An Interview with Lynnell Edwards
By Rachel Stark
Rachel Stark: First off, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I'd like to start by talking about your subject matter. Your most recent collection, The Highwayman's Wife, draws much of its energy from the way you revitalize mythology. At the same time, you take on the English countryside with both the folklore of the highwayman and your numerous quotations from John Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar. What is it about these things that are important to you?
Lynnell Edwards: Some sort of unrelated things converged in the spring of 2004 that I think prompted the Highwayman series, the first of which was "Sonnet for the Highwayman." I was tramping around in a very old cemetery in rural Kentucky where some of my Scottish ancestors (the McBrayers) from the 18th century were buried and I was talking with an elderly relative about that, and then an issue of Gourmet magazine arrived which had a feature on the Scottish Highlands, with several spectacular photos. The photos were gorgeous; I can make only a modest case for Scottish cuisine, however. After that first poem, I started exploring – in other words, I "Googled" – information about English ballads to see what kind of imagery I might mine for the rest.
As for the Clare cycle, the first poem there was "For You, October's Boy" – and I was very happy to see that one in SP! – and then I wrote another, "Walking With the Hounds." Both were kind of nature-based, and also seasonal, so I thought it would be interesting to see what I could do with the idea of a Shepherd's calendar. I explored, this time in real books, and happened on Clare's work, and so began.
As to how or why those elements are important: I guess – and this sounds somewhat clichéd – it's really my heritage. I mean, I wouldn't make any particular claims on Braveheart, but in terms of understanding part of who I am and what I come from, among other things, it's that Anglo-Saxon tradition.
RS: It's interesting that you mention your heritage as a part of the significance behind your subject matter, because it seems that another thing you're doing in this collection is talking to your own children. How does your family right now factor in?
LE: Of course I have always been helplessly in love with my children – two boys, ages 13 and 15 – but they suddenly started getting really interesting as subjects for poetry about the time they hit middle school. For whatever reason, there just wasn't anything that compelling about a baby, at least as a source of conflict – and that's what drives a poem for me, I think. They're so funny now, and full of so many contradictions, and are such beings in transition – both their bodies and their brains – struggling to hammer out their identities, trying to be all things at once, getting hit upside the head by things like love or a glimpse at the bigger world. I think it really hit me how tough it is to be a father to these unwieldy creatures when a friend told me how uncool his 14-year-old son thought he was when he bought a convertible – and this was a guy who had been about the coolest person I knew in college. But his own son thought he was a dork. Hence, the poem "Further Affections."
RS: When you do use myth in your poems, do you do it in order to express something vital to who you are, or do you instead focus on creating compelling character sketches? In other words, does the meaning drive the poem, or does the character and the narrative?
LE: Definitely the character and the narrative compels me, and particularly the voice. That's what's behind my "Suite for Wives." The first of them, "Me, the Wife: Versions of Medusa," came much, much before the rest of the sequence, which then came all together rather quickly over a couple of months. I really wanted to recover these characters who are largely silent in the classical versions of their stories, and I imagined them in a faintly contemporary idiom. For instance: Cassandra as a trophy wife; or Helen of Troy as a kind of bitchy, alpha-female cheerleader; or the wife of Zeus as a vengeful, wronged wife. In all cases they have with a strong, "f--- you" sort of attitude rather than being the submissive, silent victim. They're the original desperate housewives. Whether this is true or not to the sense of the myth (probably not) is less important than their potential to be recovered as models of female power, or maybe just to say something I need to say about being a wife. Several people have pointed out the strong thread of myth in the collection – which shouldn't surprise me, I guess – but the manuscript I'm working on now doesn't have anything much like that at all. There are a lot of poems about furniture.
RS: So if characters and voices are driving your myth-type poems, what's driving these new ones?
LE: Hmm... I don't know. And I think it might be too early to see any particular force shaping what I'm doing. Plus, I had this unexpected fiction interlude. The poetry manuscript is tentatively called Covet, so I guess it's about stuff I want, like some new furniture for the den.
RS: A lot of women seem to be writing about mythology lately - Eleanor Wilner and A. E. Stallings come to mind. Is there anyone within that genre who speaks to you?
LE: I know and like Hapax by Stallings, and was initially compelled to discover that book because I knew she was doing interesting things with formal verse that might be really instructive, and it was, in that regard. And there are some great books that take up myth; some that have compelled me in the last few years include: Autumn Grasses by Margaret Gibson, which draws on Japanese myth and legend as it is depicted in traditional paintings; Six Girls Without Pants by Paisley Rekdal, in which there's a long section that recasts the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes in really provocative ways; and a terrific book by Cecilia Woloch titled Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem that traces her own journey to understand and recover the gypsies of Europe.
RS: Do you have a favorite poem in The Highwayman's Wife?
LE: No. Or, er… it changes. I would say that some of the poems are definitely favorites in terms of what I choose to read for audiences – in this regard, excerpts from "Suite for Wives" is terrific, particularly in non-traditional venues. And some of the Clare cycle (the months of the year) work well, particularly during the given month or season. I do really, really like the Highwayman sonnet sequence, but they never deliver the bang I want when I read them at an event. I haven't figured out the proper way to introduce them, I think, in terms of explaining what they are or how I can excerpt them. I did read the whole series once at a reading that no one came to – or two people attended in addition to me and the other poet – and they went over really, really well.
RS: In The Highwayman's Wife you explore the sonnet form as readily as free verse. How do you decide whether a poem will be formal or free?
LE: During the time I wrote most of the poems in this collection I was very conscious of encouraging traditional form as I saw it emerge in a poem. In the case of that sequence, the first poem I wrote, "Sonnet for the Highwayman," tumbled into sonnet form, and then the next one, "The Highwayman's Wife," did as well – that one, curiously, came as a pull-off-the-side-of-the-road-while-you're-driving rush, almost of one piece immediately. At that point, I realized there might be something to what seemed to be an emerging narrative in these shorter sketches, so as a unifying device, I begin the next ten of them with the sonnet form more pre-imposed on the material; I guess I began to think in sonnets, which is fundamentally that sense of an eight-line proposition, a kind of turn and then concluding argument. The end rhyme that emerged was fun to encourage, though I worked on internal rhymes, as in "The Highwayman's Wife," as much as end rhymes. I think the poem near the end, "Advice for the Poet," is about the end of my run with the sonnet for now.
RS: The Highwayman's Wife is your second book of poetry, and you've published it four years after your first, The Farmer's Daughter. In what ways do you think your writing has changed?
LE: This is going to sound sort of vague, but I think it's better. I pay more attention to the music of the poems and I think the poems are better technically, more complex in terms of imagery, and also more nervy. I wasn't as sure of myself in The Farmer's Daughter; I kept thinking: is this really a poem? Is this what's supposed to happen? I think my "stamina" for a poem is greater now, as well; that is, I'm able to push what might be there farther in a poem that I did in the largely shorter pieces in The Farmer's Daughter. The poems in The Farmer's Daughter were really almost all, with the exception of a big handful, the first serious poems I had ever written. I wrote a lot of fiction in college, then did a three-act play as my master's thesis and then lots and lots of academic writing as part of my doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition. I began reading and writing poetry seriously after I picked up a poetry class mid-semester from a colleague who had to drop it about five years before FD came out.
RS: I hope we someday get to see your fiction and plays, but I think you've started to break into poetry really well. You had work published in Poets Against the War. How do you feel the arts, or poetry specifically, factor into the political environment right now?
LE: Well, not as much as they could, that's for sure, or as they have, historically. Even as they are wholly compelled and influenced by the arts, particularly the popular arts, like movies and popular music, Americans are suspicious of assigning any truth value to the insights that might be gained from the arts.
Here in Kentucky there has been quite an outpouring of imaginative and other writing about mountain top removal, a horror that threatens to destroy the eco-systems (as well as the economy and culture) of Appalachia. I think these writers, with the anthologies that have been published, the essays and photo-journalism, have begun to go some measure toward shaping public opinion, and that's encouraging.
As for the Poets Against the War efforts, that was fairly high profile in terms of poetry. I think on campuses it probably, albeit briefly, raised the profile of poetry since there were a lot of readings in that first year built around that theme. Though I was very flattered to have my poem included in the anthology, I haven't written much more of what I would call political poetry, or at least poetry that specifically responds to the contours of the current civic landscape – though, yes, I know, even writing a poem in this day and age is a political act. I can't tell if the movement is headed anywhere in particular, or where that might be.
I wish that the office of Poet Laureate was more politicized, more activist, though not necessarily partisan. We have had some seriously play-it-safe Poet Laureates. I also think that after seven years with, as Garrison Keillor calls him, "the Current Occupant," the level of authority and poetry in public rhetoric has sadly declined, and with it, probably the average American's ear for appreciating beauty in language.
RS: It does seem that some fiction and film stirs a bit of public support for humanitarian or activist causes. I think novels like Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner and the newer A Thousand Splendid Suns and films like Hotel Rwanda and Memoirs of a Geisha have been popular and still spoken to the public consciousness. It would be nice to see poetry start to have the same weight, though it probably comes with popularity on the whole, and poetry's struggling on that end. Maybe this question is just a little too big, but is there someone you can see making a really effective Poet Laureate?
LE: Great examples; that's exactly what I'm talking about. But have we really been able to take the steps politically, make the sacrifices socially, that demonstrate there must be a change in our responses?
Mostly I just wish we had a different president. Americans, when at their best, are a fine and generous people and this has all just been such a sad and unnecessary waste of our faith, our talents, our hopes. Just today, our local paper reported that Bush will authorize and extend the practice of mountaintop removal (strip mining); apparently it's well within the law to savage the Appalachian mountains, choke the streams and fill the tributaries with debris – the whole top of the mountain, essentially scraped into the valleys below – to get at that coal.
Okay, I was going to dodge the one about my vote for Poet Laureate because you can't assume that political poets are necessarily going to generate a certain kind of high profile activism. But then I thought why not? What a great chance to say something. So: Virgil Suarez.
Let me explain, since I don't think he quite fits the mold – at least as it's apparent on the website for Poet Laureate.
Full disclaimer: I don't really know him well personally, but have met him and got him to blurb HW through a friend–of-a-friend recommendation – and hoped for such a recommendation.
I think his work is authentic, responsible in the right ways, and full of joy. He's equally deft as a poet and novelist, and I believe his work engages the American experience across generations and cultures. I think he could go a long way towards easing some of the misplaced anxiety we have about bilingualism and non-native speakers and I think he's appropriately irreverent, which is to say while having one foot in academia he's a poet of the world and as such, sensible of priorities and perspectives. I have no idea whether he would finally be suited temperamentally to such a heavy institutional gig, but I do believe he would be every bit the "nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans," which is how the website describes the job. He would probably throw an installation party of planetary proportions, but that in its generosity and inclusiveness and high-spirited celebration of the written word would set the stage for reclaiming poetry's work as protest, prayer, and historical record.
RS: Let's talk a little bit about your writing community, then. Have you always been surrounded by people who write, or did you find your way in on your own?
LE: I grew up in a very literate household; my mother is a university professor who started out life as a high school English teacher, and my father is a great reader as well. As I mentioned above, I am mostly self-taught in terms of poetry. I can't point to any great teachers or mentors – or, in fact, any teachers or mentors – that worked with me or encouraged me personally as a poet, though I have some great peers and editors, mostly at a distance, who have read my work and provided helpful insights.
RS: As a student, I tend to devote most of my reading time to studying poetry written any time but now - a plight I know most writing students share. Coming out of the classroom and deciding what's good poetry now is daunting. Do you remember the first contemporary poet you discovered and enjoyed?
LE: I was really late coming to poetry; I sort of even scoffed at it as an undergraduate and certainly didn't study it except what I had to read in survey courses, and then my graduate work was not in poetry or creative writing at all. I had a literature concentration in Renaissance and Reformation literature for my doctorate so that time was consumed with, um, dead white males – not unlike your own experience, I imagine. The first poets I read were kind of a hodge-podge: Li-Young Lee's Rose might have been the first book of poetry I actually sought out. But other early favorites were Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, and Mark Jarman. I think Jarman's Questions for Ecclesiastes was one of the very first books I looked at really seriously as a poet considering craft. I then read a lot of his earlier essays that had been collected from The Reaper and probably began informally shaping an aesthetic for myself informed by that.
Some of the poets I find doing exciting work now include this generation of African American poets like Terrance Hayes, Crystal Williams, A.Van Jordan, and Major Jackson.
I recently did a review of two books that I found remarkable: Bucolics by Maurice Manning, his third, and a very unusual collection and probably not for everyone; and Dark Familiar by Aleda Shirley, which just floored me with its language and the vision.
RS: Do you still enjoy the first poets you read as much as you did when you discovered them?
LE: I haven't gone back to review and reconsider poets as much as would probably be helpful partially because I don't regularly teach poetry – other than a short poetry writing unit in an intro to creative writing class – which necessitates both a broad and fluid working knowledge of the tradition, and also because I do a fair amount of book reviewing so I'm often reading brand new stuff that's been assigned, or scavenging for the newest work by authors or publishers I like. All of this is to say that I haven't looked at Satan Says in about ten years or Questions for Ecclesiastes in about six years or Billy Collins in about five, except to find an epigraph about putting on your "jazz face". So I think that's what I'm going to do this weekend, while I'm waiting around for soccer games to start. I'm sort of curious to see how or if I am compelled.
RS: You're relatively young in the poetry world and have room to maneuver and grow. Who - in or out of the poetry community - encourages you most?
LE: Hmmm... this is a tough one to answer without sounding like I'm throwing myself a little "pity party," which is to say, I feel fairly isolated – I know, I know, this is what every writer says. I don't have any mentors from an MFA program – two of three creative writing teachers I've ever had are officially Dead White Males; I've never been and am not currently part of a writing group; I'm not part of a faculty community that officially encourages and supports me, though the folks at the University of Louisville where I teach as an adjunct have been terrific. I think really the thing that keeps me going is the unexpected, positive responses I get to my work, unsolicited. Every time I get one of those letters that's not a rejection or when I get a response to a query about doing a reading, or someone who is not related to me by blood or contract says they enjoyed a poem I read, I feel like it's the Lost Boys and all those lovers of poetry out there clapping their hands for Tinkerbell because they believe, they believe. (See? Kind of pitiful.) And so I try to keep those moments in front of me when it feels like I'm never going to hit the poetry jackpot or even cash a scratch and win ticket.
RS: For the record, I don't think that's pitiful; in a field where it's difficult to feel noticed, I think you have to love every little moment you can get. Are your family members readers and critics for you, also, beyond having to love what you write because, after all, they are family?
LE: No, not really. My family has been supportive, and I have every confidence my close family members have read my books and could speak intelligently to them. And maybe that's sufficient. I know – not well and largely through coincidence – the sons of both William Stafford and William Matthews; both of these men are fine poets, but they have quite a burden, in some ways. Maybe it's okay that I get to be the poet in the family, and I'm not sure whether my husband (qua husband) would be who I want as a close reader or critic.
There were a couple of poems in The Farmer's Daughter that I was a little nervous about my father seeing – he is a farmer, and I grew up, for part of my life, on a large cattle farm – because most of them are kind of dark and anti-pastoral. But he said he liked the book, and once, when he wasn't around, I picked up his copy, which was lying on a coffee table, and flipped through it. He had underlined some stuff, and next to one poem, that was actually mostly the verbatim account of something he told me – "Into the Kill Pen" – he had written, lightly in pencil, "True." Whew!
I would say the only and truly the most instructive feedback I've gotten on craft has come from a couple of editors who, having accepted work, had questions or suggestions for strengthening a piece. I also have a friend here in Louisville that I've begun to share work with more regularly. I think I'd like more feedback like that but I'm not quite sure how to get it. I can't figure out the writer's conference thing exactly. Should I be trying to teach at those or attending?
RS: And one final question: what's your current poetry project?
LE: I have a third manuscript in process that I would characterize as about two-thirds complete; it's different in that I've taken more steps toward lyric poetry and memory, which I've struggled with partially because I'm inclined to think: who cares? I'm less confident of my voice as my voice in the poem, as opposed to, say, channeling through a character, like Helen of Troy or Cassandra. I've also been writing a lot of fiction lately, but I don't know if anything will come of it. I've only just this summer started sending it out.
RS: Well thank you very much for sharing with Smartish Pace. Good luck with your new project and your evolving work!
Rachel Stark was an intern for Smartish Pace at the time of this interview and is currently a senior at Goucher College in Baltimore.