You know it when you see it.
You pick up the page. Read a line. Fall in love. You’ve found a writer who lives inside of words, who excavates their meanings, stretches all their boundaries. Makes them work. Makes them play. A writer who owns language.
That’s the writing of my guest today, Patricia Caspers. Her poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Adirondack Review, Literary Mama, Rose & Thorn, Slipstream Press, Smoking Poet and Worcester Magazine, among others. (That’s the short list.) She is an editor at Prick of the Spindle, and has a blog at Fish Head Soup. She also writes for the Ploughshares blog and Superstition Review.
She does all that, and more, while teaching college English and raising kids. She’s also my critique partner (which means she tells me when my writing, um,
is total crap isn’t working). Plus, she has a dancing dog. Can you stand it? I couldn’t, and that’s why I invited Trish to talk about her paths towards inspiration, through all life’s many detours.
LA: On a recent Ploughshares blog post, you discuss some of your challenges in finding time to seek out inspiration. As a mom and a poet, your days are always interrupted. Can you share one of the strangest times or places where you’ve discovered an idea for a poem?
PC: I’ve found that repetitive body movement really helps me find poems and tease them out. I learned this when I was in college and working in the dormitory bakery. Every morning I rode my bike to work, and for four hours I scooped cookie dough onto sheets with an ice cream scooper, and I got into this kind of rhythm where I rocked side to side with each scoop, and because it was so mindless I had time to let my mind wander. I wrote more poems that year than probably any other time in my life. I would just repeat the lines of poetry from the top, adding a new one each time. If I forgot a line, I figured it wasn’t good enough to keep anyway. At the end of my shift I had breakfast at the employee table and jotted the poem in my notebook before dashing off to volleyball class.
As a mom, I find it’s difficult to re-create that mindless repetition, those perfect circumstances for inspiration, and it took me years after my daughter was born to realize that it wasn’t always — or sometimes ever– going to happen; years where I wrote little to nothing. I couldn’t wait to be inspired, and I mean that in both senses. Now I try to sneak away for a walk when I can, but a couple of years ago I participated in the April Poem-a-Day challenge, and it kicked my butt, but in an enlightening way. Some nights it was 10 p.m. before I had time to write a poem, and I sat down at the computer without an idea in my head. On those nights I started Googling images of women from myths and legends, and I discovered characters I’d never before encountered, and I ended up with some great new material. In fact one of those poems, “Hatsuhana Beneath the Waterfall” was recently accepted for publication.
That’s the long answer. The short answer is: sitting in front of a computer screen. Also, though, in the dentist’s chair and in the Macy’s changing room while my daughter tried on homecoming dresses.
LA: I know you’ve done a lot of research for your poems on mythological and historical women. What woman from the past has inspired you the most and what did you learn from her?
PC: There are so many women who inspire me because they overcame, survived, found joy, despite their oppression. It’s difficult to choose just one, but I think about Bridget or “Biddy” Mason often. She was a slave in the United States. She was taken from her mother and given as a wedding gift. She was raped by slave owners (as most slave women were), forced to walk from Mississippi to Utah with her babies on her hips, and later — on a trek to Texas– she and her three children escaped to California.
Mason was a midwife. As a freed woman she worked as a doctor’s assistant and saved enough money to buy land. I think what draws me to Mason is that she did more than survive. Here’s a woman who owned nothing for most of her life, and as soon as she earned what she needed, she shared with others, helping to found a church, an elementary school, and an aid center. It’s humbling.
Right now I’m trying to learn how to stay in my joy even when times are rough (and they’re never, ever as rough as they were for Mason), so I guess she’s teaching me that giving is joyful– even if right now my gift is only words on the page.
LA: You also gather ideas from your family history. This is one of my favorites:
“Nana Ivy’s Royal Typewriter”
D-O-N .. . she pecked each key forcefully, the way her hen beaked the corn,
dabbed her forehead with a rose-scented kerchief.
DON’T FENCE ME IN,” she wrote,
returned to the kitchen, cranked a window,
let steam billow over the victory garden.
Nana has a definite spark. What do you admire most about her?
PC: This poem is written about my great-grandmother, Nana Ivy, but I’ve also attempted to write many poems about my grandmother Nana Pat (Nana Ivy’s daughter). They were both strong, feisty women. They worked hard, made almost everything — including my clothes– from scratch. They didn’t back away from any new business venture, whether it was butchering their own cow or pig, breeding dachshunds and bunnies, selling hand-made dolls and jewelry at the local farmer’s market. I never knew my great-grandfather, and my grandfather had Multiple Sclerosis, so Nana Pat and Nana Ivy were making every end meet. They always had time for a game of Canasta, though, which they called, “Nasty,” and they were fierce rivals at the card table. They were also two of the best storytellers I have ever known, and some of my favorite memories are of sitting around the kitchen table, or the craft table, listening to them spin their tales.
LA: I wish I could have met them and learned Canasta — and a thing or two! In many of your poems, there is this sense of looking back. You often deal with the theme of loss, of not simply surviving loss but scavenging it for stories, for the tales that must be told. That, in itself, is inspirational — and not easy. On your worst days, what do you hold tight?
PC: My chapbook, Dead Letters is making its grand appearance soon, and those twelve poems are my way of remembering and honoring my clan on my father’s side, so many of whom are gone. They lived hard lives, and they died young. My dad died five years ago, and Nana Pat has been gone for nearly thirty years, but sometimes the grief returns as if they were just here a minute ago. I’ve wanted to be a poet since I was nine years old; I wanted to make them proud of me. I guess I hold on to the idea that somehow they are here, close to me, and they’re whispering in my ear, “You done good, Fish Head.”
LA: Inside that theme of the backward glance, if you could go back to your fifteen-year-old self, what would you tell her about poetry and writing?
PC: There are other people out there who are like you, who write and read poetry, who could spend long afternoons talking about syllables and line breaks. Take your lips off that boy and go find them.
LA: LOVE that! Thanks Trish, for the wisdom, humor, and inspiration. You can find more of Trish’s poetry on her website, order her chapbook, Dead Letters, from Meridian Press, or follow her on Twitter.
Okay readers, what have you taken from the past — mythological, historical, or personal — to use as inspiration? And what would you tell your 15-year old self?