Opening Eden’s Gate: An Interview with Sheri Lindner
Formerly a teacher of English literature and writing, Sheri Lindner is a clinical psychologist, essayist and award-winning poet whose writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online journals and anthologies. She was awarded First Prize in the 2nd Annual Nassau County Poet Laureate Society Contest. Her book of collected writings is entitled ‘Opening Eden’s Gate.’
Sheri, tell us something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I had no idea, when I was “forced” to memorize “Trees,” at the age of 9 or Patrick Henry’s call to liberty speech at the age of 10, or later the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, or 18 lines of Essay on Man, what would unfold in my life from having language’s rhythms and words embedded in my cells. The greatest inspiration for writing came from my high school English teacher, Karen Denton, who introduced us to the great ones, who introduced us to ourselves. [A tribute to her is in Opening Eden’s Gate in the section titled “For Those Who Lead the Way.”] We read, we explored, we sought to understand, and while all of this was a treasure whose value could not be weighed, all of this—literature, reading, language, expression—were the vehicles that transported us into our own humanity. Unlike our parents, who loved who we had been, Karen loved us as we were in that moment, just awakening, and she nudged us always in the direction of becoming who we would become. I fell in love that year, with words and ideas and feelings, though I would not actually “write” until I had finally finished all of my schooling at the age of 40. Once I no longer had to write, I discovered I loved to write.
It has been said that Art can be compared to a holy temple. At age 17, words I had memorized metabolized into poetry. I took off my shoes, and entered the Temple, and felt the intimation…and my life was forever changed.
Who are the writers who have influenced you the most? Can you see their influence reflected in your work or in the way in which you approach your work?
The Autobiography and poetry of Scottish poet Edwin Muir was a huge influence on me, as I studied his works in depth for a Master’s thesis in English literature. At the center of his work is his conceptualization that “The life of every man is an endlessly repeated performance of the life of man,” and his imagery of the “fable” and “the river” carry the mythic and timeless nature of Humanity. Against these as the enduring backdrop, is the unfolding of our specific, time-bound lives (“the story,” “the road”). What I found most powerful about this is a sense that we are most human when we live our lives with an acute awareness of what is ageless, understanding that each of us is but one filament of the archetypal iteration of Humanity, and “meaning,” if it is to be found at all in our lives, must be created within the context of what, about Humanity, is worthy of abiding and enduring. The other most significant influence on my thinking (and probably, therefore, on my writing) was my college art professor, Norris Kelly Smith, who insisted that art did not reflect its time. If anyone dared write that on an exam, he failed immediately! I will admit that as a student of this professor, I found him to be maddeningly dogmatic. It was many years later that I “got” it. I came to understand that Art, if it is Art, always asks the question of what it means to be human, and every expression of Art is an attempt to represent at least a portion of an answer to that question. As frustrating as I found him to be at the time, I credit him as having laid foundational stones for my thinking about all Art. Looking at these two influences together, I interpret Norris Kelly Smith to have meant that if art reflected its time, it would be the time bound “road,” the “story”; if it is to be true Art, it must transcend time, and exist as “the fable,” “the river.” These influences are everywhere in Opening Eden’s Gate, especially in the section titled “Inside the Words,” which explores Biblical stories not through the lens of their manifest content, but as symbolic expressions of the ageless processes of becoming a full human being.
But, as much as those are the influences on my thinking about art and writing, I have to admit that my real “muses” are my children. I have been and continue to be awestruck at witnessing and being part of their growing up. I feel like much that is in Opening Eden’s Gate is feeling my children’s (all children’s) development and maturation to be of mythic proportions…likening it to Abraham releasing Isaac to find the altar of his own passions, or of Odysseus journeying, conquering obstacles (outer ones perhaps being stand-ins for inner ones) on his way to finding home (the place of one’s wholeness), or of the sweep of the Torah that begins in Eden and ends just outside the Promised Land, suggesting that the wandering is where meaning accumulates. I love imaging the journeys of children becoming full human beings in that way. And, knowing that as their parent I was always a place holder, always temporarily essential, with the bittersweet but necessary goal of becoming peripheral. Many of the pieces in the first section are about this process…marking one last moment of our shared bond, and then letting go, feeling poignantly that they do not belong to me (as Khalil Gibran wrote). Art and Muir are indeed the foundational stones, but I think my children move me colossal ways and set in motion an urgency to write, to capture not only a fleeing glimpse of who they are in any one moment, but of who I am, what I understand, and how I feel in that moment.
When you set out to write a poem, do you have a specific purpose in mind or do you follow your instincts and write out of the heat of the moment?
I don’t think I “set out to write a poem.” The urge to write a poem for me springs from feeling almost staggeringly moved… by beauty and love…and by feeling an overwhelming sense of being part of that. Very often I feel the poem, breathe the poem, begin to find the words to express a momentary experience that almost always feels just beyond words. I do this for quite some time before writing anything down. If I write it too soon, it loses the fluidity where “it” and I are being shaped together. Of course, it happens plenty that it never gets written! One time, back in the days when we were woken up by clock radios, a news story entered my still-asleep unconscious and when I woke up a full poem was “there” and I wrote it immediately, and have never edited it. That was an awesome and singular experience! (“The Place”).
What aspect of writing do you find the most challenging?
I always want a poem to be about more than just my experience. It begins there, but I feel it needs to take the reader someplace she or he has never been before, yet in being led to that new place, the reader would feel that place to be breathtakingly familiar.
I am currently working my way through your magnum opus ‘Opening Eden’s Gate’. How did this collection of poetry, essays and letters come about and will there be a sequel at some point in the future?
First, I must say that I’m flattered and honored that you have sought out my book and are actually “working [your] way” through it. Now the mystery of that more recent $1.80 royalty is solved! As far as I know, there are only a small handful of people who have actually read everything in it! And may I say, with some embarrassment, that there are many pieces in it that are totally “not ready for prime time.” But, it was meant to be a collection of everything I’d written. The volume came about in this way:
I had been writing poems and essays, letters, tributes and musings for about 20 years. Occasionally, I would send pieces to my parents, who always expressed enjoyment of them. They decided that they would like to compile everything I’d written and put it together in a “coffee table” type book for me as a surprise for my 60th birthday. They spoke to my husband secretly and asked if he would print up everything and send it to them (at the time we had one, family computer that we all shared, and we’d save our own files to hard disks). So on the occasions when I would go to sleep earlier than he, my husband would go through my disks and print up hundreds of pieces to send to them. However, I had many versions of many of the pieces, that I still considered unfinished or in various stages of editing (sometimes under different titles, sometimes not). And, I’d never organized the pieces to be clustered in any coherent way. So, my husband furtively printed, Xeroxed, and tried to arrange hundreds of pages, and sent them to my parents, who lovingly made a coffee table book, and the book…to me…was a mess! It had no organization, lots of duplicates, and just didn’t make sense to me, and frankly, I was a bit embarrassed to put in on a coffee table. So, after appropriate and sincere thank yous, I told them that I would like to work on it over the next year, organize it, edit it, and put it together in a way that made sense to me. And that is what you now have!
As for a sequel, it has been 10 more years and many more pieces. I’ve thought about doing another volume and will await the motivational urge.
Cantos I to VIII are a favourite sequence with me. You titled them ‘I Always Thought That I Would Not Miss These Things’. To what extent do you think that our identities are shaped by the things that we have grown to love over the years?
Thank you for asking about this poem. And it surprises me that you have chosen this one, as the references are so specific and personal and might not be so easily accessible to a reader. I have not re-read this ode to Joanna in decades, and I am sitting here with tears streaming down my face, transported to a time of fullness and loss-that-is-not-loss-but-found. Unquestionably, my identity is shaped and re-shaped as I evolve in response to my children’s, my partner’s, and my own changing beings over time. I think that one’s identity is a relational experience, in constant communication with the challenges, needs, presences and absences of those we love; it’s hard to imagine that it could evolve separate from those we love and our own engagement in loving.
What do you see as the role of a poet and what does poetry mean to you?
The most mysterious thing about poetry is the way that it stirs up the mud from the bottom to find all the things that have been allowed to settle unremarked, and, somehow, in this process, the water is actually clarified, and we see far more clearly.
My favorite poems elicit from me an uncontainable, visceral grunt of absolute affirmation, as I experience something I’ve never known in quite that way before, while simultaneously feeling as if I’ve known it in just that way all along. I love reading a poem and feeling like I wish I had written that poem!
I think the role of the poet is to bore into her readers, finding a way to touch the deepest wellsprings of a person’s soul, while simultaneously strengthening the threads that tie us to the world and to each other. The best poems are those that elicit in us feelings that we are exquisitely human.
Do you have a favourite place in which to write?
This question made me laugh! I write mostly when I swim and when I walk. I guess there’s something primordial about being in water and something serene about being in the woods. It’s hard to imagine gliding across a mountain lake or being among the trees and not feel an urge to write a poem, to participate in creation.
Who were you when you were young? Were you shy or extrovert? How has this played into your writing?
Wow. This one is interesting. Until 11th grade, the subject of English seemed like a waste of time, as it was so subjective! My father imagined that I’d become a pharmacist, as my family valued the practical, the tangible, the acquisition of a marketable skill. In my family, following two older siblings who were smart and successful, I was “assigned” the role of being the cute, naïve, and funny sibling, never taken seriously. I think most people in my life now, though, would describe me as a serious person. I am enormously fortunate that my life partner of 52 years is a person who has always valued all of me, and that the narrative of my origin family that froze me at the age of 12 did not define me as an adult or narrow who I was to become. As I spoke of earlier, my teacher Karen Denton valued all of us as sincere seekers. Whoever I was before then, the metaphoric gates opened to a life of greater breadth and depth for me. This is essentially what Opening Eden’s Gate is all about. It doesn’t much matter if Eden is seen as perfection, what matters is that we all must leave the time when we were not-quite-awake, and open our eyes to ourselves, and the world, and create our own Promised Land of lives worth living.
Do you feel that spiritual poetry has a positive future in our present age?
I have a hard time with the word “spiritual.” It means so many different things, and its overuse and vagueness of meaning often cheapens it. For me, writing is a reverential act that brings me close to the sacred. I think most people think of “sacred” or “spiritual” as having to do with God (which is another of those words often used with assumptions that we all understand what is meant!) I think the most deeply “spiritual” place that we go to in poetry is to the nucleus of our humanity. If that is what you mean by “spiritual” then, yes, it most definitely has a place!
Below is a poem that you have my permission to include (with gratitude).
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Awake at 2:23 AM,
through barely unsealed eyes
it is impossible not to see
out the window
billions of stars
pinned to a cobalt sky,
and even though they’re not
having burned out eons ago
being now only dead masses
of gasses and this, the remnant light,
we cannot help but gaze
into that studded deep,
mesmerized by those sapphire gemstones
lovers are urged to create new life,
those azure pulses that compel us
to contemplate the Infinite,
those pinpoints of light-become-words
beamed into the poet’s soul.
Before thought and language
before we knew of science and knowledge
we were swaddled in the voices
of our mothers and fathers
singing a simple rhyme
of the mystery
of twinkling stars
teaching us from the start
2nd Place Winner of the 2021 Nassau County Poet Laureate Society Contest
To be published in the Nassau County Poetry Review 2022, Vol 9