wordsworth and Rilke. I have read his Letters to a Young Poet over and over. It got me through my years in therapy! And Theodore Roethke - he’s fantastic. And Robert Frost – he’s wonderful. I just played piano for a show about Edna St. Vincent Millay, and was very impressed with her work. And Sandburg and Whitman – his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” may be the greatest ode to city life ever written. And my favorite living poet is Mary Oliver, as I said. At school I double majored in German, so I really got into Schiller and Heinrich Heine and Goethe; and though my knowledge of French poets isn’t as good, I do remember liking Paul Verlaine and Baudelaire and of course Hugo.
Who are the contemporary poets that you read today?
As I said, Mary Oliver, and of course the wonderful people on Q&P – there’s always something there to enjoy. Of a slightly older generation, I adore Wallace Stevens and Muriel Sparks – I had a poem of hers on my fridge for the longest time, because it just spoke to me, until it got all tattered. W.S. Merwin, and Philip Levine and Harold Brodky and Joseph Brodsky are also favorites.
Do you believe that there is a distinct "woman's voice" in contemporary poetry and who do you see as possessing that voice?
I don’t think that I do – I think that poetry is non-gender specific. Mary Oliver always says she hates being referred to as a “nature poet,” for example, and I know exactly what she means.
Your "Portrait of TS Eliot" was a study in contrast between Eliot and his creation, Prufrock. Your poem appeared in Quill and Parchment's "Poets on Poets" issue and I'm assuming that you chose Eliot. What made you chose him?
I chose him because Prufrock might be my favorite modern poem, or at least it was when I wrote that. I just think it sings – I’ve been working on setting it to music for soprano, tenor, baritone, cello and piano. It’s a long poem, as I’m discovering!
Your poetry is open and direct yet in subsequent readings a larger, more universal theme emerges. "Sartori", mentioned above, is a collection of people in New York City on the surface yet there is a theme here of universal brotherhood. "Meditation" is neither a dirge nor an elegy - it's about love. How do you accomplish this? Do you begin with the theme or with the narration?
I often begin with a situation – in the case of “Meditation,” as I said, it was the death of Brad Kelleher, Mary’s husband. And “Migration” is about my stepfather’s recent death.
Sometimes the situation can just be a walk in the woods – or a ramble through Manhattan late at night. Or a sound or smell that brings back a memory – anything that gets my meditative brain going. I think all successful poetry is a form of meditation – writing it and reading it. I like to read a poem I love over and over, until it becomes part of me.
But really, I am not exaggerating when I say poems often seem to “fall” on me – when I’m jogging or hiking, or whatever – and then I go home and write it out, play with it a bit, but the impetus often comes when I’m not thinking about writing at all.
Mary Oliver, a favorite poet of mine as well, suggests writing at the same time and, if possible, the same place so that if the Muse is seeking you, she will know where to find you. How do you seek the Muse when you write poetry?
She usually finds me when she needs me. I think she got my address from Facebook.
I must ask, is there a future "mystery in verse" lurking in your creative soul?
What a great idea – thanks to you, there is now! ( ;
Visit Carole's Website at: http://celawrence.com/
Also her book: Silent Screams at Amazon.com