Poet-to-Poet Talk With Lori Widmer
Lori, welcome, thank you for chatting with me today.
Thanks for inviting me. J
Let me begin by saying we are both explorers of the MOOC platform, having virtually met in Modern and Contemporary Poetry taught byProfessor Al Filries of the University of Pennsylvania. Tell us what drew you to this ModPo13 class?
I’ve had an interest in poetry since I was young. In fact, my first “work” was a poem. It was about a salamander. Hey, it was sixth grade—that’s as creative as I could get!
But I loved the idea of studying poetry formally. When this course appeared on Coursera, I couldn’t avoid it. In fact, this is my second time through the course.
A salamander! My daughter is a writer in 6th grade, that sounds like something she would write about. Tell us a little more about yourself…are you a professional writer? Poet? What do you do?
I’m a freelance writer and editor, and my concentration is business writing. I have over 15 years of experience, mostly working with trade publications and writing for companies. For the past 10 years, I’ve freelanced, and I love it. I’m beginning to branch out into fiction writing, with poetry being my first choice.
That is a journey from freelance to poetry, all the best to you on that. Ok, so let’s talk about the class. One of the features of this class is that we read lots and lots of poetry, discuss them, and write essays on selected works. What is something, as a freelance writer and poet, you are taking away from this class, as it draws to an end?
This class has taught me to have a more editorial eye with my poetry. I thought I did all along, but when we began exploring the imagist poets, I realized just how much fluff I could cut out of my poems and in doing so, make them stronger. I’ve learned also how to apply a close reading to a poem, which has helped me find new ways to use familiar words for more impact.
I agree, there can be a lot of extra words in poetry, brevity can convey a great message. I think I got a little tired of Whitman’s Song of Myself and Ginsberg’s Howl because they were so prolific, think the meaning could have been condensed the way conceptualist Cage did with his mesostic. That said, This class has opened up the possibilities for me (channeling my inner Emily Dickinson) in how this virtual, Internet content world, has created writing communities and platforms for sharing. That is how we met!
Me too! I’ve had a great time getting to know fellow poets. The critique section of the course felt more like a conversation to me, and I love that.
I agree, it did feel very real time and personal so, let’s do a little bit of that and talk about the poem itself. I’ve been musing on it ever since it came across my computer screen to review for our last class exercise. You chose to do a Bernadette Mayer writing experiment with one of your own poems. Can you talk about the process?
I chose that because I knew most people would go for the mesostic poem option, as I had the first time through the course. I wanted to challenge myself to make my own work better. So that’s why I decided to use my own poem in the experiment.
The process was eye-opening, really. When I decided to remove the words “that” and “the” from the poem, I expected it to change the meaning beyond all comprehension. But it didn’t. Instead, it made it somehow stronger. It brought emphasis on the ideas I was trying to present, which gave them much more impact. Also, it pointed out what I already knew – I have an addiction to the word “that.” J
I did have to do a little tweaking before handing it over to you for this post, but in the exercise itself I left the poem as it was. Even with a few words that didn’t make sense by themselves, the impact was so much better than my original poem.
You said earlier that this class opened your eyes about the editing process in poetry, something I confess to not liking to do, however, with your poem, the second version and the one on this post was so impacted me.
The poem was somewhat a cross between an imagist and an I-do-this-I-do-that form that we discussed in class. In the imagist reading of it, It spoke to me as a mother in a way that seemed more of experience than say the sadness I felt in reading William Carlos Williams’ version 2 poem Young Woman At A Window. What was the inspiration for this poem?
It’s about a woman going through her midlife crisis. Since I’m currently experiencing menopausal symptoms, hot flashes were top of mind! And as I started going through these changes, I remembered my mom’s journey, which was rough. I was a teenager -- not a great time for two women to be hormonal at the same time! But I couldn’t help thinking back to how vacant she felt – she never said so, but I could see, feel this struggle she was going through at the time. She really inspired much of the imagery in this poem.
When my mom was in her forties and menopause hit, I think she woke up and wondered where the hell her life had gone. She’d devoted her entire life to raising a family, and while it was her main source of pride, it enveloped her and at times smothered her, I think. During menopause, I saw her struggle with her sensuality and with the changes that came to her much too young. She wanted to be attractive, and wanted to be noticed. This is someone who never cared for being noticed before, so it probably surprised her much more than it did the family. There was a sadness about it, but there was this rebellious side too, which is totally my mom. She wasn’t going down without a damn good fight! That’s where that spirit in the poem comes from – a strong woman’s will to be herself. I think many women have this same struggle.
I will be 50 in May 2014, I completely understand the feelings of your mother! I went through menopause a few years ago, early I suspect to relieve my husband of having a hormonal wife and hormonal tween daughter in the same house, puberty visited us this summer and that brought about a lot of life thoughts for me. Perhaps this is why I resonated with the feelings of this poem because I left my corporate life ten years ago and have been full time raising the last three of six children. The feelings you express being your mother’s are timeless and universal, especially to us Generation Jones women.
Poetry in its writing and in its experiencing is deeply personal, you indicated in our chats that you are a freelance writer working at home, is there a sense of longing I feel in this poem? That mothers can’t have it all at the same time?
I think yes, there is that. I myself don’t care to have it all. I want to do my best at each side of me – the mom part, the wife part, the writer part – but I know that letting go can be much more rewarding and fulfilling. The longing you feel was my longing to lift my mother (and women like her, really) out of her role and set her on a different path. But that’s not who she is. She came of age in the 50s, and back then being a wife was a the role you were given, born to actually, if you were female. I think you’re astute to pick up on my own internal struggle with wanting more for her, wanting her to break through that learned bondage into something she could feel fulfilled doing. The poem is about all women and this struggle to define themselves beyond family.
I love the quiet salute to all women across time that is in this poem. I have told my daughters, ages almost 10 and 12, that I wanted them to go for their dreams before they become mothers so that they could feel like they had an identity beyond the eighteen years of hand-on parenting. Being born in 1964 and reaching my Jubilee, I think I was the benefactor of those women before me who encouraged us to explore other options.
As I have become an older mother, I realize that what the previous generation gave us was a platform on which to launch. I still think, though, that women are ultimately the ones responsible for the caring of others, and sometimes miss the caring of themselves, that resonated with me in this poem.
Having said that, though, what about the husband, mentioned in the poem, but felt to me like a distant shadow, like he mattered but didn’t, really…
He mattered as much as the children, and in this, they were those duties she was tied to. Funny you likened him to a shadow – he is in this. He’s that looming shadow on her life, not in the sense that he’s a task master or some ogre, but that he, and the children, contributed to her losing herself to home and family. As a result, she used him as the catalyst to release her anger and resentment not at him, but at society and those hard-and-fast gender roles of her time. He fell into his role equally as hard, but he had a job and a career. She gave up her identity as most women did back then – she was his wife, that one’s mother. They existed through her, but in some way her “self” ceased to exist because of them. That’s what this poem tries to reflect.
I think your poem absolutely reflected that quiet anger and resentment at losing oneself to the obligations placed upon us as women, as caregivers, the constant giving out. Men, then and sometimes now, get to leave and go to an office, forgetting about the bed linens, the lessons, and the dinner, coming home and expecting their needs to be met, when she has been all day meeting the needs of others, feeling as if her energy is not replenished. In some ways, then, menopause gave women a window through which they could release that pent up frustration and everyone would leave them alone for that “change.”
We should say that the poem featured on this site is the second, Bernadette Mayerized, version of your poem, can you talk a little bit about the form and mechanics you chose in doing this exercise? Did it feel like the two versions of Williams’ poem?
As I mentioned, I chose to remove “the” and “that” from the poem to see what would happen. I thought the emphasis that those two words bring to a sentence tended to work like a pointer, forcing the thought instead of allowing a new thought to appear.
It did feel like the two versions of Williams’ poem, which was an inspiration for why I did it, too. I loved the result of his exercise so much I wanted to adopt the same experimentation.
I agree, I loved that your poem made me think about what you were saying more then you telling me, it allowed me to relate it to my contemporary experience.
Now, let’s pretend that you are Al and the wonderful TAs we had in class. Workshop this poem for us, what would you say in close reading Mother’s Change?
I would say that the cadence felt fractured, which was my intent in the first place. Here’s a story about a woman who wakes up one day and wonders where her life has gone, and she feels interrupted. The words “those children” followed by the capital “Husband” say a lot about her disgust at the kids, who as teenagers are just walking balls of ungratefulness. J And the capitalized Husband was to emphasize how the man of the house, the head of the household had his needs met through the wife – food, clean clothes, clean house, etc. He was dominant by gender, and she subservient for the same reason.
The whole idea of this woman resentful and angry over her loss of opportunity, sensuality, etc. as she’s making a bed, snapping the corners of the sheets, the tired bed, all echo this thought of a life losing its luster, the sexual tension she creates being that attempt to get back some passion for something. I would probably say there’s a true image of a woman looking back and not liking what she sees (or doesn’t see).
Wow! I can just see you sitting up there at The KellyWriter’s House speaking those exact words, pen in hand, the poem underlined, the notation of the capitalization of the Husband, indicating his position over the wife, the subservient nature of her work, true work, but unrewarded and unrecognized and unending.
The phrase you just mentioned, “walking balls of ungratefulness” just sent chills down my spine for the truthfulness in those words of that very narcissistic, selfish period of adolescence. I am feeling some of that myself with my tween daughter whenever she insists that none of her closet full of clothes fit and I am squeezing my post-menopausal self into a five year old pair of jeans.
Well, it has been wonderful chatting with you about your work. I love this poem, thanks for featuring it on Pink Latte Publishing. Tell us what else you are working on and where people can find out more about your poetry and writing?
Thank you for having me! I really enjoyed your questions.
I’m working on a collection of poetry currently titled “Threads” about the various ways relationships intertwine. I’m very new to poetry, having just decided to pursue it professionally, so I’m thrilled for the chance to get to know you and your readers. I have started a poetry blog, which will focus on technique, close readings, and sharing poetry. I’ll let you know when I have some content up.
We will definitely look forward to what you have coming up. This has been a lot of fun, so glad we “met” in “cyberspace.” Thank you, Lori for visiting with us, happy writing.
Thank you, Antona!