Monday, September 25, 2017

LIFE OF A POET - SARAH RUSSELL

My friends, we have a treat for you today. I know you have been enjoying, as much as we have, the poetry of one of our newer members, Sarah Russell, of   Sarah Russell Poetry We are zipping across-country to Pennsylvania to sit down with her, and are so looking forward to it. Sarah has an interest in dollmaking, and her work is so exquisite it can't be considered a hobby, rather another art form. Draw your chairs in close. You won't want to miss a single word.







Sherry: Sarah, recently you posted the most beautiful poem about your 25th anniversary. Would you tell us little about your wonderful life, your husband, your family, your work in the field of academia – anything that will help us know you better?

Sarah: First, thank you so much for asking me to do an interview.  Totally unexpected!  Where to start…   During the school year Roy and I live in State College, Pennsylvania, where Roy is a professor and department chair in the Education School at Penn State.  Summers and Christmases we spend in Colorado to be with children (3) and grandchildren (6).  

We love to travel, and we have lived in Oxford, England for a year and in Finland for six months.  Before we met, Roy lived in Kenya, teaching and training for Peace Corps, and I lived in Paris as a college student, so we try to indulge our love of other cultures every chance we get.  

Two years ago, we spent May in Paris where we put a padlock on a ring on the quai of the Seine to renew our vows, and tossed the keys in the river (frowned on, but so romantic!), and this year we returned and found the lock, safe and sound with 5 other locks added by other lovers. 



Sherry: Oh, my goodness, so romantic!

Sarah: We have a puppy mill rescue parti-colored poodle named Smudge who is 6 years old and who works as our personal trainer. 




There’s a beautiful wooded park in State College where we go every day to walk and receive Shinrin-yoku – our forest bath.  It always refreshes our souls to breathe air tinged with pine.  Smudge is the smallest (and arguably the smartest) of the 5 rescue dogs we’ve adopted over the years—a funny, loveable little guy.  In fact, we turn down most invitations to go out because we’d rather spend our time with him and with each other.  The life of semi-recluses, I guess. 





Sherry: That would be my choice, too! He is such a cute boy. (And your husband is handsome too, lol.) This might be the perfect place to include one of the beautiful poems you have written to your husband.  


If I Had Three Lives

               After "Melbourne" by the Whitlams

If I had three lives, I'd marry you in two.
The other?  Perhaps that life over there
at Starbucks, sitting alone, writing – a memoir,
maybe a novel or this poem.  No kids, probably,
a small apartment with a view of the river,
and books – lots of books, and time to read.  
Friends to laugh with, and a man sometimes,
for a weekend, to remember what skin feels like
when it's alive.  I'd be thinner in that life, vegan,
practice yoga.  I’d go to art films, farmers markets,
drink martinis in swingy skirts and big jewelry.  
I’d vacation on the Maine coast and wear a flannel shirt
weekend guy left behind, loving the smell of sweat
and aftershave more than I did him.  I’d walk the beach
at sunrise, find perfect shell spirals and study pockmarks
water makes in sand.  And I'd wonder sometimes
if I'd ever find you.

                                            First published in Silver Birch

Sherry: Oh, my goodness, this is wonderful. Those closing lines! They gave me goose bumps. Where did you grow up, Sarah? Were you creative as a child?

Sarah: I was born and raised in Muskegon, Michigan, the only child of older parents, so I spent a lot of time alone with my imagination.  My father was an invalid who loved poetry.  He always scanned poems for rhyme and meter, and taught me to have an “ear” for the music of poetry.  I wrote a poem every day  when I was in high school—the normal angst-filled or maiden/hero fare of adolescence—which have mercifully been lost over time, but it was wonderful discipline for daily writing, and it led me to majors in English and French in college.

Sherry: I am interested in your years in the women’s movement in the 70’s. Would you like to tell us a bit about that?

Sarah: That was another period of poetry for me—my shrill poetry, I call it now.  Having been socialized in the 50's, the concepts and truths of the women’s movement hit me like a hammer.  Sometimes I would read a passage from feminist literature and literally have to remember to breathe because it was so true, and so much the life I was living.  I was expecting my third child when I decided to return to school for a masters and doctorate.  

I didn’t follow my instincts to get degrees in English or Theater (another love from high school and college) but went into mass communication and communication theory.  My very traditional marriage fell victim to my feminist thought and my return to academe, but in time, while teaching at the University of Memphis, it led me to Roy and a great deal of happiness.

Sherry: I felt the same way back then, in a stifling marriage as the thunderbolt of The Feminine Mystique was awakening me. I am so glad you found lasting happiness.

When did you begin writing poetry again?

Sarah: When I retired after working for the Colorado AIDS Project as their communication director, and then as an editor at Penn State for several years, I was again drawn to poetry.  But oh, how it had changed!  Rhyme had given way to the thrilling freedom of free verse, and I loved it.  

I’ve read that you should read 100 poems for every poem you write, and I had some catching up to do if I were going to write in the 21st century.  I read and read and read before I started writing again.  I still adhere to the 100 to 1 rule and spend every morning, and sometimes the afternoon as well, reading and writing.  

I love the rewrite part.  Generally I write a first draft as prose, not even looking at the iPad keys—just putting it ALL down.  Then I’ll leave it to germinate, and when I go back to it, later that day or the next, it starts to coalesce as a poem.  I save an original copy of the prose, then prune and prune, shaping it until it looks right, then leave it again.  I may go back 4 or 5 times before I’m ready to let anyone else read it.

Sherry: That method seems to work very well for you. Your poems are very polished. What do you love about writing poetry?

Sarah: Words, meter, nuance, metaphor, the unexpected images I find, the search for just the right phrase to describe a concept.  I believe in clear, honest words and everyday scenes to portray abstract ideas.  And I believe the bigger the concept, the more intimate the image should be that illustrates it.  Many times the whole poem becomes a metaphor.  And I love it when readers find more in a poem than I have seen myself. 

Sherry: We are all anticipating reading a few of your poems. Let's dive in!

Sarah: I am currently muddling through my poems to form a chapbook.  I’ve always thought that borders, seams, where meadow meets woods, shifts in thinking or feeling, frontiers, are where the new or unexpected happens, so I’m working on that theme.  Here are three poems that will be in the chapbook.  I’m not much for explaining my poems, so I’ll let them speak for themselves. 


Leaving West Virginia

The road curls snug against the hills,
dips into hollows, rises up through stands
of oak, rough against dun clouds
that promise snow.

Old Jimmy waves goodbye, and Maude
is backlit in the door.  Homesick starts here
on this gravel road, I guess -- nuzzling deep
in sun-sweet quilts, an owl keeping himself
company at midnight, clanking the old stove
to life come morning.

The world is raw, waiting where the road
goes flat and blurs in a rush to get somewhere.
I watched for dawn this morning, breathless to be gone.
Now I want to salt away this place the way it is,
the way I was.

                          First published in Kentucky Review


I lost summer somewhere

in the wildflowers, woke
to trees blushing at my disregard,
wind hurrying the clouds along.  
I should have seen the signs.
I watched geese abandon their twigged
April nests, pin-feathered goslings
ripple ponds listless with July.  Now they rise
gray against the gray sky, skeining south
before first snows.

I'll stay here, I tell them.  I'll air out
cedared cardigans, chop carrots
for the soup tonight, cross
the threshold of the equinox,
try not to stumble.
                                  
                              First published in Poetry Breakfast



The Cottage

I've grown quiet here. My mind
has opened to woodsong
and the smell of earth turned
by a trowel.

I enjoy solitude, even when regrets
or the throb of an old lover happen by.
Sometimes I invite them in, make
a ritual of teacups on starched linen,
a silver server for the scones.
We reminisce 'til shadows trace
across the floor, call them away.

Afterwards, I tidy up, wipe away
drops spilled in the pouring.  I save
the leftovers though they're getting stale.
I may crumble them on the porch rail
tomorrow for sparrows
before I garden.
                 First published in Poetry Breakfast


Sherry: I love your poems, the owl keeping itself company, "homesick starts here", woodsong and crumbling the leftover scones (and memories?) on the railing for the birds....sigh. So lovely.

Do you have a favourite poet? Do you feel he or she influences your work?

Sarah: In high school, I devoured Edna St. Vincent Millay’s work, and I still love her poetry.  But now I read more free verse.  Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Stephen Dunn, Thomas Lux.  Poets who don’t obfuscate.  I believe you should get something the first time you read a poem.  You should get more on a second reading, and even more with a third or fourth.  But I have no patience for poetry that is pretentious and/or obscure.  Thomas Lux said that kind of poetry is “just rude.”  I agree.

Sherry: I do, too. I like to be able to understand what I am reading. Is there someone you feel has had a significant influence on/or has been a strong encourager of your creativity? 

Sarah: I am in a poetry workshop group in State College that has met every other Saturday morning for 4 years.  The people in that close knit group have been invaluable in helping me shape my poems and my style.  And for three years I have had a writing buddy whom I met online.  We’ve never met in person. When I have taken a poem as far as I can alone, I send it to him.  He sends his first draft poems to me. We truly are in one another’s heads, we trust each other, and the changes he suggests are always spot on.  I treasure our friendship.

Sherry: Your work is well supported. That certainly helps keep the creative juices flowing. What other interests do you enjoy? 

Sarah: For 20 years I sculpted one-of-a-kind dolls, a pastime, then a career for a time.  I specialized in Native American dolls from various tribes, and I did a series of dolls based on Edward Curtis’s photographs taken at the turn of the century. 





Here are a couple of pictures, and there are more on my old website (I haven’t updated it in several years, but if anyone is interested the URL is www.SarahRussellDolls.com.)  




When we moved to a townhouse I stopped making dolls and turned to writing, since dollmaking takes a lot of room and a lot of supplies. 





Sherry: Sarah, your dolls are exquisite. I love that they are Native American. They are so realistic. 





Thank you, Sarah,  for this lovely visit. We are so happy you found your way to us, and look forward to enjoying much more of your work. Is there anything, in closing, that you would like to say to Poets United?

Sarah: I feel so fortunate to have discovered Poets United.  You all have been so welcoming. I love working from prompts and trying new forms, if I have time to work on them long enough to be satisfied with the results.  I’ve met some amazing poets, and I’ve been reading wonderful poetry.  What a great group!

In a couple of other interviews I’ve read, they have closed with a short poem.  Here’s one I would like to share:

September

Black-eyed Susans gossip in the gullies
between the road and corn
past harvest,
clouds in feather boas waltz
through pale silk skies, and cows head home
for milking, while
the hawk holds vigil on a fence post.
                                  
                              First published in The Houseboat

What a wonderfully visual poem! I love it! Wasn't this a heartwarming visit, my friends? Each poet's journey and story is so unique. That's why I love doing these features. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


                                       

41 comments:

  1. Hi friends, Sarah is traveling this weekend to a granddaughter's birthday, but says she will stop by to receive your lovely comments on her return. Thanks for stopping by to read and leave her a message of welcome.

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    1. Thanks so much for asking to interview me, Sherry, and for telling folks I'd be late in responding. In Denver now ready for the grandkids birthday parties (3 this week!)

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  2. Hello, every now and then a poet turns up at one some of the poetry sites I frequent... and clearly Sarah's writing always come across as very special and clear. Thank you for a bit more insight (though some of it I had gathered from her wriing) thank you Sherry and Sarah.

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  3. Oh, that was such a treat, from start to finish and everything in between! The dolls are amazing, the poems beautiful and accomplished, and the life story full of delights. Many thanks to you both for a lovely start to my day.

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    1. PS As an Aussie, I am quite tickled that one of your poems was inspired by an Australian group's song about an Australian town! (A town I lived in most of my life, moreover.)

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    2. Thanks, Rosemary. I'm a fan of the Whitlams. A good friend (also from Oz) introduced me to them.

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  4. What a treat Sherry....I am bowled over seeing these incredible dolls you have created Sarah. As if they would come to life.....and I so enjoyed learning so much about your life.....but most of all I loved learning about your process that creates your exquisite poems. Thank you both for such a yummy interview!

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    1. Thanks, Donna. My process wouldn't work for everyone, but what it does for me is to take me out of the technical decisions about line breaks (that might change in rewrite anyway) and to let me just create. The technical stuff can come later.

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  5. It was my pleasure, my friends, and I, too, am so impressed by the amazingly life-like dolls.........I especially love that they are Native American dolls.

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    1. Thanks, Sherry. I love the stories I find in Native American lore and trying to illustrate them. I don't do ceremonial dress, since that has to do with religion and I might get it wrong, but as one Native visitor said when I told him why I didn't do ceremonial clothing, "This is the way we look most of the time anyway."

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  6. What a wonderful life you hae Sarah! It is always a pleasure to learn more about fellow bloggers! Your dolls are absolutely amazing! You are gifted in so many ways!! Thank you Sherry for another awesome interview!!

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    1. Thanks so much, Carrie. Yes, it's a wonderful life.

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  7. wow, you are my idol and a true renaissance woman -

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    1. Aw, Beth, thanks so much! I guess I'll accept "renaissance woman." Or it could be that I never quite found my niche... :-)

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  8. What a wonderful and awesome poet to be added on the Pantry shelf.
    I look forward to reading more of her.
    ZQ

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    1. Thanks a lot. When I get settled and can comment on everyone's poems, I'll join you all more often.

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  9. Another fascinating interview, Sherry. I really love Sarah's poetry. She makes awesome use of a variety of poetic devices ... her evocative images, in particular, are exquisite ... and her pieces are imbued with a compelling 'human-story quality' (sometimes leaving me feeling as if I-know-these-folks, by the time I come to the end of a read). As well, she writes with a nuanced clarity that is so enticing.

    What a talented lady, you are Sarah ... a wonderful writer ... and your beautiful dolls are truly art.

    Great job on this, Poets!

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    1. Wow, Wendy, such great praise! I'll try to keep living up to it.

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  10. Another very interesting interview, Sherry! Sarah, I find myself being very impressed with those one-of-a-kind dolls. I have never seen anything like them. I really like the poem "I Lost Summer Somewhere." Perhaps because I can so identify with it! Smiles.

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    1. I am fascinated by the dolls, too. So beautiful and original.

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    2. Thanks Mary and Sherry. Mary, I think "I lost summer somewhere" is my favorite these days too. I wrote it as a metaphor for aging, and it helps me accept the process.

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  11. OMG what a talented lady you are. You write fantastic poetry. Love the images you use. I am in love with the dolls you make. Superb and what an interesting live you have led. I so love the padlock gesture in the most romantic city on earth. Thanks Sherry and Sarah for this interview :)

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    1. Thanks, Marja. Yes, Paris IS the most romantic city on earth. She has broken my heart several times, and filled me with joy other times. Everyone should try to visit Paris!

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  12. A most fascinating chat Sherry and Sarah! So enjoyed your lines and art. You have a very interesting life Sarah. So nice to get to know you.

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  13. How wonderful to finally meet you, Sarah! I enjoyed that your dog Smudge is your trainer and that he leads you to "Shinrin-yoku – our forest bath." I will never forget that last image. This sense of bathing in nature is in all the poems you include here. I love them all, but especially "If I had three lives" because it reads me and gives me back. Haha. Haunting. Welcome! What a fine artist of words and life you are. Thanks for the interview, Sherry.

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    1. Thank you, Susan. I love the concept of a "forest bath" too. And I think all of us dream about that road not taken, then realize all we would have missed if we had chosen that way to live.

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  14. Thank you for bringing us Sarah, Sherry ... and what a delight! From the beginning, I've loved Sarah's poems. They speak to my soul, building beautiful images and emotions. Like you, Sarah, I'm at a loss with poetry that obfuscates! I, too, appreciate Mary Oliver, and will look forward to checking out the other poets you mentioned. I'm looking forward to more and more of your work. Thanks again, Sherry, for another insightful interview!

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    1. Thanks, Bev. I wondered about using "obfuscate" in talking about plain writing, but it is such an onomatopoetic word that I couldn't resist. Obfuscate sounds like it is trying to well, obfuscate...

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  15. Having always enjoyed your writing ( There are echoes of William Stafford for me in some of your poems)it was a real treat to find out more about you the writer. Thoroughly enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing Sarah.

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    1. Thanks so much Paul. I have not read Stafford. I'll start reading! Thank you for the introduction.

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  16. Am heading out on the bus today to a medical appointment, kids. Back tomorrow........will have my trusty tablet, so will keep in touch.

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  17. Thank you Sherry and Sarah another wonderful post!!! Love your poems Sarah.

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  18. That's wonderful Sherry and Sarah. What stood out were the life-like dolls which none had presented here before. Another were the free verse poems with a story-line in all of them. Classic interview!

    Hank

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    1. Thanks, Hank. Yes, I guess I'm a story-teller at heart. I do love narrative poetry, especially when it can convey something deeper or universal.

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  19. Wonderful to know more about the beautiful person behind the beautiful poems. Thank you Sarah and Sherry...what a fabulous read this morning! Sarah, your elegant poems are an inspiration as always!

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  20. Such a wonderful interview...loved the poems and the dolls...fantastic!!

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