Janet Riehl Talks With Taye' Foster Bradshaw About Emotion Behind Writing "Sightlines"

I am pleased to welcome Janet Riehl to my blog today. We sat down to chat, writer to writer, about her recent work and more about some of the feelings behind the work.

I met Janet Grace Riehl through an open mic sponsored by the St. Louis Writers Guild. St. Louis is sort of a small town, and so our paths continued to cross as writers. Today I’m one of the hosts on Janet’s two-month internet tour. You can see the entire calendar for the tour on Janet’s site Riehlife: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century

The previous post on this tour was an interview with Eden Maxwell

Janet’s 2006 book Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary is now an audio book titled “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.” In addition to the 90 poems Janet reads from her book, these are interwoven with old-time music played in her father’s parlor, along with her father’s stories, and banter from the music session, giving us a complete context.

Taye' Foster Bradshaw (Antona): How do you write? Tell me a little about your actual day, especially when it came to writing about your mother's things and your sister's death. How were you able to keep your emotions in check, or did you just allow yourself to feel deeply and still write it out?

Janet: Rather the later: letting the emotions arise, and just keep writing.

The inspiration for writing “Sightlines” came out of a small retreat on my birthday. When I came back, I just started. I wrote the majority of the poems in the six months of January through June 2005. The first poem and the last poem were written over that summer.

I always wrote the first thing in the morning, just sitting up in bed and writing by hand in my journal—only focused, rather than journaling. I took notes during the day as phrases and situations arose. That’s a useful technique, because then I had something to start with the next day.

I didn’t worry so much about emotions one way or the other. This was a record, not a catharsis. My mission was to write something that would be useful not only to myself and my family, but also to the wider readership that I was sure the book would encounter.

If an emotion came up, I felt it and kept on writing. Sometimes I’d cry and keep on writing through my tears. I didn’t consider the feelings or tears the main point.

Antona: You write a lot about family and when I close my eyes and listen with my heart, I hear love and loss, tenderness and pain. Can you tell me how you were able to tap into these emotions to write your book? And even, how you were able to convey that by reading your own work on the audio book?

Janet: In both the writing and the reading, the key was freshness and going beyond myself more than going into myself.

In the writing I felt no self-consciousness. I felt the work belonged to itself more than it belonged to me.

In reading the work in public, I forged my own form of presentation. I gave talks centered around a theme in which the poems were placed as illustrations of the theme…rather like an English theme, but more direct. Interlaced with theme and poems were songs I picked that meshed.

In reading the 90 poems during the two days of Nashville taping, I only demanded of myself that I be present with the work and with myself. I’d had fears about this recording session, but in the end everything worked out wonderfully. Again, if tears came up I read on…and then washed my face at the end of the poem and came back.

Antona: Poetry is intensely personal and deeply felt. As a writer, do you ever wonder if the reader will feel the same emotion you felt when you wrote it?

Janet: No. What made “Sightlines” work, I feel, is that I didn’t think directly about the reader’s response or make an effort to provoke a particular response. I only wanted to be true to the work.

It’s that honesty and directness that readers and listeners feel coming through right along with the words that does allow them the space to have their own response. In practice then, they do feel the laughter or the sorrow in the poems, but it’s their response, not one I’ve manipulated them into having.

Antona: Your dad was involved with you in this project. I loved hearing his music in the background as you read your poetry. Talk to me about working with him. As you know, I recently visited my daddy's gravesite in honor of his 80th birthday. I took the children with me and also took them to my childhood home. It interests me that you have him involved and also that you have invoked the memory of your ancestral home. Tell me about working with him.

Janet: Our collaboration was easy for the audio book because our territories on the project were carefully marked.

In the “Sightlines” book, I included my father’s writing to open the book. I felt this was due to him as the family patriarch: to let him have the first word. But, I shaped the book by myself.

In the audio book, my territory was as producer shaping the project and writer of the content. I owed the verbal piece and overall shape.

Pop owned the music. Before we began the Sunday music session with two of the men he loves to play with and myself, he and I sat in the parlor and brainstormed the songs we associated with each section. During the long session we kept the mini-disc recorder running which allowed for surprises later in putting together the collage that the audio book became. We inserted banter from the session and my father’s stories as well as the music.

We also recorded Pop reading the poems he’d written for the book…and dialogue lines I’d written for him inside the poems…and other lines I felt he could deliver to enrich the recording.

During the editing process I listened to his wishes on the song placement and the timing of the intervals between the poem and the music.

Pop has loved both the book and audio book. Producing these two projects (The Sightlines Collection) has brought us closer together.

Antona: Last question, when you finish a major project like Sightlines, both in book and now in audio, how do you put it to rest so you can move on to your next project Finding My African Heart: A Village of Stories? Does a poet ever really let her work take on a life without her guiding it?

Janet: It is hard to move on when a project is so deeply part of you. Now I feel that it is both me and not me as both book and audio book move into the world. The audio book was a way to move on from the book. It was a completion. The Internet tour is another type of completion as well.

I loved the book and the book loved me back. It does have a life of its own…as does the audio book.

Now, it is time to recognize the completion (not the ending, but a kind of resolution) of that collective time in our lives when my sister was killed in the car crash and when my mother—who had been in the crash—died peacefully of old age.

I’ve moved to St. Louis to be within easy reach of my father. We continue to work on creative projects together. We published three projects: a Western novel he wrote, a poetry collection for his friend and mentor Bee Lewis, and a family and friends poetry anthology.

It’s good to have the memoir “Finding My African Heart” underway so that there is no question or struggle about where my energy now needs to be channeled.

Thanks, Antona, for spending this time chatting over lattes. You are a lovely hostess.

You can read five of Janet’s story poems on her site here: http://www.riehlife.com/bookstore/sightlines-excerpts

The next stop on Janet’s tour will be at Yvonne Perry’s with an interview and a podcast.

Visit Janet’s website for a chance to win a free audio book of “Sightlines: A Family love story in Poetry and Music.”

* First, watch VIDEO 5, Sightlines Blog Tour Video #5: Stage 4 (legal) & Stage 5 (production) at the top post of www.riehlife.com.
* Second, answer this question: What does Janet consider to be the most interesting part of the production process?
* Third, contact Janet through the contact button at the top of Riehlife.



Thanks for this conversation on writing and family.

Readers can also win a free audio book by commenting on the video available at http://is.gd/1igPN.

I'll run a raffle from the comments using a random number generator.

It's easy and fun to win the audio book.

Janet Riehl

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