An interview with Kathy Lohrum Cotton


Poet and editor Kathy Lohrum Cotton hails from southern Illinois. Over the years her work has been published in literary journals, magazines and anthologies and as exhibits of poetry combined with art. She is the author of a 2020 poetry collection ‘Common Ground’; a full-colour illustrated poetry book ‘Deluxe Box of Crayons’ and two earlier chapbooks. Since retirement she has also edited and designed more than 60 books for non-profit organizations and other authors.

She is a board member of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies and serves as editor for the Federation’s annual prize-winning anthology. She is also a board member of the Illinois State Poetry Society (ISPS) and facilitates its Southern Chapter.


Kathy, please tell us something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.

I began writing poetry as a child, winning my first contest at age seven. Throughout school, I gave my poems—probably hundreds of them—to friends, never keeping copies for myself. When someone posted a few of them on a college bulletin board, a visiting editor noticed my work and gave me a contract for my first nationally marketed poetry. Still, it was decades before I thought of myself as a “poet.” I just enjoyed writing.

What moves you to write? What subjects are you most passionate about?

Sometimes, almost anything interesting can move me; sometimes, nothing can. My daily walk may turn a gingko tree, a dead frog on the road or my neighbor’s new mailbox into a poem. News headlines, diverse reading, challenging master classes and a lifetime of memories are all inspiration points. Across decades, my interests and passions changed often and significantly, but a few threads stitch through the years: a trinity of love, joy, and peace.

Your involvement with poetry and the visual arts, especially collage and photography, will be of particular interest to our readers. Do you view poetry paired with art as an additional way of introducing people to poetry and does it, in your opinion, add a new dimension, a new dynamic to both the artwork and the poem?

My brother was a professional artist, but I didn’t get the “painting genes.” At a Quaker retreat, I picked up the hobby of old-school, cut & paste collage. As my work became more intricate and meaningful, I framed collage and poems together, a pairing that brought poetry to the expanded audiences of galleries. I’ve also merged art and poems in separate exhibits of haiga (haiku with backgrounds), broadsides, ekphrastic poetry, and book-spine poems. Several books I’ve designed, including the latest, Synergy, are illustrated with photos and collage—it’s double communication.

What aspect of writing do you find the most challenging?

Submissions! The work of journal and contest submissions tends to linger at the bottom of my creative to-do list.

What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet, and why?

I value diversity and life-long learning. Resources outside my wheelhouse nudge the imagination in new directions. On my nightstand today are Whole Brain Living, Saints of Hysteria, Diary of a Yogi, and Dreamland—a typically disparate but inspiring stack.

In your poem ‘Ordinary Joy’ you write ‘I am familiar with joy / know the contours of its face…’ Would you say that you have a positive view on life? How does this play out in your writing?

The more negative society becomes, the more I say “Yes!” to a positive life view. I believe the “ordinary joy” that flows from kindness and gratitude adds meaning to this one small life. It puts me in the best position to serve others and shines light on what I choose to write and what poetry projects I support.

In one of your poems – ‘Flight of Poetry’ – you state, ‘There is no middle way for poets: they plummet or they soar’. Would you expand on that for us?

The poem is based on Icarus, who was warned to take “the middle way,” not flying too high or too low with wings embedded in wax. Poets take that kind of risk when we launch deeply personal thoughts to be read by strangers. Do we reveal too much? Not enough? We want “perfect wings” that “take flight a proper distance from the sun,” but in the end, our poems “plummet or they soar” in each reader’s response.

One of my favourite poems of yours is ‘Motherhood’ with its references, conscious or unconscious, to biblical imagery, especially Psalm 23. To what extent does biblical narrative influence your writing in terms of expression, vocabulary, and cadence?

The green 1956 Baptist Hymnal was my unwitting first model for rhythm and rhyme, and the psalms of David were my introduction to poetic language. The biblical themes of love and forgiveness that shaped me hold lifelong influence and inspiration.

Your poem ‘Seek Peace’ reveals some of your favourite writers. Some of them, especially Mary Oliver and Yehuda Amichai, are among my favourites too. When did you first begin to recognise your own poetic voice amidst all those other voices?

When my hymnal and Hallmark rhyme-guides gave way to mainstream free-verse with its natural speech rhythms, I found my own unfettered voice: straight from head to heart to hand. Decade by decade, the timbre changes, but the voice remains distinctly my own.

Your short poem ‘Weeding’ is, to me, a great poem. What constitutes a great poem for you?

A great poem moves me, makes me think, feel, respond. . .and usually say aloud, “Wow! I wish I had written that!”


To close this interview, here is Kathy’s poem, ‘Finding Common Ground’, reprinted with her permission:

Finding Common Ground

Before the extravagant feast,
the flowing wine of words,

let me break bread
at the table of

a neighbor starving
on broth-thin bromides,

elders who chew
old shibboleth scraps,

the child choking down
force-fed fear.

Let our common ground
bind me to the true words

dancing in rhythms
of stranger or friend;

spilling from city roar
or cemetery silence—

true words on their destined
path away from fingerposts

pointing in every direction.
Then, just then, let my pen

touch the waiting page,
let ink’s dark nectar spill out

every ripened syllable
of words worth sharing.

From Common Ground.


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