A poet fully engaged with her craft: An interview with Wilda Morris
by Neil Leadbeater

Wilda Morris is a graduate of American University, Washington, DC and the University of Illinois. She also holds an M. Div. She is the author of two books of poetry: ‘Szechwan Shrimp and Fortune Cookies: Poems from a Chinese Restaurant’ (RWG Press, 2008) and ‘Pequod Poems: Gamming with Moby-Dick’ (Kelsay Books Aldrich Press, 2019). She has served as president of both the Illinois State Poetry Society and Poets & Patrons, a Chicago poetry organization for which she continues to serve as Workshop Chair. For several years she was a staff member of the Christian Writers’ Conference at the Green Lake Conference Center in Wisconsin. Her work has been published widely in anthologies, journals, websites, and newspapers.

Wilda, when did you first begin to write poetry?

My grandmother and mother recited poetry and read poetry to us, so I learned to love it early in life. My first “published” poem is in an anthology of poems by school children. I wrote and published a few when I first got married. Then, over a nine-month period, we went from no children to five, all of whom we were able to adopt. I was over my head in family things. I didn’t get serious about writing poetry until around 1992 or 1993, after the death of my first grandchild. I had to have a way to deal with my grief. Then, beginning in 1994, I was on the volunteer staff at the Green Lake Conference Center, and began attending the Writers’ Conference, gaining more skill and confidence.

You majored in political science. To what extent, if any, would you say that your studies have become a useful source of inspiration for your writing?

I write poems on social issues, but I suspect I would be doing that even had I not studied political science. My poetry may reflect more from my seminary education, though. I enjoy doing persona poems based on Biblical characters.

Your first collection of poetry comes with an intriguing title. Please tell us more!

Most of the poems in my first book, Szechwan Shrimp and Fortune Cookies, were written at the China Chef in Westmont, Illinois. I was working half-time as the coordinator for Shalom Education, an ecumenical not-for-profit organization providing materials for churches on social issues: peace, hunger, youth violence, etc. My office was just around the corner from the China Chef, my favorite Chinese restaurant. It got very quiet after the lunch rush, so I’d stay until I had drafted a poem or two.

Tell us about your fascination with the work of Herman Melville. How did that come about?

As an undergraduate at American University, I was obsessed with politics. I quickly learned that the most interesting classes I could take were electives open to both undergrads and graduate students and taught downtown in the evening (they also gave on-campus students like me an excuse for coming back to the dorm after the usual curfew [Yes, college dorms had curfews when I was a student!]). A lot of the students in those classes were government employees who brought interesting experiences to the discussions. I filled my schedule with political science and philosophy electives and, sadly, never took a literature course. About a decade ago, I decided I should fill some gaps in my education by reading great novels or listening to them on tape (later CDs) while driving. I fell in love with Melville’s use of language and the great quotations I pulled over to write down. It was obvious that Melville was responding to the political and social issues of the day (thirty crew members representing 30 states in the union; the risk that the union could sink like the Pequod if it had a tyrannical leader; white people’s success depending on the work of the enslaved symbolized by Flask (a white mate) standing on the shoulders of Daggoo, the African harpooner). I signed up for a class on Moby-Dick with William Hansen at The Newberry Library in Chicago, where we plumbed the depths of the book. While working on my poems, I took the class a second time. And I listened to a different recording of the book.

You have led poetry workshops in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Do you find it rewarding to teach other poets and to what extent do you believe that poetry can be taught?

I do enjoy facilitating workshops and find it rewarding. It is exciting to hear the poems written by children who are just finding their voices, as well as adults. I don’t know if poetry can be taught, but I think it can be brought to the surface. It is often innate, and just waiting to get out. I also enjoy attending poetry workshops. Ellen Kort, Robin Chapman, and Marilyn Taylor, all Wisconsin poets, are among my mentors.

One of my favourite poems of yours is ‘Ingrid Loves White Orchids’. [This poem is reprinted in full below]. Please tell us a little bit about the background to this poem and how it came about.

“Ingrid Loves White Orchids” is an ekphrastic poem responding to a painting supplied by Quill & Parchment. Without that prompt, that poem would not have been written. I was taking John Nygro’s courses on Shakespeare at The Newberry, which explains how Ophelia got into the poem. For several years, I wrote a blog, “Walking with Nature,” for a local on-line newspaper, so it was second nature for me to research legends about orchids. Time spent in seminary and in studying scripture also contributed, hence Solomon and Saint Ingrid. I’m leading workshops in the new free Write! Ekphrastic program of Poets & Patrons of Chicago (poetsandpatrons.net), in which poets travel together via Zoom and Internet to visit far-flung art museums and write poems in response to paintings or other art objects housed in the collections we visit.

On your blog, http: //wildamorris.blogspot.com, you offer a poetry challenge for poets each month. How easy do you think it is for poets to write to order on a given theme within a tight timescale?

Many people like the challenge of writing a new poem from a prompt they are given, and even do better with a deadline. Others are more likely to look through the poems they have already written to see if they have something relevant. I accept previously published poems, which obviously were not written in the 15-day period between the posting of the challenge and the deadline. On the rare occasions that the prompt is a form, I don’t get many submissions.

Your poem ‘Letter to Mother During the Pandemic of 2020’ must have spoken volumes to many people. To what extent do you attempt to turn a personal poem into something that is much more universal so that readers can identify with it and make it their own?

There are a lot of similarities between the Spanish Flu pandemic which almost took the life of my mother when she was a toddler, and the current pandemic. Those who have loved ones in nursing homes certainly can identify with this poem. I have friends and family who could not enter their mother’s or father’s rooms, could not hug them or kiss them. They agonized over the absence of social interaction for their loved one (and/or for themselves) due to Covid-19. Often it is the personal details that make a poem more universal because they touch the emotions. Maybe your mother didn’t spend time building jigsaw puzzles with other nursing home residents but loved to play bingo. Maybe your dad didn’t race a motorized wheelchair down the hall, but that can remind you of some other peculiarity of your parent that makes you cringe or smile. The personal details evoke a human connection.

Some of your poems, for example, ‘It was the age of innocence’ and ‘Senior Love’ are quite playful. Do humorous poems come easily to you and do you sometimes use them to convey a more serious message?

I didn’t actually think of “It was the age of innocence” as a humorous poem, though I was obviously playing with book titles. My best humorous poem may be “Dust Bunnies.” It won third place in a national contest. I don’t think it has a serious message, but you might say there is one in “Senior Love,” namely, that love isn’t limited to young couples.

What projects are you working on now?

I have a manuscript that needs to be sent out immediately: The Unapproved Uncle, about my childless uncle who had the love of his nephews and nieces. I’m working on Not Science 101, a book of poems responding to things I read or see on documentaries related to science. Some of the poems are meant to be serious and thought-provoking. Others are humorous or even a bit outrageous. I have enough nature poems for at least one book, and quite a few that respond to Shakespeare. If I live long enough, some of these may get published—and I might write a book of poems about women in the Bible. I have more ideas than time.

Thank you, Wilda, for taking the time to do this interview.

Ingrid Loves White Orchids

Not the purple ones. No, not since her class studied Hamlet.
Purple orchids remind Ingrid of Ophelia, tired of being led on
by the prince, finally aware she’d been used, and Hamlet thwarted
by her death. Ingrid envisions purple orchids falling from Ophelia’s hand
as she slipped into the pool. No, she does not like the purples.

Ingrid does not believe the legends of the ancients, how eating
orchid tubers could determine gender of an expected infant –
as if orchids distort biology or heaven’s plan,
whichever it is determines that. She even doubts orchids
could be aphrodisiacs though she regards them as romantic.

Ingrid dozes off in the garden one spring afternoon,
dreams that Solomon, in golden crown and robes of royal blue,
paces a palace corridor carrying white orchids in his jewelled hands,
searching for the queen who will return home to Sheba
to bear his son and there make him a king still revered in Ethiopia.

On the twenty-second of September, Ingrid prays to the saint
whose name she bears, asking only that her life not be contorted,
that she always be open-hearted, begging that everyday saints
be rewarded. She sleeps. She awakens from a dream
of saintly Ingrid, finds in her fingers a bouquet of pure white orchids.

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