An Interview with Barbara Crooker
Born in Cold Spring, New York, Barbara Crooker received a bachelor’s degree in English from Rutgers University (Douglass College) in New Jersey and then went on to complete her postgraduate studies at Elmira College in New York. She began writing poetry in the 1970s and is the author of nine books of poetry including Radiance, which won the 2005 Word Press First Book Award and was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, Gold (Cascade Books, 2013), Small Rain (Purple Flag Press, 2014), The Book of Kells (Cascade Books, 2018), which won the Best Poetry Book 2018 Award from Poetry by the Sea, and Some Glad Morning (University of Pittsburgh Poetry Press, 2019). Her Selected Poems (a selection taken from twelve chapbooks) was published by FutureCycle Press in 2015. Her writing has received a number of awards including the 2004 W.B. Yeats Society of New York Award, the 2003 Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, and three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships in Literature. She currently resides in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania.
Barbara, to what extent did the poetry of Diane Wakoski influence your early work? How did you discover her poetry and what did it mean to you at the time?
Oh, this is quite a story. I was in my twenties, and my life had fallen apart. I had a baby that died, and my husband left me with a toddler to raise alone. I went back to grad school part time and started teaching as an adjunct at the local community college. One night, I found a journal my ex had left behind, and there was a feature on Diane Wakoski. Both what she said in the interview and the group of poems she published there blew my mind wide open. I thought, because this journal came out of a small college in northern Pennsylvania, that she was an undergraduate, not realizing how famous she was. And I thought, hmmm, maybe I can do that. So I started writing. My style is and was nothing like hers, but she primed the pump.
A bit later, I met the love of my life, the man who became my second husband. He knew I was interested in going to a summer writing conference but couldn’t afford it, so he offered me the choice of either an engagement ring or the conference, where DW was on the faculty. Not a hard decision! So off I went, but it didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. I wanted critiquing; she wanted to run the workshop in a “supportive” mode, where we all just appreciated each other. But one of the fiction writers offered to take a look at my sheaf of poems (at this point, I’d started to publish), and somehow, he was able to tactfully tell me that what I’d done so far wasn’t really wonderful (despite the praise of my grad school teachers) and that I needed to be reading contemporary writers. He showed me how to order sample copies and gave me a list of journals to read, so he was the one, really, who set me on the writing path.
Much later, I was at a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (the VCCA) doing yoga with some of the other fellows, and there, in an upside-down pose (we were in the library), I spied THE very copy of The Falcon (the aforementioned journal) that got me going. Reader, I stole it! (They have since remodelled, and it would have been thrown out anyway.)
Much, much later, DW and I became “friends” on Facebook, and after I posted a poem, she wrote, “I wish I’d written that one.” (She didn’t know who I was; I’d changed my last name, and we’d met over forty years ago.) So it’s a very tenuous sort of influence, and yet reading her work changed everything for me.
In Janet McCann’s Foreword to your Selected Poems, you are quoted as saying that the closer we are to the natural world, the closer we are to our true spiritual selves. Would you say that the natural world is, for you, your main source of inspiration?
Well, there are all sorts of things to write about, but I return, again and again, to nature. When I teach, I tell my students to “write through the body,” use your senses, especially sight, and observe what’s around you. Most of my best work has been done at the VCCA, and I think it’s because there are so many spots there where you can write outdoors.
In the same Foreword, Janet McCann sums up the major function of your work in one word – “awakening.” Would you elaborate on that observation for us?
It seems to me that it’s very easy to sleepwalk through our lives, eyes on our screens and devices. I see one of the functions of poetry as being an awakening, helping us come fully alive to our “one wild and precious life.” (Mary Oliver)
In your poem “Grief” you describe grief as being like “a river you wade in until you get to the other side.” To what extent do you think that true poetry is born out of grief?
In one of my poems, “The Lowest Common Denominator,” I have these lines:
I am thinking about literature, how it all
can be reduced to love or loss,
when you get right down
to the heart.
When I wrote “Grief,” I was mourning the loss of my mother, and I was trying to talk about grief as the antithesis of “closure,” that we never get over missing those that we deeply love.
I see that you have been the recipient of over twenty writing residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and that you have also held other writing residencies in France and in Ireland. To what extent do you find these residencies a useful means of helping you to focus on specific writing projects?
When I’ve gone to the residencies in Virginia, it’s often without a specific writing project other than to organize whatever book-length manuscript I’m working on. Having a sort of “busy work” goal like that has helped me free up the part of my mind that’s resistant to drafting new poems (Blank page! So scary!), and then away I go, creating a lot of new work which is often my best work. It’s amazing to me how much more time there is in each day when you’re not the person in charge of the kitchen (planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning up)! When I’ve done the international residencies, they ask for a project ahead of time, although it can certainly evolve in different directions. For example, with the Irish one, my first intent was to write a series of meditations on the Book of Kells. But that then changed as I dug into the work, and I became enamoured of a form called the glosa. So I added on the challenge of writing some glosas, using Irish writers for the embedded quatrain, while still working on the meditations. The book that resulted from this came from two residencies, and I’m very grateful I was able to go back there. For some inexplicable reason, I couldn’t keep working on these poems once I returned home, so Ireland called me back--
Over the years you have become recognised both nationally and internationally and some of your work has been translated into German and Korean. How did these translations come about?
Also Italian, Malayalam, Turkish, Icelandic, Israeli, Swedish. . . . They’ve all come about via requests; I haven’t submitted or sought any of them out. We want to be read, so I’m very happy this came to pass, and that I have readers all over the globe. The Icelandic translator sought me out re: the phrase “Appalachian chair.” I figured the best way was to send him a link to the LL Bean catalogue!
In Some Glad Morning you write about art with ekphrastic poems on paintings by Hopper, Renoir, Matisse, Cézanne, and others. When you write about a piece of artwork, what aspect do you find the most challenging?
For me, writing a good ekphrastic poem means moving beyond mere description into some sort of dialogue with the painting. I’m always trying to approach these poems from different angles, so finding the way in is usually the most challenging part.
Also, the paintings are just the “triggering town” (Richard Hugo); the poems always want to be (and end up) saying something else—
Van Gogh saw it as the artist’s duty to create a world that is more beautiful. I take it as a given that you, as a poet, feel the same way with regard to poetry. I am thinking now of your lines from ‘Strewn’ where you write ‘every dog within fifty miles is off-leash, running / for the sheer dopey joy of it.’ How do you think a poet is best placed to make the reader see the world through this perspective without seeming to be too didactic in the process?
That’s really interesting, in that I don’t think that’s the poet’s duty, to create a world that’s more beautiful. Rather, I think the job is to capture human experience, human emotion, the whole gamut. I write without an agenda, letting the poem lead the way. You’re right on the mark that if we were only to write about beauty, it would be too didactic.
What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet, and why?
I’m a voracious reader, from novels to non-fiction…. (science and art history, especially) Everything informs my work; it all feeds the well.
HARMONIE IN RED, 1908
When I got the color red—to be sure, I don’t know.
I find that all these things. . . only become what they
are to me when I see them together with the color red.
Time has stopped here, just as madame
is paused, still rearranging oranges and lemons
in her compote bowl. Only a faint pencil
line demarks the border between table
and wall; everything the same fabric:
red of aged bricks scrolled with blue arabesques
and vases of flowers and fruits. Terra cotta
rolled from his brush with the heat of a wild beast,
spilled from wall to table to floor.
The room vibrates with blood.
Outside the window frame, there’s a green
meadow dancing with marguerites
and flowering trees. While inside the red
room, it is still. The table is set, the clock
has wound down. Nothing moves
or breaks the spell, except this hot liquid,
-from Some Glad Morning (Pitt Poetry Series, University of Pittsburgh Poetry Press, 2019), reprinted with the author’s permission.