The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 1

I met Carrie Tangenberg several years ago in a writing group for poets and authors.  Right from the start I could tell she was an intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken woman.  The best part was that Carrie never came across as haughty or unapproachable.  On the contrary, her elegance and calm reserve combined with her intellect positioned her to make the most constructive critiques.  I have also witnessed this in the classical literature book club to which we both belong.

When I realized I needed a poet for The Artist’s Corner, Carrie immediately sprang to mind.  I only wish you could hear her answers in her own sophisticated voice.  I know you’ll enjoy reading them as they are deeply informative, openly transparent, and incredibly encouraging for anyone who has ever had a passion for art.

Tell me a little about yourself.

Creative writing has been part of my life since early childhood. In kindergarten, I wrote a story about a stick of personified butter in its trials and travails. I think that was my first story. Then, it was poetry in elementary school, which has persisted to present day.

After college, I applied my writing talent in office settings of the publishing and higher education fields. Later, I switched focus to teaching English and writing, along with other humanities subjects. Now, I blog about non-fiction, poetry, and novel writing, as well as nature, travel, and film and TV storytelling. I also tutor writing and career help online.

Other ways I stay connected to the writing world include participating in a classic literature book club, a local writing group, and our region’s National Novel Writing Month program. I took a course in memoir writing earlier this year, and I won a local poetry contest in spring 2016.

I also garden, bird-watch, practice photography, and hike in the area’s metro parks. In reading, I favor Outlander, literary fiction, adventure, contemporary realistic fiction, and sci-fi, poetry, and non-fiction works of memoir, writing about writing, and satire. My film preferences are eclectic, but many of my favorites happen to be space/alien sci-fi adventure such as Star Wars.

See the “About me” page of my blog for more philosophical and literary hints to my personality.

What prompted you to begin writing poetry?

I’ve always had a strong sense of rhythm and musicality, so after dancing jazz in first grade and lip-syncing to tunes in the living room, I started writing rhyming poems about birds in fifth grade. Most of my life’s poetry is about nature or wildlife, from the first to the most recent attempts. I also love language and playing with the sounds words make.

Who or what is your inspiration for writing poetry?

Number one, as I said, is wildlife or wilderness, often birds, trees and flowers, landscapes, waterways, and even insects, soil, and rocks, or as broad as the cosmos. I’m fascinated by predator-prey dynamics, the beauty and indifference of nature, and I love all sorts of animals. Favorites include wolves, foxes, African wild dogs, otters, all sorts of birds, chameleons, and meerkats. In an alternate life where I’m better at math and science, if I couldn’t be an ornithologist, I’d be a wildlife or canid biologist.

Other inspirations are existential or spiritual contemplation often intersecting with language and meaning—in other words, the nature of life, death, perception, reality, motivation, and how we express and understand those. Occasionally, I’m inspired by current events such as the death of Leonard Nimoy, for which I wrote my first elegy.

How does a poem begin for you, with an idea, a form, or an image?

It varies. Sometimes I’m attempting to capture an image with description. Other times, I like a phrase or concept and want to see what I can make of it. Mainly, spare impressions guide me forward, and the end result can often remain rather impressionistic. I long ago developed the habit of gravitating toward nature imagery for my similes and metaphors.

I suppose I enjoy the challenge of urging fresh ways of looking at nature, since it’s been done so much by so many poets and songwriters for so long. Nature poetry is typically the first kind that non-poetic types think of or attempt to write, usually a piece of verse about autumn leaves, celestial bodies, or weather. I often aim to upend those expectations or write the usual in an unusual way. So, the prominent starting points are ideas and language, but I might set out to fill a form such as a sonnet, blank verse, or even a limerick—for added, puzzle-solving challenge.

What conditions help you with your writing process? Where do you write? When do you write?

Optimal conditions are the ongoing puzzle I have yet to solve. If only I could figure this out, I’d be in so much greater shape artistically, if not also in terms of publishing. I write mostly at home, but I also find inspiration in local parks, other green spaces, and the occasional cafe. Sometimes I’ll start on the computer, but I keep in touch with the fact that handwriting can boost my creative flow. I write in cursive as often as in print letters, and that lends its own enjoyment of beauty to the exercise. I can write at all hours, whenever the mood or idea strikes, but I’m most productive late at night. I’m not sure when I write best, though.

What is your creative process? Do you have any routines?

Typically, I’ll draft a poem long-hand, then either mark it up or type it up for revision. Next, I’ll try to apply my revision ideas. Often it helps at this point to set the poem aside and come back after a few days or even weeks to see if I still like it enough overall to polish it in its current basic structure. If not, I’ll file it unchanged. If so, I’ll put my best foot forward in finalizing the poem.

I once chronicled my verse writing process on my blog in a series of 4 posts. I learned a lot by doing that, but I don’t know if it helped me set any particular approach in stone or make significant changes to my routine. The posts are cross-linked, and the first one is “On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation.

What books (of poetry or the creative process) or poets have influenced your writing?

Emily Dickinson was my initial influence for imagery, rhythm, and the combined sounds of words. She wrote a lot about death and loss, as well as nature, in her reclusive solitude. As a child, I had few close friends, so I could relate to some of that desolation and loneliness. Those feelings linger with me, but they’ve also evolved as I’ve adjusted how I write about nature. I have become accustomed to melancholy and used it to my artistic advantage.

Other works I find myself imitating are the nature poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Amy Clampitt, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats, and Judith Wright. I also love poets Philip Larkin and Billy Collins. Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, which I read in college, is simply stunning. Beauty drips from this post-colonial Caribbean take on Homer’s The Odyssey.

How often do you create a new poem? What style or form do you choose for your poems?

I write half a dozen or so poems a year, sometimes working on them for long periods and coming back after a break to revise further. The rest are brief impressions jotted and then affectionately released from my attention into the archives. Most often I write in free verse using internal or near rhyme.

Are there any forms you haven’t tried but would like to?

Let’s see. I’ve written one poem in blank verse, a few sonnets, a syllabic, an elegy, a sestina, a villanelle, couplets, limericks, a handful of concrete poems, free verse, songs with refrains, and I tend to play with line and stanza breaks. If I thought more about it, I would probably find lots of forms I’d like to try. I have a poster with a reference chart of poetic forms on it at home. Some of them are very difficult, though, and it takes real dedication, regular practice, or teaching poetry to be primed for those challenges. I tend to dabble and seldom tutor poetry writing, though I have enjoyed a few sessions.

How much of yourself do you write into your poetry?

That’s a good existential question if I ever saw one. For me, the way I’ve written myself into poetry has progressed in different stages, but sometimes I return to earlier ones. I used to write a lot of confessional poetry about feelings, anxieties, depression, situational impressions, my experiences during study in France, and some poems about playing soccer or about ideas in stories I’ve read.

Nowadays, I still write occasional complaints in poetic form, but I don’t consider those serious or publishable samples. I have a strong aversion to writing, or reading, political poetry. I prefer the essay form for that purpose. I find a lot of slam poetry and poetry focused on political viewpoints to be too whiny, with off-putting ideas or, most frequently, simply incomplete and unpolished. People tend to take liberties with form, clarity, and content when motivated by outrage or ennui.

I’m always somewhere in my own poems—as the speaker and observer, as a character made of shades of myself and my way of thinking and speaking, and sometimes as the subject. I think every writer is to some degree.

Do you find yourself returning to a particular theme in your poetry?

The most prominent themes include natural elements as expressions of mood, marveling at some specimen of the animal kingdom, struggles for personal freedom and comfort in my own skin, or a combination of these. I’ve also focused a lot on nature poetry in my blog, along with book and arts reviews, emphasizing Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book and the STARZ TV series. I recently added travel writing about our wonderful trip to Scotland inspired by Outlander. My blog title is a throwback to my philosophy roots, a nod to part of a nickname for me, and a portmanteau meant to capture that blend of writing topics: “Philosofishal.

Word choice in poetry seems so important. Do you write with a dictionary or thesaurus next to you or make words choices in the editing process?

I periodically refer to dictionary.com or thesaurus.com and research using the Internet. Word choice is extremely important—one of the most important aspects of poetry in particular and, I believe, any good writing. Precise meaning, the right sounds, the right shapes and lengths for optimal rhythm, and careful phrasing, punctuation, and line breaks all have to work in concert for the best effects.

Punctuation choice is highly under-appreciated as a conveyor of nuanced meaning in writing. In poetry, if it is to be used, which is not required, punctuation must be precisely and consistently applied. That was one of the most memorable lessons my verse writing professor had for me in college: “You really must study punctuation.” As an English teacher and poet, I pay close attention to grammar and mechanics standards. When you know the rules, you can more effectively bend, break or uphold them to fit a poem’s purpose and style.

What is your revision process like?

In a poetry reading event at the Akron-Summit County Public Library last year, former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, of whom I have been a long-time fan, said his writing process is nearly effortless. This comes with experience, of course, but he also makes a point of intentionally abandoning the task early if it gets too unwieldy, cumbersome, or sticky. I haven’t learned that trick, or earned that freedom, yet.

As I mentioned earlier, if I think I have a good enough start, I’ll draft and revise until it’s finished or until it’s changed too much to salvage. This speaks to the importance of saving versions. It can be unavoidable to struggle, though, and to be disheartened by ruinous results. Revision is the fine art of learning when good enough is good enough, which is very subjective, especially for new or amateur poets or poets without good editors. Perhaps I also feel a sense of urgency to put out a product, abandoning my drafts only after a hefty, strenuous effort, long past the wisest point of letting go.

Writers need to learn to become comfortable with what we call sh**ty first drafts, to expect snags and detours, and to know when it’s time to switch focus to a new or different project. Several factors may need to come together to make a piece work well, so that means a lot can go wrong, too. First, you have to know what the different aspects of a poem are. Then, after carefully assessing each factor and addressing each as needed, you can get a more realistic sense of a poem’s or a painting’s potential.

It’s always going to be something of a process, but we’re better off if we can recognize when we’re courting futility. The key at that moment is not to view this as a failure, which can be quite hard for artists, me included. Instead, finishing may be a simple matter of using a different form for the content, pinpointing that missing language or concept, or waiting a while for it all to coalesce, but that doesn’t necessarily make finishing any quicker or easier.

Is poetry your only type of writing? If not, what other types of writing do you indulge in? What is the relationship between your poetry and other writing?

I write a lot of different things, but not as many as I should or could if I were publishing my verse regularly. I write essays and articles on my blog about creativity, book reviews, TV shows, travel, and nature. I write novels during NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo. I write political manifestos I never publish, just to get things off my chest. I recently began trying my hand at memoir and may do more of that in the future. My main focus right now, though, is the non-fiction on my blog.

Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

My standards for what makes a good poem have definitely risen with education, my own reading, and writing experience. I’ve also found poetry in the prose of certain novels and learned to appreciate different poetic forms and outlets as I’ve aged, realizing how rare poetry really is.

Do poets experience (mental/writing) block (or fear) the way a writer of novels or short stories does? If you have, how did you handle it?

Writing is writing. Working with words or any creative material, in whatever form, brings with it challenges and rewards, as with any job. Furthermore, good writing and holding oneself to a standard of good writing means that, chances are, there will be anxiety. Pressure is useful up to a point. It’s when my own internal pressure to perform and produce becomes too much that I have the most trouble writing.

For me, it’s a periodically recurring problem. I feel as if I’m always searching for ways forward, but that’s also my nature: I’m a seeker. I’m very interested in the “how” of life and writing, so I experiment a lot, resist routine, and tend to suffer the inevitable consequences: interesting process, fewer outcomes, more worry. It’s mentally and emotionally taxing, but it can be creatively fruitful, too, because I’m already slightly outside the box in my thinking sometimes.

What do you hope to achieve with your poems? Do you ask questions in your poetry? If so, are they open ended questions or do you resolve them?

I have several different aims that can either cooperate or compete with each other in a poem for both my audience and myself. Beauty is one. Insight is another. Cleverness and novelty, yet others. Sometimes I write my journaling in verse, but I may not realize it’s just artistic journaling until later. In those cases especially, one of my aims is to convey a certain message or answer a particular question.

With nature poetry, as I mentioned earlier, a typical aim is to upset expectations, to open minds and hearts to new ways of seeing things. Along with these purposes, I’m mindful of craft and improving it. I might focus on developing a keener feel for line breaks or achieving tighter phrasing or using a different literary device than I might typically rely on.

As for solving or leaving unsolved, it depends. I think I often try my best to answer a question my poem poses, but more often than not, it’s only partially resolved or the question has changed or has been revealed to be missing the point by the end.

~~Part 2 of Carrie Tangenberg’s interview continues tomorrow at The Artist’s Corner

 

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