Kelly Cherry was Virginia’s 15th Poet Laureate; her two-year term expired in 2012. Her most recent poetry collection is the book-length sonnet sequence The Retreats of Thought: Poems (LSU Press, 2009). This interview was conducted by e-mail.
What is your earliest memory of experiencing a poem?
I don’t recall hearing much poetry until high school, though my parents often sang rhyming songs to and with us. My mother told me that I wrote stories and poems when I was little but I have no memory of that. She did save a story I wrote that included a poem, which, perhaps, was a clue that I’d later want to write both.
What influenced your decision to become a writer and, more specifically, a poet?
When I was 12, I wrote a poem that concluded in a very simple rhyme. The poem was nothing special but the rhyme changed my life. My parents were string quartet violinists; when I made that rhyme, I thought, “This is my music.”
In addition to writing poetry, you are a novelist, short story writer, memoirist, essayist, critic, and translator. What draws you to these many different genres? Does any one tug at you more strongly than another?
I love them all. I think each lends itself to a certain exploration: fiction, to the exploration of character in relationship; nonfiction, to the exploration of the author’s mind; and poetry, to the exploration of the reality of what is outside us. These distinctions are a matter of emphasis, or focus, and are not absolute. The secret to the differences among forms or genres lies in rhythm. I think of the genres as concentric circles, since I am equally passionate about all of them, but poetry is always the first circle.
What is your favorite poetry-writing routine or practice?
I pretty much write all the time and don’t follow any particular routine or practice. I almost always write the first draft (or two or three) in longhand and move to a computer later; this is true for novels, as well as for poems. I write in spiral notebooks—grabbing whichever comes to hand, which means the same notebook may hold paragraphs from different stories and lines from various poems and a book review or essay. I would so love to be more systematic but I work on a lot of things at once and the result is, paper everywhere, with no way to organize it.
Billy Collins has said that “if you write, you love language”, and has also described poetry writing as a “journey of discovery”. How, given your affinity for philosophical inquiry, do you view your own poetry writing? What do you aspire to achieve or illuminate in your poetry?
I agree that writers love language. Writing in any form is a “journey of discovery”. Writing poetry is how I think, and learning what one thinks is terrifically exciting: That’s the journey, that’s the illumination. In any given poem, I want to make the idea of it as clear as possible—which is not to say an exposition but an unclouded vision.
I also have a great desire to include all kinds of things in my poetry; that is, to take on, in my poetry, different worlds, as in science, history, language, philosophy, visual art, music, religion, etc. I am interested in all these things, and it seems natural to me to want to write about them.
How do you know when a poem “works” or not? What helps you know that a poem is “finished”?
The poem isn’t done until it stops nagging you. That can take years but, thank goodness, usually takes six months to 12 months.
Which poets have had the most influence on you?
My main teachers were Fred Chappell and Robert Watson. Henry Taylor, David R. Slavitt, R.H.W. Dillard, and Gibbons Ruark are longtime close friends with whom I’ve shared poems and from whom I’ve learned. I like to read Russian poetry of the 20th Century in translation. Major influences from early on, and favorites still, are Donne, Blake, Yeats, Frost, Eliot, Auden, and Stevens. I was happy to discover Seamus Heaney in my thirties. I read a lot of contemporary poetry and find much to admire: Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith, Cathryn Hankla, Sandra Meek, Renee Ashley, Gjertrud Schnackenburg, Rhett Trull Iseman, Julia Johnson, Erin Hanusa . . . the list goes on. I could probably name about a hundred.
She is an angel in rose
Etched on a November sky.
He is a rose—
They are two roses, burning brightly.
They kiss in the car,
Their lips like petals: pink.
They must drive far
To find God, I think.
I think that angels’ wings spread
Against the sky are red
As roses, and fly not at all.
And fall, flower-flames,
And as they fall, they love and kiss,
Calling each other’s cherished name.
God loves this.
God loves this—
The twining, the arc.
They fall together,
Lightly, into the winter dark.
From Natural Theology: Poems by Kelly Cherry.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
All rights with author.
You can read more of Maureen Doallas’ interview with Kelly Cherry at Writing Without Paper.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $2.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In May we’re exploring the theme Roses.