Meanwhile outside the ivy-covered walls...
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
She has carved out a place for herself--a highly respected one that includes major awards and recognition--all from outside the literary community of colleges and universities. How did she come to do all that excellent work on her own? She and I recently had an e-mail conversation about that.
ES: I guess if we were sitting down to talk about this I would want to know how you went about constructing your career as a poet without the usual role models and support of colleagues the way you would have had in a university setting. How did you know how to proceed? Did you just start sending your work to journals? Did you have any poet friends to discuss your work with or were you working totally on your own?
LP: From the time I was twelve, I have written poetry, but when I got married after my junior year in college, I stopped. I consider myself a victim of what I call the perfectly polished floor syndrome. It was the fifties: I felt I had to have a homemade dessert on the table every night, even though I was still in school.
Ten years and 3 children later, frustrated and depressed, knowing somehow that I was supposed to be writing poems, my very supportive husband helped me construct a strict schedule for myself. I hired a baby sitter, borrowed my husband’s study, and started working for several hours every day. This kind of artificial discipline was (and is) necessary for me, or I would have waited another ten years, maybe even longer, to become a poet. (Now, at least, I have a study of my own!)
As for the publishing part, I had no mentors and it would be several years before I met other writers in the D.C. area who could advise me. So I just randomly started sending my poems to journals, and they randomly started accepting them.
ES: What about the whole psychological aspect? How did you develop and maintain your confidence in your work without those colleagues? Or maybe that part was easier?
LP: There are many advantages to living outside the mainstream of writing and publishing, here in the middle of six acres of woods. There is really nothing much to do except write poems, and so I write them.
I also think that the competitive atmosphere of a place like New York (where I grew up} would have inhibited me. And the few times I have taught in writing programs, I have not had enough energy left to do my own work-- I am a very low energy person.
Of course, during the 20 summers I taught at The Bread Loaf Writing Conference, I was absolutely intoxicated by being with so many writers-- all I wanted to do was to talk to them about poetry for as many hours as I could keep awake. I certainly do miss that. But now I travel half a dozen times a year to various colleges, giving readings and meeting people, and that takes care of some of the loneliness definitely inherent in my life. And I have finally met wonderful poets here in the Washington area with whom I can occasionally meet and share my work.
ES: I'm wondering, too, where your strength came from to believe in your work while you were "randomly" sending out poems. And if, when you met other writers, you felt a little intimidated or somehow "other" because they might have seemed to know each other or even speak a language that you, working on your own, weren't using.
LP: I have always believed in my work, it's the one thing that keeps me going. It's not that I believe other poets aren't better, but reading those poets only makes me resolve to work harder. They make me happy. It is only mediocre poems that depress me.
ES: I think you're absolutely right to believe in the work. I don't know that you can do it at all if you don't believe in it.
LP: --And I just have to add that there certainly are times that I think my poems are entirely worthless and that I should be doing something more useful with my life!
ES: I’m glad this is what you’re doing with your life! Thank you.