Our last Web Wednesday featured a self-proclaimed poetic “newbie.” This week, we present to you an accomplished veteran of the craft, Nancy Posey.
We asked Nancy to select a poem that she feels best expresses her personal writing style, and explain why she chose that particular poem. She chose “Phone Calls 3 A.M.”
Phone Calls 3 A.M.
Daddy would never even considerletting us ride on a motorcycle,
let alone own one, because the preacher’sthe first one they call after the trooper
stops by the house with the bad news.He ruined more good suits climbing
through kudzu into ditches withStanley from the funeral parlor.
Our phone would ring at all hourswith news of machinery accidents
on the night shift, a hunter founddead in his tree stand, deer tracks
all around, the only sign of bloodhis own. We were the first to know
about overdoses and car wrecks,heart attacks and the occasional
knife fight at Sammy’s Cellar.
He’d take the calls on our one phonehanging on the wall in the kitchen,
stretching the cord into the pantry,as if we couldn’t hear. No one slept
through 3 a.m. phone calls. We knew,we always knew. We just didn’t know who.
A lot of my poems come from those little backward glimpses into my childhood. My dad was a preacher in a small Alabama town, and our phone rang at all hours. For a year or more, a young woman we knew only by her first name, called regularly. She was a heroin addict who wanted help and saw the motto “A Concerned Church” in the Yellow Pages and called him. He always kept confidences, but we were aware of so much simply through osmosis. A lot of my poems incorporate humor. This one doesn’t. I do like to use specific details in my poem. Sammy’s Cellar, for instance, was a downtown dive. Later, the location was bought and renovated into corporate offices for a trucking company—my first employer. The local undertaker was also an unsung hero, going to such great lengths for families at the worst times of their lives.
1. So you’re an Alabama Tar Heel, eh? One of your blogs is even named as such (http://alabamatarheel.wordpress.com/). Being an avid (rabid?) fan of THE Ohio State University, I can understand the loyalty and excitement. Yet, besides mixing loyalties, it seems a peculiar name for a poetry blog. Is there a story at the helm?
I’m an Alabama native, and have always been a big fan of the Crimson Tide, but we moved to North Carolina sixteen years ago and have not only assimilated but have learned to love Tar Heels basketball. (The football team is fun too, but fortunately, being in different conferences, my loyalty is almost never challenged.) Ben, my younger son, a UNC-CH grad is such a rabid fan that he blogs before, during, and after every game during basketball season. It can’t help but rub off. I’ll have the grace to make no comments about Auburn, UT, or Duke.
2. When did you begin writing poetry, and do you recall your first poem?
I wrote all the usual high school poetry (which I still have in a notebook), but I started writing a little several years ago. One of my first poems I loved best from that time, “Parlor Weddings,” is in my chapbook. Since my dad was a preacher, we often had little weddings at our house—what seemed like impromptu affairs to me at the time. I actually signed as a witness in the second grade. Only later did I start to wonder why they were in such a hurry.
3. One of your favorite quotes is, “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.” –W. H. Auden“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh. (W. H. Auden)” What a great quote! How much does your sense of humor influence your writing life?
My sense of humor affects all aspects of my life. When I first started teaching, I was given that old stale advice for rookies: Don’t smile until Thanksgiving. I quickly learned that isn’t my style. As I started doing poetry readings, I’ve often found myself paired with other poets whose entire body of work seems to focus on childhood abuse, parental death, and such. My poems can be serious, but so many of them are fun too. I don’t always go for the belly laughs, but I like to tease out a smile. My poem “Breast Milk and Frozen Okra,” for instance, is a tender little poem, but I couldn’t avoid what I think is a funny title. In fact, my sister Jeannie gave me the title before I had the poem.
4. Another of your favorite quotes is this: “A. A. Milne said, "Ideas may drift into other minds, but they do not drift my way. I have to go and fetch them. I know no work manual or mental to equal the appalling heart-breaking anguish of fetching an idea from nowhere. Ideas may drift into other minds, but they do not drift my way. I have to go and fetch them. I know no work manual or mental to equal the appalling heart-breaking anguish of fetching an idea from nowhere (A.A. Milne).” I’m afraid many of us wait for the ideas to wash over us, which may or may not ever happen. Do you have any idea-hunting tips to give us?
I honestly believe that I have written so much more—and as a result, I’ve been able to mine some good poems from the body of writing—because I have joined communities such as Poetic Asides and my “Baker’s Dozen” group—many of whom also participate here at Poetic Bloomings. As a teacher, too, I feel I have to be a writer to teach writing with any authenticity. Jane Shlensky and I have presented a session at our state and national conferences that we call “How Can You Teach What You Don’t Do.” We encourage other teachers to find ways to channel their own writing. I’ve always loved to write. I don’t feel comfortable without a pen in my hand (or at least behind my ear). With the positive peer pressure I find here online and with some of my writing friends, I find ways to push it a little further.
I also know writers who don’t read when they are writing. I might as well say I wasn’t going to eat. Reading fuels my writing brain.
5. Walt and I both have great respect for teachers, of which you are one. As an English teacher, what are your views on “poetic license?” Do you feel poetry should be grammatically impeccable, or is Walt still safe?
The analogy I use is NASCAR (I am in North Carolina, after all): I tell them before they learn to drive at 200 mph, they have to learn the rules and how to stay within the law. When it’s time to break the rules or laws, they should be aware of it.
Fragments for effect and e. e. cummings-style capitalization can work well. However, sloppiness and failure to know or care about grammar and mechanics can get in the way of what one is trying to say. I try to be a generous reader, but I’d advise anyone to take the time to learn—or at least to run your work “for show” past someone who can look at that aspect.
(I judged a student poetry contest once in which a student had let spell check take over, leaving in a reference to the “genital winds blowing in [her] face.” Eeewwww!)
6. You told us, “As a teacher, I also feel I'm on a crusade to defend poetry's reputation and to kindle a love and appreciation of poetry, not just with my students but with teachers who'd rather skip that unit...” Hmmm … “skip that unit” … Do you believe this to be a growing and intentional omission?
Face it, with all the pressure on testing, it’s easier to focus on anything that can be tested with a multiple choice format. There’s also a tendency to avoid material when we lack confidence. I think, though, it’s fair to approach a text admitting to my students that I am not sure about it. I love to model the discovery process. I make work for myself sometimes by changing up my own syllabus to get a chance to read new poetry.
I assign a poetry paper for which my students are directed to read at least eight poems by a poet “still living or, if dead, still warm.” (I had to add that last little bit in case a poet died in the middle of the unit—it really happens sometimes.) Mostly, I want them to realize that poetry is still happening—lots of good poetry. With current poets, they are also less likely to happen upon pre-written essays, that vile temptation.
7. On the same note, what do you do personally to “defend poetry’s reputation?” Do you have any advice for the rest of us on how we can help “kindle a love and appreciation of poetry?”
First, I try to dispel the myth that only English instructors have the answer key. When I cease being the expert, poetry becomes less intimidating. Then I try to expose my students (and family and friends) to as much poetry as possible. I’m always running across poems that I send to someone I know—my son’s band teacher, a former colleague, the math teacher around the corner. Since most poems in anthologies are short, even reluctant readers can read enough samples to find something that speaks to them.
To that end, I also sometimes use an assignment I took from Carol Jago, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English—the Goldilocks Project. I ask them, after reading LOTS of poems, to choose one that is too easy, one that is too hard, and one that is just right, and to explain why in each case. That leads them to read widely without the threat of a test. It usually works like a charm.
8. Being an avid reader, do you feel poetry is best “read,” and not “heard?”
The answer depends on the poem. Some just beg to be read aloud. Concrete poems, complex poems, those that need to be seen or re-read, play better on the page perhaps, but I believe in the music of poetry. I always go for the subtle sound tricks, although I don’t do a lot of rhymed poetry. I do pay attention to rhythm too. I also pay close attention to my line breaks and the way the poem looks on a page.
9. I was impressed to discover you have presented programs on poetry at some of your local book clubs. What can you share with us on how one goes about this? What were your expectations, and how were they met?
I was first invited by a local lady to a book club that had run continuously since before WWI. The club actually started the local Red Cross chapter. I picked poems with a narrative turn, some that played well out loud. I also avoid that affected poet voice I heard so often. I tend to read with what my former high school students used to call “Story Time with Miss Nancy”—a little dash of drama. I’m actually working on a project of a poetry collection aimed for book clubbers.
10. Many in this group know that you won the Writer’s Digest 2009 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, with Let the Lady Speak. Congratulations again, Nancy! The idea behind Let the Lady Speak is a fascinating one. Please tell us about it, and how you determined which women to give voice to.
I didn’t start with the theme in mind, but I kept coming up with these voices—literary, historical, biblical—as those of women in my own life. I’ve always loved books written from a shifted point of view. I love John Gardner’s Grendel and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (from the point of view of Bertha, the mad wife of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester.) I like to put on my Atticus Finch shoes and imagine what goes through the minds of those figures known universally—Eve, Anne Frank, Hamlet’s mother. I have also been working through boxes and boxes of pictures and letters passed down to me from both sides of my family and my husband’s family, and I like to work their stories into poetry when I know them. Too often, all I have are bits and pieces—not enough for a family history, but just right for a poem.
Some of my most recent ancestors seem to keep speaking until I listen. Since I’m a voracious reader, too, I have an endless supply of personas. Lady Macbeth and Lot’s wife have surfaced since the chapbook was published. I take a lot of liberty with facts, too. I often use first person from other perspectives than my own, but I’ll take my own story and shift it to third person. I never let facts get in the way of a good poem.
I’ve been so amazed that almost everyone who writes or talks to me after reading my chapbook has a different favorite. Just recently, a friend who is a very successful novelist said his favorite was “Thankful,” adding that his son is just leaving for his freshman year of college. I think we read for a sense of recognition (I think that’s a paraphrase—or a direct theft—from YA author Richard Peck.)
Let the Lady Speak is featured on our Poetic Bloomings Bookshelf, and may be purchased through http://www.highlandcreekbooks.com/lettheladyspeak/index.html.
Nancy, it has been such a pleasure! Thank you for giving us a glimpse of the poet behind the poetry.