By Ladd Wendelin
Prairie Schooner, the nationally and internationally-recognized literary journal and publication of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Department, will hold the 2012 Book Prize Celebration on Monday and Tuesday, January 30th and 31st on the UNL main campus, with readings, dance and visual interpretations of prose and poetry from three of this years honorees. Recipients include Greg Hrbek (Writer-in-Residence, Skidmore College) whose book of short stories won the 2010 Book Prize in Fiction, and Shane Book (filmmaker, New York Times Fellowship in Poetry), whose book of poems won the 2009 Book Prize in Poetry.
Lincoln-resident and award-winning poet James Crews will receive the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. He is also the recipient of the Prairie Schooner Bernice Slote Award for Emerging Writers, and author of What Has Not Yet Left (2009 Copperdome Prize), One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes, and Bending the Knot (2008 Gertrude Press Chapbook Prize). His new book of poetry is The Book of What Says, published by the University of Nebraska Press, which will be honored at the Book Prize Celebration this week. Mr. Crews answered some questions for Star City Blog readers via e-mail about the craft of poetry, writing it all down, and channeling his inner Buddhist.
SCB: When did you first begin writing poetry?
I love this question. I first began writing poems in the third grade. My teacher, Mrs. Brown, required us to memorize a poem each week and I got the bright idea of writing and memorizing my own poems. She was so encouraging, handing me books by Shel Silverstein and Robert Frost, that I got addicted to the process and (though I've always been shy) reading it to the rest of the class was pure pleasure. I've been writing poetry ever since then.
SCB: Do you remember your first poem? How was it received?
My first poem, I believe, was "Ode to Summer" and Mrs. Brown loved it. My family also loved the fact that I was writing poems, making greeting cards of my own for everyone's birthday with little rhymes inside. I'm afraid I don't remember any of the text of that first poem, but I'll bet my mother still has it in a box somewhere.
SCB: Who in your career as a poet inspired or encouraged you to continue writing poetry?
I've been surrounded by folks who have encouraged me at every turn, and I feel grateful to all of the teachers and friends who have never told me how ridiculous it is to want to sit at a table and write poetry every day. My first poetry teacher, David Clewell, has been instrumental in my growth as a poet. I thought I wanted to be a fiction writer until I took his class and he reminded me of my first love, helped me to fall in love with language again and get to know what was happening in contemporary literature. He's now the Poet Laureate of Missouri, my home state, and it's a well-deserved post for someone who's been such a champion of young poets.
SCB: In "Paradoxical Undressing", you revisit the 2005 deaths of Janelle Hornickel and Michael Wamsley, who froze to death in rural Sarpy county during a snowstorm after abandoning their vehicle. It was later discovered that the couple was high on crystal meth. Briefly walk us through the composition of this poem. Despite the tragedy of this incident, what tone did you want to achieve in the reader's mind by the end of the poem?
I began this poem during a long, snowy winter in Wisconsin. I remember watching a 20/20report about the death of Janelle and Michael here in Nebraska and listening to the garbled 9/11 calls they had made once they realized they were lost. It was heartbreaking, but the detail that stuck with me was that idea of "paradoxical undressing": once we get cold enough, our body begins to tell us we're hot, burning up even, and we take off all of our clothes. I've always tried to find the silver lining in things and at the time I thought this was such a kindness our bodies do for us even in the midst of extreme pain. The poem finally found its legs, so to speak, when I realized it was all about this couple, that I wanted to capture their last tender moments together. I suppose that trying to describe their love, that last kiss, was my way also of helping the two of them find redemption in this horrible moment, even if only through my imagination. As Wallace Stevens said, "The world imagined is the ultimate good."
SCB: In several poems ("Palamino", "Sex in the Rain"), you allude to not wanting to forget, of capturing the moment, striving against how time can diminish our memory. In "Against Seizing", you write "As these waves illustrate / the endless cycle of give and take, realize that you / no longer trust in seizing each day and do not need a sun's pulse to offer warmth, or to feel it." As a poet, what's the greatest challenge in capturing feeling and emotion? Is language elusive, not enough, or does it do our senses justice at all?
The greatest challenge is capturing a feeling without being sentimental, using image and narrative to do so; I hope I have succeeded in this. The failure of language is certainly not an original theme among writers since words can never live up to the real thing. But what else do we have, when that moment has passed? We can describe it, tell a story to bring it back. I've always been someone who's abhorred change, and even as I realize it's the nature of everything--time passes and we will pass away--some stubborn part of me wants to hold on for dear life and never let go. "Against Seizing" was born after a day spent observing the tide pools at a beach outside Malibu. Every time a new wave swept in, the tide pools would change completely and of course nature has no choice but to accept this. We are encouraged to "seize the day," but what if we didn't? What if we didn't cling so tightly to our fixed ideas of how things should be and just accepted things as they are, without forcing it? I suppose the Buddhist in me is starting to come out.
SCB: Robert Frost once described poetry as beginning as a "lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, homesickness, lovesickness." Where does poetry begin for you? Where does it originate?
I love Frost's description, and I would absolutely agree. For me, poetry begins as that lump of wanting to hold onto something, someone. I'd say the homesickness and lovesickness both originate from a place of craving safety and solid ground which none of us will ever have when it comes to love (our partner's always changing) or even home for that matter: Our notions of home shift just as the place changes. More and more, though, my poems begin with a line or two that I just find mystifying or intoxicating and feel a need to follow to its logical conclusion. And then I just chip away and chip away until the poem feels finished and makes sense and has that extra charge of the something-or-other (which can take years to bring about).
SCB: What was the last poem you read by another poet, and what was the one line that stuck out at you?
I was reading an anthology this morning called The Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz, and these lines from Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese" stood out. It's good advice for a poet:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
SCB: Compose a haiku.
It is difficult
to pull silver from the sky
Try being the moon
The 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Celebration runs Monday, January 30th and Tuesday, Jan. 31st, 2012. The Celebration is Free and Open to the Public.
Author meet-and-greet/Q&A is Monday, January 30th, from 2-4 p.m. at Dudley Bailey Library, Andrews Hall, UNL Campus. Readings and performances (visual interp, modern dance) begins at 8 p.m., Room 15, Anderson Hall, UNL Campus.