Poetry as a Healing Art: An Interview with Charlotte Digregorio
Author Charlotte Digregorio was honored by the Governor of Illinois in 2018 for her decades of accomplishments in the literary arts. Through her workshops, she has mentored hundreds of people who’ve become authors. She’s published seven instructive books including: “Ripples of Air: Poems of Healing” and “Haiku and Senryu: A Simple Guide for All.” The former inspires non-poets and experienced ones to write as a healing exercise. It includes essays and prose passages on poetry, and resource lists that offer ideas on publishing, teaching, speaking, entering contests, media interviews, poetry readings and exhibits, interspersed with the author’s poems. Many of Digregorio’s books have been adopted as supplemental texts at universities worldwide, and two have been Featured Selections of Writer's Digest Book Club. She was nominated for four Pushcart Prizes, and has won sixty-six poetry awards, writing fourteen poetic forms. Her poetry is translated into eight languages. She does illustrated solo poetry exhibits in libraries, galleries, corporate buildings, hospitals, and park districts. She hosted her own radio program on public broadcasting.
Her background includes positions as a newspaper feature editor, columnist, and magazine editor. In other professional areas, she’s been on university faculties, teaching writing, French, and Italian. Currently, she gives lectures and workshops on poetry, creativity, non-fiction, journalism, and publishing for business/professional groups, and at writer's conferences, literary festivals, non-profit organizations, and libraries. She’s a writer-in-residence at universities. She’s served on the boards of writers' organizations, most recently as Second Vice President of the Haiku Society of America. She blogs at www.charlottedigregorio.wordpress.com where she features writers from sixty-one countries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlotte, tell us a little bit about your background as a newspaper feature editor, columnist, and magazine editor, and how this has helped you in your writing.
I started out as a journalist, learning the craft on the job, without having studied journalism. I had a liberal arts education. My journalism jobs taught me to write using an economy of words. As effective creative writers, we need to write without redundancy, using precise words that convey our thoughts. I instruct my workshop participants to substitute a single impactful word for multiple words when possible.
Who are the writers who have influenced you the most? Can you see their influence reflected in your work or in the manner in which you approach your work?
Poets Mark Strand, Ted Kooser, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Donald Hall, and Richard Wilbur are among ones who’ve influenced me in how I approach my work. I appreciate irony, wit, strong imagery, layers of meaning, metaphor, and succinct lines and stanzas. I use an economy of words, attempting to write with punch and impact, inspired by these six poets. I appreciate how all six celebrate life, and write with grace about both life and death. They’ve taught me by example to write with wit and compassion, using evocative imagery about life and nature. Their style is elegant in its simplicity, and this is what I strive for.
I note that you have taught French and Italian on university faculties. How did your interest in languages come about?
I grew up speaking Italian and French, and all my degrees are in Romance Languages and Literatures. I’m fascinated with many foreign cultures and have lived in Central Italy and Southern France. My favorite French and Italian poets are Paul Valéry and Giuseppe Ungaretti.
Describe to us your interest in the healing arts. How do you see poetry as being a form of healing in today’s world?
Poetry gives us a deepened awareness of our lives, and teaches us gratitude and respectfulness for living things and nature. We need this to heal. Through poetry, we celebrate simple joys and delights, and it also heals our hurts, just through reading and writing it. When you first put your sad feelings on paper, it’s as if they slap you across the face. However, when you reread your words, it becomes an exercise in validation and healing. Further, when you read others’ poetry, you recognize that people struggle with the same disappointments, preoccupations, fears, and pain. This is, in itself, healing. Poetry allows us to process our emotions. Psychologist-friends tell me that they ask their clients to write down their feelings through poetry or in a journal because it’s cathartic. I have written about life-changing events, including the deaths of those close to me, to aid in healing.
I see that in recent times you have been Midwest Regional Coordinator and Second Vice President of the Haiku Society of America. How helpful do you find haiku and senryu as a chosen form of expression?
Through haiku and senryu, I capture the significant moments of my life, and also relive childhood moments. Haiku and senryu, the latter that focuses on human weaknesses, human nature and struggles, are written in the present tense to capture immediacy. (Senryu is written in the haiku form, often one to four lines.) They are two of my favorite forms, generally regarded as healing forms. They have a matter-of-fact tone, even understated, and consequently, the imagery in them is all the more powerful. These two forms don’t explain; rather, the underlying emotion of the poet is felt. Senryu can be either sad or humorous. Haiku and senryu are like a puzzle, because they often include two seemingly unrelated images that are juxtaposed, and the reader must unravel how the images correlate. Haiku/senryu can be enjoyed at face value, then taken at deeper levels. One often finds life’s meaning in them. They contain sensory images, and allow me to use my observational skills, in particular. I enjoy how they challenge me to say something meaningful and perceptive using subtlety. Moralizing and expressing judgmental attitudes are avoided in them. The last line or the final words of a haiku/senryu often contain a revelation– the “aha” moment. Incidentally, I’ve been running my blog for several years which includes “The Daily Haiku,” www.charlottedigregorio.wordpress.com. On the blog, you’ll find haikuists from dozens of countries and you’ll get a feel for what haiku/senryu really are. There are so many misconceptions about them that my blog, and also my book, “Haiku and Senryu: A Simple Guide for All,” debunk. I see a basic lack of understanding of haiku/senryu in poems I judge for contests, and in those that are published by general poetry publications that don’t specialize in haiku.
Do you also enjoy writing other short forms of poetry such as tanka or haibun? Is there any one form that you prefer over all the others?
I write a lot of tanka. They are lyrical, five-line Japanese-style poems with a maximum of thirty-one syllables. I especially enjoy writing tanka sequences, a series of individual tanka with a common theme. I write haibun, (prose with haiku), but not as much of it as tanka, haiku, and senryu. I also write cinquains, etherees, and even limericks. However, as short forms, haiku and senryu have been my passion since 1995.
How does the place where you live colour and influence your poetry?
I was born, raised, and spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. I love the ocean, hills, mountains, and forests of that region and miss its natural beauty. Now, I live in the Midwest (Chicago metro area) with its pervasive flatness that has been hard for me to become accustomed to. I miss hills and lush greenery. There are some forest preserves in the Chicago area, though, where I find peace and solitude. I write from recollection about the Pacific Northwest, and about my adopted region, focusing on natural surroundings. I enjoy discovering large and small wonders, including plants, trees, and birds. In particular, I like to research the symbolism of natural wonders to create correlations in my life and in my writing, as haiku teaches us we are one with nature. Now, I’m not living far from the prairie, and I travel to Iowa to find solitude from urban life and beauty in rural America.
What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet, and why?
I like to read prose about nature, and I appreciate Ted Kooser’s and Henry David Thoreau’s work. Kooser, a U.S. Poet Laureate, writes fabulous prose in his book, “The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book.” Reading prose about nature stimulates my observational skills and poetry writing.
Do you have a favourite place in which to write or can you write almost anywhere?
I like to write at home when it’s quiet, late at night. I always carry a pocket notebook wherever I go, to record images and ideas that surface. At night, a few of these images inspire my writing. For example, even when I’m away from nature in downtown Chicago, I often observe homeless people on street corners. They inspire my free verse or haiku/senryu, among the fourteen forms of poetry I write.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on expanding my daily blog that features the work of poets of all forms, and writers of essays and short stories from sixty-one countries. I rarely run any of my own work on my blog, as this project is intended to showcase worldwide writers. Writers may contact me at my email address, email@example.com, with previously-published work for consideration. (I prefer previously-published, but do consider unpublished pieces.) I’m also working on a poetry collection that I hope to publish in January 2024. It will include many poetic forms, as my “Ripples of Air: Poems of Healing” does. I don’t think writers ever retire, as all of our moments are grist for our writing. Why do we write? Why do we breathe?
At The Museum of Contemporary Art
by Charlotte Digregorio
Seeking quietude on a foggy day,
I visit the Museum to drift and dream,
with watercolors, collages, montages, and tapestries.
I happen upon worn scraps of metal, wire,
bits of broken glass, and splintered plastic.
Perhaps they are castaways culled from a hidden dumpster
in a deserted Chicago alley.
I visualize a sculptor in his cramped studio with a large window.
Under skies donning infinite grayness,
he watches languishing birds in autumn’s breath.
Brittle poplar branches wave in whispering wind.
His eye glimpses fluttering scarlet and gold.
Inspired hands bend, chip, and polish refuse into delicate,
shining pieces, with soothing shades.
With agile fingers, his drab finds, a reflection of our gritty lives,
become graceful art, as if by metamorphosis.
He realizes sculptures of oddly-shaped people
and animals, almost unidentifiable,
yet bearing equilibrium and harmony.
In solitude, he finds lyricism
in trifles surrounding him.